Playing Pepper 2021: Seattle Mariners

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Seattle Mariners
27-33, third in the AL West
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

Seattle’s not often in the news (some recent comments by a now-former front office type notwithstanding) but there’s a lot of great history there.  Still, it seems like the current roster is a far cry from the glory days of Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez.  There’s still talent on this roster, though it remains to be seen if there’s enough to overtake the favorites in the division.  Let’s see what the Mariner faithful are thinking!

Blogger Site Twitter
Tim Chalberg msonmnd24
Dave Nichols The Sportsman DNicholsSR
Jake Mailhot Lookout Landing jakemailhot

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Tim: I liked the season, though I also think it helped that I followed a team like the Mariners. The 2020 Mariners had no aspirations of actual contention, so the enjoyment was always going to be simply seeing them take the field, and they did that! Even better, they got on a bit of a roll in the back half of the shortened season which, combined with the sluggish season the Astros put together and extended playoffs, put them in surprising contention! There was no way that would have happened in a normal season.

The rules were better than I had feared. I am not sure I would say I liked them, but they were fine. The universal DH, expanded rosters, and larger roster sizes all seemed to help open up some roster spots for players that otherwise would not have been in the majors. Burly sluggers had more teams interested in them, and specialty pinch runners found a home on benches too. 2020 felt like the first time since MLB cracked down on steroids that some different looking athletes and skillsets got on the field, and I appreciated that.

Lastly, following baseball during the pandemic felt largely the same for me. I don’t go to many MLB games, so the games being closed to the public did not impact me much. However, I attend AAA games, so that was a big loss. On the other hand, the Mariners streamed YouTube broadcasts of scrimmages during the “summer camp” before the season started up again and I loved tuning into those. I planned my afternoons early on in the pandemic around seeing those scrimmages. Root sports (the local sports station) even picked up a few of the Mariners scrimmages in their training camp after the regular season started because it was stacked with the M’s top prospects.

Dave: I was fortunate to cover the Mariners home opening series in person last summer at T-Mobile Park and it was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve ever had in sports. With all of the COVID issues surrounding the game last year, it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion about the quality of play, with very little ramp-up and just 60 games to go on. Complicating that, we know the ball was juiced in 2019 so we have two years of faulty data to go on now. Since I also cover the minor league Spokane Indians, I was well familiar with the free runner in extra innings and I’m not a fan generally and less so in the big leagues. I am pro-universal DH and thought that worked very well for pandemic ball. We’ll see it in the bigs fulltime with the next CBA. I HATE the three-batter minimum and think if they’re going to implement an arbitrary rule like that it should be based on play on the field — say, the pitcher has to stay in the game if the last batter he faced makes an out (or the end of the inning). 

Jake: If there was going to be a season to pilot some of these new rule changes that are on the docket the next time the CBA is going to be negotiated, 2020 was the perfect opportunity. It was already going to be unlike any season that’s ever come before so why not give some of these changes a test run. I surprisingly didn’t mind starting extra innings with a runner on second. Of the rule changes, I thought that one was going to be the toughest sell. I appreciated the immediate heighted leverage as soon as the 10th inning started and the new strategies developed to take advantage of the unique gamestate.

C70: According to reports, Seattle is going to have a six-man rotation for the entire year. Is that a good idea and do you think it will last the entire year or maybe beyond?

Tim: The six-man rotation is a good idea. It will last the entire year, and I think for the foreseeable future. Seattle used a six-man rotation all of the 2020 season for a handful of reasons, and most of those still apply in 2021. They had the extra roster spots (like everybody else in 2020) and worried about placing too much stress on pitching arms. This remains a concern in 2021 with Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn continuing to break into the major leagues, and the likely promotion of Logan Gilbert at some point during the regular season. The Mariners also just reunited with James Paxton, and perhaps the lighter load from pitching every sixth day will help him stay healthy.

However, while the lighter arm load is a nice benefit, the real reason the Mariners are going to stick with this plan has to do with the work that starters do between starts. Starters, as I am sure you and your readers are already aware, typically have one “bullpen day” of work between starts in a five-man rotation. Last year, with the six-man rotation, Mariners starters had two work days spaced out between starts. That allowed the young Mariners starters to use one of those work days to focus on refining their pitches, and then the other to get ready for their start. The Mariners found it easier to continue to help pitchers develop at the MLB level with the six-man rotation. The Mariners had a surprisingly solid starting rotation in 2020 and it is fair to give some of the credit to the six-man structure.

