MIKE SALK

Salk: The 6 big Seattle Mariners storylines to follow

Feb 26, 2024, 12:00 AM

Seattle Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Seattle Mariners CF Julio Rodríguez blows a bubble during a 2023 spring training game. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

I’ve made no secret of my love for spring training. Truly, I feel privileged to work in the spots industry, but the best perk (by far) is the yearly pilgrimage to Peoria to see what the Seattle Mariners season might have in store for us.

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Spring training is often deceiving – vibes change once the winning or losing starts, and players that are hot go cold and vice versa – so you have to remember not to get too fixated on what you see and feel. But it’s hard because it’s fun to have hope and to get excited about the season ahead.

And there are plenty of reasons for Mariners fans to be optimistic. They have a starting rotation that is the envy of nearly every team in baseball. They have such strength up the middle at the key positions of catcher, shortstop and center field. And they have a budding superstar who is coming off a “down” year in which he finished fourth in the MVP voting.

Of course, those positives each have their equal and opposite negatives that make could subvert this team from the start. It’s fair to worry about a number of vulnerabilities and questions that were not clearly answered this offseason. With that in mind, here are the six biggest questions and storylines we’ll be following this week with Brock and Salk here in Peoria.

Key Seattle Mariners storylines for 2024

1. Can they get over the bad vibes?

It’s no secret that last season ended in disarray. The team flamed out in September, the leaders called out the organization and expressed their frustration, and then the president threw a heaping gallon of gasoline on the fire by making fans question how serious he was about trying to get over the hump and build a true contender.

Then it (amazingly) got worse as both Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais suggested their payroll budget had been lowered at the last moment and would not be increasing this offseason. Things could have come completely off the rails, but they did not.

Credit Dipoto and general manager Justin Hollander for creatively working to make this team better while still sticking to the prescribed budget. Credit Servais for his extensive communication with the players (especially those leaders) this offseason. He went above and beyond to visit Logan Gilbert, Julio Rodríguez, Luis Castillo and others and to be extremely open and honest about the circumstances. That transparency may be the thing that keeps a potentially combustible situation from becoming a full-scale explosive event. And according to Ryan Divish’s article in The Seattle Times, those conversations are paying early dividends in camp.

It’s a huge start, but we won’t find out how successful it’s been until adversity strikes. In a 162-game season, that is a matter of when, not if. Vibes change according to the success of the team but it’ll will be up to Scott to keep the boiling lava from erupting to the surface.

2. Who is manning the corners?

The Mariners may be strong up the middle, but on paper, things are very different on the corners. Ty France is coming off a disastrous season. Luke Raley has some big power but strikes out more than Teoscar Hernandez. Mitch Haniger has an unfortunate medical history. Dominic Canzone was a way below average hitter as a rookie last season and struggled defensively. And the platoon at third base of Luis Urías and Josh Rojas might be the biggest question on the whole roster.

Could some of those players outperform their expectations? Absolutely. That happens every season somewhere. But is it likely that all of them do? I sure wouldn’t bet on it.

The good news? France has himself in better shape. Canzone has been one of the best stories of camp so far. Haniger homered on the first pitch he saw back in a Mariners uniform. But at third base… the early reports aren’t as positive. Remember, Matt Chapman has a whole room full of Gold Gloves at the hot corner and he’s still lurking out there as a possibility.

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3. Do the Seattle Mariners have enough pitching?

The Mariners have the best starting pitching in baseball. Certainly, any debate about that would include their top five. They have two Cy Young favorites (Castillo and George Kirby), a dependable third pitcher who could certainly be in that same mix (Gilbert), and two young pitchers who showed the big leagues weren’t too big for them as rookies (Bryan Woo and Bryce Miller).

But we all know it takes more than five starters to get through a season. Most teams know that it will take at least an extra few to make a significant number of starts plus another handful to make one or two. The Mariners watched their top three starters throw 190-plus innings while Miller and Woo pitched more than they ever had before. Is Emerson Hancock ready to be that sixth guy? Austin Voth? Trent Thornton? Levi Stoudt?

For the past few years, the Mariners have known that they had exciting young pitching prospects nearly ready to make their way up, but all of them have either made it or been dealt away. The dependable vets like Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen are gone too. Can this group step up when needed or will the Mariners need to find more help?

The same is true in the bullpen where early setbacks for Matt Brash and Gregory Santos are a sharp reminder that positions of strength have a habit of turning sour in a hurry. The M’s have the leverage arms to compete with anybody. But who will emerge of the lesser known names as the next Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider or Justin Topa? There are plenty of candidates, led by Jackson Kowar and Carlos Vargas, but they will definitely need at least one of them to surprise.

4. Which Julio are we getting?

Teams with players like Julio Rodríguez compete for championships (unless they go by the pseudonym of Mike Trout). He is the most talented player on the field virtually every time he steps onto it, but he still has plenty of growth ahead of him.

By Rodríguez’s own admission, last season wasn’t his best. It’s understandable. Often players take a step back in their sophomore season as the league starts to adjust. Plus, the demands on his time increased, the pressure was ratcheted up, and he was asked to play host to an All-Star Game that everyone just assumed he would make.

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He had a good July and an otherworldly August, but the season was missing the level of consistency we had all come to expect. And even worse, the signature moments where Julio came up big when his team needed him most were missing. A better September might have put them in the playoffs and changed the entire offseason conversation.

Julio is one of the best players on the planet. That isn’t up for debate. But how he grows, leads, and adapts to the demands of that position will be as important as anything else in determining how far this team can go.

Which Julio shows up this year? The one who needed to be dropped down in the lineup because he couldn’t stop swinging? Or the one who had 17 hits in four games and threw the team on his back? By all accounts, he is in the right headspace to take his game to the next, more consistent level. If that is true, look out.

5. Can the Seattle Mariners minimize the importance of the words “if healthy?”

If you’ve listened to me on the radio, you know I like to speculate and predict based on the potential to write a believable script. Nearly every script that ends with this Mariners team having success depends on them staying healthy. Yes, that is true of every team. But this one has a whole lot riding on a number of guys who don’t have a great track record in that department.

Haniger has had a litany of fluky injuries. Jorge Polanco has had recurring problems with his ankle. Mitch Garver, France and Urías have faced ailments of all shapes and sizes. And with the farm system not exactly ready to start supplying quality depth, they’ll need that group to stay on the field.

6. Can they go from good to great?

Yeah, this was the question last year, too. And it will continue to be the question until it’s answered. I believe the players want it to happen. The manager unquestionably has done his part. The baseball operations department showed the creativity and risk necessary to try to improve. And I do believe the managing partner of the ownership group loves the game and wants his team to be the last one standing.

But as of today, the Seattle Mariners haven’t proven they are willing to do what it takes to get to that point. They haven’t shown the fans that level of commitment. And more importantly, they haven’t shown their players. This is a good roster with a fantastic young nucleus. It wouldn’t take much to make it significantly better.

It’s OK to start a season with some question marks. But if this team shows it has some serious potential, I would sure hope the ownership allows them to double down on their bets and let this team reach its true potential.

More Mariners coverage from Seattle Sports

Mariners Notebook: Haniger’s big return, and which M’s can hoop?
Watch: Mitch Haniger homers in first AB back with Mariners
Drayer: Young bats impress in Mariners’ spring training opener
How will Mariners handle the outfield this season?
Morosi breaks down three big Seattle Mariners concerns

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