It isn’t one thing or one person, despite the finger-pointing of fans. It’s years of doing a lot of little things — and also a few big things — wrong.
As the final seconds ticked off in the cold of M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, a streak of futility was being snapped for one team while another team was being handed an embarrassing baton of infamy.
In the cramped quarters of the visitor’s locker room of what is now really called Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, the Buffalo Bills roared in celebration as the Cincinnati Bengals finished off the road upset of the Ravens.
Grown men, many still reeking of sweat and violence in soaked football gear, hugged and screamed like teenagers at a Justin Bieber concert. There would be something more to celebrate on this New Year’s Eve than the coming of 2018. Because with Baltimore’s loss, Buffalo had made the playoffs and ended 17 long years of being left out of the postseason dance.
Mariners season opener, vs. Cleveland @ Safeco Field, 7:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
Meanwhile in Seattle, the Seahawks were in the midst of losing to the Cardinals at CenturyLink Field and failing to make the postseason for the first time in five years.
MARINERS PREVIEW 2018
- Behind the Boomstick
- M's could end the drought this year (but probably not) | Larry Stone
- Fans, you're not alone: Players agree it's gone on too long | Matt Calkins
- 'Mistakes were made': Inside the dysfunction behind the drought
- Mariners Missteps: From 116 wins to 16 years of futility, how they got here
- Din Tai Fung is coming to Safeco Field: Here are all this season's new vendors
- Meet the starting lineup »
- Newcomers you need to know »
On the next block over at Safeco Field, the Mariners probably didn’t realize the ramifications of what transpired on that final Sunday of the NFL regular season. But they had ascended to the top of a dubious list that no professional sports franchise wants to be on.
The Mariners were now the team with the longest postseason drought in the four major professional sports leagues — MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL. Their last appearance was 2001. That’s 16 seasons without playing in the postseason. For fans, it’s like a hangnail that gets a little more infected with each season. Now it’s just a festering wound of discontent.
How long has it been since the Mariners were in the playoffs? The cliché thing to do would be to list prices in 2001, such as a gallon of gas ($1.42) — or the median cost of a house in Seattle (approximately $200,000).
Want a more visual way to determine the time aspect of the streak? Take a current photo of the recently reacquired Ichiro and compare it to his first season in the organization — the magical 2001 season. Do the same with yourself. It’s striking. A lot can change over that amount of time … well most things.
Since the Mariners last made the playoffs, the organization has had two ownership groups, two team presidents, four general managers, eight hired managers and three interim managers.
Meanwhile, the Astros joined their division, have made the playoffs three times and won a World Series. Seattle has had just six winning seasons since 2001, including back-to-back, 93-win seasons in 2002 and 2003 and no back-to-back winning seasons since.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is the Mariners beginning their offseason in early October.
How did this happen? How does an organization that can’t be classified as a pauper or penny-pincher fail?
It isn’t one thing or person, despite the finger-pointing of fans. The failure is collective. Baseball players and managers love to say that doing all the little things right leads to success.
“I believe winning is the result of probably hundreds and thousands of little things done right,” said John Stanton, Mariners’ chairman and managing partner of the current ownership group.
Doing all the little things wrong can get you headed in the opposite direction. And doing big things wrong will keep you on that path.
“We’ve made some huge mistakes that crippled us for years,” said team president and CEO Kevin Mather. “As much as I’m troubled by the lack of playoffs, our ownership is more troubled.”
A variety of people in the organization all say similar things. They also all proclaim that everyone in the organization wants to win.
“Speaking from ownership, to front office, to coaches, to players, when I ask the question: Why are we here? Why do we do what we do? It’s to win the World Series,” manager Scott Servais said.
But maybe desire doesn’t overcome lack of direction. It’s one thing to say you want to win, but it’s proven far more difficult to do it.
The payroll question
The question on if the Mariners are spending enough on player payroll is an annual debate. Some believe the team never spends enough on free agents — they never go for it. Entering this season, there has been a frustration that the team didn’t add a pricey free-agent pitcher such as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta or Alex Cobb.
“I’ve already got a pitcher (Felix Hernandez) on a long-term contract,” Mather said. “I don’t need another long-term deal on a pitcher in his 30s.”
Per Cot’s Contracts, the Mariners started the 2017 season with an opening-day payroll of $154,318,843 and finished at $174,721,701. Sources and projections put them around $165 million to start this season, including incidentals like the $3 million in buyouts for Yovanni Gallardo and Hisashi Iwakuma.
