While we await the conclusion of the negotiations between MLB and their ownership groups and the MLB Players Association, we must wait and wonder about the nature of the proposals we hear a slow drip of detail about. One consistent insistence from MLB and ownership is upon the idea of playoff expansion, a long-time focus of the league due to the immense financial gain to be had from more high-leverage baseball games, combined with the lack of need to share revenue from playoff games at the usual rate with the players. MLB has already sold the rights to a theoretical expanded playoffs to ESPN, so it seems all but assured that they’ll make sure 14 teams are in the playoffs moving forward, with most recent proposals looking something like this:
• The team with the best record in each league would get a bye into the best-of-five division series.
• The remaining two division winners would get to pick their wild-card opponent from the bottom three wild-card teams. The division winner with the second-best record would pick first, then the No. 3 seed in the league would pick its opponent from the final two wild-card teams. The wild-card team with the best record would play the wild-card team that wasn’t picked by a division winner.
• Once matchups are set, the higher-seeded teams would host all three games in a best-of-three wild-card round.
• Winners in the wild-card round would advance to the division series and the playoffs would continue as they have in the past.
If you’re familiar with the NFL, this structure is a near exact replica, rewarding the first seed club for regular season excellence with a bye past the chaotic Wild Card round and with the rare opportunity for rest. Some will worry it disrupts momentum, and certainly this could be a challenge, but it’s inarguably a benefit to skip a whole round of potential elimination. This methodology, of course, is still controversial, as it offers a massive reward for mediocrity and not necessarily enough of an encouragement towards excellence, as nearly half the league will make the playoffs in a sport determined by 162 events instead of just 17. My personal sentiment is the first seed still deserves a greater advantage, but that’s not ultimately the focus of this piece. I’m looking at how this format might have impacted the past of the Seattle Mariners, whose history is intrinsically tied to their lengthy playoff droughts.
I’m sticking generally to the Wild Card/Tri-Divisional Era (1994 and beyond) for this appraisal, as prior to then it’s all the tougher to draw conclusions on an already dubious huck of the darts. Prior to 1995, even if there had been seven teams from each league in the playoffs, Seattle never came in higher than eighth in the league standings. Additionally, 1998, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2020 would have remained unchanged, with Seattle watching from home in October. However, that leaves 14 seasons where the Mariners would have made the playoffs under this current system from 1995-2021. They of course did qualify already four times - 1995, 1997, and 2001, though the current system might have altered those seasons as well. More notably, of course, Seattle would have 10 more playoff berths to their name. I’ve organized each playoff season below into four general categories.
1995: 79-66, 1st in AL West, 3rd seed in AL
How would we think about The Double if it came off Texas Rangers ace Kenny Rogers instead of Yankees stud “Black” Jack McDowell? Odds are Seattle would’ve matched up with the 74-70 Rangers in the Wild Card round, with the AL East champion Red Sox taking on a sub-.500 Orioles club and New York taking on the Game 163-stifled California Angels, whose loss in the season’s final tilt had huge seeding implications but did not drop them from the playoffs entirely. The 100-win Cleveland juggernaut would lurk in the divisional round, but depending on seeding and how the Wild Card round shook out, Seattle could conceivably have still met the Yankees in the ALDS or ALCS. It (might) have just continued, my oh my.
1997: 90-72, 1st in AL West, 2nd seed in AL
Thank goodness for divisions, as Seattle would retain right of selection to any Wild Card opponent they desired, which would have meant multiple sub-.500 options. The mighty 96-win Yankees were the actual Wild Card, and an 84-win Anaheim club next behind them, but the Mariners could have faced either a thumpless 79-83 Tigers club led by ace Justin Thompson in their final season in the AL East or an 80-81 White Sox team with a still-potent lineup anchored by Frank Thomas and absolutely no pitching. The M’s laid a hurt on Detroit in the regular season, outscoring them 57-34 in a 7-4 season split, so they seem the easiest pick, though MVP Ken Griffey Jr. and co. would in all likelihood still ultimately have to face the juggernaut Orioles later on.
2000: 91-71, 2nd in AL West, 4th seed in AL
While the real-life M’s swept aside the AL Central champion White Sox in the first October of the new millennium, they would have assuredly faced stiff competition en route to that ALDS matchup. 2000’s Cleveland club was the penultimate gasp of their late-90s world-beater teams, with a 90-win season that fell just short at the time but would have been good enough to come to then-Safeco Field for a best-of-three. The final rides in their first organizations for Manny Ramírez and Alex Rodriguez would have collided directly.
2001: 116-46, 1st in AL West, 1st seed in AL
Look, I don’t know what would have gone differently, but it’s objectively hilarious that the 102-win A’s would have been forced to host the 85-win Twins for three games before getting to get stomped by the Yankees. New York, of course, would have gotten to choose between the Red or White Sox, leaving Cleveland to the remainder. Maybe Ichiro time warps his future homer off Mariano Rivera into this moment, who knows.
