The sobering reality of the Mariners’ “step-back” season and all that it would entail on the field — specifically the losing and lack of talent — didn’t set in for most fans until a month into the season.
Despite analysts’ predictions, general manager Jerry Dipoto’s basic admittance and manager Scott Servais’ cautious warnings that this team would struggle, there was a glimmer of hope, albeit unrealistic, in those first weeks of the season.
The Mariners had a memorable 13-2 start to the season: A two-game sweep of the A’s in Tokyo, followed by taking three of four from the Red Sox, a two-game sweep of the Angels and a 6-1 road trip against the White Sox and Royals. However, they were still a flawed team playing at an unexpected and unsustainable level. They knew it; others didn’t.
Instead of thinking rebuild, thoughts of signing Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel began to permeate fans’ minds.
But the inevitability of the Mariners’ situation, and what they had done to the roster, started to erode those hopes, slow at first and snowballing into something worse than mediocrity. Seattle returned home and was swept in back-to-back three-game series by the Astros and Indians. The moment was over. And what followed in the 2019 season was a step back in almost every way.
Those six consecutive defeats to the Astros and Indians were a start of a stretch that saw the Mariners go 13-38, including a 7-21 record in May.
“We really struggled pitching-wise in May,” Servais said. “Marco (Gonzales) didn’t have a great month and he was our stabilizer.”
The Mariners were terrible in the field, committing a plethora of errors, their pitching was suspect and their offense was totally reliant on the home run.
This was what rebuilding, or stepping back, was supposed to look like.
The level of play improved incrementally. J.P. Crawford took over at shortstop and Kyle Seager returned from the injured list to help the infield defense. Edwin Encarnacion, who was leading the team in home runs, and Jay Bruce were traded to free up the roster. Injuries to Mitch Haniger and Braden Bishop caused issues in the outfield.
While infielder/catcher Austin Nola was a pleasant surprise who will be back next season, Mallex Smith was a disappointment who could be traded this offseason. Domingo Santana’s outstanding start at the plate couldn’t be replicated in the later months, and an injury limited him in the final month of the season. Rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi provided highly unpredictable outings in his transition to MLB, while Gonzales continued to provide consistency and durability to the rotation, throwing 203 innings and never missing a start.
Seattle auditioned relievers during the season — some, such as Austin Adams, Matt Magill and Reggie McClain, proved to be quality contributors who could help in the rebuild, while others, such as Jesse Biddle, Mike Wright and Tayler Scott, showed why they were available to the Mariners in the first place.
After looking largely uncompetitive for about six weeks, Seattle slowly started generating respectable results. They won a few series, but didn’t have winning months. They looked overwhelmed against Houston and the Yankees, but showed they were better than tanking teams such as the Tigers, Royals, Orioles, White Sox and Pirates.
September brought call-ups and youthful energy from Kyle Lewis, Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield and Shed Long — all key pieces to the Mariners’ roster of the future.
It also brought a level of interest to an otherwise forgettable team. There were other positives, like Seager’s offensive resurgence to finish the season and his willingness to embrace this rebuild.
“I want the Mariners to succeed and I want the organization to win,” he said. “I don’t have a choice in it. But I enjoy the dynamic of all the new guys. When you have all these young guys, there is a hunger level there. They are willing to learn and willing to work. You can have an impact on that.”
In the end, the Mariners finished with a 68-94 record, scoring 758 runs and allowing 893. They used a major-league record 67 players in the season with 22 players making their MLB debuts, also an MLB record. They led the league in players used (67), pitchers used (42) and relievers used (36).
The offense had a .237 batting average, second worst in MLB, while striking out 1,581 times, also second most in MLB.
Their 5.51 runs allowed a game was the fifth highest in MLB, while the 4.99 ERA was the eighth worst. Seattle pitchers gave up 260 homers, the fourth most in MLB.
Their defense topped all of baseball with 132 errors. The next closest team had 121. Those errors resulted in 95 unearned runs, also the most in baseball. They had minus-91 defensive runs saved, which was the third worst.
“There were some low points in the season, but I tried to be as consistent as I could be,” Servais said. “And our players handled it as best they could.”
The poor play, the defeats and the understanding that the Mariners weren’t investing into this season resulted in lagging attendance at T-Mobile Park. The final home attendance was 1,791,720. It was the first time Seattle failed to draw over 2 million fans since 2013, when 1,761,546 came to watch.
“I can’t say it was largely unexpected and I said that to a couple of guys early,” Dipoto said. “We were going to go through these periods, especially as we get younger, you’re going to go through rocky roads, and it’s certainly happened to us.
“We had very high highs early in the season, and then we experienced the opposite of that, which was almost inevitable based on how we started this season. I’m encouraged by what happened. I can’t say that we’re not going to have ups and downs as we move forward because that’s the byproduct of growing a young team. But I think the most significant struggle is hopefully behind us.”
Beyond the struggles of his own team, Dipoto found verification in other teams’ successes. They validated his decision to change the Mariners’ organizational philosophy this offseason, going from trying to piece together a run for a wild-card spot to tearing it down and starting over.
The Astros had the best record in baseball at 107-55. The A’s had 97 wins to take the top American League wild-card spot, while the Rays grabbed the second spot with 96 wins. The Indians had 93 wins and finished just out of the postseason.
“Part of what you’re seeing is why we opted to go the direction we did,” Dipoto said. “This is a very polar American League. Going into the offseason of 2018, we talked about it a lot. We felt like we were trapped in the middle. We didn’t feel like we had the ability to roll out here and be a 95, 98-win team with a tweak, with a premium free agent. We just felt like we were off.”
Given Edwin Diaz’s regression from his dominance last season, Mike Zunino’s continued struggles at the plate, Robinson Cano’s steady decline and the lingering pitching issues, the Mariners wouldn’t have challenged for a postseason spot this season had they kept the group from last year together. They were lucky to win 89 games last season.
“We could have easily rolled out the same team that we had finishing 2018 and been the first- or second-oldest team in the American League with a bloated payroll,” Dipoto said. “And put up something that started with an eight but probably didn’t get over 85 or 86 wins. And that would’ve been if everything clicked and everybody stayed healthy.
“We did what we did for a reason, and I think the league is now showing us that we made the right call. At least now, we have a future rather than sitting here lamenting what we didn’t do. And we feel like now, as a result of that, we are a step ahead of the game in making it a quicker journey back to the top or to the top.”