Salk: Mariners in 1st place? 3 things brought them here
Aug 27, 2023, 6:43 PM | Updated: 7:02 pm
(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
The Seattle Mariners are in first place.
Wow, that sounds good. Even better when you say that they are alone in first. Maybe even better after knowing they were more than 10 games behind the Rangers for the lead in the American League West as recently as July 19.
The last two months have been spectacular and there are a lot of folks who deserve credit for the turnaround. Most of them are on the field, of course. Only players can hit and pitch. Only players can execute the plan. It stops with them. But it starts in the front office, where this culture, identity and roster was created. And while there is still a long way to go in this season (with some really tough series coming in September), getting to where they are deserves some serious recognition.
The Mariners survived their tough start and sit in first place today because of three P’s: plan, patience and pivots.
First of all, let’s understand that the Mariners do have a plan. They call it “Draft, Develop and Trade.” My Brock and Salk partner Brock Huard calls it “DDT” (after Jake “The Snake” Roberts’ finishing move).
It can be frustrating at times, especially in offseasons where free agents are exciting and it’s easy to imagine them plugging holes in your lineup. The Mariners aren’t unwilling to sign free agents, but they have built their roster on players that were acquired through the draft, international signing period, or via the trade market. In fact, there isn’t a single major league free agent signing on the Mariners’ current 26-man roster.
Designated hitter Mike Ford was a minor league free agent, a few of the relievers were claimed off waivers, starting pitching Robbie Ray is injured – but you get the point.
The strength of this team has been the pitching rotation, and all of it has been acquired this way. Of the Mariners’ five primary starters, four were drafted (including three in the first round) and one was acquired in a huge trade.
Using the DDT philosophy has a few benefits. It lets you develop players your way, and it generally means that your roster will be younger than most. Youth is a double-edged sword in baseball. Young players can be inconsistent and prone to mistakes, but they also tend to stay healthier.
DDT isn’t the only way to build a good roster. Certainly there are other good teams that have utilized major league free agency to build contenders of their own. But I find that in sports, having and sticking to a plan is almost more important than the details of that plan. The Mariners may end up signing more free agents over the next few years and that may work also, but it’s worth noting that staying away from those players can be equally effective.
The Mariners’ plan also includes “Controlling the Zone.” That became a bit of a hot-button issue this season as they were doing anything but that, at least offensively. They were swinging at bad pitches and not showing the kind of discipline that is supposed to accompany that philosophy. Fortunately, that has changed. While they’ve still struggled at times to drive in runners, they have certainly changed their ability to get on base.
There is nothing harder than watching your team struggle, unless it’s watching your good team struggle – or maybe being the architects of a good team that is struggling. That is exactly the spot president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto and general manager Justin Hollander found themselves in this year. They had built a team that they liked and it simply wasn’t performing. To make it harder, they had promised big results and the fan base was growing increasingly restless.
The Mariners brought in five offensive pieces in the offseason, and none of them were working out. They didn’t panic. Yes, they sent down Cooper Hummel and released Tommy La Stella, but they gave Teoscar Hernández, Kolten Wong and AJ Pollock plenty of rope. After all, all three had very good recent track records and were brought in to help in specific ways.
In the case of Wong and Pollock, they never improved. But Teoscar rewarded them by becoming exactly the player they had brought him here to be. The power returned. The hard hits turned into big moments. And the strikeouts stopped hurting so much because they were coupled with real damage.
That patience led the Mariners to sticking with Jarred Kelenic and getting an excellent half season from him, which helped keep them near .500 long enough for the rest of the offense to come around. It let them stay with Eugenio Suárez, Cal Raleigh, Tom Murphy, Dylan Moore and every other player who has turned it around in the second half.
It also kept them from truly selling at the trade deadline. Yes, they dealt their closer, Paul Sewald, but it wasn’t for prospects, and it wasn’t “waving the white flag.” It was dealing from strength to help weakness, bringing to Seattle some needed bats. And that has helped them get to the top.
It also paid dividends with their best player. Julio Rodríguez was not himself for three months. Maybe it was the pressure of taking the next step. Maybe it was the distraction of the All-Star Game being hosted in Seattle. Maybe adjusting to the adjustments that other teams made against him. Or maybe he just had a bad stretch. Who knows? But the Mariners waited him out. They let him lead his own discovery process with his coaches and his timeline. They kept him near the top of the lineup even when the numbers might not have shown that he deserved it. And when he came out the other side, they were rewarded with one of the best in the game playing at his absolute peak.
Wong and Pollock didn’t work. There is no other way to say it. But the Mariners were able to pivot due to their investment in their system and the trade market. Minor league call-ups José Caballero and Cade Marlowe have helped erase the sting of those failures. Both were in the system. Josh Rojas and Dominic Canzone, two of the players acquired from Arizona for Sewald, have respectively helped take second base and corner outfield from weaknesses to strengths in the last few weeks.
Failure is going to happen in a sport that is built on it. Good players sometimes don’t work out. Bad players sometimes go on runs. Even the best decision makers have to clean up their own messes. But that is exactly what the Seattle Mariners did. When the DH spot seemed to be their weakness, they called up Ford from Triple-A and watched him hit 13 home runs with an .808 OPS. Moore has returned to form and has an .861 OPS – remember, he was one of the offseason moves they made when they opted to spend some money to keep him here long-term.
In fact, the combination of Ford, Caballero, Moore, Rojas, Marlowe and Canzone has provided 5.9 bWAR – not bad for six guys that weren’t on the roster when the season began.
I’ll say it again: There is a long way to go in this season. The Mariners haven’t yet accomplished what they set out to do. But they have built a contender, and they did it their own way.
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