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Larry Stone: More frustration, and the worst kind of limbo for Mariners

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 13, 2018, 9:14 p.m.

SEATTLE – The Mariners’ fall from grace in 2018 has been a slow, steady descent that has wiped out almost all of the good feeling that prevailed for half a season.

At one point they were 24 games above .500, and at a slightly earlier point they were 11 games ahead of the A’s for the ever-elusive playoff spot that finally seemed theirs for the taking.

That’s all gone, of course, the early giddiness having been replaced by a familiar disgust. The Mariners (through Wednesday’s loss to San Diego) have played 11 games under .500 since their high-water mark July 3, and lost an astonishing 20 1/2 games in the standings to Oakland since June 15.

It’s not mathematically official, but we’ll state it anyway: The payroll-challenged, perpetually rebuilding A’s are going to make the postseason for the seventh time since the Mariners were last in the playoffs.

That’s all depressing enough for a fan base conditioned to expect the worst over these 17 barren years. What’s even more daunting is that the near-term prospects for this team don’t look encouraging, despite a final record that will be improved over last season (79-66 through Wednesday) and could approach 90 wins.

There’s a strong argument to be made, however, that the record is highly deceptive, and that the Mariners’ performance over the past two months – a 24-35 record – is more indicative of their true ability.

Those early wins, on the way to a 55-31 start that clinched contract extensions for general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, were real, all right. And they were spectacular. But analysts were already pointing to the run-differential statistic as proof Seattle’s record was both an anomaly and unsustainable.

That has proven to be the case. The Mariners’ current run differential of minus-54 is worse than that of the Mets (minus-33), who are 11 games under .500 at 67–78. Baseball Prospectus compiles what it calls “adjusted standings” that project a team’s record using the “Pythagorean theorem of baseball,” based on how often they “should have” won by virtue of their run differential. The Mariners were at 66.3 – 77.7 (.460) after Tuesday’s loss to the Padres.

So maybe the working premise is that the Mariners are not worthy of a record that would have been tied for the N.L. West lead entering Wednesday. Right now, though, it’s largely irrelevant what their record should have been in 2018. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t good enough.

What’s more pertinent is how things look moving forward, and it’s not a pretty picture. The Mariners seem stuck in the worst kind of limbo.

They have $122.5 million tied up in seven players – Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Mike Leake, Dee Gordon, Jean Segura and Juan Nicasio – most of whom underachieved badly in 2018 for a variety of reasons.

They have few minor-league prospects on the horizon coming out of a farm system that continues to rank last in MLB in nearly every poll. And they play in a division with the Astros, who look to be elite for a few more years, and the A’s, who have emerged as a powerhouse despite having baseball’s lowest payroll at $65.9 million (compared with $157.9 million for the Mariners).

Throw in the fact that the Red Sox and Yankees appear established indefinitely as 100-win-caliber teams – and, oh yeah, the torrid Rays (the 28th-ranked payroll team at $76.3 million) have their own strong, young nucleus – and the road to the playoffs looks more difficult than ever.

The Mariners’ second-half nosedive highlighted deficiencies that won’t be easily fixed. The offense has been miserable, with Gordon, Seager and Mike Zunino all coming up far short of expectations. Their top power hitter, Nelson Cruz, is a free agent – and 38 years old. His OPS has dropped from .902 in the first half to .813 in the second.

The bullpen has struggled to find setup men to support the brilliant closer, Edwin Diaz. And the rotation, while certainly having its bright spots, will have to solve the Hernandez problem. That’s been a stumper.

The pressure will be on Dipoto to be more creative to attack the Mariners’ shortcomings. But he doesn’t have much to work with, unless management opens its wallet to dive into the free-agent market. That certainly hasn’t been the M.O. of an ownership group that has been admittedly gun shy to spend on free agents because of some high-profile whiffs.

The Mariners could go the opposite direction and tear the team down for a complete rebuild, as has become so trendy in baseball. But players such as Cano, Hernandez and Seager are nearly untradeable, which complicates that strategy. Their most marketable trade chips are James Paxton, Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, Diaz and perhaps Segura. You could deal them to rebuild the farm system, but does the fan base really have the stomach for what would probably be five years of wretched teams with the hope – not a guarantee – of coming out the other side with a championship-caliber team?

I’m not so sure about that. The so-called “tanking” route sounds appealing until you’re right in the middle of it, watching year after year of bad baseball. The Astros lost 106, 107, 111 and 92 games before they built a playoff team – back before the new rules governing drafts and international signings made that harder to accomplish. The Cubs pulled it off, too (after seasons of 91, 101, 96 and 89 losses) and it appears the Braves and Phillies are on their way to success. But we’ll see about the White Sox, Reds, Marlins, Padres, Tigers and Royals. It’s a lot to ask of your fans to endure the extended pain of a teardown when not everyone can succeed at it.

Of course, the counterargument is that the Mariners haven’t succeeded, and they’ve been trying to win, so why not make it official? At least everyone would know the drill.

The bottom line is that the Mariners have no easy answers, and a lot of troubling questions, as a season of such promise ends in such pain.


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