It's been a very strange decade for baseball. Since 2010, when the Giants and Padres were fighting for NL West supremacy -- a battle that ended with San Francisco winning their first World Series since they were still the New York Giants -- we've had a run of teams who seemingly never win or never compete doing just that.
Sure, the Cardinals and Red Sox picked up World Series wins within the last six years, but within that time, the Pirates made the playoffs three years in a row after not making it once after 1992. The Orioles ended a playoff drought that began in 1998 with their 2012 season, then made it to the postseason once again in 2014. The Rangers lost the 2010 and 2011 World Series, but making it there was a franchise-first (and second) of its own. The Royals ended their own playoff drought in 2014, making it to the World Series and losing, but then stormed back in 2015 and won it all for the first time since 1985 against a Mets team who won their first pennant in 15 seasons. The Blue Jays, perpetually the middle child of the AL East, also reset the clock by earning a postseason berth and division title last summer. The Astros, ridiculed for on-field incompetence and tanking, made it to the playoffs and are expected to compete once again.
It seems like just about everyone whose image is misfortune is seeing a major change. We're now tired of seeing the Giants win, thanks to three World Series championships since 2010. The Royals and their fans embraced being heels hated by other teams before they even won the 2015 Series. Even the Cubs are a favorite to not only make the playoffs, but even win the World Series, thanks to the revitalization of their franchise under Theo Epstein and his crew.
Then, there are the Mariners. The Mariners didn't have the lengthiest playoff drought in the league back when the Giants were winning that first championship in San Francisco. As other teams saw success come their way, though, the Mariners began to creep up the list, and now, at 14 years, they have the lengthiest playoff drought in the league. The Marlins are the only team close to them, at 12 years, but the Marlins have won two World Series since 1997 -- the Mariners, in their 39-year history, have never even been to a World Series, never mind won a championship.
The closest they got was in 2001, when they won a record 116 games and made it to the ALCS before running into the Yankees, who were looking for their fourth World Series appearance in as many years.
Plus, when the only current comparison to your plight is the team run by a notoriously fickle man no one can stand to work for or be around, who treats his baseball team exclusively like a business that is also his own personal toy, then being alone at the top might even be an improvement on reality.
Ichiro Suzuki -- on the Marlins, coincidentally -- was a rookie the last time the Mariners made it to meaningful October baseball. He's now 42 years old, likely on the final contract of his career, and approaching 3,000 hits in the majors leagues. Nearly 2,700 of them have come since Ichiro was in the 2001 playoffs alongside the Mariners. An entire Hall of Fame career was built in between playoff appearances for Seattle, if you're wondering why the Mariners' fans you know are the way they are.
Prospects and plans flamed out at a rapid pace during the intervening years. The Mariners weren't always bad or unwatchable during this 14-year period, but the lows were of the bottomless variety. The Mariners have been among the league's worst for offensive production at multiple positions, to the point where it's not even worth making fun of them for it anymore -- you just start to feel bad about this inescapable spiral they're in.
That's what makes 2016 so important -- and possibly so different. A playoff appearance this year would get rid of at least one of their major droughts -- while also keeping it from reaching the rounded off 15 -- and it would come under the direction of new general manager and former division rival GM, Jerry Dipoto. Dipoto is supposed to be the future, and the sooner that starts, the sooner being a Mariners fan can stop feeling like a punishment.
The catching will be better, because it can't possibly be worse: Chris Iannetta was signed, and even in a down 2015 season, the usual offensive standout was significantly better than Mike Zunino, last summer's plate appearance leader at catcher. Dipoto traded for Adam Lind to upgrade over the well below-average Logan Morrison at first base. They'll now have a full season of Ketel Marte and his solid glove at shortstop, instead of the shouldn't-really-be-at-short glove of Brad Miller. They're now in a position where Nelson Cruz can hit dingers from the DH spot instead of in between circuitous routes in right field -- the lineup and defense might actually be in a pretty good place, and that's not a Seattle Mariners' standard.
The rotation should be better, too, thanks to some pitchers Dipoto inherited as well as ones he acquired. Felix Hernandez is, of course, the ace -- one who has never seen the playoffs in his professional career, by the way -- and he's joined by the returning Hisashi Iwakuma, inked after the righty's deal with the Dodgers fell apart. Dipoto traded for Wade Miley -- a pitcher he knows from his time with the Diamondbacks as well as from his brief summer stint critiquing the Red Sox organization from top to bottom -- to anchor the middle of the rotation.
Then, there is Nate Karns, acquired from the Rays after producing a 107 ERA+ as a starter in exchange for Miller, as well as the still-promising pair of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to round out the rotation and depth should something go awry.
There will be no Carson Smith at the back-end of the bullpen this year, as he was the price for Miley, but the bullpen still has Steve Cishek and Joaquin Benoit to anchor it, as well as some promising younger arms like Tony Zych and Mike Montgomery, the former prospect who won't be starting for Seattle this time around.
It's not a perfect team, and Dipoto didn't set them up for must-win, win-now expectations like the Padres did with their first offseason under A.J. Preller a year ago. However, there is real promise here, with Dipoto seeming to recognize the problems that plagued the teams of his predecessor Jack Zduriencek: the defense is better, the lineup looks like it's eliminated more holes than your standard M's lineup, and the rotation has both depth and promise. All of this at the same time, even!
There could still be disappointment -- this is the Mariners and baseball we're talking about -- but at least this time it feels like everything is pointing in the right direction. Coming out of the AL West on top won't be an easy task, not with the Rangers and Astros still viable contenders and the Angels still in possession of Mike Trout. The AL as a whole is wide open, though, and all it will take is a few things actually going the Mariners' way for once.
It happened with the Giants, Pirates, Orioles, Rangers, Blue Jays, and Royals before them. In a year where the Cubs are considered a legitimate threat to win the World Series, following all the success of the rest of the downtrodden in the game, there has to be a little room for optimism with the Mariners' own fortunes.