Infinity, by any definition, is a mysterious concept. Perhaps the only way for a non-mathematician to appreciate endlessness or boundlessness is to use an alternative term more understandable.
I suggest Marinerness — a time/space quality of being everywhere, but nowhere.
As Seattle fans this month enter their 44th year of the experience of baseball infinity, I doubt further explanation is necessary.
But if you need one, here was general manager Jerry Dipoto in his annual off-season media chat in January, this time via Zoom.
“We’re not in a rush,” he said. “We’re playing the long game with our roster.”
In the context of the here and now, I get it. But if you indulge me going galactic again: We couldn’t have known it at the time, but the 116 wins in the 2001 season turned out to be a black hole with such intense gravitational pull that nothing, not even future light (and post-seasons) ever could escape.
Well, OK, garlic fries got out. But no playoffs.
For 2o years, the Mariners have been playing the long game. There has never been a rush. They’ve had only seven winning records, two under Dipoto, in his sixth season as Seattle GM.
Compounding matters, last season, along with all MLB teams, the Mariners were reduced by the pandemic to a 60-game stump, made worse by the absence of all minor league games. That meant every prospect got a year older without making much progress in getting smarter or better. For teams like the Mariners that are loaded with prospects and almost no long-term veterans, the lost development time was more acute.
Also through no fault of their own, they are stuck in MLB’s cruel business cycle of tear-down/build-up. The methodology is always the worst for baseball, because it can take five to seven years to unload bad veteran contracts and develop kids to average or better major leaguers worthy of contention.
Among all the forces that are helping diminish the sport’s national relevance, the typical half-decade or more of slumming to get good is the most debilitating negative in the business.
But that is a column for another day. I digress.
As for 2021, it is year four of Dipoto’s step-back plan. When the tear-down was announced after the 2018 season, Dipoto talked aspirationally of a return to contention in by ’21. Here was his assessment as of last month.
“We have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field,” he said. “That’s a possibility for us and would be a goal . . . We can’t go in expecting that we’re going to run to the top of the American League West. But I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot, and we’ll see how it goes if we take a step forward toward that in 2021.”
Then the Mariners this weekend did something of a bold thing, a deviation. They spent $8.5 million ($10 million with incentives) on a one-year deal for 32-year-old James Paxton, winner of 57 career games.
The one-time local hero pitched himself off the Mariners roster and into the big time with a good 2018 season that helped him get traded to the Yankees, as part of the tear-down. The Big Maple injured himself into free agency this winter by pitching only five games in 2020 after another in a string of health maladies, this time a strained flexor in his left forearm.
However, reports from his workouts, some seen by Dipoto, were good. So they made him the roster’s third-highest paid player, behind the $18.5 million owed to 3B Kyle Seager, 33, and the same amount to RHP Yusei Kikuchi, 30. (The fifth-highest paid player remains former 2B Robinson Cano, whom they owe $3.75 million even though he’s played for the Mets the past two seasons.)
The Mariners are also bringing back OF Mitch Haniger, 30, to see if he can still bring it after a dispiriting 1½ seasons of injuries, including the dastardly foul ball to his groin that still makes me cringe just typing it.
For a guy who has been a heavy shopper at baseball’s rehab bin, Dipoto has in Paxton and Haniger his new nominees for Bounce-Back Kings.
Paxton joins Wednesday at the spring training site in Arizona — full-team drills begin Monday — a six-man starting rotation that includes Kikuchi, ace LHP Marco Gonzales (30), young holdovers LHP Justus Sheffield (24), RHP Justin Dunn (25) and LHP Nick Margevicius (24), plus free agent newcomer Chris Flexen (23), who had 27 appearances and 68 innings in three years (8.07 ERA) with the Mets.
Based on what was seen in the 27-33 stump, Sheffield (acquired from the Yankees in the Paxton trade), Dunn and Margevicius have reasonable shots at being close to major league average. Gonzales and a healthy Paxton are proven winners.
Regarding position players, Dipoto, whose farm system was rated last week as the game’s second-best by Baseball America (they were last in 2018), is persuaded that winning talent is under contract.
“At every position on the field, we feel like we have the current and future best solution for the Mariners,” he said. “Now we have to find out how they progress. We weren’t in a position, headed into ’21, where we felt confident that we had seen enough in making that evaluation.
“Therefore, we weren’t going to go add to our roster beyond ’21 in ways that was going to limit the exposure for those young players.”
That’s why he stayed away from multi-year free agency, and why he wants roster room to see star prospects OF Jarred Kelenic and RHP Logan Gilbert by midseason.
It sounds good. Always does in February.
Whether this plan works to sneak up on the back of the playoff field is unknowable, because after nearly a generation has passed knowing nothing but the long game of infinity, it is hard to recognize what is finite.
Once established, Marinerness is a hard mathematical concept to disprove.