Mariners are closer than we think, but can't get greedy
The Mariners must stick to their master plan and not get lured into thinking they are just a few pieces shy of contending.
Times baseball reporter
In some of these dark and desolate years, the Mariners have been seduced out of their grand plan by the lure of contention.
Along the way, they've opted for sentiment over the hard decisions that needed to be made, keeping players for their cuddleability rather than their skills.
For years, the Mariners have been in need of a full-blown, no-turning-back, bite-the-bullet rebuilding operation.
But they've never quite had the stomach to commit to it, to absorb the inevitable pain in order to forge a new nucleus, a Version 2 model of sustained success. In this hot-seat era, the urgency to win has trumped the need to retool.
The result has been worst of all possible worlds. The Mariners have gone through the pain, all right, but without reaping the benefits that await on the other side. Instead of being the Tampa Bay Rays, they've too often emulated the Baltimore Orioles.
For the most part, the reasons for taking detours en route to the teardown have been noble. The Mariners have felt that they owed it to their fans, who turned out 3.5-million strong (that's now down to about 2.2 million strong, in a not-unrelated development) to field a winner. And that meant a knee-jerk aversion to tearing down and going young. Paradoxically, by going gung ho for the quick fix, the result has been precisely what they feared in the first place.
Former general manager Bill Bavasi told The New York Times about it earlier this year in explaining the 2006 midseason trades of Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera (for Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez) to Cleveland in a misguided attempt for a playoff boost.
"We were on strict orders when I got there that we were not going to tolerate any five-year plans," Bavasi said. "They felt that five-year plans usually turn into seven- or eight-year plans, and it's true. That made sense — just keep getting better — but that also brought with it different pressures."
That might help explain Rich Aurilia and Scott Spiezio, Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro, Carlos Silva and Chone Figgins, Erik Bedard and Brandon League, or any other example you can think of good money thrown after an ill-fitting veteran, or good prospects thrown after a hoped-for final piece.
The result has been high payroll combined with high misery, including the height of this folly, in 2008, when the Mariners became the first team to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll. Fans who complain that the Mariners don't spend enough miss the point. Seattle has spent more than enough to win in the near-decade since its last playoff appearance in 2001. It just spent unwisely — and unrealistically.
Couple that with the initial (and understandable) reluctance to break apart the greatest M's team of them all, the 2000-01 group that made it twice to the American League Championship Series (winning a record 116 games in 2001), and you have the crux of the dilemma the Mariners find themselves in.
The 101 losses of 2008 hit home, like a Louisville slugger to the solar plexus. In the wake of that disaster, the Mariners talked the good talk about needing to do true rebuilding. Team president Chuck Armstrong told The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker, in declaring that the Mariners would not go after any big-name free agents in 2009, "We want the ability to contend on a continuing, year-by-year-by-year basis."
Added Armstrong, "I'm not ready to concede anything (about whether the team would contend in 2009). But my main thing is, we're not going to put all our chips on 'Red 79.' We're not going to put all our chips on 2009, because we put all of our chips on 2008, and it didn't work out."
Lo and behold, new GM Jack Zduriencik made a series of shrewd, under-the-radar moves, new manager Don Wakamatsu helped change the clubhouse culture, and the Mariners won 85 games.
And then, it seems, they got a little greedy, believing they could rebuild and contend at the same time. Thus, Figgins for four years and $36 million. Thus, former No. 1 pick Brandon Morrow to Toronto for an instant bullpen boost in League. Thus, veterans Ken Griffey Jr. and Milton Bradley were given key lineup roles that could have gone to players on their way up.
The resulting mess is readily apparent, but the good news for Mariners fans is that they can still hop on the rebuilding wagon. In fact, Zduriencik will tell anyone who will listen that he never stopped rebuilding, that the fruits of his work are being profoundly felt at the minor-league level and will soon infiltrate the major-league team.
It's time for the Mariners, in the wake of this disastrous season, to step back and realize that to leap forward, they must not get lured again into abandoning the master plan. Let Jack Z do what he does best, which is continue to ramp up the farm system while finding hidden gems — like Franklin Gutierrez, David Aardsma, Jason Vargas and Russell Branyan. There will be a time to jump full-force into free agency, when they are truly on the verge of contention, but this is not that time.
Here's the hidden bonus: Fans will actually get behind a team they believe they can grow with. This year's Mariners team is so maddening in large part because it seems to have such a limited future. Fans know intuitively that the bulk of the current players are vagabonds, dispatched as soon as something better comes along. Just about the only joy is watching the progress of young players with a future such as Michael Saunders and Adam Moore, and eyeing from afar the help on the way in the form of Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak, among others.
I'm convinced fans are on board for rebuilding, even with the inevitable growing pains. I'm even convinced that the Mariners are far closer to respectability than it appears.
They just need to stay the course, once and for all.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.