A few months ago, you thought running a marathon was going to be a good idea. These things tend to happen from the comfort of your couch, when you aren’t feeling any pain.
But then suddenly you’re 16 miles into the thing, feel like you want to die, and realize — there’s still 10 miles of hell to go! And that’s when you can approximate life as a present-day Mariners fan.
One offseason ago, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto announced his “step back” plan, in which he traded most of the team’s top assets in exchange for young talent. The idea was that they didn’t have enough firepower to contend for a playoff spot, and the only way to attain long-term success was to build from the bottom.
This was probably the right move, as the 89-win season in 2018 seemed like an overachievement that still left Seattle short of the postseason. But now — they are deep into that marathon with no finish line in sight.
Honestly, what is the appeal of this year’s big-league team, which could very well have a triple-digit loss column? Where is the star fans will gravitate to?
At least last year’s 94-loss Mariners had Felix Hernandez, who could rally the King’s Court out of a sense of nostalgia. But who is there now?
Despite their glaring shortcomings over the past three decades, star power is something the Mariners have never really been without. They had Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez in the 1990s. They had Edgar, Ichiro and Felix Hernandez in the next decade. They saw Hernandez win the Cy Young in 2010 and make five All-Star games, and watched Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz sign with the club, too.
Even as they went 18 straight seasons without making the playoffs — the longest streak among teams from any of the four major American sports leagues — the M’s always had someone who made the fans want to come out. But who now?
Starting pitcher Marco Gonzales had a fine 2019 when he went 16-13 with a 3.99 ERA. But with a strikeout rate of 6.5 per nine innings, he’s a human Subaru — efficient, but unexciting. Third baseman Kyle Seager hit 23 home runs in 443 plate appearances last year, and was one of the most potent hitters in baseball in August. But he finished with a .239 batting average, and is mainly seen as a guy whose contract is too rich for a trade.
Tom Murphy was a damn fine catcher last season, but if you put him next to a random mechanic in Ballard and asked strangers, “Which one is a Mariner?” you’d probably get a 50-50 split. This is true of most of the roster, actually.
It’s not that there isn’t anything to watch for. Surely people will want to see if 24-year-old outfielder Kyle Lewis can replicate that 10-game stretch in which he had six home runs last year. They’ll want to see if 23-year-old first baseman Evan White, a former first-round draft pick, will shine in his debut season in the big leagues.
They’ll want to see if J.P. Crawford’s bat can catch up to his glove, if second baseman Shed Long can become a lineup mainstay, and if Mitch Haniger can rediscover his All-Star form.
For folks who have a Baseball America subscription and fangraphs.com saved as a bookmark, there will plenty to keep track of — especially with the M’s having one of the more heralded farm systems in baseball. But for your everyday fan trying to decide between catching a Mariners game or going on a Netflix binge? The ballclub doesn’t have much to sell them on.
Dipoto was clear at media day Thursday that the Mariners are unlikely to threaten for a playoff spot this year. Success, he said, will be measured by how the younger players develop.
This was the plan from the moment Dipoto started tearing the team down, and fans onboard with the rebuild knew that this was coming.
But like a marathoner grinding through those seemingly endless miles in a race, there won’t be much joy to experience. Right now, all fans can do is endure.