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What will it take to make the 2021 Mariners a playoff team?

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The Mariners aren’t backing off their original timeline. How much distance do they need to close?

Seattle Mariner Alex Rodriguez (R) embraces manage Photo credit should read Scott Nelson/AFP via Getty Images

The American League playoffs begin today, welcoming eight clubs for the first time in the sport’s history. Per Rob Manfred’s latest missive, we won’t likely see 16 teams in the Fall Classic, but 12 or 14 is likely to remain the playoff pool, at least through the 2021 season. 12 feels more appropriate, but any such scenario is a slight return to sanity from this year’s mayhem. It also remains a more attainable target for any club, in any year, even with a hopeful return to a safe, 162 game slate. Keep that in mind throughout this article, which is predicated on Jerry Dipoto’s comments yesterday to reporters, seeing playoff contention in 2021 as a realistic goal:

“The next wave of players, I’m not entirely sure what the timing looks like or their progression, but I know with the group that will come back and what we anticipate adding to our club via free agency or trade, I think we’re in a really nice position for 2021,” Dipoto said. “Our goal will be to go out there and contend for a playoff spot. And I don’t think that’s an unrealistic goal.”

Them’s contendin’ words!

Dipoto didn’t go full “Title Or Bust”, but the pandemic and fan-less season has had many teams hemming and hawing about future commitments. The Mariners famous “step-back” was set to lead to contention somewhere between the latter half of 2020 and the start of 2021. That timeline was muddled this year at times, but the promising developments of several young players, as well as the prospect haul from dealing Austin Nola and a few relievers, seem to have Dipoto back on his original schedule. Contending for a playoff spot likely means relying on a decent amount of internal improvement, but even with their encouraging strides, the 2020 Mariners will need a sizable uptick in production to get in the hunt.

Let’s look, roughly, at what getting to the playoffs next year would take. I’m going to appraise things under the auspices of a 12 team playoff structure, but you can adjust down expectations if and when Manfred and his 30 puppeteers opt for extra playoff money and 14 clubs instead. It would likely be three Wild Card structure, so simply adding another slot to ensure the six best teams from each league make the cut. That would mean the M’s would’ve needed to edge out the 33-27 Yankees this year (an 89-win pace), or, more usefully, a 93-win Cleveland club in 2019, the 90-win Rays in 2018, an 80-win trio of Tampa, Anaheim, and the Royals in 2017, or the 86-win Tigers whom they themselves matched in 2016. Recent top-heaviness has made the middle class of the AL an endangered species compared to the haves/have-nots. That may not hold true in the next few years, and something closer to the 2016-2017 climate could put the M’s more close to contention with a few good breaks.

If we average the wins needed to clear the baseline in the past five years, sneaking into the playoffs for their debut as a six seed, we get 87.6 wins. That’s a reasonable baseline to look to rise to. It’s also about 14-15 more wins than the 2020 M’s were on pace for. If it’s a seven slot opening, that drops to 85 wins on average. So where, napkin-math style, do the M’s make up those wins? Let’s make a depth chart!

C: Tom Murphy
1B: Evan White
2B: Dylan Moore
3B: Kyle Seager
SS: J.P. Crawford
LF: Jarred Kelenic
CF: Kyle Lewis
RF: Mitch Haniger
DH: Ty France

Bench: C Luis Torrens, 2B/OF Shed Long Jr., OF Braden Bishop

SP: Marco Gonzales
SP: Yusei Kikuchi
SP: Justus Sheffield
SP: Logan Gilbert
SP: Nick Margevicius
SP: Justin Dunn

Bullpen: RHP Yohan Ramirez, RHP Kendall Graveman, RHP Brandon Brennan, RHP Joey Gerber, RHP Matt Magill, RHP Andres Muñoz, LHP Taylor Guilbeau, RHP Ian Hamilton

This group represents more or less the best Seattle has to offer day one right now. A couple generous assumptions can help the Mariners case, but by no means should be counted on: the health and return to form of both Haniger and Murphy would represent a net upgrade on this year’s production from their positions. Austin Nola’s excellence made the Mariners a decent club behind the dish, in the absence of both players, Seattle suffered, especially when Luis Torrens was resting. Murphy was a serious regression candidate before the season thanks to elevated strikeout numbers and a sky-high BABIP, but his defense should make him a Zunino-esque high-floor option at a minimum. Haniger, on the other hand, is a clear upgrade if he can be an everyday player, which Dipoto believes he can be again, perhaps cycling through the DH spot with Seattle’s versatile bench. Haniger alone could be a 3-4 win boost over the rotation of Phillip Ervin, José Marmolejos, and Tim Lopes.

