Mariners, World Champions that Weren’t

DMZ · May 9, 2005 at 10:11 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

“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.”


77 Responses to “Mariners, World Champions that Weren’t”

  1. Todd on May 10th, 2005 1:41 pm

    If scouting is the reason for hot and cold bursts by players, then the M’s should ride the Wiki wave until the scouts catch up with him.

  2. ChrisK on May 10th, 2005 2:05 pm

    #47 – well put. I’m convinced that the bulk of revenue-generating customers at Safeco are happy enough with a team that is “in the hunt” for most of the season, so long as they have some fan favorites they can cheer on (you can guess who those players are). The fans will happily drink the Finnigan Kool-Aid so long as the team is within shouting distance of a wild card. The M’s HAD to make a big splash this offseason because the team was nowhere near a .500 club. But if they’re around .500 by the trade deadline, I bet we’ll see the same conservative moves by management. Then we’ll be subjected to the Dan Wilson Farewell propoganda in Aug & Sept to bring in fans and get them nostalgic about ’95.

    If fans are happy enough with a ‘competitive’ team of nice guys, why would the owners go the extra mile to get an impact player for the stretch drive or playoffs?

  3. murton on May 10th, 2005 2:10 pm

    #48, how do you explain the phenomena in the Red Sox-Yankees series last year? I think after three games, the Yankees were batting around .400 as a club and certain hitters like Matsui and Sheffield were clubbing over .600. And then after 22 games between them that season, was it some scouting epiphany that allowed the Red Sox to shut the Yankees down over four games to the level they did the Cardinals?

  4. jason on May 10th, 2005 2:12 pm

    isn’t it amazing how much that hurts, even now?


  5. Baltimore M's Fan on May 10th, 2005 3:15 pm

    #48 that would be superior pitching that players can’t adjust to. If you are going up against schilling, pedro, lowe back-to-back-to-back then you’re going to be made to look silly. Not buying the scouting thing at all. Haven’t seen any good evidence to support it yet.

  6. marc w. on May 10th, 2005 3:20 pm

    The recent WS winning teams, especially Anaheim, didn’t use the deadline. The Red Sox got rid of Nomar, but for Cabrera? Sox partisans spin that as a great clubhouse move, but if we’re at that level of analysis, we might as well point to Spiezio’s guitar stylings tipping the scales the Halos way in 2002. The Marlins changed managers, not players (or did they pick up Conine at the deadline that year?).
    That’s why I don’t think the analogy to getting into lunar orbit works at all. Yes, teams that win are structured a bit differently, but there’s no way anyone of a statistical bent would’ve pegged the Marlins or Angels to win even after they qualified for the playoffs. The luck factor is huge in any playoff series. It’s just smart to configure a team to get to the playoffs, and not ‘to win the world series.’ When the component parts of the strategy – outside of ‘get two dominant starters’ – change all the time (good OBP, wait no, NEVER take a walk, steal bases, wait no, don’t steal), it can’t be a good strategy. As many people have pointed out, the M’s problem is that they haven’t even been concerned with building a winning team – they’re content with a profitable team. That’s a different argument, I think…
    Don’t make moves just for the sake of making moves. Ten Andy Benes’s and Paul Spoljarics get dealt for every clutch player down the stretch. I’d say bringing prospects up has had just as much of an impact as trading prospects for mid-level talent that may/may not get hot.

  7. Cliff on May 10th, 2005 3:28 pm

    Lest we forget Mussina was absolutely awesome in the 97 playoffs, shutting down Seattle and giving up a whopping 1 run in two games (15 innings), even though Balt lost both of his games in extra innings. I could be wrong but it seems like Mussina flat owned the Mariners for literally years.
    If you really want to weep about things, keep in mind FLORIDA has won two World Series. Argghh. Given their pitching this year, how much would you be willing to bet against them in a short series?

  8. Cliff on May 10th, 2005 3:31 pm

    The Balt – Cleve series is the Mussina line for 1 run in 15 innings. Sorry for any confusion there.

