December 8, 2022

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It might be too early to think about playoffs, but Mariners are showing early, positive signs

A Major League Baseball season unfolds slowly and often indecisively. Sometimes, it can be downright deceptive in the early going. It takes weeks, if not months, to accurately identify the strengths and weaknesses and decipher the omens.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t look at the first 15 games of this Mariners season — not even 10% of the six-month marathon — and see trends that should be highly encouraging to playoff-starved fans. Even (or especially) in the wake of a 13-7 victory Saturday in which a seemingly safe early lead disappeared, and then reappeared with an eighth-inning vengeance, courtesy of a career night by Ty France (five hits, five runs batted in, one majestic home run).

It starts with the pitching (as counter-intuitive as that sounds after a game in which their pitching struggled). The Mariners are showing a potential for depth in their rotation that was lacking in recent years. Whereas they had a propensity to punt games with openers, bullpen starts and unprepared call-ups, each member of the five-man rotation has already had moments of excellence through their first three turns. Logan Gilbert, in particular, has been among the best pitchers in the game with a 0.54 ERA. Rookie Matt Brash has shown flashes of dominance, though he was not as sharp Saturday.

The rotation’s cumulative earned-run average of 3.01 heading into Saturday was ninth best in MLB (fifth best in the American League). The Mariners had also produced more innings from their starters than any American League team and were tied with the Mets for an MLB-best 5.2 innings per start.

“I think that’s what we kind of expected coming in, to be honest with you,’’ veteran catcher Tom Murphy said before Saturday’s game. “Last year, our pitching carried us throughout the entire year. We’ve established what we do well, and we’re really just building off of that.”

Murphy said he feels like there’s not a weak link in the rotation of reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, Marco Gonzales, Chris Flexen, Gilbert and Brash.

“Which is really impressive,’’ he said. “I remember back in 2019 what the rotation was looking like then compared to where we are now. And it’s a complete 180, it really is. I feel like we’re more feared now in the rotation than we have been. We had to piece together last year quite a few times for sure, especially early on. Hopefully the health is on our side this year, and we won’t have to do that.”

The depth of the Mariners bullpen is already being tested by health, with Casey Sadler out for the season, Ken Giles and Sergio Romo on the injury list and Paul Sewald on the COVID list. The loss of Sewald has been particularly costly, forcing the Mariners away from their preferred late-game matchups. That has cost them twice this week, when they blew a 5-0 lead on Thursday and a 5-1 lead on Saturday.

Yet overall the Mariners’ relief corps has again been one of the best in baseball. They are second in the majors with a 2.44 bullpen ERA, ranking first in opponents’ batting average (.182) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.92), second in WHIP (0.95) and second in strikeouts per nine innings (10.35). Andres Munoz, with a 100-mph fastball and 11 strikeouts in six innings, gives the promise of being another potent late-inning weapon.

The 44 1/3 innings registered by Mariners relievers through Friday was lowest in baseball, a direct result of the longevity of the rotation. Optimally, that will help keep the relievers fresh for what the Mariners hope will be a pennant race.

“Our bullpen was kind of taxed at the end of the year last year,’’ Murphy said. “We used the same guys a lot. We’re a little more depth-oriented down there this year. But starters being able to go six or seven innings can really, really save the club down the stretch, for sure.”

If there had been an obvious big-picture concern with the Mariners, it was the offense — though their 16-hit, 13-run output on Saturday put that to temporary rest. They had a .223 team average through Friday, which over a full season would be the lowest in club history (following back-to-back seasons of .226 in 2020 and 2021, the previous lows).

Yet when you delve a little deeper into the numbers, and put them in the context of an industrywide batting slump to start the season, it looks a lot more palatable.

The entirety of MLB is hitting a paltry .230, so the M’s are not far below the norm. But we all know now that batting average hardly tells the story. The Mariners are tied for the league-lead in walks and thus rank third in the AL with a .324 on-base percentage. And if you want to go sabermetric, Seattle’s wRC+ (weighted run created plus) of 120 is sixth-best in MLB. This stat measures a player or team’s run production in relation to the league average. A wRC+ of 120 is 20% better than league average.

The Mariners — who are missing Mitch Haniger and Luis Torrens because of COVID — on a nightly basis have started a lineup with five or more hitters under .200, so improvement is clearly needed. The ballclub felt going into the season that they had a much deeper lineup, one through nine, than in previous seasons with the additions of Adam Frazier, Eugenio Suarez and Jesse Winker (the latter busting out of a seasonlong slump — fueled by bad luck on balls in play — with a huge two-run double in the eighth).

The Mariners’ ability to reach that goal of a deeper lineup could well depend on the progress of 22-year-old Jarred Kelenic and 21-year-old Julio Rodriguez, who have been under a microscope all season with varying results. On Thursday, they combined to go 0-for-8 with six strikeouts to drop to .154 and .136 respectively. On Friday, they electrified fans — and teammates, and clearly themselves — by ripping a double and triple back-to-back to produce four runs that led to a win over Kansas City. Rodriguez had another strong game Saturday with two hits and a walk with the bases loaded in the eighth to break a 7-7 tie.

“You can see the emotion they had when they slid into second base and when they slid into third base,’’ acting manager Kris Negron said. “The dugout went crazy, too. It’s always good to see those young guys come through in situations like that, because there’s going to be moments like that throughout an entire season. For them to come through right there early in the year and kind of parlay that as the season goes on is big.”

Again, it’s way too early to know how it all will turn out, but this has all the early trappings of a team that will contend for the long haul. At least, they haven’t provided any glaring reasons yet to think otherwise. Saturday’s win left them alone in first place in the AL West with a 9-6 record.

Suarez gets to look at the Mariners through fresh, unvarnished eyes, having followed the ballclub minimally when he resided in a different league and geographic location with the Reds. Since coming over in a mid-March trade, Suarez has been pleasantly surprised by the talent and potential of his new team.

“It’s definitely better than I thought,’’ he said. “Before I got here, I never knew about Seattle at all. To be here with such a nice group, I feel very, very grateful. We have a really good team. Everyone’s together.”

Never underestimate the ability of a baseball season to exploit all of a team’s warts — and unearth hidden ones. But as the 2022 season unfolds, even with the intermittent frustrations of the past three days, the omens are largely positive.