The easy joke would be that the Mariners in 2019 are planning an anniversary celebration of the Pilots’ single year in Seattle 50 years ago by having a replica season.
The expansion Pilots were 64-98, drew 848,000 to hastily remodeled Sicks Stadium and were so bad that they were subjects of a seminal sports book (Ball Four) and a hijacking to Milwaukee.
It’s doubtful that that a similar fate awaits the 2019 Mariners. Milwaukee still has the Pilots/Brewers.
But a 64-win season is reachable, given the departures of Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, James Paxton, Edwin Diaz and Mike Zunino, part of group of 21 players purged from the 40-man roster that ended the massively disappointing 2018 season.
Although the Mariners did manage, in the great franchise tradition of under-productive, overpaid veterans, to keep Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager.
Not long after the regular season ended, general manager Jerry Dipoto famously said the Mariners would “step back” from a competitive season in 2019 by unloading expensive vets and re-populating the roster with younger players close to major-league readiness.
The maneuver has worked for others recently in MLB, notably the Astros and Cubs, who came out on the other side of The Great Numbness as champions. But neither had missed the playoffs for 17 consecutive seasons as have the Mariners, prompting the widespread question: “Step back from what?”
At least part of the answer, as disclosed Thursday at the club’s annual pre-spring media luncheon, is stepping back from any pretense. Unlike previous seasons when the Mariners kidded themselves and the public, Seattle baseball fans can feel free to book vacations the first week in October.
The major-league roster “has gotten younger and more sustainable,” Dipoto said of his blizzard of postseason transactions. “While we would not anticipate we are a threat to win the World Series in 2019, we do feel like we’re better situated to do this in 2020 and 2021.
“We especially use 2021 as a target date when we look around at the league’s rosters. Looking specifically at Houston, Boston and Cleveland, we felt like by 2021 — via free agency, age or their (farm systems) — that was the time they would be more susceptible to being caught than they are right now.”
Meantime? Well, you can expect numerous game promotions saluting Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez, as well as a Polynesian-themed “Lou-au” night featuring Lou Piniella and giveaway flowered shirts.
You think I’m making that up. I’m not. Anything to distract from the notion of tanking.
Dipoto promised to squeeze in some baseball between the trucks dumping loads from Amazon’s trinkets warehouses.
“We think we’ve put together an interesting, fun and athletic team to watch in 2019 while we watch our pitching grow,” he said. “In 2020, a new and more robust farm system has a chance to crest and make a really interesting team in the second half of 2020.
“From a roster and payroll perspective, we became more flexible, and reduced our average age by about a year and a half, which is really hard to do in one season while putting a team on the field that’s pretty representative.”
Representative of what, is anyone’s guess. But speaking of guesses, here’s a guess at the starting nine, plus starting pitchers, based in part on what Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and player-development director Andy McKay had to say Thursday.
(Position, name, age and 2018 team; also, it’s possible that by the time the season opens in Seattle March 28, Dipoto will have traded some, many or all of the players below)
C Omar Narvaez, 26, White Sox
1B Ryon Healy, 27, Mariners
2B Dee Gordon, 30, Mariners
SS J.P. Crawford, 24, Phillies
3B Kyle Seager, 31, Mariners
LF Jay Bruce, 31, Mets
CF Mallex Smith, 25, Rays
RF Mitch Haniger, 28, Mariners
DH Edward Encarnacion, 36, Indians
Starting pitchers: Marco Gonzales, 26, Mariners; Mike Leake, 31, Mariners; Yusei Kikuchi, 27, Seibu Lions, Japan; Wade LeBlanc, 34, Mariners; Felix Hernandez, 32, Mariners
Bullpen: Hunter Strickland, 30, Giants (acquired Thursday during the luncheon); Roenis Elias, 30, Mariners, and a really long list of other guys whose chances of sticking are as mysterious as the surface of Jupiter.
Oh, and for the two games in Tokyo:
Ichiro Suzuki, 45, assistant to Mariners chairman
Yes, Ichiro will be back, at least for the regular-season games March 20-21 in Japan against Oakland.
He’s presence is a holdover from April, when the former majority owner of the team, Nintendo of America, exerted its will and forced Ichiro onto the roster for 15 games, whereupon he hit nine singles in 44 at-bats and occasionally looked lost in the outfield.
He’s on the roster because the teams have 28 spots for the Japan trip. When the roster is cut to 25, it’s hard to imagine Ichiro continuing on in uniform.
Then again, the Mariners have done other things hard to imagine. Like hiring and firing in within 10 months Dr. Lorena Martin, the club’s first director of high performance.
A year ago at the same event, Dipoto was proud to have celebrated her hire to show how cutting-edge the Mariners were about mental-skills training. But apparently after some in-house complaints, Martin was fired for cause in October. She promptly blasted the Mariners bosses on social media, making claims that Dipoto, Servais and McKay made sexist and/or racist comments, and compromised her ability to her job.
The Mariners denied all claims. MLB sent investigators. Martin filed suit. And speaking of holdover problems, the unresolved case spills into 2019, casting a cloud over the judgment of the man who hired her.
In answering a question about his degree of responsibility, Dipoto was ready with a direct response.
“All of it — I hired her,” he said. “At the end of the day, we believe justice will prevail in the ongoing investigation that I’m not going to get into. I’ve been at this for 30 years. I know a lot of people in the game. I’m not a sexist, nor am I a racist. The accusations made are untrue. I believe that will wash out.
“The responsibility for the program and the hiring of Dr. Martin was on me. I’m embarrassed with how this has unfolded. But we’re not going to stop the programs. They make all the sense in the world. What we’ve been able to develop at the minor league levels from the high-performance data gathering has been widely successful.
“We all make mistakes. This is one of them, from me.”
The embarrassment likely will continue until the results of the MLB investigation is announced, and/or the lawsuit is resolved.
The good news for Dipoto is that resolution is likely to happen in 2019, meaning some pressure will ease. The even better news for him is the baseball pressure is off until 2021.
Would that the 1969 Pilots had been so fortunate.