1999: 79-83, 3rd in AL West, 7th seed in AL
The primary complaint with a 14-team playoff is that, given the length of MLB’s season, it’s disingenuous to punish the second-best team in the league with the risk of elimination in a three-game set against a team that could be sub-.500. The ‘99 Mariners would have been a quintessential example of this, as the final Wild Card spot would be given by a nose to Seattle. While the Yankees would have earned a bye with their league-leading 98 wins, Seattle would have almost assuredly been the selected opponent for Cleveland’s 97-win club. While this would have offered Seattle a chance at revenge for being bounced from the ALCS in 1995, Seattle would have been a massive underdog. While their stars continued to shine offensively, several massive holes in the lineup and an infamous bullpen undercut a rotation that actually kept Seattle competitive, Jeff Fassero notwithstanding. It’s likely they would have been clobbered by Cleveland’s monstrous lineup of future Hall of Famers or near-misses, but could have ended Ken Griffey Jr.’s first stint in Seattle with a playoff appearance.
2009: 85-77, 3rd in AL West, 7th seed in AL
The team infamous as a False Spring that inspired the debacle of 2010 would have snuck into the playoffs in this system as well despite a 75-87 Pythagorean Win/Loss. The Erik Bedard trade would be justified as he helped push Félix Hernández and the plucky M’s to The King’s second (more on that later) trip to the playoffs. There, they’d pit defense and pitching against, in all likelihood, the 97-win Angels in a Jarrod Washburn revenge series. Future Mariners broadcasts could feature Ryan Rowland-Smith recounting his playoff start in a pivotal Game Three against Anaheim, perhaps giving M’s brass the extra look they need to decide not to sign Chone Figgins. Maybe? We’re having fun.
The Wilder Cards
2007: 88-74, 2nd in AL West, 6th seed in AL
A few clubs escaped the harshly titled “Mistakes” section as a nod of respect to their actual final record in spite of underlying question marks. The ‘07 M’s were genuinely one of the most flabbergasting clubs in the organization’s history, with manager Mike Hargrove quitting midseason despite a 45-33 record, a genuinely capable offense, reasonable top of the rotation, and J.J. Putz functionally ascending to a higher plane of existence to close out games at a level only matched by 2018 Edwin Díaz. This was not exactly an imposing team, particularly as Richie Sexson fell off a cliff offensively, but you simply have to respect that they won five more games than the Cardinals did en route to winning the World Series the previous season. It’s likely they’d have been stomped by a 94-win Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim club, or perhaps even Cleveland if they identified Seattle as a lesser threat than the 83-win Blue Jays and chose them as a matchup. But between this and 2009, the middle of the 2000s would’ve felt a bit less dry.
2014: 87-75, 3rd in AL West, 6th seed in AL
The first entry in the multi-Wild Card era, for better or for worse there would have been far less drama in Game 162 with the newly proposed playoff format. Both Seattle and Oakland would have been guaranteed spots, though Seattle, Oakland, and Kansas City would have had seeding to play for in the final series as all three could have wrested the likely home field advantage of the top Wild Card spot from one another. Conversely, each club might’ve sought to rest up and look as intimidating as possible to a selector. If things went chalk, Seattle would face the AL Central champions, the infamously photographed Detroit Tigers with their six-man rotation of future World Series champs and formidable lineup anchored by peak Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. The 2014 M’s were a stars-and-scrubs bunch, of course, but it might be easier to explain to the layperson why the Robinson Canó signing ultimately turned out pretty well for Seattle if he’d immediately brought Seattle and King Félix back to the playoffs after a four-year hiatus.
2016: 86-76, 2nd in AL West, 7th seed in AL
This again is a reminder season that the “seed” applies only to the selection process; the Mariners would be at the whims of every other club and guaranteed a road series in the Wild Card round no matter what. That said, it would be fascinating to see how clubs made their selections in the season that featured the greatest parity in the AL in the Wild Card era. 10 clubs won 81+ games, only one lost 100 and none won more than Texas at 95. Cleveland and Boston each would likely choose Seattle and Detroit respectively, giving the M’s a crack at the eventual real life pennant winners. At any given moment, this M’s club had the peaks and valleys to sink or be sunk by opponents of most any caliber, but with his fourth trip to the playoffs an injury-impacted King Félix might be able to add another signature moment to his legacy.
