Last Updated on October 1, 2020 by Luke Arkins

Throughout this topsy-turvy season, there were encouraging signs for the rebuilding Seattle Mariners. Sure, the Mariners didn’t snap their 19-year postseason drought, a disappointing reality considering half the league earned a playoff spot. But playing October baseball was never the goal for 2020.

Instead, Mariners management opted to sacrifice “the now” to build a sustainable contender – something Pacific Northwest baseball fans haven’t witnessed this century.

So what were those encouraging signs? Some were obvious, others more subtle.

Productive First Rounders

For two-plus decades, the Mariners were underachievers when it came to drafting and developing prospects. Prior to the arrival of GM Jerry Dipoto, the team was particularly inept in the first round. The most prominent first rounders selected by Seattle this century were Adam Jones and Taijuan Walker – that’s it. Now though, the organization appears to have a cohesive scouting and development strategy.

For proof, look no further than the first player drafted during the Dipoto era – Kyle Lewis. Not only did the Mariners shrewdly select Lewis with the eleventh overall pick in 2016, the team helped him recover from a devastating knee injury suffered the same year. Now, the Mercer alum is the front-runner for this 2020 AL Rookie of the Year.

Yes, Lewis deserves all the credit for having the tireless work ethic and steadfast perseverance needed to overcome a potentially career-altering setback. But his ascent to the head of the 2020 rookie class with Seattle may not have been possible under previous regimes.

Lewis isn’t the only first rounder making his presence known. Evan White appears to be the long-term answer at first base – a position long devoid of value for the Mariners. Yes, White must improve his hitting. But after leading all first basemen in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), we know his Gold Glove caliber defense is for real.

The next impact first rounder on the horizon is Logan Gilbert. If it weren’t for the pandemic, Gilbert probably joins the Mariners in 2020. Perhaps the club delays the 23-year-old’s MLB debut at the onset of next season. But barring unforeseen circumstance, he’ll be be part of the rotation by the All-Star break.

Marco Was Marco

Once again, Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales was the anchor of the Mariners’ fledgling rotation. The left-hander’s numbers weren’t sexy. But the former Gonzaga Bulldog continued to improve, as he did in 2019.

Marco’s 2019 and 2020 Production

IP/GS
ERA
BB%
SO%
HR/9
AVG
xwOBA
2019
6.0
3.99
6.5
17.0
1.0
.264
.315
2020
6.3
3.10
2.5
23.1
1.0
.214
.310
MLB
4.46
8.3
22.9
1.4
.245
.314

More importantly, Gonzales emerged as a team leader – particularly within the pitching staff. During in-game interviews on team broadcasts, young starters Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius, and Ljay Newsome routinely cited Marco’s methodical preparation and aggressive approach on the mound as characteristics to emulate.

Being an example for the kids is an intangible that won’t show up on the back of Gonzales’ baseball card. But this quality is invaluable to a club striving to build around front-line starting pitching.

Justus Was Served

Of all the young Mariners on this year’s roster, Sheffield’s growth was most impressive – at least it was to me. Sure, Lewis is the presumptive Rookie of the Year. But Sheffield demonstrated significant progress after a turbulent 2019.

Justus Sheffield’s 2020 Numbers

IP/GS
ERA
BB%
SO%
HR/9
AVG
xwOBA
5.5
3.75
8.5
22.1
0.3
.246
.303
MLB
4.46
8.3
22.9
1.4
.245
.322

Even when Sheffield didn’t have his best stuff, he continued battling and usually delivered strong outings for manager Scott Servais. The “quality start” stat can be misleading due to its reliance on earned runs, but the Tennessee native making quality starts in six of 10 outings suggests he’s secured a spot in Seattle’s rotation of the future.

Defense As A Core Competency

One of the more memorable highlights from the Mariners’ 2020 season was Lewis making a catch reminiscent to one once made by Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. That said; there are signs Seattle’s defense has improved far beyond one highlight reel catch.

The following table illustrates where Seattle’s combined DRS at each position ranked in MLB in each of the last two seasons. Highlighted in red are positions with significant improvement in 2020.

