Mariners look to young stars for big push

March 29th, 2021

After nearly six long weeks of Spring Training, the Mariners are ready to march to Seattle for Opening Day.

The club will open the regular season on Thursday against the Giants, live on MLB.TV, with first pitch from third-year Opening Day starter Marco Gonzales slated for 7:10 p.m. PT.

So, what else is on the docket for the first of 162 games? Are any down-to-the-wire roster battles looming? And who might be some of the best standouts over the sixth-month season? We tackle that here.

What needs to go right?
Pitching. And pitching.

Seattle’s offense should be much improved with the returns of catcher Tom Murphy and right fielder Mitch Haniger, two of the club’s top run producers from 2019. But questions still remain over the 14-man pitching staff.

Seattle will once again opt for a six-man rotation after seeing success with that strategy in 2019, and the bullpen has made roster upgrades that should help it improve from its American League-worst 5.92 ERA last season. But will those personnel changes lead to success? And how will the Mariners maintain health -- a problem every club will address during the ramp up back to a 162-game season?

Justin Dunn won the battle over Nick Margevicius for the sixth and final rotation spot, but Margevicius will be the long man in the bullpen for at least the early leg of the season. That will also keep him close by should the Mariners need to inject him into the rotation if another starter goes down. No. 4 prospect Logan Gilbert will be up at some point, but later in the summer. Yet the Mariners have made it no secret that they will likely need even more reinforcements at points during the season.

Great unknown: Can Seattle take another big step?
The Mariners impressed the rest of the league after finishing in third place in the AL West last season, just two games behind the Astros, who played in the AL Championship Series. From an insular perspective, Seattle's 27-33 record offered tangible results of the efforts behind the multiyear rebuild, which enters its third year.

The Mariners have spent the past two seasons acquiring, gauging and developing young talent. The 2021 season will lean more toward the latter, but many of those blue chip prospects fans have been hearing about the past two years are on the brink of the big leagues, which begs the question: Just how close is Seattle to contending?

General manager Jerry Dipoto has been careful with his words when speaking of the club’s realistic goals for 2021, saying that “competing for a playoff spot” is attainable. Translation: somewhere approaching .500 and playing in meaningful games in the final two months would be a success. With Kyle Lewis up and already doing big things -- even though his health status for Opening Day could be in doubt with a bone bruise in his right knee -- and with Jarred Kelenic and Gilbert coming soon, can the future faces of the franchise help the Mariners make another big push?

Team MVP will be: Mitch Haniger
The 2018 All-Star is fully healthy and has looked every bit the part during camp, hitting .234/.308/.511 with three big homers. Haniger has also asserted himself into the leadoff spot of the everyday lineup and will be leaned upon as one of the club’s primary run producers. As Dipoto has said countless times, when Haniger is healthy, he is “our best player.”

Team Cy Young will be: James Paxton
While Gonzales has been stellar in the two years that Paxton spent with the Yankees, when Big Maple is at his very best, he’s one of the top left-handed starters in the American League -- and no team knows that better than the Mariners.

Paxton’s one-year reunion with the Mariners was a win-win for both reasons. Seattle needed an innings-eating starter, and Paxton needed an opportunity to re-establish himself after a 2020 that was plagued by back surgery and a left flexor strain.

The always-motivated Paxton will bring an extra layer to his work ethic in 2021 to prove to himself, the Mariners and the rest of the Majors that he’s fully healthy.

Bold prediction: Jarred Kelenic wins AL Rookie of the Year
This might not be super bold, given that he is MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 overall prospect and knocking on the Major League door. But given the Mariners’ stance that he needs more Minor League development, and as such, won’t be up in the Majors at the start of the season, he’ll already be playing some catch-up.

The 21-year-old has exhibited all the raw tools in camp -- from throwing to baserunning and, of course, hitting -- but it’s his polished approach and baseball IQ that have stood out most. There aren’t many holes in Kelenic’s compact swing, and he has the patience to work pitchers deep into counts and either take walks or feast on mistakes. He doesn’t sell out for power, either. And if he reaches his self-professed goal of 30 stolen bases, that should supplement what could be strong offensive numbers.

Put it all together, and Kelenic should be in the mix to become the second straight Mariner to take home the hardware after Lewis was the unanimous winner in 2020.