Only a select few teams in the history of Major League Baseball have won more than 114 games- the 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 1906 Chicago Cubs, the 1998 New York Yankees, and the 2023 Mariners. Now listen, you may be thinking, how have the 2023 Mariners won 114 games when the season isn’t over? To answer that, we’ll need to take a deep dive into this up-and-down season.
The Seattle Mariners Win 114 Games…With Some Help
So what’s the problem?
The Mariners have had some of the worst production in the league from the second base position. From March 30th to July 31st, 106 games, the Mariners second baseman hit a combined .193 with 42 RBIs, putting up a whopping 0.4 WAR through 471 plate appearances. That slash line found them 23rd in second baseman production league-wide. A far cry from the Cano days, this was something that wasn’t going to help a team trying to make its’ first back-to-back playoff appearance in 23 years.
You see, second base has been a problem for the Mariners for years. The Mariners found a temporary stop-gap in possible (who knows, with the PED suspensions) Hall of Famer Robinson Cano. The Cano contract was one of, if not the best, in the Mariners’ history. Cano took over for Mariners’ legends like Dustin Ackley and Chone Figgins. The Mariners hadn’t had a second baseman put up five seasons since Jose Lopez. Since Cano’s departure, the Mariners have gone back to struggling to nail down their second baseman of the future.
We all thought Cano would be the answer.
In December 2013, Cano was coming off his ninth big league season, a season in which he was an All-Star, Silver Slugger, and even received MVP votes. Hitting .314 with 27 home runs and 107 RBIs, it had been a while since the lowly Mariners had someone with this kind of star power to call their own. So naturally, the Mariners shocked the baseball world when they inked Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract.
Cano put up a very respectable .296/.353/.472 line in five seasons with the Mariners, but by 2018, he was no longer with the team. Cano and star closer Edwin Diaz were traded to the New York Mets for outfielder Jay Bruce, reliever Anthony Swarzak, and prospects Gerson Bautista, Justin Dunn, and Jarred Kelenic. Now, whether or not this was a good trade for the Mariners is up for debate. At the time, it was, especially since Cano was coming off his first PED suspension, and the trade only continues to pay dividends with Kelenic’s success in 2023.
But before Cano was suspended and eventually traded, the Mariners acquired Dee Strange-Gordon in December 2017. Initially viewed as the club’s answer to their gaping centerfield hole, Strange-Gordon was shifted back to second base following Cano’s departure. Strange-Gordon would become the Mariner’s temporary solution to the second base dilemma, with the Mariners acquiring promising centerfielder Mallex Smith in 2019.
It’s easy to say that Strange-Gordon was a decent replacement for Cano. In three seasons with the Mariners, Strange-Gordon put up a .266/.293/.343 line. It was very respectable, but it left a lot to be desired. Strange-Gordon’s speed was a critical factor in the Mariners bringing him in, but in his time in Seattle, his stolen bases only decreased as he got older, with 30 being his best mark in 2018.
Strange-Gordon left the Mariners following the 2020 season, with many valuable second base opportunities being given to promising talents like Shed Long Jr., Ty France, Dylan Moore, and even Donovan Walton.
Where do we go from here?
With Strange-Gordon leaving the club, the Mariners again found themselves looking for a second baseman. Following his very promising 2020 campaign, in which he put up .255/.358/.496 with eight home runs in 38 games, Moore, with his defensive versatility, was given the keys to second base in 2021. However, this didn’t work out the way the Mariners planned. Playing 126 total games, Moore played 66 at second. He slashed .181/.276/.334 with 12 home runs. This wouldn’t cut it for the Mariners, who were making their first real playoff run since 2018. Moore, however, will always have the game-winning grand slam against Houston, so he is forgiven.
At the 2021 trade deadline, the Mariners executed their classic move- trade from your elite bullpen depth for a fringe bat you just played and saw something promising.
On July 27th, 2021, the Mariners shocked the league. They traded their best reliever, Kendall Graveman, and disappointing setup man, Rafael Montero, to the Astros for reliever Joe Smith and infielder Abraham Toro. In the Moore grand slam game the night before, Toro had homered against the Mariners. I still remember where I was when I saw the notification for this trade on my phone and how angry I was when I saw who we traded Graveman to. Toro ended up homering that night for the good guys, which took a little of the edge off.
