Mariners report card: ‘A lot of positives’ at 50-game mark

Does Seattle have enough to maintain its lead in the AL West through the rest of the season?

  • Ryan Divish, The Seattle Times
  • Saturday, May 25, 2024 6:00am
  • SportsMariners

The Seattle Mariners reached the 50-game mark of the 2024 season in first place in the AL West with a 27-23 record, and their three-game lead in as of Thursday morning was their largest in the division in 21 years.

They’ve gotten here, as expected, on the strength of their pitching, as the offense continues to search for consistent production up and down a rebuilt lineup.

“There’s been a lot of positives, starting with our starting pitching,” manager Scott Servais said Thursday morning in New York, when asked to assess his team through 50 games.

It could be taken as a positive, too, that the Mariners have put themselves in pole position to win their first AL West title since 2021 despite an offense that ranks 24th in MLB in runs scored (3.82 per game) and leads the league in strikeout rate (27.9%).

“The meat of our lineup, so to speak, with Julio [Rodriguez] slow to get going — there’s still plenty left in the tank there,” Servais said. “So I’m really optimistic.”

What have we learned about this team through 50 games? Seattle Timess Mariners beat writers Ryan Divish and Adam Jude answer five questions to assess the team’s strengths and weaknesses, and whether they have what it takes to hold on to the division lead:

1. What’s been the most encouraging development?

Divish: Realistically, it’s their record and their place in the standings. The Mariners are the only team in the AL West with a winning record. They sit three games ahead of the Rangers and five ahead of the Astros, and they’ve managed to do that despite two big issues: an inconsistent offense that has struck out far too much and hasn’t gotten expected production from Julio Rodriguez, Mitch Garver, Mitch Haniger and Jorge Polanco; and relievers Matt Brash and Gregory Santos not throwing a single pitch and the remaining middle relievers struggling to establish roles.

Jude: From the top of the rotation to the back end of the bullpen, the Mariners should, of course, feel really good about their pitching. There have been some pleasant surprises offensively. Josh Rojas carried the team in April, and Dylan Moore and Luke Raley have picked it up in May. But Cal Raleigh is the team MVP at the 50-game mark, and there is no debate about that. He’s everything you want in a franchise catcher; he’s respected for his leadership behind the plate and in the clubhouse. He’s been as clutch as any Mariner in recent memory, and he’s creeping up into the ‘Best Catcher in Baseball’ conversation.

2. What’s been the most discouraging development?

Divish: The offense is an easy answer because it’s been so abysmal. It can be brutally painful to watch at times and irritating to the point of maddening at others. But the Mariners bullpen has been so reliable over the past few seasons that it’s glaring to see the middle relievers struggle to maintain leads or keep deficits to a minimum to allow for potential rallies and wins. Beyond Andres Muñoz, the bullpen has been far from lockdown with proven relievers like Gabe Speier and Ryne Stanek struggling at times to keep runners off base and inherited runners from scoring. The Mariners pitching lab hasn’t been able to find another Speier or Justin Topa from the collection of relievers they brought to spring training.

Jude: It’s starting to feel like the Mariners are cursed at second base, isn’t it? They have tried just about everything in recent years — over the past seven years, they’ve had seven different opening-day starters at second base — and haven’t been able to find consistent production. Jorge Polanco looked like the ideal fit coming into the season — a switch hitter with a veteran presence who could offer some protection for Rodriguez. It hasn’t played out that way. Polanco is on pace to set career lows in most major offensive categories, posting a .192 average, a .606 OPS and a 31.5% strikeout rate. But Polanco, as he should, will continue to get regular at-bats — largely because he’s proven he’s a good big-league hitter over the past decade, and because the Mariners need him.

