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Analysis: Poor past decisions could come back to haunt Seattle Mariners this season

UPDATED: Mon., April 2, 2018

By Jim Price For The Spokesman-Review

As another major league baseball season draws near, it is past time for Seattle Mariners fans and readers to face some unpleasant facts.

If the Mariners contend for the American League West title, they will have to overcome years of poor draft choices, repetitive transactional errors and misplaced optimism that leave them perilously close to duplicating their frustrating recent history.

For a generation, they have modeled mediocrity. Now and again, they raise expectations, but almost immediately lower them with harsh disappointment. Boasting often precedes the letdowns. They have not made the playoffs since 2002, the longest current drought in U.S. professional sports.

Ain’t that a drag?

Make no mistake. I love baseball. Nonetheless, years of covering the professional game taught, maybe forced, me to be realistic. It is, however, more fun to watch a winner. So, like you, I’d prefer to see the M’s, who have promised more than they’ve delivered, win more often.

Chefs can’t make chicken soup without chicken. Teams without enough good players don’t win championships. Opinions don’t count. Facts do.

Armed with data from baseball-reference.com, the ultimate resource these days, here is what you may hate to admit about the recent generation of Seattle baseball:

The Mariners have enjoyed only four winning seasons in 13 tries since they won 293 games in four years at the turn of the century.

They have not drafted a superstar since Alex Rodriguez in 1993. In 20 drafts since then, Seattle has selected almost 10 percent fewer future big-leaguers than the average.

Over the most recent eight seasons, the M’s trail their collected rivals in offensive production at six of the nine positions. Failed experiments have dogged them.

How does this happen?

General manager

On Oct. 26, 1999, after two losing seasons, Pat Gillick, who had put together two World Series champions in Toronto, became Seattle’s GM. The next four years, the Mariners went 91-71, 116-46, 93-69 and 93-69. The 2001 team won the AL West. Teammates Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki may be admitted to the Hall of Fame, but Gillick’s already there.

The general managers since then, Bill Bavasi, Jack Zduriencik and Jerry Dipoto, are 178 games below .500. Bavasi’s first team, in 2004, finished 63-99. His last, in 2008, had a horrid 61-101 record. Zduriencik’s first outplayed expectations to go 85-77. His next was another 61-101.

Today, it’s fashionable to blame most of the franchise’s woes on Jack Z. But his free-agent signings of Robinson Cano (2014) and Nelson Cruz (2015) have been the team’s best deals of the decade. And the best post-Rodriguez drafts were under his watch. From 2009-2012, 11 picks have become established players, matching the total for the previous 12 years.

Draft or ill wind?

In the 20 drafts through 2013, Seattle has selected 1,052 amateur players. Using a generous guideline, only 31 (2.95 percent) became established big-leaguers. Just 134 (6.7 per year) have played even one inning. A vastly disproportionate 11 of those came in 2009, even though Zduriencik squandered a rare three first-round picks on Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin and Steve Baron. The 29 other teams average 7.4 per year.

Among those drafts, the M’s had 22 first-round picks. Three of the best seven – catcher Jason Varitek, outfielder Jose Cruz and pitcher Gil Meche – came in the first three.

Woody Woodward, Gillick’s predecessor, traded Varitek and pitcher Derek Lowe to Boston in a 1997 deal that, ultimately, netted Seattle nothing. Varitek caught 14 seasons for the Red Sox. Lowe won 176 games, only the first two for the M’s. Cruz played 11 years, almost all of it somewhere else.

Bavasi shipped Adam Jones to Baltimore in 2003, along with Chris Tillman and George Sherrill. He received Erik Bedard, a lefty starter who’d had shoulder and elbow problems. Jones, a five-time All-Star, still plays center field for the Orioles. Tillman became their ace and Sherrill their closer. Bedard broke down.

Pitchers Matt Thornton (1998), Brandon Morrow (2006) and Taijuan Walker (2010) are the others of note. Thornton excelled in the White Sox bullpen. Morrow helped the Dodgers reach last fall’s World Series.

And in this newspaper on Jan. 21, Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish described Baseball America’s organizational evaluations. Ranking the Mariners last, the report said: “There is little truly strong in baseball’s worst farm system.”

Finally, a positive note. When Dipoto dealt Walker to Arizona, he received Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger. So far, they have plugged gaping holes at shortstop and right field.

