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Joy and pain: LL’s takeaways from the first half of 2019

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no light without dark, and more dark, and yet even more dark

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners
this is not my beautiful baseball team/let the days go by
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The opening series in Japan and the joy and promise of that first month of the season feels like part of the distant past, as the step-back season has come and stepped on Mariners fans. While there have been many low notes on a season where the team rolls into the All-Star Break double digit losses under .500, there have also been moments of encouragement. And also more discouragement. But also hope! Here’s what has stood out to the LL staff over the first half of the season:

First half MVP:

Tim: Edwin Encarnación. He was a shade shy of being our best hitter, and also turned into Juan Then, who looks pretty shiny in Everett.

Becca: My vote for MVP goes to Omar Narvaez. As a catcher, he’s had to assume a leadership role and be able to work with a lot of different pitchers, including many young ones. Oh, and he also happens to lead the Mariners in batting!

John: Daniel Vogelbach

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew: It’s gotta be Daniel Vogelbach, who went from guy we traded Mike Montgomery for to perennial AAA star to MLB All-Star and patron saint of dingers right in front of our skeptical eyes.

Eric: Vogelbach, obviously. But, yes, a shout out to Encarnacíon and Domingo Santana, too.

Kate: I love Vogelbach, and him ferociously blinking back tears when his name was announced at the ASG made me bawl, but J.P. Crawford has been the highlight for me, mostly because I came in with low expectations and some genuine fear about his defense, and he’s been looking pretty good on both sides of the ball. It’s just a joy to watch him play.

Low point of the first half:

Eric: I’ve been told there is no floor? No, but seriously, picking a low point in year one of a 1-3 year rebuild feels too much like kicking a puppy. These guys are all playing hard and either trying to prove they still have what it takes, continually learn and improve their games, or make their first big splashes in the big leagues. Losses are whatever and wins are nice for player morale.

John: That lil’ mini series with the Cubs. A delightful Blue Jays prelude.

Becca: The Mariners finishing the first half of the season the way they did. The game was off to a bad start from the first pitches. Opener Matt Carasiti let up 5 runs in the first inning, which is never a good sign. Although Narvaez had himself quite the game, the M’s still came up short.

Tim: All of May.

Kate: What Tim said, but distilled into that Rangers series where they got blown out (which was actually the very end of April and a harbinger of doom for May), but distilled again into the 15-1 smushing on Mitch Haniger bobblehead night. At least John, Zach, and Grant made a good recap about it.

Matthew: * gestures vaguely at everything *

Baltimore Orioles v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Best moment of the first half:

Tim: Opening the season with an OPPOSITE FIELD DOMINGO SANTANA GRAND SLAM.

John: The comeback against the Royals to get the team to 13-2, capped by a Vogey dinger and an elated Félix.

Kate: Exactly one month after losing that terrible game to the Rangers 15-1, and one week after being swept by the Rangers, the Mariners defeated the Rangers at home in a game where Kyle Seager hit oppo, Jay Bruce stole a base, Mallex stole for the cycle, and Vogelbach exiled a ball to Jupiter. (foreshadowing)

Matthew: Treating Chris Sale and the Red Sox like a piñata in the home opener was extremely fun, but in retrospect, a massive mirage. So I’ll go with Daniel Vogelbach squaring up this pitch, knocking it around like a dominatrix, and leaving its battered remains in the far reaches of T-Mobile Park.

Eric: Yes, that. Honorable mention to Ichiro’s farewell game in Tokyo, which feels like a billion years ago. But that was fantastic and perfectly orchestrated by all involved.

Becca: I wish I could say Vogey making the home run derby, but here is a close second: Roenis Elias’ 10th Save. His career seemed pretty much in jeopardy a few years ago, but the Mariners decided to give him a second chance. He did not take that second chance for granted, and has been proving himself since his return. For his 10th save, he came in clutch and retired 6 batters in a row against a tough Brewers team to end the game.

Most concerned about, long-term:

Matthew: I still am quite perplexed by Yusei Kikuchi. In the second half I’d love to see more consistency from the Mariners’ most recent Japanese acquisition. Kikuchi heads to the mid-summer break with a 7.34 ERA in his last eight starts, including four in which he allowed nine or more hits. 3.02 walks per nine innings and 5.36 FIP is also troubling, though I’m trying to take all of this with a grain of salt, as Kikuchi is still very new to Major League Baseball and has dealt with the death of his father and the birth of a child on top of the jarring stateside move.

