Festooned with miracle wins and horrible losses, the Mariners’ 2016 season was all over the place — except in the playoffs. For all the injuries countered by unanticipated successes (Edwin Diaz, closer at 22?!), they wound up exactly where new general manager Jerry Dipoto forecasted in January — 86 wins. And out of the playoffs.
“We built the roster with the idea to get into the mid-80s and keep on getting that 85-86 win zone, and then let the chips fall where they may,” Dipoto said at the Mariners’ annual spring training luncheon in January. “It’s amazing how frequently you’re going to wind up winning a lot more games than that.”
The Mariners made progress in multiple areas, adding up to a 10-game improvement from 2015. They had the highest payroll in club history, were MLB’s oldest team at the start, and became one of its most entertaining with the capacity for late rallies and walk-off wins.
They finished eighth in MLB in OPS, eighth in team ERA and 12th in fielding. But they didn’t make the 10-team postseason field. Since the fifth wild-card spot was introduced in 2012, the average number of wins for the No. 5 spot is 90. The American League’s two wild-card teams, Toronto and Baltimore, each finished with 89. But the frequency of upticks that amazed Dipoto failed to materialize for the Mariners.
Fans can spend a painful off-season picking at the scabs of giveaway defeats to find the three most grievous games that separated the Mariners from the postseason. But the fact is that every middling, non-playoff team has more or less the same collection of agonies every year. The lengthy season does a marvelous job of evening out flukes, freaks and luck.
But if I were to choose one thing that denied the postseason, it was not a single outcome or a set of outcomes. It was a trade July 20.
That’s when the Mariners acquired 1B Dan Vogelbach and RHP Paul Blackburn, two minor leaguers, from the Chicago Cubs for minor league RHP Jordan Pries and a major leaguer — LHP Mike Montgomery.
Montgomery, a former first-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in 2008, had four virtues that were exceedingly hard to find in a single pitcher among the club-record 31 used this season — he was young (26) , healthy, versatile and proven. Plus, left-handed.
Before the trade, he appeared in 32 games and pitched 61.2 innings, including two spot starts. He was 3-4 with a 2.34 ERA, 1.086 WHIP and a 1.6 WAR.
For the Cubs, he appeared in 17 games and pitched 38.1 innings, including five starts. He was 1-1 with a 2.82 ERA with 1.304 WHIP and an 0.4 WAR for the best team in baseball.
Vogelbach? Dipoto said the square first baseman “raked” at every level. But in a September call-up for the Mariners, he was 1-for-13 with six strikeouts and a walk.
Vogelbach, 23, may well become the first baseman of the future, as Dipoto envisions. But the cost was a good chance to end the Mariners’ playoff drought at 14 years, which you may have heard is MLB’s longest.
For two teams, Montgomery was a slightly above average MLB pitcher who could start or relieve. Would he have made the key difference for Seattle after July 20?
Well, he might have made unnecessary this season Donn Roach, Cody Martin, David Rollins, Adrian Sampson, Joe Wieland and SpongeBob SquarePants, plus other pass-through desperadoes I have forgotten from this summer.
Or Montgomery could have replaced injured Nathan Karns. Or filled in for injured James Paxton. Or injured Taijuan Walker.
Given the number and nature of pitching injuries, along with the second-half slumps in the rotation, Montgomery could have turned into the Mariners’ most valuable pitcher. He wouldn’t have compensated for all of the temp hires or injuries, but could he have turned three losses into three wins?
I think that’s reasonable assumption.
If the Mariners truly wanted to contend this year, they had no business trading at mid-season that most valuable of baseball commodities, a proven lefty starter/reliever. By getting in return players of no help in 2016, the move white-flagged the season. It’s fairly remarkable that they crawled over the Royals, Yankees and Astros to linger in the race until the next-to-last game.
At the spring luncheon, Dipoto also said, “I think our starting pitching staff is as deep as anyone’s in the division.” That didn’t prove true, but pitching injuries happen to all clubs, few of which are predictable.
