Salk: The 5 biggest storylines for Mariners’ huge 2023 season

Mar 16, 2023, 12:52 AM

Mariners Julio Rodriguez Jarred Kelenic...

Mariners outfielders Julio Rodríguez and Jarred Kelenic jog to the dugout on Oct. 4, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

We are two weeks away from a Mariners season unlike any in recent memory. The last time the Mariners tried to return to the playoffs, Amazon was just transitioning to a full scale online retailer and the smartest phones were, well, not quite smart. So the expectations, pressure and excitement for 2023 should be off the charts.

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Last year’s team was very good and accomplished its goal: the Mariners ended the drought. But until they make and win the World Series, the mission is still incomplete. Until we get our November parade in the rain, there is work to be done. So with that in mind, here are the top storylines we’ll be monitoring this season.

1. Is the Mariners’ rotation as good as it looks on paper?

Let’s hope so. Because on paper, it is pretty darn nasty.

They have a bonafide ace in Luis Castillo. The various rankings I’ve seen put him anywhere between the 12th and 20th best starter in baseball. I think a full season in this park and with this defense will show that he is even better than that. Mitch Haniger told me last year that Castillo would win a Cy Young Award here, and I believe him. We saw what he is capable on the biggest stage, and that bodes well for making that prediction a reality.

After Castillo, the Mariners have three legitimate No. 2 pitchers. Maybe you want the veteran lefty who already has one of those awards on his mantle (Robbie Ray), is one of the best strikeout pitchers of all-time, and who has developed a new pitch to help him against righties. Maybe you like the funky delivery and long-armed release of Logan Gilbert. Or maybe you prefer the stoic, easy arm action of George Kirby, who looks like he’s playing catch, burns up radar guns, and never misses the strike zone. Regardless, that is a front four that does it all. Throw in two veterans who are not old enough to be past their prime (Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen) and you have serious depth to go with upside.

But Mariners pitchers missed a total of zero games last year due to injury. Their two young starters threw more innings than ever before. And lightning never strikes twice, so the health and effectiveness of this unit is paramount.

The Mariners have a decent lineup, but it isn’t their strength. The rotation is the single most important driver of their success. They will go as far as it carries them.

2. Can they get reasonable production at LF, SS and 2B?

The Mariners probably won’t lead the league in runs, but their offense has a chance to be better and more consistent than it was last season. The key? Getting some contributions from their three biggest black holes last year.

Left field is the most fun conversation of the three. If this is the season Jarred Kelenic delivers on his massive potential, then left field will be just fine. He has (once again) torn the cover off the ball in Arizona, but there are swing, approach and attitude changes that lead many to be optimistic about what he can do in the regular season. Put me on that list. In fact, put me at the top of it. I think Kelenic is going to break out, but the team is doing everything it can to make it easy on him. Having AJ Pollock to handle tough lefties should help, as should a deeper lineup that doesn’t ask Kelenic to do too much. I think it will work, but if it doesn’t, the Mariners will need to make a deal for a veteran to solidify the position.

Second base has been a problem for a while now, and Seattle traded for Kolton Wong to end that issue. If he is the player that put up stellar numbers in Milwaukee, it shall be done. But if he follows in the footsteps of Dee Gordon and Adam Frazier, that hole gets even bigger. Like Kelenic, the Mariners are trying to help Wong against lefties by pairing him with Dylan Moore. But with just one year left on his contract and Wong unproven in the American League, this is a spot to watch.

If left field is the most fun, shortstop is the toughest situation. The Mariners bet on J.P. Crawford with a big contract extension, then doubled and tripled down over the next two free agent periods, which featured virtually every great shortstop in the game – all while Crawford struggled at the plate and even slipped defensively. He bulked up in the offseason to help his power and his durability, and if that doesn’t work, the Mariners may need to look a lot more closely at the position.

Because of the way this roster is constructed, the Mariners don’t need left field, second base or shortstop to carry them. But they do need players to produce, or else they need to be replaced. They don’t have too much longer to be patient.

3. Who is ready to take the next step into stardom?

After his stellar rookie season and obvious talent, Julio Rodríguez is the obvious bet, but he’s not alone. While Julio can become a superstar, Cal Raleigh, Andrés Muñoz, and the aforementioned Kirby, Gilbert and Kelenic are all candidates to simply become stars.

Remember, this isn’t who can be the biggest star – it’s who can take the next step.

Stars are different in baseball because of the individuality of the game. Star power can carry the team when you need it to, though. It can lift you to wins when the team is slumping, and it can force opposing players to make mistakes. Star power elevates a lineup, rests a weary bullpen, and shortens games.

Julio can fulfill the promise of becoming a superstar, but those other guys can certainly be stars of some sort. And to get farther, the team will need at least one of them to do so.

4. What did they learn last year to help push farther?

The vibe around the 2022 Mariners was beyond positive. The good vibes, the one-run wins, the on-field celebrations and ultimately the payoff with the fans after Cal’s postseason-clinching home run were second to none. But maintaining or recreating that level of chemistry takes effort. You have to nourish those vibes to keep them flowing.

Having Eugenio Suárez around will certainly help. Julio’s smile is so infectious. And leadership from Robbie Ray, Crawford and others goes a long way, as well. But after losing veteran leaders like Carlos Santana, Mitch Haniger and Frazier, younger players will have to step up to fill that void.

Last year’s team learned so much and gained so much confidence in the postseason. Can they take that what they learned and use it to go from good to great? We’ll see.

5. Who will be the Mariners’ last piece?

Look, this is a good team. The Mariners upgraded a few positions of weakness and will have a full season of last year’s trade huge deadline acquisition (Castillo). Their young players should get better and they have some intriguing new pieces on the way. I think they did enough to start the season with great confidence.

To be great, though, they are probably going to need to add one more piece. That might be a huge swing for a star (like MLB Network host Greg Amsinger’s suggestion to Wyman and Bob of Fernando Tatis Jr.) or it could be a veteran who shores up a position that struggles. But the Mariners have left themselves with options. They have plenty of young prospects and financial flexibility, and the proved last July that they aren’t afraid to go big game hunting in the midseason trade market.

I don’t know for who or when they will decide to strike, but I do think they will be willing to add another major piece to make this a championship roster.

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