The Fourth of July arrives at about the midpoint of the Major League Baseball season every year, making it an appropriate time to take stock of the season’s progress. If one were grading the Seattle Mariners’ first half based strictly on results, then the Mariners would find themselves reassigned to remedial classes. Seattle was 38-51 going into Wednesday night’s game against St. Louis and mired in last place in the American League West. Fangraphs.com listed the Mariners with zero chance of making the postseason.
But what is this season all about for Seattle? Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto stated definitively that this would be a rebuilding year. A large chunk of the team’s core from last season was traded during the offseason in exchange for prospects. Since the season began veterans have been shipped out to create future payroll flexibility. Seattle isn’t playing for results this season.
Which means, with the season passing its halfway point, it makes more sense to evaluate the Mariners not based on how they’re doing this season, but rather on how they’re doing in building a team that can contend in the future. While the product on display at T-Mobile Park may be all too familiar for a franchise that hasn’t tasted the postseason since 2001, there’s been some good developments during the season’s first three months regarding the rebuild. Let’s take a look:
1) Youngish players at the major-league level have produced offensively.
Step one in the rebuilding process was finding some younger major-league caliber players who might still be around and productive when Seattle is ready to contend again. Those have been in short supply in recent years, particularly among position players as Seattle struggled to develop quality major-league bats.
But the first half of the season saw some players emerge. Designated hitter Dan Vogelbach, 26, is having his breakout season, launching 20 homers and being selected to the All-Star game. Corner outfielder Domingo Santana, also 26, has recaptured the offensive form he displayed two years ago with Milwaukee. Shortstop J.P. Crawford, 24, is fulfilling the promise that made him a top-10 prospect in all of baseball two years ago. Santana and Crawford were part of the offseason overhaul.
Dipoto targeted 2021 as the year to begin contending again, and while that may be optimistic, Vogelbach, Santana and Crawford are all under team control through at least 2021 — Santana is eligible for free agency beginning in 2022, Crawford in 2024, Vogelbach in 2025 — and young enough that they should still be performing at the same level or better when 2021 rolls around.
Granted, there are major defensive questions about Vogelbach and Santana. But throw in a couple of slightly older but productive players in outfielder Mitch Haniger and catcher Omar Narvaez and one can at least imagine the framework of a future contending team.
2) Finally, the Mariners have some prospects worth getting excited about.
Seattle’s minor-league system has been a wasteland in recent years, devoid of prospects one could project as high-caliber major leaguers. The offseason trades that saw the Mariners surrender the likes of Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz and James Paxton were designed to change that, and the first three months of the season suggest Seattle succeeded.
The trade that sent Cano and Diaz to the New York Mets appears to have been particularly fruitful. Nineteen-year-old outfielder Jarred Kelenic was even better than advertised, burning up Single-A, and he’s now considered by MLB.com as Seattle’s top prospect and No. 24 in all of baseball. Pitcher Justin Dunn is striking out nearly 12 batters per nine innings at Double-A and as is ranked No. 67 by MLB.com.
Seattle also has two prospects who debuted this season and are delivering on their promise. Pitcher Logan Gilbert, who didn’t throw once for the Mariners organization after being selected in the first round of last year’s draft, has had Single-A overmatched, and that includes putting up great numbers in the hitter-friendly California League. Dominican outfielder Julio Rodriguez, just 18 years old, is flourishing at Single-A in his first foray stateside.
Not every prospect is panning out as hoped. Pitcher Justus Sheffield, the jewel of the trade that sent Paxton to the New York Yankees, had all kinds of control issues at Triple-A, and although he’s pitched well in Double-A it still has to be considered a step backward. But for the first time in ages Seattle fans can dream big about Mariner prospects becoming major-league stars.
3) Seattle is still waiting on Yusei Kikuchi.
One component of the rebuild was taking a chance on a free-agent pitcher who could become a top-of-the-rotation starter at a reasonable price. The Mariners hoped Kikuchi would fit that bill when they signed the Japanese star to a complicated contract during the offseason that ties him to the Mariners for between three and seven seasons. The best-case scenario has Kikuchi becoming an ace, turning the contract, which could become as much as seven years and $109 million, into a bargain.
So far Kikuchi hasn’t been that guy, sporting a 5.12 ERA and 68/32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 91.1 innings. He’s only had one outing this season — a seven-inning, 10-strikeout start against Cleveland on May 3 — in which he resembled an ace.
But one thing the Mariners emphasized at the time of Kikuchi’s signing is that because the team is rebuilding this season, it can ease Kikuchi gradually into the majors. His inning and pitch counts are being closely controlled, and the fact that wins and losses aren’t as important this season means Seattle can allow Kikuchi to focus more on process than results. So maybe the top-of-the-rotation starter is still in there waiting to get out.
No, the Mariners haven’t hit the jackpot with all their rebuilding moves this season. But the first three months have seen more positive developments than negative ones. So while it may be difficult for Mariner fans who are suffering through yet another losing season, keep in mind that the goal isn’t 2019, it’s 2021 and beyond. And based on the first three months of this season, Seattle appears to at least be headed in the right direction.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.