Sometime around mid-August of last season, maybe after the horrible loss to Milwaukee, I had an epiphany. There’s a chance it was spurned by having to watch Tom Wilhelmsen, a pitcher I did not love for the 2016 roster, blow a three run lead in the ninth to Chris Carter and a grown man named Scooter. I do not recommend reliving that game, but it was important as the point when I realized the Seattle Mariners were not going to the playoffs. Moreso than that, though, I looked around the organization and realized there were, perhaps, greater problems ahead than missing out on the 2016 playoffs.
The way that Baseball ebbs and flows means that all teams must evaluate themselves each offseason as a single entity and then as an entity within the market. What does this entity need that the market can provide? What could the market want of this entity? Moreso, these considerations must be made with the future markets in mind. The roster that Jerry Dipoto inherited from Jack Zduriencik was clunky and odd. It featured a once-top prospect catcher then taking batting practice in an Arizona garage, Robinson Cano, Mark Trumbo, Jesus Montero, a worrisome Felix, a god-like Guti, Fernando Rodney, Nelson Cruz, Kyle, and so on. It was a roster that was supposed to compete for a World Series. We remember the rest.
So, Jerry set to work last offseason. He tinkered here, traded there and often, and generally avoided making any big splashes. The mantra "raise the floor" was said often and probably rightfully so. Many of the moves looked like the sort that would decrease downside as opposed to increasing upside, and to Jerry's credit he was relatively transparent about his intentions. Fresh off a year of being projected to win over 90 games, Jerry Dipoto was ensuring against relieving a nightmare season. He signed Norichicka Aoki to play left field in what many thought was the greatest outfield free agent class in many, many years. Mark Trumbo was traded away to make room for a platoon of relative unknown Dae-Ho Lee and questionably goateed Adam Lind. Ketel Marte, fresh off a relatively encouraging rookie stint, would man short. Leonys Martin came from Texas to roam centerfield. It wasn’t splashy, but it looked fine.
At this point, it’s important to emphasize how fun last season was. How nice it was to win 86 games and compete for an entire summer. The team was incredibly, fortunately, watchable. However, going back to the epiphany from the terrible loss to Milwaukee, I wonder how sustainable last season was. The Mariners beat their preseason Fangraphs Cool Standings W/L by four games and that was with career seasons from Kyle, Cano, and Cruz. James Paxton literally animorphed into a Charizard. Leonys Martin doubled his previous season home run mark. Yet for all the things that managed to go right, this aging roster still didn’t have enough to make that final push into the postseason.
This all takes us to now, mid-December; fruitlessly nitpicking, and worrying about a roster that remains unfinished. We are stuck in a winter limbo, simply itching for a sniff of Spring and Baseball’s eternal promise of return. The Mariners have addressed some of their issues by adding Danny Valencia to hopefully remove the hex that Richie Sexson left on Safeco Field’s first baseline and Jean Segura to turn two with Robi. There’s a serious chance that Jean Segura is the best shortstop this franchise has had since Alex Rodriguez. They've added an insurance plan to Mike Zunino in the form of a well-seasoned Carlos Ruiz. The number of starting pitchers who will be waiting in the wings in AAA has presumably increased, but will all these cautious, measured moves be enough?
My worries since that August epiphany, and the worries of many others, are writ large in the chart above. Bearing in mind that a replacement-level team would win around 47.5 games, the Seattle Mariners are currently projected by Steamer to be an 85-win team. This is essentially where the aggregate had them last offseason, albeit nearer 84 wins, and it's easy to look ahead and see history repeating itself once more. That 2016 team was just barely not good enough, so how will Dipoto go about making them better?
The simple fact is that the Seattle Mariner's window of most-probable contention is in the here and now. When Jerry had the chance to bolster the roster, to widen the window of contention in the free agency year of 2015, he chose mostly not to do so. His efforts in the first year, to riase the floor without selling the farm, felt practical if a bit unexciting, but you cannot continue to hold like this for seasons on end. This kind of strategy would have been praised if Game 161 had ended differently (if that Brewers series hadn't concluded like it did, if that very first Twins series wasn't a total abomination, and so on and so forth), but the Mariners lost, and they missed the postseason for the fifteenth year in a row. The Seattle Mariners can no longer afford to be cautious.
It's entirely possible Dipoto ran into budget constraints or matters of that nature, matters we couldn't really ever know, but the window itself cares nothing for the budget. Now we find ourselves here, in the midst of a terrible year for free agency, and an even worse one coming in 2017. The next time impact players will hit free agency in bulk is in 2018, when this roster, as it currently sits, will either be too old, or entirely different. More so, the Seattle Mariners made the decisions not to invest, to simply tinker and look for low-risk candidates while making only incremental improvements on one of the very worst farm systems in MLB.
If budgetary issues were the main cause for Jerry to look for cheap solutions in 2015, why not hit the "SELL" button and start over? Youth injection looks probable in the form of Tyler O'Neill but there isn't enough talent waiting in the wings to simply flip a coin on 2017. To Jerry's credit he inherited a deeply flawed system and managed to make it look better, but it was hard to look much worse. The MLB team, well that's where I'm not sure this team is any better off for years to come. While teams around the Mariners have been able to get better, the M's seem to have simply moved pieces around. They traded from an already fragile starting rotation to acquire a shortstop at the peak of his value. They acquired a thirty-eight year old back up to a mid-twenties catcher on his last stand. They just might platoon first base again, which is a luxury this team can't really afford. They need a break out season from Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, or Mitch Haniger. They'll almost certainly require repeat sensational seasons from Robi, Kyle, and Cruz.
I concede the offseason isn't over yet. What would you say this roster is short of that it could theoretically acquire and not make the MLB team worse? A 2-ish WAR starting pitcher, probably? Eighty-seven wins. Is that good enough? If anything, this roster seems considerably more volatile than last year's. Looking forward, this team might suffer from years of not going all-in. Of not going big, or going home. Jerry's efforts have ensured that the roster's future remains flexible, but with aging stars and an ever-competitive division should future flexibility continue to be the priority?
I hope I'm wrong, but that might not work.