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September 13, 2002
Emerald City Blues
How the West Wasn't Won
Not only is Lou Piniella the manager of the Seattle Mariners, he is the emotional weather vane of the Pacific Northwest regarding the state of his ballclub. He provides his forecast after every ballgame to a horde of media fishing for clever quotes on the team's performance that day. The scene is not unlike a boxing mismatch where tomato can reporters throw tentative jabs and hope to not be clobbered by a Piniella roundhouse right.
From April of 2001 through this July, the local scribes had little to fear. Last year's record-setting 116-win campaign was followed by this season's hot start, which quickly vaulted the Mariners to the top of the AL West. As recently as the first week of August, Seattle was 3 1/2 games up on Anaheim and 5 ahead of Oakland. The manager's office was a safe and happy place, with Piniella tossing out forecasts as sunny as the region's sparkling summer. However, since August 8th, Seattle has struggled with a 13-18 mark, while the Angels have gone 24-8 and the Athletics 25-6. Mount Piniella, long dormant, began rumbling a few weeks ago. Through the haze of his post-game smoke, the vile invective spouting from his mouth has Northwest natives very nervous.
Not even the casual observer expected a repeat of last year's dream season, when the Mariners had both the highest-scoring offense and lowest ERA in the Junior Circuit. However, this year's edition has slipped to sixth in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. Could a drop-off of this magnitude have been anticipated? In large measure, the answer to that question is yes.
On the offensive side of the ball, Bret Boone's performance goes a long way towards verifying that his monster 2001 will go down as one of the great fluke seasons of all-time. Edgar Martinez is still Rembrandt with the bat, but his 39-year-old body can no longer withstand the pounding of a full season, even as a designated hitter. His 10-week stint on the DL with a torn hamstring left a gaping hole in the middle of the Mariners' lineup. The team's gamble that Jeff Cirillo could re-learn how to hit at sea level after two years in Denver has been a disaster. To make matters worse, they are on the hook for an additional $21 million for three more years of a lesser version of Aurelio Rodriguez. The only major decline among the batsmen that could be classified as a surprise is the abrupt reversal of Mike Cameron's steady growth curve.
While the pitching staff doesn't bear as much responsibility for the team's return to earth, it is allowing a third of a run more per game than last year. This partially could be seen coming last fall when Paul Abbott was clearly pitching hurt. While Abbott is no great shakes, his shoulder surgery this May meant James Baldwin assumed a bigger role in the rotation. Baldwin, who has masked a career ERA over 5.00 with a couple good half-seasons, was tolerably mediocre for a few months before completely cratering since late-July. His showing, coupled with the drop in offense, has turned 7-5 wins--"Abbott Specials"--into 6-5 losses. What no one would have predicted is Freddy Garcia's 5.95 ERA in 12 starts since the All-Star break. Garcia has gone from a budding ace into a total head case on the mound. Mariners coaches recently tried the old ploy of telling him that his problems were due to tipping his pitches in an effort get him back on track.
Naturally, these down seasons have been somewhat offset by some improved performances, most notably John Olerud's quietly outstanding campaign and Joel Pineiro's emergence as a frontline starter. The net result is that despite their struggles, the team is on pace for 93 wins--a figure that would normally guarantee at least a wild card berth in the postseason. However, 2002 isn't a normal year in the American League. Instead, Seattle is on the verge of disappearing from the playoff race.
Though the ballclub is desperately seeking answers, their options are limited both in terms of alternatives and impact at this late point in the season. They should have been identifying questions and aggressively finding solutions months ago. If and when the Mariners fail to make the playoffs, fingers should be pointed in the direction of the decision-makers. There's plenty of blame to go around, so let's start from the dugout and work our way up.
Piniella is fairly conventional in his in-game strategy, frequently trying too hard to gain the platoon advantage and ranking in the middle of the pack in sacrifices and intentional walks. He's used the running game effectively and been relatively conscientious in his handling of the starting staff, effectively drawing on a deep bullpen. Piniella's blind spot is his lust for stuffing the bench with banjo-hitting utilitymen. The benefit of increased flexibility doesn't offset the absence of late game pinch-hitting threats that double as ineffective spot starters. Some of the batting orders penciled into the lineup card when Piniella rests his regulars wouldn't scare the Salt Lake Stingers. Having one of the worst benches in baseball has been the difference between winning and losing a few games, losses that are magnified in September.
General Manager Pat Gillick's habitual unwillingness to make in-season trades and failure to acknowledge this year's unusually strong competition is more frustrating. Only once since the Wild Card was hatched in 1994 has a team that won at least 95 games failed to make the playoffs (1999 Cincinnati Reds). However, in late July three AL teams that weren't leading their division--Boston, Anaheim and Oakland--were on pace to eclipse that number and none had the look of a pretender. The Mariners are also one of the oldest squads in baseball; this is likely the last chance for the current core to win a championship. Taken in sum, the situation cried for "Stand Pat" to make some meaningful deals before the trading deadline. Instead, his only "addition" to the bench was relieving the Red Sox of the burden known as Jose Offerman in early August. He grabbed some nice swag in picking up the underrated Ismael Valdes from the Rangers, but by waiting until mid-August to pull the trigger, Gillick deprived the club of four additional non-Baldwin starts.
It's quite possible that Gillick's hands were tied by an ownership that announced before the deadline that they were loath to take on additional salary. If that's the case, it's time for the citizens of the Emerald City to grab their torches and pitchforks. The Mariners have the highest attendance in baseball, an absolute cash cow of a mallpark, the second-best local television deal in the game, pay the laughable sum of $700,000 a year to rent Safeco Field (for comparison purposes, the Astros pay $7.1 MM annually for use of The Juicebox) and their 2002 Opening Day payroll ranked but eighth in Major League Baseball. Toss in revenue from concessions, parking and "Team Stores" and cash slices from the various MLB pies and the Mariners couldn't print money as fast as it is handed to them. Historically, Gillick hasn't shown much of a knack for utilizing freely available talent, so if ownership did cap the payroll, they effectively blocked the only avenue Gillick uses for acquiring veteran help.
In what has been a true team effort by the organization, last year's team for the ages probably won't even be one of this year's teams for October. Recently, Mariners' CEO Howard Lincoln suggested the goal of the team is not to win the World Series, but merely to be competitive. Apparently, Mariners fans should take some satisfaction in knowing this year's edition has almost achieved that goal.
Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.