Notes on a Lost Decade

marc w · December 30, 2019 at 5:05 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

To be clear from the start: there was no way this decade wouldn’t seem like a let-down after the highs of the 2000s. The Seattle Mariners have felt like afterthoughts in the game for most of their existence, but for a little while there, they were among the dominant franchises in the game. It didn’t/couldn’t last, and the slide from the upper echelons back to mediocrity doesn’t hurt any less for those who loved the team when they were losers. It’s banal and obvious that the sheer length of the M’s futility starts to eat at one’s fan experience. You can only watch the same movie so many times, especially when the movie isn’t that exciting. Ultimately, though, the 2010s were defined by failed promise. We saw tantalizing signs of development, we followed tons of prospects who had near-universal acclaim, and the result was a .468 winning percentage and no playoff appearances.

I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad sign that the MVP of the decade is so blindingly obvious. Felix was the most fun player to cheer for the team’s had, at least since Ken Griffey’s Jr. first go-round. The decade opened with Felix at the top of his powers, winning the first of what felt like 5-7 Cy Youngs in 2010. More important, though, was his stature as the team’s building block, the singular talent who had both youth and experience that the M’s could structure their rebuild around. By mid-2010, the Mariners had a top-10 prospect in all of baseball in Justin Smoak, and one of the most heralded college hitters in a generation, Dustin Ackley. Ackley was MLB’s #15 prospect in 2010, but headed into 2011 ranked #5, just behind guys named Trout and Harper. Jesus Montero ranked #9, and the M’s would add him before the 2012 season. The M’s had another pair of prospects in the top 20 in 2012, with Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, and Walker cracked the top 5 the following year. You all know what happened.

As great as Felix was, and as much as he towers over the Mariners 2010s, he can’t be the story. He was great, and the M’s were bad – we need to figure out *why* and we won’t find that out by examining the great ones, just like you can’t scrutinize Mike Trout to figure out why the Angels haven’t won a playoff game in years, either. Instead, to tell a disappointing story, we need to go where the disappointment is. The story of the M’s decade is the story of Dustin Ackley. You could pick several players for this dubious honor, from Smoak to Franklin Gutierrez to Montero (whose fight with a scout armed with an ice cream sandwich supplied the jet-black comedic moment of the decade, a bizarre and deeply sad moment in which the failures of the M’s player development group poured out their frustration with players in public). The M’s had Felix, and they had a guy in the high minors rated right around where people had Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

Ackley debuted at 23 after a dominant half-season in Tacoma. He always looked slightly off in my viewings, but he was hitting for average, drawing walks, and putting up solid gap-power numbers – things that had eluded him the year before in AA. Brian Cartwright’s pre-call-up forecast looked downright alarmist and pessimistic at the time, but Ackley essentially exceeded them in half a season with the M’s. His SLG% was a bit low, but it was more than made up for with surprisingly good defense – a bonus that bumped his production to 3 fWAR in just half a year. At this rate, even if the power never showed up, he’d be a tremendously valuable player at the keystone for a decade. But his first full season was a disaster: a slash line of .226/.294/.328 that not even great defense could overcome. I don’t know how much influence that season had in the M’s decision to move the fences in at the end of 2012, but I bet it played a pretty big part. Of course, it wasn’t just Ackley – Justin Smoak swooned in 2012, too, and Jesus Montero had a sub .300 OBP at DH. Something was going very wrong with how these should-be superstars were developing in the big leagues.

The M’s knew how critical Ackley was to their plans, so they figured the only solution to poor coaching and development was a whole lot more coaching and development. Ackley showed up in Peoria for spring training in 2013 with a bizarre new swing, and then scrapped it a few weeks into the regular season – which he started 3 for 30. Despite his solid defense, the M’s decided to move him to the outfield to accommodate prospect Nick Franklin, sticking him in CF for a good chunk of 2013, and then to LF in 2014. After coming so close in 2014, the M’s had an abysmal 2015, and shipped Ackley to the Yankees for Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez. Ackley slugged .654 in limited duty in 2015 with the Yanks that year, then was sent down after an awful start to 2016. He hasn’t made it back since.

