Are Mariners’ struggles a sign their timeline to contend is off?

May 18, 2022, 8:19 PM
Mariners Julio Rodríguez...
Julio Rodríguez gets into third base for a triple against Tampa Bay on May 7. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners came into 2022 with hopes of ending their 20-year postseason drought, and all systems appeared to be go after they started the season with an 11-6 record.

Those systems then looked offline for the following two weeks.

Huard: Julio Rodríguez “something special” like other M’s phenoms

The Mariners lost five straight series, and while they are 3-3 on their current road trip after winning a series over the Mets and salvaging a game in Toronto on Wednesday, they’re now 17-21 and still trying to get their offense on track.

A lot of things haven’t gone according to plan. There are the demotions of rookie pitcher Matt Brash and second-year outfielder Jarred Kelenic to Triple-A, the injuries to All-Star right fielder Mitch Haniger and catcher Tom Murphy, and the fact that neither 2020 American League Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis or 2020 AL Gold Glove first baseman Evan White have been healthy enough to play for the M’s yet – just to name a few.

Seattle began a rebuild following the 2018 season, and the impression was that the M’s were rounding the corner on it after a 90-72 finish in 2021 brought them within a few games of a playoff spot. But is their tough May a sign that their timeline for contending was premature? Or that they made some missteps in roster construction? Or is it simply too early to put much stock into where they are now? After all, Seattle sat at 23-27 on May 26 last season but went on to have the franchise’s best record since 2003.

On Wednesday, Seattle Sports’ Jake and Stacy took all that into account as they discussed the state of the Mariners.

The Blue Jays-Mariners comparison

The conversation between Jake Heaps and Stacy Rost centered around something Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said on Seattle Sports Station last July comparing their rebuild to that of the Blue Jays, who Seattle lost two of three to in Toronto this week.

“We’ve always viewed ourselves as about a year behind the Blue Jays because roughly that’s about when we started (our rebuild),” Dipoto said last year. “Similarly, when the Blue Jays started their rebuild, they did it with some premium prospects in the minor leagues – guys like Vlad (Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) and Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio, etc., and they still have a couple that are on the way… They’ve done a really nice job of building up those layers, and we feel like that’s happening for us, too.”

Rost had a question to pose after listening to the audio of Dipoto’s quote.

“It certainly looked like the Mariners were close (in 2021) – the Mariners finished 90-72, the Blue Jays 91-71,” she said. “This year the Blue Jays (20-18) are off to a slower start considering all the talent they have, but still obviously ahead of the Mariners (17-21)… Were we assuming too much by thinking that when Jerry Dipoto said that, we should expect the Mariners to be contenders in 2022? … Were we overestimating how soon they could do it, or have they fallen short of meeting their own goals?”

Replied Heaps: “I think overestimating how soon they could do it. I truly believe that. Look at the youngsters. How many youngsters are in this lineup?”

As things stand, the Mariners are regularly playing outfielder Julio Rodríguez and catcher Cal Raleigh, who have 101 games of MLB experience between the two of them. The rotation features Logan Gilbert (32 starts) and George Kirby (two starts). And Kelenic and Brash came into the season with regular roles but are now with Tacoma.

While Gilbert has been among the best pitchers in baseball and Rodríguez has been a pleasant surprise, the Mariners’ batting order has not been as long as they hoped following Haniger’s injury, and there’s been an overall lack of thump from other hitters. Heaps said the Mariners’ additions in the offseason – headlined by a trade with the Cincinnati Reds for All-Stars Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez – signaled to him that Seattle thought the lineup would get more contributions from younger bats than it has so far.

“I don’t think Jesse Winker or Eugenio Suárez, just those two alone make you a playoff team. It is Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suárez, (plus) Julio Rodríguez, Jarred Kelenic taking the next step. It is these guys all taking the next step together in conjunction with those additions to your roster. And so maybe that is where you’re falling short right now, is that these young guys are being put in positions that they’re not quite ready for at this point in time.”

So how does that compare to the Blue Jays? Well, Toronto has a young superstar in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and an All-Star shortstop in Bo Bichette, and while the M’s could have All-Stars in the making in Ty France and J.P. Crawford, Seattle’s hitters with high ceilings similar to Guerrero and Bichette – Rodríguez and Kelenic – are a still a ways behind in experience.

“If fans are looking at it, ‘I’ve been told it was this year and I’m ready for this year,’ I’m not holding that against you at all. In fact, I’m right there with you,” Rost said. “There are some fans, though, that are saying, ‘You know what, as frustrating as it sounds, 2023 and 2024 are more realistic options.’ You could look at the Blue Jays where Vlad Guerrero’s in his fourth season, Bo Bichette’s in his fourth season, compared to the Mariners where Jarred Kelenic’s in his second season, Julio’s in his first season.”

Heaps said that he falls in the latter camp, but he also notices a difference when he puts Seattle’s roster next to Toronto’s, which has added a number of key veterans who have been All-Stars in recent years including pitchers Kevin Gausman and José Berríos, outfielder George Springer and third baseman Matt Chapman.

“(The Blue Jays) have been able to be very aggressive in surrounding these star players with other talent – not just veteran guys that have done it before but guys that are still in their prime doing it at a very high level,” Heaps said. “And that’s what the Mariners have to be able to do as they’re moving forward.”

What’s the takeaway

Rost is understanding about the situation the Mariners are in, but stresses that there needs to be a point where the expectation of getting over the hump can’t be pushed back.

“All I caution is that we don’t keep moving that ball down the road, that we don’t keep moving the goalposts. I do not want in 2023 for us to say, ‘You know what, it was always about 2024.'”

Heaps is keeping hope in the possibility that the returns of players like Lewis (which could be very soon) and Haniger (estimated to be around July), along with improved production from others, gives the M’s the boost they need.

“Right now, they gotta hope that Mitch can come back healthy, that Kyle Lewis can come up and remain healthy with this team, and that Jesse Winker can produce runs. That, to me, is the biggest thing that has to happen.”

Rost responded by pointing out “the interesting crossroads” the Mariners find themselves.

“You’ve got Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis down with the Triple-A team. You’ve got Mitch Haniger who’s injured. Assuming that you get a lot of these guys back, do you look like a different team?” she asked. “Do you start pushing for the playoffs? We don’t know the answer yet. So if you want a reason to be optimistic and look at a silver lining and be glass half-full, it’s there. We’re just gonna have to get a little further into the season to see how it goes.”

Do M’s have another Paul Sewald on their hands in Penn Murfee?

Date Starting Pitcher
Thursday, March 30 @ 7:10 pm Guardians' Shane Bieber RHP vs. Mariners' Luis Castillo RHP

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