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Commentary: To return to playoffs, Mariners must finally invest to improve lineup

By Larry Stone Seattle Times

For the first time in three years, the Mariners on Sunday played a game that neither had impact on the pennant race nor was a precursor to the playoffs. That prompted manager Scott Servais before the game to characterize the Mariners’ rebuild as “unbelievably successful.”

Compared to the vast wasteland that preceded it, the rebuild has indeed been fruitful. It brought the Mariners their first playoff appearance in 20 years and has left them with a core of young starting pitching that is nearly unsurpassed in baseball. All that and a budding superstar in Julio Rodriguez, end-of-season slump notwithstanding.

That’s a big-picture view. The small picture is much more painful, not at all assuaged by Sunday’s season-ending 1-0 win over the Rangers. Rather than being unbelievably successful, the 2023 season was unbelievably frustrating. Possessing a 90.2% playoff chance Sept. 2, as calculated by FanGraphs, the Mariners sputtered and stumbled down the stretch to miss the postseason for the 21st time in 22 seasons.

Considering the momentum and high hopes back in April, the year has to be deemed an overall failure. The offseason and in-season moves proved inadequate, predictably so, and the September collapse highlighted the fundamental flaws in roster construction while leaving a sour taste in what was set up to be a triumphant season.

Which brings us to the passionate, thoughtful assessment of catcher Cal Raleigh on Saturday, in the wake of the Mariners’ playoff elimination, in which he implored M’s management to add big-time talent to the roster. Though Raleigh on Sunday apologized for the timing of his remarks, the crux of his statement still rings true, loud and clear. In fact, numerous prominent players endorsed and expanded on his viewpoint Sunday.

“I think Cal had some great comments yesterday,’’ said J.P. Crawford, the de facto captain of the Mariners. “I know there’s a big controversy about that earlier this morning and I’m with him on that. I think we need to go out there and really make a move to help this team win. We’ve just got to get better.”

One would hope that ownership takes Raleigh’s sentiment to heart. And there just happens to be a giant white whale of a free agent this winter who would go a long way toward silencing the long-standing criticism that the Mariners aren’t willing to make the necessary investment to win at a championship level.

I’m talking, of course, about Shohei Ohtani, and he makes so much sense for this team in every way that it is virtually imperative the Mariners make every effort to sign him this offseason. I’m talking a good-faith, genuine effort, not a token toe-dip designed to appease fans but not bold enough to sway Ohtani.

It’s going to be hugely expensive, of course, but probably not in the financial stratosphere once thought, now that Ohtani is not going to pitch in 2024 after undergoing elbow surgery. Ohtani’s camp insists he will pitch again in 2025, but the team that lands him will no doubt have to craft a creative contract that takes into account the uncertainty of his future on the mound. But given Ohtani’s immense drawing power, a massive deal is much more palatable, especially given the Mariners’ payroll flexibility.

Even without pitching, Ohtani offers an elite left-handed power bat that checks every box for the Mariners – with the likelihood of him eventually continuing the two-way work that has made him a legend, and the most valuable player in MLB.

I’m fully aware that profligate spending does not automatically equate with success. One just need look at the Mets, Yankees and Padres, who rank 1-2-3 in MLB payroll in 2023 – and all of whom will be sitting at home when the playoffs start after monumental flameouts this season. Conversely, four teams in the bottom 10 of payroll – Arizona, Miami, Baltimore and Tampa Bay – are still alive in the postseason.

It takes creativity, a robust farm system, and shrewd acquisitions to build a winning team. To their credit, the Mariners have had success in all those areas to varying degrees. As frustrating as this season was – and their finish will sting all winter – as long as they have a core of Luis Castillo, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Bryan Woo and Bryce Miller, the Mariners are poised to make a championship run with the proper roster tweaking.

But it will take a commitment that the ballclub shockingly didn’t make last offseason, when their additions were largely role players, journeymen or lapsed veterans. Looking at their everyday lineup, the only sure things moving forward are Raleigh at catcher, Crawford at shortstop and Rodriguez in center field.

That leaves a lot of decisions to be made on other players, and a lot of room to maneuver. Their pitching depth leaves open the possibility of trading one of the coveted young arms for a bona fide bat. And Ohtani looms as a target of the first order to plug into the DH spot and the middle of the order, where he would electrify their lineup. Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman are other pending free agents who should be on the Mariners radar.

Speaking after Sunday’s finale, Crawford said he was driven all last offseason by anger and frustration over his performance and the team’s playoff ouster. He plans to harness the same energy this winter after the Mariners’ playoff hopes ended in Game 161. Crawford, who came back to have a sensational year, hopes his teammates have the same motivation.

“Take like this feeling into the offseason, every day, just every time you’re working out or training. Just remember how much it pisses you off,’’ he said.

If that feeling permeates through the entire organization – and skeptics have historically been given reason to have doubts – it bodes well for fixing the deficiencies that sidetracked the Mariners in 2023.