Salk: What separates playoff-bound Mariners from M’s teams that fell short

Oct 4, 2022, 12:13 AM | Updated: 12:19 am

Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Julio Rodríguez celebrates with fans after the Mariners clinched a postseason berth on Sept. 30, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Mariners had tried just about everything.

They tried resting on their laurels and assuming Ichiro and a few friends would be enough. It didn’t work.

They let Bill Bavasi run the entire organization into the ground.

They tried going cheap.

They tried spending money on a few big names like Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre. Neither was effective.

They tried Jack Zduriencik and a collection of sluggers around Félix Hernández. That wasn’t enough, either.

They tried Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais, and they came close but still couldn’t get the club over the top.

For 20 years, they flailed at the piñata. The playoffs eluded them each year and fans slowly found other hobbies to occupy their time. Interest waned. Attendance dwindled.

And then they finally tried the one thing they had never been able to truly embrace: they rebuilt.

Mariners know the turning point that put them on path to playoffs

It needed to happen. The roster was older, top-heavy and not particularly valuable. The farm system was picked clean. Any outsider could see they weren’t just a player away from contending.

But rebuilds are hard. They take time. They require betting on a series of difficult decisions, some of which likely won’t work out the way you hoped. Fans can give up hope. And you have to be patient enough to wait until the right moment to strike or else you won’t have enough built up to make it all worth it.

So they lived by the motto “patience is the shortcut.”

It hung in their baseball operations office, and it reminded them that they had to do this job thoroughly. They had to draft and develop. Fortunately, they had the support of ownership. But that doesn’t last forever. So they needed to show progress even if they weren’t quite ready to contend.

They got it right. Or at least they have so far. The 2022 Mariners are better than their 2018 counterpart, and the future versions could likely improve on this one.

So why did this group succeed where the previous 20 iterations fell short? There are lots of reasons, both big and small. But here are four that stand out:

1. Pitching, pitching and more pitching.

This pitching staff is absurd. The Mariners are seventh in the league in runs against, eighth in WHIP and eighth in walks given up. And those numbers improved with the addition of Luis Castillo.

But what sets them apart is their pitchers’ ability to give the team a chance to win. Their starters are third in baseball in quality starts, and we know what this bullpen looks like with its depth and multiple sliders.

A few years ago we wondered if Jerry could develop pitchers. He has answered that question and then some.

2. Youth.

The 2018 Mariners had some good players. Certainly Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Félix would qualify, but all of them were over 30 and two of them closer to 40.

By contrast, this year’s team has nine major contributors age 27 or younger. Six are 25 or younger (Julio Rodríguez, Cal Raleigh, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Andrés Muñoz and Matt Brash). That may be the new core six.

3. Julio.

Yes, he is included in the youth movement, but he gets his own line because he is just that special. He injects such life and confidence into this group, and he has a chance to be the first real superstar position player here since Alex Rodriguez departed and Ichiro was in his prime. He is that good. And when teams get players at this elite level, they win. They certainly make the playoffs (as this team has).

And when they put the right pieces around them, well, that’s when really big things happen…

4. Culture.

For years, it was acceptable to not win here. It started at the top and it filtered down through the management to the players. Excuses were tolerated. Extra effort wasn’t rewarded. No one knew what it meant to a Mariner.

That has started to change in the last few years as Scott Servais has helped them get closer and trust each other. He started that process when he arrived and asked all the players to meet every morning in spring training to get to know each other better. Baseball clubhouses have incredible diversity of language, culture and personality. And if the best way to get past our differences is to get to know each other better, those meetings were a crucial first step in creating a positive culture. But it took time to work and maybe just as long to earn the buy-in from veterans who can be cynical.

Step 2 was defining what it meant to be a Mariner. Enter the team’s Peoria, Ariz., facility and you’ll see the walls are newly covered with names. Mariners All-Stars on one wall. Gold Glovers, MVPs and Cy Young winners on another. And between the major and minor league areas, a tribute to every player drafted and developed by Seattle to reach the big leagues.

But the last step in this transition came when Mitch Haniger went public with his view that it was go time. He had lived through the rebuild and wanted assurance that the patience would be rewarded. He said they would end the drought, and putting those words out into the universe seemed to will them into effect.

There are other key differences between this team and others. We can point to the expanded playoff field, the trade of previous team president Kevin Mather for Dipoto (president of baseball operations) and Catie Griggs (president of business operations), or the good vibes Eugenio Suárez brought with him from Cincinnati.

But regardless of where the credit goes, we all get to enjoy the results. The Mariners are back in the playoffs. And as Scott said, they are just getting started.

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