The typical trend on Twitter and other social media was to say farewell and good riddance to 2020 — a year that will certainly be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons — and happily welcome in 2021 as if simply changing that last numeral will somehow make this trip around the sun better than the previous 365 days.
The belief is that 2021 has to better than 2020 because it certainly can’t be worse.
Or can it?
It’s not a pessimistic view, as much as it is pragmatic.
From a baseball standpoint, spring training is supposed to start in mid-February, but there are rumblings and rumors that its start will be delayed by two weeks due to COVID-19 concerns and logistical issues.
While everyone hoped/expected a return to 162 games in 2021 — something the players want so much — there is belief that some owners, who claim financial hardship after a season without fans in 2020, only want to play around 130 games and pay the players a pro-rated salary of those games and will use the need for vaccination for all players as an excuse to make it happen.
And on the subject of games without fans, there is no clear league-wide plan for allowing fans back into stadiums for games — either spring training or regular season. It could be up to franchises’ individual cities and states to determine protocols, which also sets up for inequities and disadvantages.
Oh and the collective-bargaining agreement between owners and the MLB Players’ Association expires on Dec. 1, 2021. We’ve already seen the escalating tensions between owners and the union during the COVID shutdown. It offered a preview of the public posturing, petty bickering and contentious negotiating tactics that are expected to resume and intensify in the coming months.
So it’s OK to hope that 2021 will be a better year for baseball and life in general than 2020. But people actively trying and working to make it a better year seems more instructive than believing a number change will be enough.
As always, these are real questions, not hollow New Year’s resolutions, submitted by my Twitter followers …
To be honest, this is the first rebuilding process I’ve covered since I started covering the Mariners in August 2006. So I’m not sure there is an exact stage in rebuilding where you decide to sign free agents.
And before you start pointing to the 100-loss seasons of 2008 and 2010 and all the losing seasons this team has experienced as rebuilding, I will preemptively respond that bad teams and losing seasons don’t always mean a team is rebuilding. Sometimes a team or a season just stink due to a flawed roster or poor execution — or some combination of both. The often-used meme of “the Mariners are permanently rebuilding” isn’t true, at least not since I’ve been covering the team or dating back to that 2001 season. A full or true rebuild would’ve meant trading Felix Hernandez in his prime or trading Kyle Seager when his value was highest instead of extending him.
If the team’s ownership had fully committed to something close to rebuilding instead of relying on an uneven plan for success that featured a lukewarm financial commitment and resulted in patch-work and incremental moves to make a team better with the hope of being competitive, the last postseason appearance might not date back to 2001. Of course, it’d be fair to question if the franchise had the proper leadership and front office in place at the time to execute such a plan.
Getting back to the initial question, I think it has to be relative to a team’s roster, the talent in the farm system that is near-MLB ready, the current free-agent market and the expected free-agent market in future offseasons.
For example, this offseason’s free-agent class isn’t considered to be outstanding. The top names are Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young winner; All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto; D.J. LeMahieu, a versatile hitting machine who has been at the top or near the top of the AL in batting the past two seasons; and outfielder George Springer, who seems to have hit 123 leadoff homers against the Mariners the past few years.
Beyond that quartet, there is a group of players, most of them in their early 30s, that are good-to-solid players, led by right-hander Masahiro Tanaka and closer Liam Hendriks.
Looking at the Mariners’ rebuild and the possible timeline to optimal success, there is a bit of discrepancy to when it will start to show on the field. GM Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais have said this year’s team should be competitive enough to be in the mix for a postseason berth, particularly if MLB uses expanded playoffs and the Astros continue to trend downward. That would seem to indicate that 2022 would feature elevated expectations, including the goal of winning the American League West.
So signing players this offseason to multiple-year deals through 2022 or 2023 isn’t unreasonable or illogical. The Nationals made it a point to sign Jayson Werth to a seven-year, $126 million contract in 2010, expecting they were going to make a push in the seasons to follow.
“It kind of exemplifies phase two of the Washington Nationals’ process,” general manager Mike Rizzo said to reporters at the time. “Phase one was scouting and player development, building the farm system. … Now it’s the time to go to the second phase and really compete for division titles and championships.”
The Padres followed a similar path, signing first baseman Eric Hosmer in 2018 and third baseman Manny Machado in 2019 — both to long-term contracts as finishing pieces before the rebuild had completely taken a foothold at the MLB level. Did those additions help expedite the process? It’s possible.
Could adding a front-line starting pitcher, another reliever with closing experience and perhaps another proven bat to their lineup on three- to four-year deals speed up the stepback’s success? It’s not flawed thinking.
But is this free-agent class the one to use?
Of those upper-echelon free agents, Bauer is a fit in terms of talent and position. But his salary demands, the qualifying offer attached to signing him and the Mariners’ use of a six-man rotation are all issues. Unless they made a massive overpay, Realmuto seems intent on remaining in the NL East. LeMahieu turns 33 in July and he doesn’t really fit the timeline. Springer would be a nice fit and is a proven bat, but the Mariners’ best prospects are in the outfield and have the potential to be as good.
Or do the Mariners look at 2021 as one final evaluation of their rostered and prospect talent and then choose from next offseason’s free-agent class? That one could include: Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Javy Baez, Trevor Story, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Nolan Arenado (opt-out clause), Michael Conforto, Starling Marte, Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer and Lance McCullers Jr.
The 2020 season without fans and the financial fallout from it certainly plays a role in the decision-making, unless you are the Yankees or Dodgers or apparently the Padres.
But given player attrition and injury, and a depressed free-agent market, the Mariners should wait until after this season. There is still useful talent in this class. Signing at least one experienced starting pitcher and one more reliever to multi-year deals would provide legitimate production and depth to an active roster that’s still largely inexperienced in MLB success. It would also not make them reliant on next year’s free-agent class.
If you truly believe you will be good in the near future then you can’t be afraid to commit to it in the present.
No. That’s straight out of a bad school lunch. But go to The Red Hot in Tacoma and order a Mister Mac — formerly the Gangsta Mac. It’s an all-beef dog that features a healthy serving of house-made mac and cheese piled high on it with homemade red pepper ketchup and bread crumbs. It’s my go-to at one of my favorite establishments. This eclectic little spot on Sixth Avenue specializes in gourmet hot dogs and has one of the best tap selections in the South Sound. I’m also a sucker for their fried bologna sandwich and the Monday special of pork nachos verde.