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The Mariners’ 21 biggest storylines for 2021

Seattle is facing a big year with some even bigger questions. The organization is aching for some definitive answers by this time next year.

Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Seattle Mariners are embarking on a 162-game season for the first time since Jay Bruce, Edwin Encarnación, and Ichiro were active members of the roster. Luckily, the 2021 outfit is much, much younger, though that means they’re also unproven. Proving themselves, not only internally but as a real threat moving forward, is the overriding theme of the upcoming year. That validation, which can portend some much-needed clarity before loading up for 2022, is the definitive through line of these pressing storylines.

21. Do the Mariners lose fans to the Kraken?

This isn’t so much a real issue, but there will be some small-scale ramifications if the Mariners keep circling the drain while the Kraken storm into a newly renovated building with the energy of a post-show theater kid at the local diner.

20. Will any members of the Mariners’ front office publicly embarrass themselves – and the franchise – while speaking at a rotary club, charity golf event, medical fundraiser, etc.?

Let’s hope not!

19. What’s left in the tank for James Paxton?

Perhaps more importantly, what will be left of it when the season is completed, and the Mariners have to once again decide if he’s part of their vision?

18. Is the bullpen good enough not to need Joey Gerber, Sam Delaplane, and/or Wyatt Mills?

The whole point of Spring Training is to break camp with the 26 best players. The Mariners have decided that at this current moment, none of the Gerber-Delaplane-Mills triumvirate are good enough for that group. This is great news for Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler, who will start the year in the MLB bullpen. Will those two have enough staying power to last throughout the season? Conversely, if the under-30 bunch proves to be workable, will we see Jerry Dipoto trade a Kendall Graveman-type to acquire another piece of the rebuild? What type(s) of reliever will be needed to supplement this roster as it hopefully turns the corner and resembles a playoff team in 2022? Rafael Montero is a secondary figure that holds a lot of cards as well. Should he grab hold of the closer role and refuse to let go, all of a sudden the Mariners have one less thing to address next offseason.

17. Is Shed Long Jr. okay?

Trying to play through pain that eventually became a stress fracture is, in retrospect, not the move. With Dylan Moore’s emergence, the Sam Haggerty camp gaining momentum, and the team theoretically rounding into win-now shape, the sand in Long’s hourglass has picked up some speed.

16. Can Tom Murphy find his 2019 groove?

Detroit Tigers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

In 2019 there was only one American League catcher to make at least 200 plate appearances with a better wRC+ than Murphy. That man was Mitch Garver, whose numbers fell off a cliff in 2020. Let’s keep Murphy away from any cliffs, please and thank you.

15. Is Dylan Moore an overqualified utility man or an underqualified everyday player?

We joke all the time about Moore swinging like he’s trying to wring every drop of moisture out of his dishrag bat, or how a man with no visible hips generates so much power, but at some point along the way it started to feel real. Is Moore really the kind of player who can man a premium infield position for a 162-game season, or is a Chris Taylor, Josh Harrison, plug-and-play deployment his best option?

14. Are you comfortable with the idea of Marco Gonzales being the best pitcher on a playoff team?

If not, who do you target in the offseason to take over as the team ace? How long until Logan Gilbert is ready for that role, or Emerson Hancock after him?

13. Does Justus Sheffield project more as a top of the rotation guy or a third/fourth starter?

Our first look at Sheffield over a standard-length season will be fairly telling. Process and results will always carry the conversation, but other things like the number of innings he can shoulder, how he downloads and applies information mid-game, and how comfortable he gets as the league becomes more comfortable with him, will all be key components for the king of #AssFat.

12. Can J.P. Crawford hit the ball hard?

We covered it more extensively in his 40 in 40, but one of the main things preventing the Gold Glover from being in the upper echelon of AL shortstops is his concerning knack for missing the barrel.

11. Is Chris Flexen useful moving forward?

116.2 innings in Korea is the only thing separating Chris Flexen from a failed existence in New York and a surprise landing in the Mariners’ rotation. While the samples are relatively small – he never threw more than 48 innings in a single season for the Mets, and failed to hit 14 in either of his last two MLB stints – the earned run averages were relatively huge. Flexen posted 7.88, 12.79, and 6.59 ERA’s while pitching for the Mets in 2017, 2018, and 2019. If the KBO really did get him back on track (in a way that’s also effective against the best hitters in the world), and the Mariners can slot him in the rotation for 2022 and beyond, it will come at a huge bargain. Flexen actually being a guy would also put less pressure on the team to find a starting pitcher in free agency or via trade next winter.

