The playoffs are a great goal, but perhaps it’s better to focus first on something smaller: rolling a modest success from one year to the next.
With another baseball season about to dawn, the Mariners have an obvious and lofty goal: To end their maddening, and increasingly embarrassing, playoff drought and advance to the postseason for the first time since 2001.
But with spring camp opening on Tuesday in Peoria, Ariz., perhaps it’s better to focus first on something smaller, but just as frustrating. Never mind winning a division title or a wild-card berth. The Mariners, for more than a decade, haven’t been able to sustain even modest success from one year to the next.
Since Lou Piniella walked away as manager after the 2002 season, an undeniable turning point, the Mariners have had five, count ‘em five, winning seasons in the ensuing 14 years: 93-69 in 2003, 88-74 in 2007, 85-77 in 2009, 87-75 in 2014, and 86-76 last year – each under a different manager (and four different general managers). Each time, the Mariners were convinced they were on the brink of even greater things.
Instead, here is their record the following year (please hold your jeers until the end): 63-99 in 2004, 61-101 in 2008, 61-101 in 2010, and 76-87 in 2015. Instead of even greater things, it devolved into an unmitigated disaster. Each of those seasons resulted in a managerial firing in just the second year of the manager in question. Needless to say, that kind of instability has been deadly to building the sort of continuity that fosters long-term success.
But here’s some good news. This Mariners’ team is built to end that trend. Oh, not the playoff drought, necessarily. But they won’t backslide into oblivion like all those other Seattle teams that teased us into thinking that this was the year. This is a good, solid ballclub, one that made the right moves in the offseason to keep trending in the proper direction. That right there differentiates them from their foolishly hopeful predecessors.
General manager Jerry Dipoto, a whirling dervish of transactions in his two seasons in charge, seems to understand the challenge at hand.
“It’s no fun if you can’t figure out how to sustain, so we’re trying to figure that out as we go,” he said. “We will make mistakes. It happens when you make 35 trades in a brief period of time, but as (manager Scott Servais) said, ‘You pick up and you move on.’ ”
You want to talk mistakes? The previous Mariner incarnations in question are case studies. In 2004, after the greatest run in franchise history – four straight 90-plus seasons, including a record 116 in 2001 — they let sentiment blind them to the fact that a rebuild, or at least a reload, was necessary. Too many formerly great players got old at once.
In 2008, the acquisitions of Carlos Silva and Erik Bedard proved disastrous for different reasons, and team chemistry hit an all-time low. In 2010, the Chone Figgins experiment backfired mightily, Ken Griffey Jr.’s final season was surprisingly turbulent, and once again turmoil reigned. In 2015, it was simply a matter of ill-conceived roster building that seemed to ignore even elementary notions of outfield defense.
Dipoto and Servais have a vision of the type of team they want and they are systematically building it, with additions like Jarrod Dyson for the sort of outfield defense they feel is essential. Last year had a kind of slap-dash feel to it for the Mariners, with a lot of players on one-year contracts like Nori Aoki, Adam Lind, Dae-Ho Lee and Chris Iannetta as place-holders. If Seattle can successfully integrate young players like Mitch Haniger, Dan Vogelbach and Ben Gamel around their strong veteran nucleus, then it will begin to have a less makeshift feel.
That’s not to say the whole thing couldn’t disintegrate, again. In baseball, the best-laid plans often go awry, and this shapes up, best-case scenario, as a solid team, not an elite one. Dipoto believes the positive culture that Servais built last year is one of their strongest assets, and it certainly can be. But clubhouse culture is a funny thing, one that isn’t truly tested until adversity hits hard.
The analytical community is bullish on the Mariners. The well-regarded PECOTA projections came out last week and had the Mariners at 87-75. While that might not sound too impressive – just a one-game improvement over last year, and second place behind Houston in the division – it was good enough to make the Mariners the American League’s first wild-card team.
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The Mariners didn’t do anything too flashy this offseason, just a bunch of smart moves, at least on paper. As Dipoto put it, “We have not done this with pandemonium in mind. We did it to build a team that can better support a winning core, and we feel like we’ve built that.”
In past winters following even modest success, it always seemed to me that the Mariners’ braintrust got seduced by the prospect of finally bolting into the playoffs. They tended to discard any semblance of intelligent team-building in wild-eyed pursuit of that goal. Dipoto didn’t fall prey to that this winter, and while you might decry the fact the Mariners didn’t go after any high-priced free agents, or throw their best prospects at an impact trade, that hasn’t necessarily been a winning strategy in the past.
“We’re not stripping the organization in the effort to win now as the only outcome,’’ Dipoto said. “This is what we intend to be, a sustainable product to win year in and year out.”
It’s something the Mariners haven’t done in far too long.
|Ups and downs|
|Since 2003, the Mariners have had five winning seasons, but each good season was followed by a drop.|
|Winning season||W-L||Next season||W-L|