Mariners DRS Rankings 2019 v 2020

All
P
C
1B
2B
SS
3B
LF
CF
RF
2019
29
24
25
24
23
30
22
16
28
24
2020
9
11
29
1
18
4
25
8
18
7

Whether it was an influx of new personnel or a greater emphasis on fundamentals, Mariner defenders played more cleanly in 2020 and the numbers agree.

We already noted White rates among the best defensive first baseman in baseball, as a rookie. Meanwhile J.P. Crawford finished the season ranked fourth at shortstop – a position deep with top-shelf defenders.

In center field, Lewis was mid-pack at another elite defensive position. It’s worth noting the 25-year-old spent more time playing corner outfield spots than center field with Class-AA Arkansas last year. In fact, his 56 starts/478.2 innings in center field with the Mariners in 2020 represents his highest season total of his professional career.

While there was an everyday center fielder, multiple players held down the corners. Dylan Moore and Braden Bishop delivered plus-defense. Other contributors included Dee Strange-Gordon, Jake Fraley, Shed Long, Tim Lopes, Jose Marmolejos, Phil Ervin, and Mallex Smith. Some were better than others, none were atrocious. That’s an important distinction from recent outfield rotations – athletic contributors with better defensive value.

Despite the good news, there remains room for improvement.

Although the third base defense of Kyle Seager often receives positive attention on the air and from fans, the metrics didn’t favor the former North Carolina Tar Heel’s work. His -6 DRS placed him near the bottom among third basemen. Still, Seager did rank sixth among his peers in 2019. Perhaps he rebounds next season.

Catcher ranked poorly, but that’s understandable. After Tom Murphy went down with a foot fracture in summer camp, the team spent the season cobbling together a backstop rotation with Austin Nola, Joe Odom, Joe Hudson, and Luis Torrens.

As of today, Murphy and Torrens project to be the Opening Day catching tandem with top prospect Cal Raleigh waiting in the wings. Murphy was a strong defender last season, while evaluators speak positively about the work of both Torrens and Raleigh behind the plate.

The M’s Are Good Bargain Shoppers

Dipoto and his crew have a knack for discovering players with value after other clubs discard them. Prior to the 2019 season, the Mariners signed Moore, a minor-league free agent, to a major-league contract. The 28-year-old struggled last season in a part-time role. However, he flourished this year when given the opportunity to play on an everyday basis at multiple positions.

Moore started games at every infield and outfield position in 2020 and led the team in stolen bases, OBP, SLG and OPS+. Perhaps the team chooses to find a permanent spot on the field for the University of Central Florida product, such as third or second base. Another option is to morph him into a Ben Zobrist type, a super-utility man with offensive upside.

Nola was another diamond in the rough discovered by the Mariners. Unlike Moore, the former LSU Tiger was an instant hit last season with 10 home runs and a .269/.342/.454 slash-line in 79 games. He too was flexible playing both corner infield spots, second base, and catcher during his rookie campaign.

This year, Nola was the Mariners’ primary catcher after Murphy went down. At least until Dipoto dealt the 30-year-old to the Padres in August for top-100 prospect Taylor Trammell, Ty France, Andrés Muñoz, and Torrens. Quite an impressive haul for a player with 108 games of MLB experience with Seattle.

Fans tend to focus on marquee acquisitions. However, Nola and Moore are examples of low-profile additions capable of helping a team trying to build a championship roster. Perhaps, this year’s less heralded pickups – Jose Marmolejos, Phillip Ervin, and Sam Haggerty – eventually deliver similar value for the Mariners either on the diamond or in the trade market.

A Willingness To Move On

Ever since taking over as GM of the Mariners in September 2015, Dipoto has repeatedly stated he’s willing to admit mistakes and turn the page when necessary. This year, he proved true to his word

Dipoto traded minor-leaguer Jordan Pries and Mike Montgomery to the Cubs to get Daniel Vogelbach and Paul Blackburn from the Cubs in a 2016 deadline deal. The Mariners hoped Vogelbach’s hit tool would make him a central figure in their lineup for years to come. But that never happened with the exception of a brief period last season. As a result, the team designated him for assignment before trading him to the Blue Jays in August.

