I swear, it didn't take more than ten minutes after it broke that the Mariners were trading for Seth Smith before the questions started coming in. Are the Mariners done now? Does this preclude them from trading for Ben Zobrist? Hey, did you see the tweet from the Los Angeles guy about the Mariners and Max Scherzer?
Finality is a bad thing—in almost every area. No one wants to hear "this is it, and this is probably as good as it's going to get." Whether it's life or the distractions that take us away from it, the concept's a little depressing.
So maybe, for some, it might be a bummer to hear: there's a real good chance that, with the completion of the trade for Smith, the Mariners are done making moves this winter.
Will there be more players added to the roster? Sure, but for the most part, this is your team as we head into the new year and spring training starts to look like it's actually nearing at a decent speed instead of some distant fantasy oasis. The Mariners, between now and Opening Day, will likely add random veterans, reclamation projects and non-roster invites to various piles—but really, this is it.
Now, is that a bad thing? Yes and no. I agree completely with what Scott wrote here not more than a few days ago, that even with the addition of a platoon partner, the Mariners could use more. Really, it's simple: it's always better to have more good players. If the opportunity is there, why wouldn't you?
Of course, Ben Zobrist is still out there, a guy whose value over the past half decade is only exceeded by Miguel Cabrera. Then, it'd be real interesting if the Mariners got involved on the aforementioned Scherzer, or snuck into the James Shields sweepstakes when no one was looking.
The thing is, it probably isn't going to happen—and the reason, if I were to guess at theirs, isn't that crazy. They want to see what they have before figuring out what they need.
Things, as Scott mentioned, will go wrong. Players will get hurt, and players will be terrible. That's inevitable. As the saying goes, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and unless you're the 2001 Mariners, you're going to get punched in the mouth. The question then becomes, when and where's that coming from?
We don't know now, and we won't know until that happens. There's one player, in Zobrist, who could proactively address the multitude of things that could go wrong—but if the cost of acquisition comes from a position where they don't know what they have, with first base being a big possibility, it's going to make them think twice.
I want to be clear, this isn't the path I'm necessarily advocating, but it's one I can understand—because we've seen them do it before.
Zobrist is a good jumping-off point for this. Zobrist, of course, has great value because of his flexibility. The Mariners, over the past eighteen months, have done much to maintain their own level of flexibility. They've done enough, between last off-season and now, to raise the baseline level of talent at positions of need—and maintained the necessary level of flexibility to improve when needed. They didn't commit years and dollars to a player like Melky Cabrera, and they didn't purge their prospect base for Justin Upton.
This one's going to sting as an analogy, but the philosophy isn't entirely dissimilar to last year, when they wanted to see what they had in Abraham Almonte before moving on a center fielder. Or, maybe, the right deal just wasn't there yet. Regardless, they went with what they had before deciding whether or not to upgrade. When they needed to upgrade, they had the pieces to do so.
Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that move very well may have cost them. For a team that missed extending their season by a single game, not addressing a known need until July was among the many items that likely were the reason the season ended that Sunday at Safeco.
But there's a key difference here, in where these holes may arise.
Start at center if you'd like. Do the Mariners have a sure thing? Absolutely not, given Austin Jackson's struggles in the second half of last year. But that's exactly it, they're counting on Austin Jackson and his extensive track record, not Abraham Almonte's athleticism and PCL numbers. In left, what realistically might be the most questionable spot on the roster, Dustin Ackley put up two wins last season and raked in the second half before bone spurs slowed him down. In right, they're counting on two guys to do what they've only ever done in, mash opposite-handed pitchers. Short, first, catcher, rotation? There are some issues, but at each positions they have players they like and are better off—due to depth and simple progression—than they were last year.
To put it succinctly: needs will arise, like they do every year—but the key difference with this year is that this team is good enough to hang around in the division, or lead it, while the organization figures out exactly where they need to improve. And when they improve, there's a good chance it won't be to hang around in the race, but to try to take it over.
For those of you disappointed by the moves, arguing that the team is not demonstrably better than it was last year, having only shuffled the pieces for marginal upgrades—I'm not buying it. For one, the roster that ended the season—with Jackson in center and a healthy James Paxton and Taijuan Walker in the rotation—is better than the team they played the majority of the year with. Their starter depth is improved, they replaced the biggest hole in their lineup with the best free agent hitter available, the baseline level of exceptions in the corner outfield positions is improved and the bullpen is no worse.
Could the Mariners still improve? Absolutely. I've made that clear. But it probably isn't going to happen in any kind of meaningful way between now and Opening Day. And that just might be fine—because when they do improve, they'll know exactly where to do so, and will be improving a roster that looks to be among the best in baseball.