In 2001, the Mariners won a record 116 games. In 2002 and 2003, they won 93 games, narrowly missing the playoffs. In 2004, they won 63 games. That four year drop, from a record amount of wins to being nearly the worst team in the league, set the stage for the losing decade to come. Since, they’ve had two winning seasons, while the others have been well below .500, including two 61-win seasons.
In 2001, most of the Mariners’ future Hall of Famers were gone. They still had Edgar and Jamie Moyer at his prime. 2001 also brought Ichiro, one of the great transformative forces to hit the majors in recent memory. Add in one of the best second baseman seasons ever by Brett Boone and career years for most of the roster, and it was a fairy tale year, at least until the conference championship.
2002 didn’t bring any significant roster changes, which was probably a mistake. The team surely felt that they had a juggernaut capable of another 100 win season, but in reality they had an aging team coming off a miracle season. They still had a huge amount of talent, as evidenced by the 93 wins in 2002 and 2003, but the veterans were getting older with little young talent to replace them. By the end of 2003, it was becoming clear that reinforcements were needed, and when none were made in the offseason, the 2004 squad fell apart.
Looking back, there are clear factors in the demise of the Mariners. Lou Piniella left after 2002, and his eye for talent and his unwavering need to win are still missed today. GM Pat Gillick also left after 2003, which had a two-fold impact. Gillick is a genuine legend who had a great talent for evaluating veterans and putting together a complete roster. He is also known for leaving the farm system barren and for getting out of town before the record goes south. The 2003 squad was veteran-laden, and while some, like Boone and Edgar, were still highly productive, they were getting older quickly. The only players who were younger and contributing were Ichiro, Carlos Guillen and a few pitchers. The farm system wasn’t in great shape, with Rafael Soriano, Jose Lopez and Shin-Soo Choo the only players of significance to come from 2003’s Baseball America Top 10, and none of them were considered amazing prospects at the time.
In hindsight, the post-2003 move should have been to either blow things up and go young, or aggressively pursue some young position players to sustain momentum. New GM Bill Bavasi did neither, instead adding mediocre veterans (and eventual disasters) Scott Spiezio and Rich Aurilia. In Bavasi’s defense, he never would have been able to sell off veterans after a 93-win season, and adding young talent is always difficult. The moves for Spiezio and Aurilia were harbingers of countless talent missevaluations to come, however, and when all of the veterans got old at once, the team fell hard. Ichiro, free agent signee Raul Ibanez (one of Bavasi’s best moves), and the short-lived Bucky Jacobsen Phenomenon were the lone bright spots.
Players growing old and ineffective happens to every team, but it was exacerbated in this instance by the Mariners reliance on promoting individual player personalities over the team as a whole. Since the early and mid ’90s, Seattle was blessed with an immense amount of talent, much of which came with great personalities and community involvement. Those are wonderful things, but it seemed to make the Mariners hesitant to move on from the group that had brought the franchise its only successes. They seemed to doubt the fans’ ability to find new favorites, and they kept their former greats too long. The Mariners’ ownership’s focus on everything but winning, whether real or perceived, continues today.
While Bavasi took over for a sinking ship, he did more to blow it in half than to stop the leaks. His tenure was a complete disaster. Many of his moves looked terrible when he made them. Most of the ones that looked good, like his in-season trade of Freddy Garcia for Jeremy Reed, Miguel Olivo and Michael Morse, or his signings of Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre before 2005, ended up failing miserably or did little to bring wins to the team. While they’re often maligned now, Sexson and Beltre weren’t terrible moves. Sexson had a couple of excellent years before his performance dropped like a Felix Hernandez curveball. Beltre was saddled with the memory of his incredible 2004. He would never match that level again, and he was a terrible fit for Safeco Park, but he was a solid and charismatic player who is having a potentially Hall of Fame-worthy career. If Bavasi had made more signings like these two, he might have been a bit better, but instead he signed numerous mediocre veterans for large, multi-year contracts, moves that rarely paid off and robbed the team of both salary and line-up flexibility.
Bavasi’s major league moves were bad enough, but he was completely sunk by a minor league system that did little to develop players and drafts that did nothing to replenish the farm. His drafts, while they didn’t always look terrible at the time, proved to be utter failures. High picks were wasted on Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow and Phillip Aumont, selections surrounded by players who went on to become major league stars. The lower picks were no better, with Doug Fister the only contributor of consequence. In fact, if Fister is removed, all of Bavasi’s picks combined have contributed fewer career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley have combined for in just a few seasons. Somehow, Bavasi left the Mariners with less talent in the farm system than when he took over.
