For each of the past few seasons, any optimism surrounding the Mariners depended largely on the high-variance nature of the rosters constructed by Jack Zduriencik. As was plainly evident on the field, every recent team was built with a floor lower than most would be comfortable with—but they always came with a ceiling higher than most acknowledged.
And that may be the case for every team, or maybe we're all jaded after slamming face-first into 2010's floor as we had our eyes on the lofty ceilings. But though the idyllic outcomes are less likely, they're there, and there are alternative universes where Michael Morse stays healthy and hits 40 home runs while batting .300, where Jesus Montero wins a Rookie of the Year award or where Justin Smoak develops into one of the American League's best first basemen.
While, over the past few years, we've only been looking for gradual improvement, it always seemed it'd be boom or bust—major improvement or complete disaster. And with this offseason, arguably as important as any of the actual seasons the Mariners have played recently, it's beginning to take on that feel.
For as long as 2013's been over—so, mid to late August—I've looked ahead to the offseason and the heart of it with optimism and curiosity. Well, more than curiosity—bewilderment? Perplexity? Seriously, what the hell are these guys going to do?
But when I was looking ahead then I was counting down the days to the Winter Meetings, and those are now just two weeks away. That, I assumed, would be when everything important would go down. There'd be some stuff before, and plenty of activity after, but that has been—and, sure, still will be—the most condensed flurry of activity.
This year, though, things have started early.
Just as I write this, reports are coming in that Dan Haren has agreed to a one year, $10 million deal with the Dodgers. Jonah Keri had this comment:
Can't remember ever seeing this many moves this early. Flood usually comes Winter Meetings or later. Some of these quick strikes are great.
— Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) November 25, 2013
Dave Cameron replied with a reasonable conjecture, that maybe not everyone wants to wait around for big-name free agents to figure out their place in the evolving marketplace. It pays to be proactive and take control of a situation, with this and almost any context in life, and you'll note that a lot of biggest moves made this offseason have been done by this league's top organizations. We have the Dodgers picking up Haren, the Cardinals adding Peralta and Bourjos, the Rangers and Tigers working out a deal that makes some sense for both parties and then McCann filling a hole for the Yankees.
This feels to me more like correlation than causation as, at least with the free agent signings, it makes sense that a majority of the players signing early are landing in winning environments—they aren't winning environments because they nab players earlier in the offseason. It's also important to note that the cream of the free agent crop is still out there.
I mean, look at the most recent signing—the Dodgers inked Haren to a very club-friendly deal for a guy who was, as recently as 2011, one of the best pitchers in the game. And if he just matches his 1.5 wins above replacement from last year, he'll be worth the $10 million the Dodgers signed him for—and this ignores the potential upside.
I've seen a number of fans clamoring for the Mariners to make this type of move, but ask yourself this: if your life depended on making the right call between having Dan Haren or Erasmo Ramirez in your 2013 rotation, is the choice as easy as you think? Haren's projection is more favorable than Ramirez's because of his track record, but Steamer has Ramirez exactly matching the 1.5 WAR Haren put up in 2013.
I don't raise this point because I'm fine with penciling Erasmo Ramirez into the rotation, but because not everyone signing now is a player the Mariners need. We had Bourjos in our offseason plan, and it'd be fun watching him roam Safeco's vast center field, but he's not the best center fielder on the market. Were you really hoping the Mariners would sign Brian McCann? Or Jhonny Peralta? You wanted them to trade for Prince Fielder?
Of the deals made so far, there aren't very many that represent a move we wish the Mariners would make—and though I do envy teams who are making things happen instead of waiting for everything else to shake out, a lot of this does depend on timing and waiting for the market to come to you.
On the other side, I do understand the growing throng of Mariners fans begging Zduriencik to just do something, anything. Though the moves made thus far aren't necessarily the ones I want the Mariners to make this offseason, it's growing harder to quell growing anxiety that this offseason will turn out like ones in years past.
A quick anecdote here. When I was in college, I'd listen to a lot of my school's basketball games on the radio. I went to the University of Montana, so the games weren't on TV or the web at the time. The Grizzlies consistently put out strong teams, but they often struggled somewhat on the road in conference play—and seemed to always go down double digits early in the second half before making something of a rally. They'd either make up a few points before falling further behind, or they'd get rolling and storm all the way back.
During the crucial few moments when the Griz decided what kind of night it was going to be, usually sometime around the ten-minute mark in the second half, broadcaster Mick Holien always pulled out the same phrase.
"It isn't crunch-time yet, but you can see if from here."
That's where we are with this offseason, and it's hard not to be nervous when you're getting a good sense for what crunch-time will look like.
As I mentioned above, the cream of the free agent crop is still out there to be had. But what's concerning is that good teams are currently devouring the heart of the market, particularly the reasonably-priced high-upside players like Bourjos and Haren.
We've seen people make the case that the Mariners should spend big on superstars, and that they're extremely well-positioned to do just that. But how comfortable do you feel hoping that the Mariners will land Ellsbury, Choo or—let's just get it out there—Cano? I have my hopes, even to some level on the last guy there, but it's hard to picture a premier free agent choosing this franchise over others that will, by default, present a more competitive environment.
But, after all, money talks—and the Mariners seem to have a great deal of ambition for adding multiple pieces. So yes, I'm still optimistic this front office can make this a franchise-altering offseason, but if there's any team that needed to build momentum over the course of an offseason, and hope that one big signing would give way to others, it is the Mariners. There's still time to do it, but it is getting late for that.
So what will we end up seeing? As I mentioned above, it's starting to feel a lot like the on-field possibilities the past few years. Things could break just right, and maybe the Mariners aren't holding "confederate money" after all. Many seem to think they have the potential to add talent like the Marlins and Blue Jays did during the two most recent offseasons, and while I understand the caveat that it didn't work for those teams, every situation is different and it really feels like that is the type of offseason this franchise needs.
But if it doesn't? The good backup routes may not be there, and the Mariners could again be looking at the "floor" end of possible outcomes.
And while I'll still go into spring training with all the hope I've had in recent years, that things will break just right and the team will see the type of success most don't believe to be possible, I want for once for success to be the most likely outcome. I want to not have to count on everything breaking just right.
But for the next few months, that's going to have to be the case. The Mariners aren't in position to proactively make things happen like other franchises, and it'll come down to some expensive gambles, but if things could fall right for the Mariners just once at this the most crucial time—an absurd proposition, I know—it could make up for all times when they didn't.
More from Lookout Landing:
- Mariners Memories: 1996-2000
- A year of mistakes, in review
- Evaluating Mariners' top prospects
- Spending money on the bullpen
- Mariners offseason: Sign Bartolo Colon to a two-year deal