Dave: Obviously, this is another growth year for the Mariners. The rotation has some proven commodities (Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, James Paxton–for better and worse) and guys that are still trying to prove they belong. If they’re committed to the six-man rotation, that should help relieve the burden on Paxton while providing opportunity to Sheffield, Chris Flexen and Dunn to try to prove they belong in a big-league rotation. 

Jake: I think the reality of the shortened season and the limited pitcher workloads in 2020 will have a significant effect on how teams approach their pitching staffs in 2021. The Mariners aren’t the only team in baseball who has said they’d approach this year pretty conservatively when it comes to making sure their pitchers are healthy and ready for a full 162-game season. Some teams have placed a soft inning cap on their starters but we’ll see if those artificial caps last into September in the middle of a pennant chase. I’m sure we’ll see liberal use of the injured list to give pitchers a bit of a rest during the season and teams with pitching staffs filled with optionable players are going to be better off than teams with less flexible rosters.

For the Mariners specifically, a six-man rotation gives them tons of flexibility to give starts to their young pitchers while keeping the workload of the entire staff fairly reasonable. Pitchers like Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius, and Ljay Newsome should see plenty of starts in that sixth spot in the rotation and top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert should make his major league debut sometime in 2021. The six-man rotation also helps the Mariners protect a pitcher like James Paxton who has struggled to stay on the mound for a full season throughout his career. A workhorse like Marco Gonzales might have some issues with the expanded rotation, but I think the benefits outweigh the downsides.

C70: Mitch Haniger missed all of last season with injury. What’s your expectation for him in 2021?

Tim: I have no idea. I think he is who he is at this point, which is a pretty talented ballplayer that pushes his body beyond its breaking point. I expect him to play, and be productive when he is on the field, but maybe play 100 games? I think he is still the M’s best outfielder when healthy (even better than AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis) but the team has some outfield depth to deal with Haniger’s injuries.

Dave: That’s kind of the $64,000 question, right? For all the talent the M’s have coming up in the outfield, they’d really like it if they had that one quality veteran they could depend on out there for the next couple of years. But all Haniger has been able to do consistently is miss games. And the last data we have on him was a prolonged slump in 2019 when everyone else was hitting 35-plus homers. If healthy–a BIG if–Haniger could be one of the better right fielders in the AL. But it’s just as likely the accumulation of core injury at age 30 will be his undoing.

Jake: It’s really hard to gauge what we’ll see from Mitch Haniger in 2021. When he went down in 2019 with his groin injury, he was in the middle of a disappointing season. His strikeout rate had spiked up to 28.6% even though his power numbers were as strong as ever. All that added power couldn’t counteract the overall loss of contact and lower BABIP. The question is whether or not we’ll see the Haniger from 2017-18 that posted a 134 wRC+ and accumulated 6.9 WAR in two years or the one that posted a 106 wRC+ and 1.1 WAR in 2019. Based on how good he’s looked in the limited spring training games we’ve been able to see, my gut says he’ll be closer to the good Mitch we saw a few years ago. But if he struggles to start the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start to press, causing that strikeout rate to creep up again.

C70: Is there a prospect that will make an impact this season?

Tim: This question depends some on what you mean by impact! I will go against popular opinion with this Mariners farm system and say that no prospect will make an impact for the Mariners in 2021. I expect both Logan Gilbert and Jared Kelenic to make their debuts, and both are highly regarded internally and nationally on prospect ranking lists. Those will be exciting debuts for sure. However, I do not see anybody in the farm system that gets called up and pushes this team from the fringe of contention into a playoff spot or something like that.

