Wait 'til next year
We all knew it was coming, but the Mariners were officially eliminated from playoff contention last Friday when the Oakland A's won their game against Minnesota. The promise and giddy joy of the first half of the season, slowly ebbing away since the loss to the Angels on the fourth of July, irrevocably crushed under the cleats of Matt Chapman and company.
So, Mariner fandom once again faces a postseason watching other teams play on TV and an offseason of jaded, defeatist pessimism filling our hot-stove leagues. We're used to that, but we're not used to having it follow a season of such Jeckyll/Hyde characteristics.
The second half has been so disappointing that it's easy to lose sight of the overall success of the season. At this writing, the M's sit at 85-70. Even if they only win three of their remaining seven games, they'll finish 14 games over .500, which in most years is enough to get to the Wild Card game—since the advent of the Wild Card play-in format in 2012, only once has every Wild Card entrant had more than 88 wins until this year. To my mind, making the Wild Card game is just short of a consolation prize, but it does keep things going at least one more day after game 162.
Even this year, teams in other divisions will see the playoffs with records similar to Seattle's. Cleveland will be there for the third year in a row, winning the AL Central as the only club in the division over .500. So will the Braves and either the Dodgers or the Rockies, any of whom may not reach 90 wins. 88 victories doesn't seem like much when it's only good for third place, but it's decent.
Keeping that in mind, when we look ahead to 2019, maybe we shouldn't fall back on our habitual cynicism. The Mariners are already a pretty good club—Robbie Canó, Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, James Paxton, Ben Gamel, Edwin Díaz, and Alex Colomé are all somewhere between solid contributors and All-Star performers, and they'll be back. So what do General Manager Jerry Dipoto and company need to address before next year?
Personally, I don't see a lot of problem areas. Yes, some players have had down years and undeniably helped make the post-July 4th Mariners frustrating to watch, but is that enough to give up on them going forward?
Does Dee Gordon's second half merit trading him, or do we reboot the plan to turn him into a center fielder for next year? He had a fine April, May, and July, remember, and when he's had these kinds of years before, he's bounced back with a better campaign the next season. What about Ryon Healy? He hasn't produced that well, but he's young and has "promise," as they say. Does that make him, perhaps, a valuable trade chip? Kyle Seager isn't going anywhere, so no sense in contemplating replacing his ugly numbers with a new third baseman; we can reasonably assume he'll be better next year, as the 30-year-old has never been this bad before. Mike Zunino will probably always be a guy pushing the Mendoza Line, but his defensive ability makes him a keeper. Denard Span has an option year—keep him, or no?
Then there's Nelson Cruz. What happens with him will probably dictate the rest of the strategy for building next year's squad. Cruz is a free agent as soon as the World Series ends, and there are real risks to trying to re-sign him. He's still going strong at 38, but how long will that last? He isn't likely to be satisfied with a one-year extension, and offering multiple years could easily get the M's into a Josh Hamilton/Chris Davis-style jam. On the other hand, people scoffed at the four years Seattle offered Cruz in 2014, and that defied all expectations and turned into one of the best free-agent signings Seattle ever made. With the Mariner offense showing little consistency in the second half, keeping Cruz may well be the best option, at least in the short term.
If the M's don't retain Cruz's services, though, it opens up some interesting scenarios. With a vacancy at designated hitter, the club could keep Gordon at second base and shift Canó to DH for most games, or they could finally give Daniel Vogelbach a shot without worrying about sub-par defense at first base. Or, the DH slot could serve as a way to get all of Seattle's outfielders consistent at-bats in a kind of rotational arrangement. Not paying Cruz would give more ability to keep Span at his $12M option, and the DH spot could allow four of Haniger, Gamel, Span, Gordon, and either Guillermo Heredia or Kristopher Negrón to play every day while getting a rest from playing the field once or twice a week.
If Canó becomes the more-often-than-not DH or if Gordon is traded away, then a center fielder would be needed, as Heredia, good as he is with the glove, can't cut it as a regular and maybe not even as a platoon player. If Healy is dealt, then first base is again a hole to fill. Other than that....?
The pitching staff is in pretty good shape. James Paxton, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake, and Wade LeBlanc are all solid, and while Felix Hernández hasn't been his old self, he's sticking around one way or another. One new starter might be in order, but nothing like an overhaul is needed here. The bullpen likewise is in need of no more than tweaks; Díaz is in a class by himself, and currently injury-ridden Sam Tuivailala and Juan Nicasio project to be ready to go well before spring training.
For now, there's still a week of games in 2018 and a postseason of rooting on whoever is playing the Yankees and/or your NL allegiance of choice. But next year will be here before we know it, and while there's no getting around the bitter taste the 2018 season will leave Mariner fandom, when we look ahead things seem pretty sweet.
The AL playoff teams are settled. Which will you be rooting for?