Baseball is a game largely defined by arbitrary endpoints. Month-to-month splits are a thing that people pay attention to, since splitting the season into months makes the different parts of the whole a little easier to process. Extended home stands or road trips are often scrutinized, even though the team in question is usually the same team as ever. The season can be conveniently split into two lopsided “halves” at the All-Star break, so analysts do that, too.
Arbitrary endpoint splits aren’t a perfect, or even always useful, way to evaluate a baseball team, but what they often are is fun. With regards to the current incarnation of the Seattle Mariners, arbitrary endpoints are so fun. Since the All-Star break the Mariners are 25-13, best in the AL. If we microsplit our way down to looking at August records only, then we find the M’s two games behind the Rays’ AL-leading 15-5 pace. If we zoom in even further and focus solely on the just-concluded home stand, the team is 8-1, with the lone loss coming in the first game of the first series. However you want to split up the M’s “second half,” the conclusion is the same: as of late, the Mariners have looked phenomenal. For a team whose goal this year was to show signs of improvement, the last month-plus has been a revelation. But what have we really learned?
In truth, not much. It’s a small sample, is the point I was trying to make, and maybe did make. But there are things that M’s fans have been longing to notice that might finally have made themselves noticeable. What follows is a fragmented, incomplete non-list of those things. All of these things are happy things! Winning baseball.
Seattle is a place where mediocre outfielders come to accrue startling amounts of playing time, but not recently. Aside from Felix, the outfielders have been the most visible contributors to the second-half Mariners. Michael Saunders seems to have recovered a bit from his sad-faced midseason slump, dingering his way into our happy-faced subconscious over the last few days. I am a Michael Saunders fan. You are a Michael Saunders fan. Michael Saunders, right now, looks like a slightly above-average major league center fielder. Tis a good time to be a Michael Saunders fan.
Trayvon Robinson has been swinging a little teeny tiny baby-sized bat since his call-up, which is disappointing considering what people tend to imagine him as. But holy wow, his defense. Trayvon’s got four ridiculous web gem catches over the last week or so, but beyond that has been showing good range and a better-than-advertised arm. His elevated walk rate has been encouraging, sure, making it all too easy to say that were he hitting better he would look like a starting major leaguer. As is right now he appears to be a fine fourth outfielder, just like Casper Wells. Wells and Robinson are poised to be useful roleplayers on a talented team going forward. It’s been a long time since the M’s had useful roleplayers.
Eric Thames has looked fantastic since arriving in Seattle. Thames now has roughly one full season’s worth of major league plate appearances, over which he has posted a 102 OPS+ and a .260/.307/.442 triple slash. Those numbers are fine for a young player who is trending in the right direction. Also, just look at his arms. Eric Thames’ arms are tree trunk-shaped killing machines that immediately make you think “50 dingers.” If you weren’t thinking that before, I bet you are now.
So, the outfield. In Tacoma, Franklin Gutierrez has barely begun a rehab assignment but has started by clubbing huge dingers. Franklin Gutierrez is not your typical “injury prone” guy, and there exists a very real possibility he could come back and return to being the superstar he was three years ago before all the bowel-and-concussion-related lost seasons . This is where I am obligated to mention that Mike Carp plays the outfield sometimes too. The Mariners organization is currently chock full of outfielders, and right now all of them seem interesting enough to hold on to. Between Thames/Gutierrez/Wells/Robinson/Carp/Saunders, finding three quality starters and an above-average backup or two suddenly doesn’t seem like a major problem. The outfield, for the first time in forever, doesn’t seem like a major problem.
The success hasn’t just been Felix and the outfielders. The entire pitching staff has been brilliant as of late, and looks poised to stay that way for a long time. The bullpen, which I am writing about again right now because it is the only thing I know to do, is amazing. Young, potent, and amazing. You might not be in love with the bullpen, but you probably should be. Shawn Kelley is in Tacoma as depth because the bullpen is so good that Shawn Kelley is in Tacoma as depth. The bullpen has been really, really good and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change much for years to come.
The rotation depth, assuming continued development by most-but-not-necessarily-all of the team’s upper level prospects, is about to become ridiculous. Currently the starters are nuts, led of course by Felix. By now most everyone has noticed that Felix is in the middle of one of his most dominant stretches ever, his last 100 innings being perhaps the best he’s ever thrown. But hey, Jason Vargas is on quite the tear himself. So is Hisashi Iwakuma, every other turn at least. Kevin Millwood has been the 18th-best pitcher in the AL by WAR. Blake Beavan is suddenly a perfectly good fifth starter. The rotation, once a glaring weakness, now seems impenetrable.
This version of the rotation won’t stick around forever, as Vargas is constantly mentioned in trade rumors and Millwood/Iwakuma are free agents in a couple months. But fear not, for the Tacoma rotation is startlingly solid right now, too. Erasmo Ramirez looks ready for another shot in the majors. D.J. Mitchell has turned his season around since the Ichiro trade brought him to the northwest. Hector Noesi is improving, finally. Danny Hultzen is back to looking like a top-tier, almost ready prospect. Andrew Carraway could probably do the whole Blake Beavan thing in Seattle if the team asked him to.
I’m not saying that the Mariners currently have ten starters who could conceivably pitch in the major leagues, but… they’re not far off that figure. The depth, while not overwhelming in quality, is admirable in quantity. This neglects to mention any of the Jackson Generals, notably James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. The organization is simply brimming with talent, not to mention upside aplenty. Best yet, there’s plenty of payroll room for the team to upgrade over Millwood/Iwakuma on the free agent market this winter, meaning an Edwin Jackson-type of guy could be a realistic target to slot in towards the front of the rotation. Maybe it’s just the winning, or maybe things look genuinely rosy.
The team still has holes, of course, but those holes look less ominous than ever. First base/catcher/DH is a strange mix right now, with Smoak/Carp/Jaso/Montero at the major league level and Mike Zunino doing ridiculous, amazing things in the minors. The Mariners drafted Mike Zunino less than three months ago, and now he just finished OPSing 1.364 in his first week at AA. The early, small-sample results make Zunino look like a superprospect, an above average defender at one of the hardest positions who so far has hit like Barry Bonds. Carp still has no position, Montero still has no position, Jaso is a literally perfect platoon bat and Smoak has possibly played his way off the team like nobody thought he would. 1B/C/DH is messy and it’s easy to imagine the team making a big move to bring in a first baseman. The fun thing about depth and positional crowding is that baseball players can be traded for other baseball players.
First base could use a fix, and none of the other starting infielders have really been incredible hitters this season, so it’s easy to imagine the Mariners making moves to bring new blood into the organization. The thing that makes this coming offseason different than previous ones is that the Mariners are now looking to replace decent players with better players, as opposed to replacing Yuniesky Betancourt with any living thing. Maybe it’s just the winning, or maybe this really is a successful young team on the uptick, just a few pieces away from contending in 2013. It didn’t seem like that a few weeks ago. But now? Now success feels inevitable.
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