The Houston Astros are back in the World Series for the fourth time in six years, which for many Mariners fans might be a little less painful than seeing the equally hated Yankees represent the American League.
Then again, given the atrocious sweep Seattle absorbed at the hands of the Astros less than two weeks ago, and their unshakeable status as the main obstacle to winning the AL West (and the AL, period). final) by the Mariners — not to mention the continued contempt emanating from their cheating scandal — Houston is likely leading the distress test.
This highlights a question that was asked immediately after the Mariners lost 1-0 in 18 innings in the deciding Game 3 of the AL Division series, and will continue to be asked throughout the winter:
Namely, what is the gap between the mighty Astros and the upstart Mariners? And, as a crucial complement, can it be filled by next season?
There are many ways to look at this, of course. Judging by the ranking, the “gap” looks more like a yawning abyss. Playing roughly the same schedule, the Astros won 106 games to the Mariners’ 90. That 16-game difference is just one more than the AL West standings gap between the third-place Mariners and Angels and 89 losses — and does anyone think Mike’s team Can Trout make up for that in one season?
The Astros had 12 of 19 wins over the Mariners in the regular season before sweeping the Division Series. This would seem to indicate an insurmountable advantage for Houston.
Still, in that playoff loss, there are seeds of encouragement. I don’t need to go into detail about how well the Mariners won every game, especially the series-changing first game, when they blew a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth. Suffice it to say, the Mariners caught the eye of the Astros, who are undefeated this offseason and objectively had a much tougher test from Seattle in the Divisional Round than they did from the Yankees in the ‘ALCS.
“I’ve seen a lot of people make a big deal out of an undefeated postseason,” Houston pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “It really didn’t strike me. I mean, baseball is so tough. These teams are so good. Like, Seattle, I said the other day: I don’t think anyone else can beat Seattle. They were playing amazing. we come here [to New York] – again, close games. We just scratch and claw and find a way.
That feeling the Mariners might have had by any playoff foe, but Houston is prevalent — and both soothing and intimidating. Soothing, because it shows how close the Mariners are to reaching the next goal on their slate, now that the “end-of-the-playoff drought” has been scratched – namely, reaching the World Series. (Winning, of course, is the most important element.)
But daunting, because the Astros aren’t going anywhere. That’s what I would pass on to Mariners fans: The Mariners will have to close the gap to Houston by raising their talent level, not by waiting for the Astros to fall.
Sorry, but there is no indication that this will happen. The Astros might be the smartest, most resourceful team in baseball. It’s what allowed them to survive the fallout of the cheating scandal – a new manager, a new GM, 80% new staff, universal and ridiculous disregard – and continue to thrive. It’s what allowed them to keep losing top talent to free agency (Carlos Correa, George Springer, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton) and keep thriving. That’s why they chose no more than 15e in the last five drafts and have the 29e-ranked farm system (via MLB.com) for the past four consecutive years and continues to thrive.
The Astros continue to produce talent. They lose Correa and rookie Jeremy Pena is there to step in and keep shortstop as a productive position. They lose Cole, Morton, Dallas Keuchel and Zack Greinke, and they have a mother lode of low-cost international freelance pitchers to enter the rotation and pitch at a high level: Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia.
Despite the low-ranked farm system, the Astros paradoxically lead all postseason clubs in local and international talent, both in player count and WAR, according to MLB.com. They have an incredible hit rate on their high draft picks (Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker were second and fifth overall picks in the 2015 draft) and a weirder knack for unearthing hidden gems (Yordan Alvarez was stolen from the Dodgers in a trade for fellow reliever Josh Fields; closer Ryan Pressly arrived in a seemingly minor trade with Minnesota; late-inning standout Ryne Stanek had been swept away with Miami; and, of course, Jose Altuve was signed out of Venezuela as a teenager for a $15,000 bonus).
The Astros could lose likely Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, who can implement a player option to become a free agent after the season. Other potential free agents are outfielder Michael Brantley, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, receiver Martin Maldonado and reliever Rafael Montero. But regardless of potential departures (which, don’t forget, will be accompanied by acquisitions), it’s hard to predict any precipitous decline for the Astros in 2023 with their returning core. Any drop would be gradual for the team which has won five of the last six division titles, the only exception being the 60-game COVID season in 2020.
Ah, but that doesn’t mean things are bad for the Mariners. For one thing, they have their own impressive youth core and a full offseason to capitalize on that. They have the addictive taste of postseason competition to spur them on, the specter of catching the Astros to spur them on, the valuable playoff baseball experience to school them, and the knowledge of the closeness with which they have beat Houston in the split series to back them up. .
It’s not imperative that they win the division in 2023, although that should obviously be the Mariners’ ongoing goal. Just look at this year’s playoffs, where the Mets at 101 wins couldn’t get out of the wild card round, the Dodgers at 111 wins and the Braves at 101 wins couldn’t get out of the wild card round. division, and the 99 Yankees wins couldn’t come out of the ALCS. Conversely, the Phillies, who have won 87 wins, the lowest-ranked team in the postseason tournament by wins, enter the World Series which begins Friday in Houston, aiming to eliminate the heavily favored Astros – the only power still standing.
As we’ve often said, it’s a dice game when you arrive in October. Success in the regular season does not guarantee anything. There is even some debate over whether the first-round bye is suitably beneficial.
The Mariners should be less concerned about overtaking the Astros in the 2023 regular season — that’s a tall order this year-over-year — and more about planning a return to the playoffs. And then find out how to turn those atrocious losses into triumphant victories. This is a much more realistic and important gap to close.