The halfway point: how's it going?
Facially hirsute outfielder Jake Fraley was recently promoted to Tacoma and could be in Seattle soon
June 23, 2019
Today's 8-4 loss to the worst team in the big leagues, the Baltimore Orioles, marks the halfway mark of the Mariners' 2019 season, at least in terms of games played. 50% through the campaign, the M's sit at a fairly unpleasant 34-47, last in the American League West at 15½ games behind division-leading Houston. On the surface, this seems like a horrid season for Seattle baseball, particularly after a surprisingly strong start that saw Seattle atop the leaderboards and nearly undefeated in the first few weeks and fall hard and fast off a cliff after the stellar 13-2 early record.
But this is not a normal season. The Mariners embarked on a deliberate not-really-a-rebuild-let's-call-it-a-step-back-year, or whatever euphemism GM Jerry Dipoto and the ownership brass want to call it, as soon as the 2018 campaign ended, opting to shed as much dead weight as possible and build for the near-but-not-immediate future. Beloved star players were shipped out in trades or allowed to walk as free agents, mostly to get salaries off the books, in a process known in advance to be a months-long effort to reshape the team for 2020 and beyond. So last place isn't far from preseason expectations.
So how to evaluate things thus far, if last place and 13 games under .500 isn't an applicable metric? One way is by looking at different segments of the team and some individual players that figure to be part of the 2020-2024 or so Mariners; another might be to assess the return Seattle got for those star players traded away and what planned trades are yet to come. Other ways might be a bit too intangible to articulate in a sentence or two. But wins and losses ain't the bottom line right now.
Let's look at the current roster: Who's part of the future and who's just here for the ride until 2019 is done (or until they too are traded)? How are those guys doing? Do we care if the rest are performing? Who might be on the bubble?
Pitching-wise, the future definitely includes Yusei Kikuchi and Marco Gonzales, Seattle's current 1-2 punch in the rotation. Beyond that are several question marks. Mike Leake is under contract through next year with an option for 2021, but he is making a good chunk of change. He might be part of Future M's or he could get dealt for salary relief. Similarly, Wade LeBlanc has contract options that could keep him around through 2022 at modest figures, but he isn't indispensable. Felix Hernández is likely not coming back after this year, and the entire bullpen is a mix-and-match hodgepodge that may or may not have returnees next year and beyond.
In the lineup, Omar Narváez, Mallex Smith, J.P. Crawford, and Domingo Santana are products of those offseason trades and should be among the core of the Future M's. Add to them Daniel Vogelbach and the currently-injured Mitch Haniger and you've got a pretty solid group. Second baseman Dee Gordon is in the same situation as Leake—under contract through 2020 with an option for '21, but nevertheless a trade chip because of his salary and age. It could be argued that the 31-year-old is underperforming and the M's might be better off getting out from under his contract, but the flip side argument that his elite-level defense and speed make him worth having despite the disappointing OBP has merit. Everyone else is either expendable or just an interchangeable part, though third baseman Kyle Seager is likely among the Future M's simply because his contract may be untradeable.
Of those keepers, things actually have been pretty successful this year. Kikuchi is a bit of a mystery so far, with roughly equal time spent pitching well and poorly, perhaps due to the overall transition from pitching and living in his native Japan to the ways of MLB and the USA; it remains to be seen if he'll be the contributor hoped for next year and after. But otherwise, all is well so far. Gonzales had a small setback—two brutal starts as the calendar flipped form May to June—but in all other starts, has been as good or better than expected, 8-4 with a 2.86 ERA, and pitched well enough to be 11-3.
Among the traded-for, Narváez has been outstanding at the plate and surprisingly OK behind it; Santana is producing well despite a truly astounding number of strikeouts, at this moment the league leader in runs batted in; Crawford is coming into his own at a brisk pace, currently sporting an on-base percentage of .381 and showing flashes of brilliance at shortstop along with the expected growing pains there; and though Smith began the year with zero spring training—and it showed, his batting line of just .165/.255/.247 in the first four and a half weeks was just brutal—after a brief trip to Triple-A and some attention from former Mariner Gold Glover and fan-favorite Mike Cameron, he's begun to look like the leadoff man and solid center fielder the Mariners thought they were getting when they traded Mike Zunino for him (.275/.333/.435 since his recall). Vogelbach has been a revelation now that he's been given a chance to play, clubbing homers and drawing walks in top-ten form (currently 8th in the league in home runs, 5th in walks, and 7th in OPS). Haniger and Seager are the exceptions here—both are struggling in injury-weakened campaigns; Haniger should regain his old form with a little work on pitch selection, presuming he recovers fully from his surgery, and Seager . . . well, who knows with Seager. We're likely stuck with him, and he does play a mean third base, so fingers crossed he can find his way back to what he was pre-2017.
