SEATTLE — The 2019 baseball season in Seattle was dubbed a “step back” before it started.
Barely removed from falling frustratingly short of the playoffs — again — the Mariners spent the winter following the 2018 season clearing out their roster.
The prospect return for the veterans they dealt away was high, but most of those exciting young players were still playing out the early chapters of their minor league careers.
The Mariners rolled out a roster that included a collection veterans, trade acquisitions, waiver claims and a few up-and-comers on their way to sending a major league record 67 players out on the field.
They finished the season a distant fifth in the American League West.
That was the first year of this rebuilding project that continues to strive to one day bring a championship to Seattle.
The second year — despite the global pandemic that led to a shortened 60-game season — was a step forward.
Young and talented, the Mariners opened spring training in 2020 with a renewed energy, knowing some of these prized prospects were nearing either their debuts or their first full season with the big league club.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut baseball down in March, and the season didn’t begin until late July, but the Mariners still saw progress.
Their young players settled in, and hot stretches in August and early September kept them in the running for a playoff spot until the final weekend of the regular season.
They ended up five games short, but finished third in the division, and the positive steps some of their younger players took were noted around the league.
Center fielder Kyle Lewis won the AL Rookie of the Year award. Rookie first baseman Evan White and shortstop J.P. Crawford won Gold Gloves.
Now, heading into the third season of this rebuild, where is Seattle’s club?
With several prospects already playing in Seattle, more on the way, and some key offseason additions, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto anticipates the best is yet to come.
“We feel like this is another opportunity for a big step forward in achieving our goals and building a young core that has a chance to compete consistently for championships at the big league level,” Dipoto said Tuesday during a media session that was part of the Mariners Virtual Baseball Bash.
“We feel like we’ve never been closer than we are today to that reality, and (are) excited for the start of 2021.”
The current expectation is spring camp will begin on time in February, with health and safety protocols still in place, and the Mariners will head to Peoria to prepare for a full 162-game season.
Should the season progress as planned, and the Mariners continue to integrate more up-and-comers into the mix — such as top prospects in Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert, or others who the Mariners believe may be close to their debuts, like Cal Raleigh or newcomer Taylor Trammell — Dipoto believes the Mariners are capable of vying for a postseason spot by the end of it.
“If things break well for us and we get into midsummer, and we stay close to this thing and we do have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field, that’s a possibility for us, and would be a goal,” Dipoto said. Young teams tend to gel quicker than you might think.
“We can’t go in expecting that we’re going to run to the top of the American League West, but I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot, and we’ll see how it goes, and if we take a step toward that in 2021, I think that would be a great achievement for our organization.”
The club has been eyeing the 2021 season as an opportunity to compete since the rebuild began, and though the 2020 season was shortened, potentially impacting the competitive timeline, Dipoto is encouraged by the energy and adaptability of the young group.
“When we started building this roster the idea was to trend toward 2021, believing that we could compete for an AL West championship,” he said. “Along the way we had a pandemic and we had to at least assess where we were, but the reality is that we saw a young group struggle for the first four weeks, five weeks of the 2020 season, and then find their groove and during the second half of the shortened season … we had one of the best records in American League and the best record in the American League West — better than the Astros better than the A’s, better than the Angels over the end of that season.
“While we don’t necessarily believe that that portends that we are the best team in the division and ready to roll, that does show growth and maturity with a young group, that they were able to get through a collective struggle and find ways to go out and compete and win games.”
The Mariners have made moves this offseason in an effort to see that late summer surge continue into 2021.
They’ve added pitching depth by signing Chris Flexen to supplement starters like Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield, who will all resume their roles in Seattle’s six-man rotation this season. They’ve also bolstered their bullpen with the additions of Rafael Montero and Keynan Middleton, and brought back Kendall Graveman.
“We are active right now, and have been throughout the offseason in trying to get better,” Dipoto said.
He said the Mariners are still looking to possibly add more depth to their bullpen and rotation, as well as a left-handed bat before the season begins.
Beyond the outside additions, Dipoto also anticipates a few prospects will find their way to Seattle this year despite missing valuable reps last summer without a minor league season, though the club is in no hurry.
“We’re going to be open minded to using 2021 as an opportunity to move some of those guys a little quicker if that’s what it appears is good for their development, and if they need more time, we’re going to be receptive to that as well,” Dipoto said. “We’re not in a rush. We’re playing the long game with our roster. We believe this is an opportunity to open a window and keep a window open for the foreseeable future.”