Dave: Now that disgraced CEO Kevin Mather is playing golf somewhere and enjoying his golden parachute, maybe. The M’s boast one of the top farm systems in the league, and the trickle of high-end talent should be a serious flow soon. Jarred Kelenic should have broken camp with the big club, but a strained knee will shelve him to start the season. But the 21-year-old is ready. Fellow outfielder Taylor Trammell will also garner MLB service time this year. Top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert would benefit from a full season of AAA but has shown front-of-the-rotation stuff. Mega-prospect Julio Rodriguez is in his age 20 season and is likely to begin in Double-A. He missed last summer with a hairline fracture in his left wrist so there’s no reason to rush him. But like the Nationals did with Juan Soto, if he shows there’s no reason to keep him in the minors they might not.

Jake: Do I have to pick just one? The ugly business with Jarred Kelenic and his service time manipulation aside, he should force his way onto the MLB roster at some point in 2021. His knee injury in spring training was unfortunately timed but I happen to think he probably needed a little more exposure to high-level pitching in the minors before getting called up. His injury gives the Mariners an excuse to keep him down until late-April or early-May. Once he’s up, he has the tools and drive to be a superstar.

I already mentioned Logan Gilbert above but he should also make a serious impact as soon as he’s called up. He has an advanced four-pitch repertoire that he can command well. As a college draft pick, he’s flown through the minors and has dominated at each stop. Reports have him adding velocity to his fastball this offseason. Combined with his elite arm extension, that velocity really plays up and gives him a fantastic foundation to build off of. His secondary pitches are all average to above average with his slider flashing plus at times. He should be a solid contributor in the middle of Seattle’s rotation for years to come.

The one prospect that’s really opening eyes this spring is Taylor Trammell. Now on his third major league club since being drafted, he’s finally putting all of his raw tools to use in game situations. He’s been working on his swing over the last year or so and all that work looks like it’s paying off this spring in Arizona. He’s building a solid case to break camp as the Mariners everyday left fielder.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Tim: This team is not a contender yet. I think they will end up in the 75 win range. The roster has upside and will go as far as the young talent carries it. The question is how much that talent has developed. Projection systems are pessimistic on Kyle Lewis staying as good as he was last year, and I could see a slide. However, the Mariners are making a concerted effort to actually develop players at the MLB level and I am not sure data-driven projection systems, which rely heavily on historical comparisons, necessarily account for that. I think the Mariners could overperform projections by some amount for a few years because their player development approach is novel enough, but not enough to put this team into playoff positioning.

Dave: Same as last year. Some good, some bad, some growth, some attrition. There’s not enough talent in the lineup or rotation to contend, but they’ll make it entertaining most nights. This franchise is two or three years away still, but there are some very exciting pieces to build on. 

Jake: While I believe the team will probably outperform their pre-season projections, I have a hard time seeing them breaking their postseason drought this year. FanGraphs and PECOTA peg them for around 88-91 losses in 2021. With the continued development of some of their younger major leaguers and the debuts of Kelenic, Gilbert, and Trammell, I think they’ll probably fall somewhere around 81 losses. That won’t be good enough in a wide open AL West and definitely falls short in the competitive AL Wild Card race. This year is really all about finding out which youngsters can be counted on in 2022 when the organization should be ready to spend big to build a contender.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Tim: I will give the Mariners a D overall. I was at a C before Kevin Mather opened his mouth and had to resign in shame, but those comments matter.

I give the Mariners farm system and player development an A or a B. I wish they would go after higher ceiling talent in the draft, but they have been more active internationally and they also seem to have a good eye for the kinds of players that they can coach up in their own development system. We started to see some early results of their system with a guy like Ljay Newsome, who was never a hot prospect but now throws harder without loss of command. Sam Delaplane will follow Newsome shortly in becoming another player development success. The Mariners also deserve some credit for fleecing the Mets in the Cano trade, though that probably has as much to do with LOLMets as it has to do with Jerry Dipoto.