“We are spending more money on payroll than we ever have and we are spending a percentage of revenue on payroll that when the commissioner figures it out, he is not going to be happy with us either,” Mather said. “The industry has been spending 49, 50, 51 percent of their revenue on player payroll over the last 10 years. We are well above that number. That’s one of the things that (Bud) Selig used to flog owners about. (Rob) Manfred is much more subtle and will do it with less fanfare, but he will flog us.”
Per the calculations from Spotrac, the Mariners are projected with the ninth-highest opening-day payroll.
Mather will not flirt with the competitive balance tax threshold of $195 million, particularly with the opening-day payroll. The penalties leveled to teams on future draft picks and signing players with qualifying offers when they are over the CBT are too punitive.
“I’m not going over that number,” he said. “It’s not the money. It’s the draft picks.”
His predecessor, Chuck Armstrong, shakes his head at the idea of profit trumping playoffs.
“It’s all our biggest regrets,” he said of the lack of postseason. “This ownership, they’ve never taken a nickel out. Everything’s been put back in. They’ve never paid themselves in salary. Ownership has never taken distributions.”
Perhaps, but after firing general manager Bill Bavasi, who was the architect of the 2008 team that had a $120 million final payroll and lost 101 games, the Mariners trimmed payroll as large contracts expired over the next five seasons.
The opening-day payroll declined from $117 million in 2008 to $99 million in 2009, $91 million in 2010, $94 million in 2011, $85 million in 2012 and $84 million in 2013 before beginning a steady climb with the signing of Robinson Cano.
Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners general manager for 6½ seasons before being fired in August 2015, wouldn’t use lack of spending as an excuse for some down seasons.
“It is what it is,” he said. “You are given a budget that you can work with and you do the best you can. Hopefully you make good decisions. At that time, I was coming to Seattle, it was a really good opportunity. The concern was looking big picture too long term and not to worry about the immediate.”
Zduriencik did ask what the Mariners starting payroll would be this season.
Around $165 million.
“Yeah, wow, OK,” he said quietly.
The bloat at the end of the Bavasi reign was being culled. The Mariners were trying to rebuild a farm system and be more sustainable from within. It’s a reason Zduriencik was hired.
“If there’s a change in the general manager, there’s a reason why,” he said. “We were just trying to take things a different direction.”
Said Armstrong: “We had a lot of internal discussions. We had contracts that were coming off the books and we wanted to be smarter with how we approached payroll going forward.”
Still, the Mariners weren’t necessarily tanking or trying to start a complete rebuild; if they were, they would have gutted everything. But they also weren’t going all-in. They were somewhere in the middle. It was a lukewarm approach that provided tepid results.
Big payrolls don’t guarantee success, but it helps. The Dodgers (1), Yankees (2), Red Sox (3), Nationals (7) and Cubs (10) all made the postseason in 2017. But the Mariners had a higher payroll than the Astros, Rockies, Indians, Twins, Diamondbacks and Rockies — all playoff teams.
In the months after he first took over as managing partner in 2016, Stanton watched the team fall just short of the postseason. He was adamant in his desires.
“We’re committed to winning,” he said. “We are committed to treating our fans well and part of that is doing everything we can to win. It’s a very important part of what we do. Our responsibility to our fans is to deliver a great product on the field, a great experience in the stadium. And it’s hard to say it’s a great product on the field if winning isn’t involved.”
This spring, he says he hasn’t changed. The payroll is still there.
“We will be intelligent with the money spent,” he said. “We are in the top third of baseball in payroll and maybe even the top fifth. On percentage of revenue spent on payroll, we are even higher than that. We’ve spent a lot of money. I think we’ve spent intelligently. We are going to be among the top teams in baseball in terms of payroll. We aren’t out of money, but we paid the money to the guys that we think will enable us to win.”
Mather said they will add more payroll during the season if needed.
“If we are in this in July, our owners are committed to winning,” he said. “I have no issues going to our owners and saying, ‘Hey, I want to make this move.’ ”
Decisions on deals
It’s a great debate over beers — what is the worst trade in franchise history?
Was it the Mariners giving up pitcher Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek as young prospects for middling closer Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997? Or was it the regrettable acquisition of Erik Bedard before the 2009 season, giving up five players, including outfielder Adam Jones and pitcher Chris Tillman?
