Last year, the Seattle Mariners were hoping to snap a twenty-year drought when it came to participating in Major League Baseball’s post-season.
They accomplished that goal by finishing 90-72 and qualifying as a wild-card. They then swept the Toronto Blue Jays two-games-to-none in the American League Wild Card Series before succumbing to the Houston Astros three-games-to-none in the American League Divisional Series.
Now comes the tough part.
How do they get to the next level?
“We have to focus on getting better. That’s the biggest challenge. It’s not so much chasing a number of wins but can our players continue to get better in their game? Whether it’s a pitcher getting better with a particular pitch or a player doing a better job of controlling the strike zone,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais, now entering is eighth season at the helm of the M’s.
“Whatever it is, can we stay committed to getting better because I believe players never stay the same – either they get better or they get worse and the focus here is on getting better.”
The strength of the club is a very deep starting rotation consisting of Luis Castillo (8-6, 2.99), Robbie Ray (12-12, 3.71), George Kirby (8-5, 3.39), Logan Gilbert (13-6, 3.20) and Marco Gonzales (10-15, 4.13). The bullpen has some solid arms as well and is anchored by the tandem of Paul Sewald (5-4, 2.67, 20 saves) and Andres Munoz (2-5, 2.49, 4 saves).
The lineup will have a few new faces as the organization looks to add the right pieces not only on the field but in the clubhouse.
Gone are outfielders Mitch Haniger and Jesse Winker, second baseman Adam Frazier and designated hitter Carlos Santana. They’ve been replaced by the likes of outfielders Teoscar Hernandez, A.J. Pollock and second baseman Kolten Wong.
The Mariners have built a good culture within the organization from the ground up according to Servais and the team did its due diligence on their winter acquisitions to hopefully maintain that chemistry.
“I think it’s really important – especially where the organization is right now. We do have a playoff appearance under our belt. We do want to take the next step, so the pieces you add are really important not just on the field but in the clubhouse. Will they assimilate and buy into how we prepare, how we work and how we go about those things? It’s not for everybody,” explained Servais.
“There are 30 different teams and we all do it a little differently but I think we did a nice job of bringing players who do fit in. They’re driven and they’ve all been part of winners, which I think matters.”
Hernandez – the former Blue Jay - will bring anywhere between 25 to 35 home runs to the team if all goes well while Wong is almost a lock for double digit homers and steals. Pollack is a veteran middle-of-the-order type of bat that is capable of hitting 15 to 20 home runs.
The club is also hoping that outfielder Jared Kelenic can deliver on the promise of being one of baseball’s top prospects a year ago. The key return in the trade that sent closer Edwin Diaz to the New York Mets, Kelenic struggled mightily at the start of his first big league season before being demoted to Triple-A Tacoma. He wound up shuttling between Tacoma and Seattle and finished with a .141-7-17 stat line.
Kelenic, however, has had a strong spring hitting four home runs with a batting average that’s hovered around .400. The 23-year-old had been battling a quad injury the last few days but will be ready to go for the season opener March 30th at T-Mobile Park versus the Cleveland Guardians.
While Kelenic failed to live up to the hype last year, another prospect did.
That would be the face of the franchise in one Julio Rodriguez.
The 22-year-old reigning American League Rookie of the Year is looking to build off of a .284-28-75 season which saw him become one of baseball’s brightest young stars.
When asked what the ceiling is for the young outfielder, Servais chuckled and said “higher than this one” while looking up in his manager’s office at the Mariner’s Spring Training complex in Peoria.
Servais doesn’t see any ‘sophomore slump’ coming for Rodriguez.
“He’s very intelligent. He’s street smart and he also has a very high baseball IQ, and along those lines, he’s very coachable. He’s always asking questions and focused on getting better. He knows he’s going to mess up – he’s still 22-years-old – he’s still going to make some mistakes along the way,” Siad Servais.
“I buy into the person. He’s an unbelievable talent – there’s no question about that – but buying into the person and what he brings every day and how he goes about his business. He’s got the right mindset – that’s why I think the ceiling is high as it is. He’s very unique.”
Last year, Servais, Rodriguez and the Mariners were the hunters, sneaking up on teams.
This year coming off a playoff appearance, they’ll be the hunted.
How do they meet the challenge?
We’re about to find out.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.