BY Jim Caple 06:30AM 09/27/2019

Mariners all out of iconic players; now what?

No more Edgar. No more Ichiro. Now, no more Felix. Farewell for Hernandez Thursday at the end of a dismal season leaves Mariners to count on the future instead of the past.

After his last pitch as a Mariner, Felix Hernandez leaves the field at T-Mobile Park. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

This is the 18th consecutive season the Mariners have not made the playoffs, the longest current stretch of any team in major American pro sports. Seattle has never reached the World Series, the only current major league franchise that has never done so (the Washington Senators did so before they moved to D.C. from Montreal and became the Nationals).

Meanwhile, the Athletics (96-63), with whom Seattle is finishing its season against this weekend, have reached the postseason seven times since 2002, and likely an eighth time this year.

“We have good teams,’’ Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ve identified pitching, and now in recent years some of our best position player prospects have come to the big leagues. The front office does a good job of meshing what we have and finding what we need.

“It’s a little different business, depending on where the team is (financially), but we always seem to find a way to contend.’’

It’s also because Melvin is a great manager, so good that he has been named manager of the year three times. Yet the Mariners fired Melvin, who succeeded Lou Piniella, after just two seasons, including 2003 when he managed them to 93 victories. Just one of the reasons the Mariners have gone so long without making the postseason.

The Mariners did start off well, beating the Athletics in two season-opening games at Tokyo, then beating the World Series champion Red Sox three times in four games, going 13-2 to start the season. It was an illusion.

They went downhill fast, losing many games in grim fashion. At 66-93, they likely will finish with the American League’s fifth-worst record and last in the AL West. The Mariners won against terrible teams such as the Tigers, Pirates and Royals, but did not do well against powers such as the Yankees, Twins and Astros. Houston won the season series 18-1.

The seasonal outcome was no surprise. The failure was intentional, a “step back” from older, expensive veterans to replenish with prospects what was regarded as the worst farm system in MLB.

General manager Jerry Dipoto traded away almost all their best players after they won 89 games last season, including 2B Robinson Cano, ace starter James Paxton, closer Edwin Diaz and SS Jean Segura, and did not re-sign free agent DH Nelson Cruz, who has hit 40 home runs with the Twins this year.

Mitch Haniger, perhaps their best returning position player, missed almost 100 games since rupturing a testicle in early June. Seattle leads the majors in errors, though the rate has declined lately. Rookie 3B Dylan Moore and SS Tim Beckham each made three in one inning in separate games.

The Mariners were no-hit twice, and nearly a third time Tuesday by Houston’s Zach Greinke. They  have a .238 team batting average, second-lowest in the majors and more than 1,550 strikeouts, also second-most.  The Mariners’ one All-Star, 1B/DH Daniel Vogelbach, hit 30 home runs but has less than 100 hits, a terrible .208 batting average and 146 strikeouts.

They have used more players this season, 67, than any team in MLB history. Which is silly, because it hurts the confidence of players who get called up and then sent down quickly and often. The Mariners used also more pitchers, 41, than any team in history.

The churn leaves fans with little time to develop interest in individual players. Despite having big crowds for Edgar Martinez and Ichiro celebration weekends, attendance has declined by roughly 6,000 per game from last year to around 22,200, about half of what it was in 2002, the season after they won an AL-record 116 games (but did not make the World Series).

Felix Hernandez saluted the crowd numerous times. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Thursday night the Mariners said farewell to their last iconic player. After 15 years, Felix Hernandez, one of the club’s few heroic figures, pitched his last in Seattle.

More than 10,000 fans over 28 sections donned yellow T-shirts in the King’s Court to cheer his every move. He gave up all the runs in a 3-1 loss (box)  to to the A’s, but it hardly mattered. After 5.1 innings that included five hits, four walks and 106 pitches, manager Scott Servais took Hernandez out a final time to a roaring ovation from 20,921 in the house that wouldn’t let the game re-start until he took encores.

