As we cruise into the final days of May, in first place in the division and one of the best teams in all of baseball, it’s only natural to be excited. PLAYOFF FEVER, COMIN’ ATCHA!
It’s been so, so, SO LONG since we’ve had a baseball team this good, this well built. It’s not like 2007 or 2009 where the winning was flukey and unsustainable. It’s not even like 2014, where pretty much everything went right and we STILL came up a game short of vying for the Wild Card. This is a team, from 1-25, that’s good enough to sustain through the whole season. Yes, there will be lows, but I’d argue fewer and further between. With a lineup this good and this veteran; with a rotation that looks pretty steady, and a bullpen that might be better than we thought (though, one might argue, some of these guys were due to regress in the positive direction after having down years in 2015), this team should be able to nip a lot of losing streaks in the bud, before they turn into total calamities.
So, let’s just take that for granted. And, let’s assume that the team stays reasonably healthy, and doesn’t totally fall apart with injuries. This, right here, in 2016, will be the Mariners team to take us back to the post-season.
What happens then?
One of my all-time sports regrets – and there are more than a few – is that 2001 Mariners team. It’s a different feeling than the gut punch that was losing the Sonics, or the two Super Bowl defeats. It’s even different from the other good Mariners teams who fell short. In 1995, we were more or less just happy to be there (and just ecstatic to reach the ALCS); in 1997, it didn’t feel like an end of an era so much as the beginning of a long and fruitful stretch of post-season runs with the best core of players in all of baseball (it was, in fact, the end of an era, as Randy, Griffey, and A-Rod would all leave in ensuing losing seasons).
2001 stands alone, because it’s all at once a source of tremendous pride and abject horror. I look back on that year with fond memories, because we won 116 motherfucking games! We tied the all-time record! We even hosted the All Star Game and got to show the world how great Safeco Field was and is! It might be another 90-something years before we see a 6-month stretch of dominance like that again. Sure, there will be 100-game winners, but 116? In the American League? That feels like a pretty safe number. I had SO MUCH FUN watching that team day-in and day-out; I never wanted that season to end!
And then it did. And HOO BOY was I miserable.
When you’re a kid (unless you’re some spoiled brat of a rich kid), you learn pretty early on that life isn’t fair. You’re not going to get your way, and it’s totally arbitrary, and you don’t understand why, and it sucks, and you’re pissed. But, in sports, you want to believe that the best team WILL win it. You root for a team like the Mariners, you pay your dues (for the most part; as much dues paying as you can do when you become a fan in September of 1995), you wait your turn, and then here it is! 2001! 116 wins! FINALLY! It’s OUR time! We are, clearly, far and away, the best team in all of baseball, and this is the year we get our championship trophy to celebrate it!
I didn’t get to root for a lot of successful teams growing up. The Seahawks were the local turd in the punchbowl for the entire 1990s, I was never into college sports as a child, so I had the Sonics. The Sonics may or may not have been the best team in 1994 – when they lost in the first round to the Nuggets as a 1-seed – but I find it truly hard to believe that they were the best team, when they couldn’t even beat an 8-seed who was just happy to be there. That team, even if it managed to find a way to get to the next round, probably would’ve ended up losing to the Rockets or Jazz or Spurs. It was flawed, and feasted upon all the bad teams, while cleaning up at home. Then, by 1996, the Sonics were clearly NOT the best team, because they ran into the buzzsaw that was the 72-win Bulls.
Really, in my lifetime, the first team I rooted for that was LEGITIMATELY the best team in that particular sport that particular year was indeed the 2001 Mariners. And, as such, that’s really the first time I got a taste of not only life not being fair, but sports not being fair.
With a little perspective, you start to throw caveats into the mix. Sadly, the 2001 Mariners weren’t the best baseball team that year, they were just the best REGULAR SEASON team that year.
For, you see, a team like the Yankees, they won 21 fewer games in the regular season, but they were built for the post-season. Our lineup was good, theirs was a little bit better. Our pitching feasted upon all the run support they were given, their pitching was battle tested. Their starting rotation was dynamic – with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Orlando Hernandez. Our starting rotation was entirely unremarkable – with Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele, and Paul Abbott. Their bullpen featured the greatest closer of all time in Mariano Rivera; our bullpen relied on a closer in Kaz Sasaki with a nothing fastball, who needed pinpoint command of both his pitches – especially his splitter – to get the job done.
In the end, what happened? Well, the Mariners lost in 5 games, and didn’t score more than 3 runs in any of their defeats. Likewise, an over-worked bullpen in the regular season ended up faltering in key moments late in the 50/50 games of that series, giving the Yankees a decided advantage. We were a team built for the regular season. Guys like Sele and Garcia absolutely thrived until the spotlight shone too brightly and they were forced to truly bear down. And the hitting, solid up and down the lineup, simply couldn’t find a way to push runners home when they had the opportunities.
