For many fans of Seattle sports, last Sunday was highlighted by the Seattle Seahawks missing the playoffs for the first time since Russell Wilson was drafted in 2012. The Atlanta Falcons eliminated the Seahawks by defeating the Carolina Panthers 22-10. A few minutes later, to add insult to injury, Blair Walsh missed yet another field goal for the Seahawks to hand the Arizona Cardinals a 26-24 victory and a parting gift to retiring head coach Bruce Arians.
But perhaps lost to disappointed Seahawks fans until the highlight shows later that night, was the spectacular come from behind victory by the Cincinnati Bengals over the Baltimore Ravens. With 44 seconds remaining in the game and the Bengals facing 4th and 12 at the Ravens 49, the normally less-than-clutch Andy Dalton hit Tyler Boyd on a crossing route which resulted in a 49-yard touchdown to put the Bengals up for good and sink the Ravens playoff hopes 31-27. And how exactly did an AFC North rivalry game affect the good fans of Seattle Sports?
Well, coupled with a Buffalo Bills win over the Miami Dolphins and a convoluted tie-breaker system that screwed over the Los Angeles Chargers (that’s going to take years to type out smoothly) the Bengals win over the Ravens propelled the Bills into the playoffs, snapping a drought that spanned back to the previous century. But not only did the Bills snap their NFL playoff drought, they snapped the longest drought for missing the playoffs in all the North American “Big Four” professional sports. That distinction now belongs to the Seattle Mariners.
Obviously, the year 2001 is one that contains many memories not related to sports, but as the summer of 2001 was underway, THE story in baseball was the Seattle Mariners. A phenom from Japan, Ichiro Suzuki, captured the imagination of fans across the country, on his way to hitting .350/.381/.457 and leading the majors in batting average, hits (242), and stolen bases (56), and winning both Rookie of the Year and MVP.
The M’s, led by Ichiro and Edgar Martinez, went on to tie the Major League record for wins in a single season at 116-46. The 1906 Chicago Cubs of “Tinker to Evers to Chance” had posted a record of 116-36 which technically still holds the “best record,” but, hey, that was 111 years ago. The Mariners show of excellence was “just” 17 years ago – the last time the franchise would appear in the playoffs.
If you had polled Mariners fans after the New York Yankees blew out the Mariners 12-3 on October 22, 2001, to win game five and clinch the AL Championship, four games to one, most would have probably expressed their disappointment at not going further to the World Series, especially by losing the Yankees, but those same disappointed fans in that moment surely expected their team to be in contention for years to come.
Nothing could be further from reality. Two consecutive 93-win teams would miss the playoffs in 2002 and 2003 before the bottom fell out. Since 2003, fourteen year ago, the Mariners have posted only four winning seasons and really only seriously sniffed the playoffs once.
Fast Forward to 2018
While it is nice to think that the Mariners won’t hold the title of Longest Playoff Drought for long, it’s difficult to see a clear path forward with the current team. The second wild-card has changed baseball, and, indeed, would have rewarded the 2003 Mariners with a game against the Boston Red Sox. But, even with the second wild card slot, no team has qualified with fewer than 85 wins – last year’s surprising Minnesota Twins. FanGraphs’ preseason projections have the Mariners going 81-81 in 2018 and finishing behind the Houston Astros (97-65) and the Los Angeles Angels (88-74) for third place in the AL West, just in front of the projected 80-82 Texas Rangers and the 77-85 Oakland Athletics.
While GM Jerry Dipoto is famous (infamous?) for his wheeling and dealing, the 2018 Mariners lineup seems set at this point. In the everyday lineup, FanGraphs projects just two 3+ WAR players – Kyle Seager at 3.7 and Robinson Cano at 3.2. Nelson Cruz just misses at 2.9, as he is an offense only player, and Mike Zunino, a good defensive catcher with tremendous power, if not plate discipline, comes close at 2.7 WAR. Jean Segura at 2.1 WAR round out the 2+ WAR everyday players. What the Mariners lack is the All-Star caliber player like Mike Trout of the Angles, projected at 8 WAR, or Giancarlo Stanton of the Yankees projected at 6 WAR, are Carlos Correa of the Astros projected at 6 WAR, etc., etc.
The pitching staff projects only two 2+ WAR arms. James Paxton projects a generous 3.8 WAR, generous because it is based on 176 innings for a pitcher who has never gone more than 121 in the majors. The former perennial Cy Young candidate, Felix Hernandez, projects at 2.0 WAR in 162 innings, a threshold he hasn’t reached since 2015. The Mariners don’t appear to have a starting rotation to compete against the elite of the American League.
Somehow, it would seem, the Mariners need to figure out how to eke out an additional five to six wins, at a minimum, from the current roster. What is unclear, is where those wins might come from. But, the great thing about baseball, and, indeed, sports, is you have to play the games and odd things can happen. Just ask the fans in upstate New York who are going to the NFL playoffs Sunday.