SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer: Does an Astros broadcaster see the Mariners closing gap with Houston?

Feb 10, 2023, 9:33 AM | Updated: Feb 12, 2023, 12:35 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)

With MLB spring training set to begin next week, Mariners insider Shannon Drayer is taking a look around the division this week with the help of conversations from Seattle Sports’ Hot Stove with insiders that cover the Mariners rivals in the AL West. In this installment, it’s all about the reigning World Series-champion Houston Astros.

Astros

2022 record: 106-56 (first AL West)
Additions: José Abreu
Subtractions: Justin Verlander, Will Smith, Trey Mancini, Jason Castro, Yuli Gurriel, Christian Vázquez, Aledmys Díaz
2023 ZiPS projection excerpt: “Second-best team in baseball, just a hair behind the Atlanta Braves.”

Mariners

2022 record: 90-72 (second AL West, third wild card)
Additions: Teoscar Hernández, Kolten Wong, AJ Pollock, Trevor Gott, Tommy La Stella, Justin Topa, Cooper Hummel
Subtractions: Mitch Haniger, Erik Swanson, Jesse Winker, Abraham Toro, Carlos Santana, Adam Frazier, Kyle Lewis, Luis Torrens, Matthew Boyd, Curt Casali
2023 ZiPS projection excerpt: “The Mariners look like an 85-90 win team, with a tighter range of outcomes than most clubs. That’s fun and makes the M’s a serious contender.”

After an offseason of being asked “have the Mariners closed the gap with the Astros?” it was refreshing to be able pose the question to someone else, someone who just happened to be from the other side.

Astros broadcaster Steve Sparks joined the Hot Stove Show last month and provided good insight not just on his club, but the Mariners as well.

Our last conversation came in October during the 18-inning torment or masterpiece depending on how you like to look at it. For the ex-knuckleballer who all season long appreciated what he saw from the Mariners pitching staff, it was a thing of beauty.

“We didn’t think it was ever going to end,” he said. “I’ve never seen such a well-pitched baseball game, both sides. To see (George) Kirby step up as a rookie? How impressive. In that type of atmosphere to go out there and pitch the way he did? There was a lot to be admired in that game from both sides. It could have gone either way that series. I mean, everybody’s well aware that the Mariners could have swept the Astros just as easily.”

Interesting to hear from the other side. One view might be there were reasons beyond a shift in the wind why it was the Astros who prevailed. They had a player like Yordan Álvarez, who was a formidable threat in late innings. They had Luis García, an extra starter for the postseason who could come in in the 14th inning of the marathon-deciding Game 3 and pitch five innings firing 97 mph to tired Mariners hitters.

There was a reason why the Mariners were the underdog in the series, yet in the other broadcast booth, they were sweating it out. Will that carry over into 2023? Does Sparks who was there for all 22 meetings between the two clubs last year believe the Mariners have closed the gap at all?

“I think so,” he said. “I think obviously the Mariners are improved. Not only with the addition of Teoscar Hernández and Kolten Wong, but also just with little playoff experience and maturation with George Kirby and Logan Gilbert, a couple of guys I love. And to get a full year Luis Castillo? The Astros, I think, offensively they improved just by the additions of Michael Brantley signing back and giving them a little bit more balance in their lineup and José Abreu, I think, is a fantastic addition. Offensively, I think the Astros have improved, but you can’t help but think that they’ve taken a step back when you lose a Cy Young Award winner with (Justin) Verlander. So we’ll see what Hunter Brown has in store. A lot of people feel like he can step in and do a great job in the rotation. But he’s not Justin Verlander and whether or not he’s ever Justin Verlander remains to be seen.”

The ex-pitcher is a fan of the pitching on both sides and believes the biggest determiner atop the AL West will be who stays the healthiest for the longest. For Sparks, health goes beyond just avoiding the IL. Having something left at the end should also be a goal.

“When you play deep into October, year after year after year, that’s when you have to get really creative and very smart about resting your players during the course of the season. I remember 2016, a year after the Astros made the playoffs for the first time, they got down early and they played catch up the entire season and they really wiped out their bullpen. And I’m kind of wondering, in the back of my mind, did the Mariners have to push their relievers a little extra the last two months of the season to make that push to make sure they got into the playoffs? And will they see a little bit of residue from that? We’ll see. I’ve got a lot of confidence that Scott Servais did his utmost best, but I remember the Astros went through that. And those guys’ tongues are hanging out at the very end of that season. And they didn’t make it.”

Sparks pointed out that it’s a different ballgame when you are playing into October. Having done it seven of the last eight seasons, it is now an expectation for the Astros and a part of their planning and preparation.

