Salk: Armed with best rotation in years, Mariners don’t need disclaimer

Feb 16, 2023, 12:21 AM
Mariners Luis Castillo...
Mariners pitcher Luis Castillo pumps his fist after a strikeout call of Cleveland's Amed Rosario on Aug. 27, 2022. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

As the Mariners’ pitchers start their first official workouts of the spring, the future for this team hasn’t been this bright in a generation.

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They are coming off their first playoff appearance in two decades, they didn’t lose any major contributors from last season, and they upgraded two of their weakest positions. Oh, and their young nucleus includes a legitimate superstar who is likely to keep getting better.

Things are pretty good. And at the heart of that optimism should be a pitching staff that has the potential to carry this team to new heights.

I like this rotation. A lot. In fact, it has a chance to be the best group of starters we’ve seen here in well over a decade. Maybe ever. It has everything you would want.

A true ace? Check. That is exactly what the Mariners acquired when they gave up some of their top assets for Luis Castillo just before the trade deadline. In his two months in Seattle, he lived up to the reputation. He showed off the full arsenal of four ‘plus’ pitches, struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings, and didn’t give up home runs. And when the games got bigger, he got better, throwing his three best games of the year against the Yankees (twice) and the Blue Jays in the playoffs. We haven’t seen that here since Félix was in his prime, and it takes the pressure off everyone else on the staff.

A left-handed Cy Young Award winner/strikeout specialist? Got that too. Robbie Ray wasn’t necessarily his best last year and he was still pretty darn good. After a slow start, he carried the team for stretches in the middle of the year with a strikeout rate that remained over 10 K/9. I expect him to be better in 2023 as he has gotten more comfortable in his new spot.

Two young power righties who attack in completely different ways? Again, yes and yes. In this case it’s Logan Gilbert with his long arms and funky angles and George Kirby with his precision command. These are the wildcards. Both have the upside to be staff aces but are still young enough that their future is undecided. If both stay healthy and continue to improve, the league is in trouble. Their development might be the most important thing to see this year.

And two veterans who have had plenty of major league success competing for the final spot? Again, the Mariners have that.

From what I’ve heard, Marco Gonzales is a candidate for “best shape of his career” status. Let’s remember, he is only 31 years old (still considered prime years for a pitcher, especially a lefty), and he has started multiple opening days as recently as two seasons ago. Marco is about as competitive as anyone on the team so you know being left off the playoff roster was motivating for him.

Then Chris Flexen is only 28. Yes, he seems older because he pitched in Korea and then returned, but a 28 year old with his resume can certainly be a successful pitcher in this league, especially with his natural craftiness.

That is a tremendous staff. Deep, varied, and very, very talented. Six starters with six different approaches, all of whom have had legit success. They also have additional major league-ready depth with Bryce Miller, Brandon Woo and Taylor Dollard. And that’s before you consider a bullpen they have weaponized to win close games with premier stuff at the backend.

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Yet, almost everything I read about the team starts with a disclaimer.

“I know Mariners fans are disappointed in the offseason…”

“They failed to lock down a premier addition…”

“They haven’t done enough to catch the Astros…”

Look, I understand some of the frustration. There are a few free agents that I was hoping would have landed here in Seattle (Brandon Belt and J.D. Martinez in particular would have been great fits), but that’s not enough to dampen my enthusiasm, especially because the type of players I wanted could still be added midseason.

ESPN senior baseball writer David Schoenfield, who joined us Wednesday on Brock and Salk, graded the Mariners’ offseason a B-minus. He was impressed that they added three “wins” in upgrading at second base and right field.

But when I asked him what his grade would have been if the Mariners had acquired Castillo in December rather than July…

“An A,” he quickly answered.

I agree. He even went on to add that signing Castillo and Julio Rodríguez to long-term deals would have helped the grade if they hadn’t happened before last season ended. I should also mention that some of those major upgrades that teams made in free agency last year have petered out, with Boston’s Trevor Story likely to miss half (if not all) of 2023, Colorado’s Kris Bryant chronically injured, and the two Texas shortstops (Corey Seager and Marcus Semien) leading their team to all of 68 wins so far. And those guys didn’t get the extra years that we’ve seen handed out to big names this offseason.

Schoenfield saw Seattle’s offensive upgrades as being worth three wins. Well, Castillo was worth one in his two months in Seattle. At that rate, he’d be worth an extra two this season. Five extra wins would get the Mariners to 95 wins. No, it doesn’t really work that way, and yes, they still have to play the games. But with this rotation and the potential growth from the young nucleus, I’ll take my chances.

The Astros are good and they are the favorites until someone knocks them off the mountain. But the Mariners are built the right way to take a mighty swing.

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Salk: Armed with best rotation in years, Mariners don’t need disclaimer