Ackley was always supposed to hit for a higher average than his career .241 mark, but his .367 SLG% was also a big strike against him. But there’s an asterisk there: Ackley played for Seattle from 2011 to the first half of 2015, a period wholly encompassed by the little batting ice age, where a different ball mixed with reliever usage and the inexorable rise of strikeouts to suppress offense league-wide. It was even worse in Seattle from 2010-2012, as fly balls died in left field. Given those disadvantages, it’s not a shock that he accumulated 3 fWAR in half a year in 2011 despite a so-so SLG%. It may be why guys like Smoak and Ackley floundered for a bit, and why they sought so many changes and different ideas on how to “fix” their swings, when all they needed to do was play with a different baseball. Smoak actually got that chance, and became an intermittently solid starter. I wish Ackley got more than a handful of games in baseball’s new normal.

But that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? The M’s always seemed a year or two behind whatever baseball was doing. They built a team around a staff and OF that would allow fly ball contact, and watched the all-time HR record get shattered as more fly balls turned into HRs than ever before (at least until 2019 came along). They built an offense around avoiding strikeouts and hitting singles as their rivals built teams that avoided strikeouts while hitting dingers. They looked for pitchers who pitched to contact as their rivals built formidable staffs of strikeout-throwing, high-velo guys they’d developed or tweaked. None of it’s worked, at least not well enough or long enough to make a sustained run at the postseason. 2020 looks like another rebuilding year, and we’ve seen an awful lot of those recently.

It’s true that there are glimmers of hope on the horizon, but the same was true in 2010. The only thing that will change the outcome is if the M’s aren’t just good, but better than other teams at turning prospects into really good MLB contributors. This is essentially the same conclusion to every post of mine for the past few years, and I really want to thank those of you who’ve hung around listening to me repeat myself while going slightly crazy. The failure of either the Ackley/Smoak/Montero troika or the Walker/Paxton/Hultzen three-headed-monster to lift the M’s was the defining story of the decade. It was a failure that spanned multiple front offices, even as both touted the ways they were revolutionizing development. There were enough success stories (Kyle Seager!) that you couldn’t chalk it up to total incompetence. Whatever it is, it seems deeper, more insidious than a few bad coaches. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost a defining trait, as depressing as that sounds. I sincerely hope they can get it turned around, if only because it’d make 2020 a much different experience for M’s fans. It would put meaningful baseball back in play for 2022 or so, and it would end this pervasive ennui that at least I feel towards the team I support. I’m ready for that.

There have been real, honest, joyful moments this decade. Felix’s perfecto, of course, but some of the highlights in their chase in 2014, or Taijuan Walker’s debut in Houston, or Paxton’s first great game against Kansas City. The weird team no-hitter, or Hisashi Iwakuma’s brilliant no-no after the team decided against trading him. There’ve been reasons to watch, but the sum total is still kind of dispiriting. A few years ago, I mused that it must be almost impossible to be an A’s fan, with the team trading away any budding superstars and seemingly trying to hang out near .500. Since then, the A’s have two 97-win seasons, and have developed some superstars. I’m going to refrain from any further “at least we’re not like X fans!” takes for the foreseeable future.


25 Responses to “Notes on a Lost Decade”

  1. weasleman42 on December 31st, 2019 4:45 am

    Thank you for this article. It’s been a depressing string of no-playoff years. Since I moved away from Seattle in 2005, it has gotten harder and harder to watch this team. I will always hold onto hope for brighter days and games in the postseason. Go M’s!

  2. 3cardmonty on December 31st, 2019 8:56 am

    I could never be an A’s fan simply because of the drums. Sure the Mariners are the most futile franchise in all of professional sports but at least their ballpark isn’t filled with morons pounding on drums.

