After Mariners’ disappointing week, a look at what’s most important
There is no mistaking what this Mariners season is about.
Sunday: Kirby shines in debut, M’s rally to walkoff Rays
After 20 long years without a postseason berth, and coming off a 90-win season where the Mariners finished as close to the playoffs as any other point since 2001, there is a sense of urgency around this team. The players want to be the ones that end the drought. The fans are eager to see them do it, too.
And, well, things have not gone to plan. At least not over the last two weeks, and especially not in what was a very rough last week of action.
The Mariners began the year strong. They responded to a rocky first two series by getting on a roll, and they had an 11-6 record at their highest point. Unfortunately, the wheels suddenly fell off there, and their dramatic walkoff win Sunday over the Rays was just their second victory in their last 12 contests as a result.
Things surely haven’t looked or felt good.
The offense has primarily been nonexistent. After scoring at least four runs in 13 of their first 17 games, they’ve since scored four or more in only two of the dozen games since. It was especially bad in Houston last week as the M’s were shutout in back-to-back games and mustered all of two runs total in the Astros’ three-game sweep.
Even when the Mariners have reached the four-run mark, it still hasn’t been a guarantee of working out. On Friday, Jarred Kelenic’s huge pinch-hit, two-run homer gave Seattle a 6-5 lead in the eighth inning, but it didn’t hold up as the Rays’ Manuel Margot hit the first of his three homers in the series, lifting Tampa Bay to a 8-7 win. That was a particularly gut-wrenching loss for a team in desperate need of some positivity, having their emotional high wiped out by a homer off their best reliever, Paul Sewald, and the team still looked shellshocked in another loss Saturday.
The pitching deserves its share of the blame, too. Tampa Bay touched the M’s up for eight runs apiece Friday and Saturday, and neither reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray nor April AL Pitcher of the Month Logan Gilbert could play stopper when they got the ball on Thursday and Friday, respectively.
So the sky is falling… right?
Well, this is baseball. It’s a long season. And obviously it’s too early to be making broad judgments on where the Mariners sit and what it means for their chances when the regular season eventually ends in five months. Sure, things are trending in the wrong direction. But let’s not forget that even so, the Mariners are only three wins from a .500 record. Consider that they won 90 games last year, and they sat at 21-26 at one point in May.
Saying that doesn’t mean you can just write off the issues about the M’s, though. Injuries have exposed depth concerns. Ineffectiveness from rookie Matt Brash has resulted in fellow rookie George Kirby taking over the No. 5 spot in the rotation because the M’s opted to bet on their youth rather than sign another veteran in the offseason. Eugenio Suárez has been the most reliable of their big offseason additions, which is a surprise and not exactly in a good way considering that list of players includes Ray and 2021 All-Stars Jesse Winker and Adam Frazier.
And yet as I take stock of all of that, I can’t help but see reasons to believe this team can turn it around, because the Mariners look to me like a good team playing as close to its worst as it possibly can. You would think the M’s will start to find their way towards playing their best as the season wears on.
Mitch Haniger may be out with a high-ankle sprain, and J.P. Crawford is day-to-day with back spasms, and Tom Murphy is a recent addition to the injured list with a shoulder dislocation. But they all should be back at various points, and 2020 AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis is closing in on his own return from 2021 knee surgery. Veteran closer Ken Giles should also play a role once his time on the 60-day IL is up.
Then there are the players who have scuffled. Ray hasn’t hit his stride yet. Winker looks to be finding his way out of a long slump. Frazier appears to at least love hitting at T-Mobile Park, but the road not so much. Kelenic’s pinch-hit homer was a good sign, and Julio Rodríguez looks more and more comfortable against big league pitching with each new game.
But with all that said, this is probably a good time to gain some perspective on where the Mariners as a franchise sit. Because yes, the goal for this season is the playoffs , but the long-term goal is making the playoffs year in and year out. There is a very real chance that things don’t click this year, and that would be disappointing, and it would be a reason to take a long, hard look at things. But I don’t think it would definitively send the M’s in a direction off the course they’re currently on.
Sunday should be a reminder of that course.
In his MLB debut, George Kirby dominated the Rays’ lineup, striking out seven over six scoreless innings of four-hit ball with no walks issued. He’s just the latest piece added to a young core that isn’t going anywhere. A young core that is the most important thing to the Mariners’ long-term goal.
It’s built around J.P. Crawford and Ty France, who have been two of baseball’s best players in the very early goings of this season. It includes Gilbert, who has been magnificent so far, the continually improving Rodríguez, and Andrés Muñoz, a firebreathing reliever making strides towards harnessing his otherworldly stuff. Kelenic and catcher Cal Raleigh are also part of it, and they’re still trying to become as productive at the plate as they are in the field.
If and when the Mariners do make the postseason, that core of young players is going to lead the way. It could be this year, it could be the next (and I understand the concerns about moving goalposts, something fans have every right to be worried about). And that’s why nothing is more important to the franchise’s future than that core developing and turning into a juggernaut.
Making the postseason in 2022 would be huge and a rubber stamp on the work the Mariners have put into their rebuild, but it is not the one and only way the M’s reach their true goal of contending year in and year out. Only the successful development of multiple waves of talent on its roster will. It won’t happen overnight or perhaps even in a linear fashion, as the careers of Crawford and France can attest.
Fans don’t need to be patient with the Mariners this season, but when it comes to what is really important to the team – that young core – the Mariners probably still do.
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