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The Mariners’ preseason gamble on themselves is mostly paying off

Despite some road bumps, Seattle’s somewhat subdued offseason has helped them take the driver’s seat in the Wild Card race.

Toronto Blue Jays v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Seattle Mariners season has seen Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis, Tom Murphy, Evan White, and Taylor Trammell sidelined for most or all of the year, career-worst performances from the club’s two centerpiece offensive additions in Jesse Winker and Adam Frazier, and Jarred Kelenic is back in Tacoma once again attempting to solve many of the same issues Seattle hoped he’d puzzled out late last year. Robbie Ray’s velocity is down as expected regression and unexpected ineffectiveness pushed him to dramatically alter the pitch mix that made him a Cy Young last year. 28-year-old rookie Penn Murfee has more big league innings pitched than Ken Giles, Casey Sadler, and Matt Brash combined, the latter of whom flunked out of the big league rotation after just five starts due to poor command. Matt Festa has pitched more, and more effectively, than Drew Steckenrider. Justin Upton, Mike Ford, and Steven Souza Jr. have played in dozens of games for these M’s, stretched paper-thin by injury and ineffectiveness.

This accurate retelling of the partial truth of the 2022 season should be enough to paint the picture of a season, and while it is unfortunate, it’s not unforeseeable. Haniger, Lewis, and Murphy have all missed significant time with injury in the past. Winker’s departure from a hitter’s haven to the marine layer life was sure to come with pains, and Frazier slumped all through the second half of 2021. Ray’s strand rate was unrepeatable, as was the unbelievable breakout performance of the 2021 bullpen. By not signing any position players to big league deals in the offseason, Seattle decided to rely on their on-paper depth that seemed cumulatively sound but individually flawed, and like a CDO in the late 2000’s, it should’ve been little surprise to see it all crumble. Three weeks ago, the Mariners were all but written off, and it was all these issues that seemed intractable to blame, compounded by the lack of additions in the winter to rub aloe upon their sting.

And yet, as Zach Mason outlined earlier this week, oops, would you look at that, they are 51-42, holding the second Wild Card spot with just half a game separating them from the first seed. Their playoff odds rest just above 2/3rds via FanGraphs, at 70% from FiveThirtyEight, a lofty 76.3% from Baseball Prospectus, and a hard-to-process 79.9% from Baseball Reference. For those truly feeling the need to go up a size in britches, the Houston Astros suddenly sit a mere 9.0 games ahead of the M’s, largely unreachable but not utterly inconceivable. It’s a reversal made possible by a series of bets on themselves Seattle made this winter.

They believed Julio Rodríguez was ready, and more than that, that he would be an impact player right away. They saw their bullpen as a strength, liable to repeat last year’s sturdiness borne out of internal developments despite next to no external improvements. The rotation was not in need of immediate addressing, even when Brash broke camp with the club and then was demoted less than a month later. Eugenio Suárez was a sufficient replacement for Kyle Seager, and they had enough utility depth to weather some injuries.

At the risk of oversimplifying, that’s been correct enough, thus far. Have they lost games they might’ve won with Trevor Story or Seiya Suzuki instead of Abraham Toro or Souza? Certainly. But the exceeding of mean/median projections or expectations by players on the roster thus far has infused this season with possibility. Already Suárez, Rodríguez, Ty France, J.P. Crawford, and Cal Raleigh have blown past or project to blow past their baseline ZiPS projections, with noticeable improvements spurring progress. Similarly, strong showings from Logan Gilbert and the rest of the rotation, at least in terms of results, have buoyed the M’s past what was laid out for them initially. While Seattle lags behind in FIP-based WAR numbers as a pitching staff as well as xFIP and DRA, their results continue to cash at the bank, as does each win. Each victory brings them closer to ending the drought, a bet I thought they’d been too spendthrift to cash in.

So I am grateful, as we sit awaiting Re-Opening Day, to have been pleasantly surprised by these Mariners, who have indeed been good enough for a playoff spot thus far. It’s easy enough to argue better days lie ahead, with Kyle Lewis rehabbing actively and Mitch Haniger about to begin a stint of his own. I will try not to dwell too much during the impending dog days on the moves Seattle didn’t make, the improvements they’re now forced to seek midseason after eschewing them in the winter. I will seek to appreciate the good fortune and favorable direction these Mariners seem to be heading towards. I hope they keep making themselves look smart.