Despite all this, the Mariners surprised with 88 wins in 2007. Thinking they were on the verge of real contention, Bavasi stalked LHP Erik Bedard all winter, eventually landing him in a late winter trade. The price paid seemed high at the time and looks worse now: CF Adam Jones, the one light in the M’s system, has become an all-star, while pitchers George Sherrill and Chris Tillman have contributed at different levels as well. It still could have been fine, but Bedard was hurt early and often in his Mariner career, while also engendering a significant amount of dislike from local media and fans. The failed trade became Bavasi’s keystone move, as the team dropped to 61 wins. Bavasi was fired unceremoniously mid-season, a move that came about three years too late.
Jack Zduriencik was hired after 2008. He had a reputation as a genius in prospect development, making it clear the Mariners were finally going to go with youth and try to rebuild. Nonetheless, Zduriencik rode his veterans and an inspired off-season trade of JJ Putz to 85 wins. Five years later, Zduriencik is still looking for his second winning season. 2009 brought 61 wins, along with the Griffey debacle and the eventual firing of Don Wakamatsu. Since, the Mariners have slowly increased their win total every year, while building a farm system now considered among the best in baseball.
All that talent in the minors has been counteracted by a lack of production from veteran additions, and especially by the failure of most of those prospects upon reaching Seattle. The slow progress or failure of players seen as franchise saviors, such as Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, eventually soured fans on Zduriencik’s youth movement. In reality, this type of slow progress is typical of most prospects. The main hazard of rebuilding with so much youth is most young players take several years to develop, if they do at all. By the time teams have given them those developmental years, it’s just as likely they’ll have proven themselves incapable of playing in the majors, and the rebuild will be deemed a failure, meaning it’s time to move on to the next management team.
Up until the last month, it looked like Zduriencik’s regime might be at that stage. Since then, Smoak has shown significant progress and the second wave of talent, led by Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino, has made a quick impression. As the last few years have shown, they may not sustain their solid starts into the next year or two, but for now, everything is going right. The system is also reaching the point where it is not only talented but also deep. When he first took over, Zduriencik inherited an empty farm system, but he also received a roster nearly empty of tradeable talent. Most rebuilding teams have a few veterans they can sell off to add a few more young talents. The Mariners had Putz, and not much else, leaving Zduriencik to build almost solely through the draft and creativity, such as his acquire and flip of Cliff Lee for Smoak. He’s made the most of what he has, but the Mariners system is only now at the point where it has multiple options at nearly every position.
Zduriencik is likely to sign an extension before the year is out. There’s no way to tell if that’s the right move right now, but the franchise, for the first time in a while, seems to be on a significant upswing. Whether they can make the jump from young and promising to pennant contenders, the most difficult step for any rebuilding club, is a subject for another day.
Now, a quick word about the Mariners ownership, where many fans would say this post should have started and ended. The Mariners are technically owned by Nintendo of America, a move that was made several years ago in an estate planning move for de facto owner and Nintendo founder Hiroshi Yamauchi. Yamauchi has reportedly never attended a game, and is represented by Chairman Howard Lincoln and President Chuck Armstrong.
The current ownership group has fallen out of favor in Seattle, but they must be remembered for their role in saving baseball in Seattle. Without them, it’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that there would be no Seattle Mariners. They stepped up and bought the team at a time when a move was seemed inevitable. For that, they are owed a great deal of gratitude.
Unfortunately, the constant losing has worn down fans’ patience with the ownership. They are perceived as being only interested in running the Mariners as a business rather than as a winning baseball club. There is no doubting the importance placed on profit by the group. As attendance and profits have dropped, they’ve reduced payroll to keep from losing money. Still, there’s nothing wrong with turning a profit, and Lincoln and Armstrong claim to care significantly about winning, a claim which likely holds plenty of truth.
The problem with the current ownership is that there is very little baseball acumen amongst the group. Lincoln and Armstrong are business men, apparently tasked with keeping the team in the black for Nintendo and Yamauchi. There is no driving force in the group with the knowledge or desire to make the team competitive. That doesn’t mean the team can’t be competitive. They have been in the past, and they could be again in the future. Having an owner who doesn’t especially care about winning just adds one more hurdle to overcome. It is not an unbreakable wall.
Geoff Baker and other local media have argued for several years now that the team will be sold soon. It would likely be a move where a minority owner would take control of the team. Such a move may or may not happen. It’s easy to hope for it as the answer to the Mariners’ problems, but there’s no guarantee a new group would be more successful. There are many worse ownership groups in sports, and many better ones. The Mariners next owner could fall into either category.