This week, Mariners fans are grappling with the fallout of heightened expectations. Following up a historic, cathartic, and playoff-drought ending season in 2022 with a hard-to-love yet not-unsuccessful season that ended with the Mariners flipping the counter on the “Seasons since the Mariners made the playoffs” sign over to “1” was a bitter pill to swallow for fans. Who set the high expectations? There are more nuanced answers out there, but when the team releases a promotional video with this image in it, it’s pretty simple to point the finger at the organization as a whole.
I remember feeling rather incredulous about that part of the video since it followed an offseason where the team clearly failed to make the kinds of moves to turn a Wild Card winner into a team that could make a deeper playoff run and ideally, um, “win it all.” Trading for Teoscar Hernandez was a very good move. Trading for a declining Kolten Wong was not, and neither was acquiring the worn-out husks of AJ Pollock and Tommy La Stella.
We all knew these moves were not going to be enough and the team proved it by excruciatingly hovering around .500 until they had one great month in August after they finally jettisoned the rest of the mistakes of the previous offseason and made a decent trade with Arizona. This finally launched them, flaws and all, into the playoff race and further escalated expectations, only to have the team enter the final 10 games of the season in charge of their own destiny and immediately chuck said destiny into the dumpster.
To be clear, I am not blaming the players. While they did play themselves into position to squeak out a playoff berth or even a division title with a few different bounces, their September swoon reminded us that baseball is incredibly hard and they were clearly gassed after pressing relentlessly all season. I do place some blame on Dipoto and Assistant GM Justin Hollander for the bad offseason acquisitions, but not a ton because who set the conditions for them to have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for available MLB talent?
Ownership did, which is who we’re here to yell at today.
It comes down to this: Mariners fans deserve a team owner who will spend like they want to win a championship. If not, they need to sell the team to someone who will.
Look at this! Y’all could have this, too!
If you are going to be a billionaire owner of a baseball team, be a billionaire owner of a baseball team who is addicted to the feeling of winning and bringing winning to the people https://t.co/h8gorbPWDi— Matt Winkelman (@Matt_Winkelman) October 5, 2023
John Middleton, a billionaire, has the backing of the famously angry and spiteful Philadelphia sports fan base because he’s committed to winning and is willing to spend what it takes to make it happen. Please take the hint, Mariners ownership.
John Stanton became the majority owner of the Mariners in 2016, buying 90% of the ownership stakes at a valuation of $1.4 billion. A Bellevue local, Stanton made his fortune in the cellular communications world, working as an executive in a string of successful cellular service providers including VoiceStream Wireless which later became T-Mobile. As our own John Trupin once put it, “If you’ve used a cell phone or some variation thereof over the past 40 years in the Western United States, odds are you’ve been putting some cash in Stanton’s pocket.”
Disgraced former team president Kevin Mather claims credit for the hiring of Jerry Dipoto as General Manager at the end of the 2015 season. It’s proven to be an excellent decision for the overall health of the organization. Dipoto did the best he could with the aging and expensive roster he inherited, but it was from 2019 on that Dipoto was really able to start building his ideal version of the team. But, free agency has always been the one stumbling block during the Dipoto era and I believe the blame for those failures ultimately lies with ownership because of the budget constraints set by them.
Like I mentioned earlier, baseball is an impossibly hard sport to consistently win. The Dipoto-led front office have very good track record of drafting, developing, and trading for talent. The team’s pitching development is stellar with a recent incredible run of “graduating” starting pitchers becoming immensely valuable big league arms. But, there’s a fourth method to building a winning team, which is signing quality free agents. Since Stanton became the majority owner, the team has largely ignored this very important avenue to success. Winning a championship by only doing three out of the four team-building methods is like trying to beat a video game on the highest difficulty setting: extremely frustrating, more risky than it needs to be, not as enjoyable as it should be, and often ends with broken controllers (aka wasting the primes of your star players).
This is where it gets rather speculative because there is so much we don’t know about the inner workings of free agent negotiations, what the actual team budget for free agents is year to year, and how heavy of a hand John Stanton exercises in the process. With Robbie Ray being the one big money free agent outlier, Dipoto’s go-to free agent type has been low cost/high upside (bonus points if the player is a reclamation project cast off by his former team). Dipoto has struck relative gold several times with this approach, most notably with Paul Sewald, Austin Nola, and Dylan Moore. There have been many duds of course, but that’s an accepted part of the process because in theory you only need a few to work out well because the value they add to the team both in performance and potential trade value will presumably outweigh the money lost on the duds.
