Closing the Gap with the Astros isn't an Insurmountable Task

Wild Card Series - Seattle Mariners v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Two
Wild Card Series - Seattle Mariners v Toronto Blue Jays - Game Two / Mark Blinch/GettyImages
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Closing the Gap with the Astros

Sports hatred is one of rivalry'srivalry's most exciting and almost intoxicating parts. So between the altercations on the field after Hector Neris fired multiple fastballs at Ty France, Astros' television play-by-play man Geoff Blum made unfounded remarks about Scott Servais's shadiness, and a highly contested playoff series, 2023 is ripe for some interesting storylines. But was last year an anomaly? Or just the beginning of a Mariner team closing the gap with a heated rival?

WAR, what is it good for?

Analytics and data such as outs above average, barrel rate, wins above replacement, or WAR is often used to project seasons for players and their teams. If we look at Steamer for 2023, the Astros' projected starting lineup will amass 28.3 WAR. The Mariners projected starting nine, including the additions of slugger Teoscar Hernandez and sparkplug second baseman Kolton Wong offers up a tidy 23.5 WAR.

As fans, we could look at the inactivity of the President of Baseball Operations, Jerry Dipoto, and General Manager, Justin Hollander, and roast them on social media platforms. Then, we could wonder where they might look for the five wins needed to ''statistically'' close the gap. However, the void is possible for Manager Scott Servais' squad to overcome because there are some critical non-statistical points to consider.

Steps Forward by the Core

Many people forget the Mariners were the second-youngest team in the American League last year. The youthful core of Cal Raleigh, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, and American League Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez are all under 25 years old. This quartet has yet to sniff its prime. Additionally, with the added playoff experience and time competing in meaningful games last year, these players will undoubtedly take steps forward in 2023.

Also, I don't believe J.P. Crawford's 2022 is the status quo. He spent most of the season fighting through core and leg injuries, which can hamper players in the batter's box and the field. Nevertheless, the emotional leader still managed to play 143 games and achieve the best walk and strikeout rates of his six-year career (11.3% - 13.3%). Don't forget while Crawford is at his best when he uses the whole field; his power is all to the pull side. The shift restrictions should allow him to scratch out a few more hits, solidifying the order's bottom half.

Pitching Will Rule the Day

The Mariners are and will always be built on pitching. That approach is reflected in Dipoto and Director of Scouting Scott Hunter's draft strategy at the beginning of the rebuild. During that time, the team selected Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Bryce Miller, Emerson Hancock, and Michael Morales. All those players had one thing in common; they were advanced for their age.

As we've already seen, Gilbert and Kirby made significant contributions to the major league club last season. We will surely see some combination of the next wave of hurlers in 2023. We expect the next wave of pitching, Miller, Hancock, and flamethrower Prelander Berroa, to make their debuts next year.

Adding an entire season of Luis Castillo, who Steamer projects to lead the staff with 3.4 WAR, should also provide a considerable boost. Even if the team decides to trade Chris Flexen and Marco Gonzales to replenish the farm systems or fill holes in left field and the bullpen, the Mariners' starting five of Castillo, Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Matt Brash lines up well with the Astros as reflected in the hard-fought playoff series. For those hung up on the stats, Steamer projects that starting rotation to rack up 10.5 WAR, while the Astros should end up with 11.2 WAR.

Surprising Contributions on the Way

Every season includes some surprising developments. Last year, it was the emergence of Cal Raleigh as a Top 10 catcher and Sam Haggerty as a do-it-all sparkplug. The year before, it was reliever Casey Sadler's 0.67 ERA and straight dominance with a heavy two-seamer.

Who emerges from the shadows in 2023? It could be a polarizing outfielder, Jarred Kelenic, especially if the team takes a platoon approach to start the year. The past two seasons were a rollercoaster for the former first-round pick, as he was shuttled back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma due to extended struggles hitting major-league pitching. Those two years culminated with impressive Septembers that gave fans a glimmer of hope.

The team had the chance to sign an everyday left fielder in free agency, as Brandon Nimmo, Cody Bellinger, Joey Gallo, and Michael Brantley were on the market. Instead, Dipoto chose to sit it out, which might be the vote of confidence Kelenic needs to hit the ground running in 2023.
Don't sleep on the possible contributions of Cade Marlowe, Taylor Trammell, and a healthy Tom Murphy.

We can get hung up on all the analytics, but at the end of the day the Mariners have to play the games. The roster has a ton of upside, a front office who will deal, and a manager who's finished in the top three in the AL MoTY voting during the past two years. Here's to taking the next step in 2023 and putting even more pressure on our heated rivals.

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