When pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in preparation for the 2015 Major League Baseball season, there was buzz. There was hope. There were expectations for the first time in years. The Seattle Mariners were supposed to be legitimate contenders from Day 1. And you know what? If the roster performed the way it should have, they would be, at least enough to stay in the race for the No. 2 Wild Card spot, which at present doesn’t take much more than being a .500 club.
When the regular season began, the worst-case scenario for wins and losses probably was around the .500 mark, give or take a few games either way, and depending on who was asked. This is all barring disaster injuries, of course. While the club currently is on pace to come up short of the .500 mark, the absolute worst thing that could happen is a meaningless, good stretch of baseball that gets the team back into the 80-win range. Now, .500 is the absolute worse-case scenario, but not in the same way as it was to start the season.
A .500-ish season is damaging in many ways. For one, it’s not good enough to actually contend. It appears 85 wins is the lowest win total that will produce a playoff club in the American League in 2015. Second, the 2016 Draft is expected to be pretty darned good, and 80-plus wins probably drops the club into the teens. They currently are slated to pick No. 7 overall. It doesn’t matter who is pulling the trigger on the picks, it’s always better to have a higher pick, unless the reason you don’t is linked to a playoff appearance the previous season.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a .500 season may be just enough to stave off change. It’s apparent to some, including yours truly, that yet another new direction is necessary in the front office. What started off so promising seven years ago never really got off the ground and has produced two winning seasons, no postseason appearances and dozens more trades and signings that didn’t work out than those that did. I’m not going to pretend to have any clue what the president and CEO/owner of the Seattle Mariners is thinking, may be thinking in two or three months or may do at season’s end. But common sense says a .500 season looks a lot better on the resume than one that ends with 85 or more losses for the fifth time in Jack Zduriencik’s tenure. But this isn’t about whether or not Zduriencik should or should not be back in 2016. It’s about the difference in impact a .500 season has versus a win-loss record several games worse.
Zduriencik reportedly was signed to a multi-year extension last August. Whether that means two years or more, we can only guess, but it’s reasonable to believe there’s a non-zero chance that a .500 season convinces the decision makers to honor what may be the final year of Zduriencik’s most recent contract. But 74-88 or 75-87, which is about what they’re projected to finish? Certainly has a vastly different level of impact, don’t you think?
Another way a .500-ish record hurts the organization, and perhaps in both front office possibilities — Zduriencik returns or a new GM is hired over the offseason — is what the ownership, and Zduriencik if he’s back, believes the team actually has in place and how that impacts what’s done over the offseason. An 81-win team only needs 8-10 more wins to be good, therefore, the resources and effort poured into the roster could very well be different versus a 72-76 win finish, for example. Describing such an approach as ‘flawed’ is the understatement of the millennium — if you can add 30 wins worth of talent to the roster, it shouldn’t matter if the club won 60 games the prior season or 100 — but there’s no reason to believe the leadership in Seattle above the general manager won’t act in such a manner. And while I don’t necessary buy that Zduriencik sees things that way, the GM’s preference may not matter much if the payroll flexibility isn’t there. A new general manager is going to want to make changes, sure, but if he’s limited to inexpensive additions or move that rely on lateral salary moves, what he can do in one offseason would be limited, likely leaving the Mariners with yet another sub par roster.
I’m not suggesting the club tank the rest of the season. I don’t advocate clubs ever putting players in a bad situation intentionally in order to come up short on the scoreboard night-in and night-out. But there likely will come a time — barring a ridiculous run by a team that so far has a season-high winning streak of four games, hasn’t won two straight since the start of July and has not won three straight since May — when winning meaningless games late in the season is absolutely not the best thing.
If a strategy aimed at development and proper exposure for prospects and other young players produces but a 72-win season, so be it, because there are rewards to be reaped for such a result in a season where the playoffs is out of reach. And such rewards could very well mean the kind of change or changes that ultimately ends what quickly is turning into a 15-year postseason drought.
Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016.
Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.