Rebuilds are the supreme test of a baseball fan’s soul.
You are promised a big payoff in the end, but the heavy price to pay is short-term pain. The key words are “short term,” which is an indeterminate measure of time that can seem interminable when you’re in the midst of the building portion of the project. Especially in the darker moments when the payoff sometimes seems unattainable.
The Mariners are in Year 3 of theirs, which was sold as a “stepback” because it was supposed to reach fruition quicker than a standard rebuild. When he tore apart the 89-win Mariners’ team of 2018 by ditching the likes of Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz and Mike Zunino, general manager Jerry Dipoto endeavored to get prospects who were near the major leagues, not starting their pro journey in the low majors.
The timetable for becoming a highly competitive ballclub was initially pegged as midway through the 2020 season, which was remarkably fast. The Astros, as a point of comparison, averaged 104 losses in a four-year stretch when they rebuilt before finally breaking through.
The COVID-19-ravaged season of 2020 threw that timetable off course. It sounds like just another lame excuse, but when player development is at the core of your plan, and the minor leagues are shut down for a year, it’s a legitimate one.
But as we near the midway point of another season — the second half of 2021 is what Dipoto has used as the new benchmark for the start of the breakthrough — the Mariners’ grand plan is at its most tenuous juncture.
The success of this season was to be measured almost solely by the progress of the young talent that has been nurtured through the minors on a path toward becoming cornerstones of the new-look Mariners.
Not all of the young talent, they hope — there’s still another wave of pitching prospects, plus 19-year-old infield phenom Noelvi Marte, sitting in low-A who are supposed to keep the talent pipeline churning down the road. And, of course, blue-chip prospect Julio Rodriguez probably won’t hit the majors until next year.
However, by the end of this year, the core of a contending team should have been revealed. Even with the 2020 hiccup, that’s a completely reasonable expectation. But it’s one that, at the moment, remains murky.
What young player do you look at and say, “That guy is a building block of a pennant-winning team, guaranteed?” Certainly, J.P. Crawford has been a revelation and looks like he could indeed be the shortstop of a championship-level club. That’s a huge development, if sustained, because it would allow the Mariners to invest their free-agent dollars this winter at other positions of need (cough, third base).
Jake Fraley’s breakout has been encouraging, and potentially adds depth and options to the outfield. Starting pitcher Logan Gilbert in his past two starts has flashed the form that made him so highly touted. Along with Chris Flexen, Yusei Kikuchi (assuming they pick up his option through 2025) and Marco Gonzales, the Mariners have the outline of a workable rotation.
But so many of the players that you’d hope would have established themselves by now remain question marks. I hesitate to put Jarred Kelenic on that list, because I still think he’s close to a sure thing. But until Kelenic does it at the major-league level, there’s still a lingering shadow of a doubt. His .096 batting average in 92 plate appearances, replete with an 0-for-38 slump that will resume when he returns from his Triple-A demotion, shows that Kelenic remains a work in progress.
Then there’s Kyle Lewis, who has long been trumpeted as part of the Mariners’ glittering “outfield of the future” along with Kelenic and Rodriguez. But after yet another injury to his problematic right knee, this one requiring surgery to repair torn meniscus, you have to wonder about Lewis’s future in center field. Lewis has All-Star tools and unlimited potential, but his injury history has become a major concern.
Then there’s first baseman Evan White, who was given a six-year deal for a guaranteed $24 million that could max out at $55.5 million — the first player at the Double-A level ever to sign a long-term extension. White is in his second major-league season (currently rehabbing a hip injury with Tacoma) and has yet to show many signs that he can hit major-league pitching. While a truly elite defensive player, White has a .165/.235/.308 career slash line with 115 strikeouts in 279 at-bats.
White is still just 84 games into his career, with time to turn things around, but the early signs aren’t promising. If White is a washout, that’s a major blow to the Mariners’ plan.
Pitching wise, the Mariners still don’t know if Justus Sheffield, the key return in the Paxton trade, and Justin Dunn, who came with Kelenic in the Cano/Diaz trade, are pieces to build around in the rotation. Sheffield has shown flashes of brilliance but lacks consistency. Dunn has proven to be extremely hard to hit but has struggled with command.
Numerous other players are still mysteries as far as their long-term impact — the likes of Shed Long, Dylan Moore, Taylor Trammell, Luis Torrens and newly acquired Jake Bauers. At some point soon, catcher Cal Raleigh, who is tearing up Triple-A, will get his shot to show he’s the catcher of the future. And the Mariners must still decide by the July 31 trade deadline if Mitch Haniger is part of their long-term future.
That’s a lot of uncertainty at a time when the Mariners had hoped to instead be gaining clarity. In order for confidence in the ultimate success of this rebuild/stepback to firm up, they need a lot of positive signs to emerge in the second half of 2021.
Until then, the soul-testing will continue for Mariner fans.