Well, it was fun while it lasted.
On Friday, the Mariners suffered a demoralizing 14-1 loss to the Red Sox in Boston, falling below .500 for the first time this season. The first few weeks were a lot of fun, but we all knew it wasn’t going to last. The offense couldn’t be the best in the majors all season, and a below-average pitching staff wouldn’t cut it. A weak slate of opponents to start the season also made the Mariners look better than they really were. Sure enough, as soon as they started facing tough teams, the Mariners began their slump.
It’s become clear that the Mariners are mostly the team we thought they were. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, even though we didn’t expect the Mariners to be contenders this season. We anticipated that there would still be things to watch for, and I’ll still be following the Mariners and paying close attention to the farm system. Here are my takeaways from this recent stretch of games and what I’m expecting going forward:
1. The Mariners won’t make the playoffs before 2021.
It might seem too early to be giving up on next season, but just consider what the team will look like. A couple prospects could turn out to be pretty good, but some veterans will probably be gone. I don’t foresee the Mariners making a big splash in free agency or the trade market. Okay, maybe the trade market since we’re talking about Jerry Dipoto here. But any trade that Dipoto makes will be like the the Mitch Haniger or Marco Gonzales trades. Neither of those trades included a player who was a star when the deal was executed. I’d expect the Mariners to stay committed to the rebuild until at least the 2020-21 offseason.
2. Trade season will be important for the Mariners, but there won’t be any huge sell moves.
The Mariners aren’t like most rebuilding teams. After trading most of the big stars on the team, Dipoto kept some key players and added others. Many of the prospects acquired last offseason are just a couple years away from contributing in the majors. There aren’t a lot of attractive trade chips on the roster that would make sense to sell. Edwin Encarnacion seems to be the best, but he’s a designated hitter who will have a limited market. I think we’ll see at least one move for an overlooked player like the trades for Haniger and Gonzales.
3. It’s going to take patience to watch the young players develop.
Dipoto added some promising pitching prospects in the offseason through the big trades. The early returns have been concerning, to put it nicely. Both hurlers from the James Paxton trade have struggled so far. Justus Sheffield has had major command issues, and Erik Swanson has been lit up when he hasn’t had the privilege of facing the abysmal Cleveland Indians lineup. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that pitchers can take time to develop. I’m still fairly high on their potential. Sheffield needs to improve his command, but he has a good slider to complement a fastball in the mid-90s. Swanson can be an effective pitcher if he works on his offspeed pitches. It could take a couple seasons for both pitchers to become solid contributors, and the same goes for other prospects. Patience is key.
4. There don’t seem to be any superstars currently on the team or near the majors.
Although the Mariners have players like Haniger, Gonzales, and Yusei Kikuchi, I don’t envision any current Mariners being superstars in 2021 and beyond. The same goes for the prospects in the high minors. That doesn’t mean the Mariners won’t be able to contend for a long time. The Dodgers won the National League pennant last year with a solid group of players that didn’t have any glaring weaknesses. What this means for the Mariners is that it will take a larger number of players to pan out for them to reach the playoffs again. You can win without superstars, but you can’t also have any big holes on the roster. The Mariners already have a lot of good players, and the prospects in the high minors could fill some holes. It’s the prospects in the low levels of the minor leagues who have superstar potential, and they could make up for the decline of veterans in a few years.
5. Rebuilding was the right decision.
The hot start and subsequent plunge has made Mariners fans wonder if trading the stars in the offseason was the right move. With Edwin Diaz in the bullpen to close out games, Paxton leading the rotation, and Jean Segura boosting the lineup and infield defense, you could make the case that the Mariners would have been solid contenders had they kept the team together. I still think rebuilding was a good decision, for a few reasons.
The first reason is payroll flexibility. Yusei Kikuchi probably wouldn’t have been able to come to Seattle if Segura and Robinson Cano remained on the team. The Mariners will also have a lot more money to spend in free agency in the next couple offseasons. Trying to contend this season would mean hunting in the bargain bin. There’s a lot that can go wrong in that scenario.
Second, the players who were traded aren’t quite as valuable as they seem. Paxton hasn’t pitched more than 160.1 innings in a season, and he’s already suffered an injury this year. You just can’t count on him to pitch a full season. Cano is 36, has started the season off slowly, and he never posted back-to-back seasons of elite production in Seattle. Closers are volatile and only pitch about a third as many innings as starters, which limits their value. As incredible as he was last season, it still made sense to try to turn Diaz into a productive starting pitcher or position player. I don’t have any problems with the decision to let Nelson Cruz walk, since Daniel Vogelbach has been mashing at a much cheaper price and also comes with the bonus of being thiccer. Out of all the stars, Segura was the best one to keep, but the trade that sent him to Philadelphia could turn out to be pretty good for the Mariners. After raking in AAA, J.P. Crawford has impressed with the Mariners so far. The other player in the deal, Carlos Santana, was flipped for Encarnacion and a draft pick.
Lastly, the rebuild extends the window for the Mariners to be competitive. The Mariners would only have had two more arbitration years left with Paxton before he hit free agency. Cano is already 36 and could hit a sharp decline soon. The same goes for Cruz, who will be 39 on July 1. Going all-in on this season would have had the potential to be disastrous, as it’s unlikely the Mariners would be able to finish ahead of the Astros for the division title. Pushing all the chips into the center of the table for a run at a Wild Card is just way too risky. The prospects acquired in the offseason will be under team control for a while and there isn’t a high risk that their skills suddenly fall off a cliff. It was a tough decision to swallow, but I think Dipoto made the right choice to rebuild the Mariners.