10. Does Justin Dunn have what it takes to stick in the rotation?

It’s not hard to imagine Dunn as a reliever. He did it both in college and the minor leagues, and in his brief career since coming over from the Mets, the slimmed-down righty gets progressively rinsed as he goes through a batting order multiple times. A move to the bullpen means he no longer has to face the same hitter three times in a game. It would also give his stuff a chance to really play up, reaching back for the 96 he hit in Spring Training rather than sitting 92-93 in the name of stamina. If he doesn’t stick, there’s also this big lanky kid who would probably be more comfortable throwing six or seven innings every five days…

9. When will we see Logan Gilbert?

Something would have to go catastrophically wrong for Gilbert not to debut this year. Would the Mariners possibly consider a seven-man rotation when he’s ready? Unless the aforementioned Dunn is setting the world on fire, Gilbert taking his spot and pushing Dunn to the bullpen seems like a plausible course of action.

8. Is Taylor Trammell playable as a rookie?

Simply being playable in MLB would be much better than a lot of kids with 126 games above High-A could say. The fact that Trammell made the Opening Day roster at all is worthy of celebration, and if he can show similar aptitude to what J.P. Crawford did last season, the M’s will make out like bandits.

7. Will Yusei Kikuchi pitch well enough for the Mariners to pick up his option?

Seattle Mariners v Chicago White Sox Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The biggest free agent acquisition of the Dipoto era is entering a make-or-break year. Kikuchi will make $15 million this year, the last before his four-year team option kicks in. As you may remember, Kikuchi’s contract is a unique one. If the Mariners decline that four-year, $66 million option, then it becomes a $13 million option for 2022, which Kikuchi would have to opt in to within five days of the World Series ending. Basically, can Kikuchi produce well enough for the Mariners to give him $16.5 million per year through 2025? Or, if he scuffles, does the once prized pitcher quickly become a non-factor in the team’s push for the playoffs? A rough go of things and Kikuchi could essentially give way to Gilbert, Hancock, George Kirby, Juan Then, Brandon Williamson, or perhaps even another arm currently outside the organization.

6. Do Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais sign extensions?

When Ryan Divish came on the podcast, he mentioned that this is Dipoto’s lame duck year, meaning he is not under contract for 2022. Both Dipoto and Servais signed extensions during the halcyon age of 2018, but the amount of years and dollars were not disclosed. One would think that Servais’ extension mirrored Dipoto’s, so this could potentially be the duo’s last year in Northwest green. The uncertainty surrounding disgraced former team president Kevin Mather’s role also complicates things, as a new hire may want to find a GM and manager combo of their own.

5. Can Mitch Haniger find his 2018 groove?

Apart from Kyle Seager, the 2018 All-Star is Seattle’s most logical trade candidate. The Mariners’ organizational chart is very crowded in the outfield, and Taylor Trammell has already shown to be ahead of schedule. With Jarred Kelenic soon to follow, and Julio Rodríguez poised to be the team’s right fielder of the 2020s, Haniger is in danger of becoming the odd man out. An enchanting first three months of the season could be all that it takes for an outfielder-needy team to bring him in. Trading Haniger for an established big-league starting pitcher almost makes too much sense, but getting talent in return hinges upon how well Haniger has recovered after nearly two years on the shelf.

4. What happens to Kyle Seager?

I shudder for the day this summer when a starting third baseman on a playoff hopeful team gets injured. Like many of us said about Félix, it’d be hard to blame Seager for wanting to play somewhere else at this point, and boy would it be fun to watch him in the playoffs. It would be undoubtedly bittersweet for that to happen right as the Mariners start to get serious again, though.

3. Can Kyle Lewis keep it up?

During his sensational Rookie of the Year run, which unfortunately will always have the caveat of being a little baby season, Lewis was on pace for about 31 home runs and 4.4 fWAR over 162 games. Even if the power takes a predictable dip, will the decreased strikeout rate sustain? Keeping his strikeout percentage under 30 and his walk rate around 14 or 15 percent (both of which he did last year), paves a beautiful path to success for #1.

2. When do we see Jarred Kelenic?

Seattle Mariners v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Relatedly, how many thinly veiled social media shots does Kelenic take at the team before they call him up?

1. Is this team conceivably close to contention?

In other words, how much work needs to be done to get the club, its players, and its fans where they want to be? Something like 76-80 wins should put the battery in their back, as a few shrewd acquisitions at year’s end could bring the 2022 version closer to 86-90 wins. A disappointing season, though, and the Mariners are asking a multitude of uncomfortable questions about how realistic this master plan ever was.