PEORIA, Ariz. — Finally, a sense of normalcy has returned to spring training.
In 2020, everything was sailing along until this mysterious disease called coronavirus erupted worldwide. The sport grinded to a halt along with everything else, and teams in Florida and Arizona were sent home on March 12. When players reconvened on July 1 for “Summer Camp” to prepare for a truncated, fan-less 60-game season, it ensured the weirdest campaign in MLB history.
A full season was played in 2021, but the specter of COVID still hung over the sport for most of the year, particularly in spring training. Social distancing was prevalent, fans were restricted, and the rules of the game again were altered (seven-inning doubleheaders, phantom runner in extra innings) to protect the players.
Last year, COVID was receding, but an owners’ lockout shut down the game until March. When the labor dispute was finally settled, players converged on March 11 for a hastily staged and reduced spring training 27 days before opening day.
Now, as workouts commence around the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, there is labor peace. The pandemic isn’t impacting preparation. The World Baseball Classic will displace some players from their camp for a bit, but otherwise it’s finally business as usual.
Also, observers of the Seattle Mariners are wondering if they did enough in the offseason to address their needs.
Like I said, normalcy.
The Mariners enter their 2023 camp with as much excitement surrounding the team as they’ve had since the early 2000s. They are mercifully liberated from the annual burden of trying to end their playoff drought, and have a roster dotted with appealing and productive players.
And yet the Mariners’ decision to sit out all but the fringes of free agency — platoon outfielder AJ Pollock, backup infielder Tommy La Stella and middle reliever Trevor Gott comprise the entirety of their purchases — has left a clearly defined sense of trepidation.
Entering a season in which the Mariners’ new challenge is to build upon and exceed the playoff breakthrough of 2022, the Mariners have made a distinct calculation that they didn’t need any splashy signings to do so.
There is a lot riding on that decision. The momentum and goodwill they built last year was immense. People are deep into the process of falling in love with this baseball team. If the Mariners have a major drop-off this year and it’s perceived to be the result of a lack of financial commitment, the backlash and disillusionment will be significant. Much of that aforementioned goodwill will have been squandered.
The alternative is that the Mariners turn out to be correct in their estimation that they will be a much-improved team in 2023 by virtue of their additions. They made two significant trade acquisitions in right fielder Teoscar Hernandez and second baseman Kolten Wong. Last year, the M’s ranked 21st in MLB with a .680 OPS from their right fielders, and 28th with a .608 OPS from their second baseman. There is thus huge room for improvement. Hernandez has the potential to be a 30-homer, .900-OPS player — because he’s done both with Blue Jays. Wong has been a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman who’s exceeded 3.0 Wins Above Replacement the past two years.
The idea in signing Pollock was to ease the path for Jarred Kelenic to finally start achieving his potential. Pollock has historically destroyed left-handed pitching; Kelenic has been completely overmatched against southpaws. Pollock will likely get the bulk of the starts against lefties, which should work in everyone’s favor. But this will be a position of considerable scrutiny in light of the fact the Mariners chose to pass over other free-agent options.
The Mariners also like to point to the fact they acquired ace pitcher Luis Castillo at the trade deadline and locked him up to a long-term contract as akin to an addition for 2023. That might be stretching things, but the fact that Castillo will be there for the whole season is undoubtedly a plus for the Mariners. Their rotation, on paper, matches up with most in the majors, if it can stay healthy. The bullpen has been dominant for two years, and there’s little reason other than the fickle nature of relief to think it can’t be again.
Much of the Mariners’ fate, beyond the obvious factor of health, will be dependent on whether their offense rises above the .230/.315/.390 slash line from last year. One primary source of hope there, beyond the new acquisitions, is the belief that Julio Rodriguez could be primed for a transcendent, MVP-caliber season in Year 2. The second-half surge of catcher Cal Raleigh bodes well, too. Did the Mariners boost their offense enough? That’s the burning question that won’t be answered until the season starts.
Neither of the two most well-regarded projection systems that use analytics to forecast the standings for the upcoming season is particularly high on the Mariners. PECOTA, compiled by Baseball Prospectus, has them at 82-80, down eight wins from last year; they see the Mariners finishing third in the AL West, 13 games behind the Astros and four behind the Angels. And ZiPS, calculated by FanGraphs, has them at 85-77, five games behind the Astros and tied with the Angels.
Don’t fret too much about that, however. Last year, PECOTA pegged the Mariners for 83 wins, and in 2021 PECOTA forecast 70 wins. The Mariners won 90 both seasons. Only the Giants (+35) have outperformed their PECOTA projections more than the Mariners (+27) over that span. ZiPS was only slightly better, underselling the M’s by a cumulative 22 wins over the past two years.
The good news is that the Mariners have a very real chance to repeat their playoff run of last year. It doesn’t take any sort of mental gymnastics to conjure that scenario. They also have some distinct danger signs that play into the fear that they didn’t do enough to bolster their chances.
But, then again, it wouldn’t be spring without an intoxicating blend of optimism and dread. Business as usual, you might say.
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