Look, I get it. I love finding deals. I spent years as an avid vinyl collector and there was no bigger thrill than finding a legit score for the right price in a recent arrivals bin. But, owning a baseball team should not be viewed as a bargain-hunting venture. If you have the money and the desire to be competitive then you should pay for the best players when they are available, especially when you’ve already developed a very good core team of young players. Much has been made of Dipoto’s 54% comment in the season post-mortem press conference and how poorly he delivered that message, but the teams who win 54% of their games are perennial contenders who utilize both approaches*. (*one of them cheated, too.)
The routes to success are pretty clear here by team:— John Trupin (@JohnTrupin) October 4, 2023
Develop well & spend money
Develop well & spend money
Develop well & play in a weak division
Develop well & play in a weak division
Tank catastrophically under rules that no longer exist, then develop well & spend money https://t.co/JtYs0iius1
Sadly, the cake is already baked for free agency for the 2024 season because outside of Shohei Ohtani, there is no one worth spending aggressively for. The Mariners mostly sat on the sidelines during the historically talent-rich free agent classes of the 2021 and 2022 offseasons and that’s the primary reason why the 2023 team missed the playoffs. By contrast, the Texas Rangers spent very aggressively in acquiring free agent talent in back-to-back offseasons to augment their drafted and developed core and they made the playoffs in 2023 in spite of their two biggest pitching acquisitions, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer, ending up on the Injured List.
Take it away, Kyle’s Brother:
“To be able to go out and spend some money and get the guys we needed in here, and this is what the reward is.” pic.twitter.com/40H96fnNtw— Isabelle Minasian (@95coffeespoons) October 1, 2023
There is a human cost and an emotional cost to setting expectations and then falling short for both fans and players. While Dipoto points to the team’s (and his own) recent track record of success, that doesn’t take into account the decades of fatigue that many Mariners fans feel as the result of all the cascading failures of previous front office regimes and extremely cheap ownership groups. His “doing the fans a favor” comment regarding building a sustainable winner has been rightfully raked over the coals since Tuesday, reaching all corners of baseball twitter and even the most casual Mariners fans (It was even brought up in the locker room at my beer league hockey game Wednesday night). It wouldn’t take much to change the messaging to be a bit to more empathetic to fans of the only MLB team who has never appeared in a World Series, and who have been told to be patient so many times over the decades that the word has lost all meaning.
When the team set the “win it all” expectation that was clearly out of alignment with their offseason actions, that set up an environment of panic for the players. We repeatedly saw Julio Rodríguez, Teoscar Hernández, Ty France, Euguenio Suárez, and others clearly pressing at different times throughout the season in effort to live up to those expectations. Constantly falling short is hard on them personally and financially as they all have a finite amount of seasons in which they are playing their best baseball and earning as much income as possible. To work so hard year-round to stay in shape and continually sharpen your baseball skills in pursuit of the ultimate goal of winning the World Series only to fall short due to simply not having enough of the right players at the right time must feel so defeating and frustrating. Even the usually reserved Cal Raleigh let it rip after game 161:
Cal Raleigh: “We’ve got to commit to winning, we have to commit to going and getting those players you see other teams going out and getting — big time pitchers, getting big-time hitters. We have to do that to keep up.”— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) October 1, 2023
Despite saying nothing wrong or not factual in those statements, Cal apologized the next day for possibly offending any teammates and coaches, but noted emphatically that “I’m not going to apologize for wanting to win.” That’s god damn right.
So, will falling short of the playoffs after building up so much good will and momentum in 2022 actually inspire Stanton and the ownership group to spend more aggressively while the current core remains intact? Will the embarrassment of being rightfully called out by fans, local and national media, and the team’s own players be enough? Like I said, there is no one besides Ohtani worth breaking the bank for this offseason, so perhaps they can show some other kind of financial commitment or concession to show fans that ownership wants to win going forward. Walking back the increases in season ticket prices for 2024 and/or bringing back the Ballpark Pass (and making it a better deal for the hardcore fans who go as often as possible) would be a good start.
Because ownership failed to spend in previous offseasons, the team is in the unfortunate position where they will have to trade some amount of the developed talent they have and hope that the right trades can be made in order to fill the gaps in the roster. Having to subtract first in order to add without also just paying for talent at the same time is the reason the team is stuck on the fringes of contending. According to a GeekWire profile from last year, a slide stating the team’s mission kicks off every ownership group meeting that Stanton facilitates: “We’re dedicated to winning championships, creating unforgettable experiences for our fans, and serving our communities.” It’s time to make that first item more than just lip-service. It’s time to spend aggressively and competitively when the best players are available or sell the team to someone else who will.