Another fall, another Mariners-less post-season, despite expanding the playoffs to wrap more teams than ever in Manfred’s grasping embrace. For those of us watching at home, it can feel disheartening to look at teams like the Yankees or Dodgers and measure the difference between those squads and the 2020 Mariners. But deeper than the players themselves—the Fernando Tatíses and Ronald Acuñas and Gerrit Coles, shining brightly on prime time stages—there are organizational philosophies at play, things that have brought those specific players to this specific moment, and nestled within that, lessons we hope the current Mariners management is absorbing alongside us, as we all watch the playoffs together, from home. Here are some key lessons the Mariners could learn from each of the AL teams competing in the Divisional Championship Series this week; today we’ll do the AL squads, and in a future article, the NL squads.
The Yankees’ Lesson: The Importance of Depth
Each year, every team struggles with injuries to some extent; it’s impossible to expect 25-plus professional athletes to make it all the way through the grind of 162 games without accumulating some bumps and bruises. In the abbreviated 2020 season, injuries played an outsized role, as even a minimum stay on the IL could wipe out a significant part of a player’s season. The Yankees might not have been the most injury-bug-bitten team in MLB in 2020, but the blows were concentrated: in the starting rotation, they lost Luis Severino pre-season to TJ surgery, and James Paxton went on the IL with a strained flexor tendon in late August and will likely not return this season after suffering a setback in his recovery. Reliever Tommy Kahnle was also diagnosed with a torn UCL in late July and had TJ surgery. At points over this shortened season, they’ve also been without Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, Zack Britton, Luis Avilán, and Jonathan Loáisiga, who has been out all season as a holdover from the Yankees’ injury-riddled 2019, when they placed a MLB-record 30 players on the IL.
However, the Yankees have been able to weather this bad injury luck thanks to the fact that they have built incredible depth to support their major-league team. The Yankees were using the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders as an alternate training site before it was cool. Miguel Andújar, Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, Jordy Mercer, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Mike Ford, Clint Frazier—seemingly every time the Yankees had a player go down, they were able to turn the crank on the RailRiders machine and have it spit out an MLB-ready player as a reasonable facsimile. As opposed to using Triple-A as a retirement home for aging soft-tossers or break-glass-in-case-of-emergency replacement players, the RailRiders are a legitimate force in the International League; since 2015 they have four divisional championships and were the Triple-A champs in 2016. Part of this is due to smart player acquisition and development, and part is managing personnel, like when they held on to Clint Frazier despite an excess of outfielders at the MLB level and calls to #FreeClint on social media.
The Mariners are starting to build some impressive depth, especially in their pitching corps and outfield ranks, but they’ll need to get all those players on roughly the same timeline in order to be able to duplicate the success the Bronx Bombers have had with their plug-and-play approach. Also, it goes without saying that it also helps to have a well-respected, historically significant club that minor league free agents want to come play for, as well as ownership that’s willing to dig deep into their pockets to secure an ace pitcher when he’s available as a free agent. Which leads to:
The A’s Lesson: Homegrown Players
Is there a more incongruous pairing than the high-rolling Yankees and the A’s, who pay for their groceries in rolls of quarters? The A’s might not have, or use, the spending capital of the Yankees, but they also understand the importance of an ace to anchor the rotation, although rather than store-bought theirs is (mostly) homemade, grown in the same prospect garden that gave rise to various Matts and Marks and Chads. Well, technically Jesús Luzardo is an import; he was traded, along with Blake Treinen and Large Lad Sheldon Neuse, from the Nationals in 2017 in return for Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson. Luzardo at the time was a 2016 third-rounder with a rap for having some injury issues; he wasn’t in MLB Pipeline’s top 100 players in 2017, but had moved to 12th in 2018. Since he pitched all of 13.2 innings as a National, it seems safe to call him an Athletics success story. The A’s also added A.J. Puk that year with the sixth overall pick in the draft, although his trajectory has been slowed as he’s struggled with injuries—again, see “depth,” above.
However, where the A’s have really shone in growing players is, appropriately, in the dirt: Matts Chapman and Olson are mashers at either corner of the diamond, and while Max Muncy has moved on to greener pastures a little down I-5, Sean Murphy has popped up to provide some power out of the catching position.
The Mariners are hoping Cal Raleigh can be their version of Murphy, and their outfield corps fill in for Oakland’s infield mashers, although filling spots on the infield is undeniably harder than scraping outfielders off the windshield of the waiver wire. And while building from within is good and sustainable, relying solely on homegrown players is a high-risk strategy relying on good drafts and free agent classes, savvy trades, and no small amount of luck; something theoretically necessitated by Oakland’s smaller coffers but not a restriction that should be in place in Seattle.
The Rays’ Lesson: Be Unconventional, Even If They Hate You
From one small-market team good at building a bullpen to another. For some reason, the Rays don’t enjoy the same reputation around the baseball world as the A’s, despite struggling with similar constraints like a smaller payroll and a terrible stadium. Maybe it’s how the Rays do things that rubs people the wrong way. Like the A’s, the Rays trade off players with name recognition to save salary, although they do it in the Eastern time zone. The introduction of the Opener was widely mocked before being imitated by several other teams. The facelessness of the Rays’ bullpen is a running joke among baseball fans (I am just as guilty of this as anyone; I can name...two Rays relievers, maybe, and one of them only because he was on my fantasy team).
Yet the Rays Way (trademark me) gets results. The Rays belly up with the bullies of the AL East and prove they belong. They’re on their fourth straight winning season and their second straight season in the playoffs. We know that Jerry Dipoto considers Erik Neander one of his pals and doesn’t mind doing things differently himself, like going to a six-man rotation or borrowing the concept of the Opener or making eighty billion trades in a season. The Mariners, as the butt of every missing-the-playoffs joke told by every baseball writer, are also well-positioned to withstand some scathing criticism of their own. (Jon Heyman has for months been involved in a bizarre, one-sided war where he has thrown countless pies at the Mariners only to have the wind suddenly change direction and blow them back into his face). As fellow baseball outsiders, I hope to see both the Mariners and the Rays continue to get more unconventional. Have a weirdness contest. Make baseball feel like avant-garde cinema. This would have been the perfect season to do it, but alas, the Rays were like, focused on trying to win the World Series or whatever.
The Astros’ Lesson: Invest in Scouting
I know, I know. Listen, there’s actually nothing I want the Mariners to learn from the current iteration of the Astros, a bunch of preening, puff-chested popinjays run by a craven, rapacious old man who looks like he spends his free time watching videos of strangers telling children Santa isn’t real. But! Consider the story of Framber Valdez, who famously tried out for two Astros scouts in 2015 at the end of a long day of scouting. At the time, Valdez was 21, ancient by international signing standards, and wasn’t being heavily recruited; the Astros scouts actually forgot about him until the end of the day. The sun was setting by the time they arrived at the field, so the scouts turned on the headlights of their car in order to see Valdez’s curveball, good enough that they offered him an invite to the Astros facility for a more formal tryout, where he signed for the minimum of $10,000.
Since that day in 2015, the Astros have made serious cuts to their scouting department, even before the pandemic, when many other clubs—including the Mariners—followed suit. With so much data available, clubs feel they can have fewer boots on the ground and more money remaining in their coffers. But nothing can replicate a scout turning around at the end of a long day because there’s a kid they have a hunch about, the human-only traits of instinct and creativity that led to Valdez now pitching in the playoffs. Clubs are always looking for that competitive edge, and right now the advantage will be with teams who can find talent no one else is looking for, as the Astros once did, as the Mariners should be doing now.