Mariners manager Scott Servais on Thursday was asked to speak to the encouraging signs he finds amid a season in which progress is certainly not reflected in the win-loss record. In what was touted as a transitional growth year for Seattle, it’s a valid question — really, the only question.
Servais had a copious list. He feels his young team is generally playing good baseball against experienced, pedigreed teams, and gaining invaluable experience in the process, victories notwithstanding.
He spoke to the growing confidence of young players such as Kyle Lewis, J.P. Crawford and Justus Sheffield, and the emergence of Dylan Moore. He said reliable arms are emerging in the beleaguered bullpen, and cited the positive reports on their prospects at the alternate training site in Tacoma.
“There’s a lot to be excited for,” Servais said. “It’s a new era in Mariners baseball. We talked about it, and you guys can kind of see it play out every day. There’s a lot to dream on.”
That’s a hard sell for fans, who have been beaten down by 18 consecutive years without a playoff berth. You can tout their rising Baseball America organizational rankings all you want, but in the end it’s probably going to be another last-place finish. To many, that’s more like a recurring nightmare than a pleasant dream.
The evaluation of this loopy season, however, should not be based on wins and losses. The Mariners played their 27th game Thursday, which in a normal year would bring them to the end of April — April 23 in their original 2020 schedule, to be precise.
It would have been preposterous, of course, to make any sweeping judgments based on such a small sample size, a mere 16.6 percent of the season. The larger truths of this sport emerge over the long haul, the grind, the marathon — pick your cliché — slumps overcame, lessons learned, growth accomplished.
This is far from a normal season, of course. Twenty-seven games translate to nearly half of this season, a milestone that will be reached Sunday by the Mariners. So there’s really not much of a choice but to accelerate the judgment-reaching process.
Here are the cold, hard facts: The Mariners’ loss Thursday dropped their record to 8-19, which is a .296 winning percentage. Extrapolated over 162 games, that translates to 114 losses. The ballclub, in its hardly distinguished 43-year history, has never had a winning percentage lower than .350. They’ve never lost more than 104 — and that was in Year 2 of their existence as an expansion franchise.
So this year could have been historically, depressingly bad, squashing much of the hope of a successful rebuild occurring any time soon. Or the young squad could have found its bearings, fortified itself in midseason with a couple of its most-touted prospects, such as Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic, and maybe finished strong enough over the final 60 games to build positive momentum entering 2021.
During a year in which the final 60 are also the first 60 — the only 60 — we’ll never know. We won’t find out if young players such as second baseman Shed Long and Evan White, both mired under .200, could work themselves out of their troubles over the long haul. Or conversely, how the soaring Lewis would have readjusted once the league inevitably adjusted to him.
In many ways, the realities forced upon this COVID-19-ravaged season have been devastating for the Mariners’ rebuild plan. No minor-league season is happening whatsoever, so all the names that dot the prospect lists are reduced to playing intrasquad games in Tacoma. It’s better than nothing, but far from ideal for a team that will become truly competitive only when all its young talent coalesces at the major-league level. And no matter how positive a spin you put on it, that ascension was severely curtailed this year.
But the good news is that the talent is real. The Mariners haven’t had such an array of legitimate prospects in a long, long time, and yes, I know we heard similar things in the Ackley-Montero-Zunino-Hultzen era. This group is better, and deeper. And one byproduct of their dismal record is almost certainly another top-five draft pick next June to add to the pile.
There are no guarantees, of course. Even the most touted of prospects flame out sometimes, as Mariner fans don’t need to be reminded. The Seattle bullpen will have to be buttressed before winning occurs. But team-builders will tell you that bullpens can be sculpted and buttressed with a little creativity, and are typically the final piece of a rebuild.
Eventually, the Mariners will have to dip into their wallet and wade into free agency for more than bit parts and buy-low gambles. Mostly, they’ll need enough of the young players upon whom they’ve wagered everything to advance to the heights they are anticipating.
The pace of that advancement was compromised this year, through no one’s fault. But if you’re one who still chooses to dream on the Mariners, it’s best to focus on the talent and not the standings.