In Bloom

Buoyed by Kyle Lewis and positive direction, there's hope in Seattle

I don’t need to tell you that a lot has happened in the world since 2001. Nineteen years is long enough (at least where I come from) for a newborn to come of the age, to the age of majority, the age of home ownership, and to the age of where they may choose to imbibe in an alcoholic drink or two in commiseration towards their team’s annual failure (sorry, American friends—I know 21’s the sweet spot for you down there). But amidst all of the political turmoil, global innovation, and subsequent innovations in the game of baseball, one thing has remained the same.

The Seattle Mariners haven’t made the playoffs.

Not since Ichiro was turning in MVP campaigns in right field, Bret Boone was hitting 37 dingers out of the two-year-old T-Mobile Park (then Safeco Field) to go along with a record-breaking 141 RBI, and the staff ace responsibilities were split between beloved youngster Freddy Garcia and spritely 39-year old Jamie Moyer, have the Seattle Mariners played October baseball. That much-celebrated Mariners roster—which also included the likes of John Olerud, Mike Cameron, and Hall-of-Famer Edgar Martinez at DH—got there on the back of a Major League record-tying 116-46 mark. That club managed to overcome the Cleveland Indians in five games in the ALDS, before getting unceremoniously trounced in five by the Yankees in the ALCS. Although the end result was a disappointment, there was optimism that this Mariners core could carry them forward into years of competitiveness. The team was in the throes of its prime: Ichiro was 28, as was Mike Cameron; David Bell was 29; Boone was 31, as was stalwart righty Aaron Sele. Garcia was just 25—heck, even Jamie Moyer was young for him. It seemed like this was a roster that could compete for years to come.

 

 

And, indeed, they did compete: they posted identical 93-69 records in the following two seasons, and were kept out of the postseason only by apex-seasons from Oakland and Anaheim, whose cores were also in their prime. From there, it’s all been mostly downhill—the club wouldn’t post a winning record again until 2007, and hasn’t posted a 90-win season since that 2003 campaign. Their most recent successful campaign came in 2018, when an 89-73 record still wasn’t good enough to overcome a ferociously competitive AL West and Wild Card race.

But in the shadow of each of these years, the club has taken a distinct step-back. Following a modestly-successful 85-77 mark in 2009, the club cratered to a 61-101 mark. That 2010 team had the honour of being the first team in MLB history to lose 100 games while holding a $100 million+ payroll. The progress of that 2018 record was followed by a deeply disappointing 68-94 record in 2019. This year, the club is slouching towards another below-.500 mark, and despite the increased playoff pool, still doesn’t seem likely to be playing October baseball in 2020.

Considering the Mariners currently have the longest-running streak without a postseason appearance in the four major North American sports, one has to look at patterns and trends to determine just what has happened to keep them out of the dance. And while bad luck may have played a role in years like 2003 and 2018, it’s more clear that the club—which has nonetheless featured several All-Stars and a Cy Young winner in the interim—has suffered from a catastrophic lack of direction in the years since the halcyon summer of 2001.

“In my opinion, they’ve always been held back by ownership,” suggests PitcherList writer and resident Mariners expert Michael Ajeto (co-host of the outstanding ‘It’s Never Sunny in Seattle’ podcast). “Most recently, they were tied down by some bloated contracts (namely Robinson Cano), and so they were forced to try and compete with the core that they had.” What Ajeto references here is a common refrain among Mariners fans when considering the last two-decades of ownership and competition. Having bought the team in 1992 (and in doing so, becoming the first non-North American ownership group of an MLB team), Nintendo of America owned and operated the club with a majority stake for 24 years. In those years, it was clear that ownership was willing to spend the money it felt was needed to compete. That 2008 team was supposed to be buffeted by the addition of Cy Young contender Erik Bedard, in a trade which cost the Mariners highly-regarded outfield prospect Adam Jones. Bedard was mediocre for two seasons, before ostensibly having his career ended by consistent injury woes. The 2008 team was already elbows-deep in its investment into Ichiro, Adrian Beltre, Raul Ibanez, and a host of mediocre arms (behind some stellar 22-year old kid named Felix Hernandez), and its subsequent 101 losses was lampooned around baseball as an example of poor club investment. The 2009 offseason saw them add Cy Young winner Cliff Lee from the Philadelphia Phillies, and although the club managed to elevate itself back to some respectability with an 85-win year, it was far from a genuine playoff contender. 2010 saw them embarrassed by 101 losses yet again.

 

 

In the years since, the club has oscillated between chasing the .500 mark, and occupying the basement of the AL West. They have seen six different managers since 2008, with Scott Servais currently having served the longest tenure (at four years and counting). The club has seen the aging-out of the likes of Ichiro and Felix Hernandez (though not without consistent and sustained periods of success well into their 30’s) and has struggled of late to find an identity. The club was run by former Brewers Amateur Scouting Director Jack Zduriencik from 2008-2015, and if you ask Ajeto, it was a less-than-stellar tenure:

“Jack Zduriencik was an incompetent GM in the latter half of his tenure with the Mariners,” Ajeto states, referencing the inability for the Mariners GM to make decisions that catapulted the team back to respectability. While Zduriencik deserves credit for hanging on to Felix Hernandez when the market implored he be moved, and equal credit for bringing Robinson Cano on for five mostly-solid seasons after signing him in 2014, there are plenty of failures that can be laid at his doorstep. The club’s first-round picks during the Zduriencik regime can be seen as perhaps the most damning indictment of his struggles to bring in exciting young talent, as the fumbling of a pair of second overall picks (Dustin Ackley in 2009 and Danny Hultzen in 2011) is a testament to.