2018: 89-73, 3rd in AL West, 7th seed in AL
The 2018 season was a perfect year for this format, with Seattle the final bastion of clear competence before the sub-.500 clubs far below. Would I like to watch the 2018 Mariners face the 103-win Houston Astros any more than I had to? Absolutely not, but the majesty of this bizarre, inconsistent club was that they in fact took the season series from Houston 10-9, and of course went 36-21 in one run games and 14-1 in extra inning tilts. Their second half sag was grisly, but a four-game road sweep of Houston in mid-August helped rally some hope. In the seven-team format, while Seattle would still likely be an easy pick for Houston over even the 90-win Rays, the threat of facing Astros-stifler James Paxton as well as full-fledged ancient red dragon form Edwin Díaz would be a threat with some teeth. This would have also been the fifth and final shot at the playoffs for King Félix, albeit much-diminished, seeking his first win since what would turn out to be his penultimate career victory on June 30th if he were to get the ball in the Wild Card round.
2021: 90-72, 2nd in AL West, 7th seed in AL
One year after the shortened 2020 season actually saw this expanded playoff format put into use, Seattle would have qualified in what may turn out to be the sandwich season swan song for the prior system. That said, while the version of the club playing in September was inarguably more potent than what they showed at times in 2021, Seattle was the 19th-best team in MLB by WAR, not exactly a surefire fit with the other juggernauts of the AL. Much like our fictional ‘18 M’s, the ‘21 crew would likely draw Houston in a three game set, bringing Fun Differential to bear against the ultimate AL Champs. Would I bet on them? No, no, good lord, no. But I would have enjoyed seeing them try to wreak some havoc.
The New Contenders
1996: 85-76, 2nd in AL West, 5th seed in AL
There may not be an M’s club more intriguingly impacted by this perspective than the ‘96 M’s. They could not pitch one iota, having lost reigning AL Cy Young Randy Johnson in late August to a back injury, ensuring their staff ace would be a 33 year old journeyman midseason acquisition named Jamie Moyer. Moyer was a genuine godsend for the M’s in ‘96 and for years to come, but for those who did not live through the ‘90s Mariners it is difficult to overstate what feast and famine this club was. By Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, Seattle was the 6th-best team in MLB, and the 5th-best club in the AL, yet despite leading the league by a massive margin in position player WAR, they ranked 24th in WAR from their pitching staff. 1996 was nigh-inarguably the best season of A-Rod and Griffey together, eclipsing 9.0 WAR each, while Edgar Martinez contributed a 167 OPS+ and Jay Buhner slugged 44 home runs. There was no way this club could pitch themselves to the Fall Classic, but they could have put the fear of the baseball gods into the Orioles, Yankees, or Rangers in the Wild Card round at a minimum.
2002: 93-69, 3rd in AL West, 5th seed in AL
I’m giving Seattle the edge over Boston in seeding due to winning the season series 5-4, but this is actually a scenario which mostly properly rewards excellent clubs that otherwise would just miss. Six clubs won 93+ games in 2002, and also the 103-win A’s would get to face the 81-81 White Sox in the Wild Card round. Minnesota would be faced with the unenviable choice of either Seattle or the 93-win Red Sox, meaning the M’s would either face the Twins or the 99-win Angels club who ultimately won the title. If denying Anaheim their lone title isn’t a good enough inspiration to rewrite history, I don’t know what is.
2003: 93-69, 2nd in AL West, 5th seed in AL
Our final club to highlight, it doesn’t take much effort to argue the 2003 club is the second-best Mariners team in the organization’s history. Their record/winning percentage is tied with 2002 for the second-best of any season, while their initial metrics back it up. A Pythagorean record of 97-65 (a .600 winning percentage) and a team WAR that ranked 3rd in MLB behind just the Yankees and Red Sox. Unlike the heroes of the Kingdome, the ‘03 M’s were a balanced, deep club with several All-Stars, albeit no A-Rod or Griffey-level transcendence. Famously, this club received unprecedented injury luck and competence from their rotation, as the Opening Day five-man rotation of Jamie Moyer, Ryan Franklin, Joel Pineiro, Freddy Garcia, and Gil Meche made all 162 starts without a single replacement. Other than Dan Wilson behind the dish and a disastrous season from Jeff Cirillo, every primary M’s position player posted an OPS+ above average (100). They were a hidden juggernaut, and they would have made for a mighty challenge to the Red Sox in a three-game set at Fenway.
This appraisal understates certain impacts of the proposed new playoff format: teams would have and will build and manage their rosters differently, knowing the playoffs are more attainable than ever. MLB must find a way to properly incentivize regular season excellence to make sure the games do in fact matter. For Seattle in particular, lowering the barrier to entry would have erased the 20+ year drought with ease. The longest stretch without playoff appearances would be just four years: from 2010-2013. The narratives of so many players, most notably Félix Hernández and Kyle Seager, would change dramatically. Though it is somewhat artificial, perhaps that would be a positive: a sport that can have legendary stars but at times is unable to see its best players on the biggest stage could ensure at least a modicum of greater exposure. While we might be discussing with frustration Seattle’s lengthy lapse between divisional titles, the franchise would at least have had several opportunities to chase the title at which they have never so much as sniffed.