So What Now, Seattle Mariners?

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You may not realize it, but the Seattle Mariners accomplished a lot on Sunday against the Cleveland Indians. In one game, they were able to both eliminate themselves from playoff contention and make sure they don’t finish above .500.  The jury is still technically out on whether they can get to 80 wins, which would actually be one hell of a milestone for this franchise.  The last time the Mariners had back-to-back 80+ win season was in 2003.  But what will it take to hover in the 90-win range and regularly be in the playoffs, rather than the mediocre 70’s and 80’s?

Going purely by win totals, it really is amazing the M’s haven’t found their way into a Wild Card spot at any point in the last 16 years.  93, 93, 88, 87, and 86 have all been poorly timed seasons, and would surely have locked up one of the two Wild Card spot this season.

One of the things that makes baseball special is that making the playoffs is a big deal. In the NBA, you are either a playoff team or a bottom dwelling lottery team waiting for the next Kentucky player to fall into your lap.  The NHL is largely the same, except nobody gives a damn who you draft. Even with the second Wild Card spot now available, it’s still hard to make the playoffs as an MLB team.

The most disappointing part of being a Mariner fan over the last 15 years is that when the big-league club was putting up putrid 100 loss seasons, the farm system wasn’t reloading, either.  So while we had to watch Ben Broussard and Kenji Johjima, it wasn’t as if we were stockpiling young studs (i.e. Houston) and poised to make a run in the next few years. The string of failed draft picks is certainly well documented (Clement, Morrow, Ackley, Hultzen, Peterson, to name a few), so we won’t dive too far into it. But … the M’s basically picked the Greg Oden over Kevin Durant for 7 consecutive years. An organization doesn’t just recover in a season or two from that level of draft futility.  If a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while, Kyle Seager is that nut. With Zunino quickly making his way from draft bust to stud big league catcher, this could be the turning point for the M’s.

As it stands today, there’s an aging core of superstars exiting their prime, and a few good young players that can be quality role players.  Mix it all together, add in a few injuries, and you’ve got a team that’s currently set up to win between 75 and 85 games per year.

So what’s next?  This version of the M’s appears to be at a crossroads. With one year left on Nelson Cruz’s deal and Cano and Seager with their best seasons likely behind them, how do the M’s get over that playoff hump before its time to break up this band?

Trader Jerry Dipoto successful acquired some good pieces that are under club control for the next few years.   Segura, Seager, Leake, Haniger, Zunino, Heredia, Pazos, Vincent, and Gamel are all solid role players on a playoff caliber team. If a few of these guys can step up each season and outperform expectations, things are looking up.  Unlike the NBA, you need more than 3 guys capable of playing at an All-Star level. Cruz, Cano, and Paxton aren’t enough.  Can Diaz, Seager, Segura, and possibly even Zunino rise to that level of play?

Looking specifically at pitching, much has been made of the number of injuries this season. The rotation will need a couple of arms to accompany Paxton, Leake and Erasmo, who are the three guys that have proven themselves worthy of the 2018 rotation. If Andrew Moore, Marco Gonzales, and Andrew Albers can develop, one or two of them could see a substantial number of starts in 2018 as the fifth starter.  But what about Felix? He must be considered a bonus at this point, rather than the 200-inning horse the organization used to be able to bank on each season.

The Minnesota Twins- arguably the least talented team that will make the 2017 postseason. On paper, the M’s roster stacks up favorably. So what happened? Looking just at pitched innings as a percentage, the Twinkies had 7 guys throw more than 5% of their innings. Ervin Santana leads the team with 206 and counting.  Looking at the Mariner’s, you will see that six have pitched 5% or more, with Miranda leading the team at 160 (and likely not counting). The Mariners had 55% of their innings thrown by guys that individually all contributed less than 70 innings. In contract, the Twins only had 41% of their innings pieced together by Quad-A or injured players. Give credit to Dipoto and his scouts for piecing together a respectable season and finishing just a few games back of the Twins, but this can’t be the case next season for the M’s to be included in the top 5 AL team discussion.

So what are the team’s biggest needs this offseason in order to become a playoff team?

  1. Top-line starting pitcher. Either an ace or something close to it. You may be thinking, no duh Sherlock.  But really – every legit playoff contender (not talking about you, Minnesota) has the equivalent of two James Paxtons.  Because cloning is still in the development stages, I don’t believe Trader Jerry should bank on two James Paxtons. Rather, a Darvish or Tanaka are more reasonable possibilities.  Add Shohei Otani as an X Factor with a high ceiling, and Alaska Airlines may be adding a few more direct flights from Tokyo to SeaTac.
  2. Resign Yonder Alonso. This dude flat out rakes, and is a playoff team caliber player (See All-Star Game 2017). If he doesn’t come back, the Alonso equivalent is needed.
  3. Reliable bullpen arms. This very well could be Shea Simmons and Marco Gonzales, especially if #1 is taken care of.  Both will have Tommy John surgery well in their rearview mirrors and ready to be relied upon for 60-80 innings out of the pen. Gonzales has two NLDS victories under his belt, with long relief appearances in 2015. If the M’s are the ALDS, he could be called upon to do the same.

When it comes down to it, let’s hope Trader Jerry is evaluating every player on the 25 man roster this offseason with one question in mind: “Would a playoff team have this guy playing for them?”

With a top tier starting pitcher, a couple healthy, reliable bullpen arms, and a bat or two to fill out the roster, the 2018 M’s may have their best roster since Y2K.

The other option would be to trade Cano and Cruz to contenders, restock the farm system, and try to replicate what Houston did a few years ago.  This would put the early 2020s Mariners in a spot to make a good 5-10 year run. But does Trader Jerry have that kind of patience? Would Servais be OK with going through a rebuild? Not likely.  2018 and 2019 could be the M’s last two shots at delivering on this group’s potential before it would be time to blow it up and start over.

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David Bigelow

David grew up in Gig Harbor, WA before heading to Spokane to pitch for the Zags. Over four seasons he reached second on the Gonzaga all-time saves list. He was also the closer for the Bellingham Bells of the West Coast League, helping them claim their first ever WCL Championship in 2014. Now living in Kirkland, WA, David and his wife enjoy hiking in the Cascades, watching sports (Go Zags, M’s, and Hawks), and exploring the coast. They have two cats, Rocco and Stu, who keep them busy and make for great entertainment. Aside from writing, other hobbies for David include coaching high school basketball and baseball, mountain biking, and counting down the days until the next Zags Baseball Alumni Weekend.

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