Perusing sports-talk radio while driving the other day, I heard Jason Puckett on KJR-AM (950) advocating, somewhat tongue in cheek, for the Mariners to “Suck for Spencer.” Translation: They should tank the rest of the season to draft Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson, the presumptive No. 1 pick in next year’s baseball draft.
Over on ESPN 710, Mike Salk was torn between being happy when the Mariners win and lamenting the fact that ultimately it hurts their draft status.
It’s not a new debate with the Mariners. Every few years throughout their history, they’ve deep-dived to the bottom of the standings and competed for the top overall draft pick. Eleven times in their 42 years – 26 percent of their existence – they’ve drafted in the top three, meaning they were at least in the conversation to pick No. 1. They earned that dishonor four times.
Let’s get one thing out the way: The Mariners aren’t going to draft No. 1 next year, no matter how much “sucking” takes place. Zero chance. That’s not a statement on their worthiness, but rather on the sheer volume of horrendous teams in the major leagues. As painful as Seattle’s season has been, six teams have been worse, some of them much worse, through Friday – the Orioles, Royals, Tigers, Blue Jays, Marlins and Giants.
Yes, rebuilding (or re-imagining, or stepping back, or tanking) has run amok in MLB. And if you were paying attention last weekend at T-Mobile Park, you learned that the Orioles – on pace to lose 117 games – are in a class by themselves when it comes to ineptitude.
The Mariners would be hard-pressed to come away with a top-five draft pick next year, even if they dedicate themselves to losing as much as possible the rest of the way. By that, I don’t mean giving a sub-par effort on the field, because athletes aren’t wired that way. I mean by manipulating the roster so it doesn’t matter how hard they try – they’re just not good enough.
But that already has been done, in case you weren’t paying attention. To the extent that the Mariners have executed their step back, there isn’t much room to go back farther. Especially with so many other teams back-stepping with even greater élan, and even more depleted rosters.
So after much reflection, here’s my opinion on the matter: The Mariners, and their fans, should savor every win, without reservation or lament. Now, my opinion would be different if there were a transcendent talent waiting for them in the draft, as was the case when they picked first in 1987 (Ken Griffey Jr.) and 1993 (Alex Rodriguez). But Torkelson is not a consensus future superstar, nor does there seem to be a Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper or even Adley Rutschman (the 2019 No. 1 overall pick) lurking out there.
Ah, Strasburg. You knew we had to get there eventually. The Mariners infamously went into the final weekend of the 2008 season needing some combination of two Seattle losses or Nationals wins to lock up the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. At the time, Strasburg was regarded as the second coming of Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver and Pedro Martinez rolled into one.
As many fans no doubt remember, the Nationals were swept in three games by the Phillies, and the Mariners, a monument to dysfunctional incompetence all season, rose up to sweep three from the A’s. The Nats got Strasburg, who hasn’t turned out to be quite as transformational as expected but is still a three-time All-Star and one of the top starters in baseball for nearly a decade.
It could have been a moot point, of course, if the Mariners had the vision to select Mike Trout, who IS transformational – the player of this generation. But instead, they went with Dustin Ackley and Trout slipped to the Angels at No. 25.
And therein lies a very pertinent truth: With draft picks, you just never know – certainly not astutely enough to govern your feelings about winning and losing.
Looking at the No. 1 overall picks this century, you see such luminaries as Joe Mauer, David Price, Gerrit Cole and Carlos Correa in addition to Harper and Strasburg. But you also see Bryan Bullington, Mark Appel and Brady Aiken, none of whom sniffed the major leagues, and many others who fell far short of expectations .
The Mariners’ first “one-one” was Al Chambers in 1979. He had a career WAR of -0.5. It’s a crapshoot. That’s been proven over and over.
Speaking of WAR, if you look at the active career leaders for position players, you find Albert Pujols (a 13th-round pick), Miguel Cabrera (international free agent), Trout (25th overall), Robinson Cano (international free agent) and Joey Votto (second round) in the top five. For pitchers, it’s Justin Verlander (first round, second overall), Zack Greinke (first round, sixth overall), Clayton Kershaw (first round, seventh overall), CC Sabathia (first round, 20th overall) and Cole Hamels (first round, 17th overall).
In other words, teams didn’t have to tank in many cases to have a crack at formidable talent. And the ones who did? It wasn’t always worth the (lack of) effort.
The mythical player who is going to turn the Mariners’ season around? He might be hiding in plain sight down the draft, like Andrew McCutchen (11th pick in the first round), Christian Yelich (23rd pick), Giancarlo Stanton (second round), Mookie Betts (fifth round), Paul Goldschmidt (eighth round) or Jacob deGrom (ninth round). He might be a 16-year-old at a Dominican tryout camp.
The point is, I think the Mariners’ No. 1 focus should be on watching their future core thrive. Anything that nurtures that effort and furthers that process, whether or not it leads to a win, should be savored by fans. Anything that doesn’t should be lamented, even if, say, Tim Beckham (a past No. 1 overall pick, coincidentally, who does not loom large in Seattle’s long-term plans) hits a walkoff homer in the process.
I said at the beginning of the season, the Mariners’ best-case scenario in what was guaranteed to be a trying year would be to finish strong. That would renew hope heading into next season that a turnaround was not only possible, but approaching.
I still believe that. The Mariners put an unexpected twist on things by starting strong, winning 13 of their first 15. That probably was a bad thing, in the big picture. It raised hopes and made people temporarily forget the realistic outlook for this season. It also, to the point of this column, scuttled any chance they had of sucking for Torkelson or any other top prospect.
So don’t obsess over next year’s draft. Its success will be dictated by how well the Mariners scout, not how poorly they play. The real key is the development of the young players upon whom the future rests. And if that goes so well it leads to increasing victories, well, that’s a good thing.