Three things the Mariners need to happen to compete in 2021
The Mariners haven’t made a lot of news when it comes to transactions this offseason, but it was made clear last week with the start of their Mariners Virtual Baseball Bash that the goal for 2021 is to compete for a playoff spot.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Seattle will challenge Oakland and Houston for the American League West title or even that they expect to make the postseason, but it does mean they plan on making progress after finishing the 2020 season with a .450 winning percentage.
So what’s it going to take for this current Mariners team to join the playoff race? Mariners insider Shannon Drayer and 710Sports.com’s Brent Stecker and Brandon Gustafson each break down one key to making that a reality in 2021.
1. A healthy Mitch Haniger hits better than he did in 2019.
In Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto’s press conference last Tuesday, his comments about Mitch Haniger jumped out to me. Not because I forgot about Haniger, but I guess I kind of forgot just how valuable he was during his first two seasons with Seattle.
“When Mitch Haniger is healthy, he’s our best player,” Dipoto said. “Mitch is a multi-skilled, well-rounded, diverse player who when we’ve seen him at the top of his game is really one of the more complete players in the American League. If we can get some version of that Mitch Haniger back on the field, it really changes our arc.”
Dipoto could not be more right about that. Haniger made the American League All-Star team in 2018, hitting .285 with a .366 on-base percentage, .859 OPS, 26 home runs, 38 doubles, four triples and 93 RBIs, and he walked 70 times, stole eight bases and made plenty of outstanding plays in the outfield to boot. That’s a player who makes a huge difference right there. Haniger might have challenged to be an All-Star the year before, too, had he not missed a month and a half before the All-Star break due to injury.
Haniger’s health, of course, is going to be a big question for the rest of his career. He’s had a lot of bad luck with injuries during his time in Seattle. First was an oblique strain that took the air out of his impressive debut with the team in 2017. That same year he had another stint on the sideline after being hit in the face by a Jacob deGrom pitch, which, you know, no thanks. And then his own personal nightmare began in 2019 when he fouled a ball off of himself in the worst possible way, which, actually, let’s make that a double no thanks. That has resulted in multiple surgeries to repair core and back injuries, and while he’s said to be a full-go for the 2021 season, he will have been removed from competition for 20 months by that point.
So the 30 year old’s health is one thing. But there’s something that Dipoto’s comments didn’t address, and that’s how Haniger played before his big injury in 2019.
That wasn’t “All-Star Mitch Haniger.” That was a guy who seemed determined to jack the ball over the left-field fence every chance he got, and it was pretty worrisome considering how he’d shown in the two years before that he had the ability to hit to all fields. According to Statcast, he pulled batted balls 45.5% of the time in 2019 compared to 41.1% in 2018, with balls hit up the middle then going from 39.1% to 33.5%. His whiff percentage also went up to 26.6% in 2019 from 23.3% the year before.
Haniger’s average launch angle also took off in 2019, which was likely by design, going from 10.9 in 2017 and 12.7 in 2018 all the way to 18.2 in 2019. That doesn’t necessarily signal bad news, but when you couple that with how his batting average on balls in play went from .338 in 2017 and .336 in 2018 (according to Fangraphs) all the way down to .257, it does make me raise an eyebrow. BABIP is kind of known as the “bad luck” stat for hitters, but I have to wonder if this was a case of Haniger aiming for more home runs at the expense of other hits, thus resulting in driving that percentage down.
Whatever the case, Haniger’s more traditional stats in 2019 were disappointing – .220 average, .314 on-base, .778 OPS – and while he had 15 home runs in 63 games, he had just 13 doubles and one triple to go with them.
The Mariners don’t have a lot of proven firepower in their lineup going into 2021, so if the offense is going to step forward, Haniger is going to need to play a big role. That won’t happen if he doesn’t figure out how to return to something more like the hitter who established himself as a rising star in his first two seasons with the M’s.
2. Be right about the young position players – right now
The Mariners will lean on their pitching early in the season, which may sound a bit odd. Truth be told, the rotation did OK last year. The Mariners weren’t as strong as their fifth-place finish in AL fWAR might indicate, but they used their defense, kept the ball in the ballpark and generally survived, which is not a bad accomplishment for a developing staff. The bullpen was another matter, but it will look nothing like the bullpen of the 2020 season, and that alone is a good thing. There was only room to move up, and while the moves Seattle has made this offseason were not flashy, enough was done to give the pen ample opportunity to be significantly better.
So that brings us to the offense, and here is where the greatest strides will need to be made if the Mariners are to be a part of the late summer conversation. To put it simply, they are going to need to be right about their young position players, right now.
The emphasis here? The right now part. Not next year, not in the second half of this season. Rather the Mariners will need the young position players they leave Peoria with to, if not pop in the first half of the season, take significant steps forward in terms of numbers to put the team in a position where at the trade deadline they are within striking distance of a postseason berth – and it’s worth noting that as of now the playoffs will feature the traditional 10 teams, not the 16-team format used last season.
While in 2020 there were many encouraging signs with Seattle hitters, Rookie of the Year hardware included, when it came down to sheer production the offense was greatly lacking. Perhaps that should not be unexpected in the first 60 games of the “Let the kids play” phase of the rebuild.
Around the diamond there is plenty of room for improvement, as evidenced by the slash lines of every position for the M’s in 2020.