That first trade wasn’t an immediate failure as Lowe and Varitek didn’t completely blossom for a few years, eventually helping the Red Sox win a World Series.
But Bedard was a moody and oft-injured malcontent from the day he arrived, while Jones became a five-time All-Star and Tillman turned into a reliable starting pitcher who has also been an All-Star.
That was a disaster. That was a disastrous trade.” - Mariners president Kevin Mather on the Erik Bedard trade
“That was a disaster,” Mather said of Bavasi’s trade for Bedard. “That was a disastrous trade.”
Many words have been written about the Bedard trade. Bavasi didn’t respond to requests for an interview, but a mistake like that can set an organization back years. Jones has been a stalwart in center field for Baltimore and a face of its franchise and community, racking up 27.7 in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while the Mariners’ center fielders used over that time amassed 14.8.
“It was awful,” Armstrong said. “No question about that.”
Bavasi’s tenure also featured two regrettable trades with the Indians. In 2006, he sent a 20-year-old infielder named Asdrubal Cabrera to Cleveland for 36-year-old Eduardo Perez.
Cabrera became a two-time All-Star totaling 13.4 WAR for Cleveland over eight seasons, while Perez played in 43 games and hit .195, retiring after the season. During that same span of time, Mariners shortstops totaled 9.6 WAR.
Later that year, Bavasi traded young outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to the Indians for Ben Broussard and a player to be named. Choo produced 18.2 WAR for the Indians over six seasons, Broussard washed out after 1½ seasons with Seattle, accumulating -0.8 WAR.
“We put too much pressure on ourselves on winning now and we were giving away our future,” Armstrong admitted.
Armstrong visibly cringed when Bavasi’s decision to give Carlos Silva $48 million on a free-agent deal was mentioned.
“Mistakes were made,” he said.
But it wasn’t just Bavasi. Zduriencik had his fair share of mistakes. He tried a bad contract for bad contract swap in 2012, acquiring Milton Bradley for Silva. He acquired a worse person. Bradley’s unpredictable temper, uneven personality and poor play made him an uncomfortable presence on the team. He was released two months into the season.
He also signed Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract before 2010. It seemed like it was a good value. But instead of being an on-base machine like he was with the Angels, Figgins was a petulant whiner, who constantly bickered with teammates and tried to fight manager Don Wakamatsu in the dugout. In 308 games over three seasons, he totaled a -1.1 WAR.
After making a great trade to acquire Cliff Lee before the calamity of the 2010 season, Zduriencik botched trading Lee away at midseason when the team fell apart. It wasn’t just the talent in return not producing, specifically first baseman Justin Smoak, but it was the criminal background of reliever Josh Lueke. It created an unnecessary controversy that nearly cost Zduriencik his job.
In the Dipoto era, there have been so many trades in such a short amount of time that it’s difficult to keep track of the “wins and losses.”
He has admitted that he “whiffed” when he traded Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for pitcher Zach Lee on June 19, 2016. It was supposed to be a change-of-scenery trade for both players. Instead, Taylor changed his swing and became a super utility player for the Dodgers last season, helping them reach the World Series. Seattle designated Lee for assignment that offseason after he went 0-9 with a 7.39 ERA in 14 starts with Class AAA Tacoma.
Then there were the two trades to get left-handed starter Drew Smyly. Dipoto sent top pitching prospect Luiz Gohara and another minor-league pitcher to the Braves in exchange for outfielder Mallex Smith and reliever Shae Simmons. Dipoto then sent Smith to the Rays to get Smyly.
Gohara has a mid-90s fastball and has overcome some off-the-field issues to make the big leagues. Smyly injured his elbow in the World Baseball Classic and never threw a pitch for the Mariners and exited via free agency, while Simmons basically missed all of last season and then was not tendered a contract. The Mariners paid Smyly $6.85 million and he never threw a pitch in a regular season game.
“Quite frankly, the Smyly trade was a disaster,” Mather said.
The decision to trade for Mark Trumbo for catcher Steve Clevenger and then use Adam Lind at first base wasn’t exceptional. Trumbo had a monster year in Baltimore. Clevenger was released after tweeting controversial comments about the Black Lives Matter protests. The trade for the now-injured David Phelps late last season will yield a total of 8⅔ innings pitched and cost approximately $7.4 million.
