At the midway point of the MLB season, there is still a lot left to be decided in both leagues.
Obviously, there are a few teams that have all but been eliminated from postseason contention, but the Seattle Mariners aren’t one of them. To the surprise of many, the Mariners are over .500 and still hanging around. However, it’s still worth pondering whether the Mariners are far enough along in their rebuilding effort to mount a serious playoff push during the second half of the season. Current projections give them a 7% chance of reaching the playoffs, which doesn’t seem like much. But is there hope for the Mariners to stay ahead of schedule and mount a legitimate playoff push in 2021?
A June Surprise
Why are the Mariners even worth discussing at this point? Well, it’s because they came alive in June.
After struggling to get going offensively, relying primarily on Mitch Haniger to carry the lineup during April and May, the Seattle offense finally got hot. J.P. Crawford started to fulfill some of his enormous potential. Jake Fraley came off the IL in late May and proceeded to post an OPS of .841 in June. Ty France also heated up, posting an OPS of .867, replicating some of what he showed the Mariners during the 2020 campaign.
Despite getting off to a 3-8 start in June, the Mariners proceeded to go 11-4 through the rest of the month, getting them back above .500 and putting them on the periphery of the playoff picture. The team’s play during the second half of the month showed that the Mariners might be better than their record would indicate. A four-game sweep of the Rays also proved that Seattle could be good teams and not just beat up on lesser opponents, creating even more hope that the Mariners could potentially have a playoff push in them.
But is the Rotation Good Enough?
Perhaps the biggest question facing the Mariners heading into the second half of the season is whether they have the pitching to become a serious playoff contender.
The old saying that your momentum is only as good as the next day’s starter is true. It’s difficult to string wins together and go on a hot streak without getting a quality performance from your starting pitcher day after day. If the Mariners are going to make a serious effort to make the postseason, the Seattle rotation will play a pivotal role.
At the moment, there is at least some hope of that happening. Yusei Kikuchi has led the rotation this year, pitching well enough to earn a spot on the All-Star team, pitching to a 3.48 ERA over 16 starts, being as close to an ace as the Mariners have. At the same time, rookie Logan Gilbert has come on strong early in his big league career, registering a 3.51 ERA in his first 10 starts and blanking the Yankees in his final first-half outing.
Seattle has also been pleasantly surprised by the performance of Chris Flexen. In his first 15 starts of the season, Flexen is 7-3 with a 3.80 ERA. Meanwhile, another young starter Justin Dunn has impressed this year, going 1-3 with a 3.75 ERA before going to the IL in mid-June. That gives the Seattle rotation four starters who all have an ERA under 4.00.
Unfortunately for the Mariners, their rotation is not without its caveats. For starters, Dunn is on the IL and has no firm timeline for a return. The same is true for Justus Sheffield, who’s been erratic this season but could prove helpful if he were to return to full health. Then there’s Marco Gonzales, who has been a frontline starter for several years but has produced a 6.00 ERA over his first 10 starts. With Dunn and Sheffield sidelined indefinitely, the Mariners at least need Gonzales to be a steady back-end starter, but he hasn’t even been able to do that in 2021.
A Chance to Get Better?
If the Mariners are going to make a run in the second half, they’ll have to be considerably better than they were in the first half of the season. Being a few games over .500 isn’t going to be enough to reach the postseason. That begs the question of whether Seattle is positioned to continuously improve during the season.
As a team littered with young players, the Mariners surely have a lot of room for growth. The problem is that growth may not necessarily come right now, which is why they might be a year or two away from being a serious contender. Nevertheless, the likes of Dylan Moore, Tom Murphy, and Jake Bauers have all proven themselves to be capable of posting better numbers than they currently have. Meanwhile, Crawford, Fraley, and France should be capable of showing a little more consistency during the second half of the season.
There are also other methods for the Mariners to get better in the second half of the season. Top prospect Jarred Kelenic struggled in his first taste of the big leagues but has crushed triple-A pitching this year and could still return to Seattle and make a difference before the end of the season. Catcher Cal Raleigh is another prospect who has proven himself at triple-A and could give the Mariners a boost.
Finally, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has teased the possibility of the Mariners being buyers at the trade deadline. While it’s unlikely that Dipoto will trade away Seattle’s best prospects for a short-term improvement, there could be a way for the Mariners to trade from a position of strength to improve a weakness. That could create another avenue for the Mariners to become a better team during the second half of the season.
Who’s Standing in the Way?
One important factor to consider for Seattle’s playoff chances is who they will have to overtake to reach the postseason. At first glance, they are a far way away from catching the Houston Astros at the top of the AL West with Houston’s roster being better than Seattle’s roster in almost every way. But claiming one of the two Wild Card spots isn’t out of the question.
Realistically, there are seven teams in the American League that are within striking distance of the two Wild Card spots, including the Rays and A’s, who have a somewhat comfortable lead for those two coveted positions. The Mariners are undoubtedly within striking distance of one of those two spots with the Blue Jays, Yankees, Indians, and Angels also in the hunt.
While it’s bound to be a crowded race during the second half of the season, it’s not that farfetched for the Mariners to be one of those two teams when all is said and done.
In The End…
All things considered, the Mariners probably aren’t going to make the playoffs this year.
They are clearly ahead of schedule in their rebuild and too many of their young players haven’t been able to produce consistently. But Seattle has enough pitching to at least make things interesting, especially if Dunn and Sheffield can come back healthy.
There is also a good chance that Seattle’s record during the second 81 games of the season is better than during the first 81 games. Even if they fall short, the Mariners are poised to make a legitimate playoff push in 2021 and deserve to have better than a 7% chance of making the postseason.
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