BRANDON GUSTAFSON

The biggest Mariners wild cards who could help end playoff drought

Jan 14, 2022, 9:15 AM | Updated: 10:51 am
Mariners Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis...
Mariners outfielders Kyle Lewis and Jarred Kelenic celebrate a Lewis home run last season. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Mariners were one of baseball’s biggest and best surprises in 2021, going 90-72 and finishing just two games out of a playoff spot.

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As such, Seattle is primed and ready to enter the 2022 season as a true playoff contender. Unfortunately for the Mariners and the rest of baseball, the sport is in a limbo state as the players are locked out as they and league owners aim to craft a new collective bargaining agreement.

Until such a deal is struck, additions to rosters are at a halt, meaning the Mariners and the league’s other 29 teams can’t make deals or trades.

Now, it’s possible and very likely the Mariners will go out and make at least one notable move if not more once the lockout ends and before the season starts. But seeing as it’s unclear what those moves may be, we’ve only got the current roster to look at.

The Mariners return many players from last season’s 90-win team, and you can bet that they’re all ready to go out and end the longest active playoff drought in baseball.

There are a handful of players who will be especially key to whether or not that happens for many different reasons. Let’s dive into who those biggest “wild cards” are on the current 40-man roster.

Honorable Mentions

RHP George Kirby and OF Julio Rodríguez

I think both Julio Rodríguez and George Kirby have a great chance to be incredible long-term pieces for the Mariners. But seeing as it’s unlikely either will crack the opening day roster and it’s unclear when they’ll make their MLB debuts, I have to leave them off this list for now, in part because Kirby isn’t yet on the 40-man roster.

But as things currently stand, both could make quick impacts for this team.

The short-term future of the Mariners’ outfield is a little murky with Kyle Lewis’ injury history as well as Jarred Kelenic and Taylor Trammell’s overall lackluster rookie campaigns (more on two of them shortly). It’s unclear whether the team will target an outfielder via free agency or trade when the lockout ends, and if not, Rodríguez could be up and playing in center field sooner rather than later.

For Kirby, the Mariners currently have four of their five starting pitchers set. The team will almost certainly be looking to add depth to the rotation, but with no clear fifth starter standing out on the roster today, Kirby may have a timeline and role similar to what Logan Gilbert had last season.

RHPs Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler

As I’ve said before, if you predicted the 2021 Mariners would win 90 games thanks largely to the bullpen being among the league’s best, let’s talk lotto numbers.

But seriously, the Mariners were able to win a lot of close ballgames thanks to the guys in the ‘pen, especially the trio of Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler. Sewald was among the league’s best arms and was used by Scott Servais in the most critical of situations, Steckenrider was a staple of the eighth and ninth innings, while Sadler allowed just three runs in 40 1/3 innings and didn’t allow an earned run over his final 29 games (27 2/3 innings).

I still believe that trio will be especially effective in 2022, but some regression may be in order. If the Mariners are able to get fabulous years from those three again, though, watch out.

The actual wild cards

OK, now onto the actual list.

OF Kyle Lewis

The first of two outfielders on this list, let’s start with the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year.

After being arguably the Mariners’ best player as a rookie, expectations for Kyle Lewis in 2021 were very high as it appeared that the franchise’s patience with the 2016 first-round pick was going to be rewarded and that they had their long-term center fielder.

Lewis dealt with a knee injury and surgeries in his early minor league career, but he was able to stay on the field in Double-A in 2019 before making his MLB debut that September. Then, in 2020, Lewis was firmly penned into Seattle’s lineup and played in 58 of 60 games, slashing .262/.364/.437 with 11 home runs and 28 RBIs.

After unanimously winning the Rookie of the Year Award, Lewis entered 2021 looking to help produce runs for the Mariners in his first actual full MLB season. But he started the year on the injured list with a bone bruise in the same problematic knee and ultimately played in just 36 games as he tore the meniscus in that same knee and eventually was shut down instead of making a return.

It’s clear that Lewis can produce when healthy, but entering 2022, that’s a big if at this point. What makes matters more interesting for the Mariners is that aside from Lewis, the organization doesn’t have a highly-touted center field prospect, though Rodríguez may be in the running after it was initially thought he would be a corner outfielder.