This trade, ultimately, was a good one for the Mariners. Yes, they got rid of apparently two elite bullpen arms in Graveman and Montero, although he had yet to show it for Seattle; Toro and Smith were both driving forces in the Mariners’ playoff run. Graveman, while still elite, actually got worse for Houston. Before moving dugouts, he posted a 0.82 ERA with 34 K’s in 33 innings and a 3.13 ERA with 27 K’s in 23 innings. Montero improved from a 7.27 ERA with 37 K’s in 43.1 innings to a 0.00 ERA with five K’s in six innings pitched. It’s a small sample size, but Montero is still with Houston in 2023, pitching a 3.54 ERA in three seasons.
In his age-37 season in 2021, Joe Smith posted a 2.00 ERA in 18 innings for Seattle. Toro became the Mariners everyday second baseman, posting a .252/.328/.367 slash line in 60 games. Toro was precisely what Jerry Dipoto loves: a young, fringe major leaguer with defensive versatility. Toro was a light to a dark time in the Mariners’ 2021 season. He also gave hope for the future.
2022, however, had other ideas. The Mariners tried to stack as many winning pieces as possible and acquired a struggling Adam Frazier from the Padres to take over the everyday second base duties. Toro was relegated to a bench bat and filled in where he could, playing 55 games at second, 31 at third, 22 at DH, and even one in right field. In 109 games, Toro hit .185/.239/.324, but chipped in with some clutch moments. You may be thinking, that’s fine. The Mariners have Frazier every day to make up for that, right? Wrong.
In 156 games, Frazier hit a very disappointing .238/.301/.311 while also playing some pretty poor defense. Frazier, like Moore, chipped in with a very iconic moment in Mariners history, giving the Mariners the lead to sweep the Blue Jays and move onto the ALDS, so he is also forgiven.
After crashing out of the ALDS at the hands of division rivals Houston (don’t talk about it), the Mariners were again left with a hole at second base. The Mariners and Adam Frazier elected to part ways. Still needing second base help, the Mariners decided to dip into the trade market. After his own abysmal season, Jesse Winker and Toro were dealt to the Brewers for Kolten Wong. Wong is a household name, one of the league’s most solid second baseman over the last decade. He had a poor defensive year, but working with Seattle’s infield coach, Perry Hill, the Mariners believed they had a real gem.
Fast forward to the 2023 MLB trade deadline. Wong, who hit below the Mendoza line, was designated for assignment by the Mariners. April call-up Jose Caballero had done most of the heavy lifting at second base but was also starting to hit a slump.
Enter Josh Rojas
The Mariners pulled off the 2023 version of the Graveman trade, sending Paul Sewald to Arizona for Josh Rojas and Dominic Canzone. Rojas had been a solid hitter with Arizona but wasn’t meeting the hype this season. In a scary similarity to Toro, Rojas is hitting .290/.333/.468 as of August 29th. With that being said, you may be asking yourself, is Rojas this year’s Toro? No.
It may be early to call it, but Rojas is the Mariners’ second baseman of the future. Rojas is one of the few acquisitions in the last three seasons to take off after being traded to Seattle. He has significantly discussed his work with the Mariners’ hitting coach, Jarret DeHart. He has made valuable adjustments to his swing, allowing him to see the ball better and even hit with more power.
Rojas has three bombs in 18 games since coming over, more than 25% of his total home runs in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Both of which were seasons where he played more than 125 games. Over an entire season in Seattle, he’s on pace for 90 RBI, almost 40 more than his career high (56), and 27 home runs, 16 more than his career high (11). Seattle hasn’t had that sort of offensive output from a second baseman since Cano, who, in his last full season with Seattle, hit .280 with 23 home runs and 90 RBIs.
Thanks to his past defensive versatility, pitching in at shortstop, third, or even in the outfield, Rojas will be a mainstay in Mariners lineups for years to come. If the Mariners had this Josh Rojas all year, they would win 114 games, but Rojas will continue to chip in where he can, leading the Mariners to their first back-to-back playoff appearances since the turn of the century.
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