About two weeks ago I wrote a piece about the Mariners starting rotation and explained why the M’s weren’t likely to add another arm, and why that was nothing to freak out about.
Today I’m writing about another seemingly sore topic among Mariners fans: the “window” of winning.
As Jeff Sullivan, Ben Lindbergh, and Patrick Dubuque discussed in their latest episode of the Effectively Wild podcast, success has become far more predictable with the rise of more accurate projecting systems. Teams have a pretty good idea of how they’ll do in a given year, and for how long they’re expected to stay in that state.
At the moment, it appears as though the M’s are aiming to win. Many would point out, however, that the M’s rapidly-aging core of star players suggests that the winning isn’t expected to last. They’d say that the Mariners should capitalize on the talent they have now before it’s gone, and push all of their chips in to try to win a World Series in the next year or two.
It’s easy to see why one would think that. Robinson Cano will be 36 this year. Felix Hernandez will be 32 and has already shown signs of decline. Nelson Cruz will be 37. All three of them are being paid a lot -- $64 million in 2018. The three of them presently occupy 40% of the M’s player payroll for 2018. For those guys, it’s now or never. But I’m not sure the same can be said about the team as a whole.
Depending on what projection system you subscribe to, the Mariners are expected to be decent this year with Fangraphs giving them 81 wins. After 2018, Cruz will be off the books and the M’s can reallocate his $14M (or extend him if he continues to be successful). After 2019, Felix will be off the books, freeing up $26M. Cano’s contract is the only real big one, and he can be moved to first base or DH to preserve his value in the later years of his deal.
While the M’s are hamstrung in terms of salary right now, they aren’t super tied down for the future. By the time the M’s get those salaries off the books, they’ll hopefully have some graduating prospects from a then-replenished farm system and be able to bolster that talent with more free agent signings and trades, as the Brewers have just done with their Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain acquisitions.
The biggest hurdle the Mariners face in terms of their “window” is the production they’re losing as the three aging stars decline. In 2015, the three were worth 13.0 combined bWAR. In 2017, they compiled 8.3 together. Felix has seen the biggest drop-off, while Cruz’s decline has been much more gradual. Still, that 3.7 WAR difference is pretty valuable when you consider the team would have to acquire a near-4 WAR player to make up for the difference in lost production.
Maybe that’s what Jean Segura represents. Or Dee Gordon. As Cruz and Felix come off the books, the Mariners can spread those funds to other similarly-productive players. Recently-acquired studs like Segura and Gordon can keep the team afloat until that happens, but as many have pointed out, it doesn’t put them over the hump in the interim.
Perhaps the real answer is that the window has already significantly narrowed. With the young talent the M’s have, it’s unlikely the window will ever truly close. They’ll keep themselves from scraping the basement -- just as the Brewers avoided -- while they restock and prepare for their next run at greatness with guys like Segura, Kyle Seager, Mitch Haniger, Edwin Diaz, Mike Zunino, and the like.
In the meantime, a return to form for any of the big three would mean the M’s could compete right now. With that, Jerry Dipoto would agree. He seems to believe Felix is capable of getting back to where he was. If he could, and if Dipoto successfully restocks and develops the farm system in the next couple of seasons, the Mariners may never even have to suffer much losing before they become a perennial contender.