Let's get the obvious out of the way: I don't know. Predicting the future is impossible and all attempts to do so are primarily done to encourage consumers of these predictions to bookmark them and wave them in the face of the predictor when he/she is inevitably wrong. To look forward we must first look back, so here we go...
The Mariners have found themselves in the familiar confines of failure at the All-Star Break. 9 games below .500, a run differential of -55, huge injury struggles and the super-majority collapse of the hyped Smoak/Montero/Ackley "core" have written another chapter of pain into the last 10 years' epoch of Mariner misery.
But like a team of 25 Justin Smoak's this Mariners team has teased enough to give pause before we mentally and emotionally wish them bon voyage and find other summerly pursuits. To varying degrees Smoak, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino appear to be legitimate building blocks for a young infield that can provide the kind of cheap, quality labor that counts among baseball's most valuable assets. After being promised all spring and through April that this Mariners offense was different the team has spent the last 30 days bringing our eye level down from permanant eye-roll status, if for no other reason than to watch them hit more home runs. What from 20,000 feet looks like another lost season shows signs of redemption for those of us paying daily attention. It's *felt* different, even if the wins aren't there.
But feelings are untrustworthy fireflies of the mind, flickering brightly one moment only to vanish, possibly forever. The question remains: Is this Mariners team moving towards playoff contention in the next 1-3 years? Are they "on the path" and, to use a Wedgeism, is this "real"? In effort to find out I went and looked at the 2007, 2009, and 2011 Mariners at the break. (The 2008 and 2010 teams were John Cage-like exercises in audience discomfort with I believe little value.) What about those teams gave us hope? Why did they fail to deliver on that hope? Since baseball's break doesn't have a uniform place in the season some of the numbers will like won-loss will be a bit wonky. Blame baseball for being confusing.
Record at the break: 49-36, 2.5 GB
Run differential at the break: +17
Ichiro (3.9 fWAR, .869 OPS, 23 SB, Ichiro-level defense)
Kenji Jojhima (1.6 fWAR, .781 OPS, 8 HR, competent human catcher)
Adrian Beltre (1.6 fWAR, .815 OPS, 13 HR, Beltre defense)
Jarrod Washburn (2.0 fWAR, 54/33 K/BB, 106.1 IP)
Felix Hernandez (1.9 fWAR, 80/24 K/BB, 84.2 IP, Dice-K hype train derailer)
Cha Seung Baek (?) (1.3 fWAR, 64.1 IP, 46/13 K/BB)
J.J. Putz (1.2 fWAR, 44/7 K/BB, 24 SV, Woooo)
Average age: 29.7
Average age of biggest contributors: 28.9
Baseball America Top 100 Prospects: Adam Jones (28), Jeff Clement (62), Brandon Morrow (87)
Final record: 88-74
Maybe the strangest Mariner season I can remember. The team finished 14 games over .500 despite a run differential of -19, their manager famously quit after an 8 game winning streak, and there was only one position player (Ichiro) with a WAR higher than 3.1. Despite the enjoyment of a decent won/loss record most analysts pegged the Mariners as a regression candidate going into 2008. Of course the Mariners did not read the tea leaves the same way and went for it all in the infamous Bedard trade, setting in motion the unwatchable 2008 team. The failure to accurately recognize this roster as not ready to contend cost the front office their jobs, gutted the farm system and is one of the great failures in franchise history. Which is saying something.
Record at the break: 46-42, 4.0 GB
Run differential at the break: -18
Russell Branyan (2.6 fWAR, 22 HR, .956 OPS, Medusa to centerfielders)
Ichiro (3.1 fWAR .362 BA, 19 SB)
Franklin Gutierrez (3.3 fWAR, .801 OPS, levitated intercourse)
Felix Hernandez (3.4 fWAR, 124.2 IP, 121/36 K/BB, 41 R)
Jarrod Washburn (2.0 fWAR, 112.1 IP)
Erik Bedard (1.7 fWAR, 78/27 K/BB, 75.1 IP)
David Aardsma (1.2 fWAR, 20 SV, 11.1 K/9)
Average age: 30.0
Average age of biggest contributors: 29.7
Baseball America Top 100 Prospects: Greg Halman (53), Michael Saunders (65), Carlos Triunfel (89), Phillipe Aumont (93)
Final record: 85-77
The first team of the Jack Z era probably inspired more hope than it should have. This was largely a patchwork roster that included 39 year old Ken Griffey Jr. and 35 year old Mike Sweeney among others. Bill Bavasi went scorched earth on the farm system and this was very much a "get a major league team on the field" kind of roster. The Griffey storyline, the Gutierrez breakout and Felix finally pitching like an ace were all fun. But this team was outscored by 52 runs on the year. That doesn't happen to good teams. When Jack failed to hit at the same rate on his veteran acquisitions the next offseason the team collapsed into a malaise from which it is only now starting to emerge. We hope.
