The Upside: 2020 (?)

marc w · July 22, 2020 at 6:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

It feels profoundly strange to write “Upside” and “2020” in the same sentence, but this is what must be done given the format I set for myself several years ago. This has been the strangest, ugliest several months any of us can remember. The news has been bleak since March, and with a Covid-19 increasing again, the news figures to stay bad for a while. It is, in a very real sense, absurd that baseball season is upon us again, even in this abridged format. But you know all of this. We’ve all gotten used to living through absurdity; I think it’s what keeps us sane. And if some of that absurdity wears Mariners uniforms, well, that’s an improvement, I guess. If sports have any power to distract (“heal” is a stretch at the best of times, and a bad joke now), it’s because we collectively give it meaning, and that delusion decision binds us together. We get to take what we want from this bizarre pseudo-season, and, critically, we can decide what we feel about it. The tacit compact that makes all of us baseball fans, and the compact that keeps all 3 of you continue reading this site, is that baseball’s pretty great, and that the Mariners – even the Mariners – are our conduit to this shared meaning. We will watch the M’s not only attempt a full-fledged rebuild, but hope everyone stays free of Covid, hope that a year without the minor leagues won’t doom many, many prospects, and wonder what :gestures: ALL of this will do to the game and the team in a few years. And we can decide that this is entertaining.

It’s with that as a backdrop that we can just sort of skip over the news that today, about 24 hours before the season kicks off, no one really knows how many playoff spots there’ll be. Could be 10! Or up to 16! We’ll know tomorrow, I guess. I also hope that Toronto knows where they’ll play their “home” games, now that Canada has officially ruled out, uh, Toronto. It may be Pittsburgh, because why not, but New York is lobbying for Buffalo. We’re good at dealing with absurdity now, right? Compared to all of this, the M’s situation is downright boring. They’ll play in Seattle, and will face teams in the AL and NL West. That gets them facing two of the premier teams in the game in Houston and the LA Dodgers, and the A’s and Angels seem like formidable opponents as well. But they’ll be playing something like real games, and we can again turn our attention to the now-officialy-acknowledged rebuild (the term “step back” was a silent casualty of 2020).

This is supposed to be the optimistic post, and however good we are at dealing with absurdity, being optimistic in 2020 is still a bit hard. But in many ways, this figures to be an easier season to enjoy and follow than 2019. Last year, the M’s identified Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger as their veteran stars their prospects would learn from. Gonzales had a superficially solid year, but with declining velocity and K rates, it provided red flags along with a decent ERA. Haniger’s year was worse – undone by a ruptured testicle and then with what seems like a botched surgery on his core, followed by back issues. He’s still on the IL, and is facing another lost year of development. But despite this, the team really did identify a core group of players who could be the heart of a contending team. It just wasn’t who we thought it’d be. While Justus Sheffield, JP Crawford, Shed Long, and Justin Dunn had some mixed results – really solid play at times, and some struggles in others – Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez made the leap from exciting youngsters to two of the top prospects in baseball.

Perhaps even more encouraging was real improvement in the M’s pitching development. Logan Gilbert is now one of the better pitching prospects in the AL (though the league has quite a few gems near the majors right now), and the other first-rounders (George Kirby and Emerson Hancock) looked solid in Summer Camp. The development of Austin Adams after a mid-2019 trade, the development of Brandon Williamson and Isaiah Campbell and even Ljay Newsome has helped provide potential answers to the question that the M’s pitching woes have been asking for the past few years.

Last year at this time, the M’s started Domingo Santana and Jay Bruce in the outfield. Ryon Healy was the 3B, Tim Beckham the SS, while Edwin Encarnacion DH’d. By early June, Tommy Milone, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc anchored the rotation behind Gonzales. Sure, sure, JP Crawford arrived before too long, and by the second half, you had a team that was much more similar to the 2020 line-up. But last year was a profoundly transitional team in the first half, one that no one – not the M’s, certainly – expected would play a part in 2020. The usual parade of waiver moved through, but given the roster rules this year, I think we’ll see less of that and more of the young players that the team hopes can lead them to contention in 2022 or so.

To be clear, that could be ugly from a win-loss perspective, as the second half of 2019 shows. But the first half was plenty ugly too, and worse, it was pointlessly ugly. This year, we can tell ourselves that the losses build experience and character, the sporting equivalent of kale or arugula. And it may even be true. While we’re very unlikely to see the likes of Jarred Kelenic (and Julio Rodriguez, thanks to his hairline fracture as much as team control concerns), we could see some of the young hurlers before too long.

So there figure to be good things to watch, and expectations are suitably low. That’s a pretty good way to summarize the Mariners, and I’m finding myself pretty excited to see how it goes. Given all of this, what would be clear, unambiguous signs of progress? What would we all see as obvious victories in a season that probably won’t feature a lot of on-field victories?