He wept openly as he waved with both hands. Fans chanted, “Thank you Felix! Thank you Felix!”

After the game, wearing a yellow T-shirt, he walked back onto to the field headed to the lingerers among the King’s Court, where he strolled along the warning track slapping hands, signing autographs and joining in fans’ selfies. He hopped up on the wall and posed in front of fans with arms outstretched for field photographers.

“That was a fun night,” he said post-game, dry-eyed and smiling. “Fifteen years . . . there’s a lot going on in my mind.

“I’m not retired yet. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Whatever happens, it won’t be in Seattle, where Hernandez, 33, will complete his seven-year, $175 million contract extension when the season ends Sunday with a firm understanding that his only MLB club is moving on without him.

The Mariners need to give his money and innings to younger pitchers starting in 2020.  Which ones aren’t yet clear, given the struggles by some of the more highly valued prospects.

Nonetheless, they do have some promising players.

Rookie OF Kyle Lewis has had an exceptional September. He hit home runs in his first three games, one of the few rookies to do so, has six overall and is batting .276. Catchers Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy have played well, Narvaez batting .279 with 22 home runs and Murphy with .273 and 18. Domingo Santana has hit 21 home runs. And Shed Long is batting .273 after recovering from a slow start.

Pitcher Marco Gonzalez, in his fifth major league season, has pitched pretty well, going 14-12, though his ERA is 4.09.

But forecasting success for players, even after a season in the organization, is highly speculative. As director of player development Andy McKay said, “Talent prediction is the hardest thing in the world.’’

The Mariners could improve perhaps by following the Oakland model of aggressive trades of younger players that have helped keep them in frequent contention better than the well-funded Mariners, who have committed to a painful teardown. As Melvin said of the club’s player evaluators: “They’re not afraid to go out and get some other players and churn some guys from time to time.’’

Dipoto certainly isn’t afraid to churn. But with evidence of progress at the MLB level hard to discern, most fans have only his word to go on.  As was seen Thursday night, the club is always great with farewells. It’s the great introductions that are missing.

It was time. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

 


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YourThoughts

  • Kevin Lynch

    Excellent wrap up, Jim! The M’s anemia to me comes down to a single game. I’ve been watching baseball for nearly 60 years and I’ve never seen this outcome. It was Houston and the final score was 21-1. The Astros had 29 men on base. The M’s had 1. But that one, Shed Long, wasn’t on base for long. He hit a home run. The Mariners never had a man standing on a base all night but managed to surrender 21 runs. That’s hard to do if you really TRY to do it. Maybe they need to sacrifice a goat. “A step back”. I’ll always remember those words.

    • art thiel

      That was an all-time Mariners milestone of futility.

  • ReebHerb

    Now what? We look forward to spring. We do have great team speed which still gets thrown out stealing second. Controlling the strike zone is a great philosophy which needs extending to with two strikes try to protect the plate with pitches that look like they might be a quarter of an inch outside. Foul the damn ball off. We’ve seen the best of Vogelbach. It is encouraging to see Yaguchi try to ditch his signature hesitation delivery which hitters were timing off. We know he’s not an opener nor an innings eater. He can still become a good MLB pitcher. At least he’s not the co-general manager. Seager has these great hitting stretches but horrible early starts which come from overthinking and changing in spring training. Oh and can the production manager shut that babbling TV host up before the color guy strangles him.

    • art thiel

      Feel better, Reeb? That’s a lot to unpack.

      I hope you like Kikuchi as much as Yaguchi.

  • Alan Harrison

    Icons do not a good team make. Willie Mays with the ’73 Mets. Steve Carlton with the ’88 Twins. Felix with the Mariners. All goodbyes are bittersweet, but at least in the first two cases, the players were in their 40s and had worked their proverbial asses off to squeeze every last drop of greatness. Felix is only 32 years old and could not take direction, coaching, or training. When he was the best, he was great. But greatness is fleeting when you don’t work as hard as you can to keep it going.

