The Mariners are a team whose foundation was built on roster miscalculations.
Born in 1977, it took them 15 agonizing seasons before they had their first winning record (the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, by contrast, won the World Series in their fourth year).
By the time the Mariners squeaked out an 83-79 record in 1991 and celebrated with Champagne (true story), their expansion partner, the Toronto Blue Jays, had experienced nine consecutive winning seasons, three playoff berths and were one year from back-to-back World Series titles.
The Mariners have been futilely chasing success ever since, and except for a seven-year stretch of prominence from 1995 to 2001, which included all four of the franchise’s playoff berths, have been spectacularly unsuccessful at it. In 44 seasons, they’ve had 30 losing records.
The Mariners’ playoff drought is famously at 19 years, longest among the four largest North American sports leagues — the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB. Their World Series drought is equal to the life span of the franchise. The frustration level of their fan base is set at infinity on a scale of 10.
All this is a long preface to a very hopeful statement, followed by a troubling paradox.
First, the hopeful: since the truly dark baseball years, post-Lou Piniella, descended upon Seattle in 2004, the Mariners have not more realistically been on the brink of being a genuinely good baseball team. And I don’t mean the one-year flashes that have emerged periodically, almost-but-not-quite playoff caliber, followed invariably by a sobering regression to awfulness.
No, this revival is built to have staying power. Since general manager Jerry Dipoto instituted his “step back” plan following the 2018 season, they have stockpiled a truly impressive array of young talent. This is verified by every independent evaluator of prospects and farm systems. When this group, led by potential superstar outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez and an array of highly rated young pitchers, finally breaks into the lineup, it could well begin the run of contention, playoff berths and maybe even (lowering my voice to a conspiratorial whisper) titles that the fan base has longed for.
But speaking of sobering, here comes the paradox. Namely, that despite the most promising long-term outlook for the Mariners in recent memory — boosted even further by an AL West division that’s getting weaker around them — their short-term outlook is far more problematic.
Or, to put it another way, fans will be asked yet again for just a little more patience, a little more faith. And that will come very grudgingly, if at all. After watching the previous youth movement instituted by Jack Zduriencik in the early 2010s go spectacularly off course, the benefit of the doubt afforded the Mariner is top-heavy on “doubt” and nearly bereft of “benefit.”
In Dipoto’s original grand plan, full-blown contention was supposed to come in 2021. But as Dipoto said soberly Tuesday in a media Zoom session that replaced the traditional pre-spring training luncheon, “Along the way we had a pandemic.”
Their outlook for 2021 has been greatly tempered along the way. The Mariners, he said, “have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field. That’s a possibility for us and would be a goal. … We can’t go in expecting that we’re going to run to the top of the American League West, but I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot, and we’ll see how it goes if we take a step forward toward that in 2021.”
That’s not exactly “World Series or bust.” What slowed the pace of expectations is obvious: The Mariners essentially lost a full season of development for their younger prospects, and about 100 games of evaluation for their major-league-ready players because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a non-pandemic world, Kelenic and touted pitcher Logan Gilbert would have already broken into the majors and be ready now for a full season. Rodriguez would be on the verge of arriving. Catcher Cal Raleigh and all those pitchers would be a full season farther up the organizational ladder and that much closer to the big leagues. Evan White, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and others would have had 500 at-bats or 150 innings in 2020 to work through the inevitable major-league adjustments.
All that is out of the Mariners’ control. What is in their control is the option of bridging that gap by aggressively using the free-agent and trade market to fill holes. They have consciously rejected that approach, however. Dipoto has so far worked in the margins, re-signing free-agent reliever Kendall Graveman and adding two other relievers, as well as Chris Flexen, a starting pitcher who thrived in Korea after struggling in MLB. The GM says he is open to acquiring more relief help, a starting pitcher and a left-handed bat.
But none of those moves is likely to be a big-ticket item. Dipoto said Tuesday their more modest strategy is not based on budget constraints resulting from revenue losses last year, but rather on the fact that the abbreviated 2020 season didn’t get them a chance to accurately assess their long-term needs.
“We still need to find out about our young players, and where we need the help,” he said. “ … At every position on the field, we feel like we have the current and future best solution for the Mariners. Now we have to find out how they progress. We weren’t in a position, headed into ’21, where we felt confident that we had seen enough in making that evaluation. Therefore, we weren’t going to go add to our roster beyond ’21 in ways that was going to limit the exposure for those young players.”
As spring training approaches with a vast array of unsigned free agents, maybe some bigger-name players will be available on one-year deals. Or maybe not. Or maybe they will and the Mariners won’t be interested.
The risk in slow-playing the free-agent market is alienating fans who feel — and have every reason to — the Mariners need to show more urgency in light of their nearly two-decades-old playoff drought. The risk in dipping into it too heavily is throwing the master plan off course when it is tantalizingly close to fruition. Zduriencik certainly didn’t help the Mariners’ cause by frequently abandoning one strategy to go recklessly after another.
Dipoto didn’t leave any doubts where he sits. I thought the most telling comments Tuesday came when he discussed how the closure of the minor-league season affected the progression of Seattle’s top prospects toward the majors.
“We’re not in a rush,” he said. “We’re playing the long game with our roster. We believe this is an opportunity to open a window and keep a window open for the foreseeable future.
“We’ve built a lot of prospect cache. We’ve acquired and developed a number of young players for our roster. And we still have a long way to go for that roster to be fully developed and ready to compete at a championship level. And we can’t rush those young players because we’ll do more harm than good.”
And so the Mariners stand in place that in many ways is depressingly familiar, and in others is enticingly new: So close, and yet so far.