Baseball has always been a game in which there’s more than one way to win. From small ball to bullpenning, teams are always looking for the quickest, most efficient and, sometimes, the most creative way to win.
Which is why it doesn’t take too long to figure out what the Seattle Mariners are doing heading into 2019. They’re following the modern championship blueprint. They’re trying to win by losing.
On Monday, the Mariners officially announced a seven-player trade with the New York Mets that rids them of Robinson Cano’s monster contract five years early and sends closer Edwin Diaz and $20 million to Queens to offset Cano’s cost. The Mariners also completed a five-player trade with the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday that sends another of their valued players, Jean Segura, to Philly in exchange for a package of players that included former top prospect J.P. Crawford.
The Mariners have now traded four of their top six most valuable players according to Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement this offseason — that includes ace James Paxton, who was already shipped to the New York Yankees. Nelson Cruz, who would be No. 7 on that list, is a free agent. Mike Leake and Kyle Seagers, No. 8 and No. 9, are being shopped around too.
And the new players coming to Seattle whose names you might recognize — Jay Bruce from the Mets or Carlos Santana from the Phillies — there’s just as much of a chance that they don’t make it to January let alone spring training as a member of the Mariners.
GM Jerry Dipoto is blowing everything up in Seattle. Only he’s not doing it brick-by-brick. He’s doing it with one big winter explosion. A team that won 89 games last year and competed for a playoff spot isn’t good enough in Dipoto’s estimation to contend in the same division as the Houston Astros and in the same league as the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. That’s not so much giving up as it is being realistic.
That thinking also reveals the brutal truth of modern MLB: You’re either trying to win a World Series or you’re tanking. There’s hardly a middle class anymore. And, as self-aware as baseball is these days, there’s little reason to strive for the middle class.
The history of baseball has given us plenty of teams that are good but not good enough to make it into the postseason, who are talented and promising but never get the World Series ring to prove it. There may not be a better modern example than the Mariners. They’ve been playoff contenders three times in the Cano era, finishing just outside the wild-card standings on their way to a worst-in-pro-sports playoff drought that dates back to 2001.
As baseball has gotten smarter, it’s admitted to itself the most eternal truth of Ricky Bobby: If you ain’t first, you’re last. As the thinking goes, what’s the difference of missing the playoffs by one game or 20 games?
Part two of that: Sometimes you get to first place by hanging in last place for a while. Look at the Chicago Cubs, who tore it all down and dealt with three straight 90-loss seasons before finding its championship core and winning in 2016.
Or the Houston Astros, who had consecutive seasons of 106, 107 and 111 losses from 2011 to 2013 before putting it all together to win the World Series in 2017.
What the Mariners are trying now, more or less, is the new blueprint for success in Major League Baseball. Sure, there are teams like the Yankees and Nationals and Giants who try to avoid fully going into rebuilding mode — sometimes stubbornly; *cough* S.F. *cough* — but for the great majority of teams in baseball, life doesn’t work that way.
So the Mariners have essentially said, “Hey, we know we’re not winning next year or the year after that, so why even bother? Let’s strip away every bit of value we can on this roster, regrow our farm system and try to be like the Cubs or the Astros.”
The one thing those teams had when it was time to win was a quality farm system. So that was step one for Seattle. Now the Mariners’ top three prospects are now three players who came over in the Paxton/Cano deals: Pitcher Justus Sheffield, outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Justin Dunn.
So don’t be surprised when Dipoto and the Mariners front office tries to find more prospects to fill that farm system. If the Astros/Cubs model works in Seattle, they’ll be horrible for a few years, get better and then make the right move — like when the Astros traded for Justin Verlander or when the Cubs signed Jon Lester — when the time is right to put them over the top.
Some teams in MLB aren’t playing for next year, as much as they’re playing for five years from now. And if it pays dividends with a World Series win 2024, Mariners fans won’t be too upset about that terrible 2019 season.
Such is modern baseball.
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