The Seattle Mariners won 89 games last year, but that wasn’t enough to break the worst postseason drought in North American sports. If you consider the first clause of that sentence with the second clause — how sentences work, usually — you might be surprised that the Mariners are undergoing a dramatic teardown and rebuilding process. The team was close to the postseason last year; every rookie who hit a home run the last time the Mariners made the postseason has already retired. You would think there would be some urgency.
There’s that pesky context to consider, though. While the Mariners were 89-73, their Pythagorean record was 77-85, which suggests something wrong under the hood. One of the team’s brightest offensive lights is a free agent, and he was going to be 38 anyway. Of the players who could hit, just two of them were under 30. They had some money to spend if they wanted to address their major concerns, but not a lot. And, above all, they would be chasing the Astros, an excellent, fire-forged team from the depths of their nightmares.
There is an argument to be made that the Mariners are right to look toward the future. Considering how mediocre their roster really was, 89 wins be damned, it’s a sound argument.
Because I have no horsie in this race, though, I can complain a little bit. The team-that-was-just-interesting teardown isn’t the worst kind of teardown, but it’s definitely not the best. The hierarchy of rebuilding sadness goes something like this:
- Team that was recently excellent (e.g., the ‘97 World Series-winning Marlins)
- Team that could probably have been more aggressive with owners willing to spend (‘18 Pirates)
- Team that was recently competitive (e.g., the ‘18 Mariners)
- Team that had to admit the dream was over (e.g., the ‘15 Reds)
- Team that probably should have done this a while ago (e.g., c’mon, ‘18 Orioles, I’m eating here)
The Astros desperately needed to sink into the fire and rise anew from the ashes. So did the Cubs. These are the teams that are proofs of concept for any franchise looking for a sunny future on a rainy day, with the Braves being the latest example. Once a team has all of the prospects, then they’ll have money to spend, and they’ll have the freedom to spend it exactly the way it needs to be spent. It’s like everyone in baseball watched the same infomercial and received the free introductory volume (with no commitment to buy!)
There will be teams who try to be the Astros or Cubs and fail miserably, however. Think of the Royals or Pirates screwing up year after year of high draft picks in the ‘90s and ‘00s. These teams — and there will be several of them from this latest rebuilding fad — will alienate their fans horribly. When there are a dozen or so rebuilders at the same time, it becomes something like a baseball Ponzi scheme. There are only so many prospects to go around, so many good players, and not all of the teams promising their fans a return on their emotional investment will be able to pay out.
When you put it like that, it would seem like double jeopardy for the Mets to rebuild. Good for them for trying to contend.
It’s easy to pick on the teams that didn’t need to give up, like the Mariners. Consider their 2000 team that finished with 91 wins and was stopped in the ALCS. It was a roster with serious issues, none more serious than Alex Rodriguez leaving as a free agent. While they had an infusion of youth from the Ken Griffey, Jr. and Randy Johnson trades, at least half of their expected contributors in the lineup were over 30. Their starting staff was violently mediocre. They had a few building blocks for a contending team, but to what end? It’s not like they were going to replace A-Rod and improve several roster spots in the same offseason.
They did just that, winning 116 games and becoming one of the funnest teams to follow in the history of professional baseball. This isn’t to suggest that there’s a perfect comparison for the current roster, or even a half-decent comparison. Edgar Martinez was aging, but he was also a Hall of Fame talent. The same could be said about John Olerud, depending on who you talk to. And, of course, there’s no prime-year Ichiro walking through the door in 2019, no matter how hard you pray. The 2019 Mariners wouldn’t have had any of those guys, and they were always likely to be boring as all hell, even if they doubled down and tried again.
What this binary world of contending or rebuilding robs us of, though, are raffle tickets with a chance to be the ‘01 Mariners. The ‘13 Giants definitely should have rebuilt, according to some of the idiots at the time, but they ended up becoming the ‘14 Giants. That was a year after the ‘12 Red Sox needed to give up and start all over, only to become the World Series-winning ‘13 Red Sox. Baseball used to be filled with teams that would try to push the boulder to the top again again, like a bunch of dummies, and actually get it there. A lot of them would fail, just as expected.
Some of them wouldn’t. I’ll miss those teams. When there was a middle class of baseball, there was a chance for magic. Now the magic is constantly, continually deferred. “Just give us three years, and we’ll be unstoppable,” says about every third team, pretending not to notice that the math is against them.
In isolation, the Mariners were probably right to punt next season. Forget the drought, forget the larger scourge of rebuilding teams, and you have a team that was probably better off exchanging assets for future assets.
It just would be a lot cooler if they were the only team doing it, though. When everyone is either REBUILDING or GOIN’ FOR IT, the surprises will be few and far between. All that’s left are teams like the Braves, whose seeds sprout a year earlier than expected. Those are fun teams, alright.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll miss the mediocre-to-brilliant transformations that used to be more common. With the Mariners down, we’re running out of candidates. Spotlight’s on you, Mets. Be the last of a dying breed, a flawed team that becomes a watchable contender. Just don’t Mets the place up, he says, while shielding his face and grinning expectantly.
Even if the Mets screw up, though, I’ll appreciate their effort to contend. The same can’t be said for the Mariners, which is a damned shame. We deserved to watch them get Mariners all over the place one last time. For old time’s sake.
Those aren’t teams we’ll get to watch very often these days. In 2019, either you’re in it or out of it. It’s a nasty, brutish dichotomy, and we’ll see how long fans will be patient for the teams that can’t make good on their promises.