Despite a tendency for teams to emulate teams that make the World Series in a given year, the playoffs can often be a crapshoot compared to the vast sample sizes of the regular season. No team knows that better than this year’s NL champion, as the Nationals consistently failed to get over the hump despite four division titles since 2012. Still, for the fourth straight year, we’ve been graced with a World Series matchup featuring one or both of MLB’s best teams. The Astros have been on the scene twice, with the juggernaut Red Sox rudely interrupting their dynasty last year. The Cubs were the league’s lone 100-game winner in 2016, with the Dodgers - oddly pockmarked as they were a year ago, making it the following two seasons. Even this year’s Nats have been on a 100-win pace since May and clicking at full health in October.
These are the teams the Mariners hope to brush shoulders with in the not-too-distant future. Both are dramatically better than the 2019 club Seattle hocked up, and will far outpace the 2020 club as well. That sucks, given that watching baseball is meant to be entertainment, and while winning isn’t everything in that department it certainly helps. The goal, however, is to see Seattle where these two clubs are in the near future. To see how far they were from that goal I’ll start with one of Baseball Reference’s niftier little tools - their team comparison charts, displaying Wins Above Replacement:
The first thing unavoidably on display here is how laughably far ahead the Astros are. It doesn’t work like this because of playing time and whatnot, obviously, but in terms of production via bWAR, Houston was the entire Pittsburgh Pirates season better than the 106-win Dodgers. Washington was great - a worthy playoff team with a roster that could’ve been a top-five team in one of the more parity-laden seasons of the earlier part of the decade - but they’re clearly punching up.
The Mariners, meanwhile, were within some rounding errors of being half the team Washington is, and a third of Houston. If I hadn’t shown you a chart, I imagine that statement would’ve felt appropriate, but it’s jarring to see laid out by one common metric all the same. On a position-by-position basis, it’s not a competition as much as a massacre. Both Washington and Houston outpace the Mariners across the entire outfield, at second and third base, and, unsurprisingly, in their rotations, which sit tops in MLB. Seattle’s bullpen outdoes the Nats, more due to their borderline historic ineptitude in that department for an otherwise gifted team, and the ghastly play of the injury replacements for Trea Turner (who was a solid 2.4 bWAR in 122 games) gives Seattle a dubious edge there. Seattle’s first basemen outdid both World Series clubs, but the numbers are skewed significantly by production from Edwin Encarnacíon and Jay Bruce, who will not factor into the future. The only unequivocal positive is behind the dish, where the Omar Narváez-Tom Murphy combo was one of the league’s best units, an assertion that is supported by FanGraphs as well, where framing numbers are incorporated into catcher value.
One position, then, where players from the 2019 club outperformed or matched the title contenders and will be returning to the team moving forward. The performance gap is immense, and I highlight it in hopes we can all internalize the distance between the 2019 M’s and their goal in the next decade. The blossoming of the prospects is exhilarating, and an outfield of 2021 or 2022 with Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodríguez, and Mitch Haniger, or whoever you think might make the cut in their stead, is likely to be vastly superior to the 2019-20 clubs. But closing the gap in production between the 2019 M’s outfield and the 2019 Astros outfield does about enough to make them something like the 2019 Diamondbacks, or, more familiarly, the 2014, 2016, and 2018 Mariners.
To break the cycle of mediocrity and become a team like the ones we’ll see go at it once again tonight, Seattle needs almost every player they’re putting their aspirations on right now to become one of the better versions of themselves, and then add with gusto from the money they’ve freed up through all their trades. Anyone who reads this site knows the enthusiasm we have for many of the prospects in the system right now - enthusiasm we believe is warranted. But there is a canyon between the team that finished the season at T-Mobile Park and the ones taking the field in Houston right now, and crossing it will require extraordinary feats from both the youths in the organization already - and more.