If Lewis can return and also man center field without any setbacks, that’s a huge win for the Mariners.

But if not, the defense in the outfield may suffer and, obviously, the team will miss out on a major impact bat in the top half of the lineup. That’s especially critical as the Mariners were last in MLB in batting average and 22nd in runs scored.

OF Jarred Kelenic

After Lewis won Rookie of the Year, there were many who thought the Mariners may have back-to-back winners in the same outfield in 2021. That’s because Jarred Kelenic began the season in Triple-A and was rated as one of the game’s top five prospects.

Kelenic had obliterated minor league pitching at every stop and had put on quite a show at Seattle’s summer camp the year prior. The 2018 first-round pick would ultimately debut in early-May, but it didn’t go how anyone expected.

Overall, Kelenic slashed .181/.265/.350 with 14 home runs in 93 games with the Mariners in 2021. To start his career, Kelenic slashed just .096/.185/.193 in his first 23 games before being sent back down to the minors. After a month in Triple-A, Kelenic returned after the All-Star break and, while better, still struggled in July and August to the tune of a .181/.263/.315 slash line between those two months.

But as the Mariners surged towards a playoff spot, Kelenic started to heat up, and he saved his best for last. In 29 games in September and October, the rookie slashed .248/.331/.524 with seven home runs, 20 RBIs and 14 extra-base hits. Over a 162-game season, that equates to 39 home runs, 112 RBIs and 79 extra-base hits.

Yeah, pretty dang good.

Kelenic will almost certainly be penned into Seattle’s lineup as the everyday left fielder in 2022. But which version of Kelenic will the M’s get? Did his late-season surge indicate he’s got it figured out and he’s primed for a massive 2022 as one of the premier power hitters not just on the team, but in baseball? Or will his struggles from his first few months arise again? Or will it be somewhere in between?

Whatever version of Kelenic the Mariners get may well dictate how far they go after their magical 2021 run.

RHP Logan Gilbert

Kelenic wasn’t the only highly-touted Mariners prospect to debut last May.

When Kelenic led off against Cleveland on May 13, the Mariners’ 2018 first-round pick, Logan Gilbert, was also making his debut on the mound.

The Mariners implemented a six-man rotation for part of the 2021 season before shifting back to a five-man turn partially due to injuries, but Gilbert offered Servais and the Mariners much-needed consistency by staying healthy and making all his scheduled starts.

All in all, Gilbert had a fine rookie campaign, going 6-5 with a 4.68 ERA and 128 strikeouts to 28 walks in 24 starts over 119 1/3 innings. What made Gilbert’s first taste of MLB action even more impressive is that he was a solid back-end starter who really had just one pitch, a fastball, as he was inconsistent with his slider, curveball and changeup. He used the fastball 61% of the time, per Statcast.

There’s a lot to like with Gilbert as he throws strikes (88th percentile walk rate), misses bats (58th percentile whiff rate and 62nd percentile K rate) and has an explosive fastball (79th percentile velocity). But he has a lot of room to grow in how much hard contact he allows (21st percentile average exit velocity, 11th percentile hard hit rate). The makings are clearly there to be a long-term fixture in Seattle’s rotation, though, especially if he can be more consistent with his secondary offerings.

What does bode well for young Gilbert is how he battled back from adversity.

Gilbert had a 5.94 ERA in his first four career starts in May, but had ERAs of 2.79 and 3.76 in June and July, respectively, while going 5-0 in that span.

The month of August was especially tough for the big righty as he went 0-3 with a 9.13 ERA in five starts. But he bounced back in a big way when the Mariners needed him most, going 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA in his final six starts with Seattle firmly in a playoff race.

Gilbert has three very talented veteran pitchers ahead of him in the rotation in reigning Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, veteran Marco Gonzales and 2021 breakout arm Chris Flexen, so he doesn’t need to be the guy by any means in 2022. But if he can get a better feel for his secondary pitches and build off his strong finish, it would go a long way for the Mariners next season.

