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The Mariners’ rebuild looks promising, but does the step-back?

In many ways the Mariners are ahead of schedule compared to other rebuilds, but their stated timeline is closing in.

Seattle Mariners v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

I think the Mariners are on the right track. If you’re into prospect lists, organizational depth rankings, and things of that nature, it’s been a fun month. Seattle has seen six different players ranked in top-100 lists, with two players no older than 20 in the top-10 of at least one major ranking. Andy McKay remains as dismissive of prospect rankings this year as he has been the past few years, but when you gut your big league roster, cease trading away prospects, and make significant strides in player development, you’ll improve the long-term potential of your team, whether you look at it on a list, chart, or cave painting.

But the Mariners are adamant they aren’t rebuilding - at least not in the lengthy, grisly mold of the Astros or Cubs. The post-2018 “step-back” is geared towards a couple seasons of non-contention, followed by a stated return to contention by 2021. As spring training looms league-wide, Seattle is staring down the barrel of a second straight losing season. Their future has progressed, unequivocally, but are they closing the distance faster than their competition?

This won’t be a post projecting out depth charts, though I know the internet yearns for more of my artistic abilities. Borne out of a discussion from the comments, I looked at where various tanking/rebuilding clubs began their rebuilds, and how their farm rankings and win totals progressed. The easiest way to track to the start of last decade is by using Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus’ Organizational Talent rankings. FanGraphs and other outlets have provided variations on this theme for many years stretching back to 2010, and while FanGraphs’ current BOARD-based rankings are fabulous, the metrics of measurement track backwards less easily than BA and BP.

By my count, 15 teams have engaged in a proper rebuild/step-back since 2010. I debated including the Athletics, Pirates, and Rays, but their miserly ways make their moves a bit difficult to place on this spectrum. The Rockies and Royals were removed as well, since from my reading their early-decade losing was not quite coordinated enough to fit the “rebuild” bill.

Rebuilds and Step-backs of the 2010s

Team Rebuild Initiated a.k.a. Year 0 Year 0 BA/BP rank (W/L record) Year 1 BA/BP rank (W/L) Year 2 BA/BP rank (W/L) Year 3 BA/BP rank (W/L) Year 4 BA/BP rank (W/L
Team Rebuild Initiated a.k.a. Year 0 Year 0 BA/BP rank (W/L record) Year 1 BA/BP rank (W/L) Year 2 BA/BP rank (W/L) Year 3 BA/BP rank (W/L) Year 4 BA/BP rank (W/L
Atlanta Post-2014 26/24 (79-83) 29/19 (67-95) 3/2 (68-93) 1/1 (72-90) 4/3 (90-72)
Arizona Post-2018 (sorta) 26/27 (82-80) 21/15 (85-77) ?/? ?/? ?/?
Baltimore Post-2017 27/23 (75-87) 17/23 (47-115) 22/24 (54-108) ?/? ?/?
Chicago (AL) Mid-2016 23/20 (78-84) 5/6 (67-95) 4/6 (62-100) 6/5 (72/89) ?
Chicago (NL) Post-2011 8/23 (71-91) 14/20 (61-101) 12/12 (66-96) 4/2 (73-89) 1/1 (97-65)
Cincinnati Post-2014 16/16 (76-86) 16/15 (64-98) 12/14 (68-94) 13/17 (68-94) 10/11 (67-95)
Detroit Post-2016 26/27 (86-75) 25/25 (64-98) 20/21 (64-98) 15/23 (47-114) ?/?
Houston Post-2010 30/28 (76-86) 26/28 (56-106) 18/26 (55-107) 9/9 (51-111) 5/5 (70-92)
Miami Post-2017 29/30 (77-85) 24/12 (63-98) 13/19 (57-105) ?/? ?/?
Milwaukee Post-2015 21/26 (68-94) 9/10 (73-89) 8/3 (86-76) 6/19 (96-67) 26/29 (89-73)
Philadelphia Post-2014 22/25 (73-89) 22/20 (63-99) 8/4 (71-91) 6/5 (66-96) 7/2 (80-82)
San Diego Post-2015 14/16 (74-88) 25/18 (68-94) 9/4 (71-91) 3/1 (66-96) 1/1 (70-92)
San Francisco Post-2018 25/26 (73-89) 28/27 (77-85) ?/? ?/? ?/?
Seattle Post-2018 30/30 (89-73) 14/17 (68-94) ?/? ?/? ?/?
Toronto Post-2017 20/18 (76-86) 8/9 (73-89) 3/4 (67-95) ?/? ?/?
In cases where the rebuild’s beginning date is debatable, I used my best judgment based on writings at the time. Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus/Baseball Reference