After a breakout season with the Rays, Seattle picked up Mallex Smith along with Jake Fraley in exchange for Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor-leaguer Michael Plassmeyer from Tampa Bay. As with Vogelbach, Smith didn’t live up to expectations. The Mariners outrighted him to Class-AAA Tacoma in September.

Dipoto’s willingness to acknowledge mistakes is crucial for a club intent on integrating many youngsters into its 2021 roster. Some of these players may not work out, but we now know JeDi has the capacity to act appropriately.

That’s encouraging.

Management Stayed The Course

Dipoto and his organization stuck with the game plan with their leading prospects – Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic. Even when a whiff of the postseason was present in mid-September.

Sure, the Mariners could’ve called up both Gilbert and Kelenic in an attempt to end their postseason drought. Perhaps one or both players would’ve helped, but the team chose to be patient leaving the duo and the rest of the kids in Tacoma.

Management also avoided the temptation of switching to a five-man rotation down the home stretch. Doing so would’ve permitted the club’s best pitchers to make 1-2 extra starts and instantly increase the odds of overtaking the hapless Astros for second place in the AL West. Instead, the Mariners remained disciplined putting player development and health ahead of being the eighth best team in the AL.

Wait Til Next Year

We saw a lot of good things from young and new players, such as Sheffield, Moore, and White. But others teased us in short bursts with their talent and promise. Next year, we’ll seem more of them and that’s going to be fun.

Rule 5 pickup Yohan Ramirez struggled with his command and control at times, but his stuff is so tantalizingly good. Imagine Ramirez’s dynamic arsenal and the 100-mph velocity of new acquisition Andrés Muñoz becoming a lethal combo at the back-end of Seattle’s bullpen. Perhaps as soon as late next year.

We recently learned Long was dealing with an injured leg since March. Serious enough to undergo surgery after the season. This likely explains why the 25-year-old under-performed at the plate. It’ll be fun to see how a healthy Shed rebounds next year. I’m rooting for him.

There were several other 25-or-younger arms presenting flashes of promise – Nick Margevicius, Ljay Newsome, Anthony Misiewicz, and Joey Gerber. Their progress next season will be must-see also.

Although he didn’t play this year, we should take a moment to acknowledge Mitch Haniger. After being out since June 2019 due to injuries, Haniger projects to be healthy by next season. If that’s the case, he’ll be the regular right fielder.

Haniger will be entering his age-30 season in 2021 and a year from free agency. If he performs at his former All-Star level, Dipoto could deal him prior to next season’s trade deadline. By then, Trammell may be ready to take over.

Speaking of debuting prospects, Kelenic and Gilbert almost certainly join the Mariners. That’s assuming both players remain healthy and don’t set off red flags from a developmental standpoint. There’s also a chance we’ll see Raleigh and starters George Kirby and Emerson Hancock too.

Yes, a lot can change between now and next September. But how exciting is the notion of seeing all these youngsters next year?

Very exciting.

Time To Compete?

The truncated season and no minor-league baseball undoubtedly had a negative effective on the Mariners’ deep pool of prospects. That’s why it wouldn’t have been a surprise if management downplayed expectations for next year. But that’s not what happened. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reports Dipoto believes his club could contend in 2021.

“I think we’re in a really nice position for ’21. “And our goal would be to go out there and contend for a playoff spot. And I don’t think that’s an unrealistic goal.” – Jerry Dipoto

Sounds like a lofty goal for a club finishing 2020 with a .450 winning percentage and a flawed roster. Then again, the encouraging signs we’ve discussed suggest there’s a chance the Mariners can be far better ball next year. Perhaps a few key veteran additions and a bunch of kids stepping up is all the team needs to do something special.

Yes, a lot has to go right for a club likely to enter next season with one of the youngest rosters in the big-leagues. Then again, there are so many encouraging signs suggesting it’s a doable do – especially in an AL West division hurtling towards a recession.

Wouldn’t it be apropos for the Mariners to end the longest postseason drought in professional sports on the 20-year anniversary of the team’s most successful season?

Seems like poetic justice to me.

My Oh My…

Image courtesy of Elaine Thompson / AP Images
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