Rebuilds gone astray have repercussions. Just look at the Detroit Tigers, who are in the midst of their sixth consecutive losing season, 30 games under .500 entering the weekend, burdened by a historically inept offense (3.16 runs per game).
Or look at the Texas Rangers, also on their way to a sixth consecutive losing season, well out of playoff contention yet again.
Both teams had high hopes entering 2022 after aggressive offseasons. The Tigers signed top free agents Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez, made trades aimed at filling holes and counted on a slew of prospects to break through. Instead they ended up parting ways with longtime GM Al Avila two weeks ago when it all fell apart. The Rangers committed $500 million combined to infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien during the winter, but this past week they fired general manager Jon Daniels after 17 years.
Let’s cut to the Mariners, who are in Year 4 of their rebuild with a much swifter and more-positive outcome. They broke through with 90 wins last year and now are given by various mathematical models a greater than 90% chance to break their 20-year playoff drought.
But what’s interesting is that in some notable aspects, the Mariners’ rebuild has gone astray, too. Most of them do, in one way or another. It’s never a linear process, as the Houston Astros most notably demonstrated. But the good ones have enough threads of successful player acquisition to overcome the inevitable downturns, stepbacks and busts.
In president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto’s master plan, they’d be getting huge contributions in this playoff run from outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Kyle Lewis and first baseman Evan White. All were once viewed as cornerstones of their rebuild. Kelenic, acquired as the centerpiece of the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz trade with the Mets that was the symbolic start of their rebuild, was one of the most heralded prospects in baseball, ranked in the top five (ahead of Julio Rodriguez on some lists). Lewis, the No. 11 overall draft pick in Dipoto’s first draft in 2016, was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2020. And the Mariners thought so highly of White, their first-round pick in 2017, they gave him a six-year, $24 million contract when he had played no higher than Double-A.
These days you can find all three on the Tacoma Rainiers’ roster. Kelenic has been called up to the Mariners on four occasions over the past two years, only to produce a .167/.246/.329 slash line with 153 strikeouts in 450 at-bats. Lewis has been plagued by knee issues since tearing his ACL in his first pro year at Everett. He was recently sent down after going 4 for 41 with 18 strikeouts following an extended absence to recover from a concussion. White has a .164 average to show for 84 games at the major-league level and has battled a major hip injury as well as a sports hernia.
It is to Dipoto’s credit that he has been able to construct a roster that allows the Mariners to overcome these hiccups and others (such as the inability of pitcher Justus Sheffield, thought to be the key pickup in the James Paxton trade with the Yankees, to get a foothold in their rotation; Sheffield is also with Tacoma).
Other first-round draft picks, such as Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, have become major contributors in the rotation, and a third-rounder, Cal Raleigh, has solidified their catching job, a longtime problem area. The Mariners have used minor-league prospects as trade fodder to land Adam Frazier, Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suarez and their new ace, Luis Castillo.
In a two-day span in 2020, Dipoto made a pair of trades with the Padres that brought in, among others, Ty France, Andres Munoz and Matt Brash for minimal cost in players. France is an All-Star first baseman. Munoz and Brash are key parts of an exceptional bullpen that is topped by Paul Sewald, a Mets castoff. Erik Swanson, an unheralded part of the Paxton trade, has also blossomed as a short reliever. Every rebuild needs to unearth a couple of hidden gems, and the Mariners have done so with Sewald and Sam Haggerty, selected off waivers from the Mets.
Robbie Ray and Chris Flexen came via free agency. Of course, a superstar doesn’t hurt, either, and the Mariners have a young, developing one in Julio Rodriguez, who as a 21-year-old rookie has already become their most impactful player. Though there was much consternation when the Mariners didn’t make a huge splash in free agency over the winter, the travails of the Tigers and Rangers show that spending doesn’t necessarily translate into winning.
The Mariners haven’t won anything yet, but they are finally heading in that direction — even without the expected contributions of Kelenic, Lewis and White (who at age 23, 27 and 26 still have time to resurrect their careers; whether it will happen in Seattle is an open question).
It reminds me a bit of the Astros, who had the No. 1 overall pick for three years in a row after losing 106, 107 and 111 games from 2011 to 2013 (and providing the so-called “tanking” blueprint for numerous teams to follow). Two of those picks were pitchers Mark Appel, whose career with Houston flamed out in the minors, and Brady Aiken, who never signed after the Astros detected a previously undiscovered arm injury.
But the Astros recovered from those and other setbacks — such as the ill-advised release of J.D. Martinez, the lack of production from top prospect Jon Singleton after he was given a long-term contract while still a minor-leaguer much like White and several veteran trades that yielded little return.
But the Astros’ other No. 1 overall pick was Carlos Correa, who with Alex Bregman (selected No. 2 overall with the compensation pick for not signing Aiken) and George Springer, another first-rounder, became cornerstones of the Houston team that (cheating scandal notwithstanding) dominated the division for years. Springer and Correa are gone, as is general manager Jeff Luhnow (fired in the wake of the scandal), but the domination continues.
The Mariners hope to get to that level themselves one day. They had a blueprint to get there, as all rebuilding teams do. It has needed some alterations — but so far the backup plans have them heading in the right direction.