Drayer’s Mariners Breakdown: Despite setbacks, April reveals good signs and what the M’s are up against

Apr 30, 2021, 1:12 PM | Updated: 2:50 pm
Mariners Kyle Lewis...
Kyle Lewis has hit two home runs since his return to the Mariners' lineup. (Getty)

The grade for the Mariners one month into the season? Well, incomplete of course.

Mariners set minors rosters: Kelenic in Tacoma, Rodríguez in Everett

The 2021 Mariners season is about the progression, the steps forward that are taken or not taken, and the finished product. At the end of the season they either will or will not resemble a viable 2022 contender for the playoffs worthy of making offseason additions to help push them across the finish line. The final grade should come easily, but there’s a long way to go before that evaluation is made.

It’s easy to forget all of the above once the actual season begins. Easy to get caught up in the daily ups and downs the team provides and the great day-to-day shifts in expectations from fans who understandably want to grab on to something good when it comes to the Mariners. In reality, however, this is still a very young team with an uncommonly large number of players attempting to continue to develop at the big league level.

The April roller coaster probably should not have been expected. Rather, with the schedule they faced – which on April 30 comes in as the second-toughest in baseball and the toughest in the American League by a significant amount – fewer ups and prolonged downs would have been a more reasonable projection. As it was, this team showed itself to be resilient, limiting itself to just one stretch of more than two losses in a row. In fact, Seattle’s worst slide was just four games, tied for the shortest in the American League West.

If we learned anything about this group of players in the first month of the season, it is that they are extremely resilient. With the challenges they faced in April, they are still 14-12 on the final day of the month, and that is a significant achievement for a young group. Resilience can only get you so far, however. Pitching and hitting will be required to maintain or move forward. In those categories, a mixed bag.

The bullpen

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the first month has been the bullpen. With a bunch of largely unrecognizable names to most including a Rule 5 pick (Will Vest), expectations coming in were low from the general fan base, and it took a while for what the relievers were doing to be recognized by most. Questions along the lines of “What are we going to do about this pen?” were still popping up two-plus weeks into the season.

In reality, it was getting the job done, with manager Scott Servais quickly recognizing that he had more arms than ever – eight, to be specific – that he could feel good about going to in the right situation.

The bullpen is a large reason the Mariners have been able to come back late in games and win extra-inning contests. Aside from the very occasional hiccup, the relievers have been lock down, leading the AL in ERA and FIP for the month. This is good to see as relievers were a focus of general manager Jerry Dipoto in the offseason. He didn’t get the biggest names, but what he got has been extremely effective.

Related: Graveman has been one of MLB’s best pitchers to start ’21

The rotation

With the starters, it has been a different story. The rotation was built to be leaned on with an extra day of rest afforded for all by the six-man rotation and veteran arms of Marco Gonzales and James Paxton at the top. As it turns out, the entire rotation got off to a bumpy start, posting a 5.85 ERA in the first two turns. It also lost Paxton for the season (Tommy John surgery) early on and Gonzales now for at least a couple of weeks (forearm strain). Nick Margevicius, who took Paxton’s place in the rotation, also landed on the injured list with shoulder inflammation.

If you are looking for a bright spot, there are a few. Despite the depth being greatly tested, the rotation did rebound from the shaky start to post ERA and FIP numbers that were more mid-pack in the AL over the final two weeks of the month. Individually, Justin Dunn was perhaps the biggest question mark entering the season but appears to have taken giant steps forward. It’s early, but Chris Flexen has shown promise, as well. Perhaps most importantly with the loss of Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi stepped up and gave an idea of what his ceiling he could be with new and improved stuff, taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning of a 1-0 win over Houston on Thursday.

The positives from the rotation have been glimpses. While questions about individuals are being answered, consistency will be needed if the Mariners want to continue playing above-.500 baseball. The offense, which has largely under-performed in the first month, will also have to chip in.

