On Tuesday, Major League Baseball released its forthcoming postseason schedule. Beginning Oct. 3 and concluding as late as Nov. 1, the tracks are set for another postseason path. The fertile lands of October baseball are a place that the Mariners have long pined for but have remained frustratingly elusive and/or disappointing.
As the late stages of their 40th season take shape, the Mariners are one of eight teams that have never hoisted the Commissioner’s Trophy despite a plethora of superstars and high-achieving clubs littered throughout their history. Whether it be Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, or Ichiro and his 116-win team of 2001, the Mariners have consistently fallen short of breaking through when the stakes have been the highest.
More so than missed peaks, it is the seemingly unending tenure spent in the mediocrity that is the valley of the American League, where the Mariners have exclusively existed since that historic 2001 season. The franchise has been absent from the postseason since that year, finishing in fourth place in over half of the seasons since.
That prolonged (at best) mediocrity compelled former GM Jack Zduriencik to act and to do so in dramatic fashion in the winter of 2013 after yet another middling finish the summer before. He splurged to bring aboard the biggest fish in the free agent seas that winter in Robinson Cano, and Cano shocked the baseball world by relocating from the prestigious spotlight of the Bronx to the mediocrity of the AL West’s northwestern most outpost.
Armed with a new $175 million centerpiece, expectations for the Mariners were at a 10-year high, before falling back to life by the end of the following season, which saw them improve by 16 games but still finish in a distant third place.
In response, the next December Zduriencik went back to the well again, this time giving $57 million to Nelson Cruz in effort to add even more firepower to the uneven Seattle attack. Yet what followed this time was an 11-game regression in the wins column, as well as the firing of the big check wielding, low results getting GM in the process.
The man who was left to pick up the pieces was Jerry Dipoto, who was looking to exact a little revenge from his former employers in Anaheim after an unceremonious parting of ways during the 2015 season. He found the perfect place to do so in Seattle, inheriting a club that was undeniably talented but plagued by a series of uneven investments and questionable tactics.
Dipoto wasted little time in purging the imbalances from the roster that had caused them to become so costly in recent years, but the team still showed no signs of progress in the process. His first action was firing manager Lloyd McClendon less than a week into his new position. McClendon had guided the team in each of the first two years of the Cano era. The managerial job was given to Scott Servais, who had previously served as assistant general manager alongside Dipoto in Anaheim.
It was a bold move given the fact that Servais had never coached at any level previously, but it was just the first in a persistent line of such moves to come. Between the 2015 and 2016 seasons, no team tweaked its roster more than the Mariners did, making upward of 14 different personnel changes as Dipoto attempted to make substantive changes in lieu of the heavy-handed approach of Zduriencik.
After Zduriencik spent over $230 million on two players in Cano and Cruz, Dipoto has taken a drastically different path, eschewing the spotlight of the free agent waters in favor of making more from less. In the past two years, he has added the likes Jean Segura, Ben Gamel, Jarrod Dyson, Danny Valencia, Drew Smyly, Mitch Haniger, Yovani Gallardo, and most recently, Yonder Alonso and Marco Gonzales to reinvent the team via understated trades as opposed to splashy expenditures. The most money Dipoto has spent in free agency to bring a new presence to the roster was the $5.5 million it cost to land Marc Rzepczynski entering the season.
The new way of doing business has paid noticeable dividends as well, at least in the standings. For the second straight year, the Mariners are in second place in the AL West and tightly involved in the Wild Card race, and they have done so by enduring a string of what should have been debilitating injuries.
However, satisfaction of the Mariners’ expectations stretches beyond this season and has become a much more complicated task than initially taken on. To make good on both the pre-existing expectation brought on by the financial commitments that preceded him and make the most of moves he has authored, Dipoto must stay ever-ready to do whatever it takes to get the most out of his 25-man roster at a given time. Add in the rise of the Astros and the presence of Mike Trout within his division, not to mention the always present runner-up threats from the AL East, and it is easy to see why Dipoto may carry the most responsibility of any general manager in the game.
Much of reasoning for the constant demand on Dipoto is the ever-changing dynamics of the woe-begotten roster this year. At one point during the first half, the entire Mariners’ starting rotation was on the DL together. Even now in August, only James Paxton and Yovani Gallardo stand as active parts of that rotation. Fifteen different pitchers have started a game for the Mariners this year, while offseason acquisition Drew Smyly never made an appearance before his year ended under the knife for Tommy John surgery.
To their credit, the team persevered and kept its head above water despite swallowing quite a bit along the way. After years of seeing their efforts dampened by the dimensions of Safeco Field, the Mariners’ offense has begun to be a driving force for the team. Five Mariner hitters check in among the top 40 in the AL in OPS, while the team has ranks fifth in runs scored in the league.
Dipoto’s reinvention of the team is working, but what extent can it reach before the deck must be shuffled again?
Time is not on their side, at least in the Mariners’ current incarnation. As Cano, Cruz and Felix Hernandez advance through their 30s, their productively will inevitably decline while their paychecks continue to tie up a considerable amount of the team’s financial possibilities. These are not issues originated by Dipoto but a cross he must bear and work around to ensure that yet another era of Mariners’ hopes are not ultimately reflected upon as letdowns as opposed to triumphs.
With two months to go in the season, Seattle is a club that sits firmly on the ledge between being a player in the AL big picture and stumbling back into irrelevance. It is a position that has become all too familiar for the Mariners faithful. Only time can tell if their stint in baseball purgatory is coming to a much awaited close or if the elusive breakthrough will finally happen and exorcise the many demons of Seattle baseball past, both long gone and new.