Should Mariners follow head or follow heart?
With more than two months to go, the season’s assessments will continue to vacillate, depending on what kind of streak the Mariners are on. Yet the schedule imposed on major-league teams — specifically, the July 31 trade deadline — is forcing a more definitive conclusion to be made
Times baseball reporter
The Mariners in 2013 should be a case study in the dangers of making snap judgments during a baseball season.
At various points, they’ve been deemed a definitive failure, accompanied by calls for the heads of every decision-maker; and they’ve been judged a rebuilt success, with renewed visions of a contending future.
With more than two months to go, those assessments will continue to vacillate, depending on what kind of streak the Mariners are on. Yet the schedule imposed on major-league teams — specifically, the July 31 trade deadline — is forcing a more definitive conclusion to be made in the next three days.
The Mariners are among a large group of teams in a murky netherworld, expanded by the inclusion last year of a second wild-card berth into the playoffs.
Your head tells you that five games under .500, which is where the M’s fell after Friday’s tough 3-2, extra-inning loss, is not the jumping-off point for a run at the playoffs. But your heart looks at the upward trend — a recent stretch of nine wins in 10 games — and a wild-card deficit under 10 games, and concludes it’s not an insurmountable deficit.
Jack Zduriencik’s job in the next 72 hours is to settle that tug of war between the head and the heart. And he must also decide whether there is a psychic benefit — both within the team, and among the fan base — from taking this surge as far as it can go, even with the understanding that a playoff berth is a remote possibility.
Here are some facts to inform the decision, supplied by the Elias Sports Bureau. Since the three-division format began in 1994, a total of 11 teams have made the playoffs despite being under .500 at the 100-game mark of the season or later (the Mariners played their 104th game on Saturday).
The caveat is that the task is easier now because of the second wild card. To paraphrase Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”
Mariners fans are intimately familiar with one of those Electric Eleven: the 1995 M’s club that was still under .500 (54-55) as late as Aug. 23, and finished with a 25-11 flourish to catch, and ultimately surpass, the collapsing Angels.
But those ‘95 Mariners have been providing false hope for nearly 20 years now; it’s hard to compare any team to one that had three bona fide Hall of Fame talents in Ken Griffey Jr. (once he came back from his wrist injury in mid-August), Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez.
The ‘95 Yankees team the Mariners vanquished so memorably in the playoffs that year is also on the list. They were 60-61 on Sept. 5 — 122 games into the season — and still earned the wild-card berth.
The Twins, who happen to be in town, did it twice under current manager Ron Gardenhire: in 2003 (when they were 54-55 on Aug. 2), and 2009 (71-72 on Sept. 13).
Others on the list, with the latest date they were under .500:
2008 Dodgers (69-70 on Sept. 2); 2006 Dodgers (54-55 on Aug. 4); 2006 Padres (61-62 on Aug. 19); 2005 Padres (78-79 on Sept. 27); 2004 Astros (61-62 on Aug. 22); 2003 Cubs (51-52 on July 26); 1996 Orioles (51-52 on July 29).
Several of those teams chose to be aggressive at the trade deadline despite being under .500, and in many cases those new players fueled the playoff run.
For instance, the 2003 Twins were five games under .500 when they picked up outfielder Shannon Stewart from Toronto in mid-July; Stewart hit .322 with six homers and 38 runs batted in to spark their comeback. The 2004 Astros got a huge boost from the acquisition of Carlos Beltran from the Royals in June. The 2006 Dodgers got six wins down the stretch from Greg Maddux, while the 2008 Dodgers rode on the back of torrid Manny Ramirez, who hit .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBI after they got him from Boston on July 31.
Grant Bisbee of Baseball Nation looked at this question from a different angle: the calculations of CoolStandings.com, which uses computer simulations to determine a team’s playoff chances every day of the season.
He determined that the biggest comeback in the wild-card era was executed by the 2011 Rays, who were 10½ games back in the AL East and 8½ back in the wild-card standings at the trade deadline. The Rays went 35-20 to finish out the season and beat out the Red Sox for the wild card on the final day.
Furthermore, Bisbee noted a few days ago, the Mariners would need to make the biggest comeback in the wild-card era to make the playoffs, based on their 1.8-percent chance of doing so as calculated by Cool Standings.
I’m reminded of the internal struggle within the Orioles in 1996, when they reached the trade deadline right at .500. Their general manager, future Hall of Famer Pat Gillick, decided it was prudent to retool an aging club. According to media reports, Gillick had deals on the table to send Bobby Bonilla and Eddie Murray to Cleveland, and David Wells to the Mariners, with minor leaguers coming back.
Bonilla and Wells were both pending free agents, but Gillick was overruled by owner Peter Angelos, who didn’t want to give fans the impression the Orioles were giving up on the season.
The Orioles wound up surging into the playoffs as the wild-card team and making it all the way to the American League Championship Series. But Gillick told me in 2000, “That doesn’t mean anything. They’re losing now.”
He added, without hesitation, that he still felt his approach would have been better long term for the Orioles. “Absolutely. No question. We might have won in ‘96 anyway.”
For the Mariners, with veterans like Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, Oliver Perez and Joe Saunders who will be coveted by contenders and yet have intrinsic value within a youthful core, it will be a tough call.
Much of the decision, of course, will be dependent upon the strength of the offers. But the x-factor will be this: How much of a dreamer does Jack Zduriencik want to be?
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.