Lefko on Mariners: 3 reasons for optimism plus an unanswered question

Apr 18, 2024, 10:12 AM | Updated: 10:34 am

Seattle Mariners Jonatan Clase J.P. Crawford...

J.P. Crawford and Jonatan Clase of the Seattle Mariners celebrate an April 16, 2024 win. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

It was almost comical, in a gallows humor type of way, that the Seattle Mariners took so long to win a series. I have to admit, the predisposition to fan fatalism went through my mind after the Reds loaded the bases in the top of the ninth of Tuesday night.

Luckily, the worst-case scenario didn’t occur, and a series win clinched that night built into a sweep on Wednesday.

Mariners throw one-hitter, Garver homers as Seattle sweeps Reds

There are a handful of reasons to be optimistic about what that can lead to, along with one lingering question that the Mariners will have to face before their upcoming road trip ends.

Mitch Haniger looks great back with Seattle Mariners

Re-acquiring Mitch Haniger this offseason came with the caveat “if he stays healthy,” which was a valid concern considering his unfortunate and often unlucky injury history. So far, this looks like the 2021 version of Mitch Haniger. He has been the most consistent bat in the lineup and a stalwart in the middle of the order, especially given the slow starts from the offensive core that you expect to shoulder the bulk of the production for this Mariners team.

Haniger told ROOT Sports analyst Mike Blowers earlier in the week – and reiterated to us on Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob after Wednesday’s game – that he feels good but doesn’t think he has channeled the best of what he can do at the plate yet. That has to be the most encouraging aspect of everything he has done so far, that this current eight-game hit streak (where he has driven in nine runs in 30 at-bats, is slugging .567, and has a .979 OPS) is just the baseline for what Haniger can do this season.

Logan Gilbert and Bryce Miller are currently the best pitchers

It is entirely possible that the Mariners have four ace-level starters this season. Past performance had elevated Luis Castillo and George Kirby to a slightly higher tier, but Logan Gilbert and Bryce Miller have been dominant for the Mariners this season. These two are thinkers, constantly tinkering to find what works best, and the adjustments both have made this offseason have paid off in bountiful ways.

Gilbert has only allowed one run in three of his four starts, and in that Brewers game where he did allow four runs he still managed to churn out 5 2/3 innings (in a game where the Mariners rallied back to tie the game as well). Last season he added a splitter and this year has unleashed a cutter that has stymied hitters. If you want to dig deeper, Mike Petriello of MLB.com has outlined the effects of Gilbert’s cutter and why it has been so effective in keeping batters out of sync against him.

The same can be said for Bryce Miller and his splitter. Miller’s fastball is elite – it’s what allowed him to have early success in 2023 – but the lack of secondary pitches eventually made it easier for batters to recognize. The disparity against left-handed hitters was well-documented, so Miller added the splitter (in addition to the work he put in with developing his sinker) to strengthen his arsenal, and it has already been a devastatingly effective weapon to retire hitters. In 21 at-bats using that splitter, Miller has recorded eight strikeouts and allowed just three singles.

Gary Hill of the Mariners Radio Network pointed out Thursday just how important Miller’s additional repertoire has been against lefties.

Miller has also given up just one earned run in his last three starts – the home run to Reds phenom Elly De La Cruz on Wednesday. He is a cerebral pitcher and has what feels like a near photographic recall of any matchup. After that start on Wednesday, Miller was asked about his sinker and described an at-bat from last September where he utilized that pitch in order to eventually strike out Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts looking. He has shared similar stories during the multiple times he has joined us on set over the course of the last two seasons. Throw all of that together and it feels like this is just the start of how high Bryce Miller can ascend.

Jonatan Clase has provided the offensive spark they needed

The Mariners have never lost a game with Jonatan Clase on the roster after calling up the 21-year-old outfielder from Triple-A Tacoma on Monday. Manager Scott Servais jokingly made a point about that after the Mariners completed the sweep on Wednesday, and it certainly stands to reason that while that will eventually change, the impact Clase has had in just three games can bring this team closer to the offense they thought they would have in constructing this lineup.

This is the bigs, and Clase will undoubtedly struggle at some point, but he not only drove in runs in his first two games but did so in important moments. For an offense that had been stagnant entering the Reds series, sometimes it can be as simple as a new, youthful energy and personality in the clubhouse and the excitement that comes with a MLB call up.

It also gives the lineup a little more depth in the outfield and a potentially everyday alignment of Clase-Julio-Haniger. Throw in Dylan Moore, Luke Raley and Dominic Canzone’s eventual return from injury, and all of a sudden this feels a lot better than it did after a couple of weeks into the season.

The unanswered question

Does this continue against good competition? That’s the big question facing the Mariners (9-10) early next week, because their upcoming series against the Texas Rangers (10-9) will be a measuring stick for how good this team really is.

The M’s were swept in Arlington last season (0-6) and thoroughly outplayed. The road to the postseason goes through Texas, whether that is the Rangers or the Houston Astros (7-13), and the Mariners must take advantage of two teams that are likely at the worst they will be at any point this season.

MLB standings

Maybe this is finally the year the Astros fall apart, but the defending World Series champion Rangers are certainly only going to get better when they return to full health in their rotation.

The postseason misses in 2021 and 2023 by the Mariners were by such a minuscule margin that it put a magnifying glass on the slow starts to each of those seasons. The M’s now have their first big opportunity to answer the question of what kind of team this will be in 2024.

More on the Seattle Mariners

Rockies, the Mariners’ next opponent, place key player on IL
By the Numbers: Mariners pitching staff has righted the ship
What’s behind Logan Gilbert’s strong start? Mariners pitching coach explains
Manager: Mariners hitters starting to look at iPads less in dugout
Watch: Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez makes great catch, throws out Elly de La Cruz

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Lefko on Mariners: 3 reasons for optimism plus an unanswered question