  3. Sportszilla on December 31st, 2019 2:35 pm

    Marc, thanks for keeping USS Mariner at least nominally afloat for most of this decade: I can’t say that it made up for all the bad, aimless baseball, but it definitely helped.

  4. Westside guy on December 31st, 2019 10:27 pm

    I guess whether 2020 looks different in hindsight than 2010 will come down to whether Dipoto is a markedly better GM than Zduriencik. A year or two into his tenure, a lot of us were already wondering about Jack Z’s commitment to advance metrics due to his seeming crush on any aging veteran he could get his hands on… I don’t think Jerry suffers from that disease. Is it enough, though? That’s the question.

  5. demon777 on January 2nd, 2020 12:38 pm

    This is really where we see how good Jerry is. I think his first years here he was controlled by ownership to try to compete even though he knew we only had an outside shot. Hopefully with the slight change of ownership and what seems to be a better development process, so far, we can start to see the rewards.

  6. drw on January 3rd, 2020 9:13 am

    While Jerry can certainly make a difference in how good the team becomes, my takeaway from Marc’s post is that development is key. We’ve drafted poorly and we have developed even more poorly. Jerry makes some draft calls (and/or has input) and hires/fires those who develop the talent, but otherwise his influence is indirect. One great scout who sees that Trout (or Felix or enter other star’s name) is awesome when others do not and convinces the team to draft/sign him can overcome a series of other mistakes. A pitching coach who is ineffective can set a prospect back a year or forever (at least I assume so). Is it hard to figure out who is best at this? Very very hard I assume, or all teams would be doing it.

  7. eponymous coward on January 3rd, 2020 8:50 pm

    DiPoto’s already said the team imploded worse than he intended.

    Thing is I look at the minors talent and I’m not seeing OMG AMAZEBALLS. What I see is a team that maybe in 2022 is back where we were in 2017- fringes of playoffs, some good players. I sure don’t see the Astros. Basically if it goes REALLY well we’ll be the A’s. If it goes like history we’ll be the Padres, have a couple of disappointing years in 2021 and 2022, and Jerry gets deep sixed.

    For that we had to suffer through some truly bad baseball?

    But hey, the owners should be raking in cash by then. As they have through this whole thing- making money in MLB is now completely decoupled from having a good baseball team.

  8. Stevemotivateir on January 4th, 2020 7:31 am

    This is a good wrap up. I don’t think I would call anything we’ve seen under Previous GM’s actual rebuilds, but there is little question that drafting and developing prospects was a major failure, regardless of the why’s.

    One huge difference between now, and say, 2010, is that the prospects we have now entered the ranking systems lower and have risen significantly since. We didn’t see much of that with previous regimes.

    I think that’s a good sign that we’re on the right track.

  9. LongDistance on January 5th, 2020 10:06 am

    Howard Lincoln’s fun family experience… go m’s

    … (lower-case imposes)

  10. MKT on January 10th, 2020 4:13 pm

    I agree with virtually all of eponymous coward’s post. I’m old enough to remember the expansion Ms (the Pilots too for that matter, although I wasn’t following baseball at all in those days).

    On the one hand, the post-2001 Mariner teams have occasionally been over 0.500 and have occasionally been in playoff races. So in that sense it’s a better fan experience than in the 1970s and 1980s.

    But those early M’s teams weren’t even really trying to win, and they lacked the financial resources to compete on an even basis with the large-market teams. The Ms in the 21st century started with a large fanbase and have been a mid-size or better market team, rather than a struggling bottom feeder. And they’ve been trying to win but clearly lack the skills in player development to do so.

    In theory we fans are supposed to be excited about the future and the young prospects and all, but I’ve seen so many Ms prospects from Al Chambers to Jeff Clement go bust. Call me skeptical. From1995 through 2003 the Ms were one of the better and more interesting teams in baseball. Outside of that, decades of futility.

  11. LongDistance on January 13th, 2020 7:58 am

    I don’t think I’ve ever known a January with so little connect with Opening Day.