Not all the trades and signings have been awful during the drought. Zduriencik was able to sign Felix Hernandez to an early contract extension and his decision to give Nelson Cruz a 4-year, $57 million contract has paid off in three seasons. The acquisitions of Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, Ben Gamel and Nick Vincent in trades could be plusses for Dipoto.
The Mariners had told Troy Tulowitzki they were taking him, not Jeff Clement, until the morning of the draft. President Chuck Armstrong thought so, too. “When I first saw Clement, I thought, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” he said.
But it was “win-now” trades in which young players on the cusp of the big leagues were dealt that set back the organization. And there could be more former Mariners who blossom with other teams.
“They could come back to bite us in the ass,” Mather said.
When it comes to drafting and development, there is this anecdote: Kyle Seager is the only drafted and developed position player to reach the All-Star Game as a Mariner since Alex Rodriguez. That’s it.
Mike Zunino could add his name to the list in the coming years. But looking at the Mariners roster, he might be the only one.
From 2005 to 2013, the Mariners made 13 picks in the first round or supplemental first round. Eight of those picks played for them at the big-league level, accumulating a minuscule 11.8 in Baseball Reference’s WAR for the team. Ackley was the highest with 8.3, and Zunino is second with 5.0. From 2002 to 2013, the Mariners had a total of 76 players make the big leagues out of 581 picks. That’s 13 percent. To be fair, not all of those picks were signed or were drafted again.
“I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus,” Armstrong said. “But I don’t think we’ve had a good drafts since the 1990s. That’s a long time. We don’t know about the guys that Jerry drafted. But some of drafts were a problem.”
Armstrong recounted his thoughts on the infamous 2005 draft when the Mariners selected catcher Jeff Clement from USC with No. 3 overall pick instead of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from Long Beach State.
“Until that morning, I thought we were taking Tulo,” Armstrong said.
So did Tulowitzki.
“They had told me I was going to be the guy they were going to take until that morning,” he said. “So yeah, I was taken back. But I was so young and not knowing anything – thinking, ‘Well maybe this guy is a better player than me.’ Now it’s so much easier to look back and say they should have drafted this guy and make all these comparisons. It probably wasn’t that easy at the time.”
To Armstrong, it should have been.
“When I first saw Clement, I thought, ‘What the heck is going on here?’” he said.
Clement had knee issues, struggled at catching and never blossomed as a hitter. Tulowitzki became a five-time All-Star.
Mather agrees that bad drafts are a key reason behind the years of mediocrity.
“I think we went through a five- or six-year period where we made mistakes or had misfortune in our drafts,” he said.
The word misfortune could describe Danny Hultzen, the Mariners’ No. 2 pick in 2011. An All-American at Virginia, the hard-working, good-natured Hultzen was supposed to be in the Mariners’ rotation within two years of being drafted. He seemed well on his way in June 2013. He was 5-1 with a 2.14 ERA in Tacoma and seemed ready to join the rotation. Instead, he made just six more appearances over the next three seasons, while undergoing three different shoulder surgeries.
“I remember sitting in the draft room reading the doctor’s report on Danny Hultzen because you get the medicals on everybody and I’ll never forget (Dr.) Ed Khalfayan’s words — ‘This arm is pristine,’ ” Zduriencik said. “I was like, ‘Wow, so you have a lefty with a mid-90s fastball, great kid, great school that he played for. We’re set.’ But it’s just one of those really heartbreaking scenarios for a guy that looked earmarked to become a really good major-league pitcher.”
And there was the curious case of Dustin Ackley, selected with the No. 2 pick of the 2009 draft. Considered to be one of the greatest hitters in NCAA history, Ackley rose through the minor leagues quickly, debuted with the Mariners on June 17, 2011 and hit .273 with a .766 OPS in 90 games that season.
But unnecessary swing changes, a confidence crisis in his approach and two position changes seemed to sidetrack his process. He spent all of last season with Class AAA Salt Lake City and is currently a free agent looking for an opportunity.
“So many players never become what you expect,” Zduriencik said. “It happens all the time. When you are making those decisions, you are making them with the information you have in front of you at the time.”
Want a depressing story?
In 2008, Bavasi and the Mariners selected hard-throwing reliever Josh Fields out of the University of Georgia with the 20th pick. It was a curious pick. And Fields then held out for the next eight months. The Mariners and Fields’ agent, Scott Boras, haggled over terms of the signing bonus. Seattle was offering $1.5 million. Fields wanted $2 million. After missing the 2008 short season, it was believed that the Mariners were just going to part ways with Fields. But Fields signed on Feb. 14, 2009, for $1.75 million.
