Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Between expanded playoffs and strengthening their core group, the Seattle Mariners are one of baseball’s most exciting young teams.

We saw that firsthand last season when the M’s not only upset the hard-hitting Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card, but then held their own against Houston in the ALDS. The Astros swept the series, but Seattle made them earn all three wins. Remember, Houston came from behind in Games 1 and 2 and needed 18 innings just to win Game 3 by a 1-0 score.

A new season is upon us and the Mariners are revamped, retooled, and ready. They’re easily Houston’s biggest threat for the AL West crown and will play plenty of possible playoff opponents in the regular season.

That includes the Yankees, whose August slump cost them the season series against the Mariners. Adding insult to injury was Seattle beating out New York in trade talks for then-Reds ace Luis Castillo, who then shut the Yankees down twice. This year, the Mariners host the Bronx Bombers in late May for three games before playing another three in New York in June.

That’s two three-game series, right when both teams should know what course to chart for the rest of the season. It’s safe to say both the Mariners and Yankees will be active at the deadline for the last push to the playoffs.

And if they should meet there? Well, cue the fireworks and old postseason memories about Edgar Martinez, the famous 2001 ALCS, and everything in between.

Greatest Addition: Teoscar Hernandez. The Mariners only hit .230 as a team last year and were otherwise middling as a scoring lineup. Hernandez has one year left on his contract and was acquired from the Blue Jays in the offseason. He hit 25 home runs with 77 RBI and a 129 wRC+, plus a respectable .807 OPS.

Hernandez is in a Mariners uniform to do one thing: hit home runs. The key to beating the Astros is hitting their elite pitching and adding another power bat boosts Seattle’s chances. Better yet, Hernandez is off to a good start with his new team and hitting .385 in spring training.

Greatest Loss: Erik Swanson. It’s a shame because he was a key piece of a Mariners bullpen that ranked sixth with a 3.33 ERA. Swanson himself had an incredible 1.68 ERA in 57 games and led all relievers with a soft contact rate (Soft%) of 29.2%. The 28-year-old righty also had 11.74 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) compared to just 1.98 walks per nine (BB/9).

Unfortunately for the Mariners, Teoscar Hernandez came at a price and the Blue Jays needed bullpen help. Swanson should immediately slot into one of Toronto’s high-leverage roles in the mighty AL East. How the Mariners fill his role, on the other hand, remains to be seen.

Greatest Strength: Julio Rodriguez. The Mariners not only have the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, but on a long-term deal too. Rodriguez signed a 12-year, $209.3 million extension last August and finished his first MLB season batting .284 with 28 home runs and 75 RBI.

J-Rod is the new face of Seattle’s next group of young stars and the best part is he isn’t alone. The Mariners also have young homegrown pitchers in Logan Gilbert and George Kirby. This trio is fully capable of leading Seattle’s charge into the postseason.

Greatest Weakness: JP Crawford. We’re in an era where star franchise shortstops are a key difference maker and he just isn’t one. Crawford is a light hitter who batted .243 last year and was barely above average with a 104 wRC+. He’s an up-the-middle hitter who won’t benefit from the new shift restrictions, and he’s always had a streaky glove in the field.

The greater problem is Seattle’s investment in Crawford, who’s already peaked at 28. He’s due $41 million over the next four years. Are the Mariners really comfortable riding that out while shortstop prospects Cole Young and Felnen Celestin keep developing? Crawford simply needs a big year in 2023 if he wants to look like anything but dead weight.

Will the Mariners catch the Astros in 2023? Probably not, but they should at least get back to the playoffs. Seattle is putting together an exciting, youth-focused team plenty more young talent developing down on the farm. They’re not just in a position to run it back, but to also keep building.

One way or another, the Mariners are in a better position to potentially upset the Astros in the playoffs. Their May and June series with the Yankees could also be fun just because Seattle won the season series last year. The point is while the Mariners aren’t exactly a championship team, they sure have the potential to look like one.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.