Tim: I think the front office is good, generally, at what they do. My concern isn’t so much about them, it’s more about if they’re good, not great, then are we going to catch Houston before my kids head to college? There’s not much we or they can do about it, and it’s not like we can just up and replace them with a great front office, but ultimately I do wonder and worry if this team will be good, a lot, under this front office, but never really seriously challenge for division titles on more than a fluke basis.

Kate: My concern is similar to that, but less generalized anxiety around the Mariners system, as I am a big fan of the drafting/development program, and more generalized anxiety around the rest of the AL West. Houston seems to pull guys who throw triple digits and mash giant dingers from their clubhouse couch cushions, the A’s have a prospect-powered team in Stockton that is a tough draw for our own prospect-powered Modesto Nuts, and I regularly wake up in a cold sweat thinking about a Mike Trout-Jo Adell outfield.

Eric: I am also most concerned about the Angels and Astros continuing to be better than the Mariners in the coming years, and even the Athletics continuing to pluck their way into winning seasons. The AL West is just an infuriating division to be in, I have to say.

Becca: My biggest concern is whether all of the aspiring young talent in the farm system will reach their potential. First, they need to say healthy, which is saying a lot for a team full of injuries. In addition, they also need to take their early success to the next level and sustain it in the major league. Although it’s promising, we unfortunately have had too many bright stars that faded early or that didn’t become special until they were traded to other teams.

John: What is the actual timeline? I appreciate the 2021 dream, but even if the position players are good (like they are this year) the pitching will still be young, inexperienced, and at best innings-controlled. Does this approach receive the patience and/or financial investment and supplementing it needs to succeed? And, is it a savvy approach considering the likely work stoppage or at minimum modification of the CBA coming in 2021.

Most encouraged by, long-term:

Tim: The farm system is rejuvenated from trades, yes, but beyond that it’s seen breakouts (Fraley, Newsome) to counteract disappointments to date (Lewis, Sheffield). Obviously prospects are always going to break to some extent, so what I really wanted to see coming into the year was guys on the farm adding new skills, whether they were heralded or not, to raise their ceilings. So far, we’ve seen that.

Kate: Like Tim, what’s encouraged me most is seeing players up and down the system make improvements, from watching J.P. Crawford’s defense become more reliable to Cal Raleigh’s breakout in Modesto. The more of these stories that pile up, the more it feels like the development process in place is one that really works. Watching the Cal League regularly, it’s amazing to me how little daylight there is currently between second overall pick Joey Bart and third-rounder Cal Raleigh. Also, I cannot get enough Julio Rodriguez. He is so fun to watch play baseball, and I can’t wait for everyone else to see it too on a regular basis.

John: There’s an extremely good chance the outfield of the Mariners has three above-average players in it for the majority of the 2020s, and we will see them debut and play for quite some time with the Mariners. That’s going to be exciting.

Matthew: On the major league level, I’m already smitten with Omar Narváez. Forget about the 14 home runs for a second, even if that total did set a Mariner record for first-half homers by a catcher. Narváez also has a 9.8% walk rate, .366 on-base percentage, and 132 wRC+. Among American League catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, the 27-year-old ranks second in each of those categories. Mike Zunino ranks...we don’t need to talk about Mike Zunino.

In the minors, I’ve been very pleased with the improvements shown by Ljay Newsome and Jake Fraley, who are becoming capital-P Prospects, as well as the strides made by lesser known players like Sam Delaplane and Jake Anchía. Also, and I cannot stress this enough, thank u, mets.

Eric: The farm system is so much fun to follow this season. The breadth and quantity of talent makes it so I’m not hand-wringing over every top prospect who slumps for a few weeks or gets injured. It’s okay! There’s a BUNCH of other players who will more than likely make it to the majors some time in the next 3-4 seasons! So, yes, I am very encouraged by the large strides forward the system as a whole has taken in such a short amount of time and I (cautiously) anticipate those improvements will continue. We don’t know what this development staff and these specific prospects will do in the next few seasons, but it’s only fair to me to give them the benefit of the doubt. There will be busts, as there always are, but I honestly believe there are plenty of hits coming our way.

Becca: Ok, despite what I just said, I do agree with Tim and Eric. I’m super excited to see all of this young talent blossom into major league players. Watching the farm system this season has given us a lot of hope. I am also encouraged by the glimpse we had the first few weeks of the season. The team was having fun, playing loose, and winning. There was even talk about a playoff run. Man, those were the good ol’ days. It sure was fun while it lasted. Even though it didn’t turn out that way this year, there’s reason to believe it can happen again in the not too distant future.