We don’t yet have 2019 rankings from either publication, which obviously limits a few clubs on this list, the Mariners included. Seattle is likely to slot into the back end of the Top-10 for Baseball America, and perhaps there or slightly lower for Baseball Prospectus. Prospect lists are of course only as good as the big leaguers they manifest into, and Seattle’s MLB roster is currently quite poor, though sprinkled with players who could easily be core components of contention in a year or two. For reference, let’s break down the table above into a few pods of rebuilding archetypes.

Old Tanks

Atlanta, Chicago (NL), Houston, Philadelphia

The Astros and Cubs are commonly credited as the trendsetters for tanking, and the dubious honor bears out looking back. Both clubs won World Series in the latter half of the decade after committing to years of impotence. Houston already had Jose Altuve on their roster, and famously made 12 first round picks from 2010-15, including seven in the top-11 and three No. 1 overall. It took until year three of the tank for their farm to creep into the top-10, while their big league roster was in the third of three straight 100-loss seasons. Five years after the rebuild began, Houston at last reversed to a winning record and Wild Card berth, though it’d take two more middling seasons before they finally claimed a division title.

The Cubbies’ climb was slightly shorter, needing “just” four years to make their jump from a middling farm and mediocre club to a WC2 and the league’s best prospect pool. Like the Astros, of course, their losing preceded the decision to rebuild by at least a year, meaning they came into 2011 with the No. 9 overall pick, a selection they nailed in Javier Báez. Still, the decision to rebuild was a clear shift that led to the losing, something that separates them from The Double-Dippers group, who will be addressed later. Notably, though, for both clubs it was not until year three that their prospect groups showed both the upside and depth to be considered elite.

The NL East rivals in this group launched their rebuilds simultaneously, leading to consistent comparisons. Both teams seemed to claim brighter futures at different stages, but Atlanta has clearly come out ahead in the past couple seasons. Launching rebuilds after losing 2014 seasons where contention no longer felt imminent, the two teams mirrored one another fairly well, rising from among the league’s bleaker farms to top-10 units by year two. Looking at the then-2016 rosters, it’d be hard not to think the Phillies were in excellent position. Atlanta had a young, promising pitching staff by that point, but outside of Freddie Freeman and Ender Inciarte, as well as an electric September debut by Dansby Swanson, the roster was aging and without impact players. Philadelphia had under-30 starters at nearly every position, and cameo performances from prospects expected to be building blocks for the future. Three years (and one significant criminal investigation for Atlanta) later, Philly has gone big in free agency but been unable to push past underperformance from most of their heralded next wave. Meanwhile, thanks to breakout stardom from their youths, Atlanta is coming off their second straight AL East title. That success anteceded three straight 90-loss seasons all the same.

Lessons for Seattle: The Mariners aren’t endeavoring towards the capital-T Tank. I appreciate that, because it’s not the only way to reset a roster to compete, as Atlanta and a few other clubs below have shown. But the Phillies are a worthy reminder that prospect lists do not translate to big league success without a healthy dollop of great development, the right players, open pocketbooks, and plenty of luck. Even what was at the time a shockingly quick turnaround from Atlanta came with three years in or near the cellar.

New Tanks

Baltimore, Detroit, San Francisco

The last section was lengthy, and focused as much on results as each step. This will be shorter, mainly because so little is clear yet for these three. Baltimore and Detroit, perhaps generously, are attributed the rebuild status post-2017, with the O’s dealing their best player (and trade chip), Manny Machado, mid-2018. Both the Orioles and Giants were coming off mid-70s seasons in the win column, with ill-reviewed farms after years of dealing away from them to keep contending. Detroit actually had a solid finale at 86-76, but they fell short of the playoffs. All three clubs had proud stretches of playoff import in the front half of the decade, but the piper is now collecting what’s due.

Because of the construction of their rosters, all three clubs were ill-suited to recoup much in the way of prospect depth by selling from their roster, something Seattle was able to do at least in part. Both Baltimore and Detroit have made a No. 1 overall pick at this point, with Detroit making two in the top five the past two years and lining up for 1.1 again in 2020’s draft. Because San Francisco’s roster collapsed in 2017, but the club attempted to reload softly for the following year, they notched back-to-back top-10 picks in 2018 and 2019 - something Seattle has yet to have since 2014 - though Kyle Lewis was of course 11th overall in 2016.

