Despite an existence that only stretches back to 1977, the Seattle Mariners’ franchise history is a winding rabbit hole — a nearly four-hour documentary is the grandest attempt to give it justice — with more nooks and crannies than one would think possible for such a young franchise. The team co-owns the MLB record for most wins in a single season, and a sweeping handful of the game’s most iconic players have either launched their careers or played prime years in Seattle: Ichiro, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martínez, Álex Rodríguez, Félix Hernández. Yet it has amounted to almost zero postseason participation, much less success. The club is stuck on four playoff berths all time, all between 1995 and 2001, never reaching a World Series. Since the division series era began in 1995, Seattle has missed the playoffs with at least 85 wins nine different times; no other team has done that more than six times. And 2021 was a special twist of the knife: a 90-win non-playoff year in the last season before playoff expansion.
The 2022 season has been a breath of fresh air, however. The Mariners are 62-54. FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives them a 79 percent chance to make the playoffs, almost certainly as one of the American League’s three wild card teams. They also have a 21-year-old star center fielder, Julio Rodríguez, who’s in the opening stage of what looks like the next great Mariners career — and that might be understating things. Meanwhile, the team around Rodríguez has been good enough that it should give Mariners fans a resource that the team has beaten out of them more than enough times over the last two decades: optimism.
From 30,000 feet — or, at least, from the tip of the Space Needle — the Mariners’ winning formula in 2022 is not obvious. The club’s pitching staff is fine but not special. Offense has been hard to come by, with the fewest runs per game of any playoff contender. The defense is pretty good and clearly playoff-caliber, but nothing exactly jumps off the page as a major strength. What, then, is the Mariners’ identity, or the thing that has made them a likely playoff team?
The simplest answer is that they have a few big mashers and a pretty well-rounded team behind them. First baseman Ty France has built on his breakout 2021 campaign in 2022, continuing to hit for average while also boosting his power numbers and cutting down on strikeouts. Third baseman Eugenio Suárez is tied for the major league lead in home runs since 2018 with 148 — a shocking fact given his relative national anonymity, though no surprise to Mariners fans. Suárez has kept on hitting while playing a smooth third base. Shortstop J.P. Crawford has maintained an elevated level of offense that he discovered in 2021, and catcher Cal Raleigh has emerged as a solid everyday player. The Mariners have 11 players with an adjusted OPS at or above the league average of 100, tied for the second-most such players in baseball. (They’ve managed to do this despite outfielder Jarred Kelenic — who entered 2021 as MLB.com’s No. 4 prospect, ahead of Rodríguez at No. 5 — so far being unable to make a splash in the big leagues.) Despite the lack of overall run production, the M’s are short on easy outs.
And the main attraction in Seattle, of course, is Rodríguez. He is the team leader in both major versions of wins above replacement (3.0 at FanGraphs, 4.0 at Baseball Reference). He is barely old enough to have a beer in a bar, but he takes the Mariners from being just an intriguing team without big weaknesses to one of the game’s most enjoyable clubs to watch. You might call Rodríguez a Statcast dream: He runs faster than almost everyone and hits the ball harder than almost everyone, too. Early indications are that he is the rare true five-tool player who can hit for power (18 homers in his first 416 plate appearances of this rookie season), hit for average (.269 so far), field well (his three Defensive Runs Saved are third-best on the team), run (he’s fast), and throw (just watch). He also has a sixth tool of “being extremely cool.” It’s just a lot of fun to watch Rodríguez have fun on the field:
It has all materialized into a brilliant start to his career. At 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, Rodríguez is built more like an NFL receiver (or a slugging corner outfielder) than a speedy center fielder. But he has made it work up the middle while destroying baseballs at the plate. Though he missed some time after an injury in late July, when he took a pitch on his right wrist, Rodríguez returned to action on Friday. He is now cleared to resume his rocket ship ride.
Rodríguez is a unique talent. One can look at his skill and production at such a young age and imagine just about any kind of elite career arc. But instead, we contacted Out of the Park Baseball, the gold standard in baseball simulation games, and asked the developers how their game engine sees J-Rod’s career potentially playing out. To that end, OOTP’s Alex Murray simulated Rodríguez’s entire career 15 times, giving us a very rough — and very fun — sense of the possibilities. The results make J-Rod look even more Griffey-adjacent. Here’s are both the average and the best-case numbers from those 15 full-career simulations:
|Category||Average Career Simulation||Best-Case Scenario|
|Runs batted in||1,872||2,622|
|Category||Average Career Simulation||Best-Case Scenario|
In four of the 15 simulations — that’s more than a quarter of the time — Rodríguez becomes the sport’s all-time home run king, reaching as high as 1,020 dingers (!) in one run. In 11 of them, he joins the 600-homer club, which only currently has nine members. His average simulated total of 658 homers would leave him seventh all time, sandwiched between Willie Mays and Griffey. His average WAR output of 113.3 would place him just about level with Lou Gehrig, and his best-case WAR of 199.1 would, if no one else caught up, see him surpass Babe Ruth as the most valuable player of all time.
If that all sounds lofty, it is. (It’s also worth noting that J-Rod stayed very healthy in most of our simulated universes, playing at least 2,400 games in 13 of 15 cases.1) But Rodríguez already occupies rare air. His OPS+ of 132 has him pacing for one of the 20 best offensive seasons at 21 or under in the divisional era. In single-season home runs, he could wind up somewhere in the top 10 for any season by a player in that age set. That we can even talk about him as a peripheral, potential challenger to Barry Bonds and Henry Aaron is a sign of something special. The entire exercise is admittedly a bit absurd, but some of the joy of a player like Rodríguez lies in the raw possibility.
For the time being, Rodríguez’s concern is less about vaulting himself into history than getting healthy and keeping the Mariners in playoff position in his first season. His injury was hardly the first bit of big roster attrition this team had faced. A long list of M’s have spent time on the injured list, including France (their best hitter by OPS+, even ahead of Rodríguez) and a huge chunk of the bullpen at one time or another. The team had used 57 players through Monday, tied for third-most in MLB and tops among any team in proximity to the playoffs.
Neither the injuries nor the Mariners’ inherent Mariners-ness has knocked manager Scott Servais’s team off its stride so far. And Seattle is acting with urgency. It traded a substantial prospect package to the Cincinnati Reds just ahead of the deadline for Luis Castillo, the dominant Reds pitcher who has now moved from one of the league’s best hitter’s parks to the opposite. Rodríguez functions as yet another post-deadline “acquisition” now that he is back in the batter’s box after recovering from his injury.
Each player will be critical not only in the stretch run of 2022, but also in 2023. Castillo has another year of arbitration before he hits free agency. In fact, almost all of the Mariners’ key contributors are under team control for at least another season — not the least of which being Rodríguez, whom they’ll have many years to build around. The Mariners need look no further than their own division to find the most gruesome example of a team squandering years and years of generational talent. And with an 88-win projection in our forecast, there’s still a chance for one of Seattle’s patented playoff near-misses. But for the first time in a long time, there is more than enough reason for Seattle fans to believe their team is on a great trajectory.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.