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The Mariners tanking debate is missing something crucial

Justus for Jerry

Shed Long #39 of the Seattle Mariners reaches for a RBI double by Eugenio Suarez #7 of the Cincinnati Reds in the seventh inning during their game at T-Mobile Park on September 12, 2019 in Seattle, Washington.
This photo captures a Eugenio Suarez RBI double
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Last week, Joe Sheehan posted about the Mariners and Brewers, the nut of which he tweeted below:

And just like that, we had ourselves a mini-discourse. Did the Mariners tank? Boy do people have opinions!

Unfortunately, too much of what resulted was the most annoying kind of discourse where people are talking past each other because it all depends on what someone means by a word, and a pretty loaded one at that. What is tanking to you? To me, I see tanking as losing on purpose to save on payroll and accrue high draft picks, generally for more than just a couple years. In the payroll case, its what the Reds are doing now; in the draft-strategy case, it’s what the Astros did from 2011-2014. I contrast that with rebuilding, which I define to mean selling present value for future value based on where a team is on the win curve, and it probably leads to a losing season or maybe two. But the losing during a rebuild is a byproduct, not intentional nor borne of a lack of caring about winning. Maybe to you that’s a distinction without a difference, or it’s just not how you see things at all, which is fine. The ship has sailed on trying to get everyone on the same page about what tanking and rebuilding are, but this is a debate that would benefit greatly from people defining their terms.

But, on the merits, irrespective of your definition of tanking, I don’t think the Dipoto Regime ever did it. And the reason why boils down to a crucial fact about the Mariners 2018-2021 era that I rarely see much discussion about.

When the Mariners traded away their most valuable assets in the winter of 2018, the plan wasn’t to lose for a while and break into the playoffs in 2022. The team purposefully targeted guys who they thought would make an immediate impact and shorten the fallow period. Those trades brought back Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn, Shed Long, Mallex Smith, Dom Thompson-Williams, and Jake Fraley. Several of those guys were at one point top 100 prospects, and they were supposed to be MLB-ready in 2019. The idea at the time was to add them to Dipoto’s first high draft picks, also top 100 prospects, Kyle Lewis and Evan White. The new window was supposed to start opening right away.

It didn’t work out. But the whole rebuilding era looks so much different if that was the wave of prospects that succeeded, and it was instead the following wave that failed. If those guys were successes, and Julio, France, Kirby, Gilbert, and Raleigh were the failures, I don’t think we’d even really be debating about tanking.

Instead, that first wave failed pretty astoundingly, though for varying reasons. J.P. Crawford is the only real success from that group. Kyle Lewis had one glorious season. Erik Swanson turned into a pretty OK piece, though as a reliever. That’s about it. To be sure, this is an organizational failure, but it’s a failure of a very different kind than tanking. You can’t say they lost so much in 2019-2020 because they weren’t trying.

The whole thing looks much more like what the Brewers have done if that first wave is the successful prospects. 2019 is more like an 80- to 84-win club, and by 2020, they probably make the playoffs, especially with the expanded field in the short season.

Since the second wave has, on the whole, been a resounding success, it’s a bit of a moot point. But when you’re evaluating this organization, I think it’s worth keeping in mind what actually happened after the 2018’s collapse, not just the win-loss record.