Can Mariners live up to goals in 2nd half?

July 14th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Daniel Kramer’s Mariners Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SEATTLE -- After an exciting All-Star Week that showcased the Pacific Northwest, welcome to the second half of the regular season.

The Mariners have climbed to third place in the American League West, six games out of the division lead and four games behind the final AL Wild Card. It’s promising, but they also sit among a crowded field, and with the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline looming, this stretch to convince the front office to add is crucial.

“We talked a lot about this early in the season, trying to do too much, live up to expectations,” manager Scott Servais said during All-Star Media Day. “And certainly we've had expectations on us this year, which does change things a little bit. And when they don't go well, you try too hard.”

Before we look ahead to the final stretch, let’s put a bow on the first half:

What we learned in the first half: The skeptics had a point

The one glaring criticism of Seattle’s offseason was that it didn’t do enough to bolster a lineup that had clear limitations last year despite reaching the postseason.

Their biggest addition, Teoscar Hernández, had a strong June and has shown some flashes of elite power, but he also has a 30.9% strikeout rate and has been very boom or bust. The other big add, second baseman Kolten Wong, might’ve been designated for assignment by now if it weren’t for his $10 million salary.

By not adding more last offseason, the Mariners pigeonholed themselves to either swing big at the Trade Deadline, when they have less control, or hope that what they’ve got makes a turn.

Trade Deadline strategy: Get that run-producing bat

The good news is that the Mariners went into the break 7-2 to pull close to postseason contention -- because if they had spiraled in the other direction, it would’ve put their front office in a precarious spot to potentially sell, rather than add.

And if it buys, Seattle should swing for at least one high-caliber bat. For the second straight year, the Mariners have had a mostly average-to-below-average offense, reaching the break with a collective slash line of .233/.312/.391 (.703 OPS) that’s been good for a 101 wRC+ (league average is 100).

For a team that thrives on the draft, develop and trade model, this is its time to shine. That said, this year’s market seems far more murky, given the lack of distinct sellers. The Cardinals seem like the clearest partner, but they will certainly sell high.

Key player to watch: CF Julio Rodríguez

Who else? In every conceivable fashion, Seattle goes as far as its best player. In the 43 wins that Rodríguez has been part of, he has a slash line of .308/.363/.487 (850 OPS), and in the 44 losses that he’s played in, that clip is .189/.255/.333 (.588 OPS). Put simply, the Mariners need Rodríguez to be an elite player down the stretch if they want to reach the postseason again. 

That said, perhaps with the pressure behind him of not just being selected to the All-Star Game, but also, being a headline host of it, maybe he’ll be able to slow things down some. 

“Those are emotional moments that take a lot out of you,” president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said on his weekly radio hit with Seattle Sports 710. “ And then going through all the glad-handing, the parties, the family, every one of those players had family in to come see him and that's its own stress. So I'm hoping that Julio has spent the last 48 hours just sleeping and catching up on slowing life down, because he did carry a lot of load.”

Prospect to watch: RHP Emerson Hancock (No. 5)

After the promotions of Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo, Hancock represents the next wave of top-end pitching talent in the Mariners' pipeline, and given that the club will need to be creative to curb the innings of the two who preceded him, it’s certainly possible that the Mariners will find a way to work Hancock into the mix down the stretch. The 2020 first-round pick reached 98 1/3 innings last year and is at 73 so far in ‘23, leaving him with a nice leash heading into late summer. 

Hancock’s numbers have been marred by a few clunkers -- four outings of at least six runs surrendered -- but he strung together five outings in June in which he went 4-0 with a 1.74 ERA to earn the Mariners’ Minor League Pitcher of the Month honors.