Our on-the-bubble group—Gordon, Leake, and LeBlanc—might be on the decline or perhaps just having semi-down years, but all three are holding their own.
Other key players to check on are in the minors, the youngsters received in the begun-over-the-offseason trade frenzy. Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson, both acquired in the James Paxton trade, haven't met expectations; both have seen time with the big-league club and been sorely overmatched. Sheffield, now at Double-A Arkansas, still ranks highly as a prospect and should be a solid addition to a starting rotation within a couple of years, but Swanson, currently in the Tacoma rotation, may be a bust, at least as a starting pitcher. He may have a future as a short reliever, but unless he learns to mix his pitches better he'll continue to get hammered pitching more than a couple innings at a time. Infielder Shed Long has shown himself to be a solid player, and though his brief time up with the M's suggests he needs another year in the minors, he'll undoubtedly be a big-leaguer for good before too long. Pitchers Justin Dunn an Gerson Bautista came over in the Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz deal with the Mets, and things are mixed with them; Dunn is doing fine in Double-A, particularly when it comes to strikeouts (5-3, 3.46, 20 BB, 81 Ks), but Bautista has looked pretty bad in his brief tenure with the Mariners and he didn't accumulate enough minor-league appearances to present a relevant sample size. He may or may not develop into a decent power pitcher, but right now he looks like nothing better than a project for some ambitious pitching coach. 19-year-old Jered Kelenic, also from the Mets trade, looks like a future superstar, but 60 games at Class-A is all we're looking at so far. If he continues to tear up every level, he could be an anchorpiece for the Future M's as soon as 2021. Outfielder Jake Fraley, acquired with Smith in the Mike Zunino trade with the Rays, was the Texas League Player of the Month in May and has just earned a promotion to Triple-A with a .313/.386/.539 line at Arkansas; he might be in the bigs pretty soon, given Seattle's paucity of healthy outfielders at the Major League level right now. Then there are the draftees—slick-fielding first baseman Evan White is still working his way up the ladder, but barring injury should be ready in another year or two. Outfielder Braden Bishop, currently out with a bad spleen injury, figured to be part of the Future M's, and hopefully will fully recover and get back on that track. His minor-league numbers have been outstanding, and there are few better with the glove. If Bishop doesn't recover sufficiently, there's still Kyle Lewis, who's shown marked improvement in his second year at Double-A Arkansas and could be up in a few years. Last year's top draftee, pitcher Logan Gilbert, has impressed in the Class-A ranks (4-2, 2.11, 13 BB, 88 Ks), but is still likely a few years away from the Mariners.
With all that in mind, 2020 should be a step up for the M's and 2021 could be a great year for Seattle baseball. The Major League core is solid, and if expectations hold on Sheffield, Dunn, Long, Fraley, and Kelenic, there should be enough depth in most areas to be more than competitive. Where there isn't any depth at all is the bullpen—hence this year's seemingly endless reliever tryout camp. Of the current group, Austin Adams, Connor Sadzeck, Matt Festa, and perhaps Bautista seem the most likely to stick into the Future M's era, but this looks like an area that will need to be addressed with free agents or more trades. Starting pitching should be at least serviceable if Kikuchi settles into his new life in America during the next couple of seasons, particularly if Leake is kept around, but an addition there might also be prudent.
There's more shuffling to come, surely. Leake and Gordon might be dealt away (which would be a shame, but understandable); Ryon Healy should be dealt away (though his current injury makes that a longer-term proposition); Domingo Santana isn't currently thought of as trade bait, but with Fraley coming up and Haniger and Bishop thought to be ready again later this year, he might net enough of a return to consider it; and until White is ready, first base remains a hole to fill. But the Mariners are well on their way to being the Future M's, and those Future M's look to be a fun group.
So as you sit in your plastic ballpark seat marking another loss on your scorecard this summer, take heart: this is the worst part, and in its way it's panning out. Things should get a lot better from here.