  9. msb on May 10th, 2005 3:31 pm

    #45–Baltimore M’s Fan said:”Scouting in 97? I don’t buy that. Best pitcher in the game, best player in the game, best hitter (Gar) in the game getting beat because of SCOUTING? Please… ”

    I don’t think it was the sole reason (as noted, Moyer’s injury, Johnson’s finger & his inconsistancy) but both Seattle and Baltimore are convinced that the Baltimore scouting paid big dividends in stopping the M’s hitters:

    Seattle Times, Oct. 12, 1997– “Scouts live most of their lives in anonymity, but Don Welke entered the spotlight last week when the Orioles lavished praise upon him for the thorough report he prepared on the Mariners. Welke, a special assignment scout for the Orioles, spent the last 17 days of the season following the Mariners. He has been credited for formulating the game plan that not only allowed Baltimore to beat Randy Johnson twice in the American League Division Series, but also to hold down the potent Seattle bats.”

    NY Times, Oct 5, 1997– “Matt Slater is an assistant in the Orioles’ scouting department, and Welke is the advance scout who tracked the Seattle Mariners for the better part of the month before the Orioles played them in the American League playoffs.

    The Orioles won the first two games, leaving them one victory away from advancing to the A.L. Championship Series as they prepare for Game 3 today. On Friday, Lou Piniella, the Seattle manager, credited the Orioles’ performance to good and accurate intelligence. “The Baltimore people have done a very good job scouting our team,” he said.

    Early in September, as contenders began clinching playoff berths and the post-season matchups became more apparent, the Orioles assigned one of their top scouts to each of the potential opponents. Curt Motton was assigned to the Cleveland Indians, Deacon Jones to the Yankees and Welke to the Mariners. The Orioles also sent Fred Petersen, who normally scouts amateur players around Illinois, to join Welke.

    For more than two weeks, Welke and Petersen charted every pitch in each Seattle game, noted what pitch pitchers threw on various counts, and observed how opposing pitchers were throwing to the Mariners hitters. They looked for such tipoffs as pitchers holding their hands a little higher before throwing changeups; which players were used in bunt situations, and who would attempt a hit-and-run.

    The two scouts wrote out the information in longhand and, according to Slater, they hired a woman at the hotel where they were staying to type the report. At 2 A.M. last Wednesday, hours before the series began, Welke and Petersen took the pages to a Kinko’s in Seattle and generated about 10 copies of the report.

    At 11 A.M., Welke met with Pat Gillick, the Orioles’ general manager, other club officials, Manager Davey Johnson and his coaching staff, and reviewed the material. The first section was prepared for Johnson’s use, the others for the coaches, along with pages and pages of charts that showed where the Mariners’ batters generally hit the ball, as well as supporting statistics.”

  10. Benjamin Ramm on May 10th, 2005 3:38 pm

    I used to write a post a lot like Derek’s at least once a year back on usenet. I don’t think the Mariners needed Kevin Brown in 1996, they could have gotten by with simply signing Belcher. He was good enough for the Royals that the Mariners’ offense would have been great for him. He also wasn’t that expensive.

    And then, before 1997, there was the Mike Jackson fiasco: they didn’t even call him back, so he signed a deal with Cleveland for half what it took to get Slocumb.

    It just drove me crazy. Not signing Brown or whomever is understandable. Not returning phone calls is another problem.

    I think we have to include 1998 as a year they were all together. It was management’s problem that they didn’t keep Johnson focused.

  11. Baltimore M's Fan on May 10th, 2005 3:48 pm

    #59-OK there’s the support for the argument I’ve been looking for. Nice work.
    But the initial point made it seem that scouting was the #1 reason the O’s beat the M’s that year. That is what I was contesting. Some people missed the point on that (ie #48 telling me that MLB teams employed scouts in 1997. Really? They did? Wow I never knew that.)

  12. new guy on May 10th, 2005 3:54 pm

    One thing missing in the what ifs of these what could be fantasy line ups is the reality that the M’s have a big problem turning farm talent into reputable big league players. In order for them to flourish, it is necessary for them to go elsewhere. Also, that when we do bring in reputable players from eleswhere, they more often fail to produce. And how about when we let our players go (Ibanez) and they flourish elsewhere (KC) and return here as the player we let go? I lack the faith in the system that it would have developed Ortiz, Hampton, Lowe, Mays, Varitek into the players they are today.

