Mariners rebuild isn’t for faint of heart, but they’ve needed one for years

Aug 4, 2019, 1:41 PM | Updated: Aug 5, 2019, 12:13 pm
Mariners UT Tim Beckham...
The Mariners are in the midst of the first rebuild of their 17-year postseason drought. (Getty)

The Seattle Mariners suffered a rather ignominious result on Saturday night, getting no-hit for the second time in a little over three weeks. It was embarrassing, hard to watch, and – if you think about it for a second – completely understandable.

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The current team the Mariners are fielding is hardly a major league unit. Four players on the roster – Austin Nola, Ryan Court, Zac Grotz and Reggie McClain – were all career minor leaguers until last month, and while there are some nice stories in that quartet, none of them really figure into Seattle’s plans for the future. Rather, they’re on the team for this combination of reasons: The Mariners are in the early stages of a full-scale rebuild, and they’re quite banged up.

Mitch Haniger has been out of action since early June. Dee Gordon is on the injured list with a quad strain. Ryon Healy’s season is over because he needs hip surgery. Three relievers that have shown promise this year for Seattle – Austin Adams, Connor Sadzeck and Brandon Brennan – are hurt.

Throw in the fact that the MLB trade deadline just passed and Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto shipped out pitchers Mike Leake, Roenis Elías and Hunter Strickland in a pair of deals that brought back four prospects, and it’s easy to see the M’s are playing with a patchwork roster at best. I mean, just look at Sunday’s outfield, which consisted of Tim Beckham in left field (he’s not an outfielder) and Dylan Moore in right (technically more of an outfielder than Beckham but still not an outfielder).

Does that make having to watch them get no-hit for a second time since the All-Star break any easier to digest? Not really. But maybe what’s happening behind the scenes should.

The Mariners aren’t sitting idly by while they’re on pace for 95 losses this season. Unlike when they lost 99 games in 2004. Or 101 in 2010. Or 91 in 2013.

Instead, they are rebuilding. Like they should have been in 2004, or 2010, or most certainly in 2013. And this is what a rebuild looks like.

A first for everything

Now that the Mariners are entering new stages of what their general manager calls a “re-imagining” but the rest of the world calls a rebuild, I suppose that I have something to admit:

I think the Mariners’ rebuild is going according to plan.

I have a hard time buying into an idea some Mariners fans seem to have, which is that Dipoto is taking the team down a path that is somehow worse than the one it has been on for the last 17 years of playoff-less baseball.

Believe it or not, at no previous point in Seattle’s current postseason drought did a general manager step out in front of a microphone and declare “The Mariners are rebuilding.” Instead, in the early years of it former GM Bill Bavasi brought in names like Rich Aurilia, Scott Spiezio and Jose Vidro in hopes of keeping the franchise from falling back into the kind of mediocrity it endured in the 70s and 80s.

It didn’t work.

Or maybe you remember when Jack Zduriencik came to town, and he got a group of the 2010 Mariners on the cover of ESPN The Magazine because of his idea that they were going to go to the World Series by holding teams to something like two runs per game.

That didn’t work either. And was really hard to watch. The next time you think you can’t stand watching the 2019 team, go find some Chone Figgins offensive Mariners highlights. Just kidding, there aren’t any!

The Mariners’ efforts at making the playoffs were so futile, they still couldn’t break through even when they had future Hall of Famers Adrian Beltre and Ichiro Suzuki in the same lineup for five years.

Do you know what the Seattle Mariners should have done in literally any season after they missed the playoffs in 2002 and started to age themselves out of contention?

Re. Build.

A rebuild is one of the few things Seattle hasn’t tried during its playoff drought that has been the longest in North American major pro sports for multiple years running now. The other thing they never did was commit to a manager and a philosophy beyond more than three years. So instead the Mariners would bring in additions on the back-ends of their prime, rush prospects too soon to the majors, pay little attention to their farm system except to trade from it to make sure it was dry, and kept a revolving door in the manager’s office in order to make a change at the first sign of trouble.

So guess what happened?

The Houston Astros, the one team the Mariners got to laugh at because they were the only American League West team consistently worse than Seattle, were loading up. They were rebuilding. Now eight years into Houston GM Jeff Luhnow’s tenure, the Astros have one World Series championship under their belts and are primed to make a run at another after using a bunch of prospects they had cultivated to trade for the star pitcher they wanted for the stretch run (Zack Greinke).

The blueprint

Jerry Dipoto’s blueprint looks nothing like what the Mariners have used in the past. He hasn’t rushed prospects. In fact, when players have looked lost in the big leagues, he’s had them go back to the minors to work out the kinks. That’s how Mallex Smith got back on track this year. It’s why Mike Zunino and James Paxton (who arrived in the majors before Dipoto came to Seattle) had periods of productive baseball for the M’s. But Mariners fans have been through the ringer, so when news comes across that a prospect may be close to Seattle, you hear the shouts of “No, they’re rushing another player too soon!”