So, with all of this as preamble, I say again, if the 2016 Mariners make the post-season, as we’re all starting to expect they will, what happens when we get there?
In an ideal world, I’d just be sitting here enjoying the ride. Let Future Steven worry about what happens in October; this is May! October is MONTHS away!
But, I can’t help it. I see a team like the Red Sox, and they look really poised to do well in the playoffs. They’ve got an ace, just like we’ve got an ace, but they’ve got a couple starters behind their ace that look pretty great. The Cubs and White Sox, shit, they’re ALL pitching! The Royals have been there before, and you figure they’ve got another run in them to get back into contention.
The Mariners, you can tell right now, are going to need a lot of help if they end up making the post-season.
I like Felix, but I’m not sure about ANYONE after him. That includes Taijuan Walker, who can be dominating, but is still young, and is still finding himself. Kuma is not the rock-solid #2 starter we all remember from 2013. Wade Miley is the epitome of a guy built for the regular season. And Karns? Who knows if he’ll still be pitching, or if he’ll run into an innings limit? Sure, we’ve got Paxton down in Tacoma, just waiting for his opportunity to prove he’s got what it takes, but I think we can all agree, if this team is going to make a bunch of noise in the playoffs, it is GOING to need another dominant starter after Felix.
With Felix and Ace #2, I think I could be okay with Taijuan Walker holding the fort as our third starter. Now, whether or not the team will go with him, or the more veteran Iwakuma, is up for debate. We’ll have to see where those guys are by season’s end. If Walker proves he has what it takes to really lock things up in the important games in September, I could see him supplanting Kuma. But, if not, then you’re looking at Walker as your 4th starter, which means you probably don’t need him until the ALCS (although, I’d be PRETTY interested to see Walker out of the ‘pen in the ALDS, just to get some work in, throwing in the upper-90s, with his awesome change-up as an equalizer).
If we’re unable to make that deal for another ace, then you gotta really hang onto your butts and hope the hitting lineup has enough juice. With no other incoming starting pitcher, we’re probably forced to go with Miley in a more prominent role, and that frightens me to no end.
I also don’t think it would hurt to bring in a superstar reliever. For the regular season, I like our bullpen as is (when you factor in the eventual return of Zych and Furbush). In the post-season, though, my confidence is wavering. Cishek strikes me as the type of guy who’s MUCH too volatile in a post-season setting. Benoit’s got a good, but not great arm. Nick Vincent has been good against right handed hitters, but I don’t want to see him in a situation where he has to face someone like Big Papi or something. Right now, I think I’m only REALLY sold on Mike Montgomery, who has looked OUTSTANDING in his bullpen role. He’s got an additional 3-4 miles per hour on his fastball, he’s good to throw multiple innings, so he can really bridge the gap if a starter needs to be pulled after five innings. He’s also super strong against lefties, in the event we need to mix & match late in a game.
I’m not saying you completely throw out the bullpen and try to start over with a bunch of deadline trades. But, I’d like to see us take advantage of some sellers out there. Maybe bring in another guy with closing experience, in the event Cishek falters down the stretch and we need to go with more of a bullpen by committee approach. Like, for instance, maybe we’re able to work out a deal for one of the better Yankees relievers? Maybe we offer them a package that features James Paxton or Nathan Karns as the centerpiece?
Maybe we go all-in on 2016, because let’s face it, there’s no such thing as dynasties in baseball, and you’ve GOT to strike while the iron’s hot, damn the consequences?
If we make the playoffs and look more or less the same in October as we do in May, I’m afraid there are going to be issues. 2016 looks to be the funnest season we’ve had ’round these parts in well over a decade, but just having fun can’t be the only goal. In years past (and I’ve said this many times), I would have gladly taken a baseball team that’s just entertaining enough, just interesting enough to contend until football season starts, and then go ahead and fall apart if you have to. But, this year? When we’ve got Cano, Cruz, and Seager all in their primes, when we’re FINALLY able to make good with King Felix and give him a winner for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, we can’t just crack the ALDS and act like we’re just happy to be there. We can’t go into this thing ready to say, “Well, there’s always next year.” If the opportunity arises, and it costs us everything in our God damn farm system, I don’t care, you have to make the moves that transform this team from a Regular Season Dandy into a Post-Season Juggernaut.
Let 2001 be a lesson to you, Mariners. That team was pretty happy just to be there. That team was CONVINCED there would be plenty more chances to get back to the show and win it all.
That team was the last one in franchise history to make the post-season, in what has become the second-longest playoff drought in all of the major American professional sports, behind the Buffalo Bills. And you don’t want to be compared to the Buffalo Bills, trust me.