Too early to panic — ESPN’s Jeff Passan ‘steadfast’ about Mariners’ talent
The Mariners enter a day off Thursday at 14-18 and having lost 12 of their last 15 games. It doesn’t get much easier for Seattle over the team’s next 10 games, either, as the Mariners are heading to the East Coast to take on the National League East-leading New York Mets followed by trips to Toronto and Boston.
So is it time to panic about the Mariners’ 2022 playoff aspirations?
ESPN MLB insider Jeff Passan, who has said throughout the season that he is bullish on the Mariners for both the short- and long-term, stopped by Seattle Sports 710 AM’s Mike Salk Show Thursday morning and said his belief in the M’s remains “steadfast” despite the team’s struggles.
Part of why Passan isn’t ready to really worry about the Mariners is that he thinks the path to making the playoffs in the American League is pretty wide open.
“Now there comes a point, Mike, at which all of the other teams in the American League make any sort of a recovery from this disappointment mood,” Passan said to Salk. “But let’s also remember the Mariners are four games away from being a .500 team. And if we look at the grand scheme of playoff-caliber teams right now, the Yankees are a playoff team. (Is there) anyone else in the American League you sit here and say they’re a playoff team unequivocally?”
Passan said in the AL East he thinks the Yankees, Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays will all be in the mix come the end of the season.
In the Central Division, the Minnesota Twins are off to a good start and the Chicago White Sox are scuffling due to injuries. Passan thinks Chicago will take control of that race when the team gets healthier.
In the West, there’s the Mariners fighting with the Los Angeles Angels and Houston Astros.
Passan reminded listeners that there will be six teams making the playoffs in each league this season, which bodes well for the Mariners and another struggling team who Seattle will face next week.
“There’s going to be expanded playoffs this season and there’s going to be more opportunity. And that opportunity I think is what keeps Seattle and even Boston … which has the second-worst record in the American League (in the mix),” Passan said. “I still haven’t given up on the Red Sox because I’m looking at talent. The Red Sox, for their flaws, have a good bit of talent. The Mariners, for their troubles, still have talent.”
So when should you start to worry about a poor record and slow start to the season?
“Well, we can look at the 19-31 Washington Nationals who won the World Series (in 2019),” Passan said. “We can look at the 2021 Atlanta Braves who were under .500 still, I believe, in August, and who (around) the All-Star break lost their best player (Ronald Acuña Jr.) and still went out and won a World Series. So I have a little more tolerance now than I did in past years, I think, for teams that get off to bad starts.”
The Mariners’ biggest issue to date has been the lineup, as only a handful of regular players are hitting consistently.
Passan pointed to issues with the outfield as a key reason the Mariners are struggling.
“Not having Mitch Haniger is a problem,” Passan said.
Haniger has played in just nine games this year. He dealt with a long bout of COVID-19, then rolled his ankle in his first plate appearance back. Diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain, it’s been reported that he may not be ready to come back until July.
“I didn’t think we’d be at the point where Mitch Haniger would be so integral to this Mariners team that losing him for a stretch would have the effect that it does, but I really think that without him in the lineup, they’re suffering,” Passan said.
The good news for the Mariners is that 2020 Rookie of the Year outfielder Kyle Lewis is in the middle of a rehab assignment with Triple-A Tacoma and he could return to the team before the end of May.
“It’s gonna be interesting to see when Kyle Lewis comes back, where does he fit in and how does he change the trajectory of this team?” Passan said.
In addition to Haniger being out for an extended period of time, the top bat the Mariners acquired this offseason, left fielder Jesse Winker, is slashing just .204/.311/.275 with an 81 OPS+ and a hard hit rate in the bottom 16 percent in baseball, per Statcast.
Winker was Seattle’s No. 3 hitter on opening day but on Wednesday was in the No. 7 spot as he works to get going at the plate.
“I’m worried a little bit about Jessie Winker,” Passan said. “And if he’s not the guy – if he’s not even half the guy the Mariners thought that they were getting – then that’s a real problem because he was supposed to be a linchpin of that lineup.”
Sticking with the outfield, the good news is that rookie Julio Rodríguez has been exceptional of late. The young center fielder has a six-game hitting streak and is hitting .290 over his last 25 games and is hitting .342 in 11 games in May.
“Julio Rodríguez, if we’re just looking at wins above replacement and the fact that over the last week he’s hitting .340,” Passan said, “that he has stabilized himself to the point where he looks like he belongs now and frankly is only going to get better, I think that bodes awfully well.”
Listen to the full interview with Passan at this link or in the player below.