  12. MrZDevotee on January 13th, 2020 2:19 pm

    My screen name alone tells a long story of our futility. It’s like an embarrassing tattoo of someone I used to date…

    But a reminder of the frailty of unreasonable expectations.

    I do like the direction we’re headed now though, with its more sustainable model of development (knock on wood).

  13. MrZDevotee on January 13th, 2020 2:32 pm

    (and by “sustainable” I meant: building up the farm system while simultaneously not having the usual atrocious albatross contracts weighing us down, and forcing us to NOT honestly rebuild)

  14. eponymous coward on January 13th, 2020 7:03 pm

    The M’s in 2020 are carrying 25 million less in payroll than the A’s. About the same as the Rays. So basically we’re looking at “poor me, wahh wahhh” levels. This at a stadium where the cheap seats in the 300 level are $30 and the beers are $10.

    Carrying 50 million more in payroll this year would easily be “sustainable” given how MLB makes money these days, and the fact that it’s freaking Seattle, not the Oakland Coliseum. They just figure as long as you’re gonna tank it, you might as well be cheap bastards about it.

    At this point, I’m skeptical Dipoto is Billy Beane or Andrew Friedman, but that’s what we’re down to.. implode and go cheap like the Rays and A’s, if you’re good with your kids, OK, but don’t bother spending any money to make it watchable.

    Personally I think I’ll catch some Rainiers games this year… as opposed to the AAAA team we have here.

  15. Stevemotivateir on January 14th, 2020 5:18 am

    In theory we fans are supposed to be excited about the future and the young prospects and all, but I’ve seen so many Ms prospects from Al Chambers to Jeff Clement go bust. Call me skeptical. From1995 through 2003 the Ms were one of the better and more interesting teams in baseball. Outside of that, decades of futility.

    None of what we saw had anything to do with Dipoto. It’s a completely new developmental program. We have yet to see if his players can make the jump from the minors to MLB, but there is reason for optimism.

  16. Stevemotivateir on January 14th, 2020 5:27 am

    Carrying 50 million more in payroll this year would easily be “sustainable” given how MLB makes money these days, and the fact that it’s freaking Seattle, not the Oakland Coliseum. They just figure as long as you’re gonna tank it, you might as well be cheap bastards about it.

    eponymous, it’s not about whether or not they could spend 50 million more now, it’s about when spending 50 million (or more) makes the most sense. Spending this offseason wouldn’t have put them in contention, so why bother?

    You know as well as anyone that rebuilding clubs try to save money for future spending. Seattle’s payroll is actually high for a rebuilding club, but they’ve been clear that they will be willing to spend once they’re ready to contend. One anonymous source from the front office stated that they would be pushing the luxury tax threshold when the time is right. I don’t believe the goal is to spend recklessly, but saving now and spending later if necessary? Sure.

  17. eponymous coward on January 14th, 2020 9:11 am

    Spending money in 2020 can make the 2021-2022 team better (aside from making the 2020 team something other than a smoldering dumpster fire of an AAAA team). It’s this thing called “multi-year contracts”. In fact, they did this last year with Kikuchi, the problem being that Kikuchi wasn’t very good. There were free agents that could have helped the team when this window of contention was going to allegedly open. The M’s passed, so we’re going going back to the 1980’s; time to watch kids plus third rate veterans on cheap contracts plus the holdovers Dipoto hasn’t salary dumped yet.

    “We’ll spend money when we’re good” assumes you know when you’re going to be good and that you can actually time your contention and farm system to coincide with payroll boosts. It doesn’t always work that way (see: past history of the Mariners “we’re gonna spend now, we know we have a team”).

    There is no “saving” in MLB when 2020 payroll is low, because that money isn’t coming back as $5 tickets and $3 beers while watching a crap team. It’s pure profit for ownership, just like spending on good teams that draw fans is profit for owners. Suck teams like the Marlins and M’s are profitable, just like all of MLB is. It’s a conscious decision that “screw it, let’s make money and lose 95 games with a low payroll” is the way to go.