  13. wabbles on May 10th, 2005 3:59 pm

    As for bullpens being “junk,” I’ve suffered through TOOOOOO many Cliffhanger Slocumb, Jose Mesa, Bobby Ayala, etc., etc., etc. bullpen corps to fully believe that, Ted Powers (surprise 1993 fill-in for an injured Norm Charlton) notwithstanding.

  14. LB on May 10th, 2005 5:06 pm

    #50: Fine, then don’t believe me. Just read Dan Shaughnessy’s book about the last season. [Reversing the Curse, p. 217 and 219] As soon as the Sox won the ALCS, Theo was telling John Henry to relax, the Sox would beat St. Louis. They knew Cardinal pitching could not shut down their offense (“Not an intimidating staff,” according to the scouting report), and they knew how to go after 3 of the 4 big guns in the St. Louis lineup.

    But you don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to.

  15. DAVE MCKENNA on May 10th, 2005 8:30 pm

    [all caps = deletion]

  16. Adam M on May 10th, 2005 8:38 pm

    Good advance scouting has beaten the M’s a couple of times in the postseason. Specifically, in addition to Johnson packing the lineup against RJ, I’m thinking of how the Yankees were able to neutralize Ichiro fairly well, and, as I recall, they shut down Edgar fairly well a couple years. Advance scouting may be the untold secret of the Yanks’ WS run – it seems like they were always able to neutralize the other teams’ best players, whether it was jamming their best hitter, taking advantage of some defensive lapse, or knocking their closer out, which they seemed to do at least once in every playoff series during that run.

    I wonder if Billy Beane has looked into this – if the A’s had a crack staff of advance scouts who helped them win a playoff series, the cost-benefit would probably be off the charts. Advance scouts are usually grisly old guys with a million years in the game who don’t want to or can’t shuffle around everywhere scouting talent.
    [note: I’m sure the A’s have a fine advance scout team, just being a little facetious]

  17. Adam M on May 10th, 2005 8:40 pm

    p.s. mad props for recognizing Sorrento.

  18. LB on May 10th, 2005 10:22 pm

    #66: And in the 2002 ALDS, the Angels had the benefit of a “secret weapon” that slipped under the Yankee advance scouts’ radar: Francisco Rodriguez (a.k.a. K-Rod). Of course, he was/is pretty darned good even if you have scouting data on him!

    (I read an analysis that said the other half of the Angels’ success was that they had hitters who could put the ball in play early and often against the Yankees’ sub-optimal defense.)

  19. Adam M on May 10th, 2005 11:51 pm

    68 – amen, LB. That seems to be what happened to the Yanks against Florida, too – young pitchers they weren’t familiar with (a problem M’s fans can identify with very well) and hitters who put the ball in play against their weak defense – and yes, that includes Jeter and Matsui.

    On that note, did anybody else notice on Boone’s double that Captain Playsright would have gotten Boonie at second and ended the inning if he’d covered the base? Maybe that was the right call and not a lapse in fundamentals, and it didn’t affect the outcome anyway, but it seemed pretty glaring to me.

  20. Adam Villani on May 11th, 2005 12:35 am

    I’m a Dodger fan, but reading words like “Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek were sent to Boston for Heathcliff Slocumb” makes me feel not quite so bad about words like “Pedro Martinez for Delino DeShields” or “$55 million for Darren Dreifort” or “Todd Hundley.”

    And man, I knew Beltre’s 2004 season was a fluke, but I had no idea how much of a fluke it turned out to be… sorry about that one, guys.

  21. TypicalIdiotFan on May 11th, 2005 3:16 am

    Re 70:

    Beltre’ll be fine. His recent games have shown a remarkable improvement in his swing and his recognition of pitches. I think he had a really bad and extended adjusting period to deal with, and hopefully it’s out of the way. If he comes close to hitting .300 by the end of the season and drives in over 100 RBI then I’ll be satisfied (for now).