Had the Mariners not signed Fields, they would’ve received the 21st pick in the 2009 draft as compensation. The 25th player taken in that draft was Mike Trout.
“We made mistakes,” Mather said. “We can’t afford to do that.”
At the end of the 2013 season, manager Eric Wedge was very angry that he wasn’t getting a multiyear contract extension, and did something that essentially assured he’d never get another big-league managerial job again.
He talked to The Seattle Times about problems within the organization, particularly the ownership of Nintendo of America and CEO Howard Lincoln, along with issues with Zduriencik and Armstrong. Tony Blengino, one of Zduriencik’s top assistants, also talked of the dysfunction.
In baseball, there’s plenty of discussion off the record about the problems, infighting and incompetence in an organization. But it’s not aired publicly.
The story did not paint a pretty picture of Lincoln, Armstrong or Zduriencik, particularly accusations that Lincoln and Armstrong meddled in game preparation and performance with annoying notes and suggestions.
Mather gave Zduriencik an extension following the 2014 season in which the Mariners finished a game out of the second wild card after four straight losing seasons. Mather fired Zduriencik midway into the 2015 season.
“Jack’s second-to-last year, we got close,” Mather said. “Were we good or did baseball let us into that situation? I felt I had to do the extension with Jack. Obviously in hindsight, I gave him a two-year extension and four months into the season I had to let him go. Of course, I regret that.”
Stanton took over in 2016 and has been outgoing and open about trying to push the organization into the postseason. A businessman with deep local ties, he’s comfortable in the spotlight in ways that Lincoln wasn’t.
“This is a whole new group,” he said. “I think we are all fans in this ownership group and front office. We want to see this team win, and I think we will.”
But the “new” ownership group is comprised of minority owners from the past years. And even a relatively new front-office regime isn’t without faults or disagreements. Rumors are starting to leak out of unhappiness. And Dipoto and his staff are in the final years of their contracts, which can permeate an air of distrust and anxiety.
Will the Mariners find a way to have a season end differently than the past 16 years?
“Quite frankly, I’m always shocked at how positive our fan base is,” Mather said.
But the drought remains an issue.
“We can’t be responsible for 17 years,” Dipoto said. “… I mean the 25 players in that clubhouse. They didn’t do it. Did some of them contribute to it? Sure. Have we made it the last two years? No, we haven’t. But if we focus on what’s happened for the last 17 years, you get lost in the weeds. We’re focused on what we’re doing now and how we move ahead.”
Servais is one of the first managers to truly acknowledge the unhappy history. He won’t run away from it.
“I absolutely will not,” he said. “It’s real. It’s out there. The one thing that I will say when I talk about it is that I can only speak to the last two years that I’ve been there.”
And yet, he carries the burden of the years before that.
“If it’s the elephant in the room and nobody want to address it, then I will. It is what it is,” he said.
It won’t be easy to end the drought in 2018. The American League West is loaded. The Astros are coming off a World Series title and have a young, talented roster locked in for years. The Angels bolstered their lineup considerably this offseason.
The American League as a whole seems set up for four top teams — the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox and Indians — to take the first four playoff spots, leaving a handful of other teams vying for the second wild card.
“Our fan base deserves this,” Mather said of making the postseason. “They’ve been good fans for a long time. It’s time to get there.”
If not now, when?
“Going forward, I think I have good people in place,” Mather said. “I think my front office is really good. I think our drafts have been fantastic, I think our player development is in the right spot. I think Jerry has done some really bright trades that will look better as time goes on. I think we have the right mix of players. Were we snake-bit at times? Yeah. Did we make some mistakes? No question. It’s hard to argue with that.”
Mather says they won’t make them again.
“We have checks and balances in place that we aren’t going to do something stupid,” he said. “I think we are in a very good spot where we won’t do stupid.”
With the 2018 season beginning, the drought isn’t a subject that yields much joy, anticipation or optimism. But in baseball parlance, sometimes you have to “wear it.”
“Our fan base is starving for the playoffs,” Servais said. “Everybody in the organization from the ownership to the front office, our coaching staff, our players, everybody kind of knows that it’s something that’s out there and will get talked about a lot. It gets thrown in your face and there’s only one way to quiet it — you have to get there.”