Likewise, Mike Zunino, Zduriencik’s 2012 pick, seems ready to duplicate last year’s second-half surge. If he does, he’ll solve a near-crisis behind the plate. He became the first regular Mariners catcher to hit above .235 since Kenji Johjima in 2007.

Old problems

Some facts that summarize the failure to improve at several positions:

First base is the game’s most important offensive position, and offense is measured these days by OPS (On-base percentage Plus Slugging percentage). Don’t scowl. This is not a lecture on SABRmetrics.

Over the last eight seasons, Mariners first basemen rate 10.2 percent below the big-league average. Last year, Seattle was 23rd among the 30 teams.

Once, John Olerud, the former WSU All-American, was an offensive and defensive standout. Then Richie Sexson took over, but a couple of years later, his career fell off a cliff. After that, who can remember that Russell Branyan was the best of the bunch?

Next came Casey Kotchman, Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Adam Lind, both converted outfielders, and Dae-Ho Lee, all but Lind slow-footed, low-average hitters who seldom walk. The numbers show that even Smoak, who played three seasons, was barely above average.

For fans obsessed by how well ex-Mariners play for other teams, yes, Smoak (Toronto) and Morrison (Tampa Bay) each hit 38 home runs last year.

We’ll get to Danny Valencia in a bit.

Seattle’s new first baseman will be Oakland castoff Ryon Healy, whose OPS was 21st among last year’s qualifiers. If he falls short, he’ll be replaced by Cubs reject Daniel Vogelbach, who has only impressed with the Triple-A club in Tacoma until this spring.

Mariners shortstops, even after the boost from Segura, have been 8.7 percent below the eight-year average. Before Segura, it was 11.

Left fielders show up at minus 5.8 percent. Last year’s duo of Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia ranked 20th. Center field, ideally manned by productive hitters who play good defense, falls short by a glaring 12.2 percent.

Cano, headed for the Hall of Fame, has put second base in the black. Before him, it was minus 7.3. Pre-Cruz designated hitters were horrid. As a result, DH remains 4.5 percent below average. Zunino may get catchers off the hook. But they still trail by 8.8 percent.

Bait, switch, fail

By 2015, Rickie Weeks had played 1,044 major-league games as Milwaukee’s second baseman. That February, Jack Z enthusiastically announced Weeks as Seattle’s new left fielder. Weeks played 19 shaky games out there, several more as the DH and batted .167. On June 21, he was released.

Before last season, Dipoto swapped a promising pitcher to Oakland for Valencia, a journeyman whose best position had been third base. Although Valencia seldom walks, strikes out often and doesn’t have much power, he was installed at first. Thirteen first basemen topped his OPS of .725 by more than 100 points.

Hello, Dee Gordon!

A base-stealing singles hitter with seven years as a middle infielder, Gordon came aboard in a trade with Miami. His 2017 OPS was .716, 18th among 21 qualifying second basemen. Dipoto proclaimed that Gordon will become Seattle’s center fielder.

Sunny side up

It’s no secret that there’s some uncertainty surrounding prospects for the pitching staff. Felix Hernandez has declined from iconic star to problematic replica. The other likely starters have issues of their own.

James Paxton is often injured. Midsummer acquisitions Mike Leake and Erasmo Ramirez have never been consistent. Former Gonzaga star Marco Gonzalez is unproved. So is 2015 second-rounder Andrew Moore. Injuries may have finished Hisashi Iwakuma, who gave the M’s five good years. The bullpen, heavily used a year ago, is a mixed bag.

Dipoto sounds unconcerned.

“If Felix can give us the 25 starts or more than he gave us in 2016, we’re going to be a good team,” he said in a Seattle Times interview printed in these pages on Feb. 17. Earlier, he told Times sports editor Larry Stone that the Mariners’ rotation is equal to any in the American League except the powerhouses – Houston, Cleveland, New York and Boston.

Can Cruz, almost 37, and Cano, 35, team up for another productive season before age takes its toll? Will Zunino and Haniger compound their 2017 success? Can third baseman Kyle Seager bounce back? Healy? Really?

And Ichiro, an immense talent in his prime, is back in town as a spare outfielder. His years in Miami might make you wince.

Dipoto, unconcerned with the past, sounds satisfied.

“We like our club, and we’re focused on 2018,” he told Stone.

We’ll soon find out if he’s right.

But, as Dandy Don Meredith used on say on Monday Night Football, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” And that’s a fact, too.

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