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Where do the Mariners go from here?

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Turn all the lights out now

Seattle Mariners v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The Mariners won a baseball game yesterday.

It was a wonderful thing. Christian Bergman twirled seven brilliant innings. Robinson Cano hammered a ball 415 feet. Guillermo Heredia conquered the Green Monster, sending a soaring shot out over the gargantuan’s outstretched arms. Edwian Diaz was Tesla. Heck, even Carlos Ruiz was swinging the stick well. There’s an argument to be made that, if one squinted hard enough and thought of Christian Bergman as a shorter, hairier Hisashi Iwakuma, it was the exact kind of game one could imagine this team frequently playing back in March, when spirits were high and bodies were bulletproof.

March.

How long ago that magical time feels.

In a vacuum, one where shoulders are infinite and obliques are unstrained and Drew Smyly and the word ‘soggy’ are never one, the Mariners are a perfectly decent team. Predictions heading into the season had their win total hovering around the 85-win mark, which is more or less an indicator that a team will be in the playoff hunt to the cold, bitter end. Whether or not they’re able to pick up those extra couple wins to get in come down to several factors, some involving luck and others involving handy-dandy trade deadline acquisitions. The point: these 85-win paper teams are fine and dandy, but they need some things to break right if they’re going to have a shot. Unfortunately for the Mariners (through the early stages, at least), not much has:

  • Felix Hernandez, the heart and soul (and ace) of the team, showed small flashes of life (3.33 xFIP, 1.01 BB/9) in five starts, but was shut down with right shoulder inflammation on April 26th and hasn’t pitched in a game since.
  • Hisashi Iwakuma, the only pitcher to not miss a start for the Mariners in 2016, was miserable in six starts (6.27 FIP, -0.3 fWAR) before getting shut down with right shoulder inflammation on May 10th. He has not pitched in a game since.
  • James Paxton looked like the front-of-the-rotation ace scouts long expected him to be, but a left forearm strain shut him down on May 5th. He is just now getting back.
  • Drew Smyly is still in the middle of a throwing program and isn’t expected back anytime soon.
  • Mitch Haniger exploded onto the scene, posting a 194 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR over 95 plate appearances. Fearing the Mariners may finally have a solid, all-around corner outfielder, the baseball gods handed Haniger an oblique strain on April 26th and he hasn’t been heard from since (he actually injured the other leg while working his way back, but my version is a little more cheerful).
  • Leonys Martin tried new swing mechanics, failed, switched back to his old mechanics, failed, and was designated for assignment after just 58 plate appearances. He is now in Tacoma and a return to Seattle in the near future doesn’t seem likely.
  • Relievers Evan Scribner, Evan Marshall, and Shae Simmons are all on the 60-Day DL
  • Shawn O’Malley’s emergency appendectomy somehow turned into right shoulder surgery
  • Mike Zunino forgot how to hit middle-middle fastballs and was sent to Tacoma. Tuffy Gosewisch took his place and posted a -59 wRC+. Yes, that’s a negative sign.
  • Jean Segura suffered a hamstring injury, missed some time, and is now getting thrown out on the basepaths at an alarming rate (6 SB, 6 CS).

The chaos has dug quite a hole for the Mariners, leaving them at a disappointing 22-29 record with the one-third mark of the season approaching. They have the sixth-worst record in all of baseball, second-worst in the American League (shoutout to the Royals).

And yes, the “it’s early” argument isn’t weightless quite yet, but the hole is large. In order for the Mariners to get to the suggested 85-win mark, they’ll need a 56.8 winning percentage over the rest of the season, which would be equivalent to 92 wins when stretched out over 162 games. To get to last year’s Wild Card-clinching mark of 89 wins, they’ll need a 60.3 winning percentage, which is a 97-win pace. If the Mariners are going to even have the slightest shot at the playoffs this year, ‘decent’ won’t do; they’re going to be one of the best teams in baseball from this point forward.

It all happened so fast. One moment you’re saying “It’s early. Just get through the Segura injury and you’re fine” and the next moment you’re quoting Alan Wake.

Understandably, this all has sparked remarkable debate amongst Mariners fans, with no end in sight. Where do they go from here? Which fig tree branch do they follow? There are a lot of factors and dynamics involved here, and there are actually a few different directions they can go. Let’s explore:

Scenario #1: Stick with this core, with necessary additions

What it includes: The Mariners march forward with this core of Cano, Cruz, Segura, Seager, Felix, and so on intact. No real moves will be made at the trade deadline unless they’re bringing in pitching or catching help for 2017/2018. Barring a sudden increase in budget, the offseason will look a lot like this past offseason: adding complementary pieces via trade while making small free agent moves for depth purposes. Maybe you splurge on a...(/glances at free agent pitching class)...maybe you wave politely to the free agent pitchers as they get grossly overpaid by other teams. Have to imagine there’s another Smyly-esque trade that goes down, as well. Main thing here is that no huge assets will be moved unless they’re being moved for other valuable MLB-quality players at other positions.

Why it makes sense: The front office has made it clear that they are hellbent on fielding a competitive team and may not be willing to commit to a rebuild. This is the team Dipoto built. This is the team they all built. As risky as it may seem, they may not be willing to blow it up all because everyone happened to get hurt in a one or two week span. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to imagine this team being good: get them an average catcher and functioning pitchers and suddenly things look fine.

