Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said before the season what everyone else was already thinking – that there were effectively more teams playing for the No. 1 draft pick than teams playing for the World Series.
The Mariners knew they were in a bit of a no man’s land. They knew they were closer to the World Series-end of that spectrum, but not nearly as close as some of the rest of these American League stalwarts.
They made you think otherwise when they were staring at their first playoff appearance since 2001 around the All-Star break, but they entered Saturday with nine games remaining and 8.5 games back of the Oakland Athletics for the AL’s final wild card.
(Update: the Mariners were officially eliminated from the postseason chase with the A’s beating the Twins on Saturday night, meaning 17 consecutive seasons with a Mariners playoff appearance).
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“Pretty clearly there is a middle of the pack and we are squarely in it,” Dipoto said Thursday on his weekly appearance on 710-ESPN radio. “And, frankly, we’ve been in it for the past three years.”
Dipoto says that and knows that’s the worst thing he could say, and it speaks to how many awkward problems they’ll face this offseason.
Budget-wise, they’re essentially in the same place they were at this time last year, only older. They didn’t tear it all down because they weren’t in much of a position to, not with more than $101 million tied up between Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Mike Leake and Nelson Cruz this year.
That was more than entire payrolls of nine teams entering the season, including the Athletics, Rays, Braves and Brewers – who are all still in playoff contention, or in the case of Atlanta, which has already clinched its division crown.
The Mariners chose to bank on a small window of playoff contention.
“In today’s time, the fact that there’s so much volume at the top I think is unusual,” Dipoto said. “You haven’t seen that with those kinds of powerful rosters and young cores to teams that really don’t seem to be going away any time soon.
“So it does create an ominous situation in pursuing divisional championships. We’ve tried to put ourselves in a position the past three years to compete for the division and the fall back being the wild card and we’ve just not met our own expectations or goals. That’s on us. It has so much less to do with the league around us. We’ve intentionally tried to compete in the division and/or the wild card and we’ve just not achieved our goals.”
But now what?
As Dipoto pointed to, it’s not like it gets any less ominous. The Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, Indians, Athletics and Rays will still be stocked with young talent.
Meanwhile, the rest of the AL went to subtracting big contracts and adding young players, hoping they’ll stick. The Royals and Orioles will just miss both being 110-loss teams, and MLB hasn’t seen two 110-loss teams since 1969 when the expansion Padres and Expos both went 52-110.
“There were many teams in our league that decided to pull back and rebuild and I think that is their choice and I think they did the right things in the positions they were in,” Dipoto said. “There are also a handful of elite-level teams like Houston and the Yankees and Boston and Cleveland that dominate divisions and/or run up such a heavy win total that they are coming at someone’s expense. That has created more of a polar look at the standings in the American League, and then you had the teams that were effectively in the middle, which were us, Tampa, the Angels and maybe Oakland.
“Oakland excelled at the right time and pushed themselves closer to the group up front. It was going to happen to one team. That was us in the first half and Oakland and Tampa in the second half – and their sequencing was better than us, no question.”
That explanation is all well and good except that Oakland and Tampa Bay had the two lowest payrolls in baseball entering the season. The Mariners even acquired Alex Colome and Denard Span from the Rays for two minor-league pitchers, yet the Mariners enter Saturday with two fewer wins than the Rays.
The Rays and A’s certainly took off, while the Mariners tabled, which led to a players-only meeting, a pregame clubhouse scuffle and now a lot of offseason questions. Dipoto wasn’t going to reveal yet just what direction the Mariners plan to head.
“I’m going to keep those conversations in-house for now, with all due respect,” Dipoto said. “Transparency is one thing, it’s walking through too many scenarios openly that’s not smart.
“There’s too many variables that go into that to come up with what I think is a clear enough game plan to broadcast in this moment in time.”
But what is clear is his disappointment in the 2018 season.
“At the end of the day we make our bed and we got to sleep in it,” Dipoto said. “I’ve said it internally earlier this week that the disappointing thing is that however this finishes over the last 10 games, we’re going to have one of the 10 best win-loss seasons in the history of the Mariners – and it feels like we’ve lost 110 games because the disappointment has been so great because the expectations had grown so high for this team.
“I hope someone is able to look back on the season for 2018, whether it’s our staff or our players or our fan base, that for three and a half months we had a blast watching this team play and we fell short. We’ll be accountable for that and we’ll put our heads down and figure out how we can make it better moving forward.”