Last Updated on July 24, 2020 by Jason A. Churchill

It’s here. Opening Day has arrived for the 2020 Seattle Mariners. Nearly four months after originally planned, but here we are. The 2020 Mariners are likely to be both the same as last season and a lot different simultaneously. Like their 2019 brethren, they’re unlikely to win a lot of games. Unlike last year’s club, the ’20 team begins the season with a number of young players on the roster. It’s almost like the club is starting the season in September call-up form. Almost.

Friday in Houston at 6:10 PM PT it’s Marco Gonzales vs. Justin Verlander. The defending American League Champions. Jose Altuve. George Springer. Alex Bregman. Carlos Correa. Dusty Baker is the skipper and the front office has been overhauled as a result of Cheatgate, but the talent remains for the Astros, who enter the season a pretty sure bet to make another postseason run. So, what should be expected of the Mariners tonight, in this series, and this season? Let’s chat.

Marco Gonzales

Gonzales is the defacto No. 1 starter for Seattle but don’t let that qualification nor his substandard fastball velocity fool you. Gonzales can pitch. But this isn’t a good matchup for anyone, especially an arm relying on weak contact and aggressive hitters; Houston will make Gonzales work. 

But one thing I we might see from Gonzales in 2020 is a return to his 2017 velocity, perhaps behind a bit more usage of his four-seam fastball, a pitch he all but abandoned in 2019.

The left-hander’s sinker averaged 89.2 mph a year ago, down from 90.7 in 2018. His four-seamer, back in 2017 when he threw it more, averaged 92 mph. Gonzales does a lot of things to manipulate his fastball and basically has three of them, including the cutter — more on that in a second.

But looking to get ahead with sinkers and changeups, then in two-strike counts take a shot above the hands for a few more swings and misses sounds an awful lot like what I wrote about Kendal Graveman right here.

Gonzales didn’t do much of that in 2019 and after posting swinging-strike rates of 9.1 and 9.3, watched that mark dip to 7.9% a year ago.

Despite the sinker-changeup combo, Gonzales has never been a true ground ball pitcher, living in the 44-45% range the past two seasons — which was not due to the use of a sinker, since he induced a better rate of ground balls from his changeup and curveball. He doesn’t throw downhill and the movement isn’t sharp and late, not to mention at 89 mph allows hitters to measure it better than, say, Zack Britton‘s 96 mph sinker that’s also coming downhill.

Because he doesn’t induce ‘a lot’ of ground balls, Gonzales is left with two ways to get enough outs to stave off big innings and pitch deep into games: Strikeouts and weak-contact fly balls/pop ups.

His stuff doesn’t suggest a lot of the former, and the latter is a very dangerous venture, as we’ve learned over the years in Major League Baseball: Fly balls represent the one result which the pitcher — and the defense — have the least control over the result.

Gonzales, however, has proven skilled at limiting hard contact and he does it with changing speeds and working the entire strike zone.

As a result of said skill,. Gonzales has limited home runs the past two years to 11.3% and 9.3% (lowest rate in baseball among qualified pitchers) of the fly balls he allows. How truly sustainable that is remains to be seen, and the baseball itself has a lot to do with the results.

Since 2015, only Gio Gonzalez, a relatively similar pitcher, has a better HR/FB rate than the Mariners’ ace at 10.3% to Gonzales’ 10.4. That’s over 700 innings of data. I’d say it’s simply something Gonzales is good at and he’s likely to sustain that. Mostly anyway, since small samples are always a problem, and that’s all the 2020 season is.

But Gonzales is creative and makes adjustments from inning to inning, start to start, and certainly year to year, including with how often he uses a certain pitch:

Every year of his career thus far he’s made some kind of significant change — which isn’t all that uncommon, but it’s generally reserved for pitchers that struggle or reinvent themselves later in their career or due to injury.

Gonzales has to get to his changeup to continue his two-year run of a 3-4 win pitcher, and if he’s to make any kind of jump he’ll need more fastball value. Throwing more four-seamers could be the answer to both.

Evan White

We’ve talked a lot about White the past several months since the club recognized him as their version of Anthony Rizzo (a steady, leadership-type player whose floor they’re willing to live with and ceiling they’re willing to bet on) and extended him for six years.

But White will make his big-league debut Friday night and that’s a lot of fun. But it’s not just any debut. The 24-year-old’s first career plate appearance will be versus reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, who care not one bit about a rookie’s feelings and is rarely off his game. Talk about an early litmus test.

My expectations for White this year are very similar to my expectations for Shed Long. The floor is high enough to think he’ll battle his way to respectable numbers. But White’s progress in creating more backspin and identifying pitches to pull has been quite remarkable since the middle of last season.

He’s also shown maturity in terms of pitch selection, suggesting he could reach whatever his ceiling is rather quickly. While that upside isn’t coming in 2020, we’ll probably going to see flashes.

I don’t know if it’s reasonable to think White can compete for Rookie of the Year honors, but I’d take the over on 20 extra-base hits, and if you haven’t seen him play first base you’re going to say “John Olerud” aloud a lot this year watching White in the field.  He’s truly remarkable there, making non-routine plays look not only routine but ho-hum easy.

The Pitching

Last year, the Mariners’ relief corps compiled the least fWAR in the American League (0.4), and ranked No. 12 in FIP, No. 14 in WPA, No. 12 in strikeouts per nine and No. 13 in HR/9. 
There’s not much reason outside small sample to believe anything different will transpire in 2020.

One popular question surrounding the Mariners this offseason was why not add more veterans the club can flip in trades, and while they did that with CJ Edwards, the Mariners are looking to give innings to young arms, even in the bullpen.

In addition to the arms that are on the roster now — the youngest being Anthony Misiewicz, Nick Margevicius, Taylor Guilbeau and Rule 5 pick Yohan Ramirez — we’re likely to see Art Warren, Sam Delaplane, Aaron Fletcher and Joey Gerber at some point. Warren is already on the 40-man and each of those four are on the 60-man Training Roster.

The rotation, as noted by Luke Arkins on the latest episode of Baseball Things, is vastly different than the one the club tossed out there a year ago in that every arm after Gonzales can touch at least 95 mph and sits 90-94 or better.

      • Taijuan Walker will sit 91-94 to go with a curveball, cutter,  and splitter.
      • Graveman is 91-95 (up to 97 with the four-seamer, up to 95 with two-seamer), with a slider, changeup and curveball.
      • Yusei Kikuchi is up to 96 to go with a slider, changeup and curveball.
      • Justin Dunn sits 91-94 and is up to 96 to set up a slider and developing changeup.
      • Justus Sheffiled is 91-93 (up to 95) with a slider and changeup.

A year ago, Mariners starters averaged 90.5 mph on the fastball, and that includes openers and the short starts Dunn received last September. That mark was last in the American League by 1.3 mph, and No. 30 in the big leagues. The Cubs averaged 90.7. Every other club’s rotation averaged 91.7 mph or better. The Mets led the league at 94.9, followed by the Rays at 94.5, the Reds and Astros at 94 and the White Sox at 93.9. The Mariners should at least jump into the middle of the pack in 2020 where clubs averaged 92.5-93 mph.