ESPN’s Passan: Led by a top-5 rotation, Mariners’ ceiling is ‘championship’

Mar 28, 2023, 10:39 AM | Updated: 1:30 pm

Mariners George Kirby...

George Kirby of the Seattle Mariners pitches in the first inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

We’re just days away from one of the most anticipated Mariners opening days in decades.

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For the first time since 2001, the Mariners made the playoffs in 2022, earning a wild card spot and taking down the Toronto Blue Jays in a best-of-three series before falling to the Houston Astros in the ALDS.

What’s in store for the M’s now in 2023? ESPN’s Jeff Passan joined Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk on Tuesday to break it down.

“For the first time in a generation, we’re getting ready for a season where the Mariners are defending having gone to the playoffs. It’s really exciting here,” co-host Mike Salk said. “Can they do it again?”

Answered Passan: “Yeah. I mean, I don’t think playoffs are the only limitation at this point. I think the ceiling for this team is championship.”

Well then.

The Mariners have made the playoffs just five times since the franchise’s inception in 1977 and have never reached the World Series, let alone win a title. But Passan doesn’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility for Seattle in 2023.

“The idea that they are coming in with a roster that is championship-caliber this year, I think, speaks to the success of this rebuild,” Passan said of the roster turnover the M’s underwent after the 2018 season. “We can say pretty definitively now (that) it’s worked, and I think it has a chance to work even better this year than it did last year.”

If the Mariners are going to contend for a World Series title this year, Passan thinks it will be because of their pitching.

Seattle’s staff was very good in 2022 thanks to a stellar bullpen and a starting rotation that didn’t see a pitcher miss a single start due to injury. This season, the Mariners return their entire rotation of Luis Castillo, Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and Marco Gonzales, and they also have a “fail-safe option” in Chris Flexen, Passan said.

“(He’s) been really good for a couple of years and would be in most rotations across Major League Baseball,” Passan said of Flexen. “(But) you just can’t go into a season thinking that all of your starters are going to stay healthy. That said, starting pitching is an enormous strength for this team.

“As good as Robbie Ray has look this spring, as good as Luis Castillo looked after the trade, with Logan Gilbert adding the splitter and coming into his own in his third year and with George Kirby’s first full season, that’s quite a quartet of starters there.”

Just how good is the Mariners’ rotation? Passan thinks it’s among the best in MLB.

“Oh yeah, no doubt about it … I wouldn’t even have to think about it,” he said when asked if Seattle’s rotation could be ranked in the top five in the game. “Like, they’re really, really good.”

Passan doesn’t think the Mariners don’t have a true “ace” like a Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander on the roster, but led by Castillo, Seattle’s starters have a lot going for them.

“In terms of a mixture of both accomplishments in the past and ceiling in the present, the Mariners’ rotation is in the argument for as good as any in baseball.”

Justin Hollander breaks down just how good the Mariners’ pitching depth is

When asked to “buy stock” in a Mariners player, Passan went with two options, both of whom are in the rotation.

“I’m gonna go George Kirby and Logan Gilbert, and I’ll split my shares between them because I think the the ascent of the Mariners is going to be built on the back of pitching,” he said. “I think that those two have chances to be real dudes, like All-Star-caliber guys. Gilbert’s stuff is just overwhelming, the quality of it, and Kirby might have the best fastball command in baseball, just the combination of the quality of his fastball and his ability to locate it.”

Passan will join Brock and Salk at 8:30 a.m. every Tuesday during the baseball season to talk about the Mariners and more. Listen to this week’s full conversation in the podcast below.

Mariners’ Gilbert: Team’s ‘momentum’ for 2023, impact of new rule changes

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ESPN’s Passan: Led by a top-5 rotation, Mariners’ ceiling is ‘championship’