With free agency underway and the winter meetings approaching in just four weeks, teams are taking stock of their rosters and building plans to move forward. But not every team will be moving in a forward direction — at least one may be planning on moving backward. Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan reported on Tuesday that the Seattle Mariners are considering a rebuild, and it could start immediately.
Sources: The Mariners are considering a full-fledged teardown this winter. If trade market is strong, they’ve told teams they’re willing to move just about anyone. And if that happens, they have indicated they’re willing to wait a few years to build a competitive team again.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 6, 2018
Why would the Mariners start a rebuild?
On the surface, it seems crazy that the Mariners could tear everything down. They spent half of the 2018 season within just a few games of first place in the American League West. They won 89 games, the most they’ve won since 2003. And they have some great talent in Jean Segura, James Paxton, Mitch Haniger, Dee Gordon and Edwin Diaz. Even veterans like Denard Span and Robinson Cano made important contributions.
Teams that nearly won 90 games and have a number of talented players don’t usually rebuild. But when you start looking at the Mariners’ paths to the playoffs — winning the AL West, or earning a wild-card spot — you can see why they may choose to blow it all up.
To start, there is almost no way for Seattle to win the AL West. The Houston Astros are young, immensely talented, and won over 100 games for the second season in a row. The Mariners would have to make an otherworldly leap forward to even compete with them.
The wild-card is the only way forward, and with the Mariners outperforming many preseason predictions, it could have happened. But they weren’t the only team to wildly over-perform. The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics did much better than anyone expected, and the A’s actually made it to the wild-card game. If both teams can repeat those performances, that leaves the Mariners in no-man’s land: good enough to be mediocre, but not good enough to actually compete.
The Mariners’ farm system is the key
Over the last few years, it feels like baseball teams are either succeeding or in the process of a massive rebuild. But those aren’t the only options. As long as a team has a handful of talented players, they can find ways to shore up their roster while waiting for a few prospects to arrive or for a trade candidate to emerge.
The key word there is “prospects.” And that’s why treading water isn’t really an option for the Mariners. They have one of the lowest ranked farm systems in all of baseball — several lists even have them as dead last. They have a few prospects who could make a difference for them, but nowhere near what they need to fill the holes they have. Even trading one of their major contributors for prospects wouldn’t come close to restocking their farm system.
Tanking gives them the tools, but they have to use them right
Tanking isn’t fun for fans (and it’s also not great for baseball), but tearing everything down could give the Mariners the tools they need to build a competitive team. Trading all their best players would go a long way toward restocking the farm, and the bad baseball that would inevitably follow would give them a higher draft position.
But there are no guarantees. Deciding to undertake a rebuild is but a minuscule part of the overall operation. The front office has to make the right trades, and ask for the right players in return. They need to draft intelligently, balancing organizational need with what the draft class has to offer. And at the same time, they need to find a way to engage fans when every move they make could alienate them.
The Mariners may be able to sell their fans a vision of a gloriously competitive future that’s just a few years down the road. That doesn’t guarantee that the front office can make it happen, but with so few options to end their long playoff drought, it may be the only way forward.
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