BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Mariners’ run was magical, but they need to add at 3 positions to build on it

Oct 5, 2021, 11:31 AM
Mariners Scott Servais...
Manager Scott Servais of the Seattle Mariners signals the bullpen to make a pitching change against the Oakland Athletics in the bottom of the eighth inning at RingCentral Coliseum on Sept. 20. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

“Baseball is back in Seattle,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said Sunday after the team’s final game in a remarkable 90-win season.

Drayer: M’s 90-win journey wildly differed from April 1 expectations

First off, Servais is right. The 2021 season proved that baseball is back in the Emerald City after the Mariners exceeded everyone’s expectations and were in the thick of a playoff chase until the top of the ninth inning in their 162nd game.

Secondly, while Servais is right, the Mariners have a big task at hand to make sure it stays that way. Now, it’s time to capitalize.

The Mariners enter the 2021-22 offseason in a pretty enviable state. They’re coming off 90 wins for the first time in 18 years with an extremely young team that will see nearly every key contributor come back for an encore run in 2022. The organization also boasts one of the best – if not the best – farm system in baseball, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility for seven of Seattle’s top 10 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) to make their MLB debuts next year. That’s right – seven.

And you know how I said most of the roster is expected back or under contract for 2022? The Mariners will also have an awful lot of financial flexibility, assuming that the team doesn’t pick up third baseman Kyle Seager’s $20 million club option, and even if starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi opts for his own $13 million player option.

So yes, the Mariners seem to be in a pretty good spot entering the offseason, especially if ownership allows general manager/president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto to bring the team closer to its 2018 payroll ($162.5 million, ninth in baseball) than in 2021 ($56.3 million, 24th in baseball).

What will constitute a successful offseason? Or, where does this team need to improve between now and opening day 2022? The answers were revealed in the team’s play over the second half of the season.

Starting rotation

The Mariners’ starting pitching came alive over the last two months of the season, which really boosted Seattle’s playoff hopes.

Marco Gonzales returned to form, Logan Gilbert rebounded from a rocky August with a stellar September, Chris Flexen remained as rock solid as he had been all year long, and trade deadline acquisition Tyler Anderson stabilized the starting rotation.

But wait, isn’t that just four guys?

Yep.

Though Kikuchi made the All-Star team after a very good first half of 2021, he unfortunately cratered over the second half of the season, going 1-5 with a 5.98 ERA in his last 13 starts. He threw just 58 2/3 innings in those 13 games, meaning he averaged less than five innings per start after the All-Star break. His struggles were so tough late in the year that the Mariners skipped his last start of the year with them still in contention.

As a result of Kikuchi being shut down, Anderson was tasked with starting three of Seattle’s last eight games, including on just two days rest in the second of those starts. And for as important as he was in the rotation stabilizing, he suffered two key losses against the Angels, including in Sunday’s season finale.

Gonzales, Flexen and Gilbert will be penned into whatever five- or even six-man rotation the Mariners implement in 2022, and deservingly so. Kikuchi may be back because of his player option, too, but he’s far from a safe bet to be in the rotation next year.

The Mariners’ run at the playoffs showed they need at least one more arm for the top of the rotation, someone who can eat innings not just to help ease the burden of the bullpen but to just flat-out win.

There will be some major names in free agency like Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, as well as some other great arms who aren’t as well-known including Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman.

Then there’s the trade market, where the Mariners could be a major player due to the very deep and talented farm system. Could the Rockies move on from Germán Márquez? Might the Padres part ways with Blake Snell or Joe Musgrove after imploding, going 12-33 to end the season? What about the Reds and Sonny Gray?

And while I said at least one more rotation arm because yes, the Mariners have top prospect arms like George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Matt Brash, Brandon Williamson and Levi Stoudt knocking on the door of the big leagues, how close are they to being full-time contributors in the rotation?

All of them reached Double-A in 2021, but none of them exceeded 100 innings due in part to the lack of a minor league season in 2020. Gilbert debuted for the Mariners in May and did well, but he’d at least logged a full season back in 2019. That really hasn’t been the case for any of those other pitching prospects. Gilbert also was given a soft landing because Seattle was still using a six-man rotation at the time of his MLB debut.

The Mariners did enter 2021 with a lot of starting pitching depth, but injuries to James Paxton, Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield and even lesser arms like Ljay Newsome and Nick Margevicius got in the way.

This is a team ready to make another big step next year, and adding at least one big-name arm to anchor the front of the rotation would go a long way in helping the Mariners not just compete for a playoff spot but even make a run at taking the AL West crown away from the Houston Astros.

