The 2021 Mariners were a monument to overachievement, and that’s a tribute to their manager, Scott Servais. On Tuesday, Servais deserved to be named American League Manager of the Year but instead finished second to Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash.
Servais coaxed every last win out of a flawed team – well, all but the two wins against the Angels in the final weekend that would have finally put them in the playoffs. But the Mariners had won 10 of their previous 11 games down the stretch, under extreme pressure, to put themselves in that position.
It was a tour de force of managing (and also of coming through against heavy odds by the players). But with Servais having shown he can succeed in the margins, I’m curious to watch him display his acumen with a team fully equipped – and indeed fully expected – to take the next step.
Because that’s where the Mariners should be when this offseason finally ends: In the best position they have been since 2001 to achieve a postseason berth, and then see where that takes them.
It will be a turbulent winter almost certainly interrupted by a work stoppage. It’s always hard to predict the trajectory of free-agent signings, but especially so with that the labor dynamic. And ditto the trade market.
Nevertheless, the Mariners have absolutely everything they need to tweak, massage, augment and uplift a team that entered the final game of the season with a chance at a wild-card berth.
They have a solid talent base and a loaded farm system that appears on the verge of churning out a stream of impact players. They have enough prospect depth to formulate legitimate trade proposals for established veterans that rebuilding teams are willing to give up. They have an extremely low salary base (about $14.65 million in guaranteed contracts, plus another $26 million for arbitration-eligible players), giving them the (theoretic) freedom to add considerable payroll.
That’s why the rest of baseball is eyeing the Mariners, along with the Tigers, as long-dormant teams poised to come out of player-acquisition hibernation with a vengeance. It’s a particularly star-studded crop of free agents, and the Mariners can set their sights on the upper echelon with the financial capability of signing multiple top-level players.
They play in a division where the long-established king (the Astros) will likely lose one of their best players via free agency for the second year in a row – shortstop Carlos Correa on the heels of outfielder George Springer.
The AL West’s other perpetual contender, the A’s, is by all accounts going into full salary-dump mode. The Rangers are in the early stages of a rebuild and coming off a 102-loss season. The Angels can’t figure out how to surround their two megastars, Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, with supporting talent. In other words, the path to a division title has never been more greased in Seattle’s favor.
Finally, they also have a general manager in Jerry Dipoto who knows his way around a transaction and has to be in his personal heaven with all the aforementioned tools at his disposal. He has guided the Mariners’ rebuild to a point where the two years of pain (beyond the 18 years of pain before that) can start to really pay off.
What we don’t know – and what the Mariners will have to prove to the legion of skeptics in the only way possible – is the will of ownership to open its wallet to the necessary extent. And how hard it will be to entice free agents to Seattle, always a dicey proposition and maybe more so now after the widely publicized Kevin Mather incident in spring training.
It’s safe to say it will be hard to recreate the success of 2021 without a significant influx of talent, either from inside or outside the organization. That’s how precarious it was.
The fancy mathematical models projected the Mariners to lose 92 (PECOTA) and 89 (ZIPS) games. Of course, the ballclub essentially turned that forecast on its ear, winning 90 games (one more than the World Series champion Braves) and losing 72.
No American League team outperformed its preseason projections more than the Mariners, and even that was a sleight-of-hand act executed by Servais. Their run differential of minus-51 (worse than the 85-loss Mets) befit a team forecast by the Pythagorean formula to go 76-86. The 14-win margin between its actual win total and its Pythagorean record was the highest in the majors.
The Mariners accomplished that by going 33-19 in one-run games (the most such wins in the majors) and 14-7 in extra innings. Teams that win the close ones so regularly usually have an outstanding bullpen, and the Mariners certainly did. They usually have a manager who wrings the most out of late-inning situations, and Servais did that.
It’s why he should have been Manager of the Year over an acknowledged great manager in Cash, but one who was coming off a World Series season in Tampa Bay. When it came to unexpected contention, no one outshined the Mariners.
It’s not a formula that’s easily sustained, however, which is why this offseason is so vital to the Mariners. If they do what they need to, Servais should have a team in 2022 that everyone expects to win.