When the Seattle Mariners resume play after the All-Star break, the team will be tantalizingly close to the second Wild Card spot. With this in mind, what questions must the Mariners answer in the second half to have a chance of reaching the postseason this year?
Can The Rotation Get Better?
I recently suggested that the Mariners can’t compete without better starting pitching. Over the next 10 weeks, we’ll see whether the starting rotation can improve. Moreover, how the staff performs in the second half should signal which starters are likely keepers heading into 2022.
The following illustrates the stats of the starting staff’s main contributors since May 13 – the debut date of rookie Logan Gilbert. Our table is sorted by expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), which reflects quantity and quality of contact. A low xwOBA is good for pitchers; the opposite applies to hitters. Also included, MLB averages for starters.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Gilbert and Chris Flexen are no-brainers to return. Both remain under club control next season and are performing extremely well. Based on performance alone, Yusei Kikuchi should join them. However, Seattle’s lone All-Star has a unique contract that could lead to a long-term relationship with the Mariners or his departure following this season. How Kikuchi performs during the second half likely determines his future in Seattle.
The remaining rotation arms are unknowns due to health and performance challenges.
Justin Dunn had a rocky start to the season. But he seemed to be turning a corner in his development when shoulder inflammation sidelined him. As you can see, the Boston College alum’s xwOBA was trending in the right direction until his shoulder acted up.
Dunn is throwing again and could come back to help the team, assuming there are no rehab setbacks. When the New Yorker returns, we’ll get to see whether he can build upon his recent success or suffers a regression that may threaten his long-term viability in the rotation.
The team’s two best starters in 2020 were Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield. Unfortunately, opposing hitters have pummeled both left-handers this year. Gonzales’ issues are a complete surprise – perhaps the biggest of the season for me. After all, the former Gonzaga Bulldog has been the Opening Day starter the last two seasons.
Sheffield’s difficulties aren’t in the same class as Gonzales’ troubles since his 15 starts this season are a career high. Then again, no one predicted that the Tennessean would free fall in 2021. Making matters worse, he’s currently shelved with a forearm strain with no projected return date.
Is J.P. Crawford The Real Deal?
Crawford seemingly flipped a switch when he became the team’s full-time leadoff hitter in June. When we spilt his season into two parts, the improvement is readily apparent.
Still, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Crawford can sustain his current level of success through the remainder of the season. The California native’s career norms through 2020 more closely resemble his early-season 2021 production than what we’ve seen from him lately.
Perhaps everything has finally clicked for Crawford. If that’s the case, the Mariners have found their long-term shortstop. Otherwise, the team may opt to look elsewhere for help in the offseason. That would be a shame since the former first rounder has become a fan-favorite thanks to his hustle, outstanding play, and charisma.
Does Jarred Kelenic bounce back from an awful debut?
By now, we’re all very familiar with Kelenic’s meteoric rise through the minors, service time controversy, and subsequent crash landing when he reached the majors in mid-May. Currently assigned with Class-AAA Tacoma, the Wisconsin native is tearing up the league and likely rejoins the big-league club very soon. When Kelenic does return, he’ll get another chance to help the Mariners win games in in 2021 and beyond.
How does the team balance its catcher situation?
The arrival of Cal Raleigh means the Mariners have three catchers – Raleigh, Opening Day starter Tom Murphy, and Luis Torrens. Most observers, including me, view Raleigh as Seattle’s catcher of the future. But how does the team handle three backstops for the rest of 2021?
Two months ago, the answer would’ve been easy. Send Torrens to Tacoma. But a lot has changed since then.
After a stint in AAA, Torrens has been a revelation. Since June 15 return, he’s hit 7 home runs with a .288/.391/.695 slash-line in 69 plate appearances. Even if we expand our view of the Venezuelan to his entire season, his stats are average-or-better in several categories.
The right-handed hitting Murphy has been more productive when facing southpaws. Against like-handed pitching, the Buffalo product has a .564 OPS compared to a .711 OPS versus left-handers. With this in mind, a quasi-platoon arrangement may make some sense.
One way the Mariners could manage having three backstops is use Torrens at first base. It’s a position he’s played with Tacoma and the major-league club this season. Naturally, designated hitter is an option for all each player – assuming their bat justifies being used there.
Another option could be GM Jerry Dipoto trading a Torrens or Murphy prior to the deadline. Catcher is usually a position of need at this point of the season. If Dipoto instead retains the trio on the major-league roster, I’m looking forward to watch how manager and former catcher Scott Servais juggles his three backstops.