    The actual enigma on the team is Olivo. Even at his worst, he’s been better then this. Right now, he’s giving Ben Davis a run for his money in terms of Seattle catching prospect notoriety.

  22. calig23 on May 11th, 2005 8:19 am

    [i]Odd that you mention that. Where do you think that dominant Angels bullpen came from? Saturn? Except for Yan and Prinz, that’s all Angels former AAA talent right there.[/i]


    Brendan Donnelly is the very definition of organizational flotsam. He was originally drafted the White Sox and was released by 6 different teams from 1993 to 2000. He also had two separate stints with the Cubs organization(93-94, 2000) and two different stints in the Independant leagues( Ohio Valley in 1994 and Nashua in 1999). Finally, he was signed by Anaheim in 2001. By the time he was with Anaheim, he was already 30. He hardly qualifies as “former Anaheim AAA talent”, in my opinion, though he did make 81 appearances in their minor league system before finally reaching the majors.

    Kevin Gregg was drafted by Oakland in 1996 and didn’t come to the Angels until 2003. He made all of 30 appearances in their minor leagues.

  23. Adam M on May 11th, 2005 1:40 pm

    As a Mariners and Dodgers fan, allow me to apologize for #70. No trade the Mariners have done, not even the Mitchell deal, is as bad as sending Pedro for Delino DeShields. Even as a DePo defender, considering what the Dodgers paid Derek Lowe, they may not be the only organization to misestimate his talent. He also forgets that “regression to the mean” for Beltre means a lousy first half and ~24 HRs/75 RBI in the second half.

    Speaking of the Lowe trade, would anyone with a better memory care to evaluate that trade in the context of the times? Yeah it looks like a panic-ridden fleecing (jr. pressuring woody to get a closer no matter the cost, we know the backstory). As I recall that time in M’s history, Varitek was taking a long time to develop, he’d gotten a call up, looked fairly lousy, and hadn’t been able to displace Dan the Man. Lowe seemed to be similarly frustrating. In context, it seems no worse than the average Kenny Williams trade; it’s just what Varitek and Lowe did afterward (and Quittin’ Time didn’t) that make it so ridiculous.

    Someday, somebody will write a history of Dan Wilson’s career with the Mariners. How long did it seem like the three things left after nuclear winter would be cockroaches, rats and Dan Wilson behind the plate?

  24. Adam Villani on May 11th, 2005 2:55 pm

    Donnelly was even a replacement player during the strike. To this day, he’s not in the players’ union and didn’t appear on the World Champion merchandise that had everybody else’s name on it.


  25. TypicalIdiotFan on May 11th, 2005 4:43 pm


    I guess I generally consider “home grown” talent to be people who are given a chance to actually play MLB baseball by the first team that lets them. Donnelly may have been a “well traveled” minor leaguer, but he made his mark in Anaheim (and Los Angeles!). If he’d appeared in the Majors beforehand, I would have agreed, which is why I didn’t mention a few others on the team who played brief stints with the Expos, etc.

    Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot of actual “home grown” talent if we go by any other meaning. Lots of prospects get drafted one way and end up in another organization before they make their MLB debuts. So I just go with my definition until someone comes up with a better one.

  26. The Ancient Mariner on May 11th, 2005 7:15 pm

    Regarding the Tino deal, everyone seems to be forgetting that not only did we give the Yanks Nelson along with Tino for Davis and Hitchcock, we threw in Jim Mecir. Arrgghh! He didn’t pitch well in ’96 or ’97, but once he escaped NY he was fine; through ’04 he’s thrown 483.7 innings with a 3.83 ERA, 122 ERA+ (including his two poor seasons with the Yanks). Bad talent judgment, Woody . . .

    Re #73–at the time, I thought Varitek was a bust, and I wouldn’t have given you any kind of odds that Lowe would ever recover from Mt. Piniella; what made the deal obnoxious at the time anyway is that it was for waiver-bait. Bottom line, we could have gotten a lot more for Cruz, Lowe and Varitek than we did.

  27. me here on October 24th, 2005 10:50 am

    The more interesting thing about the Mariners with their 3 hall of famers is that they went on to be better without them.