Justus Sheffield Mariners

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I’m sensing four things buzzing around the ‘sphere that is Seattle Mariners fandom. One, that the Mariners’ rebuild is very close to complete. Two, that the club’s efforts will go off without a hitch. Three, that successful rebuilds means a World Series, and otherwise it’s a failure. And four, that if the rebuild isn’t successful that it was a mistake in the first place.

None of the above are true.

Let’s chat.

What Makes for a Successful Rebuild?

Most in the industry would agree a successful rebuild can mean different things. Of course, a World Series appearance, win or lose, will certainly bear the aesthetics of a successful rebuilding project. For Seattle, it’s about opening an extended window of opportunity, and that opportunity should result in several playoff-caliber teams and at least one legitimate chance at a World Series — hopefully two or more — over the course of 5-plus seasons. Anything short of that and it would be fair to suggest the rebuild didn’t work.

One can argue, however, a rebuild is successful if it simply improves the long-term health of the organization and paves the way for better times, or as one front-office exec said this winter, “are they better off, ultimately and for the long haul, for having gone through that process? If so, that’s healthy progress, and good process. That’s the floor, and a lot better than spending a $160 million, $170 million, for what amounts to a mediocrity … on the upside.”

But there’s some gray area between success and failure. It’s really not plausible to believe the Mariners’ “reimagining” can end in failure, considering the foundation has unequivocally been set up for long-term success. But a true success? While this neutral patch includes a lot of subjectivity, it’s difficult to see tossing the ‘success’ label on it if there aren’t playoff appearances … plural.

So, What if There Aren’t Multiple Postseason Berths?

Whether or not the club’s rebuild ends in the kind of success that includes several playoff appearances, it was the right move for the Mariners after the 2018 season. The roster and payroll situation was on the fast-track to nowhere, and GM Jerry Dipoto took full advantage of the assets he had before they lost value by way of service time and/or performance. And at the very least, Dipoto has put together strong scouting and player development department, and replenished the farm system into near-elite status. What that does is reduce the risk of the rebuild itself — the exact opposite of running out pricey, aging veterans year after year and hoping for the best, which is what the club did the five season prior to Dipoto’s arrival, and to a lesser extent the first three of his tenure.

But the Mariners didn’t just start a rebuild after the 2018 season, they changed their DNA, which may be the most underappreciated aspect of the entire process, and one that pretty much is never discussed by, well, anyone. Even once the club is no longer in what is often referred to as ‘rebuild mode,’ among other terms, they’re not going to conduct business in the same manner as before. We saw some of this in action prior to  the 2018-19 offseason, but it’s clear Dipoto is capable of — and prefers — eating clean, so to speak. A safer, more organic manner in which to acquire high-end talent, and now with some evidence rearing it’s gorgeous face in the majors that it’s working.

The way Dipoto has gone about things the past two years isn’t going to change. Sure, at some point soon — starting now, really, at least on some level — the club will start acquiring more proven talents rather than focusing on long-term impact and control years, but operational strategies will remain. The ‘what’ will be different, the ‘how’ will not, and that’s perhaps the most meaningful difference between Dipoto’s Mariners and the regimes that came before over the last 15-plus seasons.

The yet-to-be-asked-or-addressed question now is “how long without ‘success’ markers, i.e. a few postseason berths, before the rebuilding efforts can be deemed unsuccessful?” When asked, a handful of assistant GMs and other front office types varied in response.

“I think it depends on the expectations,” a Mariners rival exec said. “If you’re the Cubs right now, you’re not going to accept three or four losing seasons in a row, not in that market. So once all the revenues return, the clock starts ticking. With those resources, Jed (Hoyer) won’t get five years without winning some. It’s a different kind of rebuild — it’s more of a retool, and success means fighting in the heavyweight class. If you’re the Pirates, Ben Cherington is going to get time, he deserves time, and his job will be safe, and should be, if he gets them back to October at all.”

A former GM agrees about expectations, but more specific to Seattle’s situation said “we should stop talking about (mid-market teams and small-market teams) like they shouldn’t have the same expectations, at least internally, and they all should act like it, so it’s apparent to the rest of baseball and the fans. But if you told me in five years Seattle (has home-field advantage in) a few playoff series, or better? That’s a success. Look at where they were, and you can build on whatever the results of their current efforts are, too.”

