Lessons Mariners need to learn with Astros, Rangers both in ALCS
Oct 12, 2023, 11:58 AM | Updated: Oct 13, 2023, 1:00 pm
(Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
A member of the American League West will be in the World Series this year as the 2023 ALCS features not one but two teams from the division. The Seattle Mariners are not one of them.
The Mariners finished 88-74 this year, not good enough to make it back to the postseason after winning 90 games and ending the drought last year.
Meanwhile, the Houston Astros are in the ALCS for the seventh year in a row after taking down the Minnesota Twins in four games in the ALDS. The Astros will face a team that surprised many this year in the Texas Rangers, who won 22 more games than last year and have dominated the postseason so far, sweeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card Round and the Baltimore Orioles in the ALDS. In five postseason games, the Rangers have outscored their opponents by a whopping 32-12 clip.
The ALCS is the “cherry on top” of sorts for this Mariners season, if by “cherry on top” you actually mean “kicked while down on the ground crying.”
There’s no sugarcoating it – 2023 is a major disappointment for the M’s. And was as frustrating as can be.
The Mariners were essentially a .500 ballclub with an offensive identity made up of strikeouts and stranded runners for most of the year. Things turned around in July and a record-setting August, but September was a disaster for the M’s, who went 11-17 before being eliminated from postseason contention ahead of the season’s final game.
Making that September collapse worse is not just that the Astros and Rangers made the playoffs and are now in the ALCS, but that Seattle entered the month in first place in the division.
So what can we learn from Seattle’s division rivals?
Well, quite a bit.
Adapt Or Die
The line stems from the movie “Moneyball,” centered around the early-2000s Oakland A’s. It makes plenty of sense for the Mariners, who have to do things different this offseason.
Outside of signing 2021 AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, the Mariners’ last two offseasons have been very similar.
They’ve largely sat out free agency – especially on the hitting end – while adding players near the end of their contracts who played well for other teams, but were maybe surprisingly available in a trade.
Jesse Winker? Major fail.
Adam Frazier? Playoff hero, but his Seattle tenure was an overall flop.
Kolten Wong? Yikes.
Teoscar Hernández? Streaky as can be while not emerging as the true middle of the order bat the M’s thought they were getting – and also needed in the worst way.
The first two lasted one year in Seattle, the third lasted less than a season and the fourth seems like he’s heading elsewhere this offseason.
The Rangers, meanwhile, paid half a billion dollars to get two of the best infielders in the game two offseasons ago in Marcus Semien and Corey Seager. They were also extremely aggressive last offseason and this trade deadline in trying to improve the starting rotation.
The Astros are largely homegrown, but they’ve also added stars and big pieces along the way via trade and free agency since emerging as a top contender nearly a decade ago. Names they’ve brought in at various times include Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Gerrit Cole and Michael Brantley.
The Mariners have a nice core in place between the starting rotation, the back end of the bullpen and up the middle talent in Julio Rodríguez, J.P. Crawford and Cal Raleigh.
That’s a good starting point for a postseason contender, but they need more in a big way if they want to contend for a World Series like their two AL West counterparts are doing.
We’ve heard the word “sustainability” used a lot by Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto. Sustainability is good, but being stagnant isn’t. And you can be more aggressive in the short-term without it being a detriment to your long-term plans and spending.
Money talks – and matters
That leads us to the fun topic of payroll.
Outside of the Ray signing and long-term extensions for Rodríguez and Luis Castillo, the Mariners haven’t spent much on the MLB roster, especially compared to the Rangers, Astros and other playoff teams. Much of the 26-man has been made up of cheaper veterans or players in or nearing arbitration.
The late-contract veteran trade chips haven’t worked for the M’s, nor have the cheaper veteran rentals.
A.J. Pollock, who didn’t work at all in Seattle this year, is the most expensive free-agent hitter this front office has signed since taking over after 2015. Pollock signed a one-year deal for $7 million and was traded at the deadline after a horrible start to the season.
The Rangers were fourth in payroll in 2023. The Astros were seventh.
Meanwhile, the Mariners were 18th in baseball and the fourth-highest of the five AL West teams. They were roughly $30 million below the MLB average payroll, according to Spotrac. It’s not hard to imagine that $30 million gap helping this team reach the playoffs last year.
Yes, the teams with the three highest payrolls this year – the New York Mets, San Diego Padres and New York Yankees – failed to make the playoffs. It’s a clear sign that it’s not how much you spend, but how you spend.
