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In postseason post-mortem, Mariners pledge to stay the course

Although they probably wouldn’t tell Ohtani “no” if he came calling

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Before Jeff Passan’s description of Mariners fans as “spoiled and greedy” went viral last off-season, there was a different quote that left a sour taste in Mariners’ fans mouths during the long off-season: disgraced former team president Kevin Mather, speaking to a room of his peers in 2021, describing the team’s approach to free agency as waiting for players to come “hat in hand.” Mather, and the Mariners in general, were roundly criticized, especially as divisional foe Texas went on to sign Corey Seager and Marcus Semien to seven-year deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

This year, the quote that might stick the most in Mariners’ fans minds didn’t come from a member of the front office, but from the player who, with one swing of the bat, broke Seattle’s lengthy post-season drought: Cal Raleigh, the night the team was eliminated from contention, calling on the team to acquire “big-time” players and veterans with experience in high-pressure games to help supplement the team’s core. Raleigh has since walked his comments back some, apologizing for bringing “what-ifs” into a moment that wasn’t about them, but there was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube: #CalWasRight was a trending topic on Twitter the day after his comments went viral, with frustrated fans showing up to the ballpark with signs bearing that slogan, the young backstop’s comments resonating strongly with a fanbase that, after years of waiting their turn to climb atop the AL West, watched another divisional rival invest heavily in free agency and jump the line.

But in today’s post-season autopsy, the Mariners—represented by GM and AGM Jerry Dipoto and Justin Hollander, as well as manager Scott Servais—gently refuted Cal’s version of events, acknowledging that everyone is allowed to have an opinion, but his is not necessarily one that is shared by the front office.

“I don’t know that the solution to our problem is big name players,” said Dipoto, “and I’m not sure that we have big problems.” As he as in the past, without naming specific teams, Dipoto pointed to the teams that are evidence that free agency isn’t the only way to build a playoff-caliber team: for every Texas, there is a Tampa Bay. Dipoto didn’t entirely dismiss the idea that the Mariners wouldn’t go after the right fit, saying the most important thing is to achieve the best outcomes, however that may happen.

However, Dipoto also defended the off-season acquisitions the team did make—low-dollar signings of players like Kolten Wong, AJ Pollock, and Tommy La Stella—as good process, but with a poor result. He compared the failure of the off-season acquisitions to times, as a player, he “hung a slider,” saying the best thing for him to do was to forget about the bad pitch and move on, confident in his process. And while the Mariners emphasize, even with players, sticking to one’s process even when results don’t show immediately, it was a little discouraging to not hear any reflection on what, if anything, might have gone wrong with the process in those acquisitions. Hanging a slider is one thing, as most of the time, there’s another pitch; going 0-for-3 on off-season acquisitions has a longer arc of consequences and a shorter window to get things right the next time, and perhaps merits some deeper grappling with whether or not the process is as bulletproof as one believes it to be.

Dipoto pointed out, as well, that the Mariners have less holes to fill than ever, as members of the young core have come in and stabilized various parts of the team, as well as a pair of big-dollar commitments to veteran players in Luis Castillo and Robbie Ray to anchor the pitching staff. The Mariners might have fallen short of their goal this year, says Dipoto, but they’ve been a competitive team for the past three seasons; Sunday’s game was the first game the young core had played that didn’t have playoff implications, so he understands and respects the emotions running high in some postgame comments.

“It’s not going to change the fact that moving forward, we have to use what we think is appropriate short and long-term balanced judgement in the way we build the roster, and then hope the evidence or the results are as good as this one.”

But the cold, hard truth remains: the stated goal was to “win it all,” and the Mariners came up short. Whether it’s in accenting the team through free agency, making a splashy trade, or simply getting more out of the players who are here, improvements are needed. For his part, Scott Servais said multiple times that the coaching staff needs to improve and “tighten some things up” to take a step forward. He mentioned the team’s tendency to strike out multiple times, as well as their failure to bring home runners despite loading the bases more than any other team in the AL. Improved consistency at the plate will go a long way in helping the offense step up to the high level of play the pitching staff provides the team.

However, don’t expect that improved consistency to come from a veteran player signed to fill a perceived lack of veteran leadership in the clubhouse. Despite Cal’s comments about bringing in someone who’s “been here before,” Servais bristled at the idea that this team was somehow lacking in veteran leadership, reminding everyone that for a veteran to truly provide value, clubhouse leadership isn’t enough: they have to produce on the field, as well, and “those guys are hard to find.” Dipoto went even further, flatly refuting that the team lacked in veteran leadership, although acknowledging that the pitching staff missed the ”soothing” presence of Robbie Ray. “We do have veteran leadership. From Geno Suárez to the evolution of guys like Cal and J.P., what they bring to the dance.”

“I’m very proud of that group and seeing how those guys have evolved as big-time major league players and how they’ve stepped up with their voice...I feel very strongly about the leadership in our clubhouse,” said Servais.

As for what kinds of players the Mariners will target this off-season, there’s no way to say definitively but one thing that Servais, Dipoto, and Hollander all emphasized was the importance of finding players who make contact. T-Mobile Park is a challenging environment to hit in, and no reimagining of the dimensions of its relatively small outfield seems likely, so it’s important to find players who can put up solid at-bats, working walks and fouling off pitches, and eventually sneak a hit through the infield, find a friendly corner, or put one over the fence—ideally, without striking out, which the team needs to do a better job of without the

“I think some of it will just be maturation with young players,” said Dipoto, talking about how the team will make these improvements. “And some of it will be on Justin and I to work with our people in identifying the player or players that can make it better simply by bringing a skillset that’s a little different from what we had.”

But ultimately, any acquisitions made will be done with the long-term health of the organization front of mind, says Dipoto, describing how the front office’s job is not to think about the game, or even the season that’s happening—that’s Scott and the players’ jobs—but to think in five to ten-year increments. That might mean doing things that seem uncompetitive in the short term in order to achieve a longterm goal, according to Dipoto.

”If we make winning the World Series our goal, we will do insane things that will cut the sustainability part of the project short. And that’s not how we think. We think more broadly, we think over an extended period of time. And our goal would be that over that decade, that you get to the postseason seven or eight times and you’re in a position to win it.”

“If what you’re doing is focusing year-to-year on ‘what do we have to do to win the World Series this year’ you might be one of the teams that’s laying in the mud and can’t get up for another decade. So we’re actually doing the fan base a favor and asking for their patience to win the World Series while we continue to build a sustainably good roster.”

Doing the fan base a favor” is one of those phrases that has the potential to stick in people’s minds for a long time. It’s not quite as punchy as “spoiled and greedy”—something Passan would later walk back—but at best it’s mildly patronizing, and at worst it’s the kind of thing that echoes unpleasantly for years. Any patronizing overtones will be quickly forgotten, however, if the plan bears fruit. It’s a tough ask for a fanbase that’s been denied compelling baseball for so long—not that it’s the current regime’s fault for how long that drought went on—to continue to be patient and stay the course. But it’s the ask the Mariners are making, and they have three straight seasons of winning baseball to back up the ask, with two of those ending in near-misses and one in a thrilling, albeit brief, playoff run.

The floor is higher than it’s been in years, and the front office is confident they can accent the core that’s here in a way that’s sustainable in the long term and satisfying in the short term, and they’re willing to sell short the second to make the first happen. They don’t lack for vision at the corner of Edgar and Dave. Now it’s simply a waiting game to see which quote sticks most memorably in Mariners’ fans minds.