The lineup

The struggles have been well chronicled, with the top third of the order being largely responsible for Seattle coming in at 11th in the AL in wRC+. It has often looked worse.

There are questions abound. Are Evan White and Taylor Trammell ready? How long do you go with a catcher tandem hitting .155? Can you get more offensively out of J.P. Crawford? And what the heck happened to Dylan Moore?

Is it time to panic about the offense? Mariners color commentator and former MLB third baseman Mike Blowers recommends taking a deep breath.

“Let’s get 40 games into it,” he said during a recent Mariners postgame show on 710 ESPN Seattle, noting the adjustment time largely accepted in the game. “Let’s let the guys get their feet on the ground, let’s get outside of April. If you would have told me that at the end of April these guys would have a better than .500 record, I would have signed up for it. By the way, they haven’t hit at all.

“Luis Torrens (going 2 for 4 with a home run, a double and three RBIs Wednesday) was a good sign. Kyle Lewis getting back another good sign; he will be in there consistently. Seeing more home runs, Ty France isn’t going anywhere, Kyle Seager has a chance to have a monster year. Offensively things will get turned around, and if adjustments need to be made that will happen, too.”

The adjustments will come in the form of additions and subtractions. In the not-too-distant future, Jarred Kelenic will be added to the lineup. At some point catcher prospect Cal Raleigh should also make an appearance. With the minors an option this year unlike in 2020, struggling young hitters will not be allowed to flounder for too long.

On 710 ESPN Seattle’s weekly Jerry Dipoto Show, the GM outlined what he looks for when determining if a young player has veered from swimming to sinking.

“You want to see young hitters especially stick to a plan. Players in general, you want to see them carry themselves confidently and not wear the day-to-day. You have to be able to bounce back resiliently in a 162-game season,” Dipoto told Danny and Gallant, noting that the Mariners are comfortable in what they have seen to date from White (.155 average, .446 OPS).

“When you see the smoke coming out of ears because they are pressing too hard, it’s a hard game to play when you are tense. You have to try and stay relaxed so you can let your athletic ability and preparation do the rest.”

It is very worth noting that the many of the struggles of the offense have come against some of the best pitching the American League has to offer. Offense is down across the league, but the Mariners have faced a particularly tough challenge with who they have faced. Regardless of who is at the plate, be it Ty France hitting .301 or Dylan Moore at .108, with the pitching they have faced they have seen the second-most pitches on the edge of the strike zone in baseball and the 25th-most over the heart of the plate (research courtesy of Mariners play-by-play announcer Aaron Goldsmith).

At some point young hitters need to learn how to survive against top pitching. But also at some point, young hitters need the opportunity to get a stretch of more representative pitching. That opportunity is now at their doorstep with the schedule swinging in their favor with a steady dose of Angels, Orioles, Rangers, Indians and Tigers coming their way in May. And with a depleted rotation, it won’t hurt to have some of those teams on the other side, either.

“Unfortunately they have injuries to their rotation, but that creates opportunities,” said Blowers. “We’re not done trying to figure out what we have as an organization yet so guys are going to get opportunities – maybe some of them sooner than we thought, maybe some of them pushed a little bit, but that’s OK. Find out where you are at with it.

“To me, I look at it overall. You consider the opponents, they have been up against it. They have had the toughest schedule to start the season. The Houston series did not go well. For me, as long as that bullpen continues to pitch and stay healthy – because the rotation is hurting so much that those guys are really going to get used the next few weeks – I think they will be fine.”

Regardless of the schedule ahead, the Mariners face a tremendous challenge in getting a large number of bats going and surviving without Gonzales, the No. 1 in their rotation. It won’t be easy, but perhaps this is where the resiliency displayed in April comes into play. They have found ways to win and ways to put tough losses behind them. For individuals, the numbers will eventually have to be there if they want to stick around, but the Mariners for now will let the process play out.

Follow Mariners insider Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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