Still, six of the 10 highest payroll teams are in the playoffs, with five making it to the divisional round and three playing for a league championship in the Astros, Rangers, and one of the Braves and Phillies.
Part of increasing payroll is extending and locking up your young homegrown players. Another part, of course, is to upgrade the roster with better players and, ideally, stars.
In terms of stars, the postseason runs by the Rangers and Astros shows just how much they matter.
Seager and Semien were huge for the Rangers in getting to this point both in the regular season and the playoffs. Houston’s Yordan Álvarez nearly took the series over against Minnesota, dominating Twins pitching.
Whether it’s through aggressive trades or altering their free-agent approach, the Mariners need stars to upgrade the lineup. Julio is a legit superstar talent, and Crawford and Raleigh are bordering on star level. That trio is a good starting point for a core, but they need more higher-end help in the lineup.
Stars that, when others struggle, can alleviate some of the pressure.
When Seattle’s offensive struggles were at the lowest point, some players appeared to be trying to be “the guy” by swinging their way out of funks and getting the big hit that would be the catalyst for the rest of the lineup. There wasn’t enough lineup depth to alleviate the pressure the big bats were putting on themselves as the struggles mounted. More starpower can help prevent that from happening, or at least to that degree.
When it comes to the lineup, it at the very needs to be lengthened. Guys like Dylan Moore, Sam Haggerty and José Caballero are nice pieces to have, but those three shouldn’t be getting bulk at-bats against lefty starters in a playoff race in September.
Too many at-bats the last three years have gone to players who are barely above replacement level when it comes to WAR. Compare what the Mariners have rolled out the last two years to the lineups of the teams who made it to the AL and NL Divisonal Series. It’s not too close, and many of those teams pitch close to as well or even better than the Mariners do.
Postseason experience matters
The Mariners got some playoff experience last year, but the Rangers now have more while the Astros have basically everyone in MLB lapped.
Relying on guys that have regularly been there and done that on the biggest stages is huge.
Look at Seager in Texas. The guy is a former World Series MVP who has dominated all postseason and is far and away from letting the big moment get too big.
Houston’s lineup, rotation and bullpen is full of guys with playoff and World Series experience and rings.
Upgrading the roster in general is a top priority, but having those veterans who have been there, done that and also want to lead – such as pending free agents Justin Turner and J.D. Martinez – is critical.
These teams don’t whiff nearly as much as the Seattle Mariners
This is a tad obvious as the Mariners’ offense had the second-most strikeouts in MLB this year, but it’s a big difference between them and the Rangers and Astros.
The Astros had the third-fewest strikeouts in baseball. The Rangers were more middle of the pack at 17 but still did a much better of controlling the strike zone than Seattle. Both teams also worked more walks than the M’s, with Texas ranking third and Houston ranking 11th to Seattle’s 13th. Those two also scored far more than the Mariners as both teams ranked in the top five in that category while Seattle was 12th.
The Mariners had plenty of opportunities with runners in scoring position this year, but they also struck out far more than any other team with runners on base. Their two AL West counterparts do a much better job of controlling the zone than Seattle does, and if the M’s want to contend for a World Series, that needs to change.
Astros aren’t going anywhere, and even if they were, Texas is in the way
Part of the belief seemed to be the Astros would lose steam while the Mariners continued their upward trajectory. Maybe Houston has with 16 fewer regular season wins this year than in 2022, but the Astros are still dancing and should again next year. And Texas is right there and only getting better.
The Mariners’ rise with the Astros’ fall isn’t happening. At least not yet. And at least not if the Mariners continue to remain rather stagnant with how they approach filling out the roster. Even if that were to happen, Texas isn’t going anywhere for a while, either.
Sure, the Mariners finished just two games off of the Astros and took the season series 9-4, but look where Houston is yet again – contending for a third title and fifth pennant in seven years.
While we focused so much attention on the M’s catching Houston, the Rangers passed Seattle.
Want to win a World Series? Don’t try to match a natural rise from your core with the fall of another team. Go out and be the aggressor. Whether that’s being the team to get Shohei Ohtani or adding multiple notable pieces for longer than just 2024, this core needs more big names to join the fray. Two of your best players and leaders made that point after the Rangers celebrated a postseason clinch in Seattle.
If the Astros and Rangers facing off for a World Series berth isn’t enough to show the Mariners that they need to step our of their comfort zone, what will?
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