JOE FANN

Fann: 3 points of optimism, 3 of concern ahead of Mariners opening day

Mar 28, 2023, 2:15 PM

Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Julio Rodríguez reacts after scoring a run for the Mariners against the Royals on April 23, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Opening day is nearly upon us (finally), which means we have time for one final roster assessment before we get to see how the 2023 season will unfold for the Seattle Mariners.

Drayer: How have the Mariners become contenders? They bought in

This spring has been an overall success with a handful of promising storylines, Jarred Kelenic’s production chief among them. But it’s the fact that Seattle made it through spring training mostly unscathed injury-wise that should have fans feeling thankful.

Below you’ll find six collective evaluations of Seattle’s roster: three that make me optimistic and three that have me at least mildly concerned heading into the season.

Of note, my overall belief in this Mariners team far outweighs my apprehension. I agree with ESPN’s Jeff Passan, who didn’t mince words when he told Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk on Tuesday morning that he believes the Mariners are World Series contenders.

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

3 points of optimism

1. The presence of a bona fide MVP candidate

Julio Rodríguez is among the favorites to win the American League’s MVP award this season, and for good reason. He has legit 30-30 potential and should improve defensively in center field.

He posted a sizzling .500 average over his final 20 spring at-bats after returning from playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. That included four doubles and a home run. Believing in Seattle to reach the postseason and make a run in October is far easier to buy into with superstar of Rodríguez’s caliber leading the way.

2. My faith in Seattle’s top four starters

Passan noted on Tuesday morning that he believes Seattle’s rotation ranks among the top five in baseball. I agree completely, though others are sleeping on the Mariners’ top quartet of arms. MLB.com released an article on Tuesday that ranked Settle’s rotation tied for 10th along with the Angels.

Castillo proved himself to be the staff’s ace in last year’s postseason. Then you have Robbie Ray, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert who all have upside of being front-of-the-rotation starters. If you’re not sold on Ray as one of the game’s best No. 2 starters (a fair take), you’re probably looking at Kirby as the one of the top No. 4 starters (a take I feel confident in).

All three have swing-and-miss stuff. In the case of Gilbert and Kirby, they’ve shown the capability of battling through adversity without any moment being too big for them. Their demeanor in playoff starts against the Astros last October spoke volumes to me.

That big-game ability coupled with elite stuff eliminates any doubts I have about Gilbert’s hard hit percentage in 2022 (45.6%, third among starters with at least 100 IP) and Kirby pitching to contact (he allowed a .331 batting average on balls in play last season).

3. The bullpen should remain among the game’s best

While MLB.com was more bearish in Seattle’s starters than I am, we align in our views of the bullpen. The league’s official website ranked the Mariners’ bullpen fifth in baseball last week. Beyond my belief in Paul Sewald, Diego Castillo, Andrés Muñoz, Matt Brash and others, the bullpen is unequivocally the deepest part of Seattle’s roster when factoring in the minor leagues. Flamethrowing prospect Bryce Miller should make his big league debut this season. Spring sensation Prelander Berroa might be right behind him.

3 points of concern

1. Lack of offensive production in the middle infield

Those who followed my content or Twitter feed this offseason are fully aware of how badly I wanted Seattle to chase one of the “Big Four” shortstops. That plea came a year after I lamented the Mariners’ watching Marcus Semien and Corey Seager sign with the Rangers.

My pessimism about Seattle’s middle infield remains after mundane springs from J.P. Crawford and Kolten Wong. Crawford managed just five hits in 27 at-bats (.185 average) without a single extra-base knock. He’s also dealing with a foot injury that puts his status for opening day at least a little in question. Wong had a better spring, though still uninspiring with a .239 average and just one hit for extra bases. I’m bracing myself for Wong to have an infuriatingly similar WAR as Adam Frazier in 2023.

Now, even if I’m right and these two underwhelm at the plate in 2023, that won’t sink Seattle’s season in and of itself. However, it will reaffirm the notion that the Mariners let budget get in the way of addressing an obvious roster hole.

2. Marco Gonzales’ potential regression

Gonzales’ superpower is grinding through innings and keeping Seattle in ballgames. His 4.13 ERA and 0.1 fWAR in 2022 would suffice as Seattle’s No. 5 starter in 2023, but I’m worried regression could be in order for Gonzales. He doesn’t miss bats, and the peripherals surrounding his adequate ERA are much more ominous.

Gonzales posted a 5.05 FIP in 2022 while ranking in the bottom of the league in xBA (13th percentile), xSLG (15th percentile), strikeout percentage (1st percentile) and whiff percentage (5th percentile). This spring, he struck out just three batters over 11 1/3 innings while posting a 5.56 ERA.

Maybe Gonzales will once again prove to be the kind of reliable innings-eater that most teams would be desperate to have at the back end of their rotation. Hopefully that’s the case, but the margin of error is small enough to warrant some concern.

3. Is this really going to be the year for Jarred Kelenic?

Here we go again. Kelenic hit .353 during the spring with four home runs and three steals. He’s a popular post-hype fantasy baseball sleeper and Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci believes Kelenic is a top X-factor who could shift the power structure within the AL West.

I’m hopeful yet apprehensive. Yes, Kelenic’s spring was awesome. However, he managed just four hits over his final 19 spring at-bats, and his tantalizing skillset is yet to translate to the big-league level.

Much of the story of Seattle’s 2023 season could hinge on whether or not Kelenic figures it out.

More Mariners coverage from Seattle Sports

Drayer: A look at Mariners roster essentially set for opening day
GM Justin Hollander breaks down just how good the Mariners’ pitching depth is
Mariners’ Gilbert: Team’s ‘momentum’ for 2023, impact of new rule changes
Drayer: Mariners fireballer Andrés Muñoz brings more than just new pitch into ’23
Five Mariners make ESPN’s MLB top 100 — how do they compare to Astros?

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