This is the 18th consecutive season the Mariners have not made the playoffs, the longest current stretch of any team in major American pro sports. Seattle has never reached the World Series, the only current major league franchise that has never done so (the Washington Senators did so before they moved to D.C. from Montreal and became the Nationals).
Meanwhile, the Athletics (96-63), with whom Seattle is finishing its season against this weekend, have reached the postseason seven times since 2002, and likely an eighth time this year.
“We have good teams,’’ Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ve identified pitching, and now in recent years some of our best position player prospects have come to the big leagues. The front office does a good job of meshing what we have and finding what we need.
“It’s a little different business, depending on where the team is (financially), but we always seem to find a way to contend.’’
It’s also because Melvin is a great manager, so good that he has been named manager of the year three times. Yet the Mariners fired Melvin, who succeeded Lou Piniella, after just two seasons, including 2003 when he managed them to 93 victories. Just one of the reasons the Mariners have gone so long without making the postseason.
The Mariners did start off well, beating the Athletics in two season-opening games at Tokyo, then beating the World Series champion Red Sox three times in four games, going 13-2 to start the season. It was an illusion.
They went downhill fast, losing many games in grim fashion. At 66-93, they likely will finish with the American League’s fifth-worst record and last in the AL West. The Mariners won against terrible teams such as the Tigers, Pirates and Royals, but did not do well against powers such as the Yankees, Twins and Astros. Houston won the season series 18-1.
The seasonal outcome was no surprise. The failure was intentional, a “step back” from older, expensive veterans to replenish with prospects what was regarded as the worst farm system in MLB.
General manager Jerry Dipoto traded away almost all their best players after they won 89 games last season, including 2B Robinson Cano, ace starter James Paxton, closer Edwin Diaz and SS Jean Segura, and did not re-sign free agent DH Nelson Cruz, who has hit 40 home runs with the Twins this year.
Mitch Haniger, perhaps their best returning position player, missed almost 100 games since rupturing a testicle in early June. Seattle leads the majors in errors, though the rate has declined lately. Rookie 3B Dylan Moore and SS Tim Beckham each made three in one inning in separate games.
The Mariners were no-hit twice, and nearly a third time Tuesday by Houston’s Zach Greinke. They have a .238 team batting average, second-lowest in the majors and more than 1,550 strikeouts, also second-most. The Mariners’ one All-Star, 1B/DH Daniel Vogelbach, hit 30 home runs but has less than 100 hits, a terrible .208 batting average and 146 strikeouts.
They have used more players this season, 67, than any team in MLB history. Which is silly, because it hurts the confidence of players who get called up and then sent down quickly and often. The Mariners used also more pitchers, 41, than any team in history.
The churn leaves fans with little time to develop interest in individual players. Despite having big crowds for Edgar Martinez and Ichiro celebration weekends, attendance has declined by roughly 6,000 per game from last year to around 22,200, about half of what it was in 2002, the season after they won an AL-record 116 games (but did not make the World Series).
Thursday night the Mariners said farewell to their last iconic player. After 15 years, Felix Hernandez, one of the club’s few heroic figures, pitched his last in Seattle.
More than 10,000 fans over 28 sections donned yellow T-shirts in the King’s Court to cheer his every move. He gave up all the runs in a 3-1 loss (box) to to the A’s, but it hardly mattered. After 5.1 innings that included five hits, four walks and 106 pitches, manager Scott Servais took Hernandez out a final time to a roaring ovation from 20,921 in the house that wouldn’t let the game re-start until he took encores.
He wept openly as he waved with both hands. Fans chanted, “Thank you Felix! Thank you Felix!”
After the game, wearing a yellow T-shirt, he walked back onto to the field headed to the lingerers among the King’s Court, where he strolled along the warning track slapping hands, signing autographs and joining in fans’ selfies. He hopped up on the wall and posed in front of fans with arms outstretched for field photographers.
“That was a fun night,” he said post-game, dry-eyed and smiling. “Fifteen years . . . there’s a lot going on in my mind.
“I’m not retired yet. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Whatever happens, it won’t be in Seattle, where Hernandez, 33, will complete his seven-year, $175 million contract extension when the season ends Sunday with a firm understanding that his only MLB club is moving on without him.
The Mariners need to give his money and innings to younger pitchers starting in 2020. Which ones aren’t yet clear, given the struggles by some of the more highly valued prospects.
Nonetheless, they do have some promising players.
Rookie OF Kyle Lewis has had an exceptional September. He hit home runs in his first three games, one of the few rookies to do so, has six overall and is batting .276. Catchers Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy have played well, Narvaez batting .279 with 22 home runs and Murphy with .273 and 18. Domingo Santana has hit 21 home runs. And Shed Long is batting .273 after recovering from a slow start.
Pitcher Marco Gonzalez, in his fifth major league season, has pitched pretty well, going 14-12, though his ERA is 4.09.
But forecasting success for players, even after a season in the organization, is highly speculative. As director of player development Andy McKay said, “Talent prediction is the hardest thing in the world.’’
The Mariners could improve perhaps by following the Oakland model of aggressive trades of younger players that have helped keep them in frequent contention better than the well-funded Mariners, who have committed to a painful teardown. As Melvin said of the club’s player evaluators: “They’re not afraid to go out and get some other players and churn some guys from time to time.’’
Dipoto certainly isn’t afraid to churn. But with evidence of progress at the MLB level hard to discern, most fans have only his word to go on. As was seen Thursday night, the club is always great with farewells. It’s the great introductions that are missing.