Drayer’s Mariners Preview: What to watch as the 2023 season begins

Mar 30, 2023, 9:56 AM

Mariners Eugenio Suárez Cal Raleigh...

Eugenio Suárez and Cal Raleigh celebrate a Mariners walk-off win over Texas on July 26, 2022. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The 2023 Seattle Mariners arrived back to T-Mobile Park on Monday night and entered their newly remodeled clubhouse together for the first time. The spring training roster had been whittled from 76 to the 25 who got off the plane – George Kirby, still a week away from his first scheduled start of the season, stayed behind in Arizona to pitch Tuesday in a minor league game.

The remodel was impressive, drawing oohs and ahs from everyone, with some noting that this was certainly what happened when you made the playoffs. Along with the bells and the whistles, perhaps what stood out the most were the murals that lined the hall that lead from the clubhouse.

At the top of the step on one side is the iconic scene at home plate after “The Double.” The other, the now iconic shot of Cal Raleigh holding his bat aloft after hitting the drought-ending home run.

This group is carving out its own history, and the start is on the wall for every player to pass by every day.

The drought business has been taken care of, the rebuild is over. Let’s see what this group can do.

This group is far more experienced than the group that broke camp one year ago. Never mind the fact that nearly all have now experienced the playoffs – this year, there are no rookies on the opening day roster. While there is still room for many to grow or regress, because of the experience, this team should be watched differently than teams in the recent past.

While in the last two years in particular I was much more concerned about what they did in the last three months of the season – there were young players such as Kirby, Raleigh, Julio Rodríguez and an Andrés Muñoz coming off injury that needed to get their feet wet – this year’s group is much more established. While it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t get off to a good start (and they can and will fall back on knowing that they came back in 2022 and almost made it to the postseason in ’21 should they stumble), it’s fair to hope for a better start this year as the improvements aren’t built in and the roster should be more stable start to finish.

This team will once again lean on pitching, something eighth-year manager Scott Servais is comfortable with. Playing and winning close games is something they do. Taking a step forward with the offense could make some of those games more comfortable.

A year ago at this time, Servais wasn’t quite sure what he had in his offense. This year, there’s a better idea.

“I think we are more balanced,” he said. “We have some younger guys who have an opportunity to really step up. Bringing in the veteran additions of Teoscar Hernández and what Kolten Wong have done in their careers, their experience is really valuable. But ultimately it comes down to consistency. It’s hard to say we are going to roll out and score five, six runs each night – that’s not going to happen. But having guys who are going to find a way to get on base, we saw in the second half (of 2022) we (can) hit a lot of home runs, that helps. We did a good job of getting on base last year and creating opportunities, hopefully we are more consistent with runners in scoring position because timely hits and key pitching usually win a lot of games.”

One of the “younger guys” he was talking about was Jarred Kelenic. We will see soon if the changes he made with both his swing and mindset play under the big lights. Kelenic is a wild card for the Mariners. If he hits, this lineup has a chance to look very different.

No chasing numbers — Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic commits to his swing

Another wild card? Robbie Ray. It wasn’t just the new splitter or the increased velocity on his fastball in spring training – his slider looked better, as well. With the new pitch and the slider, he all but put away the “break glass in case of emergency” two-seamer he leaned on last year. The Mariners were by no means grumbling about his performance in 2022, but if he is able to improve on that? Opposing hitters will not be looking forward to series against the Mariners.

There are still some concerns heading into the season, though. Dylan Moore is due back in mid-April, but there are no guarantees with oblique injuries. The Mariners are painfully thin up the middle, although Sam Haggerty should be able to fill in nicely as Wong’s platoon partner at second until Moore returns. Shortstop is more the concern, and it is tough to see J.P. Crawford banged up before the season has even started. He was still struggling to find his timing at the plate when he fouled a ball off his foot, sidelining him for the last few days of Cactus League play.

Also of slight concern, the bullpen. There is the requisite “bullpens are fickle and you should never trust them year to year,” but also, there were a couple of relievers who appeared to struggle this spring, Paul Sewald included. Take this with a boulder of salt, however. Relievers have so few opportunities to pitch in games in the spring, at most every few days and usually for just one inning. One or two shaky outings stand out but often mean little for established pitchers. Of all the players on the field, the higher-leverage relievers in spring training least resemble what they are in the regular season. They need that leverage and there is really no way to replicate it in the spring. On that note, I’m curious to see how relievers do with the pitch clock in those situations.

Should there be extended struggle with a reliever, help is close by. Casey Sadler, a veteran who had a big 2021 season but is coming off shoulder surgery that kept him from pitching last year, needs to pitch in some minor league games but should be available soon. Bryce Miller could be an option out of the ‘pen, as could fellow prospect Prelander Berroa.

I like that Chris Flexen is still with the Mariners. The Mariners were very fortunate to get through the season with just five starters last year after Kirby joined the rotation, so Flexen is good insurance particularly early. And should the Mariners ever do what the Astros decided to do at times last year and go with a six-man rotation just to give the others a break, he fits that role well. If the Mariners are going to lean on the pitching once again, why not have extra.

There will be plenty to look for early. With the new rules, who is picking up extra hits thanks to the shift restrictions, and can they take advantage on the bases? Does a fully healthy Ty France return to his .300-hitting ways? Can AJ Pollock repeat what he did against lefties last year? What does Logan Gilbert with a splitter look like in the regular season, and when will we see Muñoz throw the two-seamer? And go ahead and circle May 5-7 – the first meeting with the Astros.

Can we start this thing already?

More on the Mariners from Seattle Sports

• Bob Stelton’s Mariners Breakdown: Will they take the next step in 2023?
• MLB Network’s Jon Morosi: Mariners have a path to jumping Astros, winning AL West
Lefko: Three reasons the Mariners could be better than people think
• Fann: Three points of optimism, three of concern ahead of Mariners opening day
• ESPN’s Passan: Led by a top-5 rotation, Mariners’ ceiling is ‘championship’

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