Seattle Mariners

Mariners’ new players don’t see 2019 as a “step-back” season

New Seattle Mariners players; from left, infielder JP Crawford, outfielder Mallex Smith and pitcher Justus Sheffield meet the media during the annual pre-spring training media event, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Seattle. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times via AP)
New Seattle Mariners players; from left, infielder JP Crawford, outfielder Mallex Smith and pitcher Justus Sheffield meet the media during the annual pre-spring training media event, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Seattle. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times via AP) AP

Imagine being Mallex Smith, J.P. Crawford, Justus Sheffield or any other of these players the Seattle Mariners have acquired over the course of this offseason.

Imagine hearing the organization calling their upcoming 2019 season part of a step back in order to contend by 2020 or 2021.

These are professional athletes who are used to competing. So, no, they don’t care for rebuilding or the idea of being noncompetitive in 2019.

“I don’t know about you all, but I can’t stand losing,” said Crawford, a 24-year-old shortstop the Mariners acquired from the Phillies in exchange for Jean Segura.

He was addressing a Mariners audience during their annual pre-spring training luncheon at what is now T-Mobile Park that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2001. The Mariners own the longest active streak without a playoff appearance of any team in any of the major North American professional sports leagues.

“This whole step-back thing, I don’t think any of these guys like that either,” said Crawford, whose cousin is former big-leaguer Carl Crawford. “We know we have the talent to shock a lot of people. We’re going to go out there every day and I think we’re going to shock a lot of people. If everyone plays together and plays hard, if everyone takes a step forward we can surprise a lot of people.”

Some recent season projections have slated the Mariners for about 75 wins, compared to the 89 games they won this past year. But of the 40-man roster the Mariners had the final game of the season, more than half those players have been traded or exited in free agency, including starter James Paxton, closer Edwin Diaz and fellow All-Stars Jean Segura and Nelson Cruz among others.

They traded Paxton to acquire Sheffield, 22-year-old left-hander, along with right-hander Erik Swanson and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams from the Yankees.

Sheffield didn’t care so much for calling this year a step back, either.

“We are going to go out there and handle business and not worry about step back or whatever you want to call it for this next year,” Sheffield said. “We know what we want to accomplish and when we get together as a team. We know what our goals are.

“Once we get out there we’ll have a room full of people with that mindset that the step-back season, we won’t even be thinking about that. We’ll be ready to do what we need to do.”

It will also be a room full of people who haven’t played together.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto determined that was the best direction for the Mariners after three years of building around a core of Cruz, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager that fell just short of the playoffs for three consecutive years.

It’s the least desirable position in baseball – not good enough for playoff appearances, but not bad enough to attain top draft picks and focus on developing the farm system.

Dipoto had traded so much of the Mariners’ prospect capital that trying to keep the band together again in 2019 would have allowed them to maybe compete for final wild card berth – in an American League that features super teams such as the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians. But it also could have, as Dipoto said, set the organization back another 10 years with their farm system increasingly thinning.

Instead, he went all in on “reimagining” their roster, as he put it, and swapping aging veterans for young, controllable prospects – even if it pushed their playoff window back at least a couple extra years.

“When we got here in 2015 we talked about building a core around a group of Cano, Cruz, Felix and Kyle Seager and building the floor up around them to be as competitive as we could to compete at a championship level and get to the postseason,” Dipoto said. “We obviously fell short of that goal. Fifth-best record in the American League over the past three years and unfortunately that wasn’t good enough to get us to a single postseason.

“We had to take a look at ourselves and whether that core of players and building around it was the right tact. Obviously, by what we’ve opted to do, we determined that wasn’t the case.”

But what he did assure is that the new-look Mariners will look far more athletic, electric and be more sustainable than what they’ve had.

“We do not anticipate we’ll be a threat to win the World Series in 2019, but we do feel like we’re better situated to do this come 2020 and 2021,” Dipoto said. “We’re still open to the idea of moving veterans in the hope of getting young players back in return, and moving forward we’re very excited about the core of this new, young and exciting team and really hopeful for what it means for the future of baseball with the Mariners.”

Now the Mariners are building around a core of Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and Smith possibly, too. And the contributors around them will have to come from for their wave of prospects over the next few seasons.

Prospect development is far from an exact science. Nor does it guarantee success.

The Mariners need most of the players they’ve acquired who are major-league ready — Smith, Crawford and Sheffield — and the ones close, like right-hander Justin Dunn (acquired from the Mets), second baseman Shed Long (Reds), outfielder Jarred Kelenic (Mets) to develop like they hope. Same goes for some of their in-house prospects such as first baseman Evan White, outfielders Kyle Lewis and Julio Rodriguez and their top draft pick in 2018, right-hander Logan Gilbert.

Dipoto knows it’s asking a lot.

But he also knows they couldn’t continue down the direction they were previously headed.

“No pressure,” said Smith, who was acquired from the Rays for Mike Zunino. “Just excited about the obstacles that lay ahead. I know we haven’t been to the playoffs in a long time, so I’m excited about actually helping us get to the playoffs and changing the culture and learning about my new teammates and having fun playing baseball again.”

Dipoto brought up the team that took the AL’s final playoff spot. The Oakland Athletics entered last season with the lowest payroll in baseball.

“I didn’t think the Oakland A’s were going to contend in 2018 – and then they won 97 games,” Dipoto said. “I don’t know if they’ll contend in 2019, but they might win 97 games, again. We’re not built largely different than that.

“We should be athletic and fun. We should be one of the fastest, most electric, athletic teams in the league from an offensive perspective. I can’t tell you definitively we’re going to win 100 games, but I can tell you we are going to try to win every single one we play.”

TJ Cotterill is the Seattle Mariners and MLB writer for The News Tribune. He started covering MLB full-time in 2018, but before that covered Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and spent seven years writing about high schools, including four as TNT’s prep sports coordinator. Born and raised in Washington.