The Seattle Mariners are coming off a historic 2022 season, making the playoffs for the first time in over two decades. After being swept in the division round of the playoffs by AL West rival Houston Astros, the gulf between the two franchises was made evident, as were the steps that the Mariners would need to take to have a chance at surpassing the Astros in the coming years. While the 2022 Mariners deserve to be celebrated, there are worrying signs that the 2023 squad may not be ready to take the next steps to improve on what last year’s team accomplished. Last week I covered five positive signs for the Mariners entering the 2023 season, but here are five more that should concern fans.
1. A big hole at designated hitter. The team enters 2023 prepared to fill the designated hitter spot with a committee of players. Outfielders Teoscar Hernandez and AJ Pollock both figure to see time at the spot, as do catchers Tom Murphy and Cal Raleigh, third baseman Eugenio Suarez, first baseman Ty France and utility players Dylan Moore and Sam Haggerty. All of those players are solid contributors to a major league roster. However, as the adage goes, “When you have over half a dozen designated hitters, you don’t have one.” Designated hitter is one of the easiest positions to fill on a major league roster, and for somewhat inexplicable reasons, the Mariners have actively chosen not to fill it permanently.
2. Not doing enough to keep pace in the AL West. Fangraphs projects the Mariners to finish second in the American League West and projects the division to be tighter than in 2022 when the Mariners finished in second place 16 games behind the division-winning Astros and 17 ahead of the third-place Angels. The Astros are projected to slip back closer to the pack, but more concerning for the Mariners is the ground the Angels and Rangers appear to have made up on them. The Angels are in full desperation mode. If they don’t win this year, expect Shohei Ohtani, arguably the best player in the league and possibly the world, to depart in the offseason. The Rangers went on a spending spree in 2022 and continued to do so this offseason. Zips and Pecota, two of the best projections simulations available, also have the gap narrowing, with Zips showing the Mariners and Angels tying for second place and Pecota having the Angels surpassing the Mariners for the second spot in the division. The 2022 season was certainly a feel-good story, but on paper, this is no time for the team to be resting on its laurels.
3. Don’t count on reinforcements from the farm system. The Mariners entered the last two seasons with one of the highest-ranked minor league systems in baseball. This season MLB.com ranks the system 22nd. That’s not because of any failures to develop or draft players; it’s because the top of the system either graduated to the majors or was used in trades. When your system results in you having one of the top players in the game in Julio Rodriguez, and you used a chunk of prospects to bring in an ace in Luis Castillo, that’s a good result. However, it also means that for the next few years at least, there is not much frontline depth to be pulled from the minors. Outside of relief pitchers, about the only help the Mariners can expect from the farm this season is former Gold Glover Evan White if he can stay healthy, and outfielder Cade Marlow, who projects as a fourth outfielder at the major league level. Starting pitcher Emerson Hancock could make his debut this year, but if he appears for the Mariners, it’s likely because their excellent starting rotation has suffered significant injuries.
4. Counting on a breakout in the outfield. Instead of making a major free agent investment to shore up the outfield, the Mariners will be counting on significant playing time from former uber prospect Jarred Kelenic in one of the corner outfield spots this season. Kelenic struggled mightily during call-ups during the 2021 and 2022 seasons and has yet to post an average over .200. Kelenic reportedly spent the offseason retooling his swing and has been getting rave reviews so far in spring training. But before you get too excited about him launching prodigious bombs, remember he’s shown flashes of the same thing before. If he is going to put it together, the Mariners appear convinced to allow him the playing to do so.
5. Bullpen regression. Bullpens are notoriously finicky things. One that puts up a stellar performance one year with a roster full of firemen may find itself with a roster full of arsonists the following season. The Mariners’ bullpen was heavily used last year and showed signs of running on fumes by the time the team reached the playoffs. A significant amount of their hope for repeating their 2022 success lies in having the bullpen replicate its success from last year. The Mariners have a skill for grabbing a pile of relievers and turning them into a highly effective bullpen but don’t be surprised if the group posts some regression this season.