It was all so clear. With the Mariners' apparent needs, their obvious desires and the players available, the team's 2014-2015 off-season might as well have been set on rails. They'd make their push for Victor Martinez, he'd go back to the Detroit Tigers as expected, and the Mariners would quickly move on to plan B and sign Billy Butler to a deal longer than the one or two years he was expected to receive. At least, I thought so.
Well, the first part went as expected, despite some optimism the Mariners would get their crack at the best hitter on the market. The second part, well, we know how that went—the Mariners were not the team with the standing three-year offer to Billy Butler, as some presumed. Or, if they were, the Oakland Athletics went ahead and beat it. Either way, the one-skill former Royal won't be looking to regain that one skill on a $30 million deal with the Mariners.
That, really, was only secondary to another piece of evidence signaling that, once again, we don't have any idea what the hell the Mariners are going to do. Earlier in the day, a report surfaced from MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince that the team came close to signing former Pirates catcher Russell Martin. Yes, catcher—as in they damn near Nick Franklin'd Mike Zunino. Here's the report:
According to a source, the Mariners, surprisingly, were among the finalists who pushed hard for Russell Martin, who eventually agreed to a five-year, $82 million contract with the Blue Jays on Monday.
On the surface, this makes little sense, as the M’s have a very highly regarded young catcher in 23-year-old Mike Zunino. That said, Zunino just finished up his first full Major League season, so he still has quite a bit of growth to accomplish as a Major League hitter (he had a .658 OPS this year). And the free-agent market is thin enough for offense that one could understand the M’s, who have long struggled to lure sluggers to Safeco Field, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for bats. Martin, after all, had an adjusted OPS+ 36 points better than league average in ‘14.
It’s possible the M’s envisioned a scenario in which they would have signed Martin and then taken advantage of a weak catching market to move Zunino, but that is purely speculation.
Maybe the Mariners were looking to add a righty hitter in anyway possible, as many were quick to assume—Martin, after all, did notch a career-high 140 wRC+ in 2014. Or, possibly more likely, Mike Zunino's name had come up in trade talks with a team or teams, and once general manager Jack Zduriencik gauged his value on the market, he decided he could add more talent to the team by signing Martin and swapping Zunino for a player at a position of need. You wouldn't have to look far to find teams that value Zunino's receiving skills. Or, even, maybe Zduriencik wanted to add a premium player wherever he could and decided he'd figure the rest out later.
Either way, the point is clear: this team is going to add talent however it can, and it may do so in ways that aren't bluntly obvious. It will probably do so in ways that aren't bluntly obvious. Hell, remember back a few years ago when—and check the timestamps—this all went down in just a shade under an hour. No rumors, no nothing, just one Friday afternoon, this was done:
The #Mariners are moving closer to a trade for a young impact hitter, two baseball sources confirmed.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) January 13, 2012
It's a "significant trade,'' says one source. And Brandon League is not part of the return package.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) January 13, 2012
Wouldn't be surprised if deal referenced by @jcrasnick involves Michael Pineda and Jesus Montero. Rumblings in that direction.— Larry Stone (@StoneLarry) January 14, 2012
montero is traded for pineda— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) January 14, 2012
Sure, that gets added to the pile that is the "that's so Mariners" canon, but back then, it wasn't comical. It was swapping a dominant young pitcher for a hitter who entered the season preceding the trade ranking only behind Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as a prospect. It was bold, and it was creative.
With the market beginning to take shape—really, narrowing at a position (DH) where they have their biggest need—that's what the Mariners need to be. They've done it before, as recently as the middle of last season, and they can do it again. They're going to do it again.
It surprises me then, after all of this—we just watched the Mariners go after Russell Martin while the Athletics (the Athletics!) signed Billy Butler—that to some the fate of the off-season's remainder feels so certain. The Mariners are going to finally make the massive overpay for Nelson Cruz. Failing that, here comes the long-feared "desperation trade" for Justin Upton or Matt Kemp.
Do we fully grasp that the odds the Mariners' big move doesn't include any of these obvious three probably clear 80 percent? Or, more importantly, do we grasp that the Mariners might know what they're doing?
We went through all of this last year, when jokes and fake reports flew about the Mariners bidding against themselves for Robinson Cano. It had been getting to the point then, and we should be there now: let's judge the organization on its actions, and be wary of the pervasive nature of confirmation bias.
Most importantly, let's remember where the Mariners sit now. Yeah, as one of the best teams in baseball—where a good move or two will have them heading into 2015 as a trendy World Series pick. Projections are projections, sure, but it doesn't hurt the outlook to sit near the top of them.
And finally: you don't do it by accident.
It's started to evaporate here locally, but the notion is still prominent outside Seattle: this front office is bad, and what they've built here exists despite of their efforts, not because of them. Which, sure, that makes worlds of sense.
This front office is not immune to mistakes, and as it did last off-season, the possibility yet exists that they sign Nelson Cruz to some awful deal, or trade way too much for Matt Kemp or Justin Upton. But remember the context here, and how things have changed.
The Mariners are no longer a team looking to change its fortunes, to transition from bad to decent. They're good now, and they're on the cusp. They're on the cusp because of years and years of moves, so maybe instead of sitting here assuming to know what they're going to do next, let's just watch—because there's a pretty decent chance it won't happen like you think it will.