SEATTLE – So remind me again – when exactly does the fun part start?
One of the selling points I kept hearing about the Mariners’ step-back strategy was what a kick it was going to be to see this process unfold. It would be painful on the field, sure, but watching the kids grow and develop before your eyes – the Mariners’ bright future emerging – would make it tolerable and even joyful.
But we’ve reached August, and I’m still waiting for the fun part, outside of the two-week stretch that may well become a legendary example of false omens.
A dreary, painful, exasperating baseball season in Seattle was delivered another body blow on Tuesday with news that Tim Beckham had tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance, Stanozolol. Beckham received an 80-game suspension, ending a season in which he bolted out of the gate and then faded, much like the team itself.
It was the second year in a row the Mariners were rocked midseason by a PED suspension, though this one doesn’t have nearly the impact of Robinson Cano’s last May. Cano was a superstar and an integral part of a Seattle team that was in playoff position. Beckham is a fringe player on a team fighting to avoid 100 losses and might have been cut loose soon anyway.
But it’s nevertheless an embarrassing turn of events, one that puts another accent on how generally unpleasant this year has been on the major league level. At least they avoided a new level of humiliation that would have come with being the first team to be no-hit three times in a season. But it took them until one out in the seventh to get their first hit off San Diego’s Dinelson Lamet, just three days after being held hitless by Houston.
Mind you, in places like Little Rock, Arkansas; Modesto, California; and Charleston, West Virginia, it’s been far more encouraging. The Mariners have fulfilled their goal of beefing up the farm system, moving up to 11th in the latest MLB minor league rankings. They have the prospects in place to potentially – key word – jump-start the rebuild.
Ultimately, that’s far more important than whether the Mariners lose 95 or 100. But all that developmental magic is out of sight and mind for all but the most ardent farm zealots. It’s hard to exult too passionately over scouting reports, stat lines and grainy videos – especially with the Mariners’ track record of prospect burnout.
What we’ve seen up here, meanwhile, is just a steady stream of bad, bad baseball – far more noncompetitive than I think anyone with the Mariners anticipated. Yes, they knew the team would not contend, but I don’t think a .343 winning percentage since the 13-2 start – which translates to a 106-loss pace over 162 games – was part of their game plan.
The aspect that was supposed to provide much of the intrigue, watching the kids develop in the major leagues, well, that hasn’t really played out yet. We’ve only had fleeting glimpses of the most intriguing young players, like Shed Long and Justus Sheffield.
Part of that is bad luck – injuries that have sidetracked Long, Braden Bishop and Jake Fraley on their expected route to a T-Mobile Park proving ground. Part has been performance-related, specifically Sheffield, who in the best-laid plans would already be part of the Mariners’ rotation but pitched his way down to Double-A instead.
Part is yet to come this year – a slew of the most exciting prospects, like Kyle Lewis, Justin Dunn and possibly Evan White, along with Long and Fraley, who could all be showcased in the major leagues in September.
That’s when the real fun will start – the meaty part of a rebuild, when you see firsthand the raw tools of these touted prospects. That’s when fans can actually conceptualize better times ahead, rather than having to rely on pure faith, which is understandably in short supply around here.
In the meantime, we’ve been subjected to a steady stream of players rescued from the scrap heap – some heartwarming stories, to be sure, and maybe even a few keepers. But it’s hardly enough to move the needle, or have it cut through the gloom.
When it comes to players who will actually be here for the hoped-for breakthrough, it’s been scant. There’s Kyle Seager, out of contractual necessity, but he was hurt for the bulk of the season, as was Mitch Haniger. Daniel Vogelbach’s rise has certainly been a high point. J.P. Crawford’s progress has been encouraging. Marco Gonzales has been solid. Yusei Kukuchi has struggled, but at least the drama has played out at the big league level.
Mind you, I’m actually more convinced than ever that the step-back was the right call. This last series with Houston highlighted again, if it was even necessary, how the Astros are in a different universe than the Mariners. And it looks like the two AL wild-card teams are both going to surpass 90 wins. The path to the playoffs, in other words, was going to be treacherous.
The Mariners were a poster child for regression to the mean after an aberrational 89-win season. Had they decided to keep their team intact and go for a postseason spot, I think they would have been left out in the cold again – with the same dismal farm system holding them back in the future.
Now they at least have the vague outline of hope for the future, though their timetable is almost certainly too optimistic – a topic for another day.
On one of the darker days of a tedious season, there’s some solace in knowing that while it’s not a given that better times are ahead in Seattle, perhaps more compelling ones are.
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