MARINERS FIRST-ROUND PICKS UNDER THE ZDURIENCIK REGIME

2009 Dustin Ackley Outfielder University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
(Chapel Hill, North Carolina)
2
2009 Nick Franklin (baseball)” href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Franklin_(baseball)”>Nick Franklin Shortstop Lake Brantley High School
(Altamonte Springs, Florida)
27
2009 Steven Baron Catcher John A. Ferguson High School
(Miami, Florida)
33§
2010 Taijuan Walker Right-handed pitcher Yucaipa High School
(Yucaipa, California)
43§
2011 Danny Hultzen Left-handed pitcher University of Virginia
(Charlottesville, Virginia)
2
2012 Mike Zunino Catcher University of Florida
(Gainesville, Florida)
3
2013 D. J. Peterson Third baseman University of New Mexico
(Albuquerque, New Mexico)
12
2014 Alex Jackson Outfielder Rancho Bernardo High School
(San Diego County, California)
6

 

The club has since committed long-term to Jerry DiPoto, former general manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and while DiPoto has still yet to produce a playoff team, Ajeto and others see positive progress and direction for the club in the four years he has been at the helm: “Now that they’ve committed to more of an actual rebuild, their farm system is replenished and they look like they’ll be competitive in the next few years, with reinforcements coming,” Ajeto suggests, referencing the team’s recent commitment to building up its farm system and re-investing in efficient and positive amateur scouting.

The club’s most recent trade deadline demostrates the club’s philosophy under DiPoto of ‘aiming for a window’. With 24-year old Kyle Lewis a revelation for the team in the outfield, a decision has been made to pursue a window that better synchs up with the club’s top prospects: rostered 23-year old first basemen Evan White, outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, and pitchers Emerson Hancock and Logan Gilbert. In that vein, the club moved a package which included solidly-performing catcher Austin Nola (30 years old), and reliever Dan Altavilla, to the Padres, in exchange for a package that included young infielder Ty France and catcher Luis Torrens. But the crown jewel of the return was outfielder Taylor Trammel. A 2016 draftee of the Reds who has now been traded twice, Trammel is highly-regarded as a speed and contact-hitter, and alongside Kelenic, Rodriguez, and Lewis, figures to feature into an impressive Mariners outfield that will come into fruition in the next few years. The club also moved on from pitcher Taijuan Walker and Dan Vogelbach, in moves that were more likely intended to free up roster positions for young players down the stretch, rather than anything pertaining to returns.

 

 

Speaking of the trade, Ajeto appreciates the direction it indicates to the fanbase: “I Love it! They did exactly what they should be doing: trading relievers, and moving guys that don’t fit into their window (e.g., Austin Nola). We got a ton of intriguing guys back. I was highly surprised that the return was so solid.” Indeed, since the deadline, the team has appeared to have a brief fit of ignition, finding themselves one of the hottest clubs in the big leagues. Much of that is on the back of Lewis’s sublime breakout season and better-than-expected starting pitching from Marco Gonzalez, Justus Sheffield, and young Justin Dunn—and while it’s unlikely that this Mariners team has the legs to compete down the stretch with some of the teams they’re currently bunched up with, it’ll be positive experiential progress for a young group, and should serve well as they look to build around a new core.

 

 

Ultimately, though, it’s important to note that Mariners fans have seen this before. There have been sell-offs and highly-touted prospects, some of whom have come to fruition, and others who have flamed out spectacularly. The Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker-for-Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger trade, for instance, still haunts the M’s (although Haniger performed extremely well in the years following the deal, before injuries derailed his career). But amidst all of it, there still has been no October baseball since land-lines were the primary mode of communication and the Playstation 2 was the hot new technology at Christmas (sorry, Nintendo). Does the future portend better things? Perhaps. But what do fans think the club needs to do this time in order to prevent themselves from falling into the same cycle of mediocrity and poverty?

“Spend more carefully than in the past—no Cano contracts!” says Ajeto. “But don’t be too scared to spend!, actually have organically grown prospects that succeed (Felix [Hernandez] and [Kyle] Seager are two of few examples). If the prospects fail, this is all going to get delayed several years, and DiPoto is either going to get canned or make a desperation signing.”

So they’ll be relying on hope, at least for a few more years, in the Pacific Northwest. But maybe this time, justifiable hope.

 

Daniel MacDonald

Daniel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (2014), and has carried his love of baseball drama and storytelling across oceans and continents. He remembers exactly where he was sitting and what he was wearing when Kerry Wood struck out 20. You can find him talking baseball and music on Twitter @danthemacs

  • GOMS! I agree with everything Ajeto said. I’m excited for the next few years.

  • Avatar BB says:

    Not sure I’d call last season “deeply disappointing,” given management’s announced “step back” approach to a rebuild and the resulting divestiture of the veteran core. A surprisingly hot start raised some unrealistic expectations for a while, but the eventual outcome could be pretty much expected from the new strategy.

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