One more bullpen arm

If you had the Mariners winning 90 games on the back of their bullpen as your hot preseason prediction, let’s talk lottery numbers.

Seriously, who would have thought that a group made up of mostly castaways would be the strength of a 90-win team? I mean, the bullpen’s most established pitcher and the team’s go-to reliever at the start of the year was Rafael Montero, and we all know how that worked out.

Enter Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler – the triple ‘S’ assassins. They shortened games for Servais and company and were absolute forces while leading what was basically the Island of Misfit Toys.

All three will be back next year, as will Diego Castillo. Plus, veteran closer Ken Giles will make his Mariners debut after rehabbing from Tommy John, and Andrés Muñoz, a hard-throwing 22 year old who made his Seattle debut in the season finale, will also be a full-time member of the bullpen.

That is a great start heading into 2022. The issue? They’re all right-handed.

Anthony Misiewicz was, for most of the season, the team’s lone southpaw option, but he ran a .261/.303/.370 slash line against lefties. Late-August waiver claim Sean Doolittle did better against lefties, but the former All-Star is a free agent and had an up and down 2021 between the Reds and M’s.

Want to make the bullpen potentially even better? Go add a legit lefty who can get the game’s best left-handed hitters out. This is a team that faces Shohei Ohtani, Matt Olson and Michael Brantley all the time. Angels slugger Jared Walsh made life tough in the final series of the year, too.

Brad Hand is a free agent who comes to mind to fill that role. Even trying to see if Andrew Miller can regain some of his Cleveland magic would be interesting to see. Don’t forget about the possibility of trades, either, and one guy who is always brought up in trade rumors despite his role as a stud on a good team is Brewers closer Josh Hader. Probably a pipedream, but this team has the farm system to make just about any reliever trade a possibility.

Misiewicz has good stuff and I think he can become a better reliever, but this team needs a better and more consistent presence in the bullpen when it comes to getting lefties out.

A new man at Mariners’ hot corner

The emotional display with Kyle Seager on Sunday sure appeared to be a sendoff. That kind of moment doesn’t happen for a guy who is going to be back next season.

Yes, the team could pick up his option, but again, that display seems to indicate otherwise. So what happens next?

Well, you need to replace him and his offensive production.

That won’t all come all from whoever takes over as the starting third baseman, but they’ll be part of it.

First, some in-house options.

Ty France and Abraham Toro both came up through the minors as third basemen but played on the other side of the diamond for the Mariners in 2021. Are either of them a candidate? There’s also Luis Torrens, who played two innings at third for the Mariners in 2021. His bat was big for Seattle down the stretch but he’s a man without a position right now. Does he work there this offseason?

All of those moves come with potential downsides, namely defensively. So what about new faces?

Let’s start with trades. Would Oakland move a former All-Star like Matt Chapman to a division rival? His age, defensive prowess (best defensive third baseman in the AL and maybe all of baseball) and offensive upside would be massive for any team that gets him.

Now, free agency. Third base is a spot that could have some massive names.

One guaranteed name is Kris Bryant, who was traded to the Giants from the Cubs at the deadline. He’s played well in San Francisco and the Giants have won a ton of games so I’d guess he returns, but if you’re Seattle, you’d be silly not to at least try and bring him on board. He can also play first base, corner outfield and, of course, DH.

And you know how Chapman is a great defensive third baseman? Someone who’s been his counterpart in the National League is Nolan Arenado, who’s wrapping up a big year for the Cardinals in St. Louis. Arenado could play for the Cardinals through 2027, but he can opt out both this offseason and next. Again, if he’s out there, shoot your shot, M’s.

A lesser-known name yet a very good ballplayer is Eduardo Escobar, who will be available as well. He slashed .253/.314/.472 with 28 home runs and 90 RBIs between Arizona and Milwaukee this year, and he was an All-Star. Not as splashy as the other three guys, but he would be a very good signing for any team. The 32 year old also spent time at second and first base in 2021, and the positional flexibility could give Servais more opportunity to mix and match with his starting lineups and throughout games.

More Mariners coverage from 710Sports.com

It’s not ‘Wait ’til next year’ with M’s, it’s ‘Now just wait ’til next year’
Kyle Seager gets emotional sendoff from sellout M’s crowd
710 ESPN Seattle’s voices react on Mariners’ first 90-win season since 2003
Mitch Haniger: 2021 is ‘the most fun playing baseball I’ve had’
ESPN’s Jeff Passan: ‘This is just the beginning’ for ‘really tough’ Mariners

See you next season

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