ADDITIONAL NOTE: If you missed it yesterday, I spent an hour in-studio talking Mariners with co-host Jeff Aaron on Sports Radio KJR. Wil be hosting an hour-long show next Thursday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. PT right after the All-Star Break.
One year ago today, the Mariners were a .500 team and 2 1/2 games out of first place in the American League West. Tough to believe, I know, because today marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the club’s record-setting 17-game losing streak.
But prior to that streak, the Mariners had, rather surprisingly, managed to stay in the division race. They did it through some solid pitching, but were in dire need of a bat or two, or three, all through May and June. And all through May and June, the team did nothing to better itself from outside the organization, eventually collapsing and burning in July when the pitching stopped carrying the squad every night.
Throughout it all, those opposed to any upgrades continued to push the argument that it was unlikely the Mariners could sustain their contention, that a bat or two wouldn’t help the squad and that it wasn’t worth it to “sacrifice” the rebuilding plan even minimally in order to take a longshot at best at contending.
I’d heard the same refrain in 2009, when the Mariners also parlayed some strong pitching, slightly better hitting and a “gamer” attitude to stay in contention right on through the All-Star Break that year. Once again, all through May and June, the team ignored pleas to bring in some form of outside help. And again, the fans and media who supported the “stand pat” approach used the same reasoning: that the team was unlikely to stay in contention, it would take more than a bat or two to turn things around and it wasn’t worth sacrificing the future even a tiny bit to seek upgrades from elsewhere.
In the end, the stand-pat gang proved “right” in that the Mariners eventually fell out of contention in July both times. Would it have happened even had they gone out and acquired another bat? Probably. But the one thing we knew going in and which was eventually proved: that doing nothing guaranteed the M’s would “absolutely” not stay in the race.
And part of that still bugs me, especially this week when the Baltimore Orioles came to town. You see, the Orioles were not supposed to be a second-place team in the AL East this late in the season. They were supposed to be a team cobbling together a starting rotation and with a youthful core still full of unfulfilled promise that was another year or two from gelling into anything.
In other words, this was not their “time” you see. The magic bell that would go ding, ding, ding and signal to the world that “OK, everyone, the Baltimore Orioles are officially ready to be contenders!” was still seen as at least a year or two, or three, or four, or never, from going off.
And yet, at the start of this month, the Orioles did something the contending Mariners of 2009 and 2011 did not do. They went out and traded two young players to bring aging slugger Jim Thome into the fold.
Thome was acquired to give a still-youthful core — led by the breakout Adam Jones — some veteran stability in the middle of the order. Brought in so that Jones didn’t have to go it alone.
So, no, the Orioles have not entirely given up on the 2012 season before they actually crash and burn. It’s a minimal move, perhaps, but one already greeted by Jones and others inside the clubhouse as a sign the team’s front office cares about the present as well as the future.
In other words, the O’s have yet to officially sacrifice their season to the mantle of rebuilding. And I think that’s great, because that’s something the Mariners were either unwilling or unable to contemplate in 2009 or 2011 when still in the race at this point in the season.
And that bugs me. Not because I had playoff tickets secured for either season. No, it bugs me because it makes me wonder what the team will do if indeed it actually finds itself contending before that 2015 date in which I believe their timetable is geared towards.
What happens if, for some inexplicable reason, the Mariners head into next year picked to finish fourth or fifth in the AL West, yet somehow wind up in second place against all expectations? Will this team’s front office and ownership step up and meet the challenge? Or has that season already been sacrificed as well?
This is no trivial matter. For me, it goes against the entire essence of what I believe sport to be when you have teams effectively giving up on a race while they are still in it.
It goes against the athlete in me, who used to relish challenges where my team was not expected to win and sometimes did. And it goes against the journalist in me that doesn’t like to see teams throw games, or entire seasons, away. I believe that if you are selling tickets to a sporting event, your ultimate goal as a team has to be to win that game in the most honest way possible. By trying.
But I also don’t believe that responsibiity extends only to players. I believe team owners and their front offices owe it to players and fans to at least put out their best efforts — within reason — to try to compete while there is still a competition underway.
The Mariners of 2011 did not try to stay in the race by bettering themselves in an area of weakness that had been obvious for months. Not even a token effort. Instead, the season was sacrificed to rebuilding, just as it was in 2009, and the team went ahead with its pre-season plans and traded away pitching at the deadline.
I’ll ask now as I did back then, was the price paid worth it? The price of telling your fans and players in both seasons that the second half of the year would be effectively useless from a day-by-day perspective? Believe me, I respect the opinions of those who did not want the team to give away critical pieces. Nobody was arguing that the M’s should have dealt away Felix Hernandez for a veteran bat last summer.
And the Orioles hardly did that in acquiring Thome. They gave up a young minor league pitcher and catcher.
Is there value in that? Sure. There is almost always potential value in a young minor league catcher, but you have to give something up to get something.
But odds are, the players the O’s gave up won’t be critical to the future of their franchise — even if one of them turns out to be a good major leaguer. In the end, another month or two of playing meaningful baseball can be just as valuable to a team whose fanbase has grown weary of doormat status.
When I look back at the deadline deals the Mariners made in 2009 and in 2011, the only two pieces of any value I see right now are Casper Wells and Charlie Furbush. Maybe minor league infielder Francisco Martinez.
Those players all came in last year. From 2009? The M’s got nothing. Jack Wilson and Ian Snell are long gone. So is Luke French. Mauricio Robles barely registers as a blip on the minor league radar.
So, no, I don’t think sacrificing the 2009 season by not making a June deal really paid off in the long run. Last year? I guess we’ll see.
The point is, there is a fine line to building for the future that can also involve grabbing the moment and at least trying to do something with it if and when it strikes. Nobody expected the Orioles to do anything this season and yet, here they are. And when they struggled on offense, their front office tried to do something about it. They didn’t use the trade deadline as a pretense to wait for their team to crash and burn and make the “buyer or seller” questions easier.
They dealt for Thome a month before they had to.
And it probably won’t amount to anything in the end. But it will to me. It tells me there is still room for longshot hope in the front offices of baseball teams. That those Disney movies they make about teams that win Cinderella titles out of nowhere could one day involve the Orioles.
But not the Mariners. Not for me, anyway. I see zero evidence of that. I think this team goes into every off-season with a pre-determined plan of where it will realistically finish and does not let anything — even surprise contention — get in the way of that belief.
For the truly pragmatic among us, that will be a relief. For those who never want to take a chance on anything but a sure thing, that will be the correct procedure.
I guess that’s my weakness. I still like to dream. And the realistic part of me says it’s going to be a long, long time before these Mariners can be called a sure thing.
But just in case they surprise me and do something I never expected ahead of schedule, I’d love to think their overlords would actually try to win. And up to now, while I see some effort by the Orioles, I just haven’t gotten the same vibe off the M’s.
Hopefully I’m wrong. I’m always open to surprises, both on the field and off.