Have the Mariners closed the gap on the Astros? It may not matter

The Houston Astros are back in the World Series for the fourth time in the past six years, which to many Mariners fans might be only slight less distressing than having the similarly loathed Yankees represent the American League.

Then again, considering the excruciating sweep Seattle absorbed at the hands of the Astros less than two weeks ago, and their unwavering status as the leading impediment to the Mariners conquering the AL West (and the AL, period) — not to mention the ongoing scorn emanating from their cheating scandal — Houston probably tops the distress test.

That pinpoints a question that was asked immediately after the Mariners’ 18-inning, 1-0 loss in the decisive Game 3 of the AL Division Series, and will continue to be pondered throughout the winter:

Namely, how big is the gap between the mighty Astros and the upstart Mariners? And, as a crucial adjunct, can it be bridged by next season?

There are many ways to look at that, of course. Judging by the standings, the “gap” is really more like a gaping abyss. Playing roughly the same schedule, the Astros won 106 games compared with 90 for the Mariners. That 16-game difference is just one more than the gap in the AL West standings between the Mariners and the third-place, 89-loss Angels — and does anyone think Mike Trout’s crew can make that up in a season?

The Astros won 12 of 19 against the Mariners in the regular season before sweeping the division series. That would seem to indicate an insurmountable edge for Houston.

Yet within that playoff loss are seeds of encouragement. I don’t need to detail how close the Mariners came to winning each game, particularly the opener that changed the tenor of the series, when they blew a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth. Suffice it to say that the Mariners caught the attention 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 saw a lot of people making a big deal about an undefeated postseason,” Houston pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. told ESPN’s Jeff Passan. “It really hadn’t hit me. I mean, baseball is so hard. These teams are so good. Like, Seattle, I said it the other day: I don’t think anyone else could beat Seattle. They were playing unbelievable. We come here [to New York] — once again, close games. We just scratch and claw and find a way.”

That feeling that the Mariners could have gotten by any postseason foe but Houston is a prevalent one — and simultaneously soothing and daunting. Soothing, because it shows just how close the Mariners are to reaching the next goal on their list, now that “end playoff drought” has been scratched off — namely, reaching the World Series. (Winning it, of course, is the top item.)

But daunting, because the Astros aren’t going anywhere. That’s the takeaway I would pass on to Mariners fans: The Mariners will have to bridge the gap with Houston by elevating their talent level, not by waiting for the Astros to fall.

Sorry, but there aren’t any indications that’s going to happen. The Astros might be baseball’s smartest, most resourceful team. That’s what has allowed them to survive the fallout from the cheating scandal — a new manager, a new general manager, 80% new roster, universal contempt and ridicule — and continue to thrive. That’s what’s allowed them to keep losing top-flight talent to free agency (Carlos Correa, George Springer, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton) and continue to thrive. That’s why they haven’t picked higher than 15th in the past five drafts and have the 29th-ranked farm system (via MLB.com) for the past four years in a row, and continue to thrive.

The Astros just keep churning out 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 free-agent pitchers to step into 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 homegrown and international talent, both in terms of number of players and WAR, according to MLB.com. They have an uncanny rate of hitting on their high draft picks (Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker were the second and fifth overall picks in the 2015 draft) and an uncannier knack for unearthing hidden gems (Yordan Alvarez was stolen from the Dodgers in a trade for journeyman reliever Josh Fields; closer Ryan Pressly arrived in a seemingly minor trade with Minnesota; late-inning standout Ryne Stanek had washed out with Miami; and, of course, Jose Altuve was signed out of Venezuela as a teenager for a $15,000 bonus).

The Astros might 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, catcher Martin Maldonado and reliever Rafael Montero. But regardless of potential departures (which, don’t forget, will be accompanied by acquisitions) it’s hard to foresee any kind of precipitous decline for the Astros in 2023 with their returning core. Any falloff would be incremental for the team that has won five of the past six division titles, the only exception being the 60-game COVID season in 2020.

Ah, but that doesn’t mean things are dire for the Mariners. For one thing, they have an impressive young core of their own, and a full offseason to build upon it. They have the addictive taste of postseason competition to spur them, the specter of catching the Astros to motivate them, the valuable experience of playoff baseball to school them, and the knowledge of how close they came to beating Houston in the division series to sustain them .

It’s not imperative that they win the division in 2023, even though that should obviously be the ongoing goal for the Mariners. Just look at this year’s postseason, where the 101-win Mets couldn’t get out of the wild-card round, the 111-win Dodgers and 101-win Braves couldn’t get out of the division round, and the 99-win The Yankees couldn’t get out of the ALCS. Conversely, the 87-win Phillies, the lowest-ranked team in the postseason tournament by wins, is in the World Series that starts Friday in Houston, aiming to knock off the heavily favored Astros — the only powerhouse left standing.

As has often been said, it’s a crapshoot when you get to October. Regular-season success doesn’t guarantee anything. There’s even a debate about whether the first-round bye is suitably beneficial.

The Mariners should be less concerned about surpassing the Astros in the 2023 regular season — that’s a tall order from this year to next — and instead plotting how to get back to the postseason. And then figure out how to turn those excruciating losses into triumphant victories. That’s a much more realistic — and important — gap to bridge.

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