After tense offseason, Mariners 'feel good' about '24 outlook

February 22nd, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Most Mariners players and coaches who’ve been asked this week admitted that they tuned in to watch last year’s tense American League Championship Series -- a seven-game, Texas-sized bout that ended with the Rangers edging the Astros en route to the World Series title.

And nearly all of Seattle’s personnel who were informally polled had a similar sentiment to that shared by the face of the franchise.

“It was frustrating in a way,” said. “But at the same time, it kind of showed us that it is not so out of reach as how people make it seem. ... I feel like it showed that it's not so far away.”

The Mariners’ 2023 fate was sealed three weeks before the Rangers won the AL pennant. They were eliminated after a 10-game sprint to the finish, when they went 4-6 playing Texas, Houston then Texas again. It was a historically close race in the American League West, and even the others involved recognize as much.

“It could have been any two of the three,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said. “We were all right there and at the end, and one game here or there that separates the three teams. I think Seattle has had a great offseason. We know they’re going to be really good again, and it’s going to be a dogfight.”

The Mariners didn’t arrive at Spring Training operating as if mathematics or poor luck kept them out of the postseason during that final stretch. They recognize that the division title was theirs for the taking, and they’ve shouldered the shortcomings themselves.

“It left a sour taste in our mouth,” said. “Obviously, we came up a game short, but it doesn't matter.”

Those shortcomings paved the way for an offseason that became even more tense in the wake of a polarizing end-of-season press conference, unexpected budgetary constraints impacting payroll followed by a transactional flurry that left everyone guessing how Seattle would fill its roster needs, sometimes even the architects themselves.

“Sometimes, the offseasons go fast,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It's like ‘Wow, we were just here doing this.’ I can speak for myself, the coaching staff and a number of players -- this offseason went slow. We couldn't wait to get back at it again, based on how we finished last year.”

It led to blunt self-assessments, and not just within the clubhouse. The front office’s reimagining of the offense involved subtracting their most strikeout-prone hitters -- who were also among their best run producers -- with those more contact-oriented. They also brought in more external coaches than at any point under president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto and GM Justin Hollander.

“We felt like we probably should have won the division, and we didn't build the roster in a complete enough way to allow that to happen,” Hollander said. “We didn't execute down the stretch from a front-office perspective. ... So, instead of continuing the arc with our present group, we felt like we had to shake the snowball a little bit and challenge ourselves to get better.”

As the dust has settled and the roster has come into scope, there’s promise among the 2024 group. An elite pitching staff and position-player core anchored by Rodríguez, Raleigh and J.P. Crawford has been supplemented by established veterans Mitch Haniger, Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco.

“A lot of people forget that we're a young team,” Rodríguez said. “And sometimes with somebody that is young and is hungry enough, I feel like once you take a loss, you kind of learn from it. A lot of people I feel like will get down on it and kind of cry on it and do things like that, but I don't think that's who this group is. That's not our identity.”

This camp features all the Spring Training clichés -- newfound energy, optimism and players showing up in the best shape of their life -- but with them comes credence, fostered heavily by how sour last season ended.

“This is the hungriest team I’ve ever had in Spring Training,” Servais said. “This team is wired a little bit differently based on what they went through last year. We’ve made some additions. We’ve got some guys that are going to join our club, join our lineup, and those guys are hungry as well.”

Which all leads to the pressing question that has lingered since last October: Can they finally win the AL West for the first time since 2001?

“We feel good,” Rodríguez said with a sly smile, typical when he’s exuding confidence without being cocky. “We feel good.”