Lessons for Seattle: Seattle inarguably had the league’s worst system at 2018’s outset, and moved around the middle of the pack by the beginning of 2019. They were able to get players that project as impact talents in trades, something none of these teams had available to them. By holding off on dealing all their MLB talent (e.g. Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, Kyle Seager), 2020 will be Seattle’s first chance at picking from the draft’s top talents in some time. MLB is not the NBA or even the NFL - the top pick in the draft is not king - but it matters a great deal all the same. By attempting to remain ~competent the Mariners are both attempting to save fans from losing their lunch, but also maintain a veneer of proficiency that may appeal when looking to lure talent from elsewhere. The tradeoff is if they’ll have the impact players to make good on their timeline as a result.

The Double-Dippers

Chicago (AL), Miami, San Diego

All three clubs here launched proper rebuilds at the time listed in the table above. No law against it, can’t call it a lie, etc.. But what constitutes a rebuild vs. a new strategy of sameness? The White Sox last had a winning record in 2012, despite playing in the AL Central. San Diego has had to contend with the Dodgers, something Mariners fans can sympathize with considering the Astros’ recent dominance, yet they’ve not had a winning season since 2010. The Marlins are infamously parsimonious, but even a sudden influx of spending for a single season couldn’t save them from a full decade of sub-.500 play - they last eclipsed the 50/50 mark with an 87-75 season in 2009. All three clubs have farms among the league’s best, and at least per this grading scale the ChiSox are the only team to jump from a bottom-10 to a top-5/6 system in their rebuild’s first year.

But Chicago’s turnaround resembles in many aspects what Seattle’s 2014-2018 would’ve had the team chosen not to invest in their team hardly at all. Underwhelming development of depth left the club’s few stars unable to compensate, and the subsequent haul of prospects was the foundation of a consistent top farm that is manifesting, in the rebuild’s fourth year, into a club that may at last contend. To Chicago’s credit, they have spent this winter infusing the club with external talent at last, putting a bit less pressure on their development to be impeccable. Until they turn the corner, however, it’s only hypothetical to call this a success.

San Diego has taken a similar route over the past couple off-seasons, albeit with mixed results. Manny Machado was excellent, though not transcendent, in his first season with the Padres. The #TrueToTheBrown faithful can’t be thrilled with Eric Hosmer, but after a couple seasons of middling farms, the immense base of international amateurs has combined with four straight top-8 picks to build one of the league’s deepest and most impressive farms. The Padres are thoroughly mired in a struggle not unlike the Phillies; with a few exceptions, their young players have not emphatically claimed impact roles as big leaguers. Fernando Tatis Jr. looks magnificent, and Chris Paddack was impressive when healthy, but the club is in a difficult spot, seeking to challenge the Los Angeles juggernaut that is their equal in prospect talent and their superior in financial resources.

Miami is barely comparable for Seattle, outside of their move to trade MLB talent for minor leaguers both high and low. Lewis Brinson has unfortunately struggled as much as anyone can in the bigs, making Justus Sheffield’s halting 2019 look smooth as buttercream. Miami had one of the wider splits on public ranking in year one of their rebuild, but they did not improve further in the way Seattle is likely to. Their No. 4 selection of JJ Bleday in 2019 looks promising, and to their credit they’ve filled their roster with competent veterans this year, but what looks like a near-goose egg in terms of top-flight talent in their first batch of trades will haunt them and slow any rebuilding efforts. They have some interesting young talent, but until Miami shows it’s willing to spend, they need far more than an average farm to contend.

Lessons for Seattle: Jerry Dipoto drew a direct comparison between where the White Sox are this winter and where he sees the Mariners a year from now. Seattle has some parallels to the South Siders - their initial sell trades brought back one star-potential prospect, as well as 4-6 young guys who will be playing much or all of 2020 in Seattle’s starting lineup. There’s even reason to expect some average or above-average starters come from the non-Kelenic divison. But it’s incredibly ambitious to think, without more money and talent infused via salary dump trades this winter and/or savvy free agent spending, that Seattle will find themselves in Chicago’s place next year without a much greater series of free agent investments. Because they are not intending to spend a decade losing, they will be hard-pressed to build the depth of San Diego or the repeated opportunities for top talent in the draft like Miami, but good development and a bigger budget can and should compensate for that.

