Larry Stone believes the foundation is more solid, and he has much more trust in general manager Jerry Dipoto to solidify rather than tear asunder, than he ever did with Jack Zduriencik. Yet there are still danger areas that Dipoto and Scott Servais will have to navigate.
The Mariners’ playoff drought – 15 years and counting – has finally reached the point it needs a catchy name to identify it.
The Red Sox, of course, had the infamous Curse of the Bambino, finally shaken in 2004 after 86 misery-ridden years. The Cubs, shut out of a World Series title since 1908, hope this is the blessed season they dump the Curse of the Billy Goat.
Compared to that, 15 years may seem like a mere drop in the bucket. But keep in mind that for the first 11 of those years, the Mariners were in a four-team division and still couldn’t break through. And with the advent of the wild card, and for the past five years, two wild cards, MLB has tried really, really hard to grease the path to the postseason.
And yet the Mariners still can’t get in, despite coming oh so close a few times, including the just-concluded season. The mojo remains powerful, and begs to be identified. So, after wracking my brain, I’ve come up with this:
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The Curse of David Bell.
In 2001, the Mariners rolled to a record 116 victories and their fourth playoff berth in seven years, albeit one that ended with an ALCS ouster by the Yankees. With a strong nucleus in place, and revenue pouring in from a brand-new, perpetually sold-out stadium, they seemed poised for a steady run of postseason appearances.
So what did the M’s do? They started to tinker with unprecedented success. That’s not in itself a bad thing, but a team that fit together beautifully was altered. They traded with Colorado for third baseman Jeff Cirillo, a .311 career hitter, inheriting his four-year, $29.1 million contract. And they dealt David Bell, the incumbent third baseman and an important, if overlooked, cog in their success, sending him to San Francisco for a utility infielder.
This is not to say that Bell (who hit 20 homers in 2002 and wound up playing in the World Series with the Giants) would have saved the Mariners, or that Cirillo, who had two increasingly miserable seasons in Seattle before being dealt to San Diego, undermined them. The Mariners, after all, won 93 games both years while still getting edged out for playoff berths.
But it was the start of a trend that haunts them to this day: Following up on successful seasons with ill-fated and/or poorly conceived attempts to take the leap to the next level. And they haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
Incredibly, the Mariners haven’t even had back-to-back winning seasons since those two Cirillo years. Here’s a quick review of every Seattle season above .500 since then, and what transpired the next year:
• 2007: 88-74; traded for Erik Bedard, signed Carlos Silva, finished 61-101 in 2008.
• 2009: 85-77; traded for Cliff Lee, signed Chone Figgins, finished 61-101 in 2010.
• 2014: 87-75; signed Nelson Cruz, traded for J.A. Happ, finished 76-86 in 2015.
Which brings us to the 2016 season, or more important, to the offseason that will serve as a bridge to a 2017 campaign that, at least intellectually, should brim with promise.
After all, the Mariners improved by 10 wins (to 86-76), contended until the season’s penultimate day, and established a culture under new manager Scott Servais that they believe will fuel sustained success.
But that’s what they said about new manager Don Wakamatsu in 2009, and new manager Lloyd McClendon in 2014. Neither lasted beyond the following year.
I believe the foundation is more solid this time, and I have much more trust in general manager Jerry Dipoto to solidify rather than tear asunder, than I ever did with Jack Zduriencik.
“You hear it all the time – ‘it’s the same old Mariners,’ ” Servais said on the season’s final day. “We’re not the same old Mariners. We’re not. I think if people watched us closely this year, and the personalities of the team, got to see the team, they’d realize this is a different group.”
Yet there are still considerable danger areas that Dipoto and Servais will have to navigate for the Mariners’ latest step forward to lead to further advancement, rather than the customary regression.
While their Big Three of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Cruz was brilliant, that output – 30 (or 40) homers and nearly 100 runs batted in across the board — will be hard to replicate. As Servais said: “We understand that the offensive years we had by a number of our players may not be repeated again. Where are we going to get it? It’s going to have to come from other places in the lineup.”
Dipoto, in particular, will have to shore up the corner outfield spots, remake first base, and decide if they can go forward another year with Ketel Marte at shortstop (I’d say no).
The rotation seems mostly set, but the future of Felix Hernandez, for the first time in his brilliant career, looms large. Can he either restore his old glory or re-invent himself at age 31 … or would the Mariners think the unthinkable and see what trade possibilities exist, provided Hernandez would waive his no-trade provision, far from a guarantee?
They must do all their potential upgrading with a top-heavy salary structure ($84.5 million owed to five players), few prospects to use as trade chips, and a largely lackluster free-agent market (though there are a few impact players sprinkled in, including ones that may entice the Mariners; can you say, “Ian Desmond”?).
I expect the Mariners to be aggressive, and creative. One thing I’ve observed in my years covering baseball is that when a team has a new owner or CEO, as the Mariners do with John Stanton, it often leads to a splashy offseason as the new man tries to make his mark.
Meanwhile, Dipoto has already shown that he will be relentless is his attempts to obtain talent. Not all of his vast number of moves worked, of course, but in aggregate, the Mariners have a broader talent base throughout the organization than Dipoto inherited. Even as late as Aug. 31, Dipoto pulled off a seemingly minor trade with the Yankees for Ben Gamel, who has worked his way into their plans for 2017.
Of course, the challenge remains to move forward without taking a pratfall. Because for now, The Curse of David Bell lives on.