BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 07/18/2019

Thiel: Mariners’ long road longer than they say

The Mariners’ 2019 carcass likely will be picked clean of veteran talent by the July 31 trade deadline. Which leaves, well, the Sept. 1 callups as the final reason to pay attention.

Mike Leake is among the Mariners likely to be gone by July 31. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Anticipation and astonishment are two expectations that are marbled into the fundamental appeal of big-time spectator sports. Most fans don’t think of their sports passions in those terms, but the characteristics seem more topical now, if only for their absence in local baseball.

Ahead of MLB’s July 31 trade deadline, it can be said the Mariners have neither going for them.

The Mariners have, of course, been around a similar juncture many times. In their 42-year history, they have had 12 winning seasons, only four of which produced playoffs.

Hard to recall sometimes, but there have been times when proximity at mid-season to contention made them buyers instead of the usual sellers at deadline time.

Probably the most notable episode came in 1995, when a public vote for tax dollars to subsidize a baseball-specific stadium was needed to stave off franchise relocation. The owners, desperate to demonstrate a public commitment to winning, permitted general manager Woody Woodward to take on salary for short-term veteran help.

Some years later, Woodward reflected on the moment, saying his fellow execs Roger Jongewaard and Lee Pelekoudas barely believed it.

“When I told them we could add payroll at the deadline, it was like it was Christmas,” Woodward said. “They asked me what happened? Why? I said ownership wanted to be in the race. I gave them the same pitch I always used, but this time in fell on concerned ears.

“The wild card kept us in it. If there had not been a wild card, the way California was playing, we might not have gone out and made the moves.”

In 1995, MLB went from two divisions to three, and created a wild-card playoff berth. Additionally, the Mariners were slotted into the American League West, the game’s only four-team division (others had five teams). In golf terms, the Mariners were were given three strokes on a par five with the ball 10 feet from hole before they had to swing a stick.

They birdied, making the playoffs for the first time in the club’s 18 years.

At the ’95 deadline, the Mariners acquired Andy Benes, a 27-year-old, right-handed starting pitcher from the San Diego Padres for two former first-round draft picks, OF Marc Newfeld and reliever Ron Villone. Two weeks later, ahead of the waiver trade deadline, the Mariners acquired from Kansas City OF Vince Coleman, 33, a base-stealer who filled a hole at the top of a lineup of heavy hitters.

The newcomers played key roles in the regular-season run that created in late September  the sweetest asset for a team in contention: Daily anticipation. Players as well as fans couldn’t wait to get to the park.

The group of players —  led by Junior Griffey, Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner — were in their athletic primes. They delivered astonishment, coming back from 13 games behind in mid-August to force a playoff.

I realize that a re-visit of 1995 prompts eye-rolls in that portion of Mariners fans weary of fawning upon the slag heap’s rare rose. But hey, not only is Martinez’s Hall of Fame induction Sunday, the 24-year contrast to the next two weeks is vivid, if painful.

The Mariners’ much-discussed tear-down is nearing completion for year one. This week began with 17 teams within three games of a playoff spot. That’s more than many expected in the MLB-tanking era.

It appears that GM Jerry Dipoto has five veterans who have some market value to a contender — 2B Dee Gordon, SS Tim Beckham and pitchers Mike Leake, Tommy Milone and Roenis Elias. If 1B Ryon Healy were healthy, he would be a sixth (also available are the longest-tenured Mariners, 3B Kyle Seager and RHP Felix Hernandez, but both are being paid so much to do so little that their values to other teams are less than zero).

Leake can provide a Benes-like contribution to a contender, and Gordon can be a next-generation Coleman. They each might fetch a middling prospect, but returns for others  likely will be minimal. There is also speculation that two younger vets, C Omar Narvaez, 27, and RF Domingo Santana, 27 next month, might be available, since they can barely field their positions.

The prospective deals will likely conclude the roster chaos that has seen the Mariners go through more players than any team in baseball. In the off-season, MLB eliminated the waiver trade deadline mechanism that went through August, when contenders occasionally might grab a premier player who cleared waivers, as the Astros did two years ago to get Justin Verlander.

So, since the next two weeks should dissipate the remaining fumes of the extended spring training season — unless you fancy the race to see whether Daniel Vogelbach can surpass the single summers of thunder by Mark Whiten, Bucky Jacobsen and Dae-Ho Lee — there won’t be much reason to pay attention. Well, there’s six home games in a row in late August against the Yankees and Blue Jays, if you’re the kind to enjoy being heckled out of your own park by opposing fans.

Unless . . .

You return Sept. 1.

That’s when rosters expand to 40 and the curtain might pull back on the future. It’s hard to know who will be called up, but a reasonable guess might include some among prized prospects such as pitchers Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and Logan Gilbert, and position players Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Cal Raleigh and JArred Kelenic.