RHP Ken Giles and Andrés Muñoz

Ken Giles and Andrés Muñoz belong in the same listing here as they are in very similar boats entering the 2022 season. Both are right-handed flamethrowers who will look to play their first full season in 2022 after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Mariners planned ahead to ’22 last offseason by signing Giles, who had already underwent his surgery and was ruled out for all of 2021, to a two-year deal with a club option for a third.

Muñoz, meanwhile, was able to return to action for Seattle’s final game, where he pitched a scoreless inning. The soon-to-be 23 year old was acquired by the Mariners from the San Diego Padres in 2020 a few months after undergoing the surgery. He signed a four-year extension this offseason with club options every year from 2026 to 2028.

Both figure to add great firepower to an already great Mariners bullpen, but how they perform in a full season after a long delay remains to be seen.

Giles had four great years to start his career before struggling in 2018, but he was stellar in 2019 for Toronto, posting a 1.87 ERA and 2.27 FIP in 53 innings for the Blue Jays. He also made 23 saves while ranking in the 99th percentile in whiff rate and strikeout rate. He followed that up in 2020 by allowing four runs in just 3 2/3 innings before he tearing his UCL, though, requiring Tommy John.

If the hard-throwing right hander returns to that 2019 form, the Mariners can shorten games in a major way with him joining Sewald, Steckenrider, Sadler and Diego Castillo in the bullpen.

Then there’s Muñoz, whose fastball is among the game’s best when healthy, ranking in the 100th percentile in velocity in 2019. He also has a wicked slider, which opposing hitter hit just .033 off of.

In his rookie season at just 20 years old, Muñoz posted a 3.91 ERA, 3.17 FIP and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings for the Padres. He’s an incredibly gifted arm with more upside than any reliever on the 40-man roster, but he’s never thrown more than 35 2/3 innings in any professional season. How Muñoz performs and holds up could be a major storyline for the Mariners, who may have their “ace” reliever of the future in the young righty.

LHP Justus Sheffield and RHP Justin Dunn

It wasn’t that long ago that Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn were considered big pieces of the Mariners’ rotation of the future. That still may be the case, but it’s far from a lock at this point.

Sheffield in particular had a disappointing 2021 campaign. After going 4-3 with a 3.58 ERA and 3.17 FIP in 10 starts in 2020, he struggled mightily in 2021, dealt with arm issues and even had a late-season stint in the bullpen.

Overall, he posted a 7-8 record with a brutal 6.83 ERA and 5.66 FIP with the Mariners, striking out just 63 in 80 1/3 innings.

Sheffield’s Statcast page is a tough look as well, as he rated in the 10th percentile or worse in average exit velocity, hard hit rate, expected batting average, barrel percentage, K rate, whiff rate and fastball spin.

For Dunn, he had a worse 2020 than you might think when looking just at his record (4-1) and ERA (4.34). He struggled to miss bats (38 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings) and walked far too many batters (31) while posting a 6.54 FIP and allowing 10 home runs. He ranked near the bottom of baseball in many of the same Statcast categories that Sheffield struggled with this past season.

Dunn improved at the start of 2021, going 1-3 but with a 3.75 ERA, 4.74 FIP and 49 strikeouts and 29 walks in 50 1/3 innings. His walk rate was still among the league’s worst, but he did trend up in many Statcast categories from 2020 to 2021, and his fastball velocity jumped up 2.5 mph from 2020 to 2021.

His season was over after just those 11 starts due to injury, though.

With the Mariners potentially adding to the rotation once the lockout ends, as well as with top pitching prospects like Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Brandon Williamson, Matt Brash and Levi Stoudt knocking on the MLB door, the beginning of 2022 may be do or die time for the two former top 100 prospects.

If the Mariners are unable to add to the rotation in free agency or trade before the season starts, one or both of Sheffield and Dunn may make the rotation. If so, they will have a lot of pressure to perform as the Mariners are now aiming to take the next step forward after a 90-win season.

Whether these two start in the rotation or not, their futures may lie in the bullpen. That would be especially worth monitoring for Sheffield as the Mariners don’t have much depth when it comes left-handed relievers. If Sheffield can get his once-deadly slider back to form, he could a fun reliever as a fastball-slider guy from the left side.

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