BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 04/08/2016

Thiel: Dubious feat might work in Mariners’ favor

The shame of MLB’s longest absence from the playoffs is upon the Mariners. But new GM Jerry Dipoto’s work at the top and bottom of the organization suggests serious change is afoot.

It’s a small sample size (2-1), but Jerry Dipoto’s Mariners are off to an optimistic start. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

The worst thing to happen to the Seattle Mariners last year has a shot to be the best thing.

With the advancement of the Toronto Blue Jays to the playoffs in October for the first time since 1993, the Mariners were handed the flaming bag of shame — absent from the playoffs longer than any other Major League Baseball team.

It gets worse — across the North American sporting landscape, only the NFL Buffalo Bills were more success-resistant, last present in 1999 compared to the Mariners in 2001.

The distinction is stark. There is no equivocation, no excuse, no lipstick or spackle to be applied that can diminish its bleakness. It is easily understood, readily quoted and shamelessly exploited by critics.

Sustained futility.

For sports fans, it is the worst, emotionally. But for sports teams, not so, financially.

In the mandatory, but limited, disclosure of annual financial operations to the Public Facilities District that owns Safeco Field, the Mariners in March reported a profit of $7.2 million for 2015, despite a 76-86 record and a team-record $124 million player payroll.

It is a mark of epic civic dedication/foolishness (choose one) that home attendance actually went up 130,000 to about 2.2 million.

A sellout is expected for the home opener against Oakland at 7 p.m. Friday, especially after the Mariners began the season in Texas with a 2-1 series win whose stylings bordered on the startling — nine home runs and a brilliant bullpen.

Three games is an exceedingly small sample for a 162-game season. But the results offer a hint that, bulletproof financially as the franchise is, it can be embarrassed by a shaming.

Since season’s end, the Mariners fired the general manager, manager and nearly all coaches, and their replacements flushed numerous baseball front-office personnel as well as players. The 25-man roster has 14 newbies from the end of last season.

While it is true that the Mariners engage in these purges about as often as the old Soviet leadership did in the Kremlin, with similar results, the new GM, Jerry Dipoto, appears to have been given command and control by CEO Howard Lincoln to an unprecedented extent. Lincoln, virtually the only constant across the 14 years of futility, appears to have been persuaded to take the advice of every sentient being in and out of the organization to stay away from baseball decisions.

During the playoff void, various reasons emerged to suggest a win-now urgency was upon the club: Do it before the great Edgar Martinez faded, do it while star Ichiro Suzuki was in his prime, do it before Japanese majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi died, etc. So far the only prime directive still intact is do it before the sun goes supernova.

The problem with these various urgencies is that the club frequently traded away quality prospects for short-term vets who fizzled. Meanwhile, other bad teams made good draft choices and kept them. The once-flailing Houston Astros and the Kansas City Royals are two current examples of teams whose patience allowed them to leapfrog the perpetually mediocre Mariners.

This time, new general manager Dipoto, recognizing the farm system was nearly bereft of premium prospects, gambled on adding proven vets who had subpar seasons in 2015, including CF Leonys Martin, LF Norichika Aoki, closer Steve Cishek, to name a few. They are bridges to a future.

The future is at the other end of the franchise. Dipoto seeks to present a fact-based diagnosis of strengths and weaknesses to give to a young player as a tool for improvement. If you have heard this theme before, you are probably a student of coach Pete Carroll’s transformation of the Seahawks.

“When young players enter your system, they have to know what you’re trying to achieve categorically in every way,” Dipoto said in an interview shortly after his hire in October. “Whether it’s running the bases, or a hitting approach in the batter’s box, or how you’re going to approach throwing strikes, it’s how you teach them to use the analysis that you’re providing.”

Working for the Boston Red Sox a decade ago as a scout, Dipoto learned that a purposeful application of analytics at the beginning of a career is a good way to help fix the Mariners’ chronic, long-term weakness — player development.

“You want the player to behave in such a way when he’s 18, 19 and 20,” he said, “that when he gets to the major leagues and he’s in his 26-, 28-year-old seasons, he knows what Red Sox baseball is about. We will do the same thing here. They will know what Mariners baseball is about.”

The opening week of their 40th season seems a tad late to be acquiring a fundamental of baseball life. But because Mariners baseball for so long has been two out and nobody on, the approach is at least intriguing. Unambiguous embarrassment is a powerful tool, even for the rich.





  • coug73

    “the flaming bag of shame,” O, Art!

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  • Dale

    Of all the Mariners’ differences for 2016, I think the change in the coaching staff may be the most important. From the rather formal, cold, anonymous, old-style staff of 2015 now comes a coaching group that, with a more personal and intelligent approach, will inspire and get the most out of the current players. I think that team morale is much more important than many people give it credit for. Adding the changes to the roster is of course also very important, but this too reflects the change in management and coaching. With the Seahawks and Mariners, I think Seattle sports fans are very fortunate now, for a change.