1: Justus Sheffield or JP Crawford (or both!) takes a major step forward

The two prized prospects in the series of trades before 2019 had odd seasons, and are almost afterthoughts when people discuss the M’s young talent. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, I know, but readers may remember I had something like this about JP last year, and, well, he slashed .226/.313/.371, which lowered his career OPS to .687. It’s easy to forget he’ll be 25 this season, and was once every bit the prospect that Kelenic/Rodriguez were. His defense was better than advertised, and his batting eye remains keen. He just needs to hit more. He’s young enough that this isn’t crazy, but experienced enough that this would be something of a player development coup.
Sheffield’s in a similar position. His first half in Tacoma was utterly dispiriting, with serious control issues and poor results all across the board. He found himself in AA, and made seven starts for the M’s down the stretch, with a Crawford-like mix of encouraging signs and concerning signs. His K rate rebounded, and his slider showed that it could be a weapon against right-handed bats. But he was extremely hittable thanks to a low-spin four-seam fastball that didn’t have enough velo or movement to avoid barrels. He’s toyed with a change that could really improve his stock, but the most pressing need is to improve his fastball to the point that batters can’t simply ignore every slider he throws. The M’s know this, and have worked with him on his fastball pitch design – I saw a bit of him in the broadcast Summer Camp intra-squad games, but that can’t tell us much. Is it a true sinker? A more traditional four-seamer with added spin and angle? Any change to the arm angle? Soon we’ll find out, and that could help Sheffield regain the prospect sheen he had when he was traded from the Yankees.
Neither player needs to be a star – we’re not asking Sheffield to be an ace, or Crawford to be the best SS in the AL (again, the AL is just loaded at the position right now). But 3.5 WAR seasons from one or the other would be extremely helpful to the Mariners cause. Only Marco Gonzales got there by fWAR/bWAR, but he was replacement-level by Baseball Prospectus’ formula. With so many holes to fill, and with plenty of time before the likes of Noevi Marte are ready, having more solid, above-average regulars would help cut the deficit the M’s face with their rivals.

2: Logan Gilbert succeeds in the Majors from day one.

This is really two nested goals in one. First, that Gilbert’s development in Tacoma is so obvious that he forces the M’s hand, and gets promoted relatively quickly. And second, that Gilbert doesn’t flail for a while like so many M’s pitching prospects have done (Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn) in recent years. Gilbert’s stuff is the most ace-like of any pitcher in the system, and there is no reason it shouldn’t help him succeed. If the M’s pitching development really has turned a corner thanks to their heralded Gas Camp and the like, this should be an easy win for the team. Keep him healthy, and point him at the enemy line-up, and things should go great.
It’s not so easy, of course. The trick here is that Gilbert won’t be getting real game situations until he’s promoted, meaning he won’t have faced someone on another team since last year in AA. He’s had very little exposure to high-level hitting, and the M’s Tacoma player pool has some great prospects, but may not be what he needs to prepare for the Astros and A’s. However, given the situation we’re in, there’s no way to know until we try it out. I understand starting him in Tacoma for a little bit, but Gilbert (and Kirby, and so many others) desperately need to play actual games. As those are only going to happen at the big league level, the M’s need to get him up and involved.
The M’s using a six-man rotation is the kind of thing that could help ease that transition. With so many players needing to watch innings limits, the M’s were kind of forced into it (though I said last year that they should try it). But an extra day of rest could help protect or even enhance velocity, and it’s a great way for Gilbert and his teammates to gain critical experience together; it’s less of a zero sum game when Gilbert’s presence doesn’t have to mean that Dunn or Sheffield sits.

3: Everyone stays healthy.

This is obvious, but we need to mention it given the fact that several players and some Mariners tested positive. The overwhelming majority of the players who’ve tested positive have had minor cases or been completely asymptomatic, but the Freddie Freeman story shows that some get very, very sick. Contending teams are already saying that the teams that an outbreak or a key player testing positive would throw a race into chaos, but luckily we don’t have to worry about anything so small over here. I don’t want any players, staff members, or their families to have to go through a serious illness whose long term effects we still don’t really know.

I know they’re doing everything they can to keep T-Mobile Park as Covid-free as they can, but this shortened season will still result in a lot of travel, including to places like Houston that have been the epicenters of this second surge. The M’s head there on Thursday evening. Fingers crossed, I guess! For sports to actually have the salutary effect of distracting our addled, anxious, on-edge nation, we need to avoid more players – or groups of players – getting sick or spreading the virus. Sure, it’s obvious, but there is probably no more important goal for this team in 2020.


3 Responses to “The Upside: 2020 (?)”

  1. Stevemotivateir on July 22nd, 2020 8:22 pm

    If everyone stays healthy and none of the young players look overwhelmed, I’ll call it a success.

    Treading water is perfectly fine by me. Any kind of developmental advancement would be a bonus.

  2. MKT on July 23rd, 2020 6:55 am

    Pittsburgh has now said no to the Blue Jays, with too many new infections in PA it’s not a time for them to gathering large crowds or lots of visitors.

    Tough situation for the Jays, OTOH one of their officials said they were looking at 5 or 6 possible cities to call their temporary home, Pittsburgh was just the first choice.

    As for the Ms, this was going to be a crummy season anyway. Shortened seasons are never desirable but when they do occur, might as well have them happen when the team might’ve lost 100 games.

  3. Stevemotivateir on July 23rd, 2020 11:30 am

    I suppose there is another potential upside.

    If they finish 29th or 30th, they’ll be able to get Leiter or Rocker in next year’s draft.

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