Every Major League Baseball team is, by the nature of the sport, a Ship of Theseus. The name is the same, and its organization, title, location, and purpose remain largely consistent. And yet, year over year, the parts change. An Opening Day eventually came where the Orioles didn’t feature Brooks Robinson, the Cardinals had no Stan Musial, Willie Stargell wasn’t on the roster for the Pirates, and Edgar Martinez had hung them up to let a new soul take his space for the Seattle Mariners. Every club is a dry dock shifting and replacing parts to make as successful a voyage as they’re willing to afford, and no team should be more ready for the journey than the Mariners. In recent years, the M’s have been a harbor of increasingly brief calls, however. In 2023, Seattle will once again have the least-tenured longest-tenured Seattle Mariner since Ken Griffey Jr.’s debut campaign in 1989, save of course for 2022.
Longest-Tenured Active Seattle Mariners of the Past 35 Years
|1989||T-4 (Dave Valle, Harold Reynolds, Jim Presley, & Mark Langston)||6|
|1990||T-2 (Dave Valle & Harold Reynolds)||7|
|1991||T-2 (Dave Valle & Harold Reynolds)||8|
|1992||T-2 (Dave Valle & Harold Reynolds)||9|
|1993||T-2 (Dave Valle & Harold Reynolds)||10|
This little investigation was a delight, as is any reminder of Raúl Ibañez’s kaleidoscopic career as a Mariner, and how even in the age of free agency it is an exceptional time we are living in. Un-featured in the list above are names like Jay Buhner, Mike Zunino, Willie Bloomquist, Randy Johnson, Mike Cameron, Dustin Ackley, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton. The turnover in the Dipoto era is simply unprecedented, and it has no doubt been unpleasant at many times for players and their families, as well as scouts and other personnel jettisoned as the M’s attempted to craft a vessel that would take them back to the playoffs after 20 years and change. Now, the most well-worn hunk of teak hewn to the hull of the good ship U.S.S. Mariner is Marco Gonzales, brought to Seattle as a young starting pitcher meant to lift the floor of a floundering M’s roster weighed down by underperforming, cheap depth solutions that could not reach high enough even atop the shoulders of Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and a still-capable Félix Hernández.
This was the Mariners’ lineup the day Gonzales joined Seattle on July 21st of 2017, in a 5-1 loss to the New York Yankees:
Not a player remains. The club that used 40 pitchers (38 plus Mike Freeman and Carlos Ruiz) has just one remnant now. Seattle has traded two different RHPs named Andrew Moore away since Gonzales joined the M’s, and he, like Mitch Haniger, and unlike any of the other long time stars he joined on that 2017 club, tasted postseason baseball at last in 2022.
And yet, while it is true, as Jacob Thorpe wrote for The Spokesman-Review of Spokane this past October, while Gonzales’ “fingerprints are all over the Mariners’ postseason drive,” and Gonzales worked 7 IP in the season’s final game to help the club secure their 90th win and rest the bullpen for what would be an immensely taxing playoff run, it’s true that the M’s saw their veteran southpaw as the fifth-best option in their starting rotation, a sign of both how he struggled in 2022 even as it also indicated the immense quality of his teammates by the end of the season.
Gonzales did not ultimately break the record Zach Mason wrote at length on last year, with the largest gap of any full-season pitcher between their ERA and their FIP. However, he still finished 2022 with a 4.13 ERA to a 5.05 FIP, numbers that often indicate a risk of regression towards the latter number for the former. But Gonzales has made a career out of beating FIP, running an ERA of exactly 4.00 as a Mariner and efficiently devouring innings despite changes to the baseball and a decline in his fastball velocity to the upper-80s. Fly balls, dodging free passes, and pinpoint control have been the watchword of the now-year-round Seattle resident, who the Mariners rewarded with a four-year, $30 million contract extension prior to the 2020 season which kicked in in 2021 and includes a club option for 2025.
As recently as 2021 he was the club’s Opening Day starter, and even in his decline he’s avoided catastrophe. Yet a 4.13 ERA with T-Mobile Park as his home in 2022, as I wrote recently, is not quite representative of a roughly average performance as it might seem with a cursory glance. No park suppressed scoring like T-Mobile Park in 2022, nor hard contact, and while Gonzales was well-suited to his friendly confines by giving up plenty of average contact and not too many moonshots, at least on a rate basis, it was very scary watching him work on the road. His 3.58/4.61/.307 ERA/FIP/wOBA allowed at home compared to a 4.84/4.93/.372 ERA/FIP/wOBA allowed on the road is the difference between facing Kyle Farmer or J.P. Crawford 25-30 times per night and facing Rafael Devers or Mookie Betts that same amount.
There’s a number of ways to parse what may have ailed Marco in 2022, but much of it is simple in broader terms: the margin for error for command-centric pitchers who sit in the upper-80s is far narrower than those who work in the upper-90s, which is why there are a lot of pitchers like Marco Gonzales in the high minors and not that many who have managed to have the career he has worked for. But this now is the challenge: can he adjust further, and muster another encore akin to his brilliant 2019 and 2020 campaigns?
If there is encouragement to be found, it can come from a couple places. Firstly, he will continue pitching at T-Mobile Park, where he is better suited for specific success in his contact-heavy, medium contact-laden fly-ball-allowing, whiffs-be-damned ways. If Seattle can stagger Gonzales to pitch at home as often as possible, the club will likely get the most out of him once again, and they’ll be fortunate to have a solid arm who can make 30+ starts once again in the event that their pitching health is not as miraculous as it was in 2022. Secondly, the crafty southpaw has made adjustments before, and even in 2022 he began leaning ever more heavily on his best pitch, a fading changeup that still is his lone real swing-and-miss threat. Gonzales’ 2018-crafted cutter has stuck in his repertoire as a show-me option, but at this point it seems too hittable in its current form, and further tweaks may be needed and in the works.
Seattle is rolling with their longtime workhorse as their 5th starter over Chris Flexen out of the gate, likely both out of respect and belief in Gonzales’ ability to continue adapting and readjusting. The 31-year-old Gonzaga Bulldog is no longer the ace of this staff, nor the shiniest, polished piece on the masthead of the ship. But he can still be seaworthy, and Seattle’s playoff hopes once again depend on him helping carry them there.