BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 01/28/2018

Thiel: Mariners not tanking in ’18, but so what?

GM Jerry Dipoto says there are three distinct competitive tiers in MLB, and the Mariners are in the middle, with a chance to be the Buffalo Bills. That should fire up ticket sales.

Jerry Dipoto hopes the Mariners can be, the, ahem, Buffalo Bills of MLB. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Before it gets lost amid news of Seahawks hires for the assistant kicking coach /sommelier, something a bit more startling was offered by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto Thursday that is worthy of some discussion.

“You could argue,” he said, “that there is more competition to get the No. 1 pick in the draft than to win the World Series.”

For argument’s sake, let’s go ahead and agree with that claim. Because that means MLB has finally caught up to the NBA in the most odious tradition in modern team sports — tanking.

The modern NBA annually produces enough tanking teams to create a Neville Chamberlain Division. No relation to Wilt, the British prime minister is nailed into the history books as an appeaser of Hitler by striking an agreement he claimed would provide “peace for our time.” You know, the slogan these days for the Sacramento Kings, the Atlanta Hawks and for so many years, the Philadelphia 76ers.

The NBA theory goes that a single premier player taken at the top of the draft instantly can change the fortunes of a team, because the rules mandate only five guys on the floor per team. So it is often in the best interests of an NBA team to spend a season or three wallowing with the halibut on the sea floor, because the virtue of integrity in competition remains tied for last in the NBA’s list of worst characteristics.

With MLB and NFL, a single player can’t help as much. And in baseball, it takes at least several years in the minor leagues before a hitter is able to adjust his batting gloves like a real major leaguer — every pitch in every at-bat, for all time.

The NBA logic for tanking in MLB was always weak; the top draft pick was often years away from a significant contribution, and in the frequent case of the Mariners, not at all.

That premise appears to be changing.

The recent championship successes of the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, who have parlayed years of craptitude into high draft choices that advanced analytics predicted would be stars, has informed some of the change.

So has the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, in which the players gave up much hard-won ground to the owners. Clubs now see ways around the dubious practice of rewarding veteran players on the downside with 10-year, $240 million guaranteed contracts (hi, Robinson Cano!).

A recent column by Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports outlined baseball’s broken economic system, explaining some of why the current free agent market has the slowness of a Seattle rush hour.

Several top-tier free agents remain unsigned as spring training approaches. The Mariners, for one, are mostly done with the market, outside of a low-cost reliever or backup catcher here and there.

Seattle and other teams are far less eager than they were a few seasons ago to give big, long-term guarantees to veterans whose best days grow more infrequent.

“Of course (the current system) doesn’t make sense,” an anonymous league official told Passan. “We pay you the minimum for three years and arbitration for three or four years, and then you get paid more in free agency for your decline?”

While no hard evidence is available, Passan raised the specter of collusion, a time-tested favorite of baseball owners who operate a sport without a hard salary cap. However, the luxury tax is operating in some ways like a cap. It’s pissing off Scott Boras, the super agent who has numerous top-tier clients — J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, starter Jake Arrieta and closer Greg Holland — still dangling.

“We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer,” he told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. “We can’t go to our fan bases and sell the promise of losing to win later. That is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”

Dipoto agreed in part. He identified  three levels of competition this off-season: The “Super Seven” (Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Astros, Indians, Yankees, Red Sox) who have the proven talent and the finances to operate a level above everyone else; the next 10 to 12 teams, including the Mariners, who are are jostling for the second wild-card berth in each league. The rest are non-contenders, teams he believes see more value in the top draft pick than trying to win games in 2018.

The Chamberlains. The tankers.

That means Dipoto thinks nearly two-thirds of MLB teams are preparing to be boat-raced in 2018. All of Boras’s clients will eventually get signed, but it likely will be to shorter deals with teams in the top seven, because for the rest, the risk won’t justify the reward.

Dipoto then offered a sports comparative that no one this century has uttered — an aspiration to be like the NFL Buffalo Bills. You may recall that the Bills’ return to the playoffs this month vaulted the Mariners to the top (bottom?) as the longest gone from an American team-sport postseason.

“Do I think we have the ability to become the Buffalo Bills of major league baseball? Yes, I do,” he said, as side eyes among reporters shot around the room. He explained that he saw it as a positive comparison, ignoring the sweep of dreadful history that preceded it.

“Is that what gets me in an urgent position every day? No,” he said. “What gets me in an urgent position every day is understanding where our roster is, how to build this group into a playoff scenario, and let them do what they do.

“When they show us they need help, we throw them a life preserver and we try to help them.”

What happens if they aren’t in a playoff scenario by the trade deadline in July, the new Hot Stove League? My guess is they drown, and trade 3B Kyle Seager and DH Nelson Cruz to one of the Super Seven, some of whom will have sufficient injuries/disappointments to surrender potential starting pitchers in order to get hitters that can get them into the postseason.

At least it isn’t tanking. But it isn’t really winning, either. Emulating the 2017 Bills means something, but not a lot of something. After 16 years, it would be a step, but continuing to trade instead of relying on homegrown talent perpetuates a churn that keeps the Mariners in the middle tier.

