In recent years, the front office's dealings after successful seasons have proved more harmful than helpful in Seattle.
During what must accurately be labeled “the exasperating years” of Mariners baseball — 2004 to the present — they have had just two winning seasons.
Those occurred in 2007, when the Mariners won 88 games (despite having their manager resign midseason and enduring a stretch of 15 losses in 17 games in August and September); and 2009, when Ken Griffey Jr. came home, Don Wakamatsu’s “Belief System” took hold, and the Mariners won 85 games.
Two interesting things happened after each of those seasons:
1) The Mariners made aggressive — some would say foolhardy — offseason moves with the goal of taking the next step toward a playoff berth.
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2) They failed miserably in that goal.
After 2007, the Mariners signed Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract and traded a package of young players — including Adam Jones — for Erik Bedard. You could have a spirited debate over which move, in retrospect, was worse. The Mariners collapsed in every aspect and lost 101 games in 2008.
After an unexpected revival in 2009, the first year of the Jack Zduriencik/Wakamatsu regime, the Mariners signed Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract. And they pulled off the Cliff Lee trade, hoping that the Felix Hernandez/Lee tandem would help cover up other deficiencies (which didn’t take long to become glaringly apparent).
It didn’t work. Lee was injured for the first month, traded in July, and again the Mariners self-destructed in a storm of underachievement and dissension. Once more, they dropped 101 games.
Now the Mariners are driving at another winning season, an unthinkable proposition a month ago, but now within the realm of possibility.
After losing two of their first three games following the All-Star break, the Mariners found themselves 16 games under .500 at 37-53, and 17 games behind the first-place Rangers. At that point, they needed to go 44-28 to reach .500 — a .611 winning percentage that seemed a pipe dream for a team winning at a .411 clip and on a pace for 95 losses (same as 2011).
But that’s when Operation Re-Invention kicked in. Since that initial post-All-Star Game series with the Rangers, the Mariners had the best record in the majors at 24-11 after completing an 8-1 homestand heading into Friday’s series opener against the White Sox. That’s a .686 winning percentage, and it forces some new math. Entering Saturday’s game, the Mariners needed to go 20-16 down the stretch to reach .500. That’s a much more manageable .556 win percentage.
Some giddy fans see a chance for them to win a wild-card berth, and some even point out that the Mariners ended the homestand 12 games behind the Rangers; at a similar stage of the 1995 season, they were 12 ½ games behind the Angels.
I’d say that a winning record is a more realistic goal for the Mariners than a playoff berth, though I reserve the right to reconsider after this road trip. Even with a second wild card, there are just too many teams ahead of them and too little time.
But what the Mariners have within their grasp is the ability to change the perception of this season, an endeavor already underway. Instead of being viewed as another step backward, a breakdown of the rebuilding plan — as it looked at the All-Star break — this season may end up being viewed ultimately as a success.
I’ve said all along that the key for this year is progress — better performances in the second half to validate manager Eric Wedge’s unwavering assertion that the Mariners would become a successful, winning team — no ifs, ands or buts.
That is happening, though there still are troublesome signs, particularly the ongoing struggles of Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak, who entered this season regarded as cornerstone pieces of a brighter future. Jesus Montero, another vital young hitter, has had an up-and-down year, but his numbers since the All-Star break (an .827 OPS, a gain of .220 from the first half) are encouraging. Montero, however, must figure out how to hit right-handers to be the impact player the Mariners envision.
The entire offense is far from miraculously cured, in fact. Heading into Saturday, they had a .233 average, .295 on-base percentage and .366 slugging percentage for a .660 OPS. They ranked 30th (last) in the majors in all those categories except batting average, where they’re 29th. The improvement isn’t much from last year (.233/.292/.348/.640) or 2010 (.236/.298/.339/.637).
On the other hand, the Mariners are on pace to score 636 runs, which would be 80 more than last season, and 123 more than in 2010. That’s progress — and the increase could wind up being greater, because the Mariners have been scoring at a 4.1 runs-per-game clip in the second half compared to 3.9 in the first half. Their batting average has risen from .230 to .242, on-base percentage from .291 to .303, and slugging from .358 to .383. None of those numbers will make the Rangers quake, but at least they’re headed in the right direction.
The real gain, and the key to the Mariners’ surge, has been pitching. Their second-half earned-run average of 3.16 is third in the majors (and down from 3.96 before the All-Star break). Pitching also remains the strength of the farm system, with the “Big Three” moving closer to big-league readiness, and hard-throwing righties Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor augmenting what could be a dominating power pen.
At season’s end, the Mariners could well find themselves in much the same position as they were after the surprise successes of 2007 and 2009.
I think the ensuing disasters were two-pronged failures — overrating the talent on hand, and not making the right moves to improve the team. The Silva signing and Bedard trade need no amplification. The Figgins deal seemed like a defensible move at the time, but has turned out, of course, to be an unmitigated disaster. And the Mariners didn’t make any other additions to prop up an offense that would wind up as one of the worst of the modern era.
The Lee trade was actually a well-conceived gambit by Zduriencik — none of the players given up have haunted the Mariners (tough Phillippe Aumont finally reached the majors this week), while the subsequent Lee trade to Texas is still under evaluation. Smoak hasn’t developed into a star yet, but John Jaso, an indirect result of that deal, is emerging as an impact player for the M’s.
Please, don’t construe this history lesson as a plea for the Mariners to be less aggressive or ambitious, this winter. In fact, I think it is incumbent upon them to get at least one proven major league bat, perhaps two, to add to the mix.
It’s just a cautionary tale to remind everyone that the last step — from unexpected success to genuine, sustained contention — is invariably the hardest one.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry