The third in a four-part series
I feel bad doing this. I feel bad for having to write a "What if?" column on the heels of the Mariners' first successful season in forever. I feel bad for focusing on the things that went wrong in a year where so so much went right. I feel bad, and yet it's exactly what I have to do, because not in a long time has there been a season with so many possibilities and so much potential for more that just got flushed down the drain. What if the Mariners had won two more games, indeed. Things would be a hell of a lot different.
Two games. Two games, over a 162-game schedule, representing the difference between watching October baseball and playing it. Two seems so small, so inconsequential, and yet in our case, it's everything, all anyone's going to remember when they think back on the season during the winter. Maybe it's not right, given how many highlights there were over the course of the summer, but when you get that close to the playoffs you lose sight of everything else and concentrate on the primary goal. And if you fall short, it sucks. Eventually we'll reach the point where we can reflect on the season with fond memories and be happy about the team's continued development, but we're not there yet. Right now, we're all still looking for answers.
What if the Mariners had a better September? 15-13 isn't bad by any means, but it's not the kind of record that'll let you separate yourself from the pack. Especially when you drop four of six games to Oakland in the span of ten days. Sure, the Mariners showed signs of life when their four-game sweep of the Angels in Anaheim turned a three-team race into a two'fer, but the A's, of course, kept pace with a sweep of their own. It was like, once the Mariners fell behind in the standings, they couldn't make up any ground. If Seattle won, Oakland won. If Oakland lost, Seattle lost. While the A's were busy dropping three of their last five games, the Mariners couldn't do better than .500 against Cleveland and Texas, an underwhelming last gasp that wasn't at all suggestive of a playoff-caliber team. One back on the final Sunday, still with a shot of forcing a one-game playoff, all eyes in Safeco were fixated on "LAA/OAK" on the scoreboard, but the A's promptly put up an eight-run first against Weaver, and everyone knew it was over. The Mariners won that afternoon, but nobody cared. The season's full of missed opportunities, but none of them hurt quite as bad as the last one.
What if Raul Ibanez didn't pull up lame running to first and have to go on the DL in June, right before the twelve-game homestand? The Mariners lost seven of those games, four by a one-run margin. Who knows what kind of difference a left-handed power bat could've made over those two weeks, particularly when Raul's temporary replacements combined to go 6-47 with zero homers and two RBI. A righty-heavy lineup wouldn't be a problem in most environments, but it's murder in Safeco, because should your lone lefty home run threat go down for any period of time, you're left helpless. Say what you will about how the front office overrates Raul's value to the ballclub, but he's been a critical part of the offense, and his 15-day absence this summer might've cost the team a shot at the playoffs.
What if Hargrove had swapped Reitsma and Huber's roles a few weeks earlier than he did? It was clear to many of us early in the season that Reitsma wasn't all the way back to being an effective high-leverage reliever, but Hargrove stuck with him through homer after homer, refusing to give in until he allowed that grand slam to Nelson Cruz at the end of May. All this while Huber was striking out a batter an inning in the sixth and seventh. All told, by May 31st Reitsma had accumulated a staggering -1.67 WPA while Huber was safely in positive territory, and by the time the switch was finally made, it might've been too late. The Mariner bullpen was better over the final four months than it was through the first two, but that early trouble dealt their playoff hopes a considerable blow.
What if the front office made room in the rotation for Brandon Morrow in the second half, rather than riding out the same five-some with which they started? While there weren't any real surprises in the group, as everyone did just about what was expected, Morrow was busy tearing up the Southern League and the PCL to the tune of a sub-3 ERA and one of the highest strikeout rates in the minors. Yeah, there are some concerns with starting his clock that early, and sure, letting him pitch in the Majors would've led to his exceeding his innings ceiling, but he could've been exactly the shot in the arm this team so badly needed down the stretch. Horacio Ramirez allowed 29 runs in his last six starts. You can't help but wonder what kind of difference there might've been had Morrow been starting those games instead. It was good to see him get a few innings out of the bullpen as a September call-up, but his performance only left us feeling more certain that he should've been starting. It might've been a good decision for his future, but for the team's present, it was the wrong call.
It kind of goes on like that, and the questions become more and more specific. What if Sexson lifted that sac fly against the Tigers instead of striking out? What if Hargrove stuck with Batista that one game where he had 90 pitches after six, rather than going to Mateo? What if George Sherrill threw that pitch to Eric Chavez instead of Arthur Rhodes? What if Betancourt throws home instead of trying to make a 6-4-3 out of a slow roller? Questions abound. When you miss the playoffs by such a narrow margin, there's no limit to the number of things that might've made a difference had they gone the other way. In some respects I'd almost rather this be 2006 all over again, so that at least that way I could rest easy knowing that the Mariners didn't have a division title in them. The 2007 Mariners did, but they fell just short, and I don't think I'll be able to shake that feeling for a while.
If nothing else, at least when the day comes that I can finally forget about this season's bitter conclusion, I'll be able to look forward with high hopes. With Ichiro coming back, the offense should be every bit as effective in 2008 as it was in 2007; it might even be better, if Lopez adds another five homers like he did this past summer. And the pitching staff should take a step forward as well, with Morrow all but forcing himself into the rotation, Feierabend knocking on the door, and O'Flaherty and Kahn both emerging as potential impact setup men. For as dull as this team looked entering the 2007 season, next year's variety looks to have a lot more youth, a lot more energy, and most importantly, a lot more talent.
And that's the consolation here. The 2007 season finished on a sour note for the Mariners, but unlike the Gillick years where we knew the end was nigh, this time around there's a burgeoning sense of excitement, as people begin to realize that this is a team on the rise that's going to be in the thick of things for a pretty long time. While the team may have fallen just short this past summer, years from now we won't look back on the season as a missed opportunity - we'll look back on it as the start of something terrific. The team knows now what it feels like to miss out after coming so close, and you better believe they won't want to feel it again.
What if the Mariners do this again next year, you ask?
What if they don't?