SEATTLE -- As if the sting of falling just short of the postseason wasn’t enough, the Mariners will now spend the entire offseason with another “what if” conundrum after the Rangers leapfrogged them in the American League West in 2023 all the way to a World Series title.
A division that Seattle believed was winnable ahead of last spring all of a sudden now houses each of MLB’s past two champions, both of which were within striking distance entering the final 10 games of the season and neither of whom are going away in 2024.
That could make a long winter even longer and expectations that existed at this time last year now with far more pressure. With that in mind, how can Seattle not just keep pace with Texas and Houston, but surpass those clubs as it hopes to next season?
“I think when you look at the two clubs that are going into the playoffs from our division,” manager Scott Servais said at Seattle’s end-of-season press conference, “I sit back and look and, offensively, I've talked here at the end of the year about being more consistent throughout the year is critical.”
The Mariners went 9-4 against the Astros and 4-9 against the Rangers last season -- including 4-6 in that well-chronicled sprint to the finish, exclusively against those teams. Seattle owned Houston all year until dropping two of three that week during the most critical stage of the season. It was an untimely setback that could have been avoided by a stronger start than the .500 pace the Mariners played with through their first 100 games. In that stretch, their run differential was plus-20 compared to plus-72 in their final 62 games.
"The strikeouts -- the swing-and-miss in our lineup is what caused us to struggle early in the year,” Servais said. “And it was something that you look at at the end of the day, how do you overcome that? You have to hit a ton of home runs and slug, and we didn't do that consistently throughout the year. So from an offensive standpoint, that's the one thing we've got to address.”
Texas had one of MLB’s most imposing lineups and did some of its most significant damage against Seattle, scoring 63 runs (4.84 per game) with a .419 slugging percentage and 17 homers in their matchups, including six alone in a Sept. 24 game in Arlington. The Rangers were able to overcome key injuries to their rotation (including IL stints for Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray and Max Scherzer) and a wildly inconsistent bullpen (which had an MLB-high 33 blown saves) in huge part by out-slugging everyone.
The Mariners, meanwhile, ranked sixth in WAR (26.2) and tied for seventh in wRC+ (107), but those positives were marred by a 25.9% strikeout rate that ranked second highest in baseball. Their .576 OPS and 82 strikeouts with runners in scoring position and no outs each were worst in baseball. A huge part of their offensive identity was creating traffic but frustratingly failing to cash it in.
“How do we get better in that area? Sometimes you get better because maybe you have a few different players in your lineup,” Servais said. “We'll see how that plays out this offseason.”
Indeed, the Hot Stove season has officially arrived this week, with free agency opening and qualifying offers being extended. Interestingly, Seattle opted to not give one to Teoscar Hernández, a key run producer from last year who was also arguably their streakiest hitter and one who headlined their strikeout challenges, with a 31.1% K rate that ranked fifth highest in MLB.
It’s still possible they explore a deal with Hernández, who is now a free agent, but it’s just as likely that the club looks to replace his production with hitters that create more consistent contact.
They recognize that they’ll need to, especially if they hope to keep pace in what might amount to MLB’s most competitive division.
“Expectations are great,” Servais said. “I talked about it in Spring Training, they were raised dramatically and how they'd ever been here in the past and I look forward to being up there again. Because in my mind, we are as good as the Astros and Rangers except for one or two games, and that's what it comes down to.”