Drayer’s Preview: Can pitching strength lead Mariners back to playoffs?

Feb 14, 2024, 12:01 PM | Updated: Feb 15, 2024, 10:52 am

Seattle Mariners 2024 pitching Luis Castillo George Kirby...

Seattle Mariners pitchers Luis Castillo and George Kirby before a 2023 game. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

After an offseason of uncertainty, the Seattle Mariners front office was greeted by sights that were welcome, intriguing and reassuring as pitchers and catchers reported Wednesday to spring training in Peoria, Ariz.

The welcome sight? Make that the most welcome sight: a rotation of the homegrown four and Luis Castillo, the same starting five that finished the season.

ESPN’s Schoenfield: Grading Mariners’ offseason, their potential in 2024

The idea some fans grasped onto this offseason – that the Mariners could trade a pitcher for a bat, then replace said pitcher with another – never materialized. The idea was explored as a necessary exercise, but it was clear from the beginning of the offseason that it was not a preferred avenue to take in attempting to better the team.

“The more we’ve talked about it internally, the more we have wrapped our arms around the idea of just leaning into what we do best,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said in early January. “We pitch.”

Seattle Mariners’ whole rotation returns

The homegrown four plus Castillo return to once again attempt to lead the Mariners to the postseason. On paper, they are a rotation that most of the rest of baseball would take over what they currently have in camp. There are two 2023 Cy Young Award finishers in Castillo and George Kirby, arguably the best No. 3 starter in the game in Logan Gilbert, and two promising youngsters who gained valuable experience under fire last season in Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo.

Health will be the No. 1 concern for the starting five as the tremendous depth they entered last season with is now in the rotation. And after trades, the Mariners no longer have Marco Gonzales, who provided cover in the form of being able to take on innings and save bullpen, nor the potential of a boost in the second half of the season from Robbie Ray.

The Mariners have experienced depth with Trent Thornton and Austin Voth among those who can provide innings, but the big question will be whether 2020 first-round pick Emerson Hancock can follow in the footsteps of Gilbert, Kirby, Miller and Woo in making significant contributions as an in-season replacement if needed. That is a bridge that very likely will be crossed at some point in ’24.

On the promising side of things, as strong as this rotation was last year, there is room for improvement considering it stumbled in September with a 4.19 ERA (13th), 4.77 FIP (21st), and just the 24th-best WAR as a staff. Castillo had his worst month of 2023 in September, and Miller and Woo struggled as well in both dealing with lefties and enduring their first full big league season. Much was learned with the two rookies, and it is not hard seeing them able to take a step forward in their second season.

As for the guys in the middle, Kirby showed he was a big-game pitcher and should enter the season on Cy Young watchlists, and Gilbert seemed to move beyond the figuring-things-out stage of his young career. Where a year ago Gilbert came into camp having spent the offseason working on a pitch and adjustments he thought would help in ’23, this year after having found those answers and solidifying his repertoire, his offseason and focus were just about preparation for the season to come. Start No. 1 of the season will not come with questions of if a new pitch will play or how to use it. What finished last season will be there for Logan Gilbert from Game 1.

Can M’s turn more magic in the ‘pen?

The intrigue will come with the bullpen, which is nothing new for the Mariners. The late addition of Gregory Santos through a trade with the White Sox has given them a much needed third high-leverage arm. That has made the bullpen situation more comfortable than it was the majority of the offseason, perhaps turning the more ominous “questions” into “intrigue” with fewer spots to fill.

A good guess on an opening day ‘pen would be Santos, Matt Brash, Andrés Muñoz, Gabe Speier, Tayler Saucedo, Austin Voth, Trent Thornton and a surprise. The Mariners have brought a handful of relievers into camp that have big stuff but not big numbers or success at the big league level.

As the Mariners lean on pitching, depth at the back of the bullpen would be most welcome and likely has to be developed. Can the pitching team work their magic as they did with Paul Sewald, Justin Topa, Speier and others? In a camp where they’re heading in healthy and there appears to be no battles for roster spots anywhere else, developments in this area will be watched carefully.

As those who will make the decisions about roster spots watch the relievers throw their bullpens, the reassuring sight will be 60 feet, 6 inches away from one of those throwing the baseball: catcher Cal Raleigh, who since his call-up in 2021 has made quick work of solidifying his position of QB 1. His work with the pitchers, both in-game and out, has been tremendous, and his willingness to take on the leadership of that position despite being young at the big league level should not be overlooked. Having shown the ability to balance the needs of the pitchers and his own offense, the switch-hitter likely will be leaned on for more of the latter, perhaps consistently batting higher in the order against right-handers.

If the Mariners are built on pitching and catching, the foundation is solid. Later this week we will explore if what they have done with the rest of the team is enough to take it to the next level. Shortly after, Seattle Sports will be on the ground in Peoria, providing daily reports beginning with the full squad report day Monday. There will also be with full weeks of live broadcasts from Peoria by Brock and Salk from Feb. 26- March 1, then Wyman and Bob from March 11-15.

Related: Seattle Sports’ 2024 Mariners spring training radio schedule

More on the Seattle Mariners

Drayer: Mariners take a look in the mirror, re-tool their process
Julio Rodríguez’s Super Bowl picture should hype Mariners fans up
Why did Mariners give up ‘a lot’ in Gregory Santos trade?
ESPN’s Passan explains why he likes Mariners’ roster ‘better than last year’
Rowland-Smith: What was ‘awesome’ about Seattle Mariners’ offseason

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