3. The Mariners pitching staff has ranked among the best in MLB. Is that sustainable?

Divish: It’s not sustainable to the levels that we saw earlier in the season when every starter seemed to deliver a quality start, if not better. Servais and the Mariners “pitching lab” is diligent and disciplined when it comes to keeping the starters healthy. It includes taking advantage of off days, monitoring pitch limits for a game and for three-start stretches. They know that any major injury to the rotation would be costly, if not crushing. There will still be lulls where starters struggle at times. It’s the nature of the position, but all five members of the rotation are obsessive about their preparation leading up to each start and the continued refinement of their pitches for optimal success.

Jude: Mariners starting pitchers went 21 straight games in which they allowed two earned runs or fewer, the longest such stretch in MLB in 107 years. That kind of historic stuff is not sustainable, obviously. But it is reasonable to believe this staff can continue to rank among the league’s best — a staff that gives the Mariners a chance to win every night. The rotation, one through five, is as good any in the game, and Bryan Woo’s return (2-0, 0.57 ERA in three starts) has provided a spark. There’s hope Gregory Santos can return from the IL sometime in late June to bolster the back of the bullpen, providing some support for closer Andrés Muñoz, who looks as good as ever.

4. What’s been Julio’s biggest issue, and should there be concern that this prolonged slump will continue?

Divish: The two biggest things are Rodriguez’s inability to adjust to how opposing pitchers are attacking him and the failure to get the proper timing on his swing. Pitchers have kept Rodriguez off balance by hammering him inside or up in the zone with high 90s fastballs early in the count, knowing he’s looking to swing. Once they get ahead, pitchers turn to off-speed pitches away and off the plate to get him to chase pitches. It’s not an uncommon strategy to use against young power hitters. But Rodriguez hasn’t been able to get the proper timing on his swing, specifically getting into a quality hitting position, where he can recognize those pitches as hittable or not. It’s also left him late on hittable pitches, which he fouls off or swings through. As an opposing scout said, “We’ve told our pitchers to error on missing off the plate because he’s still going to swing at them.”

Jude: Rodriguez is still hitting the ball as hard as he ever has (92.5 mph average exit velocity), but his launch angle of 7.3 degrees remains one of the lowest in the league. He’s not pulling the ball with authority and he’s not hitting the ball in the air enough, which is limiting his ability to do real damage. The good news: While he’s proven to be a slow starter in his young career, he’s played at an MVP level in the second halves of the past two seasons, posting a .306/.362/.577 slash line (. 939 OPS) across 109 games. There’s reason to believe another breakthrough is on the horizon.

5. Prediction time: Do you think the Mariners have what it takes to hold on for their first AL West title since 2001?

Divish: I think if the Mariners starting rotation can stay healthy, it will give them a chance to stay atop the AL West. It helps that the Rangers and Astros seem to be just as flawed as Seattle in their own respective ways. Those five starters are that good. They are still able to give the Mariners a chance to win even when the offense struggles to produce three runs per game. The rotation’s ability to generate quality starts can also offset the bullpen issues. Much has been made about the Mariners adding a hitter at the deadline because of the offense’s struggles. What they need is Rodriguez to start hitting and at least two of Garver, Polanco or Haniger to start producing at past levels. Even then, adding another hitter would be useful. They should also look for a leverage reliever who has the ability to miss bats to replace Brash.

Jude: The Mariners were my pick to win the division before the season, and there’s no compelling reason to change that now. The AL West, as a whole, has been one of the most surprising divisions — the Rangers have a World Series hangover, and the Astros are trying to climb out of a 12-24 start. And here’s an intriguing development: The Mariners have the easiest remaining schedule of any team in MLB, according to Tankathon.com. They’ve had one of the tougher schedules up to this point — with 29 of their first 50 games against teams with a record greater than .500, and a 13-16 record in those games — but things are about the lighten up against the likes of the Angels, White Sox and A’s. One catch: The surging Astros have MLB’s second-easiest schedule remaining, meaning you can count on the Mariners’ No. 1 nemesis to be in the thick of the division race once again come September.

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