Catcher: .247/.317/.394 (.710 OPS)
First base: .192/.269/.402 (.671)
Second base: .212/.280/.324 (.604)
Third base: .244/.352/.411 (.763)
Shortstop: .246/.326/.325 (.650)
Left field: .218/.276/.346 (.622)
Center field: .262/.364/.437 (.801)*
Right field: .191/.284/.332 (.616)
Designated hitter: .224/.298/.388 (.686)
*Kyle Lewis only
The catcher numbers include Austin Nola, who was traded at midseason but was the Mariners’ best hitter by wRC+. The return of Tom Murphy, who missed all of 2020 with a foot injury, should prove a boost at catcher regardless.
At first base, Evan White has got to take steps forward offensively. If he doesn’t, you could see someone else there for a while. Sending players to the minor leagues will be an option this year but not until after the first month of the season. For his part, White spent the entire offseason in Peoria putting in work on both his hitting and the mental side of the game, which he said on the Hot Stove Show earlier this month was a bigger factor than he could have imagined.
Second base will largely be inhabited by the player who put up the Mariners’ second-best numbers by wRC+, Dylan Moore. This obviously is where you don’t want to see regression, but even so the production is likely to be greater at second. At shortstop and third base we could see similar numbers. The real improvement should come from the DH spot where Ty “He Can Really Hit” France will get the majority of his at-bats. Some caution here as he has only 356 plate appearances in the big leagues, but his .836 OPS in 2020 and minor league track record jumps off the page.
In the outfield things should get interesting. In his “Coffee Servais” chat as part of the Mariners Virtual Baseball Bash on Friday, manager Scott Servais commented that getting Murphy and Mitch Haniger back was almost like picking up two new players. Whether we see the 2018 or 2019 version of Haniger, his production undoubtedly should be greater than what we saw in right field in 2019. All eyes will be on Kyle Lewis coming off his rookie campaign. What will a full season reveal? And then there is left field. When does Jarred Kelenic arrive and of what impact will he be?
Opportunity for improvement at almost every position is there, as is the threat of regression. As thrilled as the Mariners are with what they have seen from their young players almost across the board, even a most optimistic Jerry Dipoto realizes that they won’t hit on all of them.
“We know that with all of these young players and the prospects that are coming, not all of them are going to pan out in the way that we hope or reward our optimism,” he said on Danny and Gallant Thursday. “There will be one or two that struggle and don’t become what they have the ability to achieve.”
Truth be told there will be plenty of struggles. That’s part of development and part of baseball. If struggles keep the Mariners out of contention in 2021, it won’t be a surprise. With their stated goals and plan for the young team, a successful season could be represented by a slow build that leads to a strong second half that doesn’t end in playoffs. It’s “right now” versus the “slow build” that could lead to a different kind of success, one Mariners fans have been waiting for.
3. Yusei Kikuchi and Justin Dunn make progress to help solidify the Mariners’ rotation.
We all know what Marco Gonzales can do, and Justus Sheffield finished 2020 strong, throwing at least six innings while allowing two or fewer runs in six of his last eight starts. But if the Mariners want to contend in 2021, they need better results from Yusei Kikuchi and Justin Dunn while top prospects get prepared in the minors.
Kikuchi’s fared better in his second season than in his first, dropping his ERA from 5.46 to 5.17 and his WHIP from 1.515 to 1.298. The ERA and WHIP still weren’t great, but Kikuchi’s advanced numbers show he had a better year than you’d think.
His Fielding Independent Pitching – the lower the better – improved from 5.71 in 2019 to 3.30. That would put him among the top 25 pitchers in MLB in that stat if he had met the innings requirement. His ERA was 5.17, but per Statcast his xERA (expected ERA) was 3.51. His xOBA (expected opponent batting average) was just .232. Kikuchi also avoided barrels (86th percentile), and his whiff percentage (72nd percentile) and expected opponent slugging percentage (81st percentile) were very good.
The issues? Kikuchi’s walks jumped from 2.8 per nine innings to 3.8. Additionally, while he avoided barrels overall, his average opponent exit velocity was 89.4 mph (29th percentile) despite allowing 0.6 home runs per nine innings. But overall, there may have just been some bad luck as well.
While Kikuchi’s expected numbers were better than his actuals, Dunn likely had better results than he should have.
A rookie in 2020, Dunn finished with a 4-1 record and 4.34 ERA, but he struck out just 38 in 45.2 innings while walking 31. He also allowed 10 home runs.
Per Statcast, Dunn’s average opponent exit velocity was 92 mph (2nd percentile). His hard hit percentage (12th percentile), barrel percentage (11th percentile), whiff rate (19th percentile) and walk percentage (4th percentile) also left plenty to be desired.
Opponents also hit .308 with three home runs off his curveball, which was his most-used secondary offering, and he barely used his changeup, which had little separation from his fastball (87.1 mph average with the changeup compared to 91.2 mph with the fastball).
Dunn and Kikuchi need to be better at avoiding walks and hard contact, which is an issue for many young pitchers but is especially the case with these two. If Kikuchi can get closer to his expected numbers and if Dunn can start missing more bats and throw more strikes, that would go a long way in helping the Mariners start to really trend forward in 2021 like many thought they would.