    Yes, I know the Astros did it this way. I don’t think the M’s are going to get to steal signs, and for all the Astros there are Pirates and Padres that just don’t really get off the floor for decades at a time, or have a brief window of contention that doesn’t really do much to move the needle. DiPoto is almost a decade into a career as a GM. If he’s a super genius ala Beane or Cashman, when will we know? Shouldn’t we know by now?

  18. eponymous coward on January 14th, 2020 9:33 am

    My thesis:

    – I haven’t seen enough to say that Dipoto is better than (random non-great MLB GM) yet. Better than Bavasi or Z isn’t enough.
    – It’s funny, innit, that the Yankees, Dodgers or Red Sox never have to tank? You’d think that it’s actually possible to build sustained long term excellence or something, and some teams just can’t do it.
    – Safeco is one of the most expensive places in MLB to see a game and have a beer, and we get a crap product for the privilege. Go us.

  19. MrZDevotee on January 14th, 2020 6:43 pm

    Sustained winning is not as simple as spending money though… Or everyone would do it. Boston, the Yankees, and the Dodgers are 3 of the biggest markets in baseball… They can sustain outrageous spending, and can afford to be competitive every year, but it’s harder in other markets. (Heck, the Angels and Dodgers both survived a rash of really awful, huge contracts not long ago, and kept sailing along spending money…) For lesser market teams it’s like surfing, you gotta wait for the right wave (of talent and opportunity)… The difference is, do you wanna be above .500 every year, or actually try to win a Championship? They’re not the same approach. The Royals have done it, heck the Marlins have done it– twice. I think Tampa is a good “sister city” to Seattle in MLB, when talent emerges you make a stab at it… During the ebbs, you lay low and have to be patient. We took a stab at it with Cano, Cruz, Seager and Felix… Now we have to wait for another wave…

  20. Stevemotivateir on January 14th, 2020 8:57 pm

    eponymous, if you don’t know when the team is going to be good, that feeds the argument to not spend when it’s clear that you’re not good right now.

    But of course there’s a target date. We’ve all heard 2021. I would be a little surprised if it came before 2022. My suspicion is that they don’t believe it’s going to be 2021, either. Otherwise we probably would have seen key players targeted this offseason. Maybe Grandal or even Rendon would have made sense? They could have slid Seager over to 2B to make that work.

    They’re still finding out what they have, though. Once they have a better idea who will likely stick we’ll probably see them start addressing the areas they can’t fill internally. I would bet we do start seeing additions next offseason, especially if Gilbert and Kelenic debut or look close.

    Regarding ownership and profits, they don’t take anything. This has been protocol for some time. Everything is put back into the organization and I don’t think anyone can fault them for staying out of the red (with a few exceptions).

    As far as the success of the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox goes, those are teams that have been better at developing or identifying talent. No denying that. But those are also larger market teams that can afford to pay luxury tax penalties (and have). They have been able to handle large, bad contracts and continue to address needs with high-dollar free agents while leaving the bulk of their prospects alone to develop. Such a luxury would be nice, but Seattle isn’t in that camp.

    And about Dipoto’s experience as a GM, I don’t think we can say anything definitively yet as we’re still waiting to see how his own draftees pan out. I don’t think his experience in LA tells us anything.

    For what it’s worth, we have seen him restructure the entire developmental system upon his arrival. We saw him use Z-era prospects, such as Gohara and Jackson, to acquire veterans who could help them win immediately, but that obviously didn’t work and here we are, entering year 2 of his first rebuild.

    It’s all him now. I have my doubts with some of these prospects, especially the outfielders not named Kelenic and Rodriguez, but he built the farm up from the bottom. It’s now in the top-11 among the more respectable sources and a handful or more of these prospects are on the top-100 lists. Kelenic, Rodriguez and Gilbert are in the upper-half of those lists. That may not guarantee anything, but it’s the kind of progress you want to see during a rebuild.

