If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
At times, Seattle can feel like an afterthought. They are the furthest point in Major League Baseball and every year, they fly more miles than any other team. They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2001, when a team that won 116 games lost in the ALCS. Last year was the eighth time in that span they’ve finished last in the division and wound up almost 40 games out. It’s tough following this team on a regular basis, it would seem. Thankfully, people do and we can talk about what hope the Pacific Northwest has for 2020!
C70: 2020 marks the beginning of a new era, of a Seattle team that doesn’t have Felix Hernandez on it. What was it like watching him last year know things were ending and how strange will it be to not have him around this season?
Tim: Honestly, King Felix was on the IL for a significant part of last season, and I think that was a blessing in disguise. It was hard envisioning a pleasant end to his tenure as a Mariner, given how quickly his star faded and how the team never built a winner around him. I am not sure anyone outside of Seattle can comprehend how sad the situation was. With that said, Felix’s IL stint erased seeing the struggles on the mound, and when he returned late in the season there were no expectations and a plausible excuse for any struggles. Then, his final start in 2019, with one final King’s Court, was hardly electrifying, but very satisfying. It was way better than I imagined his final start feeling. It was a good moment, and I’m even getting a little dusty thinking back to it right now. The love between the fans and their King in that final start was palpable, and the kind of thing that a franchise like the Astros, with a mentality that the only thing that matters is winning, doesn’t appreciate and risks never experiencing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d take a BUNCH more winning out of the Mariners, but there is a difference between being disappointed with how things turned out for King Felix and the losing years being a waste of time. It wasn’t a waste, and he will forever be remember fondly as one of the franchise’s heroes. Next year, for me, won’t feel strange without him because it has been grueling and painful watching him take the mound the last few years – rooting for a revival, but deep down understanding the situation was impossible. It’s time for a new beginning.
Colby: Obviously, there are very few players who mean as much to their franchise as Felix Hernandez does to the Seattle Mariners. Felix is the best pitcher in franchise history and to see him wearing a different uniform in 2020 is a bit odd. Watching him in 2019 was actually painful. Felix hasn’t been good for 3 years and the feeling amongst those of us who cover the team was that a lot of it was self inflicted. He never seemed open to change or criticism and he got progressively worse towards the end of his tenure.
I have been prepping for Felix’s departure for the past 18 months, and I welcome the separation. Felix Hernandez will always be a Seattle Mariners legend and I will always root for his success. But I’m also unwilling to bury my head in the sand and pretend the last 3 years didn’t happen. He was great for a long-time and then suddenly bad. And he was never willing to accept that he needed to change. I guess that is his pride. I’m rooting for him in Atlanta, but it was pretty clear he was never going to make the necessary changes in Seattle, so I think the two sides needed to get the divorce to preserve a functional friendship. Good luck Felix.
C70: Jerry DiPoto has not made a trade this offseason. Is he feeling all right? More seriously, what have been your thoughts about this offseason for the club?
Tim: Yes, DiPoto is just fine! It is all part of the plan (and he did trade Omar Narvaez, essentially for a draft pick, which I personally liked quite a bit.) Jerry and his front office are impressively forthright and have made several appearances on local radio shows talking about the Mariners offseason. You can also check out “The Wheelhouse,” a Mariners produced podcast that DiPoto frequents. 2020 is about giving prospects a chance to play in the majors and identifying veterans in free agency that have a chance to rebound and remain as part of the next winning club in Seattle. This offseason is right in line with that vision, and I am fine with that. The only thing I might have wished for is a trade that brought in a good veteran from a team looking to shed payroll. A guy like Jackie Bradley, who I realize wasn’t traded, would have made sense to me.
Colby: Jerry Dipoto did make a few trades this winter, but the most notable one involved a catcher most people haven’t heard of, so it does feel like he didn’t do anything. But he did exactly what he told the fan base he would do, even if most of us didn’t believe him. Dipoto was adamant from the end of 2019 that the 2020 season was about letting the young kids play at the big league level. He wasn’t going to sign anybody to block a young guy who was ready for a look at the MLB level.
He did sign a couple of short-term, stop-gap arms like Yoshi Hirano, Kendall Graveman, and Taijuan Walker, all nice moves with decent upside. But he just was never going to fork over a multi-year deal to anybody from outside the organization. Personally, I’d have liked to see him make a run at a starting pitcher with a higher floor, only because he has been telling anybody who will listen that he wants to compete in 2021. Well, if that was the case, he only had last winter, the trade deadline, and next winter to improve his club by about 20 games. Now, he has to do that at the deadline and next winter, making his margin of error smaller than it needed to be.
Overall, I’d give Dipoto a C+ on my scale. But based on what he told everybody he was going to do, he executed it at an A- level. I would have been more aggressive, but he stuck to his convictions about the off-season plan. So in that case, he did just fine.
C70: We always try to keep up with Marco Gonzales, given his start in the Cardinal organization. What do you think he’ll contribute in 2020?
Tim: Marco is in for a big year! He is the de facto ace for the Mariners, which from a talent perspective is alarming. He is essentially a crafty innings-eater and clearly profiles better as a complementary piece in the middle to back end of a playoff-caliber rotation. However, for the 2020 Mariners, there is no better man for the job. I was not surprised when the Mariners gave Marco a contract extension this offseason. Dipoto and Gonzales are both on the record talking about how Marco is being looked to as a mentor for all the young arms the will be looking to find their way in the next couple seasons. The Mariners love the way Marco works and prepares between starts. They believe rewarding that example with a contract extension and bestowing upon him the status and leadership that comes with being the ace will encourage the young guns coming to take after his example. I don’t expect Marco’s season on the mound to look different from 2019 or 2018, but the clubhouse and bullpen will feel very different with Marco as “the guy” instead of King Felix. I think that change is healthy, and if this rebuild works, it will be seen as one of the keys to how the Mariners finally figured out how to win again.
