The first in a four-part series
If one's a fluke, two's a coincidence, and three's a trend, then four's a certain, irrefutable tendency. For the fourth consecutive season the Mariners finished in last place in the AL West, offering further evidence that they're just a team that's more comfortable in the basement than anywhere else, and that the early aughts were an anomaly. After all, over a long enough period of time things in the world gravitate towards their natural states, and in the last four years, the Mariners have taken to establishing theirs. This is a team born to play in the cellar, and by Jove, that's exactly what they're doing.
After a busy winter of roster turnover and raising the budget, 2007 was supposed to be a different year, but things got off to a rough start, and spiraled downward from there. With 13 of their first 20 games coming against division rivals, the Mariners had a golden opportunity to prove that things would be different this time around, that the AL West would be a four-team race throughout the season. They whiffed, though, dropping nine of those games and falling behind the 8-ball before the season had even begun in earnest. The rest of the summer turned into a game of catch-up, a game for which the Mariners weren't suitably built.
Oh, there were highlights - winning the home series against New York in May, Jose Guillen's walk-off homer off Eric Gagne, the September four-game sweep of the Angels to knock them out of the race - but that's exactly what they were, occasional bright points in an altogether dismal campaign. Bad teams remember highlights. Good teams remember lowlights. People remember certain events because they were unexpected, so if you have a team that's constantly winning, one victory blends in with the next (at least, until the playoffs start). Only teams that lose a lot of games point to individual dates on a season calendar as being particularly enjoyable. This is a statement of fact, and it's never been truer than it has been for the Mariners over the past four years.
Looking back, we should've known the roster was trouble. The five-man starting rotation had posted RA's of 4.95, 4.95, 4.96, 5.06, and 6.12 in 2006, so it was silly to think that they'd be any kind of dependable, especially given that three of them were switching leagues. Banking on Felix improving was the right call, and he was certainly a different pitcher in 2007 than he seemed the year before, but he still wasn't close to being good enough to make up for the substandard performance of the four clowns behind him. When Weaver and Ramirez finished April with ERA's near nine, the problem was blatantly evident, but with Baek struggling in Tacoma and Feierabend fighting a sore elbow, there wasn't anything anyone could do but wait it out and hope for the best. And it never came, at least not in time for the team to crawl back into contention.
Not that the rotation deserves all the blame - there's plenty of responsibility to go around. The bullpen never did get itself quite right, thanks to inconsistent eighth innings from Reitsma and Sherrill. Just look at the WPA numbers; their final stats might look okay, but overall they weren't helping. In retrospect the team should've called on Morrow out of ST after all, but it's hard to say they're wrong for wanting him to start, so there's nothing to be done there. Maybe things would've been better had Huber not gone on the shelf and had Rhodes not totally lost his control, but in the end, a bullpen that looked like a strength in October turned out to be a liability. One strong closer does not an effective relief corps make.
And the offense, of course, was a letdown, for the millionth year in a row. This ballpark just isn't a good place for hitters, Lopez and Guillen in particular, and from time to time it seemed like that power alley was getting into their heads. When the runs came, they came in bunches, but the production was far too inconsistent to keep the team afloat by itself. It'd help if the guys in charge could find a better DH, but since they couldn't find a taker for Vidro at the deadline we're stuck with a mediocre one for a while, assuming they don't put Vidro's contract on the bench. This offense could've and should've been a lot better, and maybe in another environment it would've been, but for whatever reason they just didn't push enough guys across home plate, and the team's record suffered as a result. Not that you can point the finger at any one guy or group of guys, of course; this team lost 90 games as a collective unit.
Of course, as is generally the case, there were some standouts outside the crowd of underachievers. We've talked Felix to death so we don't really need to cover him at any more length, but he was one of the team's two co-MVP's. The other, Ichiro, wasn't as flashy, but he was every bit as effective, combining an .800 OPS with fantastic defense in center field and thereby making himself one of the more valuable players in the league. It's a shame the front office hasn't been able to surround these guys with a winning roster, because the core talent has definitely been there. Beyond those two, it's hard to complain about 60 homers from Sexson/Beltre, Betancourt's improved arm accuracy, or O'Flaherty's late-season resurgence. This last one is worth keeping an eye on going forward; the lefty has the talent to turn into a shutdown setup guy in the near future, as he demonstrated in September. The way he worked with Travis Hafner in the second-to-last series of the year was something to behold. He's not quite Mark Lowe in terms of potential impact, but he could easily be the best non-Putz reliever on the team in 2008.
This is going to be an interesting offseason. And I don't mean "interesting" in the same sense as I did the last two years, either. With Hargrove and Bavasi gone and Ichiro a free agent, the Mariners may be on the verge of their most substantial shakeup in franchise history. It won't be easy, since the roster already has about $69m tied up in nine players for 2008, but the new front office is going to want to build a team of its own, so there are going to be some changes. Ichiro's front and center in all of this - it's hard to imagine the Mariners without him in the leadoff spot, but even with his terrific 2007, it'd be difficult to justify giving him the money he wants, especially with Adam Jones waiting in the wings after his strong summer in Tacoma. He's going to be the new front office's first decision, and the choice they make will have an enormous impact on the state of the organization. Do they keep what they can and try to build around last year's core, or do they look elsewhere for talent in other places? On the one hand, letting Ichiro walk would rid the team of its identity, but on the other, they haven't won anything recently with that identity, and it might be time to move on. All we can do is sit back and watch.
There's enough core talent on the roster to make building a 2008 division champion this winter a feasible plan. Doing so might require something of an overhaul in which the final product looks little like it did at the start, but maybe that's for the best. While the new names might be unfamiliar, based on results from the past four years the last thing this fan base needs to cheer for is a group of players they've seen in action. The fans need a new start every bit as badly as the organization does, and finally - finally - we're going to get it.