The second in a four-part series
In the end, the feeling was the same. The Mariners fielded a bunch of unknowns and rookies against Texas, closed out the season to mild applause, and sat down to watch the playoffs from home for the sixth year in a row. Were someone to watch the ending without seeing any of the season leading up to it, they'd think there was nothing to celebrate, that it was just another lost year for an organization that seemingly knows no other kind.
And yet, as bitter and unpleasant as it can be watching Joel Pineiro pitch in the playoffs while the Mariners sit at home, this was a season of progress, and progress of the sort that we haven't seen in a while. For the first time in years, the Mariners were relevant, finishing above .500 and forcing other teams to take them seriously rather than rolling over at the first sign of trouble. They played strong, they played confident, and most importantly, they played well, and for five months they were right in the thick of the playoff race. Even when luck and fatigue started to catch up with them and saw them drop in the standings, they still kept their heads up and played hard, even doing their part to shape the AL postseason picture with a four-game sweep in Anaheim to knock the Angels out of contention. Sure, the bulk of September was forgettable, and the home sweep at the hands of the Athletics was the worst pain we've felt in years, but don't let a lousy ending spoil the whole summer. For once we can be proud of this team and look forward with relative confidence. Relevance comes first. Next comes fear.
The more I think about it, this whole season was unusual - not because the Mariners didn't finish in the basement, but because they didn't really have a single player to whom you could point and say "that guy really killed us." This team was built with a talented core surrounded by stable mediocrity, and almost to the man, everyone held up their end of the bargain. Yeah, you would've liked to get a better OPS in right field, 35 homers from Sexson, and a rotation devoid of 5.00 ERA's, but those just weren't the breaks. And I'm not sure we could've expected them to be; Guillen didn't get along with this ballpark at all, Sexson began his decline a year ago, and Ramirez just didn't have enough stuff to be a consistent performer. Nevertheless, none of them were abjectly bad players, let alone black holes. This team just had a little too much mediocrity to stay in the race through the end.
More than anything else, that's what got them. In 2005, the Mariners were done in by a lack of core talent. In 2006, they were done in by the gaping holes around their core talent. And in 2007, they were done in not by their supporting players sucking, but by their supporting players getting by with what was expected of them, and nothing more. Were this a classroom, the Mariners had a couple geniuses and a flock of C-level students who only did what they had to to pass. It's a good way to survive, but not a good way to succeed, and while it was enough to keep them hanging around for a while in this division, competing in the AL West probably shouldn't be the benchmark for determining who is and isn't a playoff-caliber team.
What they needed was for someone to break out, for someone young to build on their prior experience and have a big 2007, but outside of Felix - who everyone assumed would look awesome anyway - it didn't happen. Lopez didn't take any steps forward at the plate, settling on ten homers for the second year in a row. While Betancourt's footwork improved in the field, his hitting didn't progress. Guillen came in with some breakout potential but after vocally expressing his frustration with the outfield dimensions back in May, it was clear that this wouldn't be a good environment for him to succeed. And so on and so forth. The pitching staff certainly didn't feature any pleasant surprises, unless you expected Weaver to post another 6.00+ ERA entering the season. While no one took any major steps backward, no one outside of Felix really got much better, leaving the team in the difficult position of being too bad to make the playoffs, but too good to tear apart.
And that's what the front office gets to deal with going forward. There's money to spend and places to spend it, but with Ichiro reportedly on the verge of signing a big extension, most of the key positions are already filled, meaning that any substantial improvement in 2008 will have to come from either A) trades, or B) the continued development of the young talent on the roster. And given Bavasi's track record as far as the former is concerned, it might be best to leave that one along altogether and focus exclusively on the latter. But after witnessing 2007 firsthand, one has to wonder just how much more room for development these players really have. If Lopez and Betancourt and other guys like Beltre and Johjima are topped out, then, while they're good, they may not be good enough to push this team over the edge without getting some big time help from the outside. Help that can be difficult to find, and may not even be available to the Mariners this winter unless they're willing to be more aggressive than they've ever been in the past.
All that said, there are far worse things to be than a team depending on the improvement of its young talent to push the rest of the roster into the playoffs. This isn't like some Pittsburgh Pirates situation where everyone's young and the front office needs them all to show up in order to win a few games; the Mariners already have a .500 collection of stable veterans, and all they need are a few extra wins from the rest of the roster to really make noise and forge a legitimate push for October. It's not a perfect situation, but it's a pretty good one, one that comes with a lot more upside than downside. And in a winter where nothing's absolutely certain, a favorable risk/reward ratio might be the best anything you can ask for.
This offseason is going to say a lot about what the front office thinks of the current roster. If they go the '06/'07 route and bring in stable vets to fill the periphery, then they're confident in the development of the young players on the roster. If they open up the wallet for an impact arm or bat, then they're acknowledging that they might still need a little help outside of the guys they already have. Those are really the only two paths they can take, given that Ichiro looks to be as good as re-signed and that a rebuilding process is completely out of the question. The names are up in the air, but the basic ideas are clear. Either the Mariners believe in their current roster, or they don't, and they do something big to make it better.
Which do I think they'll do? I can't say for sure, but I know they'll at least try to make a splash. While Ryan Feierabend is the current odds-on favorite to be the #5 next year, packaging the soon-to-be blocked Adam Jones with a little extra talent could bring back the kind of impact starter this team so badly needs. It'd sacrifice a potentially significant part of the future, but while we don't know what the team'll look like a few years down the road, we know what it looks like now, and it looks like a team that's one player away from October. To build a winner, the resources are there; the front office just has to know how to use them, and where to put them.
Once again, we're heading into an offseason in which the organization has to work hard to field a competitive team. That's been the case for as long as I can remember. That said, though, the task is now of considerably lesser magnitude than it has been in the past, and getting out of it on top seems easier than ever before. That's what happens when you have a team that finally starts playing well and generating a little excitement again. The Mariners still aren't the best team in the division, but they're closer now than they were a year ago, and there's reason to hope that by next March, their roster will rank right up there at the top. And while that's a long ways away, and there're a lot of things that'll happen between now and then, I've found that recalling Putz's memorable encounter with Vlad Guerrero that late August night puts me in a pleasantly calm and optimistic mood as I look ahead to what's to come. Because it's only a matter of time before that happens in the playoffs, and while the wait is tedious, in the end I know it'll be worth it.