BRANDON GUSTAFSON

What the gap between Mariners and Astros is, how M’s can close it

Oct 25, 2022, 1:13 AM | Updated: 12:29 pm
Mariners Astros...
Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners and Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros during the ALDS on Oct. 13, 2022. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
(Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The Mariners got a taste of playoff baseball this year. Heck, they went out and swept a best-of-three set in the Wild Card round.

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But then came an ALDS date with the Houston Astros, the big bully in the AL West that’s had Seattle’s number for years. Despite putting up a good fight and even leading much of the series, the Mariners were swept in three games.

For two decades, the goal was clear: Get back to the playoffs and end the drought.

Well, after winning 90 games and making it to the postseason in 2022, the goal heading into 2023 is also clear: Close the gap with Houston.

The Astros made the ALCS for the sixth year in a row this year and are heading to their fourth World Series in six years, too. If the Mariners want to get to the World Series for the first time in franchise history, they need to close the gap with the Astros.

What makes that a little harder for the Mariners is despite some thought that the Astros would start to come to earth due to departing free agent stars (Carlos Correa, George Springer) and big-name players aging (Jose Altuve, Justin Verlander), Houston appears primed to continue thriving thanks to young superstars like Yordan Alvarez and Jeremy Peña.

So, what does the gap between the Mariners and Astros look like heading into this pivotal offseason? And how can the M’s get closer? Let’s dive in.

What the gap actually looks like

Outside of the eye test and the ALDS series itself, the easiest gap to look at here is wins and losses in the regular season. That number is 16, with the Astros having won 106 games to the Mariners’ 90 in 2022.

Next up, run differential. The M’s were positive there in 2022 at plus-67. The Astros, though, were incredible at plus-219.

And here’s where the gap is also apparent: Wins Above Replacement, otherwise known as WAR.

The Astros had the second-highest team WAR in baseball this year. The Mariners came in at 11th, with the gap between the two teams at 15.8 WAR, pretty darn close to that 16-win mark that separated the two in the standings.

While wins and the total WAR gap may look a little daunting, going position group by position group, you can see where the M’s may not be as far off as you’d think.

The Astros had the second-highest pitching WAR in MLB. Seattle checked in at 13th and 11.1 WAR behind Houston.

Starting rotation WAR? The ‘Stros were again second in MLB to the M’s 16th and an 8.9 WAR behind.

Seattle again had a great bullpen this season, but that unit was 11th in reliever WAR while the Astros were fifth with a 2.3 WAR lead.

And while the Mariners’ lineup was often the target of fans’ frustrations, Seattle was 12th in position player WAR. Houston was fifth there, with 4.3 more WAR.

It’s easy to say that outside additions can help that gap narrow across the board, but some of it will come from within.

Part of gap will close naturally

The Mariners may have entered the 2022 season with high expectations after just missing out on the postseason in 2021, but they still were a pretty young team.

They’ll obviously be a little older next year, but many of Seattle’s top players will still be youngsters in the MLB scope of things. As such, you’d expect those younger players to keep growing, developing and taking the next step forward.

Center fielder Julio Rodríguez, the star of the team, obviously comes to mind. He was a six-WAR player at 21 years old and should be a popular pick to win AL MVP next year. His power should continue to develop and he has all the tools to be not just a top face of baseball, but the face of baseball.

Cal Raleigh was maybe the M’s most important player this year. Despite being sent down early in the season, he came back up shortly thereafter due to an injury and thrived, leading all MLB catchers in home runs, including the homer that clinched Seattle’s playoff spot. He also was exceptional behind the plate and is a Gold Glove finalist.

On the pitching staff, the Mariners have two young starters that any team would love to have one of between Logan Gilbert and George Kirby. Gilbert took a big step forward in Year 2 and could have been an All-Star. He also finished the year very strong and pitched well in the postseason. And speaking of pitching well in the playoffs, Kirby recorded a save and pitched seven scoreless against the Astros in the ALDS. Kirby’s season would have won him Rookie of the Year in most years, and as good as Gilbert is, he looks like he may be even better.

And sticking with the rotation, Luis Castillo will be a Mariner for all of 2023. He was an absolute stud after his midseason trade from the Reds, including in the playoffs, and a full year of “La Piedra” will be huge.

What to know about the offseason

The Mariners enter the offseason in an enviable situation.

They have plenty of resources to add to a win-now roster, and they’re really at risk of losing just one big-name player in free agency in right fielder Mitch Haniger. Rounding out Seattle’s pending MLB free agents are Adam Frazier, Carlos Santana, Matthew Boyd and Curt Casali.

The Astros will almost certainly return the majority of their roster next season, but they do enter the offseason at risk of losing some big-time players.

Justin Verlander has a $25 million player option he can opt out of. Michael Brantley, a multi-time All-Star, is heading to the open market, as is first baseman Yuli Gurriel. Former M’s reliever Rafael Montero turned his career around in Houston and could get a big payday in free agency, and three catchers – Martin Maldonado, Christian Vasquez and Jason Castro – could all leave, too. First baseman Trey Mancini, a former All-Star who was a deadline addition, has a mutual option to come back, as well.

When looking specifically at the Mariners, their lineup could look very different.