Still, that leaves the Mariners several stages short of their target. The next easy target is internal development. While Seattle SHOULD plan on several of the players on their roster improving, as they boasted a fleet of rookies and underexposed players at the big league level, it should NOT be a given that that progression will happen, nor that it will be evenly spread or evenly valuable. If Evan White spends most of 2021 flailing at the ball as he did at times in his premiere season, that’s far more troubling than seeing Kyle Seager continue to excel. Even small steps forward from players like White, J.P. Crawford, and an emergence from a couple of the Shed Long Jr., Ty France, Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley, Tim Lopes, Donnie Walton, Sam Haggerty cluster in the UTIL/OF role would go a long way towards extending the bench and raising the production of the club night in and night out.

That also demands a lack of regression from some of the surprising positives of the year. Kyle Lewis will need to build on what should be a Rookie of the Year campaign, while France, Torrens, and Dylan Moore will have to show their surprising offensive numbers this year are lasting developments. Likewise, the rotation was a surprising strength this year, but will need to maintain or improve itself, while the bullpen is littered with question marks.

Taking the rosier side of outcomes on most or all of those “ifs”, these Mariners will be in a different spot than the last decade of “contending” Mariners clubs. The stars and scrubs construction from 2014-2018 routinely was felled by poor depth and a couple black holes of production. This group instead will have to find ways to most impactfully upgrade while still evaluating and developing their young players. The challenge is the most significant immediate upgrades are on positions where Seattle reasonably thinks they have an internal option that just needs more time to develop at the big league level. Here’s what Seattle got from each position in terms of fWAR, prorated to a 162 game slate.

C: 1.9 fWAR (0.7 in 60 games of 2020)
1B: 0.8 fWAR (0.3)
2B: 0.3 fWAR (0.1)
3B: 4.3 fWAR (1.6)
SS: 2.4 fWAR (0.9)
LF: 0.3 fWAR (0.1)
CF: 4.0 fWAR (1.5)
RF: 0.8 fWAR (0.3)
DH: -0.3 fWAR (-0.1)

SP: 13.2 fWAR (4.9)
RP: -4.0 fWAR (-1.5)

Total: 23.7 fWAR

A “replacement-level” team is expected to be around a 47-48 win club, so count this as a win for fWAR. The 2020 Mariners were 23-24 wins better than that, which would’ve made them a 70-72 win club, right in line with their actual prorated win pace of 72.9 ((27/60)*162).

Clearly, the Mariners have some spots decently shored up, with 3B, SS, and CF showing nicely, as well as a rotation that was top 10 in MLB. Austin Nola’s departure hurts the catching crew, but Tom Murphy’s return should alleviate some regression. The bullpen, however, gave much of the progress made this year back, and mediocrity from much of the rest of the lineup held them down. However, the M’s aren’t likely to give up on a few of the players who filled those spots.

Evan White will get a full season to try and get closer to an average player. A combination of Shed Long Jr. and Ty France will jockey for playing time throughout the infield and DH, with Dylan Moore likely getting first licks at second base. Haniger’s return is a total wild card, but a normal season from him, combined with even a merely replacement level bullpen puts the Mariners in punching distance of a .500 club with no adjustments up or down. Internal improvements from players like White, as well as greater playing time for superior prospects like Kelenic and Gilbert should improve the rest of the club as well, but that asks a great deal of players like Kyle Lewis and Justus Sheffield to maintain their excellent rookie campaigns.

League-average production from the 1B and LF positions would push the M’s close to that 85 win mark, but what is highlighted as well is the need for further breakouts if the M’s want to make some noise in 2021. Every 4+ win player takes a significant burden off the rest of the roster, so Seattle will need improvements from guys like Yusei Kikuchi, J.P. Crawford, and even Lewis. Any regression - which is supremely likely as players adjust and are adjusted to - will present a great challenge for the M’s to getting in the playoff hunt.

The most straightforward places for improvement externally are in the rotation, with at least one spot clearly open, and the bullpen. Both places, per Jerry Dipoto, appear to be on the docket for the offseason. But if 2021 is indeed a playoff race, the M’s will need another step or three from the players who spent this year in Seattle and Tacoma.