SAN DIEGO — The Rangers hired a manager, Bruce Bochy, with three World Series titles and a burning desire for more. Then they signed All-World pitcher Jacob deGrom. The Angels have been steadily adding pieces this offseason in an attempt to build a team worthy of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani
Oh, and those pesky Houston Astros, coming off 106 wins (plus the four that counted in the World Series) aren’t going anywhere, even if they won’t have Cy Young winner Justin Verlander next year. They’ve already signed 2020 AL MVP Jose Abreu and are sure to make more impact acquisitions.
Welcome to the AL West, the rugged terrain in which the Mariners are trying to reach the summit. It will be harder than ever, despite the fact that the Mariners finally reasserted themselves last season as a team to be reckoned with in the division, finishing (a distant) second and ending a 21-year playoff drought.
“I’m predicting it’s going to take less games to win our division than any time since I’ve been here, simply because there’s more parity,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said at the winter meetings.
A return trip to the playoffs by the Mariners seems highly attainable, but is no guarantee, given the vagaries of baseball. Loosening the Astros’ vise-like grip on the division title — they’ve won it in every full season since 2017 — will be an arduous task, considering Seattle finished 16 games behind them in ‘22. And if the rest of the division (outside perennially rebuilding Oakland) improves enough, well, it could spell the start of a new drought.
Unless, of course, the Mariners continue their ascent after back-to-back 90-win seasons. With trade-deadline acquisition Luis Castillo on hand all season, few teams will have a deeper rotation if everyone stays healthy. The Mariners are filled with rising young stars such as Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Cal Raleigh and, of course, Julio Rodriguez. They’ve added slugging outfielder Teoscar Hernandez and second baseman Kolten Wong to their lineup.
But is it enough to keep pace in the burgeoning AL West? The Mariners say they’re not done building their 2023 team, but it seems like they aren’t going hard after any of the higher-profile free agents. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto on Monday described the Mariners as a team “built on draft and develop, and trade. And you’ve heard me say this for years: We use free agency in a way to augment our roster, not in a way to build it. I think that’s just the way championship teams are typically built.”
The Mariners did sign free agent Robbie Ray for five years and $115 million last year coming off a Cy Young season, and they view Castillo’s acquisition and subsequent signing as tantamount to a free agent signing (albeit at the cost of a few top prospects).
“I shudder to think if we wanted to go out and pay the free agent market for what Luis Castillo delivers to our team,” Dipoto said. “It would be a big number.”
The Mariners say they have the means to make a serious run at any player they identify as fulfilling their needs, which at this point is someone (or two someones) to fill a hole at corner outfield, designated hitter, and/or backup first base. Presumably, that includes Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds, who has long intrigued the Mariners and recently requested a trade.
“I said this coming out of the ‘19 season: Our goal when we started to step back or rebuild or whatever you want to call it was that every time there was a potential difference maker available, we should be in on that player,” general manager Justin Hollander said. “We should have enough payroll flexibility, we should have prospect depth, and our team should be flexible enough that we can reasonably pick up the phone and take a shot at acquiring a difference maker.”
What the Mariners say they won’t do is be reactionary to perceived improvements of their division foes, no matter how flashy.
“We’re competing to try and make and win the World Series, and that doesn’t exclusively exist within the American League West,” Hollander said. “The way we look at it, our team is coming off back-to-back 90-win seasons, and among the best teams in the American League. So when good teams in the American League do things, that makes us stand up and notice. It’s not division specific.”
That said, Bochy said he came out of his three-year retirement only after becoming convinced the Rangers were serious about turning around their recent downswing (six consecutive losing seasons, including 102 defeats in 2021 and 94 last year, despite signing free agents Corey Seager and Marcus Semien for a combined $500 million). On Tuesday they reportedly agreed to a contract with left-hander Andrew Heaney to join deGrom (signed for $37 million a year over five years) in their revamped rotation.
“Hey, we mean business right now,” Bochy said Monday. “It wasn’t that long ago where the Texas Rangers were playing really good baseball. I think (owner Ray Davis and GM Chris Young) had enough of some of these tough years. And so they’re doing all they can to get this club back on track.”
Baker, meanwhile, reiterated the statement he made after winning the first World Series title of his managerial career over the Phillies in November.
“I’ve always said if I win one, I want to win two. Now I am in a position to win two.”
The Mariners would like to usurp that position. They believe they have the team to potentially unseat Houston even if they do nothing more — but it’s clear they plan to do more.
“We went through a very competitive series with them at the end of the year,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said, speaking of the Astros’ sweep in the AL Division Series. “You’re basically one swing of the bat at the end of each game from winning it. You have to win the division, no question about it, and they were multiple games ahead of us in the division.
“Do we have the roster right now? I believe we do. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to add to it. Every team is going to continue to try to add, whether it’s role players or different guys who can add something to your lineup. … I feel good about our team. I like the moves we made so far. Teams are going to continue to make moves this offseason, but the games are played in April. They’re not played in January or December.”
It may not be until we see those moves that we get a true measure of the Mariners’ place in AL West hierarchy.