Here's how Mariners could win AL West

January 25th, 2021

My high school crush was cool, cute, confident, sunny and smart. I was, to put it charitably, a work in progress.

But we had a good rapport, a fast-forming friendship, and importantly, shared singlehood. So one day, when she mentioned that she did not have a date for our upcoming senior prom, I had the craziest thought: “Why not me?”

I ran this by my older brother, and this was his ensuing advice: “Don’t get beat with your 'B' game.”

Brilliant. Pragmatic. My brother had given me the kick in the pants I needed in that moment. And do you know what I did with it?

Absolutely nothing, that’s what. I agonized, I fussed, I delayed. I psyched myself out, basically. And while I was doing all that dilly-dallying, another guy -- who, in my personal assessment, was no more qualified than I -- stepped up and asked her out.

Well, as you know, you can’t share a painful high school memory without it leading to a discussion of the Seattle Mariners. Much like my 17-year-old self, they have blemishes and flaws, but they also have untapped potential.

For starters, the Mariners have just $51.5 million committed to 11 players in 2021 and less than $14 million on the books for '22. And they have what our MLB Pipeline folks recently ranked as the No. 4 farm system in the sport, with six players on the most recent Top 100 prospects list (though a new update is coming this Friday). Three of those six -- outfielder Jarred Kelenic (No. 9 in MLB), right-hander Logan Gilbert (No. 35) and outfielder Taylor Trammell (No. 51) were recently mentioned by general manager Jerry Dipoto as likely to contribute in 2021, as was catcher Cal Raleigh (No. 8 on Seattle's Top 30 prospects list).

“They’re super talented players,” Dipoto told reporters, “and my guess is they’ll hit the ground running when given the opportunity.”

I like teams that have burgeoning youth, a core to work with and financial flexibility. Those are dangerous teams. A prominent recent example is the Braves, who stormed their way from 90 losses in 2017 to 90 wins and a National League East title in '18.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the Mariners are really going to win the AL West in 2021 (because, well, I actually already did that, if only to generate some discussion).

But I do think the M’s ought to be looking at their division much like I looked at my high school crush and saying, “Why not us?” The West hasn’t looked this winnable or vulnerable in a while. And so, at worst, there is an opportunity for them to pad their win total and vie for an AL Wild Card spot, which matters more in Seattle -- home of the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports -- than any other market.

Who is the favorite in the AL West right now?

FanGraphs’ projections suggest the Astros, with a .551 winning percentage. Houston, of course, just lost one of its best players in George Springer. And while bringing back Michael Brantley helps, it’s an open question what they’ll do in center field, in the bullpen and with the overall depth of a roster that relied heavily on young pitching in the shortened season and might not have Justin Verlander available to them in 2021.

Next up are the Angels, at .531. They’ve been busily addressing needs, with starter José Quintana, closer Raisel Iglesias and shortstop José Iglesias. If they were to sign Trevor Bauer, they would instantly be the favorites in the West, but that might compromise their ability to add other needed depth. If the Halos don’t sign Bauer, their rotation would continue to look somewhat underwhelming. In either scenario, Los Angeles is a bit of a top-heavy team with a relatively thin system, and apparently, some sort of voodoo hex preventing Mike Trout from playing in October.

Then you have the A’s, at .522, and the defending division champs’ challenge could not be more clear. They have the makings of a great young rotation, but their overall roster was raided by free agency, notably with the loss of closer Liam Hendriks to the White Sox. And given Oakland’s budget, it’s going to be difficult -- even for one of the wiliest front offices in the game -- to piece things back together.

The Mariners are projected to have a .454 winning percentage, followed by the rebuilding Rangers, at .438.

In 2020, the Mariners finished six games under .500. They got a bit of a bounceback from third baseman Kyle Seager, whose 122 OPS+ was his best since '16. Seattle got a breakout from AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis (.262/.364/.437). It got an excellent season from the underrated veteran lefty Marco Gonzales (3.10 ERA, 136 ERA+) and an encouraging one from 24-year-old rookie Justus Sheffield (3.58 ERA, 118 ERA+).

We, uh, won’t talk about the Mariners bullpen's performance, but we will note that Dipoto has been actively addressing that area this offseason, with an injection of experience from Kendall Gravemen, Rafael Montero and Keynan Middleton.

Here’s the thing: The Mariners appear to be saving their bullets for next winter, when the free-agent class will be deeper, when their commitments will be even less onerous and when they’ll be more ready for prime time. However, there is still ample help to be had in the market, should Seattle opt to jump on it. Inventory -- and therefore cost -- is on its side. As I’ve written before, it would be fun to see the M's make a major impact move for their lineup with Marcell Ozuna or perhaps even old friend Nelson Cruz.

But we don’t need to get greedy. There are a lot of bounceback bets still available in this market, from starters like Jake Odorizzi to relievers like Sean Doolittle and Keone Kela to the one and only Yasiel Puig. There is value to be found out there, and a Mariners team that looks primed to take the next step and hasn’t visited October since 2001 should be pursuing it.

So come on, M’s. Don’t be like me. Don’t get beat with your "B" game!