Dipoto begins his third Seattle year earnest in his desire to develop the talent they have drafted, Baseball America’s farm-system rankings be damned. They have a batting order that is top to bottom its best in years, and respectable bullpen. But the starting rotation produces more squints than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.

It’s not tanking. But I think there’s a participation ribbon in there somewhere for 2018.


  • Effzee

    I’m pretty sure he means something different by “getting in an urgent position” than I do. #bathroomhumor

    • art thiel

      Really, Effzee? Gotta come stronger than that.

  • ReebHerb

    Even the Mariners are still a good car radio listen and background TV watch at home except for over redundant commercials. There will be surprises as the NFL Rams were against the expert opinions of the analysts. Oakland can stiffen the league competition if they learn to field. Top picks are sometimes Dustin Ackley too. Early games count the same as August ones so be ready to play ball coming out of spring training. And, advanced analytics are made up of discrete on field events.

    • Kevin Lynch

      Completely agree. Well said.

    • Husky73

      A hot start (maybe 20-8 in April) would mean a lot to the fans.

      • art thiel

        20-8? Is that all you need? Should be no problem. In April, they play CLE seven times and HOU four.

        • Husky73

          A hot start (regardless of the opposition) gives the fans and the team hope. A bad start has folks talking about the start of football training camps (and why Russell Wilson should be traded and Jake Browning benched). It seems every year the M’s blow games early, never recovering enough in late August and September. Whether it is the Indians, Astros or the 27 Yankees, the M’s need to do well in April. A 20 win month would do wonders for the perpetual grey skies that are Marinerdom.

    • art thiel

      Thanks for the tutorial, Herb.

  • Theyfinallyfiredcable

    One of the biggest problems with the Mariners has been ownership . You had a Japanese owner that saw the franchise as a toy for Ichiro , a man who cared so little for his team that even when they played a regular season game in Japan , he didn’t come to the game .

    The other major issue has been absolutely dreadful GM’s running the show . I think the jury is still out on Trader Jerry , but Art makes and excellent point when he says “They have a batting order that is top to bottom its best in years, and respectable bullpen.”

    • Effzee

      Meh. Felix liked being the golden boy under Lincoln. He knew there would never be any pressure of having to win, and he liked it that way.

      • Husky73

        Felix has put a lot of fannies in the seats and pitched his guts out in many 1-0 and 2-1 defeats. He has been loyal to the franchise and good in the community.

        • Effzee

          What you say about Felix’s popularity and dedication to the community is absolutely true. And yes, its not his fault that he’s been the only good player on the worst franchise imaginable.

          Randy won 303 games over all, including many high pressure situations, whereas approximately 160 of Felix’s 160 wins have been meaningless.

          • art thiel

            Felix has done well by Seattle fans, but management has not done well by Felix except on payday.

      • art thiel

        Felix is a little like Griffey — it came so easily, he thought he didn’t need to put in the work.

  • Husky73

    Houston and the Angels (presumably) got better. The M’s could immediately increase their chances with one signing– Arietta.

    • art thiel

      How many years do you give to a 31-year-old whose ERA and advanced metrics have gone up since his Cy Young award? He’s a month older than Felix.

      • Husky73

        I’d give him 2 or 3, which seems to be about the going rate in this year’s free agent class..

  • jafabian

    Even if the rotation is relatively healthy they may still need an starting pitcher. The bullpen, if healthy, looks good. Reserving judgement on acquiring Gordon. I keep flashing back to when they tried to switch Rickie Weeks from 2B to OF. He should make the lineup stronger but they thought that about Chone Figgins. Be interesting to see what Jerry does at the trade deadline.

    • art thiel

      Chone Figgins? Man, I forgot about him. Thanks for the shudder.

  • rosetta_stoned

    If and/or when the Mariners make four, consecutive trips to the World Series – even in a losing effort – then then can look eye-to-eye with the Buffalo Bills.

    • art thiel

      Well put.

  • Alan Harrison

    Call me crazy, but I see a major trade afoot (if the M’s are sharper than they probably are). The Dodgers want Seager for promotional value and 2B sock (yes, I said 2B, where he played in college), Mariners want starting P (Buehler? Buehler?) and minor league depth. Slide Cano to 1B (if Carew can do it, Robbie can do it), Healy to 3B (where he’s played pretty well), Gordon to 2B (where he belongs) and sign/promote/find an OF to work with Heredia, Haniger, and Gamel (like Ian Miller). Still not enough to pass Houston (unless having a target on their backs stops them), but at least we’re one pitcher better than we were.

  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    For the 2018 Mariner’s it’s once again to the pit of misery. Dilly Dilly. Somethings never change.

  • Richard Musser

    I don’t really understand the headline. How are the Mariners not tanking? Buying the token free agent every year is not an authentic competitive effort. They know very well it will not be enough.
    So they want to emulate the Astros and build a powerful farm system, giving them access to cheaper, and hence more valuable players? Well awesome. But when have they EVER done that? At the risk of generalizing, a substantial part of the M’s farm system value, in 50 years of operation, has come from 2 very lucky #1 choices (omg, did I just make DiPoto’s argument?). It hasn’t been an organizational strength; let’s put it that way. I’d be much more interested in how the M’s are structuring their player development these days; if they have reflected and made any changes, especially in terms of commitment to OBP. Our perennial nemesis.
    Anyway, thanks for the article.