Take this into account: Zunino played 96 games in the minors before Zduriencik called him up to be the Mariners’ full-time catcher in 2013 at the age of 22. Seattle has a 22-year-old catcher named Cal Raleigh in Double-A right now. He was a 2018 third-round draft pick and hit 22 home runs in High-A this season before being promoted. He has already played 134 games in the minors, and Dipoto and the Mariners have no designs on calling him up to the bigs any time soon, either.

The blueprint Dipoto is following now is a lot like the one the Astros did, and I firmly believe he would have done what he is doing now from day 1 had the Mariners’ front office let him when he was hired in late 2015. But Dipoto had to play by the Mariners’ rules, which was to take what they had at the time and try to get them to the playoffs.

Dipoto and manager Scott Servais got close, but there was only so much they could do with a payroll bloated by the contracts of Robinson Canó, Félix Hernández and (to a lesser extent) Kyle Seager. And sure, Dipoto made mistakes along the way, like giving Chris Taylor to the Dodgers for next to nothing and trading for Drew Smyly, who suffered a torn UCL and never pitched for the Mariners. There are questions about his ability to build a pitching staff, and his knack for turning a phrase does cause some worry that he could be a snake oil salesman of sorts. All valid criticisms.

Even still, the 2016 Mariners finished just three games out of the postseason and the 2018 team won 89 games, which is good enough for a wild card in almost any other year. Not only that, but Servais, Dipoto’s hand-picked field manager, quietly just became the second Mariners manager ever – ever – to reach 300 wins. In fact, if you look at Seattle’s managerial history, I don’t think you can argue that Servais isn’t the second best manager the franchise has ever seen.

The Mariners front office took everything into account and gave Dipoto and Servais contract extensions in midseason 2018. More importantly, they saw what they wanted to see from Dipoto to OK him to re-shape the team according to his vision. Finally, the Mariners allowed a GM to blow it all up and try to build something sustainable.

Like they should have years ago.

The rebuild is what matters

As far as Seattle’s rebuild goes, I’m not sure how you can argue Dipoto is off to anything but a good start.

In less than a year, he’s taken a Mariners farm system that was downright laughable and turned it into something that is legitimately respectable. He dumped most of Canó’s salary in what now looks like a miraculous trade with the Mets, a move in which he was able to pry 2018 first-round pick Jarred Kelenic away from New York. With Kelenic, Seattle has a player with the chance to become the kind of can’t-miss superstar in his early 20s that the Mariners have had only a handful of times in their existence. Julio Rodriguez, an 18-year-old outfielder the Mariners signed as an international free agent in 2017, has a chance at that too.

Seattle has also been stockpiling promising young pitchers in the early rounds of the MLB Draft, including their past two first-round picks, George Kirby (2019) and Logan Gilbert (2018). And I didn’t even mention the young players that are either already on the big league club or close to it, like Smith, J.P. Crawford, Daniel Vogelbach, Domingo Santana, Omar Narváez, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Evan White and Jake Fraley.

When’s the last time you can remember the Mariners having that many players aged 27 or younger with bright futures? Oh, and every single one of them was either drafted or acquired under Dipoto.

Dipoto’s not even close to done, either. He still has veterans he can try to trade next offseason for more prospects, most notably Gordon. The Mariners will have a higher pick in the first round than they’ve had in a while by virtue of where they will finish in the standings this year, too.

Yes, I know the actual MLB Mariners haven’t been any good this season, and hearing that the team is taking a “step back” is a really tough pill for fans to swallow when Seattle hasn’t made the playoffs since the last year Jay Buhner was an active player. But some perspective is always valuable in situations like this. The Mariners aren’t even close to the worst team in the big leagues, and they beat the teams they should beat. Seattle is 14-6 against teams with a .500 record or worse in 2019, and the Padres are the only team with a losing record that has the advantage over the Mariners in their season series (San Diego swept a two-game set from Seattle in April).

The M’s are certainly not in the same class as division leaders like the Astros or the Yankees, but really, you should be happy that they are finally, truly trying to do something about it for the long-term. Not just trying to sneak into the AL Wild Card game for one year, like the 2015, 2016 and 2018 Mariners almost but didn’t quite pull off. Dipoto is trying to turn the franchise around from the bottom up to become a real player in contention for something meaningful for years to come.

Which brings me back to the Astros.

The Astros are an exceptional team. They’re about as good as good gets right now. They weren’t always, though. When Luhnow became their GM in 2012, Houston was no-hit by Matt Cain and the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants during what turned out to be a 55-107 season. Luhnow also drafted Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. that year, starting to rebuild a franchise that would still have losing seasons the next two years but made the playoffs in 2015, won the World Series two years later and looks like the front-runner to be the AL’s representative in the Fall Classic again this season.

As good as Houston is now, it can’t stay on top forever, and Dipoto knows it. Sure, Houston has tons of young talent. But sooner or later, the offensive core of Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Alex Bregman will begin to break apart, whether it’s through free agency or injury or diminished production. Justin Verlander is not getting any younger. Gerrit Cole is a free agent after this season. The Astros’ bullpen is really good, but bullpens can fall apart in an instant. And frankly, as hard as it is to get to the top, it’s even harder to stay there.

Especially if there’s a younger, hungrier team in your division that is following the same blueprint you did to get to where you are.

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