As the Mariners near the end of a season that produced a brief period of playoff hopes before reality set in, one question looms largest. And it’s a depressingly familiar one.

Just how close are they to legitimate contention?

My answer is that it doesn’t have to be as long as you might think, if the Mariners display aggressiveness this offseason that matches the patience they’ve shown with their rising, young prospects.  

I believe the young talent they have in their farm system is legitimate, and that better times are (finally) nearing. I also think there are ways to hasten the process. And after 19 years without playoffs, it would be negligent not to fully explore them.

Under general manager Jerry Dipoto’s original rebuilding plan, the idea was for their young core to begin to jell at the major-league level in the second half of 2020 and be ready to make a playoff run in 2021. The short-lived playoff run they made in 2020 was a mirage, propped up by a shortened season and expanded playoffs. If you cut away the trappings, you’ll see a Seattle team on pace to go 72-90 after Wednesday’s win over Houston.

The aforementioned timetable would seem to have been pushed back by the realities of 2020 — namely, reduced developmental opportunities for so many players vital to their future. Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert, Cal Raleigh and numerous others didn’t play a single real game, only intrasquad scrimmages in Tacoma. The Mariners did the best they could under the circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the players won’t be as far along as they would have been in a normal year. Cold, hard facts.

But all you have to do is look around baseball to see a lot of success stories from teams that went the same tear-down-and-then-build-back-up route as the Mariners, only with a head start. If it had begun Wednesday, the playoffs would have included the Marlins (105 losses last year), the Blue Jays (95 losses), the Padres (92 losses), the White Sox (89 losses) and the Reds (87 losses).

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That should provide some hope in Seattle, even if you factor in the 60-game season that might give an inaccurate barometer of a team’s true strength, and the expanded playoffs that allow borderline teams to sneak in. All that accounted for, the White Sox and Padres, in particular, are bona fide powerhouses, with winning percentages over .600.

It might have seemed like it turned around overnight for them, and in some ways it did. But that was the result of a building process much like the one the Mariners are attempting — and accelerated in a way I think the Mariners should emulate.

When they sensed that their prospects were on the verge of breaking out — and in San Diego’s case, even before — they went hard after veteran pieces to round out their team. For the Padres the process really began in the previous offseason, when they signed Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million contract that puzzled many who wondered why a second-division team was making such a big investment. No one’s asking that now — and Padres GM A.J. Preller was a whirling dervish at this year’s trade deadline, acquiring Mike Clevinger, Mitch Moreland, Austin Nola, Jason Castro, Trevor Rosenthal and more. Now San Diego is the team no one wants to face in the postseason.

The White Sox, meanwhile, were proactive in the offseason, signing catcher Yasmani Grandal to the biggest contract in club history (four years, $73 million) as well as Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez. They didn’t hit with all of them, but Keuchel and Grandal, in particular, were finishing pieces that have helped put the White Sox over the top. They also locked up top prospects Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert to long-term deals.

It’s the oldest, and easiest, trope in the world for a columnist to advocate for a team to spend more money. But the Mariners are at a point where they have loads of promising players for the future, but obvious holes in the present. And they are in prime position to bridge that gap either through free agency or aggressively trading for short-term veteran players from teams cutting payroll.

You could maintain that the Mariners aren’t far enough along for those kinds of moves, maybe not for another year. That might even be their internal point of view. The Mariners preach constantly about being patient and not deviating from the plan — hence the decision to leave Kelenic and Gilbert in the alternate training site all year.

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There’s virtue in that mindset. But there are three factors I feel argue for giving the process a nudge in a way that won’t undermine the prospect development.

One is that the expanded playoffs are likely to continue next year. With 16 teams qualifying for the postseason, it doesn’t take much more than a .500 record to qualify. We’re seeing that right now. Some roster engineering could take you a long way.

Second, the balance of power in the AL West is shifting in Seattle’s direction. The Rangers and Angels have major issues. The Astros are about to lose significant pieces to free agency this year and next, and their best pitcher, Justin Verlander, will have Tommy John surgery that wipes out his 2021 season. The farm systems of all three are ranked in the 20s by MLB Pipeline. The A’s owned the division this year and perennially find a way to compete, but once again their core players are reaching arbitration status that in the past has greased their departure.

Third, the Mariners will be financially positioned to invest in talent. Dee Strange-Gordon’s $13.5 million salary will be off the books after this season. The only significant salaries in 2021 will be $18.5 million to Kyle Seager, $16.5 million to Yusei Kikuchi and $5.2 million to Marco Gonzales. And Seager’s contract ends after the 2021 season.

In other words, they can be as aggressive as they want to be without pushing the payroll out of whack. Historically, almost all rebuilds eventually require a little push from outside. The Mariners will need at least one new starter, probably two in a six-man rotation. Bringing back Taijuan Walker is an obvious move. Trevor Bauer, who trains in the Seattle area in the winter and is a Cy Young candidate with the Reds, would be a natural fit. And this year has shown a dire need for the Mariners to augment the bullpen. That’s always a tricky proposition, and known to backfire. But someone like Liam Hendriks, nearly unhittable with Oakland this year, would seem like an obvious target.

Offensively, the Mariners found they have a stud in Kyle Lewis, and they’re set long term at first base with Evan White despite his struggles at the plate. Kelenic should be an outfield fixture at some point in 2021. But the Mariners didn’t get the answers they wanted from Shed Long at second base. Seager will be a lame duck at third. J.P. Crawford was a fielding whiz but has hit .188/.268/.286 over the past 29 games. Keep in mind that the free-agent shortstop class of the ages — Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez and Corey Seager — is poised to hit the market after the 2021 season. I’d be surprised if the Mariners didn’t wade into that pool when the time comes.

The Mariners appear to have a bright future, and should protect it at all costs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t help move it along a little faster.