SEATTLE – The Seattle Mariners co-opted the “Ted Lasso” meme “Believe” as their slogan for the stretch drive, and rode it all the way to Game 162. The M’s really did follow the television show’s script to the letter. Remember, AFC Richmond – Lasso’s fictional team – also fell agonizingly short of its goal, losing the season’s final game to Manchester City to ensure relegation out of the Premier League.
The Mariners aren’t leaving the American League, but now they have to show their totally unexpected surge in 2021 wasn’t a fluky outlier. And I’d suggest that they go one step beyond “Believe” and reclaim the spirit of a previous club slogan that failed miserably the first time around: “Believe Big.”
Now is not the time for timidity, or frugality. The Mariners awakened a dormant fandom with their improbable run. But as heartwarming, exciting and exhilarating as it was, they missed the playoffs again, for the 20th straight year. It would be a shame to let the good feeling that developed slip away by virtue of a lackluster offseason, and watch the Mariners slide right back to mediocrity.
General manager Jerry Dipoto is known for his aggressive deal-making. I have a hunch he’s going to redouble his efforts to put the finishing touches on this ballclub. I just hope ownership is committed to the spending that will be necessary for that to be accomplished.
Because the Mariners are ever so close to the playoff breakthrough that everyone has been waiting for – closer than they’ve been since the advent of the dark years, circa 2004. The major league core is solid, and the farm system is bursting with talent. But there are undeniable holes on this ballclub that could lead to regression if not addressed. And they owe it to their long-suffering fans, not to mention the players in the clubhouse, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
There’s history at play here. The Mariners have not handled their intermittent bouts of success well. Since winning 93 games in both 2002 and 2003 with the remnants of their 116-win nucleus, missing the playoffs both years, the Mariners have had just six winning seasons in the ensuing 18 years. And here’s the ominous part: Every one of them has been followed by a losing season, most of them of disastrous proportions. The Mariners can give a master’s class in how delicate is the process of building upon success – and of the fragile nature of said success.
Let’s review: In 2007, the Mariners went 88-74 and followed by picking up two pitchers they thought would put them over the top. They traded a package of young players, most notably Adam Jones, for Erik Bedard, and signed free agent Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract. Both deals were, to say the least, regrettable. The Mariners went 61-101 in 2008.
In 2009, with Ken Griffey Jr. returning to the team after a 10-year absence, the M’s had a resurgent 85-77 season. That led to the aforementioned “Believe Big” campaign of 2010, fueled by the signing of free agent Chone Figgins and a trade with Philadelphia for ace Cliff Lee to team with emerging superstar Felix Hernandez atop the rotation. It went spectacularly wrong. The Mariners finished 61-101 again, and I suggested at the time that their motto should be amended to, “Bereave Big.”
The Mariners’ next winning season was 2014 under Lloyd McClendon, when they signed Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract. But the bullpen that had been so brilliant that year imploded in 2015 and the M’s went 76-86, despite the signing of Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $57 million contract.
They bounced back in 2016, Scott Servais’ first year, to go 86-76, only to slip to 78-84 in 2017. And after going 89-73 in 2018, narrowly missing the playoffs, the Mariners decided to instigate their “step-back” plan, sending away most of their veterans to rebuild the farm system.
And now that plan is on the verge of fruition. But a few tweaks are necessary to hasten the process. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the success of their rebuild will ultimately be determined by the progress of their young prospects who will form the core of the roster moving forward. Not just the familiar names – Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Noelvi Marte – but numerous others, particularly the pitchers who provide the depth that convinced Baseball America to name Seattle’s farm system the best in MLB.
Yet there’s no doubt the Mariners need to reach out aggressively into free agency or the trade market to fill some holes. I’ve already highlighted how fraught with danger that can be. The Mariners thought they were doing just that in 2008, 2010 and 2015 with their acquisitions. They also thought they were doing that before the 2005 season, when they dished out more than $100 million to sign Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre. The result was no playoffs in the four years those two were together, and, in 2008, the first team in MLB history with a $100 million payroll and 100 losses.
The difference is those Seattle teams didn’t have the talent coming that these Mariners presumably do. The M’s have proven that’s there’s no guarantees when it comes to prospects, but unless every talent evaluator in the world is wrong, the Mariners are on the verge of having a wave of impact players hit their roster.
With that in mind, there’s a fine line between being reckless in their offseason acquisitions, and augmenting the roster judiciously. I would make free agent Marcus Semien, coming off a monster season in Toronto as a follow-up to his breakout 2019 campaign, their No. 1 target. Just imagine putting Semien at second base next to J.P. Crawford, and what that would do to both the lineup and infield defense. The Mariners have more than enough payroll space to make a competitive offer.
They could use at least one more bat beyond that, and a top-flight starting pitcher. I’ll get into more specific names later, but Dipoto’s creativity in deal-making, which has a strong track record, will be put to the ultimate test. The Mariners finally have depth enough in the minor league system to acquire proven talent via trades – but you also don’t want to see Adam Jones, Derek Lowe or Jason Varitek develop elsewhere because you had delusions of grandeur and got impatient and/or imprudent.
Like I said, it’s a delicate and fragile process. But the rewards would be tremendous if the Mariners can pull it off. That’s something you can believe, and believe big.
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