As D-Backs proved, Mariners can make big leap in 2012

Sep 29, 2011, 9:55 AM | Updated: 10:01 am

By Dave Cameron
Special to

With the M’s loss last night, they finished the season at 67-95. They ended the season with just a few actual Major League players in the lineup and the starting pitcher was perhaps the worst hurler in the history of the game. Given their struggles over the last few years, it’s common to hear people talk about why this team is several years away from contending, and how next year will probably be more of the same.

It doesn’t have to be however.

Need an example? The Arizona Diamondbacks are the NL West Champions, having finished the year with a 94-68 record that easily outpaced the rest of their division rivals. Their record in 2010? 65-97, worse than what the Mariners put up this year. And it’s not like they just had a down year due to injuries and then bounced back — they went 70-92 in 2009, giving them 135 wins in the two seasons prior to their dominance this year. That’s pretty darn close to the 128 wins the Mariners have compiled the last two years.

The Mariners don’t necessarily have to spend big bucks this winter on a free agent like Prince Fielder to turn their fortunes around. (AP)

The Diamondbacks hadn’t spent years cultivating a great young core that was on the verge of busting into the big leagues. They didn’t spend wildly in free agency to bring in a proven superstar to bring relevance back to the organization. They just went about last winter making smart improvements at a variety of positions, spreading their money around to fill various holes, and put together a team without any glaring weaknesses.

Not everything went right for Arizona this year — Kelly Johnson, their best player in 2010, saw his offense collapse and was eventually traded to Toronto for Aaron Hill. Starting shortstop Stephen Drew broke his ankle during the summer and had to spend the rest of the year on the DL. The team went through six first baseman before settling on a rookie who began the year in Double-A and has his own set of flaws. But, because the were able to get useful production from nearly every spot on the roster, they ended up winning 94 games and are in the playoffs.

A 29 game improvement in the standings in one season isn’t exactly the norm, but the Diamondbacks are evidence that it can be done, and it can be done without flashy spending. Last winter, the Diamondbacks spent $10 million to get two years of J.J. Putz’s services as a closer, $1.75 million to acquire Xavier Nady to be a role player, $2.7 million to get two years of Geoff Blum as a bench guy, $1.5 million to get Henry Blanco as a backup catcher, and $900,000 to have Willie Bloomquist be a utility player. Their team payroll went from $75 million to $56 million, and on opening day, Joe Saunders ($5.5 million) was their highest paid player.

You’re going to hear a lot of talk about how the Mariners need to spend big this winter to get themselves back on track, but the reality is that a team’s fortunes are not set in stone, and teams can and do take huge steps forward from one season to the next. There is no “right way” to turn a losing team into a winner — there are a lot of different ways to build a baseball team, and they all can end in success.

The Diamondbacks went from last to first with pitching and defense while cutting payroll and generally avoiding free agency. If the team wants to spend a lot of money this winter to bring in a slugger like Prince Fielder, that’s one direction to go, and it might work out, but don’t assume that it’s the only path to success, or that the team has no chance if they don’t land a player like Fielder. As last night’s game in Tampa Bay illustrated, baseball is a funny sport, and you never really know what’s going to happen in the future.

Dave Cameron of U.S.S Mariner writes biweekly during the baseball season for Brock & Salk’s blog on

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