Center fielder Jarred Kelenic reacts after the Mariners beat the Athletics 4-2 on Sept. 29, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Center fielder Jarred Kelenic reacts after the Mariners beat the Athletics 4-2 on Sept. 29, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

M’s believe unexpected 90-win season is just the beginning

Whether they were lucky or good is debatable, but Seattle’s youth movement has arrived.

  • By TIM BOOTH AP Sports Writer
  • Tuesday, October 5, 2021 5:26pm
  • SportsMariners

By Tim Booth / Associated Press

SEATTLE — Of all the moments in the unexpected September charge made by the Seattle Mariners, there’s one day in particular that stood out to manager Scott Servais.

It was a must-win Wednesday night in the final week against Oakland. His lineup featured a 24-year-old catcher, a 24-year-old starting pitcher, middle infielders aged 26 and 24 and a 22-year-old center fielder.

And that doesn’t include the 27-year-old first baseman who was Seattle’s best overall hitter this year, or the 26-year-old former rookie of the year who played just 36 games due to injury.

In other words, the Mariners are young, talented and seemed to have changed the narrative about their future after an unexpected 90-win season.

“It’s a group that has really, I think, clearly defined itself on what we value and what our process looks like going forward,” Servais said. “And that’s not going to change.”

The Mariners fell short of snapping their 20-year playoff drought on the final weekend. But the year was still a successful one that established the Mariners’ core.

Servais is likely to be the AL manager of the year after Seattle entered the season with expectations of barely getting to 70 wins. Mitch Haniger should be a comeback player of the year candidate after hitting 39 home runs following nearly two full years away due to injuries.

Seattle’s pitching staff found a gem in Chris Flexen and developed one of the best bullpens in baseball.

Then there was the youth movement, whether it was center fielder Jarred Kelenic, pitcher Logan Gilbert, shortstop J.P. Crawford, second baseman Abraham Toro, catcher Cal Raleigh or first baseman Ty France, who all either got their first taste of the majors or solidified themselves as established pieces of Seattle’s future.

“I know that next season, I’m gonna be way better than I was this year,” Kelenic said. “And there’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to outwork anybody’s expectations, and at the end of the day that’s all I can do.”

Lucky or good?

One of the lingering questions is whether Seattle’s season was a mirage. The Mariners were outscored by 51 runs for the season and went 33-19 in one-run games, 14-7 in extra inning games. There seemed to be a reasonable amount of good fortune that helped lead to the 90 wins.

But to their credit, the Mariners were 44-34 against teams with records of .500 or better, the fifth-best mark in the AL.

Viva la France

One of Seattle’s biggest breakout players was France. France led the team with a .291 batting average and added 18 homers, 32 doubles and 73 RBI. In a season where batting average seemed to be devalued, France finished 10th in the AL.

Even more impressive was his defensive improvement after taking over a first base after Evan White was injured. In 814 chances, France committed only one error.

Contract questions

Seattle seems unlikely to pick up the option on third baseman Kyle Seager, all but ending a tenure with the Mariners that started in 2011. It’s the reason the Mariners made sure Seager was honored in the ninth inning of Sunday’s loss after their playoff hopes were dashed.

The unknown will be whether Seattle seeks a third baseman in free agency or moves Toro to his more natural position of third and looks more for a middle infielder to pair with Crawford.

Another major question for the Mariners concerns left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who was Seattle’s lone All-Star selection but collapsed the second half of the season. Before the All-Star break, Kikuchi had a 3.48 ERA in 16 starts. After, it was 5.98 in 13 outings.

If Seattle picks up an option, it would lock Kikuchi in for four years and $66 million. If it’s declined, Kikuchi would have a player option for one year at $13 million or could elect free agency. But it seems both sides are ready for the relationship to end.

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