This has been a Mariners season of extremes, where ecstasy and agony have each made cameo appearances, and a sense of dread coexists with the underlying motif of hope.
And that’s just on fly balls to the outfield.
Let’s face it, the Mariners have toyed with our emotions far more than expected in 2019. They went off-script immediately with a 13-2 start. It was as exhilarating as it was bizarre, with the unfortunate side effect of prompting temporary amnesia. Many people forgot, or at least ignored, that this was supposed to be a season of growth and nurturing, not competing for a title.
And then, just when expectations had been re-arranged and raised beyond reason, the Mariners thudded back to earth with a sustained stretch of miserable play. And just like that, the elation was replaced, almost by habit, with the sort of righteous indignation that has greeted past Mariners’ decline, in seasons when the postseason was the spoken goal.
So I’m here with a gentle reminder about what the stated purpose of this “step-back” season was. It wasn’t accumulating a glittering win-loss record, or ending the endless playoff drought. It was developing a younger core, much of it still in the minor leagues, far away from T-Mobile Park.
Mind you, I’m not saying you have to approve of this strategy. When a franchise has provided as much frustration and unfulfilled promise as this one, I fully understand a reaction of skepticism, if not downright hostility, to a blueprint that includes getting rid of the most popular and productive veterans.
But the Mariners at least have been transparent about what they’re doing. It seems like wasted energy to rant and rave about the mounting losses that have dogged the Mariners since their mirage of a start. Not to mention the defeats that are still to come, at a much faster rate, I’d wager, than the victories.
It’s all part of the gig this season. I try to make it a policy not to tell anyone how to be a fan, because that’s a visceral process in which it’s perfectly acceptable to divorce oneself from reason. Especially at today’s prices. Teams should covet passion in all its forms, because even outrage is preferable to apathy.
In other words, I’m not advocating blind faith, because the Mariners haven’t earned it. But it seems like a better target would be the process itself, or the players they’ve chosen to execute it. In the end, it will be the latter that determines the success or failure of this venture.
Manager Scott Servais said on Friday, “Where we’re at right now, I’m not totally shocked by anything anymore.”
He tried to focus on the positive developments, of which he cited a few:
“Vogie (Daniel Vogelbach) has really stepped forward. I like what I’ve seen so far from J.P. Crawford. Ryon Healy has made some nice adjustments, Domingo Santana has swung the bat well, so there’s been a lot of positives, in that regard. (Yusei) Kikuchi has been fantastic, (Roenis) Elias has stepped up.
“There’s been a lot of good stuff there. I think the one thing that has bothered me more than anything has been our defense. That’s the one that’s been tough. It’s surprising that some of the players have struggled as much as they have.”
That’s an understatement. In all my years, I can’t remember a worse defensive team than the Mariners so far. Heading into Saturday, they had made 50 errors in 47 games – 13 more than any other team, and 36 more than the Royals. That had led to 42 unearned runs – exactly twice as many as the second-highest total in the majors, 21 by the Dodgers, Blue Jays and Pirates.
That’s why (in concert with a sub-par bullpen) the Mariners have a penchant for being on the wrong end of blowouts. It’s why they’ve been unwatchable at times this year, unless you find a perverse fascination in train wrecks. It’s why they are nearly helpless against the good teams, even as they often look like world-beaters against the great unwashed of MLB.
In the Jerry Dipoto master plan, what you’re seeing in 2019 isn’t supposed to resemble what you’ll get in, say, 2021, when the Mariners hope to be ready for serious contention. But if Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana are supposed to be part of the renaissance – and Santana has indeed been solid at the plate — it’s valid to focus on their defensive shortcomings more than say, Tim Beckham, who probably won’t be.
That’s the criterion I’m going to try to use to assess this team, anyway – how the step back will affect the alleged step forward.