JOE FANN

Fann: Mariners are closing gap with Astros with pivotal offseason ahead

Oct 17, 2022, 12:52 PM
Mariners Julio Rodríguez...
Mariners CF Julio Rodríguez slides into second safely ahead of Astros 2B Jose Altuve's tag in Game 3 of the ALDS. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Last week, I told you we hadn’t reached the time for silver linings and moral victories. Well, we’ve now regrettably arrived at that point following Saturday’s heartbreaking Mariners loss in 18 innings. Seattle fell 1-0, thus dropping the ALDS to the Astros 3-0.

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Getting swept stings and those who experienced the raucous energy at T-Mobile Park on Saturday know how great it would have been to run it back on Sunday. Worse yet, many Mariners fans couldn’t attend on Saturday but had tickets for Sunday. I sympathize with those individuals immensely.

Before I dive into the numerous reasons for optimism about the trajectory of the Mariners’ future, let me state what I hope would be obvious: The manner in which Seattle lost this series remains soul-crushing, and I’d never tell anyone to feel otherwise. The Mariners were either tied or had the lead in 28 out of the 36 innings played over the three games. The opportunities were there to not just win a game or two, but to have even swept Houston had everything gone right. It’s brutal they couldn’t claim even one game against their AL West rivals.

The hope is that Houston’s immense edge in playoff experience played a factor and Seattle’s roster will benefit down the road from this five-game playoff run. But while all signs point to the gap closing between the two franchises, you can’t trivialize what it will take to get back to the postseason and beyond. The Mariners’ season ended on the same day as the Braves and Dodgers, the two most recent World Series champions and both teams who entered with far more realistic title aspirations. The Yankees might also be ousted on Monday night in a deciding ALDS Game 5 against the Guardians.

OK, now that we’ve gotten the caveats out of the way, let’s discuss the myriad of examples that indicate Seattle is a franchise on the cusp of becoming a perennial playoff team.

The trio atop the rotation – Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert – are all locked up for the next five seasons through 2028. All three were terrific against the Astros. Gilbert wasn’t lights out like the other two, but he still battled for 5 1/3 innings, allowing just three earned runs while outperforming Justin Verlander in Game 1. Castillo was sensational in both of his postseason starts, affirming why Seattle paid the hefty price to acquire him at the trade deadline. Locking him up prior to the end of the season was a huge win for Jerry Dipoto. And while Castillo is every bit of a bonafide ace, Kirby looks to have the same trajectory. It’s not just the stuff with those two, but the demeanor and mental toughness required to dominate in the playoffs.

It’s hard to overstate how impressive Kirby was on Saturday. He mowed through one of the best lineups in baseball for seven scoreless innings with apparent ease, never showing a hint of any anxiety or nerves. Kirby blowing a high fastball past Jose Altuve to end the seventh inning was one of this season’s signature moments in my opinion. The roar of the crowd, Cal Raleigh’s fist pump and Kirby flexing his way back to the dugout comprised a chill-inducing scene at T-Mobile Park.

Having that trio makes for a tremendous foundation of the roster. That core extends to the lineup as well.

We’ve known for months now that Julio Rodríguez is an ascending superstar, but it was still encouraging to see him have so many marquee plays in his first trip to the postseason. In Game 3 alone, he had a steal, a double off the wall that was feet from a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning and a game-saving catch in center field.

Raleigh’s torrid finish to the regular season continued into the playoffs despite playing through a left thumb injury that featured a broken bone and ligament damage. Ty France and Eugenio Suárez round out a potent top four in the order, and that’s before you consider who might join them in a few months.

This was always going to be an important season in franchise history. Ending the 21-year playoff drought had to be done. Now an equally pivotal offseason awaits Dipoto and the rest of the front office. Hopefully suffering an ALDS sweep at the hands of their predominant rivals adds to the urgency felt by everyone involved, John Stanton (and his wallet) most notably.

The Mariners currently project to have the 17th-highest payroll (up from 21st this season) in baseball in 2023, coming in at $83.6 million following the lucrative extensions for Rodríguez and Castillo. That leaves nearly a $50 million gap between them and the Angels, who sit in the No. 10 spot.

Seattle’s ownership and front office should feel obligated to spend most, if not all, of that money. There are a number of worthy free agents to chase, and I’ll dive deeper into a wish list in the coming weeks.

But for now it’s incumbent of me to tip my cap to a group of players that provided the most enjoyable summer of baseball I’ve seen in my adult lifetime. This season, painful conclusion and all, was an absolute joyride that will hopefully be the first of many to come.

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