Which version of Kendall Graveman will we see?
Early in the season, Graveman was Seattle’s shutdown reliever. As a result, his name is oft-mentioned in trade speculation. That said, there’s been a noticeable change in the Mississippi State alum’s numbers since a COVID IL stint lasting several weeks.
To be clear, what we’re seeing from Graveman now is still good. It’s just not as dominant as what he was doing prior to his COVID-related absence. How the Alabaman does moving forward may set the tone for the Mariners’ bullpen or possibly influence his potential trade value this month.
Is Paul Sewald A Future Closer?
Not long ago, Corey Brock of The Athletic floated Sewald’s name as a future closer for the Mariners. Considering how Sewald has performed since arriving on May 13, it’s hard to dispute Mr. Brock’s assertion.
Since joining the club, Sewald has been the best reliever on the Mariners. His presence was particularly vital during the absence of Graveman and recent struggles of Rafael Montero. Moving forward, it’s going to be fun watching the San Diego product. Perhaps he does become Seattle’s full-time closer.
Does Kyle Seager rebound from a lackluster first half?
During the first month of the season, Seager was as an anchor in the Mariners’ lineup. But the 11-year veteran’s production has tailed off considerably with each passing month.
Considering the team holds an option on Seager for 2022, how he performs over the rest of this season could affect its decision regarding the 33-year-old’s future in the Emerald City.
Do The Mariners Need Help At Second Base?
In each of the last two years, the team designated Shed Long Jr. (2020) and Dylan Moore (2021) as its second baseman thanks to impressive performances in the season prior. Unfortunately, both players stumbled afterwards. When we look at their career stats, it’s reasonable to question whether Long or Moore can be the answer at second base for the Mariners.
Still, there’s time for Long and Moore to demonstrate they can contribute at second base or in other roles after 2021. Long has primarily played in left field this year, plus he’s made eight starts at second base. Moore is the primary second baseman and has been an excellent defender. He’s also covered third base during Seager’s recent absence from the lineup. Having said that, a utility role may eventually be the best way to maximize the value of both players.
Do we see Kyle Lewis in the second half?
The 2020 AL Rookie of the Year began the season on the IL and then started slowly when he returned in late-April. But Lewis was regaining his form at the plate when a knee injury and subsequent surgery sidelined him. Dipoto has been cautious in projecting when the Mercer alum might rejoin the team. That said, a return this summer would be a good news story.
What Happens At The Trade Deadline?
It’s plausible Dipoto buys and sells at the deadline. Perhaps he moves a pending free agent like Graveman, but also adds players capable of helping the Mariners win games in 2021 and in future seasons. What the sixth-year GM sees from Kelenic and Raleigh immediately after the All-Star break may influence his appetite to upgrade the lineup.
If Dipoto does lean forward in the trade market, adding rotation help has to be a priority. Bullpen reinforcements and another bat or two would help too. But those moves won’t matter without better production from the starting staff.
Does Mitch Haniger remain a Mariner?
My guess is Haniger sticks around this season. Let’s face it, trading veteran position players in the summer usually isn’t beneficial. On the other hand, I’m terrible at predicting what trades Dipoto and his staff might engineer.
Still, Haniger has been one of the best hitters on the team during its recent surge in the standings. Moving the Cal Poly product, while flirting with a potential postseason berth, would be a risky move and may not sit well with the fan base.
Do Dipoto and Servais get their extensions?
When I tweeted last week that I thought Dipoto and Servais deserved contract extensions immediately, reactions on both sides of the issue came in strong and hot.
Yeah, the #Mariners should extend Jerry Dipoto & Scott Servais right now.
— Luke Arkins (@luke_arkins) July 11, 2021
It’s reasonable to speculate whether Dipoto can build a major-league roster capable of going deep into a postseason – he’s yet to do it. Then again, it’s tough to overlook what he’s done to rebuild the organization’s farm system in three years. For this reason alone, the team should ownership stick with its current management.
Time will tell whether ownership agrees.
Can the Mariners continue their winning ways?
It’s difficult to envision the current roster being deep enough to propel the Mariners into the postseason. On the other hand, deadline deals provide an opportunity to improve. Not only that, the team should benefit from having Kelenic and Raleigh in its lineup on a regular basis. And let’s not forget Gilbert, who’s trending towards becoming a Rookie of the Year candidate.
Will a combination of trades and an influx of talented youngsters get the Mariners to the playoffs in 2021? Hard to tell. But it should be fun watching Servais’ squad try to make meaningful October a reality this year.
My Oh My…
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