The push may be irresistible for Dipoto. Monday, in merely moving Gilbert and Raleigh, a switch-hitting catcher, from High A Modesto to AA Arkansas, he was all giggly.

“We’re pumped,” he  told the Seattle Times. “The excitement that everybody got when that email went out, where we informed the group that these guys were moving up, it was great.”

That minor-league cheerleading sounds as if the Mariners are feeling some pressure from the current wretchedness. Wednesday’s 10-2 defeat in Oakland, the sixth loss in a row, including the first five of the second half by a combined margin of 47-9, dropped them to 39-60, thanks in part to leading the majors in errors and strikeouts. Grim.

Dipoto would very much like to create an illusion that the far horizon of contention is closer than it seems. Which would be, of course, counter to the goal of tanking.

Bad as 2019 has been, it needs to get worse with the pending trades. And 2020 needs to be just as gnarly. After so many costly trades and poor drafts, the bankruptcy of the farm system was so profound that the teardown/rebuild is going to take more time and more acquisition of prospects than Dipoto’s optimistic estimation for some daylight in late 2020.

It is a process in MLB that is nearly impossible to rush successfully.

After catching a glimpse last month against the Mariners of an impressive Minnesota team, it’s worth knowing that the Twins had losing records in six of the previous eight years before creating the best outfit in Lake Woebegon since the Kirby Puckett-led teams that won World Series in 1987 and 1991.

The Twins are just one of several examples around baseball of the endurance required for the modern process. Little room is made for seasonal anticipation and astonishment.


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YourThoughts

  • ReebHerb

    It could be worse without the analytics, shifting, and openers. /s Win or lose the team can be fun to follow as it was back in the day of checking how Alvin Davis did the evening before. There are times I wish the other team would hit our most deliberate pitcher hard and make his cringe worthy style go away. Speaking of compelling players, I’m sure glad the boy named Sue is hitting inside the park homers for another team. The hair flop was funny once and got old fast. Assistant GM Ichiro wasn’t my favorite either. Missing Diaz.

    • art thiel

      Really? Hair length? In 2018-19? C’mon Herb.

  • Tian Biao

    I wonder how many losses the fan base can withstand? in other words, what are the limits on their patience? most folks seem to be aboard with the rebuild, but the ugly losses night after night, on top of 18 years of futility, plus the fawning over the 95 team, and the massively annoying bland empty optimism by the announcers . . . it’s hard to take day after day. I’m thinking maybe mid 2021. if there’s no daylight by then, this whole rebuild thing will be just another Mariner punchline.

    • Steve Buckholdt

      You pose a real good question in the first sentence. The Mariners are not just losing but they are not even competitive in a lot of games. I too am sick of hearing about ’95. Yes, it was a great year but my gosh that was almost one-quarter of a century ago. The fact that the team has to keep dredging up ’95 highlights should signal even a casual fan that recent history is devoid of anything worth trumpeting.

      • art thiel

        It’s hard for many to look fondly upon that crucial moment because the unexpected success caused little sustained success. Its absence turns sentiment the wrong way.

    • art thiel

      Until football starts, lots of fans will still show up because it’s a fun place on a summer night. The owners knew there would be an attendance/ratings falloff, and budgeted accordingly. Although I suspect that living it day to day is harder than they thought.

  • Howard Wells

    you still are paying attention to the M’s? It must be because it’s your job. I went to my annual game against Oakland and saw my team give up 5 in the first. Spent the rest of the game people watching and deciding what food to try next and drink beer..well, after the first one at $13.50, there was no more beer. We had foul balls within 50 feet of us and wow! THAT was exciting! And now? I don’t care about baseball. Normally I’d use an exclamation mark or all caps but…baseball is dead to me. I will cry watching Edgar’s HOF speech however. The ticket stub to the “double” playoff game will stay in the wallet to remind me of the rose on the slag heap.

    • art thiel

      Howard, this could be a long several years for you.

      • Howard Wells

        The cynic in me is taking over more each day. We won 89 games last year. It was a success compared to 37 other seasons. Remind me again why it was essential to destroy that team and not try to at least coast through a couple more seasons of relative success? I’m not getting any younger….dammit Jim, I’m a fan not a statistician!

  • dingle

    By “Benes-like contribution to a contender”, do you mean that Mike Leake can offer an aspiring playoff team an ERA of nearly 6, with 73 hits and 33 walks in 63 innings pitched? Because I’m not sure anyone hoping to make the post-season is going to really want that. Mike Leake, if he continues to be Mike Leake, would be an upgrade by comparison.

    Many Mariners acquired in that 1995 run made significant contributions. Benes mostly took up space.