Fans are always going to have their own standards, and the club’s own hopes certainly play a role, but I’ll stick with my ‘it’s already a non-failure’ tag until testing is complete and calls for more final grades.

Is the Rebuild Almost Complete? Will it go off Without a Hitch?

No, it’s not almost complete, and no it will not go smoothly.

When the club set out on their path to rebuild pretty much from scratch, it had the look of a 5-year process. They’ve moved along a little faster than did the Houston Astros, who lost 416 games the first four seasons of their tear-down last decade and didn’t win more than 86 games until Year 7 when they started a three-year run of 101 or more victories. They got back to respectability for two years prior to that run, winning 86 and 84 games respectively in Years 5 and 6., and the Mariners’ pace appears set to get to this point by Year 3 or 4. But the resulting high-point of the process may not hit a the same level, and it may take just as long as it took Houston to get there.

On the fast track, the Mariners’ ‘rebuild’ won’t be complete for at least two years, and there’s a decent chance it takes even longer. The hope, and it’s a reasonable one at that, is the club can win some during the latter years of the rebuilding stages, which may consist of 2022 and 2023, if not 2021 as well.

And here’s where the “will not go smoothly” comes into play.

A hurtful chunk of the young talent the club has acquired over the last two-plus years will either take longer than is ideal to develop into the impact players the club needs them to be, or they’ll fail to reach such levels altogether, which in turn can, and likely will, prolong the club’s efforts to turn into a contending club. In a perfect world, Kyle Lewis takes a full step forward and looks like a star, Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert hit the majors in 2021 and prove their worth, show flashes of impact performances and by the end of the 2022 season look like all-stars in their own right, while the next wave, Cal Raleigh, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Julio Rodriguez, start their own process toward similar outcomes.

But that’s not the way it works. Prospects fail, they struggle, sometimes even the best talents take years to develop, and sometimes they just don’t turn out to be the core pieces clubs hope they will be. This is yet another reason why a club in Seattle’s current position, has no business moving potential high-impact talent — the Mariners need to throw as many darts at the board as they possibly can to land on a core they can build upon through such impact trades and/or free agent signings in order to get to where they want to be.

Thus far, Dipoto has gathered quite the assortment of arrows in his quiver, and if one breaks there’s another behind it ready to be fired at the target. But there will be misses. Take the Astros, who reached the ultimate pinnacle, winning a World Series and getting to two as a result of the rebuilding process they began after the 2010 season. In 2015 they were hoping Jonathan Singleton would break through. They even gave him the Evan White contract two years prior. Singleton struggled so mightily he was DFA’d in November, 2016.

Houston was also high on catcher Hank Conger, who didn’t pan out, 1B A.J. Reed, and catcher Jason Castro, who was good enough to stick for awhile but never became what they hoped he would. The same can be said for OF Preston Tucker, and 1B Tyler White. Add right-handers Jordan Lyles and Jared Cosart, 3B Matt Dominguez, and CF Jake Marisnick to the mix. At some level, and at some point between 2012 and 2016 when the club broke through, all of those players failed to reach the kind of impact status the Astros hoped.

So rather than busting through in 2013, 2014 or 2015, it took until 2016 — Year 7 of the rebuild — for the Astros to do some damage. We can go through every legitimate rebuild of the last 20 years and come to the same results, and find even more glaring examples, but the Astros’ rebuild was highly successful, and was more recent than others, so it serves as perhaps the best precedent available for this conversation.

So, since there will be misses along the way as Seattle moves toward competitive rosters and mostly organically, the path from bad to mediocre, mediocre to to good, and good to great, will be anything but a smooth ride.

Now, if you asked me, right now, if I think Seattle wins 90 or more games before what would be Year 7 since the rebuild began — 2025 — I’d say yes, and I’d put my money where my mouth is. But keep your seatbelts fastened, because it’s unlikely to be right around corner, and it’s absolutely not going to come without potholes.

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 and spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio. He now serves as the Executive Copy Editor at Data Skrive, a tech company that manipulates data to provide automated content to clients including the AP, BetMGM, USA Today, and ESPN. Find Jason's baseball podcast, Baseball Things, right here.