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2021 Record: 90-72
Second Place, AL West
Team ERA: 4.30 (16th in MLB)
Team OPS: .688 (27th in MLB)
WHAT WENT RIGHT
There’s an old adage that says that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Seattle Mariners in 2021 were proof that adage is accurate. Despite being outscored by 51 runs, the Mariners won 90 games for the first time since 2003 and finished just a game out of the postseason. One of the reasons why Seattle was able to perform so well despite that run differential was the performance of the bullpen. Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider, Kendall Graveman (until a trade to Houston) and Casey Sadler -- among others -- formed one of the best relief units in baseball. Chris Flexen was the staff ace; winning 14 games and posting a 3.61 ERA after coming over from Korea. Marco Gonzales was not as good as he was in 2020, but came on strong at the end to finish with a respectable 3.96 ERA in his 143 1/3 innings. The offense wasn’t nearly as good, but Mitch Haniger finished with 39 homers and an .804 OPS, and Ty France slashed .291/.368/.445 and looks like a big part of the young core Seattle is building.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Winning 90 games is nice and a big improvement over the past few seasons. It still wasn’t good enough for the postseason, and this makes two decades since the Mariners made the postseason in 2001. While the pitching was respectable, the offense was mostly awful; France and Haniger were the only two hitters who finished with an OPS above .800. Jarred Kelenic came on strong at the end of the year (more on that later), but the rookie outfielder needed that strong finish to end the year with a .615 OPS. Kyle Lewis -- the 2020 Rookie of the Year -- hit just .246 with 37 strikeouts in 36 games before being shut down for the rest of the season. Kyle Seager connected on 35 homers with 101 RBI, but also got on base at just a .285 clip with a .212 average. Simply put, the results are what matter, but there’s still a lot of question marks about this lineup going forward.
** Kelenic was a disaster in his first taste of MLB action. He wasn’t the first top prospect to flounder when facing big-league pitching, and he won’t be the last, but the facts are that he flat-out looked overmatched in that first half. He was better in the second half and arguably Seattle’s best hitter in the second half, but that sample is small -- smaller than his ugly numbers that caused a demotion. Long story short, there’s a lot to like about Kelenic long-term, but some serious volatility for 2022.
** There might not be a more Jekyll and Hyde pitcher in baseball right now than Yusei Kikuchi. The 30-year-old was an All-Star for the Mariners based on his strong first half, but he was so ineffective over the final few months that Seattle removed him from the rotation during their playoff bid. The swing-and-miss stuff is readily apparent (163 strikeouts in 157 innings), but the command (62 walks and 27 homers) is still a major question mark. Question mark is too nice. Kikuchi can either exercise a $13 million option for 2022 or the Mariners can pick up a $16.5 million team option. He’s likely back, but fantasy managers should be hesitant of trusting him regardless of organization.
** Logan Gilbert will assuredly be back in Seattle, and while he was just as inconsistent as Kikuchi, fantasy managers should be much more excited about his potential after his rookie season. He struck out 128 hitters against just 28 walks in 119 1/3 innings after being promoted, and he was arguably Seattle’s best starter down the stretch. Don’t expect him to be an ace just yet, but it’s not hard to see him being more than a streaming option in 2022.
** The Mariners have several options who can close -- Steckenrider, Sewald, Diego Castillo all seem like ninth-inning options -- but the player who might be the favorite to close to start the year is a pitcher who didn’t throw an inning in 2021. Ken Giles was signed to a two-year deal with an option for 2023 with Seattle knowing that Giles was going to miss 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. As good as those arms listed above are, Giles has been one of the more effective closers in baseball when healthy, and he should open spring training as the favorite to win the job. Still, a situation that will need to be monitored over the spring.
** The Mariners have one of the best farm systems in baseball even with Kelenic graduating, and they may have the best outfield prospect in baseball right now in Julio Rodriguez. Rodriguez hit .347/.441/.560 in stops at High-A Everett and Double-A Arkansas while showing the hit and power tools that give him a chance to be a star. It’d be a major upset if the Mariners called Rodriguez up before a year of service time can be gained (manipulated), but he’s one of the few rookies worth consideration for a draft pick in 2022.
** Lewis was a top 100 pick in many drafts after his Rookie of the Year campaign, and it’s worth pointing out that he’s still just 26-years-old. He’s also dealt with significant knee injuries both in the minors and now in the majors, and at this point, it’s impossible to count on him as a regular. That being said, he should be ready for spring training, and his power/speed combo could make him a steal late in drafts if he is able to stay on the field. There are just zero guarantees here.
** Abraham Toro came over in the deal that sent Graveman to the Astros, and he was red-hot to start his time in Seattle while playing an adequate second base. Those numbers slowed dramatically at the end, and he finished his season with just a .688 OPS in 375 plate appearances. Assuming Seager is gone (the Mariners have a very expensive team option that is almost assuredly not going to be picked up), he’s likely to play third for Seattle, but while there have been flashes that suggest he can be a regular, he’s hard to trust as a fantasy option in 2022.
Team Needs: It’s weird to say about a team that won 90 games, but there are plenty of spots the Mariners can upgrade. With so little money allocated for players in 2022 currently on the roster, Seattle should be able to spend, and if they’re serious about contending, they’ll need to add a top-of-the-rotation starter and at least two bats to the lineup. With young talents like Kelenic, Gilbert and France and prospects like Rodriguez, Noelvi Marte and a host of talented hurlers, the future looks bright. They’ll need to make significant improvements for 2022, however, if they’re going to compete for their first playoff spot since that 2001 campaign.