SHANNON DRAYER

What the Mariners are bringing north: Drayer breaks down the roster

Apr 7, 2022, 8:27 PM | Updated: 8:44 pm
Mariners Mitch Haniger Ty France...
Mitch Haniger celebrates with Ty France after hitting a home run against the Angels on Oct. 2, 2021. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Few teams were as well-equipped for an abbreviated spring training as the Mariners.

Veteran additions were made in the offseason, leaving few roster spots to be filled. And this spring was not about finding answers. Thankfully, that will not be the goal of the season either.

Two full seasons (plus another shortened by the pandemic) after the great dismantling and “step back” began, 2022 marks the year the Mariners should return to contention.

Never mind the projections. With where they are in “the plan,” making the postseason is a fair expectation for this team.

Jon Morosi explains why he’s picking M’s to win AL West

And just what have they got leaving Arizona? That question was posed to manager Scott Servais.

“We have an interesting team,” he answered. “It is the deepest team, the most balanced team since I have been here. Guys are anxious to get going. This team, the guys like each other. They enjoy hanging out together. Now we’ve got to play games; we will see what happens there. I’m excited to get going.”

Related: Scott Servais says these M’s are “most complete team” he’s managed

This team is very different from the group that broke camp after spring training in 2021. Of that group, they return just 11 players. Of those players, we have seen Mitch Haniger establish himself as one of the top offensive players in the American League. Ty France has shown remarkable consistency at the plate, his only stumble in the past two years coming when he was injured. Paul Sewald emerged from just about out of nowhere, going fromthe edge of staying in the game to reinventing himself at Seattle’s alternate site with help from the Mariners analytics and player development departments to become a breakout reliever. Drew Steckenrider has proven that he can close out games when called upon, and J.P. Crawford brings his Gold Glove and a good eye at the plate with him.

The Mariners have added the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner in Robbie Ray to the front of the rotation. In the lineup, they first traded for 2021 National League All-Star Adam Frazier, who posted the second-best average and third-best on-base percentage for all second basemen in baseball last year. Then early in spring training, Seattle added Jesse Winker, who brings the third best wRC+ against right-handers in the game, and Eugenio Suárez, who has hit more home runs than anybody since 2018, in a deal with the Reds.

Then there are the young players. Are you ready to watch a bonafide preseason Rookie of the Year candidate who has checked all the boxes, both on and off the field, in Julio Rodríguez? Or second-year starter Logan Gilbert, who adds improved breaking pitches to what catcher Tom Murphy calls “the most special fastball I have ever caught?” And did someone say fastball? How about one that averages 100 mph? The Mariners have that with Andrés Muñoz, an electric 23-year-old reliever now fully healthy from Tommy John surgery. And then there’s Matt Brash, whose slider has Pitching Ninja ready to knight him.

Then, of course, Jarred Kelenic. A little older, a little wiser, Kelenic quietly went about spring training with a nice and easy “hit the ball to left-center” approach – nothing flashy – and then boom. As he would say, “barrel, barrel, barrel,” homering in each of his last three games of Cactus League play. With his 2021 lessons learned and Fairy God-McGwire watching his at-bats to give him nightly notes, Kelenic appears to be on a path that could be fun to watch.

Related: Embracing rookie lessons, Kelenic is in a good place for ’22

There are, of course, question marks. The bullpen has taken hits, losing Casey Sadler for the season and Ken Giles for at least a short while to injury. The defense, well, let’s cross our fingers. There is not a single plus defender in the outfield. Julio shows promise in center but is new to the position. I would expect improvement from Kelenic regardless of where he plays as it is likely he was taking some of his offensive struggles last year to the field. Winker has been worth minus-23 defensive runs saved in his MLB career. All of this combined will impact the pitching.

The question is, how much?

One area of concern for some who follow the team has been starting pitching depth. Additional starters will always be needed, but outside of the Dodgers and Padres, I think the Mariners’ starting depth is actually stronger than most. For starters – so to speak – 1-5 in the rotation are strong. It’s the reason why general manager Jerry Dipoto limited his pitching search after the lockout to a top of the rotation arm. The Mariners’ likely No. 6 arm is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, George Kirby. That is quality depth.

