BRENT STECKER

The gap the Mariners are trying to close really isn’t all that big

Feb 20, 2023, 1:17 AM | Updated: 12:18 pm

Mariners Julio Rodríguez Cal Raleigh...

Mariners CF Julio Rodriguez is congratulated by Cal Raleigh after scoring in the ALDS in Houston. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

There’s no debating the fact that the Seattle Mariners weren’t in the Houston Astros’ class in 2022.

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The Astros won an American League-best 106 games to take the AL West title, finishing with a 16-game lead over the Mariners, who won 90 games for the second straight season. And on Houston’s way to eventually being crowned World Series champions for the second time since 2017, it swept Seattle in the ALDS.

But just like how saying the Astros swept the Mariners in three games in October doesn’t tell the story of how closely contested those games were, saying that the team Seattle was at the end of 2022 was 16 games worse than Houston also misses the mark.

Sure, Houston was clearly the best from start to finish in the AL last year, but Seattle was very much a young, developing team in 2022. When the season started, Julio Rodríguez had never played in a big league game. Neither had George Kirby, who wouldn’t even make his MLB debut for another month. Cal Raleigh was still figuring out how to hit major league pitchers and had a brief demotion to Triple-A still ahead of him. And Luis Castillo was a member of the Cincinnati Reds at the time.

By the end of the season, though, Rodríguez had established himself as Seattle’s best player and one of MLB’s fastest rising stars. Kirby posted a 3.39 ERA, 1.208 WHIP, 2.99 WHIP and 6.05 strikeouts per walk ratio in 25 starts while also coming up big twice in the postseason. Raleigh set a single-season team record for catchers with 27 home runs while handling a stellar pitching staff. And Castillo gave the Mariners a huge boost as a trade deadline acquisition with a tremendous two-plus months that included a pair of impressive playoff starts as he assumed ace status for Seattle.

Those four players were all big difference-makers for the M’s, who went 61-33 over the final 94 games of the regular season, which is a pace of 105 wins over a full 162-game schedule. And how did the Astros do over their final 94 contests? OK, still better than Seattle at 63-31, but at a 162-game pace that was only 3 1/2 wins more (108.5) than the Mariners.

This was not lost on the Mariners themselves, as president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto explained on Feb. 2 during his weekly Thursday morning show on Seattle Sports.

“We didn’t view our offseason goal as trying to close a 16-game gap with the Astros,” Dipoto told Brock and Salk. “We don’t feel like we were a true 16-game separation away from them, because our team changed so much while that was all happening. So broadly, yeah, we finished behind them by that amount. More acutely –  what we saw after Luis (Castillo) joined the team. Second-half George Kirby was considerably different than first-half George Kirby. You know, June to September Julio (Rodríguez) was very different than April to May Julio, and then the same for Cal Raleigh.

“Our team evolved, and through all that, we didn’t actually play the Astros very much in the second half… So a lot of the hole we dug for ourselves, we dug before our team had truly evolved into the team that we ultimately became. And I think that’s an important thing to remember as we look toward ’23, is that young teams are constantly growing, and we saw a bit of a greenhouse effect midseason. There’s still opportunity for us to continue to grow because that’s how our team is built.”

Mariners players themselves felt similarly after the ALDS against Houston.

“We’re just as good as that team,” Kirby said after shutting out the Astros over seven frames in the 18-inning marathon that was the finale of the ALDS. “Just some things didn’t go our way. … We’re there. You saw how we played this year. Just fell a little short. … We’re not scared of anybody.”

Now, there’s still a question of whether the Mariners did enough this offseason to close that gap with the Astros. They replaced one-time All-Star slugger Mitch Haniger with one-time All-Star slugger Teoscar Hernández, who appears to be an upgrade at least in terms of availability. They traded for Kolten Wong, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second base, to take over the position with Adam Frazier leaving in free agency. They signed veteran outfielder AJ Pollock, who hits well against left-handed pitchers, to be a platoon partner in left field for Jarred Kelenic, who has yet to find consistent success against MLB competition.

For the most part, though, the Mariners are banking on improvement from their core of young players – a core that fell short against Houston last year but will be a year stronger, a year more experienced, a year more confident in their abilities.

The Astros, meanwhile – well, they’re still really good. They still have a formidable young starting rotation. But they also lost 2022 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander to the Mets, and their lineup isn’t as young as Seattle’s, something their one big offseason addition, 36-year-old former AL MVP José Abreu, doesn’t help with. At the very least, the M’s have put themselves in a position where they could be in the catbird seat if a thing or two goes sideways in Houston.

The point is that while the Mariners still have work to do to catch up to the Astros, if you’re worried they didn’t do enough this offseason to close the gap with the defending World Series champs, it’s important to know exactly what their starting point is in 2023. The M’s may have been a 90-win team in 2022, but Houston found out firsthand in the ALDS that wasn’t an accurate way to describe Seattle.

“I don’t think anyone else could beat Seattle. They were playing unbelievable,” Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. said after Houston eliminated the Yankees in the ALCS to punch a ticket to the World Series, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan.

Now imagine what a full season of that Mariners team – with what they hope to be improvements at a few key spots – can do.

A 16-game gap would be pretty tough to close. Lucky for the Mariners, that’s not really what they have to do.

Related: Does an Astros broadcaster see the Mariners closing the gap?

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