Why it doesn’t make sense: It’s not so much a ‘doesn’t make sense’ thing as much as it’s a ‘holy hell you’re taking a big gamble’ thing. Barring a drastic amount of unforeseen events, you’re probably sitting on your hands the rest of 2017 and going for an all or nothing approach in 2018. The problem is, it’s going to be real hard for the Mariners to find enough upgrades to put themselves in a position next year that is much better than the one they were in entering this year. The bullpen is the mess. The rotation is a mess. They don’t have a catcher. If Valencia isn’t re-signed, they’ll be entering their fourth straight season with a new everyday first baseman. None of their three big prospects–Tyler O’Neill, Kyle Lewis, and Nick Neidert–are guys you can confidently say will be ready to make significant contributions during that final year of the window. Health concerns are everywhere. It’s a lot of holes to fill and the Mariners will only have one offseason to do it.

Scenario #2: Keep some of the core intact, retool the roster

What it includes: This is a bit of the halfway point between going for it and committing to a total rebuild. This would include committing to several of the key pieces you have for the long term–Cano, Seager, Segura (extension), and others would stay–while also selling off some of the current assets and pivoting to a new core. In this scenario, Nelson Cruz is almost certainly gone, hopefully bringing back legitimate prospects in area(s) of need. Ensuring Iwakuma’s contract doesn’t vest is a must. If there’s a team desperate enough for a closer that they’re willing to give up a decent haul for Edwin Diaz, you do it. If you’re bold enough, you might even go looking for a trade partner who is willing to take on some of Felix Hernandez’s contract in a trade. The main thing is that you’re keeping a lot of your talent while freeing up money and finding other pieces that can help keep your window open longer. Think of the Yankees’ strategy over the last two years. That’s what the M’s would be looking at here.

Why it makes sense: This keeps the team competitive in both the short and long term. It doesn’t set you up for as high of a ceiling as a total rebuild would, but it keeps the Mariners in striking range while giving them enough financial flexibility so they could really make a run at things if they felt they could attain the right free agents and trade pieces.

Why it doesn’t make sense: I mentioned the Yankees here and I acknowledge there are two key factors that separate the Mariners and Yankees: salary (the Yankees’ payroll is roughly $46 million higher than the Mariners) and farm system. In addition to an already stellar 25-man roster, the Yankees have one of the best farm systems in baseball, filled to the brim with guys like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier who will help keep the window wide open for a long time. The Mariners don’t have this luxury and would need to strike gold on trades, free agency, and the MLB Draft in order to remain in the hunt over several years. It’s a tall order.

Scenario #3: “How can you rise, if you have not burned?”

What it includes: This is the ultimate fire sale scenario. No one is untouchable here. A couple good pitching prospects for Jean Segura? So long, Jean. A couple more for Nelson? See you, Boomstick. The Giants want to counter the Dodgers’ rise with a Seager of their own? Bye, Kyle.

It may not be this extreme, but in this scenario, no one is really untouchable. You don’t need to trade people just for the sake of trading them, but all offers should be legitimately considered. If someone wants to give you a valuable haul for Segura, you do it. Maybe you even explore a trade to get out from under Cano’s contract, there’s no room for massive financial commitments when practicing scorched earth policy. This is pedal to the metal anarchy and all gloves are off.

Why it makes sense: It’s been awhile since the Mariners have made a full, one-hundred percent commitment to rebuilding, with the club always awkwardly toeing the line between a complete teardown and attempting to find a spark during the prime years of Ichiro and Felix. Regardless, a dark age is on the approaching horizon, with an aging core and a farm system lacking much in terms of potential impact talent. A total rebuild could give the Mariners a very bright future, albeit a very, very distant future. Not only are you loading up on prospects, but you’re probably committing to few consecutive years of incredibly high draft picks. Think of the Astros picking 11th (George Springer), 1st (Carlos Correa), 1st (Mark Appel), 1st (Brady Aiken), and 2nd (Alex Bregman) over a recent five-year span.

Why it doesn’t make sense: As previously mentioned, Jerry Dipoto was hired to field competitive teams. If the Mariners go into full rebuild mode, he probably doesn’t keep his job. People love keeping their jobs, especially ones as prestigious as a MLB general manager job. Not only that, but the Mariners’ roster doesn’t truly resemble a roster that calls for a full teardown. There’s still a lot of team control all around, of both the young and veteran variety. There is clearly talent on the roster, it just needs a far better supporting cast. If you’re burning this to the ground, you may be unnecessarily placing yourself into a dark age that would last until 2020 in the absolute best-case scenario. And as all Mariners fans should know, there are no guarantees in the rebuilding game. It was just a few years ago that the Mariners’ farm system was a perpetual juggernaut, bursting with sky-high ceiling players like Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Danny Hultzen, Mike Zunino, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton. If they burn it now, there’s no guaranteeing they get back to even 85-win level predictions anytime soon.

Conclusion: I am glad I am not Jerry Dipoto (Alternate title: Jack Z is a cotton-headed ninny muggins)

Each road has its upside and downside. There may not be a wrong answer and, as sad as it sounds, there’s a chance there isn’t a right answer. The Mariners as a franchise aren’t in a wonderful place right now. While I don’t agree with the entirety of this article, Christopher Crawford touched on several reasons why they’re facing such an uphill battle back in early May, when the team still looked very much afloat. I don’t think they are ‘screwed’, the emergence of young outfielders Haniger, Heredia, and to a certain extent Gamel has changed perceptions a bit, but the current plan just isn’t working, and some sort of pivot is probably necessary. Once again, I am glad I am not Jerry Dipoto.

Poll

What’ll it be?

This poll is closed

  • 36%
    Scenario #1: Stay the course
    (832 votes)
  • 39%
    Scenario #2: Retool
    (913 votes)
  • 23%
    Scenario #3: Burn it
    (551 votes)
2296 votes total Vote Now