This is a story about expectations. This is a story about belief. This is a story about talent and hard work and being a bulldog and a Bulldog, and trying to handle reality when you finally get what you want. This is the story of Marco Gonzales, the longest-tenured big league Seattle Mariners pitcher on the roster, top prospect turned burnout, reclaimed in a new organization that made him a centerpiece. This is the story of a new captain taking the helm of a ship sailing for the heart of a maelstrom, surviving his crew in the battered husk of his boat only to struggle to handle his new role when finally given the responsibility to command a well-built vessel.
When Gonzales joined the Mariners in mid-2017, his acquisition was a daring deal. Seattle’s top prospect, Canadian strongman Tyler O’Neill, was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for a then-25 year old Gonzales, dealing in Triple-A Memphis after rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery. A challenge trade of prospects near the majors akin to the Marlins-Diamondbacks mutually impressive later swap of of RHP Zac Gallen and SS/2B Jazz Chisholm, it was a risky effort to improve Seattle’s flailing rotation in the twilight of the primes for the core of the back half of the 2010s. It was too late for those Mariners, but not for lack of effort from Gonzales.
From 2018-2020 Gonzales was an unequivocally solid starting pitcher. He threw 439.1 innings across 74 starts, good for just shy of six innings per outing, including a pair of complete games. Over that stretch, he managed a 3.85/3.75 ERA/FIP, a 110 ERA+, and 7.5 bWAR (and 9.1 fWAR). Unsurprisingly, those WAR numbers pace the Mariners in that time stretch by either metric, only trailing James Paxton in 2018 for any individual season to boot. In stormy seas, Gonzales emerged from uncertainty to steady the rudder almost every turn through the rotation. His 203.0 IP in an otherwise dismal 2019 are the 9th-most innings pitched by a starter in a season for Seattle since 2004, outdone only by Nos. 6 and 7, 2013 Hisashi Iwakuma and 2012 Jason Vargas, as well as Nos. 1-5 and No. 8, Félix Hernandez in varying orders, from 2009-2014.
All those innings earned Gonzales a great deal. Financially, he received a commitment from his club, a four year deal signed ahead of the 2021 season for $30 million guaranteed with a club option for the 2025 season. Reputation-wise, he’s also grown into a more prominent role. As the club’s leader in effective innings since his arrival, even as it overlapped with the Final Days of King Félix, he took no pleasure in the club’s “stepback”, and vocally pressured his employer to make an effort to compete, emphasizing the club’s readiness over the past couple seasons to shed their self-imposed squalor. Perhaps the proximity to Hernández in the wretched final stretch hammered home the importance from a player perspective of not wasting seasons in the way owners and front offices are typically more comfortable. The threat of seasons like last year can loom larger for a player, whose window is finite.
For Gonzales, 2021 must have been a bittersweet journey. The upstart Mariners defied all expectations en route to 90 wins, yet for the first time since the year he arrived, he was far from a consistent aid to his club. Gonzales struggled early on, getting shelled out the gate by the Giants and Twins, then stabilizing slightly before missing the entire month of May with lingering soreness in his arm. His return was auspicious, and while he was less stellar than he’d been at times over the past few years, he paced his club down the stretch, clearing six innings or more in all but one (5.0 IP) start in 12 turns from August through the end of season. He was respectable, but the May swoon in which Seattle went 13-15 looms large. The month of bullpen games was Seattle’s only sub-.500 stretch in the season. What dramatic cruelty that the first season of his M’s career it mattered ultimately to their playoff chances whether he was there or they just set out a pitching machine, that Gonzales saw his body undermine him ever so slightly?
That brings us to 2022. Gonzales is healthy, looking by all measures at least the man who dug deep and helped drag his club back into the hunt last year. His three-year run as Seattle’s Opening Day starter, however, is at risk. His peripherals tell the tale of a pitcher immensely fortunate to have escaped 2021 unscathed, a contact manager who managed to get double plays and deep fly outs at just the right moment, feet from disaster far too frequently. Seattle has at long last begun to heed his clarion call - improve! Give the players who have bought into this club the support to thrive! The reigning Cy Young has arrived to bolster the club, and in so doing perhaps push Gonzales from even his ceremonial perch as club ace. Gonzales is just 30, yet his moment is now to help lift a more genuine competitor to the promised land at last. He has seen firsthand that the window for a beloved starter to reach the playoffs can only stay cracked for so long.
And so the story is unfinished. It may conclude tragically, after all; we must steel ourselves for the possibility. But the ferocity with which Gonzales claws through each start is the sort of trait that endears trust and belief. He’s outperformed his peripherals before; he will attempt to do so once again. However his story ends, there’s one thing we know for sure: it won’t be boring.