    Not bad for a little over a year.

  21. eponymous coward on January 15th, 2020 10:54 am

    Tampa isn’t a good sister city because Tampa draws like 14,000 people a game in a bad stadium. They’re a terrible market, right down there with Oakland.

    Granted, if we’re looking at 2022 before we’re going to bother to contend, we might be drawing 14,000 people a game too by then.

  22. eponymous coward on January 15th, 2020 10:59 am

    So let me get this straight; the M’s aren’t going to bother with this contending thing until year seven of their current GM’s job?

    Anyways, my argument is “improve the team all the time”. Sign good players if it makes sense all the time. MLB right now has a bunch of GMs and owners mailing it in. You could actually try and see what happens.

    (Also, too: so how is it St. Louis never has to tear it down for half a decade?)

  23. Stevemotivateir on January 17th, 2020 6:08 pm

    ^If you look at it black & white, yes. If you look at the reality of the situation, that they’re entering the second year of this plan, then the answer is no. The first three years he was trying to improvise and sneak in with what he inherited. Obviously he has changed course and are in a new (better) direction.

    Regarding your argument, they are doing that. They added Kikuchi last offseason (so far, so bad), and Dipoto has stated that he’s trying to add a younger starter who could move forward with the team. He hasn’t done that yet, and it’s possible he’ll fail, but that’s his intention. I know you’re suggesting they add(ed) more, but there were a lot of holes. This wasn’t a team just a couple of pieces away after the 2018 season (and especially not now). That’s why he blew it up, rather than add and end up like the Angels.

    Regarding St. Louis never having to tear it down for half a decade, I don’t know what your point is. Seattle isn’t tearing down for half a decade. The Cardinals have been a pretty well run team for quite a while and that’s because they’ve had a pretty good developmental system in place for a very long time and spent on free agents to help maintain their runs.

    They’ve taken their lumps as well, but their setbacks typically never take more than 2-3 years. They were 17.5 games back in 2016, 9 in 2017, and 7.5 in 2018, before taking the division last season. Again, pretty well run organization. Did you happen to catch the numerous articles here outlining the failures of the Bavasi and Zduriencik eras? Nothing we can do about that now, but I wouldn’t throw Jerry into that crowd and I think we should be looking at this as a new era; on the right track. You may not like this rebuild, or the approach, but Seattle has a strong farm for the first time in ages and we’ll probably start seeing spending next offseason. I feel like a broken record, because I know I’m repeating myself, but it really doesn’t make sense to spend too much when you’re still assessing your home grown talent and have yet to identify where your biggest weaknesses (and strengths) are going to be.

    Free agents also have to want to come here. When it’s obvious that you’re another year or two out, how do you do that without ridiculously overspending? It’s not always that easy.

    Another thing worth remembering is that they started this rebuild before any of this crap with Houston was exposed. Houston’s future looked a lot stronger than it does now. I don’t know if that would have changed anything, or if it does now, but things look much brighter for Seattle now with them knocked down a peg.

  24. Stevemotivateir on January 17th, 2020 7:15 pm

    I’m not suggesting this is enjoyable. 60-70 win seasons aren’t easy to watch. But I do think they’re going about things the right way.

  25. schwingy on January 22nd, 2020 10:17 pm

    The highlight of the failures of our prospects can be summed up in one word: desperation. The model for so many years was:
    1. field experience through free agency by trading off good prospects
    2 patching that up by rushing up the great prospects,
    The free agents were ok, but decimated the farm. The great prospects were rushed up 2-3 years before they were ready. The Majors is no place to discover yourself. It was a cozy nesting place for the overtraded free agents and a overly scrutinized buzz saw for the prospects.
    I don’t mind what the Ms are doing now, but Id suggest rolling our retirees for 3 to 4 more years and let our talents truly develop in the minors where they can come up and have a chance to succeed when they finally make it up.

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