“They hold guys back in spring training because they have one less month of recovery, No. 1,” Sparks explained, “but No. 2 is they plan on doing it again. I think that’s when you lean on your training staff and your strength trainers and all those guys to figure out ways to keep guys sharp. And then you’re going to lean a lot on your depth, if it’s (Mariners prospects) Bryce Miller or Emerson Hancock, those guys, they going to be integral parts of the team this year and provide that depth that they might need at some point or spell a guy or two to give them a blow when they most need it. But the Astros have gotten creative in that way from time to time.”

Part of that creativity last season for the Astros was to go a route the Mariners insist is not a part of their plan in 2023, utilizing the six-man rotation for a short amount of time. Sparks believes this was beneficial to the Astros.

“I don’t think anybody hardly needs it the first month of the season, but after the first month of the season, the Astros really flourished, I think, because they were a able to utilize a six-man rotation and give Verlander a lot of reps and a lot of guys a chance to recover. And not only a chance to recover, but maybe to push them an extra inning or so every once in a while when it was their turn in the rotation to get the bullpen a blow,” he said.

For reference, the Astros did not have a starter finish in the top 20 in starts last season — although Framber Valdez, who was 25th in starts, finished fourth in innings pitched — while the Mariners had three starters (Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert and Marco Gonzales) in the top 21. Worth noting: Luis Castillo, who ranks ninth in starts the past five seasons (with Ray and Gonzales tied two spots behind him), missed the first month of the season with injury, but appeared to finish strong. If starters stay healthy, both teams should have the personnel to utilize the six-man rotation from time to time.

For the Astros, Sparks believes that beyond helping down the stretch, it helped with development. And on that note, look out. When it comes to the rotation, he sees room to grow.

“I think Luis García has a chance to take a couple more steps forward,” he said. “Certainly (Cristian) Javier. He’s never really been pushed innings-wise yet. I think they’re going to count on him to get a little deeper and games. And as we see him mature, we see him start to throw less pitches to get outs, which is helpful. Then you look at Framber Valdez and José Urquidy, Hunter Brown and Lance McCullers. It rounds out to six guys that are good candidates to kind of mix and match a little bit and maybe skip a guy every once awhile, stick a guy on a ‘phantom IL’ or whatever you need to do to keep guys going. Guys aren’t pitching like Greg Maddux anymore. Marco Gonzales is the closest guy I can think of in our division that really pitches with feel. But everybody else, I think. is airing it out for the most part. So I think an extra day of recovery is helpful to get guys to the finish line.”

Looking beyond 2023, it does not appear the Astros window is closing. Sparks believes new general manager Dana Brown has been set up nicely with three assistant general managers that have been running the day to day and planning for the upcoming season since former general manager James Click was not renewed. Perhaps equally important, the health of the farm system remains intact. Don’t let organization rankings in the low 20’s since 2020 fool you, the farm system has provided substantial talent at the big league level.

“The blueprint has been, ‘it’s got to start with the farm system,'” said Sparks, noting that when the Astros made the decision to tear down, they were ranked last. “Jeff Luhnow said the only way we can have sustained success was to have a good minor league system like the Mariners do now. They’ve got a lot of guys. The Astros were able to turn it around and get within the top five within a year and a half, and then start to turn out some guys.”

They didn’t stop. Sparks illustrated this with a remarkable note. Anticipating that Jeremy Peña could finish top five in Rookie of the Year inspired him to do a little research into Rookie of the Year finishes, and what he found was an Astros player’s name on almost every top five list.

“It’s eight of the last nine years now that the Astros have had a player finish in the top five Rookie of the Year,” he said. “It goes back to Collin McHugh, Chris Devenski – Álvarez and Carlos Correa both won it. Luis García, Cristian Javier, Jeremy Peña. I’m missing a couple, but my point is it wasn’t Alex Bregman or it wasn’t Kyle Tucker, a couple of first-rounders. It was guys they developed or they brought over in a trade and tweaked it and they were made better. Because of this, the Astros aren’t in the top half of farm systems now, but they’re still developing players who don’t seem to skip a beat.”

Experience, additions, rest and a pipeline of talent seem to have the Astros set up for continued success moving forward. October baseball has become a part of an Astros typical season and as such, they will be prepared for it. As for the broadcasters? Sparks gave his best parting wisdom.

“As broadcasters, I think we show up as prepared as you can and hang on for for dear life,” he said with a laugh. “You never know what’s going to happen on a daily basis. That’s what we love about it, isn’t it?”

Previous Installments: 

How close are the A’s to challenging the Mariners as a contender?
Are big-spending Rangers ready to compete with the Mariners?
Do Mariners need to keep close eye on Angels in AL West?

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