MIKE LEFKO

Lefko: 3 reasons the Mariners could be better than people think

Mar 29, 2023, 1:53 PM | Updated: 3:01 pm

Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Mariners CF Julio Rodríguez slides safe ahead of the tag by Houston 2B José Altuve on Oct. 15, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

You could call this article a few things – an optimistic Mariners season preview, a bold prediction. Heck, even a collection of hot takes, although that term seems archaic now because anything you put on the Internet, no matter how innocuous, will find someone who wholeheartedly disagrees and will emphatically tell you about it.

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So label this what you want, but here is something to chew on as the start of the season stretches out in front of us: the Mariners are going to be good. Really good.

When MLB insider Jon Morosi joined Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob on Tuesday, he picked the Mariners to win the division. He works for MLB Network, so I’ll trust what he says. Oh, is that not enough of a reason? Ah, OK, well it would have made for a much easier article but sure, I’ll give you some more reasons why the Mariners are a legitimate World Series contender.

The Mariners eliminated their weaknesses

Getting better comes in different forms. You can load up and strengthen the areas you already excel at to the point where it’s so good that it dwarfs everyone else (hello Mets pitching or the top of the Padres lineup), and you can also do it by eliminating your biggest areas of deficiency.

The Mariners’ lineup was not great during portions of last year. They struggled to produce in key moments, couldn’t always score runs, and just seemed to hate batting with the bases loaded and less than two outs. I don’t think I’m breaking any news here by saying that. Just look at their 18-inning loss to the Astros in the ALDS – which, by the way, footage of that game was sent to play on a loop on TVs in every DMV and doctor’s office in America. I can’t confirm this, but I did also hear that it’s what teachers and parents threaten to make kids sit through if they misbehave.

That won’t be the case this season. The lineup has depth and versatility. Here are some guys who played in multiple games for the Mariners last year (and stop me if I start making up names): Mike Ford; Kevin Padlo; Marcus Wilson; Jake Lamb; Steven Souza Jr.; Andrew Knapp; Stuart Fairchild. That’s no knock on those guys, it’s simply to show that the Mariners were without the benefit of reliable depth options in 2022.

Now Tom Murphy is healthy, and Sam Haggerty has proven to be a solid utility option when needed (and not as an everyday starter at various positions) and an upgrade over the myriad of names just listed. Throw in Cooper Hummel, who has a glove for every position and got a heavy dose of fielding tutelage from Perry Hill this spring, along with Dylan Moore (when he returns in a few weeks), and it’s an enviable situation to be in when the Mariners have to utilize their bench.

The outfield situation is also stable, something that couldn’t be said for the early months last year when left field consisted of either Jesse Winker or a plummeting Jarred Kelenic, center field was manned by a scuffling, still figuring it out Julio Rodriguez, and right field was whoever could find a spare glove that day after Mitch Haniger got hurt.

Teoscar Hernández brings stability to right field. We know he mashes the ball, and a hard hit rate in the 99th percentile means that his power will translate at T-Mobile Park, unlike, oh, say another outfielder who was brought in with high acclaim last year. Hernández also is available, having played in at least 80% of his team’s games all but once since 2018, which unfortunately wasn’t the case with Haniger.

George Kirby will ascend to MLB’s upper echelon

George Kirby is primed for a breakout year. He is built for big moments:

• In his MLB debut, he went six innings, allowing four hits, no runs and no walks with seven strikeouts on 81 pitches.

• He threw a scoreless inning in his first career relief appearance to close out the Mariners’ most important game in 20 years, their AL Wild Card Series-clinching win over the Blue Jays.

• He started an ALDS elimination game at home against the Astros, throwing seven scoreless innings on six hits and no walks while striking out five – including one for the ages.

After a rookie season where he did all that and was able to blow past his projected innings limit, the expectations should be high for what comes next. Take spring training for what it’s worth, but when you finish off spring like Kirby did (five innings, no hits, no runs, nine strikeouts and a walk), it raises some eyebrows.

If Kirby is able to harness the splitter that he worked on this offseason, the murmurs will only grow about the possibility of a Mariner making a home start in the All-Star Game.

The Astros are vulnerable

Look, vulnerable is a relative term. The Astros roster is an enviable one, but they did suffer some key losses, are getting older, and have a slew of injuries already that might be problematic for them for the first couple of months. José Altuve is already out 8-10 weeks after suffering a fractured thumb during the World Baseball Classic, and Morosi told Wyman and Bob that he believes the Mariners have closed the gap with the defending AL West and World Series champs.

“I think it’s close, I really do,” Morosi said. “And the other name we haven’t mentioned yet, you know in terms of injury concerns and health with Houston is (Yordan) Álvarez. He’s had a hand issue that has been sort of there off and on since late last year, and honestly that worries me about Yordan.”

Morosi: Mariners have a path to jumping Astros, winning AL West

Heavy lies the crown. Sure, the Astros might be fine with a 40-year-old Justin Verlander leaving in free agency, but you can’t tell me a team got better after losing a Cy Young Award winner and not adding anyone to replace him. The rotation is incredibly deep and the Astros will still be good, but did they get better this offseason? Because the Mariners certainly did.

There is another key difference for the Mariners now when they go up against the Astros that they didn’t possess last year.

“As tough as that outcome was, it’s almost as if you got the best of both worlds from the standpoint of the experience,” Morosi said, referencing the Mariners’ ALDS meeting with Houston. “You realize how close you were, a pitch or two away from being up 2-1 in that series, and yet you also realize, ‘We got swept, we have to be better, and we have to have a certain resolve about us.’”

That resolve is key. The mental side of baseball often gets dismissed when evaluating teams because it isn’t quantifiable, you can’t project performance based on it, and in a sport that has increasingly looked to data in order to find an edge in every aspect of the game, that side of it doesn’t fit. Yet, it is evident that this Mariners team now has a mental edge they didn’t possess last year. After spending a week at spring training, you were awash in it. There is a reassured confidence that radiated from every part of the Mariners complex. They have seen it, felt it, experienced both ends of the spectrum from playoff joy to ultimate heartbreak. This is a group that now knows what it takes, and more importantly, absolutely believes they can do it.

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Wyman & Bob

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