SEATTLE — Sometime around the midpoint of the truncated 60-game season, Scott Servais noticed an obvious shift in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse.
While the focus on development of young players was still there, Servais said it became clear his young team was growing in confidence, and the expectation of just being competitive wasn’t good enough. The Mariners believed they were ready to win.
“I do think we were able to accomplish a lot of what we’re looking to do and maybe it’s happening a little bit quicker than we thought,” Servais said. “So that excites me a ton. I know the mindset of our team shifted. It shifted about halfway through this thing.
“I really felt there was an everyday focus on winning the ball game. And along the way, we were going to focus on getting better no question about it. But the attitude among our players, our coaching staff, it shifted.”
How that shift carries into the 2021 season will be a major determinant in the next stage of the Mariners rebuilding project. Even in just 60 games, Seattle came away from 2020 believing the shortened season was a success in its rebuild plan.
They finished the year 27-33 and were playing meaningful games in the playoff conversation into the final week of the regular season. Marco Gonzales pitched well enough to be in the AL Cy Young Award conversation, although he might not finish in the top five. Kyle Lewis might end up being the AL Rookie of the Year after a breakout season where he proved he can be a force at the plate and be Seattle’s center fielder of the future.
Seattle is still likely two seasons away from rejoining the ranks of legitimate contenders in the AL. But with a bevy of talent still in the minors and likely to make their debuts sometime in 2021, there is optimism that next year could be the season the breakout takes place.
“That’s where you want to be everyday coming into the ballpark feeling you have a chance to win, going about your business knowing that you’re going to win every night,” Servais said.
Gonzales was the leader of a rotation that saw its core pieces perform up to or beyond expectations. Gonzales went 7-2 with a 3.10 ERA in 11 starts, the lowest ERA by a Seattle pitcher since Felix Hernandez had a 2.14 mark in 2014.
The most important performance for the season came from Justus Sheffield. In his first full season, Sheffield was 4-3 with a 3.58 ERA in 10 starts. Sheffield had a rocky first two outings, but had a 2.64 ERA over his final eight starts.
Gonzales, Sheffield and Yusei Kikuchi give Seattle three solid pieces to the rotation with more options on the way.
Lewis could be in line to be Seattle’s first Rookie of the Year since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. He started hot, and on Aug. 22, almost one month into the season, was still hitting. 373. He cooled significantly over the final month, but still hit .262 with 11 home runs and 28 RBI.
As important for Seattle was Lewis’ play in center field, which included more than a few highlight moments.
“He took huge strides forward defensively for us and his ability to get out into center field and do a really nice job out there,” Servais said.
While both had up-and-down seasons at the plate, the Mariners come out of the year feeling strongly about the long-term prospects of shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Evan White. Crawford had just three errors in 221 chances, while White’s glove at first proved worth the reputation it gained in college and the minors, and made Seattle’s entire infield better.
“What we’ve been able to do defensively has been really fun to watch,” Servais said.
On the farm
One of Seattle’s big questions is when some of its top prospects might reach the majors in 2021. At the top of the list is outfielder Jarred Kelenic, regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball. There was a fleeting thought Seattle could bring Kelenic up this year to help make the charge at a playoff spot, but keeping an extra year of player control seemed the prudent choice.
Along with Kelenic, the Mariners are likely to see pitcher Logan Gilbert, catcher Cal Raleigh and outfielder Taylor Trammell next season, while waiting for the continued development from the likes of Julio Rodriguez, Emerson Hancock and George Kirby.