That’s why teams like the Cubs, looking to lock down their first World Series title since shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, value pitchers like Montgomery — insurance.
The trade looms even larger after the season because the Mariners finished with big, fat question marks above the heads of Paxton, Walker, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Ariel Miranda. No insurance. Isn’t that illegal these days?
It’s unlikely the Mariners are going to quit on Hernandez, Walker or Paxton, but none delivered a season that evokes a typical 1-2-3 rotation that would succeed in a playoff series.
None of the foregoing suggests that Dipoto did a bad job in his first year. On the contrary, he did much to improve the franchise outlook, especially in player development in the minors as well as the majors. I remain amazed at the healing waters of Tacoma that revived Mike Zunino and Nori Aoki.
I merely point out that the Montgomery trade was what stalled the playoff drive, not SS Ketel Marte’s bad throws. And now it puts pressure on young Dan Vogelbach to replace the platoon at first base of Adam Lind/Dae Ho Lee, both of whom are free agents unlikely to be re-signed by Seattle.
I just want the new kid to be memorable enough so I don’t accidentally call him Dan Fogelberg.
I think not retaining Happ is what led to the unHAPPiness (sorry, woeful pun). That and not auditioning Joe Spackle and Sal Bondo for a first base platoon.
Happ was on Z’s board, but Pittsburgh’s pitching coach fixed his delivery, yet the Pirates didn’t keep him either.
The Pirates greatest regret this season. I wonder if Happ might have been the difference to getting them into the playoffs this year. It will be interesting to see if he plays a significant part in helping the Beer (can) Jays get past the Rangers.
When this trade was made, I thought it was a clear sign that the M’s were in sell mode not buy mode. That Jerry was playing for next year. I felt this was a really bad trade for the Mariners at the time because we had pitching woes at the time. I can’t remember exactly what was going on but Felix was on the DL and I believe both Walker and Paxton were struggling. So how could you trade the thing we were most in need of? And for what? Another AAA slugger with no proven big league performance? That plays first base none the less. (Smoak) Who is this GM? Jack Z? Dipoto’s trades since then have continued to trade pitchers, thereby depleting the M’s of this resource. However, there were no pundits at the time discussing this as a bad trade, even if it works out, there’s no doubt it traded pitching when we were in dire need of pitching. And I believe we continue to be. Felix is a big question mark, so is Kuma as exemplified by his last start and Paxton and Walker continue to be erratic. I’m glad Art you’re commenting on this now, but I don’t recall you or SPNW analyzing it with this view at the time, let alone see it for the cost that it was/is. I’m happy to be corrected on that with a link.
This column was certainly in hindsight. I didn’t write it at the time, and wish I had, but something else got in the way that week . . .
Could not agree more about the Montgomery trade being the difference maker. However, I didn’t see it as a white flag so much as a statement of fact from Dipoto that making the playoffs this year never was the top priority. Rebuilding and re-stocking the talent depth throughout the entire organization was the primary mission this season and probably next as well. It was as telling as his predicting 86 wins for the oldest roster in the league. Not exactly a “win now” statement.
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I regarded this trade as “Really, what’s the motivation there?” at the time, but figured there must be other trades about to happen to cover the pitching loss. After the “June Swoon,” it wasn’t surprising to see Dipoto go into what looked like a sell-but-don’t-tell mode.
But this team (and trade) turned out to be more in the image of what Z hoped for (long ball) than what I thought Dipoto would bring. Jerry’s a little quick to pull the trigger sometimes, a la Trumbo and Montgomery, but overall he gets a passing grade, with still plenty left to prove.
The Mariners and their fans will be lucky to get two more strong years from Felix, Cruz and ‘Kuma and may not even get that from the pitchers. And as a friend said recently, the goal needs to be overtaking Texas, not just making the wildcard.
It was indeed Z-like. Dipoto is a good GM, but not perfect.
