Game 117, Rays at Mariners – The 2021 Competition Takes Shape

marc w · August 9, 2019 at 5:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Marco Gonzales vs. Jalen Beeks, 7:10pm

As I’ve written here before, even in 2021, the Astros figure to be an excellent team. On paper, and two years before it matters, they’re still better than the M’s even if you assume a number of their prospects come up and contribute. You really can envision a roster that’s built around pre-arb prospects that’s not…awful, and that could be interesting if players continue to develop AND if supplemented with some savvy free agency spending. However, with Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and Yordan Alvarez figuring to be in or near their prime, and with a rotation of Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers, Josh James, etc., the M’s would still face an uphill battle.

Even the M’s seem to acknowledge this, with the talk of closing the gap and building a team that can start to compete as opposed to building a division-leading behemoth. If 2021 is still the goal, contention may be easier through the wild card. And if *that’s* the case, then this series is a great way to size up a likely 2021 wild card contender, the Tampa Bay Rays.

John Trupin’s done a service by sketching out what the M’s would like in 2021 both with and without free agent help. The M’s can reasonably expect league average or better production in 2021 from DH (Vogie), RF (Haniger), SS (Crawford). It’s no sure thing, but it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine league average or better production from SP 1 and 2 (Gonzales/Kikuchi), 2B/3B Shed Long, and C (Narvaez/Murphy). If development continues, you could make a case for the starting pitching prospects of your choice, or argue that Evan White and Jake Fraley will have figured things out, and that Mallex Smith forgets all about 2019 and gets back to his 2018 form. Logan Gilbert’s rise this year helps fans imagine a rotation that could be a lot better than this year’s, and you could have some depth if Kyle Lewis and company continue to improve. This doesn’t really anticipate serious contributions from Jarred Kelenic, as he’s still in high-A, but it’s nice that this group could get reinforcements in future years, because they desperately need them.

The Rays could trot out a line-up that looks not too different from the one we’ll see tonight. Austin Meadows will be 26 in 2021, and is already an above-average regular. Tommy Pham would be in his last year with the Rays, and a grizzled vet of 31. Brandon Lowe’s extension will pay him all of $4 million for his age-27 season, and he’s an above-average regular now, too. Kevin Kiermaier would be in the last year of his extension, and Yandy Diaz would be 30. Nate Lowe would be 26, and could conceivably play 1B or DH, depending on if the club kept Ji-Man Choi. But it’s the rotation that really separates the Rays, as Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough, Jalen Beeks are all still around. For depth, there’s former top prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose de Leon, both coming off TJ surgery. There are SP prospects rising through the minors as well, in Shanes McClanahan and Baz.

They have issues, to be clear. Charlie Morton would likely be gone, and the Rays have demonstrated both that they’re not big on bringing in high-cost free agents and that they’re willing to dump controlled players who get slightly less exploited cheap through arbitration. What looks like a huge advantage in pitching depth now could look quite different in a year and a half, as the Rays own experience with pitching injuries demonstrate. But the M’s are targeting 2021 with a rotation that, for now, includes Marco Gonzales whose stuff declined since 2018 and Yusei Kikuchi who’s had a rough introduction to MLB. The Rays have the defending Cy Young winner, a potential ace in Glasnow, and all kinds of league-averagey goodness, plus two-way star Brendan McKay.

The M’s stepped back and decided to play for 2021, but the most concerning statistic is that the M’s contributions from pre-arb players actually went down compared to 2018. Haniger’s injury has a lot to do with that, and the big blow was trading Edwin Diaz. But the whole point was to turn the club over to their pre-arb success stories, and aside from Vogie and JP Crawford, that hasn’t gone so well. Sure, sure, another big reason why the total has dropped is the staggering amount of negative WAR provided by the revolving door bullpen and the back of the rotation. But that’s the point: at the beginning of the year, we talked about if the M’s would manipulate Justus Sheffield’s service time. That turned out to be the least of our worries.

There would seem to be a gap between these teams, both currently (where the Rays are about 18 games up on Seattle) and in 2021. You can envision a scenario in which the M’s close or even eliminate that gap, but it’ll take some doing. A huge leap forward by a player or two, and maybe a big splash on a TOR starter would help, but Tampa’s depth gives them such an enviable cushion. If they’re so stacked, why are THEY worrying about the wild card in 2021? That’s a good question, but the real issue is that the financial heavyweight in the league, the Yankees, has the following *pre-arb* players: Aaron Judge, Domingo German, Gary Sanchez, Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela, and Gleyber Torres. Add in cheap extensions for Aaron Hicks and Luis Severino, the contract for Giancarlo Stanton, and they look intriguing before we wonder who they’ll add in FA. Their pitching looks thin for 2021, but they’re the Yankees: It won’t be thin in 2021.

This is a problem, and it’s why the M’s need to ensure they’ve got contributors up and down the line-up. Is Shed Long better able to contribute at 2B or 3B? Can Jake Fraley handle CF? Can Justin Dunn be league average or better in 2021? Right now, the M’s could be decent, but the Davenport Translations for a number of their prospects aren’t super encouraging. That’s OK – we don’t care what they’d look like in the majors *now*, but even the forecasts for 2021 need help. Evan White, Kyle Lewis, and company don’t have league-average batting lines in 2021, per Davenport. Again, I don’t want to imbue very early projections with more authority than they deserve, but even if the M’s go the Lake Wobegone route to contention and get slightly better than average production everywhere, a bunch of players are going to need to make huge strides.

Jalen Beeks may come in after opener Andrew Kittredge, the former UW and M’s farmhand who was moved in one of the many SEA/TBA trades. Beeks has a great change-up which helps him overcome an average fastball. Last year, the lefty struggled against righties, but he’s improved markedly in that arena – so much so that he’s running reverse splits on the year.

1: Smith, CF
2: Crawford, SS
3: Santana, DH
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Murphy, C
6: Seager, 3B
7: Nola, 2B
8: Lopes, LF
9: Court, RF
SP: Marcooooo

I’m not sure Ryan Court’s ever played RF professionally, having mostly been a 1B/3B, but he has played some LF, mostly in the Boston org.


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