Mariners, World Champions that Weren’t
“The Mariners had Junior, A-Rod, and Randy Johnson, and they didn’t win squat.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that about the Mariners. But I’ve never sat down and taken a serious look at that window, and considered what might have been, and how it could have got there.
The window’s shorter that many people realize. Griffey came up in 1989 and was here through 1999. Randy Johnson came over in 1989, but didn’t ascend to dominance until 1993 and after that was astoundingly good until he was traded in 1998. Alex Rodriguez debuted in 1994 but didn’t play full time until 1996, when he too was insanely good, and he left after 2000.
Two years with those three players: 1996 and 1997. And with Randy out for much of 1996, really 1997 is their shot at it.
In 1996, they went 85-76 and finished second in the AL West by five games.
In 1997, they won the division and the Orioles handed them their ass in the Division Series.
How can a team with those three players putting up Hall of Fame years not win the league and go to the World Series?
Offensively, it’s hard to find something to improve on. The team led the league both years in runs scored per game, and that was legit even given the Kingdome’s effect on offense. They got great production out of Buhner, Edgar and some of their stop-gaps, like Paul Sorrento, worked out pretty well. They juggled a couple of holes (1996: 3B, LF, 1997: LF) but overall, there’s not a lot to criticize here. Sure, there are some dumb what-ifs (sign Barry Bonds in 1993, for instance) we could look at, but generally, scoring runs wasn’t the issue.
The problem, as we know it, was that they had poor pitching. Could that have been fixed?
Essentially, the team needed a couple of pitching widgets:
1996: five decent starters. That rotation (Hitchcock-Wolcott-Wagner-Mulholland-Wells) was awful. Randy only pitched in 14 games that year, too. The late-season acquisition of Moyer helped, but this team desperately needed starters.
The bullpen is okay.
1997, though, things change a lot. Jeff Fassero comes on, there’s a full season of Moyer and Randy, and only the 4-5 starters are terrible. The bullpen is awwwwwwwwwwwwwful.
What could the team have done over these two years? I looked for free agents in those years who signed with teams other than their last team. The list of players who could have changed history for the team is short.
Before the 1996 season
Kevin Brown. The deal he signed with the Marlins for 1996-1998 was a steal. His performance in 1996 alone might have swung the division between the Mariners and the Rangers.
Al Leiter. Another part of the huge Marlins rotations, Leiter would have been big in 1996 and filled in the back of the rotation in 97, and then been great again in 1998 which is, again, outside the scope of this exercise.
And that’s all I see, surveying the free agent market before the 1996 season like this.
Those two would have cost the Mariners an immense amount of money to sign. However, headed into the season they would have had an amazing Johnson-Brown-Leiter-crap-crap rotation, where crap and crap don’t make the post-season roster (then Randy drops out, they still trade for Moyer…)
1997 — hey, Albert Belle’s available! That’ll fill the left-field… oooooh.
I like Roger Clemens here. He and Randy instead of Randy and Fassero… man, that’d have been awesome. And Clemens was brilliant in 1997 — that contract worked out really well for Toronto.
But for super-ace relievers, what am I going to say? Picking the crop of these guys even with hindsight is terrible. I mean, there were smart people who thought Mike Henneman was going to be a star for years after 1995. Didn’t happen.
(mmm.. Piazza in 1997, too…)
Here’s what If ound particularly interesting: it wouldn’t have cost them all that much. Leiter and Brown’s salaries for Florida in 1996 added up to $6m.
$6m, and I think they win the division and pound the tar out of every team they face in the playoffs. They spent $4m on Chris Bosio that year and $2.85 on Hibbard.
A little more in there (put Buhner in left, sigh Sheffield, who goes on a tremendous run for another chunk, that’s probably eight games right there over the left field tilt-a-whirl) and it starts to get sick.
The lasting lesson I see is that the great failure of the 90s Mariner teams wasn’t in a failure to develop players, or anything like it. It was the steady adherence to the old M’s Bosio/Hibbard philosophy: attempt to find undervalued modest free agents coming from bad teams.
By itself, this isn’t such a bad philosophy. You want to look for value wherever you can get it. But what it meant to those two teams with the greatest home-grown core was that they were saddled with modestly-priced modest players that then failed to live up to even that expectation. For every success the team had in finding a guy like Paul Sorrento, it failed at another position and sometimes an entire unit.
Which brings me to the failure of strategy. The Mariners of the late 90s were a lot like the Mariners 0f 2004 in that there was not a lot of deep thinking about how to construct a team. There were players they had, holes they wanted to fill, and Lou screaming about needing pitches who could throw strikes.
Bullpens are junk. You can assemble a rag-tag collection of servicable relievers out of organizational floatsam, minor league free agents, and waiver claims. Look at the bullpen today: Putz and Thornton are random dudes, and Sherill could outpitch Nelson. Plus, the risk on investment in the bullpen is so huge (for a number of reasons). I’d much rather put that kind of money in a hitter or a starter.
But back to my point — if you’re the Mariners in 1996, you’re confronted with a rotation that any rational evaluation will tell you is going to be a problem, and a couple position holes. At the same time, the clock’s ticking. While you’re not in Safeco Field yet, even if you figure that Randy will stay through his contract year, you have three seasons. After that, it’s pointless to forecast.
So the miracle season is over.
You face the off-season, and you have:
Randy and then question marks and gaps in the rotation (Benes, Belcher filing for free agency)
A bullpen with some issues.
Some hard choices to make with players like Tino Martinez and Mike Blowers, with teams expressing interest in making trades.
That stupid three-year clock ticking.
This was the great failure of the Mariners, and one we would see again in 2001: with great success and acclaim, the team didn’t look to make massive improvements and try and make choices that would allow them to compete for and win a World Series title for the next few years, or even a year. They shuffled the deck. Blowers to LA for junk. Tino to NY for Russ Davis and junk.
The way that great teams are great is not because of luck and circumstances, though both of those play an important role. It’s that those teams both believe they can be great and are realistic about the challenges they face and so can find solutions to those problems. While I may disagree with some of the choices the Red Sox made last year, they were a great example of this. Every day: “Is this the day I have to make a deal to improve our defense? Do I have to go get a better platoon partner for Trot Nixon? Is it worth it to upgrade defense at first base?”
This is why people screamed about the team’s “ennnhhh, get into the playoffs and luck out” philosophy. If you want to have people walk around on the moon, your goal has to be putting people on the moon so they can walk around. You can’t say “we’re going to put people in orbit and maybe they’ll luck into landing on, walking around on, and returning from the moon”. If your vision and belief in your ability to achieve your goal waver, you may get there, but your chances are greatly diminished.
That’s your 1996-7 Mariners, the World Champions that weren’t. “Will this move make us great?” “I don’t know, but Lou will stop yelling at me about the bullpen for a week.”