Playing Pepper 2022: Seattle Mariners

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Mariners during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Seattle Mariners
90-72, second in the AL West
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Chris Flexen (3.5)
Top hitter by bWAR: Ty France (4.3)

So, so close.  A team that has the longest playoff drought in the majors, not having played a postseason game since October 22, 2001 (12-3 loss to the Yankees, Andy Pettitte with the win, Aaron Sele with the loss) had a chance on the final day to have that change.  It was not to be, but Mariner fans are probably more optimistic about that drought ending (especially with expanded playoffs) than they have been in a long time.  Why don’t we ask them?

Contributor Site Twitter
Tim Chalberg msonmnd24
Chris O'Day Sodo Mojo MarinersLifer
Ty Dane Gonzalez Locked On Mariners danegnzlz
Dave Nichols The Sportsman DNicholsSR

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Seattle’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Tim: I liked the Mariners offseason quite a bit. I wish they could have signed a big bat – specifically one of Trevor Story, Carlos Correa, or Kris Bryant – but Jerry Dipoto hinted at his press conference announcing the Winker/Suarez deal that they essentially couldn’t get any free agent hitter to come to Seattle. I get why Story and Correa would say no, because it was known that the Mariners were not moving J.P. Crawford off of shortstop, and sticking at short was a known priority for both of them. For Kris Bryant…I don’t know. Maybe he just got so much more money from the Rockies? Anyway, I liked the trades to acquire Adam Frazier, Eugenio Suarez, and Jesse Winker. I don’t think Robbie Ray has another Cy Young in him, but I think the deal is reasonable and he added needed depth in the rotation. I know a portion of the M’s fanbase is disappointed at the lack of spending, but I’m not. I don’t think the moves they made show a team being stingy with money or prospects, just a team looking to compete now that also realizes their best days are still ahead of them. Nothing is stopping them from taking on a contract mid-season that doesn’t cost a premium prospect.

Chris: There were a lot of holes that the Mariners needed to fill this offseason. The only thing that they really missed out on was getting either a short term starting pitcher to fill the 5th spot, or a 2/3 guy to be here for a few years. Otherwise, the addition of Robbie Ray, alongside trading for Adam Frazier, Jesse Winker, and Eugenio Suarez made for a great offseason. Sergio Romo is a sneaky good addition as well. They were all great moves, and this team is in a much better position to succeed heading into 2022.

Ty: While the Mariners (surprisingly) won 90 games last year, their roster was not conducive to doing so again. With money to spend and arguably the best farm system in baseball to trade from, they needed to improve significantly to stay relevant in the American League postseason race and I feel they successfully did that. Sure, they didn’t land one of the big free agents like Marcus Semien, Trevor Story or Kris Bryant, but it also wasn’t for a lack of trying. They made significant offers to each of those three players, but Semien and Bryant, both of whom are over the age of 30, wound up getting seven years apiece and had to join bad teams in order to do so. Seattle understandably opted not to go that far; and even with Story, an offer close to—if not better than—what he ended up getting from Boston was on the table on the eve of the lockout, but he continued to drag out his free agency and the Mariners moved on. I’m okay with that, frankly.

The Mariners went about this offseason on their terms and didn’t handcuff themselves to any unideal financial and yearly commitments for the sake of signing a great-not-star player. They still exited this offseason with the reigning AL Cy Young award winner in Robbie Ray, one of the top-seven hitters in all of baseball by wRC+ in Jesse Winker, an All-Star, Gold Glove-caliber second baseman in Adam Frazier and a power-hitting third baseman in Eugenio Suárez who should be able to at least mimic the production of 2021 Kyle Seager. It was a really good offseason, but not a great one. I can understand any fan’s disappointment that they didn’t tack onto this haul with another big name, but there’s also a lot to be excited about here. General manager Jerry Dipoto set out to add impact to a group that already proved capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the best ballclubs in baseball last year. He and his staff got that this winter, putting the Mariners in a great position—with all of their resources still pretty much intact—to be competitive out of the gate and get significantly better if need be. This team now legitimately feels like it’s one or two pieces away from overtaking the Astros in the AL West.

Dave:If Robbie Ray 2022 is a reasonable facsimile of 2021 the rotation gets a big boost and he’ll serve as a mentor to all the young arms that are on the precipice. Picking up Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winker for their No. 4 or 5 pitching prospect was solid too. Settling for Adam Frazier at second instead of moving JP Crawford there and going after one of the shortstops that were available might look shortsighted if they are contending down the stretch. 

C70: The Mariners were oh so close to ending their long playoff drought. What needs to go right this year for them to get into October?

Tim: The biggest help the Mariners got already happened with the new CBA. That’s a new playoff spot haha. The Athletics tearing down their roster to the studs is pretty helpful too, and Carlos Correa leaving the division is nice too. The Mariners aren’t among the elite in the American League, but on paper they should be competitive in the AL West, and competitive for a wild card spot. I expect them to win fewer games in 2022, but they could still break the playoff drought just because of all the changes around them. I expect any team hovering around .500 or better will stay in the wild card hunt into September.