Frazier, Haniger and Santana hitting the market as well as questions with the current group of outfielders outside of Rodríguez, the Mariners have as many as four openings in the lineup between the two corner outfield spots, designated hitter and either second base or shortstop depending what happens this offseason with J.P. Crawford.

In 2022, the Mariners were 25th in WAR from both second basemen and left fielders, 18th in shortstop WAR, 15th in right field WAR and 19th in DH WAR. The lineup could easily be different and much-improved by opening day.

How?

Free agency and trades

Last year, the Mariners were expected to be big-time players in free agency.

While they were tied to a number of marquee players, they reeled in just one in Robbie Ray, the then-reigning AL Cy Young Award winner who had an up-and-down season with the M’s and a poor playoff showing.

Seattle added three bats through trade – Frazier, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez – and only Suárez made a big impact in a positive way on the field in 2022.

This year, free agency will again be worth watching.

The top player on the market is Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, who hits free agency after slugging 62 homers in 2022. He’ll demand attention from most teams, and would obviously fill a big hole in Seattle’s lineup. I don’t see that happening, though, and instead would point to the top-end shortstop market.

Four All-Stars will likely be free agents in Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts has a player option with the Red Sox but is expected to opt out and test the market.

Adding any one of those four would be huge for the Mariners, and could result in Crawford sliding from shortstop to second base. It would add a dangerous bat to the mix and provide the lineup with more length, which was often an issue in 2022.

After those five superstar players is the next tier of free-agent bats, including the aforementioned Brantley and Mancini along with J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, Josh Bell, Joey Gallo and Joc Pederson, among others.

The Mariners still have a good farm system, but it’s not as good as it was this time last year due to the trade for Castillo and graduations from prospect status by Rodríguez and Kirby. The M’s could always trade from the prospect pool yet again, but I think if they’re to make some deals, we could see action at the MLB and 40-man roster levels, especially as the team will need to add prospects like Cade Marlowe and Prelander Berroa to it to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft.

With Haniger, Frazier, Santana, Boyd and Casali hitting free agency and Tom Murphy and Casey Sadler coming back from injury for next year, the M’s 40-man roster is effectively at 37. But there are a handful of players who don’t appear to be necessary to keep on that roster like Brennan Bernardino, Drew Ellis, Ryan Borucki, Brian O’Keefe and Derek Hill. The 40-man also has former or current prospects who aren’t panning out such as Juan Then and Justus Sheffield.

There’s also the injury concerns for Kyle Lewis and Evan White, as well as the possibility of trading from areas of depth.

With the top four spots in the rotation set, will the Mariners trade one or both of Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen to help in other spots, namely the lineup? Or could they package a bullpen arm in a trade to help out elsewhere? And maybe younger players like Lewis, White or Taylor Trammell could intrigue another team to make a deal where the M’s get a player more in line with where the MLB roster is at.

The Mariners absolutely can trade top-end prospects to get what they need, but based on how the front office talks about “waves” and building a “sustainable” winner, there could be more trades involving the MLB and 40-man roster than we’re used to seeing from a playoff contender.

Personal top target

If there’s one player I could pick to join the Mariners this offseason who I think is a realistic target (meaning not Judge), it’s Trea Turner.

Turner, 29, owns a career .302/.355/.487 slash line and has a World Series ring to his credit. He’s also one of the fastest players in baseball.

Turner is a good defensive middle infielder, but if the Mariners are indeed hoping to keep Crawford at short, Turner seems like a more natural fit than some of the other free-agent shortstops to slide over to second base.

He’s also been a steady performer when looking at his year-to-year numbers and is consistent against both right- and left-handed pitching and with his home/away splits.

Additionally, something I think the Mariners need to do heading into 2023 is slide Rodríguez down in the order.

As fun as it was watching him hit leadoff, Rodríguez has incredible tools at the plate with his power and pure hit tool. He’s a special bat that needs to have more opportunities to hit with runners on base, rather than get on base for the rest of the lineup. That’s where Turner really would make an impact.

As noted, Turner is one of the fastest players in the game and could be a dangerous table setter for Julio and other big bats like Ty France, Suárez and Raleigh. Pitching to those big bats with Turner and his 230 career steals on first base wouldn’t be a fun time for pitchers going against the Mariners.

And remember that 4.3 WAR gap I mentioned earlier between Seattle’s lineup and Houston’s? Turner had a 4.9 WAR and a 6.3 fWAR player. So not only does he fill multiple key needs for the Mariners, he would go a long way in closing the gap between the M’s and Astros.

Conclusion

2022 was one of the most fun seasons in franchise history. Does it stack up with 1995’s magical run or the 116-win season of 2001? Probably not, but it’s an extremely important season both for ending the drought and creating a stepping stone for this chapter of Mariners baseball.

Getting where this team wants to go – a World Series – doesn’t seem as distant as it once did. But to get there, the Mariners will almost need to get through the Astros either in the regular season or the playoffs – or both! – to get to the promised land.

The pieces are there both in-house, in free agency and potentially in trade to make that gap a thing of the past. So for now, we wait until the World Series wraps up before seeing what Jerry Dipoto and Co. cook up on the Hot Stove.

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