Previewing the '21 Mariners: Intro
After missing a year and a half with injuries, Mitch Haniger is back with the M's in 2021
March 10, 2021
The other day I got a one-sentence e-mail from a friend that asked, "Mariners competitive this year?" The only reply I could give was a succinct "Maybe."
When the rebuild process began with Your Seattle Mariners after the 2018 campaign, we were told that the plan would have the M's in a "contention window" starting in 2021. However, the world got hit with a pandemic in the meantime, so last season there was not only a truncated Major League season of just 60 games, but there was no minor league baseball played at all. Aside from intrasquad and simulated games played at the club's "alternate training site," players not on the big-league roster got no formal development time whatsoever, and since the Mariner rebuild is very much dependent on a complement of young up-and-coming contributors, it might be prudent to push back that 2021 expectation to 2022.
2020 rookies Kyle Lewis, Justin Dunn, and Evan White got big-league experience last year that hopefully will translate into growth this season, but many other key players lost a year to the pandemic. Hot prospects Jared Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, and Julio Rodríguez are still ticketed for the minors despite what some fans would like to see; with the lack of minor-league play last year, none of them have seen a level above Double-A and at least some time in Tacoma seems prudent for them. Young big-leaguers Shed Long and Jake Fraley didn't get to show their stuff much last year thanks to injury (Long) and poor managerial moves (Fraley), and the wealth of return from the big August trade with San Diego hasn't had a chance to shine yet.
As for player turnover, the offseason wasn't all that eventful (except for the self-destruction of team president Kevin Mather), with only a few notable player moves to and fro. Gone are second baseman Dee Strange-Gordon (now with the Cincinnati Reds), outfielder Mallex Smith (in camp with the New York Mets), and reliever Yoshi Hirano (back with his original team, Osaka's Orix Buffaloes of NPB), all of whom left via release/free agency. Newly arrived are starter James Paxton, returning to Seattle after a couple of injury-plagued years in New York; starter Chris Flexen, trying to parlay a successful season in the Korean Baseball Organization into Major League wins; ex-Angel reliever Keynon Middleton, who like a lot of Angel pitchers had to go under the knife for Tommy John surgery in 2018; and potential closer Rafael Montero, who was good in limited action with the Rangers over the last two seasons. All of the newcomers are rehabilitation projects of one sort or another, and none are position players.
There are a lot of unknowns with this Mariner squad, making it tough to predict anything. Is Mitch Haniger healthy and if so can he regain his All-Star form? Will Lewis and White build on their mixed successes of last year and grow into solid producers? Can Kyle Seager turn in a solid season in what is likely his last year in Seattle? Will anyone stake a solid claim to the left field and second base positions? Is Paxton free of arm issues and ready to bring joy to the Maple Grove? Will the team miss Strange-Gordon's footspeed and leadership? Is there anyone—anyone at all—in the bullpen that can be relied upon to get batters out? And can the club overcome the inevitable in-game strategy blunders from manager Scott Servais and the absurd roster construction Servais and General Manager Jerry Dipoto seem determined to saddle it with?
That absurdity comes from the choice to carry a ridiculous number of pitchers on the active roster. This has been the Mariner Way for a number of years now, but it's even more extreme this season. As you may recall, prior to the 2019 campaign, Major League Baseball enacted a number of rule changes, including expanding the size of the active roster from 25 to 26 players and instituting a requirement to declare which players are pitchers and which are not in order to enforce a limit of 13 pitchers per team. The latter rule is now gone, thankfully; it didn't take long for the folly of that restriction to sink in and for MLB to quietly rescind it. That's good, but it also removes the safety valve of protecting a management team from its own foolishness, and since these are the Mariners... well, you know. Dipoto and Servais are planning to enter the season with a 14-man pitching staff. Fourteen. Eight-man bullpens have been growing in prominence in the American League in recent years—with the designated hitter rule, a strong bench complement is less important in the AL than it is in authentic baseball—but such breakdowns are playing with fire, leaving only a three-player bench; an injury can get you in serious trouble, and even without one the manager has a lot less to work with over the course of a game with so few substitution options. With the roster now 26, an AL team could carry 13 pitchers and still have four players in reserve (really the minimum sensible number), but the M's opted to keep lighting matches over dry tinder and use that extra spot on, and I can't stress this enough, a fourteenth pitcher.
Now, there is unquestionably a ton of talent on this team, and enough versatility on it that they might get away with the criminally thin bench. From ace starting pitcher Marco Gonzales to defending Rookie of the Year Lewis to trade acquisitions Ty France and Luis Torrens to Gold Glove infielders White and J.P. Crawford, the M's have a lot going for them. Plus, the American League West is less intimidating than it has been in recent seasons—the Houston Astros were under .500 in 2020 and have lost some big names to free agency, the Los Angeles Angels look like they'll be just OK, the Texas Rangers overhauled their front office as they try to rebuild out of the cellar, and the Oakland A's... Well, never underestimate the Oakland A's. But it's not a division full of juggernauts.
So, yeah, the rebuild probably isn't as far along as we thought it'd be by now and the Mariners aren't likely to be consistent enough to top the A's. But who knows. This is baseball, after all, and the one thing we know for sure about a baseball season is that something will surprise us.
We'll break down the expected roster by position in the coming days, with a look at 2021's starting pitching first up.