Despite an April and May of excellence that painted them as one of baseball's best teams, the 2016 Mariners were never built with dominance as the expectation. The utter totality of the systemic failure over twelve years, and two separate front offices, is not the kind of rot repaired in a single offseason. Jerry Dipoto stepped into an organization with a top heavy, aging, expensive major league roster, and a farm system considered almost universally one of the worst in the game. Rounding off the challenges the team's fanbase was (and very much is) completely out of patience for "stay the course" speak after fifteen years without a postseason appearance.
We have written exhaustively, over the offseason and beyond, about Dipoto's roster construction model, so I will only briefly summarize: He attempted to plug the many holes in the major league roster through buy-low veterans, and traded off high-ceiling, high-volatility players like Carson Smith and Brad Miller for cost controlled pitching depth. As Dipoto told Shannon Drayer over the All-Star Break, they never expected the juggernaut they appeared to have over the season's first third:
"When we built this team, we didn’t build it thinking we were the runaway favorite to win the World Series. We built this team with the idea that we were going to be in the 86-87-win range, and if things broke right for us we could win 92-93 and wind up in the playoff picture, and if things broke poorly for us we would be closer to a .500 team. We have had more things break negatively for us."
Dipoto's comments here are spot on. Make no mistake, despite a frustrating June and July, this is still a fairly good baseball team, certainly one of the most complete, well-thought-out rosters they've had in years (this is not particularly high praise, I know). As we have mentioned before, this team has the third highest wRC+ in all of baseball, at 108, and is second in the game in home runs, with 138. The pitching, while devastated by injury, has somehow managed to cobble together a 4.24 FIP, which in today's world of Not At All Juiced Baseballs is good enough for 15th in the game.
So, an elite, powerful offense, and league average pitching. When viewed in context with things like a +38 run differential (which is greatly flawed, I know) you would expect a team that didn't require two walk off home runs in the past three games just to eek out a record one game above .500. From a 20,000 foot, season long perspective, I think I would agree they have suffered more poor luck than good. Pitching attrition has devastated them, and losing Leonys Martin to injury in early June led to a domino effect that crippled the outfield for weeks. But lest we convince ourselves the Mariners have simply suffered a month and a half of rotten luck, and will shortly refer back to their early season selves, let's acknowledge a few things:
1. Simply looking at wRC+ and FIP is far too basic to analyze the roster's quality as a whole. The team's baserunning is horrifically bad. Fangraphs has them at -12.7 BsR, which is tied with the Royals for the worst in all of baseball. They have 26 stolen bases, and have been caught 22 times. TOOTBLANs, not scoring from second on balls off the wall, and being forced out at third on balls to right field (Mark Trumbo!) are a near daily occurrence, and the squandering of outs has slowly bled this team of runs all season.
The defense, similarly, is well below average. Despite the addition of Leonys Martin, and Jerry Dipoto's offseason mantra of trying to get more athletic, the Mariners' corner outfielders are incredibly bad, defensively. The Ghost of Jack Zduriencik is alive (not really. Ghosts are, by definition, not alive. Whatever.) and well as the collection of 1B/DHs that are Franklin Gutierrez, Seth Smith, and Nelson Cruz shamble around the corner outfield spots.
The team, while far better offensively than it has been in years, is still very, very flawed.
2. Bad luck, like good luck, cannot be changed after the fact. While the Mariners' true talent may be slightly better than their record shows, all that matters from today forward is the context of what this team must do to make the playoffs. If we, like Baseball Prospectus, estimate the 2nd Wild Card winner will have 86 wins, the Mariner would have to go 38-29 over the rest of the season to reach that total.
It's not a 1995-esque miracle run, but it's not likely either. BP has the team's playoff odds at 25.9%, and Fangraphs has them at 17.5%. The reality is that come October, the Mariners will be watching the playoffs for the sixteenth consecutive season.
Given the context of team quality, current record, remaining schedule, and distance out of a playoff spot, the Mariners are in an awkward position. This is one of the best Mariner teams of the past fifteen years, and I'm very hesitant to simply throw up the white flag because a few more of the coin flips have gone against them over the course of the season. However, this organization has spun its wheels for the vast majority of its existence due to the inability to commit to the idea and actualize a quality farm system. To trade from a still parched farm to marginally improve long playoff odds is a disservice to Jerry Dipoto's stated vision, and the long-term health of the franchise.
Though not entirely the fault of the current front office, the Mariners face long odds to the postseason. Many of the teams in front of them have more talent, and deeper farm systems in place to acquire talented pieces for the season's final two months. It may not be time to surrender, but it's certainly not time to charge. Yesterday's trade of Mike Montgomery for Daniel Vogelbach was exactly the kind of present deck-shuffling for future production move they should be pursuing, if any. Stay the course, Jerry. What will be in 2016, will be.