Magical Mariners: Just the beginning

As I watched Game 3 of the American League Division game between the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros, the M’s first postseason home game in 21 years, I found myself thinking this is just the start of a long stretch of playoff baseball in the Emerald City.

Although the game was disappointing as the M’s couldn’t muster even one run in a marathon 18-inning affair, the pomp and circumstance of the sold-out crowd and passion from the fans proved this is a baseball city.

It was cool to see “King Felix” Hernandez throw out the ceremonial first pitch as he never experienced the postseason during his otherwise successful career. If the game went any longer, he may have had to put on a uniform and start warming up in the bullpen.

The plan of President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto to redevelop this team into a consistent winner is off to a good start as the M’s have won 90 games two years in a row, although last year they barely missed the playoffs. Dipoto actually predicted a few years ago 2022 would be the year they broke the drought.

It was a whirlwind season, starting off slow and causing fans to panic about not making the playoffs. At one point they were 10 games under .500 at 29-39. Then they had a huge brawl with the Los Angeles Angels, which seemed to spark the team and led to a 14-game winning streak around the All-Star break, a stretch of games that catapulted them into playoff position. The rest of the way they played good enough to stay in that position.

When catcher Cal Raleigh hit that towing home run down the rightfield line to break the playoff drought, it was so fun to watch the video of longtime radio announcer Rick Rizz’s reaction with pure joy.

Going into the Wild Card series against Toronto, I honestly wasn’t too high on Seattle’s chances but knew they’d have a shot because of their pitching. Turns out in that series the offense is what saved them. Luis Castillo threw a gem in Game 1 but then the bats came alive in Game 2, leading to a historic playoff comeback to win the series.

Then came the almighty Astros, and although they swept them, all three games could have gone Seattle’s way if it wasn’t for Yordan Alvarez’s clutch home runs, coupled with Houston’s bullpen shutting the Ms down. As newcomers to the playoffs, the experienced Astros humbled Seattle and gave them more fuel to be even better next season.

Now that our beloved franchise has broken the drought, they shouldn’t keep the foot off the gas. As unfortunate as it is to have the Astros in the same division — they’re arguably the best team in baseball, having made the American League Championship Series five straight seasons — the bottom line is that the M’s are going to have to keep improving to beat them.

With a young core in place and a manager who has proved himself over the past few seasons, there are still some holes the franchise needs to fill. Adding a marquee middle infielder would be a start, and there are plenty of free agents available this winter such as Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson and Carlos Correa, all of whom would instantly become one of the M’s best players, especially offensively.

Other areas of need include a dominant left-handed reliever and another solid starter to add depth such as Jacob DeGrom or Carlos Rodon. The young bullpen was dominant all year but seemed to be a little fatigued down the stretch. It would have been nice to have a trusted lefty to line up against Alvarez during the ALDS.

I also wouldn’t mind seeing some players move on this offseason such as Jesse Winker and Adam Frazier. While I like Frazier as a clubhouse guy, he just didn’t perform enough for what was expected of him. A big decision will be whether to bring back longtime Mariner Mitch Haniger.

With Winker, that guy rubbed me the wrong way from the start. From his subpar batting average and lack of run production (two things he was supposed to do well) to his suspect defense in left field, he became a liability. Winker also didn’t handle adversity very well, and I heard he wasn’t even with the team during its final game, something I’m sure the franchise will consider when deciding his fate.

Our core of position players such as Julio Rodriguez, Eugenio Suarez, Ty France, Jarred Kelenic and Raleigh, coupled with a dominant starting rotation of Castillo, Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, should be a strong nucleus to build around. Don’t forget former No. 6 overall pick Emerson Hancock is another arm working his way up through the minor leagues. A few more key acquisitions and the M’s might finally be able to challenge Houston for the division title.