It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Seattle Mariners.
Ding dong, the ‘cik is dead! After years of mismanagement by mercurial and statistically averse general manager Jack Zduriencik, ownership finally had enough, tossing the GM out on August 28th to the delight of Mariner fans everywhere. The Zduriencik era began with great promise, as Jack began his tenure by turning a pile of pyrrhic prospects and peripheral parts into Franklin Gutierrez, Jason Vargas and Cliff Lee. Unfortunately, Zduriencik had a habit of fixating on specific players (like Kendrys Morales), overvaluing right-handed power and quickly wearing out any manager that came into town (three managers in six years!). As time went on, the M’s front office appeared to operate in stranger and stranger fashion, as Zduriencik began to refuse to listen to dissent, stopped communicating with his underlings, resisted using any kind of statistical analysis other than wins, batting average and RBI’s, and chased out much of his front office. Red Sox fans will always be eternally grateful to Zduriencik for outbidding the Yankees in the Robbie Cano sweepstakes, but Mariner fans are undoubtedly hoping that the Jerry Dipoto-as-GM era is a bit less turbulent than the previous one.
Now, the old GM may be gone, but the damage from his tenure will take some time to overcome. Remember Felix Hernandez, Shin-Soo Choo and Michael Pineda? The scout who signed those players (Bob Engle) has been pushed out of the organization, along with Engle’s top assistant Patrick Guerrero, scouting director Carmen Fusco, Assistant GM Tony Blengino and a whole host of other front-office and scouting talent. Dipoto has begun to bring in his own folks, but repairing the Mariners’ dilapidated infrastructure won’t be an overnight fix.
The good news for the Mariners is that for the first time in franchise history, they appear to have money, buoyed as they are by a $2 billion TV deal that will keep the coffers full for a while. In the 2013-14 offseason, the Mariners tested out their newfound wealth with the gigantic ten-year Cano deal; this offseason, they kept the money train rolling with a $58 million deal to Nelson Cruz. Much is still to be decided about the Cano deal, as Cano had a good year in 2014 but slumped this year and may have to be moved from second base if his defense falls much further. Cruz, on the other hand, has turned into Mega Cruz or Cruz Hulk or The Cruz Missile or some other dreadfully contorted moniker, battling for the league lead in home runs despite playing in a cavernous home park. In fact, so prodigious is Cruz’s power that Cruz’s 13 opposite-field home runs alone would best the 2015 home run output of players like Jason Heyward, Melky Cabrera and Alex Gordon. Cruz actually is the sort of player who might get some serious consideration for MVP in a world where Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson don’t exist; in the current version of reality, however, the Mariners will merely have to be content with finding a surprisingly good bargain on the free agent market.
For much of the last decade, Seattle teams were the pitching-and-defense-iest team in the league, with the lineup generally falling somewhere between “bad” and “really, really bad.” In the last couple of years, however, the Mariners have decided to flip the script by having a bad pitching staff to complement a decent lineup. This year’s pitching staff was the worst of the recent incarnations, as the M’s staff was fourth-worst in the AL in ERA and second-worst in ERA+. Everything that could have gone right with the pitchers didn’t; King Felix had his worst season in a decade, Taijuan Walker had trouble keeping the ball in the stadium, Fernando Rodney started walking everyone in the park (something he stopped doing as soon as the Mariners shipped him to Wrigley), J.A. Happ forgot how to get people to swing and miss (something he started doing as soon as the Mariners shipped him to Pittsburgh), and Charlie Furbush, Hisashi Iwakuma and prospects Danny Hultzen and James Paxton succumbed to injuries. That last part must feel a bit like deja vu to Seattle fans, as the Mariners have historically had bad luck with injuries to pitching prospects and promising young hurlers — in addition to Hultzen and Paxton, the last fifteen years have seen top M’s prospects like Ryan “Little Unit” Anderson, Jeff Heaverlo, Gil Meche, Joel Pineiro and Michael Pineda struggle with major injuries while trying to make the major league squad.
The strangest and most frustrating part of the Mariners’ season was their futility in late innings. If all games had been ended after the sixth inning, Seattle would have been a surprising 72-64 (with 23 ties), instead of the 75-85 record that they currently possess. Obviously, the bullpen was a major culprit in the late-inning losses, as the Mariners’ pen was among the worst in the league and blew seven ninth-inning leads this season. The surprising part, though, was that the offense also played a significant role, as no AL team scored fewer runs in the last four innings of a game than the Mariners. The pitching staff alone made it all but certain that the M’s would not be in the postseason, but it was that uncanny ability to blow late leads that really made this season tough for the Seattle faithful.
Jerry Dipoto’s biggest task this upcoming season will be to start restocking the farm, both in terms of players and directors. Years of brain drain from the scouting department have made Seattle’s minor leagues into a bit of a wasteland, and the Mariners now have a bottom-ten system with one or two prospects (Alex Jackson and recently promoted Ketel Marte) and not much else. Of course, since the Mariners discovered giant piles of money lying around the office, it’s entirely possible that they’ll be able to paper over their problems next year without any help from the farm (especially in a division that no one really seems to want to win), but free agents are awfully expensive, and the Mariners already have one that they’re stuck paying until 2023.
The Mariners last made the playoffs in 2001. They have never appeared in a World Series.
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