Now, on to the Mather-sized elephant in the room. You will have to take my word on it, but I had the following paragraph written before Kevin Mather logged into his fated Zoom call:

It is no mistake that this team’s losing spans multiple general managers and managers, and I think that same mix of ineptitude quietly reared its head again this offseason. The Mariners had a unique opportunity to supercharge their rebuild and they passed on an amazing opportunity. Seattle had already shed millions of dollars in payroll through the rebuilding process the past few years, which placed them in a position to make it through the pandemic better than other teams. Moreover, the Mariners own a stake in their own sports network, Root sports, which just signed a deal to televise Kraken games (our incoming expansion NHL franchise.) It seems like, at least from the outside looking in, few teams had payrolls so far below their means heading into the pandemic, and few teams have such obvious avenues to grow their income like an expansion NHL team showing up and televising their games on your own network. Lastly, MLB player salaries in free agency are clearly suppressed in the wake of the pandemic. Add this all up and I thought there was an opportunity for Seattle to pursue several free agents on short-term deals and make a better team for 2021. Their inability to read this unique situation and alter their plans disappointed me. Maybe this is Dipoto loving too much on his prospects and keeping their paths open, but we are 20 years into watching this team not quite put all the pieces together. It is a larger issue.

Enter the larger issue. Mather, when he wasn’t busy throwing his own players under the bus, confirmed much of what I shared in the paragraph above. Mariners leadership understood that they were uniquely positioned to survive 2020 financially better than most MLB franchises. They did not capitalize on that fact by acquiring more talent, despite apparently (according to Mather’s comments) also finding their own collection of talent less than palatable.

Mather was essentially number two in command in the whole franchise, and the top guy, John Stanton, was relatively quick to praise Mather when he resigned. You would think the Mariners would at least do a better job pretending that Kevin Mather did not represent franchise leadership as a whole, but then again, this is a franchise where Mather goes on a recorded Zoom call with season ticket holders IN HIS ROLE and spouts of 45 minutes of inflammatory content. Also, Mather was promoted by the Mariners amid a 2018 sexual misconduct case which was settled out of court (as in the Mariners paid for the charges to go away, more or less,) which at the time was alarming, and now looks even worse. If M’s ownership had better judgement, then perhaps they could have avoided this Mather meltdown, and maybe even along the way found a playoff berth or two.

Local reporters pressed John Stanton on whether Mariner fans can trust this organization in the wake of Mather’s comments. Stanton believes trust is a non-issue because this issue with Mather does not concern the players or Jerry Dipoto. Stanton also reiterated that Mather was expressing his personal views and not those of a whole organization. Stanton’s views are, to put it lightly, highly questionable. The damage in Seattle, and in the Mariners clubhouse, is obvious.

However, I think there is more fallout to come. Mather’s comments about Jarred Kelenic will not be the reason that players strike at the end of this season, but they might be the comments that force new bargaining that eliminates service time manipulation. Also, what player at this point would really look forward to signing with this team? The Mariners have no respect with players, and certainly no respect with the players union. I also think the Mariners lost all respect within the owner circle too, thanks to Mather’s “saying the quiet part out loud” approach in his Zoom session. It’s as if this franchise looked at the Rockies paying $50 million to your Cardinals to take Nolan Arenado and asked the Rockies to hold their beer so they could show how ineptitude is done.

The Mariners have to get sold to a new ownership group. I don’t even see what’s fun about owning this team for the current leadership given all the losing and the bridges they have burned. The fact that I did not give the Mariners an F is a testament to what Dipoto’s regime has built and how fun it is following this wave of prospects the team has right now.

Dave: MLB roster: C. Prospects: A. Drafting and development: A-. Front office: F. The Mather incident once again showed how the Mariners suits continue to bungle away the goodwill between the club and its fan base. Mather’s public comments about service time and the team’s foreign-born players (and coaches) put on display the amount of disdain an average MLB executive has for the players. This coming from an executive that had already been credibly accused of inappropriate workplace behavior and was allowed to stay on after the club reached settlements with three former female employees. That Mather was allowed to resign–rather than being fired immediately by ownership–is telling. Ownership can express disappointment and apologize all they want but given the opportunity to do the right thing they took the coward’s way out once again. 

Jake: It’s tough to give the organization a single grade at this point. On the one hand, Jerry Dipoto has assembled a very impressive group of prospects on a very short rebuild timeline. The future is bright in Seattle. On the other hand, the team President and CEO just recently publicly embarrassed himself and the organization with some extremely offensive and inappropriate comments. The team certainly hasn’t handled the aftermath very well and the ill effects from that episode will continue to be felt throughout the year and into the future. Oh, and the team still hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001, a pathetic record of futility in professional sports.

I think a D- would be appropriate right now, with room to grow if things turn around quickly.

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