Around the Horn

Status Report

We've now passed the two-thirds mark in the 2020 miniature schedule, and so far Your Seattle Mariners have done a fairly OK job in achieving their goals in this bizzaro-not-really-a-season. There's been good, there's been bad, and because this is the Mariners, you know there has been ugly. But on the whole they've done all right; thanks to the pandemic and the short schedule and the lack of minor leagues and all the rest, 2020 has been first and foremost about evaluation. Winning will resume as a priority next year (fingers crossed).

So let's break it down a little. After 40+ games, what have we seen?

The Good

Quality Starts: 2020
Marco Gonzales 5 / 8
Yusei Kikuchi  2 / 6
Justus Sheffield  4 / 7
Justin Dunn  4 / 7
Nick Margevicius  2 / 4
Ljay Newsome  0 / 2
Kendall Graveman  0 / 2

Starting pitching. This is clearly the club's primary talent. The depth of the rotation is so formidable that manager Scott Servais is even entertaining the idea of keeping the six-man rotation in 2021. (I think that's a bad idea, but it's certainly not the first time Servais and I have disagreed.) The Mariners have their current six starters plus up-and-coming prospects Logan Gilbert and George Kirby that are, if not Major-League-ready now, just a year or two away. Frankly, a little more depth in the form of more experienced injury insurance wold be welcome once normalcy returns, but this group has the potential to be as good as any rotation in the bigs.  Marco Gonzales is such an artist his games should be exhibits at the Louvre. Yusei Kikuchi hasn't shown the dominance he had in Japan thus far, but this year's Yusei has shown a lot more improvement than you might surmise from his raw numbers, and given a full (standard) season of work I'd be surprised if those numbers didn't better reflect that. Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn aren't the greats they have the potential to be just yet, but they've shown they have the stuff to get there and are doing remarkably well for guys that were in Double-A a year ago, evidenced by quality starts in four out of seven starts apiece. Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome are a little further behind in their development, but they too have shown great promise against some tough competition.

Defense. If you're going to rely on great pitching, you'd best give those pitchers a stellar defense behind them. The Mariners now feature the best first baseman to grace a diamond in decades in Evan White, an improved J.P. Crawford at short, and old reliable Kyle Seager doing his thing at third. Second base is a revolving door at the moment, now that the team has belatedly realized that Shed Long may not be the guy to hold that position down, but with Dee Strange-Gordon not part of the club's future plans they'll need to find someone to stake a claim to it. Dylan Moore might be the guy, and he's been more than adequate with the glove in what we've seen so far. In the outfield, Kyle Lewis has done a fine job in center field even though his future is likely in right; if Jake Fraley is ever allowed to prove his worth, he'd provide good range and a good throwing arm in left.

New tactics. Ditching the fetish for home runs in favor of line-drive swings and a running game has been a refreshing delight. Even though the speed demons on the club, Strange-Gordon and Mallex Smith, have been sidelined, steals are always a possibility now. Even catcher Luis Torréns was off with the pitch a couple of times in yesterday's game. Aggressive baserunning is not only a good skillset to employ, it's exciting baseball to watch. And the approach at the plate of rookies Lewis and White needs to be the template for the whole team: discipline in pitch selection, go with the pitch, line-drive cuts, and if you end up with a home run, great, but it's a bonus not the goal.

Kyle Seager. Who had Seager pegged for Comeback Player of the Year? Well, good on you, I sure didn't. It seems that Seager has been playing hurt for, what, three years until this season? Whatever the reasons for his resurgence, it's very much a welcome sight.

Fleecing the Padres. The trades with San Diego were unexpected even to GM Jerry Dipoto, who gave an asking price for Austin Nola that he thought would never be agreed to. It was, though, and those talks resulted in a series of deals that netted the M's a solid catcher, yet another top outfield prospect, and last year's Pacific Coast League MVP, among others. Also, disaster-courting relievers Taylor Williams and Dan Altavilla are now San Diego's problem. Well played, sir.

The Bad

Too much shuffling. The amount of roster churn this year has been truly excessive. Especially with a larger-than-regulation 28-man active group, the constant optioning up and down to the taxi squad and claiming of other teams' rejects off the waiver wire just prevents guys form getting enough innings and at-bats to make their case. Phillip Ervin might be a good player (or not), but was picking him up better than playing Fraley? José Marmolejos might have had a nice run lately, but is the team better with him in the outfield or Mallex Smith? I don't think there are definitive answers to those questions, but we'll never know. What is definitive is that neither Ervin nor Marmolejos fits the mold of those new tactics mentioned above—both are free-swingers looking for longballs and not especially good baserunners. In the bullpen, Dipoto has added Brady Lail, Walter Lockett, and Casey Sadler via waiver claims; none of those are poor choices in and of themselves—and there have been injuries among the relievers—but the ’pen is overstaffed as it is and moving guys up and down all the time (another move today—Lail out, trade acquisition Jimmy Yacabonis in) just means fewer opportunities for all involved.

Shed Long. I don't mean to pick on Shed as a person, I'm sure he's a stand-up guy. But it took Servais and the team way too long to figure out that handing Long the everyday second base job was a mistake, and this mini-season is the time to try others out there to see who can make the position theirs going forward. It seems Dylan Moore will get a shot at it now, and with Sam Haggerty out with a forearm injury, that might be the best option. I still think Long could have a future with the M's, but probably not as a front-line starter. A solid year in Triple-A might change that assessment, but right now I see him as a bench player.

The Ugly

Bullpen Follies:
Stats in relief
Team ERA 6.32
Team (H+BB+HBP) / IP 1.689
Team OBPa .368
SV/SVOpp 12/18
Inh. runners scored 50%

Relief pitching. Getting rid of Altavilla and Williams made the relief corps better, but it remains a trouble spot. Injuries to the more productive arms out there haven't helped matters, and Servais' ineptness at choosing the right guy for the right spot is a continual source of frustration. But this is an evaluation campaign, and we have learned some things. One, Kendall Graveman is better suited to be a reliever and may be a very good one if his neck problem doesn't cause him too much pain. Two, Yohan Ramírez could be scary good after some minor-league development time, but right now is pretty wild. Similarly, Aaron Fletcher needs to work on his breaking stuff before he can have any consistent success, but he shows promise. Four, Zac Grotz and Bryan Shaw should look for work elsewhere and not return.

Playing to the schedule. Seattle has won 13 games against the Rangers and Angels and six against everyone else. Beating the bad teams is good, it's what you're supposed to do. But flailing against the good clubs is not only humbling, it suggests the positive stuff we've seen this year might be a mirage. At least until you look closer—a sizable chunk of those losses came in close games that could have gone the other way with a little luck or better relief pitching. Still, I'd like to see the M's rise to the challenge presented by the better teams down the stretch, and there are six games remaining against Oakland, three against San Diego, and three against the Astros.

What will the final third of the mini-season show us? At the moment Seattle is four games under the .500 mark. Can they break even with 30 wins? If they do, does that mean playoffs? If it does, do those playoffs count in the big picture of history, or will Seattle remain the owners of the longest postseason drought in the game?

18 games left. Stay tuned.

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