BRENT STECKER

It’s not ‘Wait ’til next year’ with the Mariners, it’s ‘Now just wait ’til next year’

Oct 3, 2021, 8:33 PM | Updated: Oct 4, 2021, 3:25 pm

Mariners Jarred Kelenic...

Jarred Kelenic reacts after his home run against the Diamondbacks on Sept. 12. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

It’s hard to be anything except disappointed about the way the 2021 Seattle Mariners season ended.

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They were the hottest team in the American League coming into the final weekend of the season. They had three straight sellout crowds at T-Mobile Park ready for any reason to lose their collective minds. They had a real chance to end 19 years of frustration and stop the franchise’s long playoff drought just before it reached 20 seasons.

Of course, it didn’t work out. They lost their final three-game series against the Angels to fall out of a tie for a wild card spot, and like in 2014 and 2016, the Mariners (90-72) couldn’t finish off a late run at the postseason even though this one had the most momentum behind it of any of them.

The way the Mariners’ season ended and the direction the Mariners’ franchise is headed, however, are two very different things. And there is nothing to be disappointed about when it comes to what’s next for Seattle, especially when you take stock of all of the positive signs the 2020 season leaves behind.

Where should we start?

How about the player who made the most noise in the final weekend of the season, Mitch Haniger? He’ll be back in right field, possibly with a 2021 American League Comeback Player of the Year award on his mantle. No one knew how he would he would hold up this year coming off an injury and multiple surgeries that kept him out of action for a year and a half. He held up better than anyone could have expected, finishing with a career year with 39 home runs, 100 RBIs, an .804 OPS, and perhaps most importantly 157 games played with no trips to the injured list. On a young team, having a veteran slugger like Haniger in the middle of the lineup to rely on is huge.

Next, the diamond in the rough that is Chris Flexen. Signed out of Korea, the 27-year-old right-hander returned to the big leagues and became one of the most effective starters in the AL, posting a 3.61 ERA and 3.5 WAR while making 31 starts. He along with veteran left-hander Marco Gonzales give the Mariners a solid veteran duo to build their 2022 rotation around.

What about those guys in the bullpen? Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler – the latter being the owner of a Mariners-record 0.67 ERA over 42 appearances (the last 29 of which were all scoreless, another team record) – might take that “diamond in the rough” term to a higher level than even Flexen does. And while you can’t just expect bullpen success to translate to the next year, the good news is the Mariners have veteran closer Ken Giles, who missed all of 2021 due to Tommy John surgery, joining a mix that includes 22-year-old Andrés Muñoz, who made his own return from Tommy John on Sunday by throwing fastballs as hard as 102 mph in 2/3 innings of scoreless work.

The Mariners also have a young yet somewhat experienced core of position players who showed varying levels of promise this season. Ty France looks like a potential superstar, and the defensive improvement he made at first base has some wondering if he could do something similar at another spot in the infield once Evan White is healthy and ready to produce in the big leagues. Shortstop J.P. Crawford followed up a 2020 Gold Glove season with continued stellar defense and a much improved offensive showing as Seattle’s leadoff hitter and best table setter. You can add 24-year-old second baseman Abraham Toro to this list, too, thanks to his hot hitting after coming over from Houston in a trade, though he has more to prove after a late-season slump and is still coming along defensively.

We’re still not done. Think about the players who missed much of the season due to injury, including White and especially Kyle Lewis, the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year. They’ll be looking to come back in 2022 and reestablish themselves in the Mariners’ young core.

And yet we’re just now getting to the two things that should provide the most hope about the Mariners in 2022 and beyond.

First, the 2021 rookies and the top prospects right behind them. Prized outfielder Jarred Kelenic may have struggled mightily throughout the season and finishes with a .181 average and .615 OPS in 93 games, but he became one of the Mariners’ top hitters during their 11-3 run to end the year. That may be the most positive takeaway of the entire season for the M’s future.

Starting pitcher Logan Gilbert enjoyed even more success during his rookie year than Kelenic and at times dominated opposing lineups. If the lanky right-hander starts landing his secondary pitches for strikes in 2022, watch out. They and catcher Cal Raleigh will likely be joined quickly next season on the Mariners roster by big prospects like Julio Rodríguez, Emerson Hancock and George Kirby, and there are still more names on the way besides them.

Finally, the kicker. The Mariners just won 90 games for the first time since Edgar Martinez’s last All-Star season – not his last season, his last All-Star season. The franchise knows its set up for success. It knows the time is now. The time for what? The time to start spending money and prospect capital on proven players who can help the M’s be a real player in the American League. We’re already pretty sure they’ll need to replace Kyle Seager’s production, and with the positional flexibility many of their players have, they can get creative in the ways they add star power this offseason.

The Mariners may have come within two games of a wild card spot, but that’s not the most important number in the standings this year. The real number to know is five, which is how many games the Mariners finished behind the Houston Astros (95-67) in the AL West race. Seattle was nine games back of Houston in 2020, and that was in a season that lasted just 60 games, not 162. That is a remarkable turning of the corner. And not only are the Mariners gaining on the Astros, but they leapfrogged the Oakland A’s (86-76) – who they currently own a 12-game winning streak against – in the process.

These for sure aren’t the same old Mariners. And for the first time in a long time for Mariners fans – honestly, maybe for the first time ever – it isn’t “Wait ’til next year.”

It’s “Now just wait ’til next year.”

710 ESPN Seattle’s instant reactions to M’s first 90-win season since 2003

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