At a time when the Mariners appear to be one bold move away from becoming a much more legitimate playoff contender, all’s quiet on the northwestern front. Too quiet.
There is some irony in this: For so long, Jerry Dipoto has earned acclaim for his frenetic approach to dealing. He unleashed a seemingly nonstop torrent of transactions that undeniably made the Mariners a better team than the one he inherited.
But now, at a time when the Mariners appear to be one bold move away from becoming a much more legitimate playoff contender, all’s quiet on the northwestern front.
Wednesday: Mariners’ pitchers and catchers report
Thursday: Pitchers and catchers’ first workout
Feb. 19: Position players report
Feb. 20: First full-squad workout
Feb. 23: Cactus League play opens with charity game against Padres
Dipoto has given strong indications he’s mostly closed up shop for the 2018 season, at least the heavy lifting. For all intents and purposes, the general manager made three significant moves to address the Mariners’ shortcomings after a 78-84 season: trading for Ryon Healy to play first, trading for Dee Gordon to play center field, and signing Juan Nicasio to relieve.
And what the Mariners have now is a team posing as a contender, certainly not a disaster, certainly containing many strong elements, but needing myriad things to break their way in the rotation to add the necessary 10 or more victories from 2017.
That’s the frustrating part — they are a playoff-caliber team with a significant flaw, perhaps fatal. But there’s still time to rectify that, and here’s the best part: the free-agent market has barely budged all winter, so virtually all of the top arms are still sitting there for the taking. One big shoe dropped Saturday when Yu Darvish signed with the Cubs for $126 million over six years, but that still leaves Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn from the upper shelf, and other riskier options.
This would seem to be the time that a team truly motivated to end its long playoff drought would be absolutely dead set on exploiting what figures to be more of a buyers’ market with each passing day.
And yet I don’t sense any movement to do so on the Mariners’ part, unless they are doing it in such stealth fashion they’ll unveil a new addition without anyone suspecting it.
Dipoto would disagree with my premise, I’m quite sure, that the Mariners are best served by dipping into the moribund free-agent market to land a starting pitcher. He’s said as much, although in terms that undersell the collective (and ever-growing) angst that is disillusioning Mariners fans more each season.
Here’s a stat that backs up the discontent, and it’s not the 16 years since the last playoff season in 2001, or the fact the Mariners haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 2002 and 2003. Those are old talking points. How about a new one: the Mariners haven’t won 90 games — a standard benchmark for true contention, even in the two wild-card era — since 2003.
Only one other team in baseball — the Miami Marlins — has a similar drought, and the Marlins aren’t exactly a team you want to be compared with (though they do have something the Mariners don’t: Two World Series titles, in the only years in franchise history in which they reached 90).
Among American League teams, the Yankees and Red Sox have each had nine 90-win seasons over that span, the Angels six, the Indians, Rangers and Rays (the Rays!) five, and the Athletics and Tigers four. For the Mariners, it has been 14 years of only an occasional flirt with the outskirts of contention.
Dipoto said he feels the Mariners’ rotation is equal to any in the American League except the powerhouses — Houston, Cleveland, New York and Boston. But those represent four of the five heavy playoff favorites in the AL. If you want to increase your chances of competing with them — and especially with the other teams grappling for what would be one remaining spot — don’t you have to add a starter?
Right now, you have James Paxton at the top of the rotation. He’s a sure thing if he stays healthy, which means he’s not a sure thing. Felix Hernandez, well, no need to delve into the uncertainty surrounding him. Mike Leake is what he is, a solid middle-rotation guy. And four and five are an absolute crapshoot, with the Mariners pinning their hopes on a consistent Erasmo Ramirez and a revived Marco Gonzales, with a few uninspiring options behind them.
I understand that the Mariners believe they actually addressed their 2018 rotation last year by trading for Gonzales on July 21 (for Tyler O’Neill), Ramirez on July 28 (for Steve Cishek and cash), and Leake (plus cash and international bonus-pool money) on Aug. 30 (for Rayder Ascanio). That’s 60 percent of their prospective starting staff for the upcoming year acquired in a six-week span of 2017.
But those deals were motivated mostly by the rash of injuries that had decimated the rotation, a necessary effort to keep them alive in the wild-card race. I don’t think it should close the book on beefing up the 2018 staff. Nor should the Mariners count on a solid bullpen to make up for the rotation’s flaws.
Here’s how Dipoto addressed the question of adding a free-agent starter a couple of weeks ago at the pre-spring luncheon:
“We’re doing the best we can to develop our system, not to clog it. Could we go out and sign a free agent that would be better than our current fifth starter? Absolutely. Would that be the best thing for the present-day Mariners? Maybe. Would it be the best thing for the wider lens for the present and future of the Mariners? Probably not, no.”
I’m not one to always advocate throwing money at free agents, especially with the spotty record of giving long-term deals to starting pitchers. I understand the reluctance to give six years to Darvish. I understand the need for clubs to sometimes resist the temptation to act solely to appease fans and media.
But this seems to be to be precisely the right time to finish what has been an impressive, but incomplete, job of building a Mariners team that can end a lot of droughts.
Sometimes, the narrow lens is the way to look at things.