Colby: Marco Gonzales is one of Dipoto’s best moves, which considering how well he’s performed as the GM, particularly in the past 18 months, is saying something. Marco has been one of the better starters in the AL the past two seasons, ranking in the Top 30 of fWAR amongst all starting pitchers. He is as reliable as they come and a safe bet to post an 3.70-4.00 ERA and FIP as you can get. Gonzales is a #3 starter in a good rotation, who can use his command and guile to duke it out with number 1’s on occasion.
Gonzales is an incredible worker. Seattle loves his drive so much that they awarded him with an extension despite him having 4 years of club control. Seattle views Gonzales as a leader and somebody worth building around. And they are right to do so. I’d be surprised if Gonzales didn’t post a 4.00 or less ERA over the course of 180 or so innings. Gonzales is a great arm for anybody to have in the middle of their rotation, and is a pro that anybody would want in your clubhouse. Marco is exactly what Seattle needs. A home run fit for the player, the city, and the team.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Tim: The Mariners will finish in last place in the AL West, but just how bad their record will be is hard to say. It depends some on the development of the M’s young talent, but more on how good the rest of the AL West is. How do the Astros respond to their offseason? How much better are the Angels with Anthony Rendon? What does Corey Kluber do for the Rangers? The A’s aren’t going anywhere either. If the rest of the AL West is as a good as it might be on paper, the Mariners will limp to a 95 to 100-loss record. However, with a few breaks I could see 88-92 losses.
Colby: My expectations are for the Mariners to pick somewhere inside the Top 5 or 6 in the 2021 MLB Draft. So… I guess you’d say not that good. I’d be a little surprised if they didn’t lose at least 90 games. The team is young and young teams tend to make a lot of mistakes that turn a more veteran team’s 3 game losing streaks into 7 game losing streaks. But that is by design. Seattle isn’t supposed to have a good record in 2020. I do expect Seattle to be better in the second half than in the first half, and I suspect they make their own surprising “buy move” in July, similar to the Reds acquiring Trevor Bauer last summer. But I suspect they’ll finish 2020 in last place in the AL West, sitting between 65-70 wins.
C70: What’s the main topic Mariners fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Tim: The J-Rod show! There is lots of focus on the farm system right now, in part because Jerry DiPoto publicly said the plan is to retool and aim for contention as early as next season. However, it helps a whole bunch that the Mariners top prospect, Julio Rodriguez, is now nationally recognized as a consensus top 10 to 15 prospect, and as importantly, has a magnetic personality. His Instagram posts reveal a natural leader filled with joy and happiness. For instance, last spring training he took videos of games in the stands yelling and cheering for the players actually in the games. Julio’s talent is easy to dream on, but his charisma is the thing that sets him apart. It’s unfair to call him the next face of the franchise at 19 years old, but I think most anyone paying close attention to this team is rooting very hard for him to take that mantle. I know I am. He could be something like this team’s Francisco Lindor.
Colby: Well, like a lot of rebuilding teams, Seattle is talking a lot about their prospects. But undergoing a rebuilding process, no matter how correct it was to do so, during an 18-year playoff drought is going to cause some apathy. The diehards are excited for the future. But the fringy fans are angry that Seattle is actually trying to win, as opposed to telling people they are trying to win. There are a lot of misguided “fans” walking around Seattle, so the conversation surrounding the team is minimal. But honestly, I’d rather have it that way. When the team wins, the region will jump on the bandwagon. But until then, a lot of fans will just enjoy the ride of a baseball season with one eye on the future.
It’s tough to tell people you’ll be bad after 18-years of no playoff appearances. It would be so much easier to just continue the charade and give your fan base false hope that this could be the year. But Seattle tried that for 18-years and all it got the fanbase was heartache and disappointment. I applaud the ownership and front office for making a difficult call in the face of so much backlash. Doing what is right over what is easy requires a good deal of courage. And for the first time in a long time, my favorite team decided to exercise it.
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Tim: The games where the future looks bright. Kyle Lewis, Evan White, J.P. Crawford, Shed Long, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert…there’s a fairly long list of guys whom the Mariners have staked their future on that will log significant innings at some point this season. They will have their ups and downs, but the moments where they shine are going to be fun. It has been hard to root for players the last few years because DiPoto has been such an active trader. However, it feels like we finally have some guys who will be around a while. I am excited to get attached to a new group of players, which I haven’t been able to do for years now as the roster churned over and over and over.
Colby: I can’t wait to see the young guys play. J.P. Crawford is a good shortstop who will occasionally make jaw dropping plays. Shed Long is a fun guy with big pop and good speed who is a bit of a character. Kyle Lewis has massive power. Evan White is the best defensive first baseman in baseball before ever playing a game. Mallex Smith steals bases. Tom Murphy hits dingers. Marco Gonzales grinds. Justus Sheffield and Yusei Kikuchi are both entering big years. That’s not even counting top prospects like Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, and Logan Gilbert making their debuts sometime in 2020. Even a bad baseball team can generate some excitement and the Mariners are no exception. This is a young, athletic team with a Top 10 farm system that has a lot of guys knocking on the door of the big leagues. And with no expectations of wins and losses, I can just sit back and enjoy the development of a young nucleus right before my eyes. I’ll take that all day.