Record at the break: 43-48 7.5 GB
Run differential at the break: -18
Brendan Ryan (1.6 fWAR, .621 OPS, 6 SB, Brain-meltingly good defense, fine baserunning)
Felix Hernandez (3.3 fWAR, 140/43 K/BB, 57 R, 144 IP)
Doug Fister (2.6 fWAR, 79/26 K/BB, 45 R, 125.1 IP)
Michael Pineda (2.3 fWAR, 113/36 K/BB, 41 R, 113 IP)
Jason Vargas (1.9 fWAR, 81/31 K/BB, 47 R, 121.1 IP)
Erik Bedard (1.4 fWAR, 85/26 K/BB, 36 R, 90 IP)
Average age: 29.4
Average age of biggest contributors: 27.2
Baseball America Top 100 Prospects: Dustin Ackley (12), Michael Pineda (16), Nick Franklin (53)
Final record: 67-95
There's a shocking lack of offensive contributions from the 1st half of the 2011 team. Dustin Ackley's 0.9 WAR in only 20 games is actually 2nd. The 1st half of the season was defined by an above average rotation 1-5 and not much else. The Doug Fister trade at the deadline stands as arguably the greatest gaffe of the Zduriencik tenure and the team swapped out the future disappointment of Michael Pineda for the same from Jesus Montero. The team's prospects for contention were unforgettably torpedoed by an epic 17-game losing streak. While the farm system still has only 3 Top 100 prospects all three are in or near the top 50 and Ackley and Pineda provide quality value for the big league club in season.
Record at the break: 43-52, 13.0 GB
Run differential: -55
Kyle Seager (3.7 fWAR, 15 HR, 24 2B, .846 OPS, Plus defense. General boss-like qualities)
Kendrys Morales (1.2 fWAR, 14 HR, 22 2B, .800 OPS, zero celebratory injuries, 1 well smoked pig)
Raul Ibanez (1.0 fWAR, 24 HR!, .892 OPS, .311 ISO, may be an Ent)
Justin Smoak (0.9 fWAR, .372 OBP, .803 OPS, shockingly solid since April)
Felix Hernandez (4.1 fWAR, 140/26 K/BB, 43 R, 2.66 FIP, 138.2 IP, Ours)
Hisashi Iwakuma (2.0 fWAR, 113/19 K/BB, 47 R, 131.1, prone to dinger kryptonite)
Oliver Perez (0.8 fWAR, 38 IP 12.5 K/9, shut down reliever)
Average age: 29.3
Average age of biggest contributors: 30.3
Baseball America Top 100 Prospects: Mike Zunino (17), Taijuan Walker (18), Danny Hultzen (29), Nick Franklin (79), James Paxton (87)
And so we find ourselves here. The increased quantity and quality of top 100 prospects is nice. The most encouraging factor is that farm products Zunino, Franklin and non-top 100 prospect Brad Miller have all been promoted and contributed. The team's results are very familiar and it's not great that the average age of their biggest contributors is over 30. However due to likely trades of veterans and a larger sample size for younger players that number is most likely far lower by season's end.
One of the biggest issues plaguing past Mariner teams has been the collapse of one or more parts of the roster which laid bare a lack of organizational depth. The team has seen familiar levels of failure (Dustin Ackley, Brandon Maurer, Jesus Montero) and a legitimately bad case of the injury bug with, among other issues, the entire outfield being gutted within the first two weeks of the season. Unlike previous seasons the team has not only weathered those issues but in spots appears to have upgraded with pieces from the farm system, which none of us are used to at all.
The Mariners are most likely not done going young. Erasmo Ramirez is going to be here for the 2nd half. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton may make an appearance. Stefan Romero will probably make his debut in September. Non-playoff teams in essence play as two teams: The opening day roster, designed to compete if all goes well and the group of prospects that end the season auditioning for jobs the following season. What's made this season different is that the transition has come much earlier than normal and thus far produced far more successful results. It's not what we're used to. It feels new and unknown and because of that it's lining up to be the most exciting and important 2nd half of a season in a decade.
The 2004-2012 Mariners were varying shades of boring and bad and an endless toil. It's beaten us all down. It's made and ended writing careers. It's seen a lot of us enter adulthood, start families, and join the world passed to us by our parents. It's felt like forever. The 2013 team has a legitimate chance to put to sleep the suffering verbs, turn the page and start the next era of competitive Mariners teams. No pressure guys, but please do that.