    • art thiel

      Even Griffey shortchanged himself after leaving the Mariners. He didn’t believe in stretching or weight training as he aged. He and Felix we so good so early that they thought the dominance was would always be the natural order of things.

  • Tian Biao

    sigh. with the Mariners, it’s always about the past or the future, never the present. still, a great send-off for Felix. as for the A’s: what can you say? Congratulations to Billy Beane and Co. I wish the M’s were half as smart as the A’s, or even one-quarter as smart. but they’re not. sigh.

    • art thiel

      Some heavy sighing here.

      The Mariners made a run at Beane years ago, but ownership wisely gave him a piece of the action.

  • jafabian

    Marco has won 16 games, not 14. He had a stretch from May to June that really hurt his ERA but then he straightened himself out. IMO he’s a future All-Star.

    I’m expecting Kyle Seager to be moved in the offseason and Mitch Haniger during next season once he raises his stock. And the Dipoto way is to get prospects. With such a young team can the club attract any free agents to join? Will fans be willing to follow a team with its familiars gone?

    Since purchasing the club from Jeff Smulyan ownership has gone after the best available manager only once. They’ve had five rookie managers, one in Bob Melvin who they couldn’t recognize that he inherited an aging team and amazingly fired him after he had a single losing season. I’ve wondered why they seem to like going with rookie managers? Hmm? They’ve had three retreads, two of which they seemingly drove away in Mike Hargrove and Eric Wedge. I remember Dusty Baker expressing interest in the open managerial position in 2002 and the club thumbed its nose at him. He went to the Cubs the next season, won the Central and led them to the NLCS. Go figure.

    I’m okay with the plan that Team Dipoto has in place, it’s just something that should have been done maybe ten years ago. If they did maybe Felix and Ichiro could have closed out their careers in the postseason. They both deserved the opportunity.

    • art thiel

      Lots of things should have been done 10-15-20 years ago. But 43 years in, they finally have a plan. Whether it works is anyone’s guess.

      Servais was a rookie, but so was every manager once. I don’t see Dipoto abandoning his guy when he seems to have done what’s asked, even when he knows he’s putting out cringe-worthy lineups.

      • jafabian

        Agreed. I’d say Woody Woodward had a plan and he traded it all away. It worked in 1995 but the ‘96 and ‘97 trades burned the franchise in the worst way. For those not familiar in that’s when David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe and Jose Cruz Jr were traded. That could never be anticipated at the time but the pain is real. Jack Z used to preach patience and believe in his plan and that got him a contract extension.

        I am a big fan of Servais. His personality and philosophies seem to mirror Pete Carroll, Brian Schmetzer, Dan Hughes and Chris Petersen. And their success is well known. I’m confident that assuming the club stays with Servais he’ll at least guide them into the playoffs. And there’s a farm system in place with up-and-comers that I haven’t been excited for since ARod and Cruz were at Tacoma.

      • 2nd place is 1st loser

        I once made a comment on one of your blogs regarding Scott Servais being a rookie manager. My comment was, I just thought that it was odd that Stanton and his posse allowed Dipoto to hire a rookie manager considering the M’s hadn’t seen the playoffs since Jesus walked the earth. Your response was Pinella was hired by the Yankees as a rookie. True, but comparing Pinella to Servais and the Yankee organization to the Mariner franchise almost had me choking. I’ve yet to witness a base throwing event by Servais.

        I’m not a Servais basher by no stretch, he’s done the best he could with the tools he’s been provided and his abilities will allow. But it would have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall when Dipoto was justifying Servais to be his manager to the new/reorganized executive committee that Stanton in his initial comments stated, we want to bring a W.S. to Seattle. To his defense he didn’t say when. The real question is, what happens if this step back/reimagining doesn’t work? What then?