    • Long-Time Mariners Fan

      Agreed. Even if all players play to their defined expectations, the championship teams somehow get that little extra – the clutch hit, the leg double, the extra three MPH on the fastball, the diving catch. Where does that extra come from? Morale, heart, team cohesion — whatever you want to call it. Let’s hope the “Arizona Pool Table” makes it back to the regular season and we (the fans) can feel that the team shares our excitement and hope for the next 159 games. And then some.

      “And then some,” he said, looking sternly up from his scorecard and over the top of his reading glasses.

      • Rj Smith

        Actually, I think this team is constructed offensively in a similar fashion to the 2001 season. Both lineups have some power & speed, which allowed/will allow them to put pressure on the opposing pitchers & manufacture runs. I also see this starting rotation as better, with a real opportunity in a playoff series. The 2001 M’s were doomed in the postseason with guys like Sele, Abbott, etc. Those guys were good in the regular season, but didn’t match up well in the postseason. If Walker emerges as a dominant performer this year & they stay healthy, there is no reason the M’s can’t contend.

        • dingle

          Rj, someone is using your account and posting optimistic thoughts about the Mariners. Thought you should know. Maybe change your password.

          • Rj Smith

            Nope, it’s me. Come on now, let’s be real….. it was impossible to be optimistic about this organization under Bavasi & then Trader Jack Z. Both were absolutely awful at their jobs. Z constantly acquired BUMS, sold low on prospects or never dealt & failed to develop them & was terrible with communication. After Figgins flopped, he totally abandoned any idea of fielding a team with speed to fit the park & instead brought in clowns like Lamo Morrison, Dustin Jokeley, Weeks, Morse, Brendan Ryan, Mark BUMbo, Casper Wells, Montero, etc. Things are looking up, can’t imagine anything worse than Trader Jack. The draft will be interesting & I think the M’s will still actually be playing meaningful games by then also.

          • art thiel

            Smelling salts, please. I am verklempt.

          • dingle

            I’m going with alien abduction as the only plausible explanation.

          • Rj Smith

            Well I’ll prove no abduction took place…… The M’s are starting again with the silliness at Safeco. Losing to awful teams. Oakland is extra pesky, they have the right ingredients to be successful at Safeco. Saturday it was Coco Crisp constantly getting on base & causing havoc & last year it was Billy Burns destroying the M’s. It seems like everybody else comes to Seattle & out small-balls the M’s to death & always take the series. Thank that clown Trader Jack Z for this mess. Let’s see if Queen Felix can actually throw a decent game today & snap a losing streak like a REAL ace does. Skeptical about that.

          • dingle

            Nice to have you back, Rj. I was worried for a bit.

            Art, it’s safe to come back now. I think.

          • Rj Smith

            Thanks. I never left. I don’t WANT to be negative, I just tell it like it is in my opinion. I’ve been a die-hard fan for over 30 years. That’s a lot of bad baseball. I’m tired of other teams winning, I want them to win a World Series while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. Does everyone realize, the M’s are the ONLY franchise to NEVER appear in the WS? That’s really depressing. I just want them to win. Thanks Z for setting us back 10 years.

          • Rj Smith

            So I’m watching the Orioles/Rays game right now & feeling very satisfied that Mark BUMbo, Lamo Morrison & Brad Miller have all struck out today.

          • art thiel

            You’re right, dingle. I think RJ’s name was found in the Panama Papers, and he’s working on winning friends somewhere.

      • art thiel

        Pool tables for all. But as I watch Saturday, they are packing cue sticks.

    • art thiel

      Wow. A buyer. And I’m not being sarcastic.

      • Dale

        I think it’s probably a little early yet to conclude, don’t you think Art? The Seahawks were below .500 their first year, but their approach proved very effective over time. However, I agree that matching Pete’s magic will be quite a feat, but we need to give Dipoto & Co. at least a year or two to make realistic comparisons.

  • jafabian

    I’ve heard that change is afoot one too many times. Talk is cheap and I’m not about to say this is when things finally are on an upswing after 3 games. This is a much more well rounded team than in years past but they aren’t by any means comparable to the Cubs, Cardinals or Nationals. All-Star break will be the time to assess things.

    • ksmyth

      Thankfully the Cubs, Cardinals and Nationals are in the other league, and the American League is up for grabs.

      • art thiel

        First comes beating Oakland. Not happening thru Sat.

        • ksmyth

          Yep, among other things, the right-handers have to hit. Happy Felix day Art.

    • art thiel

      No need to get giddy. Your skepticism is well-earned.

  • 1coolguy

    A masterpiece Art – just tellin’ it like it is, with a flourish.
    “dedication/foolishness (choose one) ” ok – foolishness
    ” Lincoln, virtually the only constant across the 14 years of futility, appears to have been persuaded to take the advice of every sentient being in and out of the organization to stay away from baseball decisions.” We can only hope – so far, so good.
    ” is do it before the sun goes supernova” I’m still wiping the tears of laughter.
    You nailed it Art – nice job!