The Mariners Have to Thread a Very Small Needle

Tuesday night, the Mariners started a game without Robinson Cano, Dee Gordon, and Nelson Cruz. I should say they also started without James Paxton, since it wasn’t his day to pitch. Eventually the Mariners ended the game without Mitch Haniger. Nevertheless, they beat the A’s in extra innings, improving to 28-19. It’s tied for the fourth-best start in franchise history, if you just focus on the first 47 games, and the Mariners own the fourth-best record in the American League. They own the sixth-best record overall. If the playoffs started today, people would be very confused, but also, the Mariners would be included, for the first time since 2001. For all intents and purposes, Ichiro Suzuki is retired. In 2001, he was a major-league rookie. This is, as you know, the longest active playoff drought out of the four major North American sports.

Cano suspension aside, the Mariners couldn’t have asked for a much better first two months. They’re on a 96.5-win pace, and it probably shouldn’t take 96 or 97 wins to make the playoffs, so there’s a little bit of built-in wiggle room. Without question, it’s good for the Mariners that they have sole possession of a wild-card slot. They’re 2.5 games ahead of the Angels. They’re 3.5 games ahead of the A’s, and they’re 5.5 games ahead of the Rays and the Blue Jays. The Twins trail six games behind. The early results are in the bag; since opening day, the Mariners have dramatically improved their position.

Yet the path to the playoffs remains narrow. With a dominant starter and a dominant closer, the Mariners would make for a challenging wild-card opponent. There’s just a lot of work to do first, before any of that even matters.

Whenever you’re talking about a team, it’s worth talking about what it’s been, and what it arguably deserves to be. This stuff is obligatory, so let’s go ahead and get it out of the way. At 28-19, as mentioned, the Mariners have the sixth-best record in baseball, and the fourth-best record in the AL. However, by run differential, they have the 15th-best Pythagorean record in baseball, and the sixth-best record in the AL. Furthermore, they have the 15th-best BaseRuns record in baseball, and the seventh-best record in the AL. To this point, the Mariners rank 11th overall in team WAR.

Just as important, if not more so, the Mariners rank 13th overall in projected rest-of-season team WAR. The rest of the way, they project for the 18th-best record in baseball, and the ninth-best record in the AL. The projections don’t think the Mariners can keep something close to this up. Part of that is because, over the remainder, the Mariners are projected to face baseball’s third-toughest schedule. It only gets tougher from here, and there’s a lot of Cano-less baseball to be played.

Obviously, it’s good to have a good record. Where we are right now, the Mariners are in striking distance of the Astros, and also the Yankees. Anything can happen — just look at what’s gone on with the Dodgers. But if we’re going to be realistic, the Astros are much better than the Mariners are, so the Mariners don’t have a real path to winning the division. And the Yankees and Red Sox are also much better than the Mariners are, so the Mariners don’t have a real path to winning the first wild card. If they want to make the playoffs, the true shot is at being the wild-card road team. That’s what’s true this season, and that’s probably what’s true next season as well. The race for the second wild card is typically tight.

Because the Mariners have a current advantage, they can afford to give a little bit of ground. They don’t have to be as good as the rest of the competition over the remainder — they can be some small number of games worse. You can see how the situation gets tricky, though. There are four or five other real contenders for the same spot. They all have the same idea. And the Mariners probably have the least ability to improve on the fly. Once the draft has come and gone, it’ll be trading season. The Mariners won’t be able to aim very high.

This is a club that already had a thin pitching staff behind Paxton and Edwin Diaz. That’s no less true today. But with Cano out, and with Gordon moving to cover second base, there’s a hole in the outfield. The Mariners have an objectively dreadful farm system. It is almost certainly the worst in the major leagues. They didn’t have a single preseason top-100 prospect. No team entered the year with a worse No. 1 prospect, and the Mariners are also short on prospect depth. It’s bad at the top, and it’s bad down below. Some number of prospects will surprise, some number will over-achieve, but the Mariners simply can’t offer up many resources. Not as many as some other organization. In an article the other day, Ryan Divish said the Mariners have had trouble even reaching an agreement to trade for Travis Jankowski. When you can’t trade for Travis Jankowski, what can you trade for?

If the Mariners have one thing going for them, it’s the silver lining of the Cano suspension. Even though they’d rather have Cano active, of course, his suspension gives the Mariners about $11 million of added flexibility. Therefore, they could conceivably take on a contract, which is one way to get better without giving much up. Generally, though, it’s not premium players who are getting dealt in salary dumps. At least as far as the outfield goes, the Mariners might well have to settle for targets like Leonys Martin or Jon Jay. I’m sure Jerry Dipoto would eventually like to add a pitcher, but it’s pitchers who tend to cost the most in June and July. There’s just not a whole lot the Mariners can seemingly do to meaningfully improve.

Maybe they’ll keep winning 60% of their games. Maybe Dipoto will pull something off that I can’t currently see. He might regard this as a puzzle to solve. Certainly, the Mariners have some kind of chance, and many other teams would envy their present record. And as long as I’m here, I might as well talk about something else. I think there’s a common belief that this could be the Mariners’ last go of it, that the organization is headed for a cliff. Because of the state of the farm system, the club clearly can’t lean on many cheap young reinforcements, but look at these WAR distributions, by years of team control remaining.

2018 WAR to date

  • 0 years remaining: -0.6 combined WAR
  • 1 year remaining: +0.5 combined WAR
  • 2+ years remaining: +11.6 combined WAR

Projected rest-of-season 2018 WAR

  • 0 years remaining: +1.6 combined WAR
  • 1 year remaining: +2.9 combined WAR
  • 2+ years remaining: +19.2 combined WAR

Most of the Mariners’ best players are around at least the next couple years. Cruz is the only pending free agent of real consequence. The next season, there’s Felix Hernandez, Juan Nicasio, and Nick Vincent. The Mariners have precious little organizational depth, and they’re going to need some young players to emerge, but there are more team-control years on the major-league roster than you’d think. And the whole landscape only improves if you believe in Guillermo Heredia’s discipline, Daniel Vogelbach’s power, and Marco Gonzales‘ strikeouts. Given what Vogelbach has done in Triple-A, maybe he’s the future Cruz replacement the Mariners have been looking for.

So, on the one hand, the circumstances here aren’t necessarily dire. At least, not as dire as they’ve been made out to be. The Mariners have bought themselves a little time for the farm system to get better. And yet, still, the Mariners are nowhere close to the Astros. Not now, and not next season. They’re nowhere close to the Red Sox and Yankees. They’re nowhere particularly close to elite, and the road to a one-game playoff is going to require that very little else go wrong. This is not a path that will be easy for Dipoto to navigate. So far, so good. But there are many, many more miles to go, and you might say the Mariners are short on supplies.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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I do like the race metaphor Jeff proposed in the final paragraph. The Mariners have a head start, but are slower(worse at baseball) and have less supplies(trade bait).