The Seattle Mariners officially began their offseason on Monday because, for the 17th consecutive year, they were postseason spectators and not participators.
So general manager Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais answered for that. Dipoto was hired before the 2016 season and outlined a plan of making the playoffs by their third season; the Mariners didn’t accomplish that despite winning 89 games.
The question now and over the next several weeks when Dipoto and company meet within those Safeco Field offices – where do they go from here?
“We picked a unique season in which 89 wins wasn’t enough to get us to the postseason,” Dipoto said. “That’s been the exception rather than the rule since the two wild-card format was adopted (in 2012).
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“You have all heard me talk about this with the intent of being sustainable and we want to be forward-thinking. Since 2016 we’ve had the fifth-best record in the American League. We’re trapped behind four teams that have had extraordinary success and we’ve not been able to get over the hump.”
Not just get over the hump – the Mariners still finished with eight fewer wins than the Athletics, 11 fewer than the Yankees, 14 than the Astros, 19 than the Red Sox, not including that they were also outperformed this year by the 90-win Rays and 91-win Indians in the AL playoff chase.
Not to mention that most all those other teams are loaded with young, sustainable talent, while the Mariners are littered with some aging or declining talent.
And the Mariners aren’t and shouldn’t simply be content with trying to compete for a place in a one-game wild-card playoff.
“We want to be a consistent playoff presence,” Dipoto said of a club that hasn’t reached the playoffs since its 116-win season in 2001. “For us to get there and ultimately win a World Series, we’re going to have to reassess where we are in the marketplace and those meetings start now.”
Dipoto avoided specifics because priorities for 2019 season are still being sorted out, but here are three questions and takeaways about the direction the Mariners must take going forward.
Tear it all down – that’s a phrase much easier said than executed, and one that certainly doesn’t even promise down-the-road success. Only the potential for it.
And the Mariners are filled with what many consider untradeable contracts, starting with the one more year remaining on 32-year-old Felix Hernandez’s deal, five more for Robinson Cano and even to a lesser extent the three remaining with Kyle Seager at almost a $20 million per year clip.
But those are also some of the same players coming off career-worst seasons in production, or in Cano’s case an 80-game suspension for violating MLB’s joint drug agreement.
“The likelihood of ever truly considering a tear-it-down model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Dipoto said. “With that being said, there are alternatives to tear downs. When I look at tear downs, it’s ‘Everybody get out, we’re starting over.’ That doesn’t make sense because we have so many positive elements with where our teams is, guys like Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and Edwin Diaz. These are the pieces you are trying to build around, not the pieces that you are trying to send away.
“But we do need to reassess where this roster is and take a look at not just 2019 but how we catch the teams that are in front of us. I don’t think the Red Sox, the Yankees, Astros or Indians are going anywhere, and, frankly, the Tampa Rays and Oakland A’s just showed us that they are real and we have to consider that.
“I just don’t think you tear it down. I think it doesn’t make a lot of sense with the talent that we have. We’re not talentless. We have a ton of talent.”
Who’s playing where?
The Mariners have to decide what the positions for Dee Gordon and Cano are going forward – who plays second base, who is in center field, or should each expect to be available to play multiple positions like they did in 2018.
And consider what Cano said about that after Sunday’s game.
“Next year I’m going to be back and playing second base,” Cano, the former two-time Gold Glove winner at second base, said. “That’s what I am. It was a situation that happened this year and I was playing some new positions, but all I know is I’m a second baseman.”
Dipoto didn’t necessarily agree with that.
“He talks to you, we will talk amongst ourselves and go figure out what our roster looks like when we get to next year,” Dipoto said. “We can’t root ourselves in thinking any one way. We’re not good enough to think in that linear way. We have to look at our roster more broadly and we will.
“I don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like yet. It just ended yesterday and next season is an entirely new one.”
And Servais said recently that he thinks it would be beneficial for Gordon to be able to focus on fewer defensive responsibilities and get a primary position mapped out – whether that is in center field or the middle infield. They certainly saw how dynamic defensively the former Gold Glove second baseman can be on the dirt as opposed to the grass.
“Whether it was Dee or Robinson moving to first base or third, we were trying to move other players around the field like other teams do with the result being the best outcome for the team,” Dipoto said. “How can we get the best players on the field? The fact that they were playing unusual positions – ask Alex Bregman or Yuli Gurriel or Manny Machado. You do what you have to do when the team needs you to do it.”
Nelson Cruz wants to be back with the Mariners. Servais hopes he’s back. Many of his teammates expressed their desire for him to return. Cano said he would have re-signed Cruz months ago.
But do the Mariners move in another direction from their 38-year-old slugger who is now a free agent, despite Cruz continuing to hit baseballs as hard as any player in baseball?
And what they’re able to do about Cruz likely sets off a chain reaction to everything else with their 2019 roster construction and beyond.
If Cruz stays, he’s a DH with little ability to play outfield anymore. As teams load up on relievers there’s fewer bench players and DHs need to be able to play in the field.
“To me, and I think I speak for everybody within the Mariners, especially with the staff and his teammates – I never viewed Nelson as holding us back,” Dipoto said.
Dipoto loves what Cruz brings to the offense with his bat. But he did agree it limits the 25-man roster.
“When the DH is one of your more productive offensive players and frankly one of the more productive and consistently productive players in the league, it’s a little easier to bear,” Dipoto said. “Nelson Cruz is a winning player. He’s a championship player. We’re not yet determined on how we want to look at our DH role or what we want our staff to look like next year. Those are conversations that are ongoing.
“But clearly if we were committed to going back to the DH-only player, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. We would have taken care of it much earlier this year.”
Sooner or later, they will run out of time on that decision.
But, then again, they also have to figure out if they’ve run out of time on their playoff window, or if it’s still worth building a roster around their core group.
“We ultimately haven’t reached out goals since we’ve been here,” Servais said. “We might have to make a few changes to get to the goal, and that’s not to get to the wild card game. That’s to win postseason games and get a world championship.”