    But you’re right: This team is going to take a while to get anywhere close to watchable.

    • art thiel

      Benes wasn’t great, but better than what they had, and it turned out they had zero margin for error, tying with the Angels. And I think Leake’s been impacted by the Mariners’ decrepitude.

      • dingle

        Somehow he managed to post a 7-2 record in his starts, so I guess there’s that. I don’t recall who he replaced in the rotation, but if Benes was an improvement, I guess there’s a reason I don’t remember.

  • Husky73

    A few observations from the former Mariner Optimist….Seager is owed $38 million for 20 and 21, plus a $15M option in 22 with a buyout. I give him a little credit for at least trying to beat the shift, but he’s pretty much hopeless at the plate. Narvaez is not a bad catcher, and he can hit. The bullpen is the worst in team history. Ayala would be an upgrade. 2020 may be worse than 2019, with some huge contracts still on the books, and young talent (how good are they?) still over the horizon. Hopefully, Haniger can recover. One question….how do the A’s continue to make it work, and the M’s don’t?

    • 2nd place is 1st loser

      A great scouting division that truly has a tremendous ability to find talent, and of course Billy Beane. That’s enough for a team with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball to put a consistent, entertaining and competitive product on the field. The real question is, how good would the A’s be with the M’s payroll?

      • art thiel

        That’s why years ago the Mariners tried to hire him, but the A’s countered with a piece of ownership.

    • art thiel

      Your last point, one made by many, is probably the most overarching condemnation of Mariners’ futility. The raggedy-ass A’s are doing it again . . .

    • jafabian

      The A’s last World Series roster had six former M’s ( as well as Beane himself) as well as Rene Lacheman and Dave Duncan among the coaching staff. It makes sense for the A’s to continuously pilfer the M’s for the players since they see them so much. What gets me is how often the Yankees do the same and up until Michael Pineda had a ton of success with them.

      I give credit to Dipoto for having the courage to tear down and rebuild. No previous Mariners GM has ever done so ( unless trading away Jose Cruz Jr, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek constitutes a tear down.) but this seems to be the way of the AL in the past ten years. Even the Yankees and Red Sox have done so though not as thorough as the M’s. I’m confident within a 3-5 year period the team should be about at the level the Rays are at. Enough to contend for the division but will need some help to get to the playoffs.

      • art thiel

        You will always have the Buhner trade, thanks to George Constanza’s reminder.

  • 1coolguy

    Art – Our Labor Day bet – September 2nd is getting close Art and it looks like our 10 game out of first bet will prove me the winner. Where are we meeting for the beers?

    • art thiel

      How about if I pull a Trump on you and deny I ever said it?

      • 1coolguy

        Are you going to chump out? Promise we will only talk sports! I can taste the Guiness now!

        • art thiel

          After Mike Leake’s game Friday, I sense a miracle comeback by this ragamuffin outfit. Six weeks of rally will lift them to the outskirts of mediocrity. As you saw, even the epic Mike Trout was no match.

          Unless, of course, they trade Leake.

    • dingle

      Art, were you already drinking when you took this bet?

  • Larry StoneB

    “Slag heap?” I giggled. Then I wept. No, this is just a team of futility worth pulling one’s hair and the gnashing of teeth, but not tears.
    Oh, and $13.50 beers? Makes me glad I live in the Philippines, home of the 50 cent beer.

    • art thiel

      You should see the real estate prices.

  • Effzee

    One glaring problem with this philosophy and process is it makes for terrible merch sales. How can fans be expected to go buy jerseys of the only adequate players on the roster, knowing that they are only here temporarily as trade fodder to acquire youngsters who may never see the major leagues? It’s not even worth getting used to anyone, because you never know who the next expendables are. Its hard to get behind rooting for the name on the front of the jersey (instead of the back of the jersey) with such a moribund history and completely unpredictable future. Chuckenhowie painted this franchise into a deep, dark corner. If the new ownership and management wants to signal a true change through all of this experimentation, they should get rid of the cursed sideways compass logo and give the fans something fresh and purchasable. The hockey team will release their name and logo in the next few months and many fan dollars will go there. The M’s are teetering dangerously close to falling to 6th place in the attention of the locals, behind the Seahawks, UW football and basketball, Sounders, and the NHL team… There is zero energy behind this franchise at the moment, and only so much sports interest to go around. They need to do something.

    • art thiel

      The owners anticipated the falloff in merch sales, and budgeted accordingly. It’s a small part of the financial picture, particularly from savvier fans who rarely spend on player names knowing how fungible they are, especially with Dipoto.

      • Effzee

        Oooh, fungible. Nice one, Art Theilsaurus.

        • art thiel

          Words are fun, and most of them are legal.