Chris: They need the offense to show up. It was awful in 2021, and their luck in close games led to a better record than anyone would expect for a team with such a negative run differential. They’ve got the pitching to back it up, and a healthy Marco Gonzales could be an All-Star caliber pitcher. Add in Logan Gilbert hitting 90 with his slider, and you’ve got a rotation that looks really strong.

Ty: This team still lacks depth—or rather, depth that the Mariners are certain is, well, actually depth. In that regard, the most concerning thing about Seattle’s roster right now is that it feels like an injury in the starting rotation or the outfield could derail things quite considerably. So staying healthy, just like for most other ballclubs, is priority No. 1 for getting to the postseason. Regression to the bullpen, which is losing Casey Sadler to injury and adding Ken Giles, Andrés Muñoz and Sergio Romo to the mix, is also concerning, considering the fact it was inarguably the reason Seattle was able to win so many close games and get as far as it did last season. Fortunately, the one thing Dipoto has proven capable of doing consistently at the major league level is patching together workable bullpens on the fly, so if things go awry, he’s not going to sit on his hands. The Mariners also need better roster balance than they had a year ago. The offense has to be able to consistently produce, and a lot of that falls on their new additions like Winker. But J.P. Crawford not regressing to his pre-2021 form at the plate would also help, and so would Mitch Haniger getting back to being a more well-rounded hitter instead of strictly selling out for power. At least one of Jarred Kelenic or Julio Rodríguez panning out would also do wonders.

Dave:Health. Julio Rodriguez cracking the opening day lineup would help too.

C70: Jarred Kelenic had a slow debut last year. Is there any concern that he won’t bounce back this season?

Tim: Short answer, no, but I think it depends on what people expect. I would argue Kelenic doesn’t have to bounce back at all. He was a different hitter by the end of the season. His September/October was strong. He ran up a wRC+ of 135 with a sustainable .276 BABIP. I know it’s a small sample size, but compare that to when he came up in May and June. His BABIP was .109, and frankly, he wasn’t unlucky. He was struggling to make good contact. Against lefties in May and June, Kelenic went 3 for 26 with 3 singles, 0 walks, and 9 strikeouts. Completely overmatched. In September he went 6 for 39 with a double, a home run, 7 walks, and 11 strikeouts. Still not good numbers, but better across the board. Kelenic started to figure out the big leagues. The version we saw of him at the end of the year is a good every day player. I hope he is even better in 2022, but I would take what we saw that last month of 2021 in a heartbeat.

Chris: Personally, I don’t have any worries about Kelenic. He was a rookie, and it was an odd situation when you remember that he lost a lot of reps due to the shortened season/s from COVID. Kelenic was a top prospect in all of baseball for a reason. He’s got the potential for not just a great hit tool, but speed and power as well. There’s always a concern that it won’t work out, but I’m very positive that he is going to be just fine.

Ty: He already kinda bounced back in September and October of last season, slashing .248/.331/.524 with seven home runs and 20 RBI over the final 29 games of the season. That said, he’s come into Spring Training looking even bulkier than he did last season; and for what he’s gained in muscle, he’s lost in speed and agility. He’s also switched up his mechanics at the plate yet again. I’m concerned he’s going to overwhelm himself, much like he did before he was sent back down to Triple-A last summer. That was the first time he’s legitimately struggled at any level of the sport and it clearly impacted him from a mental standpoint. But knowing that he was able to bounce back from such a low point should give him the confidence that he can do it again if he slumps, though he needs to stop making drastic changes to his profile every time that happens and instead trust the tools he has. 

Dave: Sure, there’s concern. That (and Kyle Lewis‘ health) is what triggered the Winker acquisition and the long look at Julio in the spring. But Kelenic had a BABiP of .216 last year, which goes beyond unlucky.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Tim: JULIO RODRIGUEZ. How could I choose anybody else? He’s in the conversation for best prospect in baseball, and I think most everyone would argue he’s the most electric prospect at the dish. That’s not to say that Julio Rodriguez is only a hitter, but I would argue there is no prospect in baseball more exciting when he steps to the plate. His first at-bat this spring training was a home run to left field that was clocked at a blistering 117 MPH off the bat. Only 5 MLB players hit a home run that hard last year. That’s the kind of exit velocities that Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are known for. Julio Rodriguez also has an absurd work ethic. His defense has improved, and maybe most surprising is that his foot speed has also improved, so much so that the Mariners are giving him a long look in center field this spring. I’ll go bold and say he is the Mariners opening day center fielder. He will make his MLB debut somewhere in the first half of the year. With all that said, Matt Brash and George Kirby both figure to make their MLB debuts on the mound in 2022, and that’s exciting too. No fair making me choose only one with where this farm system is at right now!

