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Out of Right Field: Where do the Seattle Mariners go from here?

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 15, 2018, 8:52 p.m.

Seattle Mariners pitcher James Pazos, left, talks with Robinson Cano in the dugout after Pazos got out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Seattle Mariners pitcher James Pazos, left, talks with Robinson Cano in the dugout after Pazos got out of a bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning against the San Diego Padres on Wednesday in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

The competitive portion of the Seattle Mariners’ schedule is over. It has been for a while, really.

While some fans (and front-office members) have clung to a quixotic notion of making a late-season charge, the writing has been on the wall for several weeks.

The Mariners’ collapse in their second 70 games of the season was as swift, complete and resolute as the promise the first 70 games laid out.

What was once a double-digit lead for the second wild card has become an insurmountable deficit with 15 games left to prolong the agony.

All that will have been accomplished this season is extending the longest postseason drought of the four major sports another year.

Futility wears teal. Or whatever color the Mariners happen to be wearing on any given day.

Hope is a dangerous thing. As my colleague wrote in this space a couple of weeks ago, “Baseball’s past shows time and again September miracles do happen – and can happen in Seattle.”

Unfortunately, not this year. And not for the last 17 years.

So, what now?

General manager Jerry Dipoto is going to have a lot of questions to find answers for over the offseason.

Never one to sit on his hands, Dipoto will be even busier over the winter trying to reconstruct a starting rotation, finding reliable relief options who aren’t named “Edwin Diaz,” and sorting out the myriad problems in the batting lineup and on the field.

At one point this season, Dipoto looked like a candidate for “Executive of the Year.” Now, this offseason will be critical to his tenure in Seattle.

He signed a contract extension through 2020 in July (before things went south), then reupped manager Scott Servais later that month.

One has to wonder, considering sober reflection on the past two months, if ownership isn’t rethinking whether they should have waited until the offseason to renegotiate.

Anyway, let’s give Dipoto some assistance heading forward and break this down Clint Eastwood style.

The Good

The wins the M’s earned in the first half still count. They’ll end up roughly 15 games above .500.

It just so happens they share a division with one of the three best teams in MLB right now.

There’s some talent, but it needs to be massaged and managed better than this season.

Mitch Haniger, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura, James Paxton, Marco Gonzalez, Edwin Diaz and Alex Colomé are all fine players, especially when put in positions where they are most likely to succeed.

Kyle Seager and Ryon Healy should both still have a few seasons of good productivity and have too much of a track record to write off – but they are definitely broken right now.

One wonders if the M’s have the right person on staff to help fix them.

The Bad

Probably the best news for the M’s is that they only have one impending free agent of note. But it also happens to be their most reliable and consistent offensive performer: DH Nelson Cruz.

The Boomstick, 38, knows this will be his last significant contract and will want a multiyear deal. That’s a nonstarter for this club – or should be anyway.

Cruz is a luxury the M’s can’t afford going forward.

In modern baseball, organizations embrace the all-or-nothing approach. But that is predicated on the “nothing” portion still being manageable. Even at catcher.

That’s why what Mike Zunino did last season (.251/.331/.509) was so promising.

But it’s also why his regression to under the Mendoza line and sub-.250 OBP hurts so badly. Last year was an aberration. This is what he is. Time to cut bait.

Between Mike Leake and Wade Leblanc the M’s have fifth starter wrapped up. But they are who they are – innings-eating .500 pitchers.

That’s not a knock on them, but for the Mariners to be truly competitive they need to get at least one of these guys out of the rotation and into the pen.

The Mariners’ biggest need this offseason is the same as it was last offseason: a top-of-the-rotation starter to join Paxton as “1A,” or even better, to push Paxton to No. 2 where his talent and injury history says he should be.

The Ugly

You knew it was coming.

The Mariners not only have one albatross around their collective necks – they have two. And they are the team’s two most expensive returning players.

Felix Hernandez is owed $27 million for 2019 with full no-trade protection. Robinson Cano is owed $24 million annually until 2023. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s five more seasons.

First, Felix. He’s done. It’s a painful thing to say aloud and I’m sure more painful to admit.

Dipoto and the Mariners have given Felix every opportunity to show even glimpses that he could be The King again, but it’s just not there. Ten straight years of 190-plus innings have taken their toll.

If the Mariners want and expect to compete next season, Hernandez can’t be part of the rotation. It’s that simple.

And what to do about Cano?

The Mariners would like nothing more than to distance themselves from Cano and the specter of his 80-game PED suspension. But how can Dipoto find a trade partner willing to take on Cano?

He’s been OK when in the lineup this season, but extrapolated over 162 games, his numbers look more like in 2014-15 than his rebound year of 39 homers in 2016.

Regardless, he’ll be 36 on opening day. Say it with me again: Five. More. Years.

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