Pointed and astute analysis, Art – great job. Having bitched a few days ago in these pages about “this three games” or “that three games,” it’s good to have your clear perspective on the entire season.
(And staying with the “Monty” theme) Now, for something completely different:
This is why I read this site, every day.
agreed! I picked up the Dan Fogelberg and SpongeBob references, but i had to go back and find the Louisiana Purchase. .
ps the, um, Montgomery / Fogelberg trade, however it pans out, is going to be a telling one for the DiPoto regime. Maybe this Fogelberg guy can really hit. or maybe he’s another Justin Smoak. As always, time will tell.
Dipoto knows more about each player than any of us, but letting go a quality pitcher mid-season put an undue burden on the rest of the roster.
Thanks, LTMF. Please tell your friends.
I was very surprised when they traded Montomery. And I was even more surprised when I then did some quick research on Vogelbach, who didn’t sound like a mover and a shaker. In fact some experts said he could barely move (turns out he’s actually faster than he looks). But singling out that trade as the culprit puts the blame on Dipoto and I’d rather put the blame on the players. They were good enough to make it.
It’s a franchise-wide endeavor, of course. But I think most fans would have forgotten this misfire in the hail of what-ifs down the stretch.
Dipoto is lucky the season turned out the way it did. This team could have easily been a 90 loss team with fans comparing him to Jack Z. He needs to build this team off of what it has and not get rid of the commodities that got the club where it is right now. I agree that trading Monty was a bad move. A pitcher who can swing between starter and relieve and wants to start? Like that won’t push the younger players in the rotation? Granted when a new GM comes in he has little loyalty to the players he inherits, even the ones down in the farm, but I’m tired of seeing former M’s in the playoffs and playing well. Or in the All-Star game. Especially when the club really could have used them.
Which set of former Mariners you pull for in the wild-card game last night?
As much as I’d like to defend Dipoto, I agree. This is a fair take. Overall I like the strategy. When the team is really lacking depth and has many holes, sell high on relievers to fill said holes. At the same time, in a season where two games was the difference between not making the playoffs and a WC berth, it is very possible that keeping Monty would have made the difference.
He knew he wasn’t getting help back for this season.
One observation, the pitching staff held together pretty well when guys filled in. I felt as though the team really was hurt by the starters when they came back from injury. I’m talking Felix and Walker. In those situations, Monty would not have helped because it can be argued that he wouldn’t have started in place of those two guys once they were deemed to be ready to go.
Having Montgomery would have given Servais options to rest guys in the rotation/pen without bringing up so many unprovens.
You are spot on Art – with ERA’s of 2.34 and 2.82 he could have performed as you have written and I concur, had he been kept here, it appears likely he would have been good for at least another 3+ wins, good enough to get to the postseason.
In addition to Montgomery, let’s remember Dipoto also traded away Trumbo, he of 47 HOME RUNS for playoff team Baltimore.
Maybe Dipoto needs someone to look over his should, come trade time.
Well said, Art.
You think Trumbo at 1B all year might have been enough to reach the playoffs?
Dipoto said early on the team needed to be more athletic. We all know Trumbo was really traded for financial reasons (their longstanding tradition–see Martinez, T), but the wacky explanation referred back to the need for athleticism.
So does this mean Dan Fogelberg (or whatever) is athletic?
I was also surprised and disappointed that they traded Montgomery, especially at the time they did. His style of pitching is quite effective and a nice contrast to fastballers Paxton, Walker and Miranda. It is interesting that they traded him for yet another potential 4A 1B/DH body not unlike during the last days of Jack Z. With Vogelbach’s (I so wanted to use Fogelberg here -very funny) addition, it does push the organization to figure out roster spots in a few other places too (Lind, Lee, Cano in a few years, even possibly Smith and Guti). The rookie might have surprising linear foot speed for a guy his size, but with that dad bod he has got to get more athletic and serviceable as a defensive player. We don’t need another DH.