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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Larry Stone: After ‘step-back’ season, Mariners must develop stars to bridge gap with MLB postseason teams

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 9, 2019

Seattle Mariners catcher Omar Narvaez, left, looks down as Houston Astros' Myles Straw scores during the 14th inning of a baseball game Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
Seattle Mariners catcher Omar Narvaez, left, looks down as Houston Astros' Myles Straw scores during the 14th inning of a baseball game Thursday, June 6, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It was 24 years ago Tuesday that the Mariners played what remains the greatest game in their history, the one they’ve been fruitlessly clinging to and trying to replicate since.

In many ways, they seem further than ever from the magic of the postseason, exemplified by Edgar Martinez’s epic double against the Yankees on Oct. 8, 1995, in the division series game referenced above. As has been well-chronicled, the Mariners’ postseason drought reached 18 years during a miserable 2019 season that saw them lose 94 games and finish 39 games behind the division-winning Astros.

That impression is reinforced by watching the postseason, which has been in full gear for the past week. It’s readily evident that the Mariners, as presently constituted, aren’t in the same ballpark as the 10 teams that qualified for the postseason. It’s like the playoff teams are playing an entirely different game – with a lot better players.

That’s particularly true of some of the elite teams – the Dodgers, Yankees, Braves, Nationals and especially Astros, who racked up their third consecutive 100-win season with a staggering 107 victories.

At a recent “Town Hall” talk, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto called the Astros “the most talented team I’ve ever seen” during his 31 years in pro baseball. And they’re not going anywhere – certainly not out of the Mariners’ division, the AL West, where they landed in 2013 (with the last of three consecutive 100-loss seasons).

Oh, Houston will have challenges in keeping all that talent together (especially pending free-agent pitcher Gerrit Cole), and Justin Verlander can’t remain at his supreme level forever. But they will still be extremely formidable for the foreseeable future.

So the Mariners have a clear challenge: They have to find a way to surpass the Astros, or their road back to the playoffs will be via the far more dicey wild-card route. Dipoto has said – and I concur – that they tore the team apart for precisely that reason. They wanted a club that could compete for a championship, not one that lucked into an occasional wild card if all the stars aligned.

The perpetually one-and-done A’s – coming off back-to-back seasons of 97 wins – have shown how problematic that can be. By the way, even if the Mariners had gone for it this year, they weren’t going to win 97 games, the total nearly matched by the other AL wild card, Tampa Bay, which had 96.

The Mariners, however, believe they are actually much, much closer to the playoffs than they were before embarking on their “step-back” approach almost exactly 11 months ago with the trades of Mike Zunino, James Paxton, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz and Jean Segura in a three-week span.

And certainly, closer to being a team that can do some damage if and when it gets there, by virtue of a farm system that has been transformed – they hope – into one of the most dynamic in the game.

But, again, watching the postseason makes it crystal clear to me what it will take.

Stars. Check that – superstars. The Mariners think they’re breeding just that, particularly with Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. They had better be, because that has been the bane of the Mariners’ existence for years. They have not developed a true impact position player since Ken Griffey Jr. (drafted in 1987) and Alex Rodriguez (1993), and no such pitcher since Felix Hernandez (signed out of Venezuela in 2002).

Dipoto has talked proudly of the serviceable players the Mariners unearthed this year by virtue of his nonstop transactional wheeling and dealing – the likes of Austin Nola, Dylan Moore, Matt Magill, Anthony Bass and others. Those could be nice complementary pieces that every winning team needs.

But just look at the teams still alive, and the engines driving them: Cody Bellinger of the Dodgers. Juan Soto of the Nationals. Aaron Judge of the Yankees. Alex Bregman of the Astros. Ronald Acuna of the Braves.

All came out of their farm system. All but Judge (who is 27) are age 25 or younger. All are transcendent, game-changing players. All have plenty of talent surrounding them, but they are the superstar difference-makers the Mariners are hoping and praying that Rodriguez, Kelenic or someone else in their farm system becomes.

The Mariners will point to playoff teams such as the Astros, A’s, Twins and Brewers as examples of how high one can soar after a “step-back” (the A’s have seemingly been stepping back and forward intermittently for the past 20 years). The Twins lost 103 games in 2016 and won 101 this year. The Brewers lost 94 in 2015 and 89 in ’16 but have made the playoffs the past two years.

But as a cautionary tale, I always like to point out what it took for the Astros – the shining star of rebuilds – to get where they are today: consecutive seasons of 88, 86, 106, 107, 111 and 92 losses, starting in 2009, before breaking through in 2015.

I also like to point out that some rebuilding teams never do break through. The White Sox embarked on a “step-back” similar to Seattle’s in 2017 when they traded pitcher Chris Sale and numerous other stars. Their prospect yield in those deals was widely praised – and the White Sox are coming off an 89-loss season in Year 3 of the rebuild, after losing 95 and 100 games the first two years.

Dipoto believes strongly that he can short-circuit the amount of time it takes to become a legitimate contender. They see that happening in 2021. We’ll know a lot more after next season, when the Mariners expect that nearly all of their first wave of young prospects makes it to the major leagues.

Turn on your television this month to see what the best-case-scenario for the future looks like. Check out nearly two decades of Mariners archives to see where it can all go wrong.

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