Chris: I mean, is there any answer other than Julio? He’s gotta be one of the most prospects in all of baseball. He just seems to get better and better with every challenge that they throw at him. He’s getting reps in center field now, as not only has he gotten bigger and stronger, but he has gotten faster as well. There’s a real chance that he opens the season as the team’s starting center fielder with the big league club. For me, the next one is Noelvi Marte. He’s up to 6’3-210 lbs, and has a great power/speed combo. If you’re unfamiliar and looking for a comp, it’s Hanley Ramirez when he was on the Marlins. Look for him to be on the same path as Julio/Gilbert/Kelenic. By that, I mean a chance to make the club in 2023 out of Spring Training, but likely coming up in May.

Ty: Julio Rodríguez is one of the best prospects in baseball, so he’s the answer by default. We’re talking about someone with legitimate superstar upside and an All-Star personality. While it would be irresponsible and unfair to Rodríguez to put such high expectations on him, it’s hard not to get excited about a potential Ronald Acuña-esque breakout in 2022. He has all the tools to make it happen and somehow continues to add more to his profile like his speed, which Dipoto said went up by a “full grade-and-a-half” this offseason. That’s likely due to the fact he leaned-up physically as the team looks to put him to work in centerfield while Kyle Lewis continues to rehab from a knee injury. Because of the lack of options Seattle has in center and Rodríguez’s extraordinarily high ceiling, it appears he’ll be on the Opening Day roster and in the starting lineup come April 7. Another prospect who will also be on the roster from day one is right-handed starter Matt Brash. The pitching market didn’t fall the way the Mariners had hoped, so, barring injury, Brash is going to be their No. 5 starter to kick things off. Brash features a mid-to-high 90s fastball and one of the nastiest sliders in the sport. If you’re looking for this year’s Tanner Houck, this is him.

Dave: I’ve already mentioned his name twice. Julio Rodriguez is one of the top three position prospects in the game and if he’s not in the opening day lineup it won’t take long. There are three or four pitchers real close, but Julio is a superstar in the making.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Tim: I say they go 85-77, finishing in second place in the AL West, and they head north of the border to face the Blue Jays in the new three-game wild card format. The Mariners ride their arms to a surprising series victory, but run out of gas in the next round. Still, mission accomplished – Seattle falls in love with this Mariners team, and their window of contention opens up for real in 2023.

Chris: The lineup, post Reds trade, is actually looking pretty good. If, and it’s a big If, Kyle Lewis is able to stay healthy, it makes it that much better by having someone to help with lefties instead of making Winker hit them. Still, this does look like a playoff team, and one that should legitimately compete for a spot in the postseason. 92-70 is a fair expectation, and they should be fighting for a WC spot come the last few weeks of the season.

Ty: This team still has some glaring question marks, but they’re undeniably better than where they were at season’s end last October. Playing things safe, I think they’re about an 82-to-84 win team right now, but the path to 90-plus wins is pretty clear. If they can make it to the All-Star break in striking distance of the Astros, I’d be legitimately concerned if I was a Houston fan. The Mariners are positioned better than the rest of the division to get significantly better, thanks to having arguably the best farm system in the game. They’re dangerous as is and will only become more so as the year moves along. I’m confident they’ll put the longest playoff drought in major professional sports to an end this season, but I also wouldn’t be stunned if we look up in early October and see them atop the AL West.

Dave: The Mariners are a much better club this year than last when they finished just outside of the playoffs. With the expanded playoffs this year, combined with two tanking teams and one critically mismanaged team in the division, the M’s should finally, finally break the drought.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Mariners Twitter accounts to follow.

Tim: I’m a silent Twitter listener more than a talker, so I’d definitely recommend all of these accounts above me. Here they are:

1. @MILBMariners. Tweets out notable performances by Mariner minor leaguers every day. Especially fun right now with the state of the farm system.
2. @RyanDivish. Mariners beat writer for the Seattle Times, the most-read local newspaper. He’s a good follow for news, obviously, but also shows a fair amount of personality on Twitter and lets his own perspective come through on social media at times.
3. @JRODshow44. This is Julio Rodriguez’s account. He might not break camp with the Mariners, but he is likely to debut at some point this season. More importantly for this recommendation, he is active on social media, and comes across as relentlessly upbeat and driven. I think he is likely to share his perspective on what it’s like to make the majors, and if it’s anything like what he has shared the last few years as he has worked through the minors, he will be overjoyed. If you want positivity, motivation, and to watch someone come of age, you could do a bunch worse than J-Rod.

BONUS PODCAST RECOMMENDATION: The Mariners host a roughly monthly podcast called “The Wheelhouse,” which Jerry Dipoto is featured on. It predictably skews positive, but at the same time Dipoto typically provides some insights into how the organization views players and how they make decisions. This year, like last year, will likely include insights into how the team decides when to call up their top prospects, and probably also chatter around what they consider when mid-year trade rumors pop up.

Chris: Oh man, who to follow. Let’s see here. You should all follow @SodoMojoFS, @DarrenTrain, and @CaryWillYams. Darren and Cary don’t have a ton of followers, but are always fun to interact with, knowledgeable, and respectful, which is a huge plus in dealing with anyone online. 

Ty: @controlthezone, @SavageDipoto and @zachleft 

Dave:@LookoutLanding), @ProspectInsider

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