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What happened to the Seattle Mariners? Are they broken or can they be fixed?

Fresh off a season that exceeded pre-season expectations, Seattle has one of the worst records in Major League Baseball.

SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners have reached what fans hope is a nadir this season, a stunning reversal from last season's team that galvanized the fan base and was within one game of breaking a two decades-long playoff drought. 

Fresh off a season in which the "Believe" Mariners exceeded pre-season expectations and won 90 games, Seattle has one of the worst records in Major League Baseball (MLB) through May. Only four teams have a lower winning percentage at this point.

How did we get here?

When the dust settled and the front office pivoted to 2022, it seemed the Mariners were in a good position to capitalize on momentum and end its highly publicized playoff drought. 

Immediately the Mariners signed Robbie Ray to a five-year, $115 million contract to solidify its starting rotation. Ray, the reigning American League Cy Young winner, led the league in earned run average (2.84), walks and hits per innings pitched (1.05), innings pitched (193.1) and starts (32). His 248 strikeouts in 2021 were the best mark in all of baseball, too.

Then Seattle addressed its offense by trading for outfielder Jesse Winker, an All-Star who reached base almost 40% of the time last season, and Adam Frazier, another All-Star who hit over .300 for the season. 

Things, it seemed, were finally happening for a franchise maligned by misfortune. Vegas oddsmakers pegged the Mariners for an 85-win team before the season, a mark good enough to contend for a playoff spot in the expanded 12-team field. 

Throw in two elite prospects in Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic and, yeah, there was plenty to be excited about. 

The club started the new season 11-6 and all appeared to be well in the Mariners' world. 

Right?

Right?

(Please say yes.)

OK, not exactly.

Three big losing streaks later and the Mariners are 18-27, which puts them on pace for 65 wins. Now the team is projected to win 76 games, well outside the periphery of the playoffs. 

Let's take a look at why, exactly, the Mariners are floundering and whether they can find a way back into the playoff picture.

Good ole' fashioned regression 

The dirty little secret of the 2021 Mariners is, um, they weren't very good. (Hear me out.)

What really drove the Mariners to the brink of playoff contention was an incredible amount of luck that helped Seattle overperform last season's expectations. 

Seattle won 90 games (which is good!) but it was offset by a negative 51 run differential (which is less good!). 

While the measure of a team is judged by its win-loss record, baseball analysts have determined run differential is a better way to identify how good a baseball team really is. Run differential is determined by subtracting the total number of runs the team has allowed from the runs it has scored. 

Seattle's expected win-loss record was 76-86, a whopping 14 games worse than the team's actual record. Turns out they were far closer to the baseball basement than the baseball elite based on their on-field production. 

While it was fun to see the Mariners escape with incredible victories late in the year, it was not a sustainable way to win baseball games longterm. Last season's team was an MLB-best 33-19 in one-run games - most baseball teams hover around the .500 mark in these high-leverage situations.

Hi, regression. It's not nice to see you. 

Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Robbie Ray throws during the first inning of a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers Monday, March 28, 2022, in Peoria, Ariz.

Big acquisitions, but small results 

Let's start with Ray, the team's biggest signing of the offseason.

The 30-year-old lefty has regressed across the board so far, throwing fewer strikeouts and allowing more walks than his Cy Young season. He's pitching deeper into games at least, but he has not been the top-of-the-line ace pitcher that was promised when he signed a big six-figure contract.

Winker, acquired to be a consistent power hitter in the middle-of-the-order, has been a big negative on offense. He hit a home run in 5% of his plate appearances last season, but that mark has plummeted to just 1.1% for Seattle. 

Where is the pitching?

Believe it or not, but Logan Gilbert is the only Mariner with a positive ERA+, an advanced metric that adjusts earned run average for the team's ballpark and other factors.

Chris Flexen and Marco Gonzales have struggled with command and low strikeout totals.

As a pitching staff, the Mariners are 24th in earned run average and have allowed 61 home runs, the worst mark in baseball.

In a baseball environment that suits pitchers and not hitters, it's very, very, very difficult to win without capable starting pitching.

Credit: AP
Seattle Mariners right fielder Jarred Kelenic is unable to make the catch as he dives for a ball hit by Tampa Bay Rays' Wander Franco for a single during the third inning of a baseball game Saturday, May 7, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Jason Redmond)

Youth struggles 

Hitting a baseball is harder than ever. Pitchers are throwing at impossibly high velocities, pairing nasty fastballs with a wide assortment of breaking balls. 

It's partly why younger players have taken longer to acclimate to the majors in recent years. 

Seattle has the second-youngest group of hitters in MLB, so this is a tough pill to swallow. 

Kelenic, labeled as one of the premier prospects in baseball, was called up to the big leagues last year and struggled to fit in. He finished his rookie year hitting just .181 and reaching base just 26.5% of the time.

Somehow, he's been worse this season. The Mariners demoted Kelenic to the minors on May 13, hoping it would buoy his diminishing confidence. The 22-year-old outfielder was hitting .140 with three homers and 10 RBIs in 30 games.

Matt Brash, ranked as the Mariners’ No. 4 prospect and No. 90 in baseball by MLB Pipeline, had a positive start to his career before he was battered in consecutive games. After walking 7.7 batters per nine innings in four starts, he was also demoted to the minor leagues on May 5.

On the bright side, Seattle hopes Kyle Lewis, 2020 American League Rookie of the Year, can inject the offense with some production. He returned to the lineup May 24, after a devastating meniscus injury to his right knee cut his 2021 season short. 

George Kirby, another top pitching prospect, is finding his groove as a starter, too. 

But relying heavily on younger players comes with a short term cost. 

Injury bug rearing its ugly head 

This one is simple.

Injuries have sidelined valuable members for the Mariners. 

Mitch Haniger, who posted a career year with 39 home runs in 2021, has missed most of the season. He likely won't return until July due to a sprained right ankle. 

Catcher Tom Murphy is out with a dislocated left shoulder. Abraham Toro is also out with a left shoulder sprain. The two of them accounted for 503 at-bats for last year's team, filling roles at important defensive positions. 

Credit: AP
Seattle Mariners' Jesse Winker, front right, is lifted by Ty France as he celebrates a win over Kansas City Royals in 12 innings of a baseball game, Sunday, April 24, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

OK, how about some positives?

I realize this has been an incredibly negative story.

Let's shine a light on a pair of Mariners playing well during an otherwise bleak start to the season.

Ty France is having a career-best season, good enough to put him among the best 20 hitters in baseball right now. 

J.P. Crawford improved his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, a trifecta of good things for a hitter. 

Rodriguez, unlike Kelenic and Brash, has not been demoted to the minors and is giving the Mariners above-average hitting production as a 21-year-old rookie. He's fourth on the team with four home runs, in fact. 

Bottom line: Can the Mariners make a playoff run?

The beauty of baseball is in its 162-game season, allowing for a team to start off slowly and still be in contention for the playoffs. 

If it helps you sleep any better at night Fangraphs projects the Mariners to finish its remaining games with 58 wins and 59 losses. That's not quite playoff level, but it's markedly better than the current mark.

And that means maybe, just maybe you can believe in these Mariners for a bit longer. 

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