It’s important to remember that you can’t just stash a bunch of No. 2’s or 3’s in the minors should someone get hurt. Thing can get messy when starters get hurt because the arms you are going to are the guys who aren’t in major league rotations. You best hope is that you: A) limit your injuries and don’t have multiple starters out at the same time; B) can find lightning in a bottle, such as a Wade LeBlanc-type; C) can get by with some mix of a Tommy Milone, Andrew Albers, Nick Margevicius or Justus Sheffield until a trade can be made. Starter depth is what starter depth is, and for the most part it’s not terribly strong. If it was, outside of young players advancing to the majors, it wouldn’t be depth. It would be pitching in a rotation somewhere.

One aspect that will be very different than what we have seen in previous years on Dipoto’s teams is that due to the new 13 pitchers/13 position players rule for the 26-man active roster, Servais will have a four-man bench to work with. By the looks of things, the bench players will be fully utilized as all players will bring something offensively. We won’t see straight platoons but Servais will play the matchup game. I suspect we will see a lot of Cal Raleigh at catcher as his development will be a priority as long as he can do something with the bat. We should see a good amount of Abraham Toro all over the field, with perhaps a healthy dose of third base with Suárez DH’ing from time to time. It could be a challenge finding Luis Torrens playing time, but he is out of minor league options and the Mariners are not just giving him away. With Billy Hamilton in Triple-A after not making the team, we could see Dylan Moore used as a late-inning defensive replacement in the outfield. Moore has been one of the quieter stories earning the trust of Servais the last three years as the utility guy.

Personality-wise, this team is, again, a little different. Last year coming off the Kevin Mather comments, this was an understandably angry group. It was the clubhouse against the world, a chip on the shoulder gang, which played well for them. It was also a group, however, that believed – some from the beginning with J.P. Crawford predicting in spring training that they were a playoff team and Mitch Haniger not budging from his yearly goal of making the World Series despite being surrounded by young players.

This spring it struck me right away that the returning group has a more veteran feel. The Ty Frances, Dylan Moores, Marco Gonzaleses and even Jarred Kelenics had the look of veterans getting ready for the season. Raleigh and Toro moved about the clubhouse with the confidence that they belonged. The relievers, a solid unit. The additions – Ray, Winker, Suárez and Frazier – fit in immediately.

“You hear stories about guys and you see what they look like from the other side, you don’t know until you start living with them every day,” Servais said before hitting on what each has brought to the clubhouse.

With Ray, it is leadership.

“He doesn’t talk a whole lot, but when he speaks he’s very powerful, and he’s really embraced the opportunity to help some of our young pitchers along,” Servais said.

While Ray has been one to speak up both in meetings and with individuals, Frazier’s leadership has been more by example. Servais hopes others are watching.

“He has a very high baseball IQ. He understands the game and what it takes to be successful at it.”

The additions from the Reds? They bring the fun.

“Winker is very outgoing. He wants to be the life of the party in the mix with all of the guys, and Geno (Suárez) is about as cool as it comes. That’s just Geno, it’s good vibes. He’s got that very cool air about him.”

The sum of the new parts has had an impact on the entire group.

“I think it’s good for the players who have been here for a while, understanding the differences those guys all bring,” Servais said. “It allows them to be themselves a little more and maybe let down their guard a little bit and I think that’s a good thing.”

The next step is to see how it all plays out on the field. In a year that they are expected to compete, there is no easing into the season. Unlike last year, where what they had at the end was more important than what they started with, this largely is the group – and not just for this year but moving forward. If all goes right, the moves made in-season will be moves to the get them to the postseason – or if they go really right, make them stronger in the postseason. We shouldn’t see subtractions, moves like the Kendall Graveman trade last year, because again, this is the group. Allowing for additions at the deadline and next winter, this is what they have largely been building toward.

The next chapter starts Friday in Minneapolis. Thankfully, the Zoom interviews are a thing of the past with the clubhouses once again open to the media. For the first time in two years we are able to travel with the team. We can ask the questions, see the dynamics, get the details and fill in the blanks that we haven’t been able to the last two years. In short, I hope to bring you closer to this team and look forward to sharing the story from start to finish.

It’s On: Mariners announce 2022 opening day roster vs. Twins

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What the Mariners are bringing north: Drayer breaks down the roster