Retoolers United

Arizona, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Toronto

The final group is a mixture of successes, failures, and we’ll sees. The Brewers and Diamondbacks are the model, Cincinnati is a bit of a cautionary tale, and Toronto is still in the midst of their reset. For the D-Backs, it’s also a bit early to say, as their roster is absolutely fascinating, and a worthy Wild Card contender, yet clearly inferior to the Dodgers. In a sense, their strategy mimics Seattle’s efforts to sustain a contender over the 2016-2018 stretch, yet better deals and savvier spending has helped them sustain respectability while dealing their aging stars. It’s not been flawless, but Arizona’s current club is at least in position to challenge for the playoffs while developing young, potential star talents. Arizona has graded around Seattle in organizational talent and should do so once more, but with a stronger MLB roster and not a losing season to be seen, Seattle could perhaps hope to be in the Diamondbacks’ shoes this time next year as much as the ChiSox.

The Brew Crew have flown higher than Arizona, claiming back-to-back playoff berths including a division title that interrupted the Cubs’ would-be dynasty in 2018. Notably, very few of the players that helped boost Milwaukee’s farm ranking in 2016 were directly active components of the team’s success. Orlando Arcia has been an inconsistent shortstop, and Zach Davies saw injuries and inconsistency lead him to be dealt this offseason to San Diego. None of the eight other players on BP’s top-10 were more than momentary components of the 2018 Brewers club that won 96 games. Not a one! But Milwaukee made aggressive, successful moves made possible by that depth to graft a winner where little had been moments before. Some went in the Christian Yelich trade, others for Mike Moustakas, and Milwaukee established themselves as unlikely contenders. Far be it for Mariners fans to look a gift horse in the mouth, particularly when that sucker has a big “MARINERS 2021 AL WEST CHAMPS” hat on, ear holes and all, but Milwaukee’s moves have just about sapped their farm of any more utility, as can be seen in their near-basement placement in year five. If Seattle wants “sustained success”, this is of course a risk that can come.

Cincinnati has a fascinating situation before them this season, finally re-entering contention most likely after a few neat moves last winter. The trouble is that their rebuild was only meant to be a reboot. It is commendable that the Reds are pushing to escape their tailspin, but six straight losing seasons and both a big league roster and farm that is good-not-great should caution Seattle that it’s easier to get stuck at below-average than above.

Lastly, and briefly, there is Toronto: a club that operates on a similar budget, with a division capable of producing multiple juggernauts, that chose to pull the plug roughly the same time Seattle did. They’ve fallen off harder than Seattle, but their impact talent is already in the bigs (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio), or will be in 2020 (Nate Pearson, Anthony Kay). It might be fair to call 2018 the beginning of Toronto’s rebuild, in which case they might be well ahead of Seattle, but their fade began in 2017, giving them a head start on the M’s. It’s unlikely 2020 is a return to the playoffs for the Blue Jays, but their roster is a reasonable facsimile of what Seattle might expect a year from now. Again, though, that is a three year loss cycle at best.

Lessons for Seattle: The idea of turning an aging, farm-bereft club into a contender with just two down years is an immense long-shot. Milwaukee and Arizona have done something equivalent, but one has built a wild card contender while the other has set themselves up for potential hardship in the near future. Failing to graduate impact talent or build depth to support that impact talent can leave them in an unintentional loop of mediocrity.

By the end of 2020, we’ll have a far better idea of where Seattle stands. They’ll have a No. 6 overall pick, plus a few more in the top-100. Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert may be in the big leagues. Julio Rodríguez will hopefully have gotten a good taste of the upper minors. Some or all of the young players on the opening day roster will have clarified their skills, for better or worse. It could look like Seattle is primed to take a step forward in 2021, if the club spends like they say they intend to. But with a far thinner free agent market than this winter, the choices may be slimmer, and the margin for error is already slender. The strides the club has made are promising relative to other rebuilds, but they aren’t just trying to have a regular rebuild. They want to be better, faster, and for that they’ll have to blend the best of a few different clubs. But at the moment they’re settling for cutting payroll to barely $100 million, and making a few buy-low moves in the interim. They are reasonable moves for a rebuild, but stretch the limits of credulity for the shorter timeline they insist they intend. Pedestrian payroll and and moves are rarely the foundation of revolutionary results. Here’s hoping they defy the odds.