BRENT STECKER

What if the Mariners don’t meet their expectations this season?

May 23, 2022, 12:00 AM | Updated: 1:40 am
Mariners Jesse Winker...
Seattle Mariners' Jesse Winker reacts after he struck out against the Miami Marlins on April 29. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Frustration is certainly boiling with the Seattle Mariners.

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You see it on the field with tossed helmets and body language following missed opportunities in key situations, and you most definitely see it in online reaction from the fanbase.

There were real expectations for this season. That was hammered home when the team turned Mitch Haniger’s offseason column for The Players’ Tribune, the one where he emphasized the importance of ending the franchise’s 20-year postseason drought, into a hype video that was promoted on social media and even played just before first pitch of the home opener inside T-Mobile Park. There was a sense that this year was going to be the year.

Needless to say, a 17-25 record entering May 23 that has Seattle 10 games back of the American League West leader and only a half-game ahead of last place in the division is not what the Mariners had in mind. Now the M’s are limping home to start a homestand Monday after a 3-7 road trip that started OK with a surprising series win over the New York Mets but hit rock bottom Sunday when the Red Sox capped off a four-game sweep with a walkoff grand slam in extra innings.

Yeah, a lot has gone wrong.

Haniger’s high-ankle sprain that could keep him out until July (and came in his first plate appearance back from a COVID list stint) is on top of that list. A depleted bullpen struggling to recapture the brilliance it had last season is a close second. The additions of All-Stars Jesse Winker, Adam Frazier and Eugenio Suárez haven’t had the impact Seattle was hoping for. Jarred Kelenic and Matt Brash going back to the minors wasn’t in the original blueprint. Losing catcher Tom Murphy to a dislocated left shoulder hurt, and his recent setback was even worse news.

All of that has resulted in a lack of depth that has the Mariners fighting the Oakland A’s to stay out of the AL West cellar. Seattle is in need of a spark, and quickly, to save its season. The anticipated return of Kyle Lewis, who will probably be limited to designated hitter due to him coming back from the second reconstructive surgery of his career to his right knee, has a small chance of being that. Playing nine games against Oakland, Texas and Baltimore over the Mariners’ next 12 does, too.

But let’s say the spark doesn’t come this season, or at least not in time to save their hopes for ending their playoff drought. Then what?

Honestly, it wouldn’t be that big of a blow in the grand scheme of things. What the Mariners do in 2022 isn’t what determines the overall success of the rebuild that general manager Jerry Dipoto started after the 2018 season, and it’s important to take that into account to see the forest for the trees.

Now, I’m not by any means saying a disappointing showing this year would be a good thing. To make the playoffs, or at least make a serious run at them, after unexpectedly winning 90 games in 2021 would have been a very clear signal that the M’s are on the right track. But the many things that have gone wrong so far this season should probably highlight how much had to – and did – go right a year ago. Seattle seemed to catch lightning in a bottle, but the lightning has escaped, at least for now (let’s not forget it’s still not even June).

The really interesting thing about what’s going on with the Mariners is that it’s happening despite rookie outfielder Julio Rodríguez and second-year pitcher Logan Gilbert turning into two of Seattle’s best players. That’s the kind of development you would think might put the M’s over the top, but it isn’t working out that way. Even so, what those two are doing outweighs anything else happening for the M’s on the field.

Yeah, the M’s want to make the playoffs this year. Even more so, they want to be a perennial contender. Whether that starts now or next year or the year after (hopefully not that long because that is really moving the goalposts), the biggest key is building around young players with superstar potential. They need their Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez or Randy Johnson, and those types of players are next to impossible to acquire at a young age. They need to be developed. If the Mariners win 70 games or 90 this year shouldn’t have much bearing on the development of the players in the team’s young core who could become All-Stars (though winning more sure wouldn’t hurt).

The 90-win season in 2021 probably did the M’s a disservice by accelerating expectations for Seattle to make the playoffs, and it could not at the same time accelerate the timeline for the development of its top young players. As much as they want to be where the Toronto Blue Jays are, the Mariners’ potential superstars have a full year of MLB experience at most, while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are both in their fourth seasons with All-Star selections already on their Baseball Reference pages. Guerrero and Bichette also didn’t have a full minor league season wiped out in 2020 like Seattle’s prospects at the time did.

The Mariners’ tough start to the season is a harsh reminder (admittedly, even to me) that the rebuild is not over. They are only beginning to produce the players that have come through their farm system.

Away from the farm, there seems to be a growing concern in the Mariners’ fanbase about Dipoto’s approach to free agency, as his stated intentions for the offseason seemed to indicate more would happen than what actually occurred. And while I do think it’s something worth keeping an eye on and hopefully for the M’s to prove they learned from next offseason, I don’t think it should carry more importance than other things Dipoto’s team has done throughout the rebuild. Same goes for this early-season slump. Free agents can still come in time, and they need to, but they are not what rebuilds are built around.

Dipoto turned Seattle’s farm into one of the best in baseball. It’s starting to produce players with high ceilings. Along the way, a host of players Dipoto acquired led the team on a surprise 90-win season. Those things are all good signs, even if this current team’s depth and record aren’t.

I want to see more out of the Mariners. I think a turning point is coming where the players Seattle has developed itself take over, and that may still happen this season. And sorry to say it to fans who have waited 20 years, but patience is still needed even if impatience is understandable right now. Those 20 years were plagued by constant manager changes and GMs changing their philosophies midstream. I have not seen that with Dipoto and manager Scott Servais since the rebuild began in the fall of 2018, and their vision deserves a little more time.

Let’s put it this way: If the M’s were to part ways with Dipoto, the next GM would be welcomed with maybe the best situation of any first-year GM in team history. That’s a pretty good sign of the direction the franchise is heading, don’t you think?

If the Mariners fall short of their playoff expectations in 2022, it won’t sabotage the long-term health of the franchise. Abandoning the plot that Dipoto and his team have been working on for the past four years at this juncture, though – well, that just might.

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