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December 28, 2012 at 11:20 AM

A quick note on the off-season, patience and the Mariners

Quite a few of you have emailed me since yesterday, asking what’s up. You expected me to rip the Mariners for doing little this off-season other than signing Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Hisashi Iwakuma and Oliver Perez and trading for Kendrys Morales and Robert Andino. You were a bit surprised when I said now is still the time to be patient, given my general impatience over the past several years at the speed/lack of this rebuilding plan has been progressing at.

To which, I’ll reply, the two are separate things. There is the big picture and the little picture.

The big picture is still taking too long. The Mariners embarked on a rebuilding plan after the 2008 season, went on a halfway push towards trying to contend after a surprise 85-win, third-place finish in 2009 (making some “win now” deals like Brandon Morrow for Brandon League) while stopping short of actually raising payroll to get the additional big bats they obviously needed. When that payroll cutting, sort-of-try-to-contend plan blew up in their face to the tune of 101-losses, the Mariners fired their coaching staff, started everthing from scratch with a whole new system after two years under Don Wakamatsu and retreated to a full-scale dump-and-wait mode while big contracts came off the books and payroll shrank even more.

So, no. I’m not telling you to be patient about that. No team should have forever to get its act together. And no administration should be allowed to fire more than one coaching staff without being held accountable for the lack of results. The Jack Zduriencik administration is on to coaching staff No. 2. It should not be allowed a shot at No. 3 without producing something.

That said, we have the smaller picture of this winter. And that is still an incomplete product. As such, we have to withold judgment until we can see what gets done.

Let’s face it: the Mariners will most likely finish third or fourth in the AL West regardless of what they do this winter. If the Oakland Athletics are for real and not just a one-year mirage of big rookie performances, the M’s will be fourth.

But there is still building that can be done this winter so that the task for 2014 is made easier. What this team has been doing from one winter to the next, and one trade deadline to the next, is declining/failing to make needed upgrades. Either because trades that have been made haven’t entirely worked out, or because the Mariners themselves are hesitant to pull the trigger on a deal. Either the time wasn’t right, or other teams were asking too much. Or free agents were asking too much, or they’d cost a draft pick and hurt the 2016 team or something. That about cover it?

Fine. But those excuses, while sometimes valid, occasionally a little out there, all have the same result. They result in tasks being deferred to a later date. They result in added pressure on the team and the Zduriencik administration to get something done when that future date rolls around. Had the Mariners made some better moves last winter, they might not have as big a shopping list this winter.

In turn, if they make some moves beyond one-year deals this winter, then they won’t have to do them a year from now. If they get a big corner outfield bat this winter, they can worry about their center fielder a year from now. If they sign their long-term center fielder this year, then they can focus on the outfield next. The Mariners were never going to go from 75 wins to the playoffs this winter without some big fluke happening. What they should be aiming for this winter is to try to take their first serious shot at contending in 2014.

So, we’ll see what they do from here on in. And because of that, we can’t yet judge what they’ve accomplished over the smaller picture of this winter alone.

If they stand pat, for me, it will be a disappointment, given what was out there, the resources the Mariners have and the fact that they will be entering a fifth year of rebuilding with no major long term additions to a 75-win team. That might be enough in places like Oakland or Tampa Bay where taxpayers didn’t help buy the team a state-of-the-art ballpark. But it should not be enough in a place like this, with a much more involved and devoted fanbase and taxpayers who’ve invested to the degree they have.

That’s my take. If some of you don’t mind waiting six or seven years to take a real shot at contending, you’ll probably disagree with me.

I wrote a year ago that this looks like a team that doesn’t plan on seriously contending before 2014 or, more realistically, 2015. At this point, if things stay the same, you can take 2014 out of that equation and bump it up 12 months to 2015 at the earliest, more realistically, 2016. You don’t have to agree. Some of you disagreed vehemently a year ago. But that’s my take.

You can’t force Josh Hamilton or any free agent to sign in Seattle. But that’s partially a consequence of a rebuilding plan where a team loses year after year after year and word gets around that you don’t go to that team if you want to make the playoffs. That has to factor in beforehand¬†when a team decides to embark on a long-term plan and any analyst supporting that approach also has to consider the consequences ahead of time.

Same with a changing marketplace. There are two teams in the AL West that used new TV deals to blow past the Mariners in a move that likely caught the Seattle franchise off-guard after it had already chosen to take this long-term approach to rebuilding. But markets anywhere rarely stay the same. This landscape should have been contemplated by the Mariners beforehand. Let’s hope that it was. If so, what’s the plan now to counter it? Wait until your own TV deal comes around in 2015, or is there a Plan B?

You also can’t force other teams to take what you’re willing to give up via trade. Again, markets can change, even trade markets for prospects no longer as worshipped as a commodity throughout baseball as they were a year ago.

And the Mariners, as they have in the past, can choose to avoid spending or trading what they deem as too much once again this winter. But at this stage, they’ve used that exit strategy before and the results are starting to pile up. At some point, fans will demand that the team do something other than putting things off year after year (and do so by not showing up to games, as has happened already) and the Mariners could find themselves forced to make a spending or trade choice even uglier than the ones they put off in the past.

But we’re not there yet. There is still time this off-season to help make the team significantly better now and down the road. To help make next winter a slightly easier task for Zduriencik and company.

That’s why we need patience in the smaller picture. We can’t see it yet. It’s only partially complete.

The big picture? That hasn’t changed. Feel free to wonder why this is likely going to take six or seven years at the earliest. We don’t live in Oakland or Tampa Bay.

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