The streak finally died.
After decades of incompetence, the Seattle Mariners finally made the playoffs last season, ending the longest postseason drought in American pro sports.
That playoff run saw one of the most thrilling victories in franchise history when the M's miraculously came back to stun the Toronto Blue Jays. But mere days later, the team suffered one of the worst losses in franchise history, being eliminated when they went an agonizing 18 innings without scoring a run in the first Major League Baseball playoff game in Seattle since 2001. Then again, occasional highs and crushing lows have kind of been the Mariners thing for a while.
So where does that leave the franchise heading into the 2023 season? Was last season the start of the M's becoming an actual perennial contender or a flukey blip on the usually miserable radar?
There are certainly more reasons to be optimistic about the team's future than not. And it all starts with Julio Rodriguez. Not only did the 22-year-old center fielder win Rookie of the Year in 2022, he established himself as a superstar, and his infectious personality overtook the often dour Mariners franchise. He's already being positioned as one of the faces of the game by MLB, and it's easy to see why. He can hit for average. He can hit for power. His defense is stellar. His throwing arm is stellar. His speed is electric. There's basically nothing he can't do on the field, and it wouldn't be shocking to hear his name in the MVP conversation this season. He's a franchise-altering talent.
In addition to Rodriguez, catcher Cal Raleigh established himself as a clear building block with star potential last season. No Mariners fan will ever forget his clutch home run that sent the Mariners to the playoffs, but it was hardly a fluke occurrence. "The Big Dumper" (nicknamed as such for his prodigious posterior) was unquestionably a top five catcher in all of baseball last year, leading all backstops in homers while also expertly handling the pitching staff.
Speaking of that staff, the starting arms should provide the foundation for this team. After coming over midseason in a trade, Luis Castillo pitched like an elite ace. But he wasn't the only one, both of the rotation's young arms, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, also pitched like No. 1 starters down the stretch. They form the core of a pitching rotation that can stack up with any other team in the bigs.
As far as new faces, the Mariners' two big moves were trades for the Blue Jays' slugging right fielder Teoscar Hernández and Brewers' second baseman Kolten Wong. Both have had periods where they've been very good starters over their careers, and they could provide the Mariners with more consistency than they got from those positions last year.
But there's also a few spots of concern heading into '23.
While Castillo, Gilbert and Kirby seem like near guarantees for lights out as long as they're healthy, the other two spots in the rotation are less sure things. While Robbie Ray just might be one year removed from a Cy Young, the starter was terrible down the stretch and really killed the Mariners in the playoffs. He's certainly got the skills to bounce back and has been killer in spring training, but skeptical M's fans probably want to see it in real games before they rebuild their faith in Ray.
The Mariners also have kept Gonzaga alumni Marco Gonzales as the fifth starter despite him tailing way off in recent years. While it's great that the franchise has stayed loyal to Gonzales, when you're trying to win a title it's hard to keep a subpar guy in the rotation simply because you want to be nice to him and keep up locker room chemistry.
On a similar note, despite another bad year at the plate and his defense falling off, the Mariners decided to stick with J.P. Crawford as shortstop rather than pursuing any of the big-time free agent shortstops available. While those guys may have been too pricey anyway, it's kinda tough for the Mariners to pass on upgrading their most obviously upgradable spot in the field if they're truly trying to win the World Series.
That leads to another general frustration among Mariners fans: The team basically didn't do anything in free agency (aside from adding backup outfielder AJ Pollock). While Hernández and Wong were solid pickups, a lot of talent also left last year's team, including Mitch Haniger, Adam Frazier, Kyle Lewis, Carlos Santana, and Erik Swanson. While it still might all work out, there's certainly a growing concern among M's supporters that the team's ownership group might be cheapskates not willing to shell out the money to be a true top-line contender.
Perhaps the bellwether of the season will be left fielder Jarred Kelenic. The 23-year-old former top-prospect has yet to find success in the bigs, but he absolutely lit up spring training. If he can pan out and provide another elite young outfielder alongside Rodriguez, then the team's tight purse strings might not matter.
Hope springs eternal. And for the first spring in forever, the Mariners' fountain of hope isn't purely theoretical. ♦
Seattle Mariners Opening Day vs. Cleveland Guardians at T-Mobile Park • Thu, March 30 at 7:10 pm • Televised on the MLB Network