The Mariners Rebuild: Valid vs. Invalid Arguments

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

It’s hot, we’re all cranky, let’s all maybe just take a step back

It’s officially the dog days of summer, a term which I take to mean “hot, boring, and full of lassitude and crankiness.” The Mariners, as Bob Nightengale is alarmingly quick to remind us (why are you so obsessed with us, Bob) haven’t turned the odometer over to “4” on wins for the season, and are generally playing bad—and worse, boring—baseball. My dad, a hydraulic engineer who oversees massive, expensive projects on enormous, complicated machines, has had this chart pinned to the bulletin board in his office since I was a wee lass, but I’ve only come to appreciate it after cycling through a few different jobs:

this artifact pre-dates the age of memes, back when jokes were run off at the copier and passed person to person, office to office; I appreciate how many times this particular one, with its toner marks and blur, has clearly been reproduced: an analog retweet button

The Mariners rebuild, I’m sorry to say, is squarely in stage two (maybe three) of this process. The off-season idealism of a theoretical rebuild, the euphoria of snatching Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn away from the hapless Mets, and the short-lived excitement of the 13-2 start have been replaced by the day-to-day drudgery of living through a rebuild and what that looks like at the major league level. It’s a mightily heavily wrought metaphor that this off-season, not-still-Safeco-but-not-quite-T-Mobile Park hosted ENCHANT; now, months later, the grounds crew is still flicking stray bits of dirty tinsel off the bare patches of grass left behind. Stage two, heavy checkmark.

As we move into the next stage and everyone sharpens their fingers to the pointiest tips and maybe dips them in a little kerosene, it’s worth injecting a little bit of a reality check before moving on. Of course, griping and bellyaching is a hard-earned right of the fan of a rebuilding team—we at the site vacillate daily between existential despair and laughing away the pain—but it’s important to make a distinction between valid and invalid criticisms of the rebuilding process. To that end, here is a primer to help.

Invalid argument:

Scott Servais should lose his job after this year! Heads must roll!

Valid question:

Will the close relationship between Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais automatically install Servais as the next manager of the team as opposed to a candidate who might be younger/more forward-thinking/more diverse/a better fit for the particular collection of players, and if so, what will an exit strategy look like if things aren’t going well?

First of all, I write this not as a Scott Servais apologist. There are many coaches and staffers in the organization I have strongly positive feelings about; with Servais, it’s kind of a wash. I haven’t heard anything bad, exactly, about him; he was, by all accounts, the driving force behind sponsoring Braden Bishop’s 4MOM charity and spreading it to the team in Spring Training two years ago. I think he could have phrased his comments about Félix over the years more tactfully. He did make the infamous haircut bet; also that same season, two high-profile players got into a physical altercation in the clubhouse on his watch. I’m not exactly sure what to make of Scott Servais, Slightly Disapproving of Everything You Do Midwestern Dad.

That being said, anyone who is expecting Servais to “manage the bullpen better” or “whip these guys into shape” is currently eating holographic ice cream while being born aloft by a coterie of swans dancing the Charleston, because that is some way out there talk, my friend. I would not give a child a wet sock and command them to make fire with it or lose their scout badge, and yet night after night, that is what Servais is tasked with doing. You don’t pick up your kid from an underfunded, overcrowded day camp and expect them to have performed Shakespeare in the Park, and you don’t turn Triple-A upside down and shake it, play whoever falls out, and expect great results. I don’t know that there are a ton of people who would actually be able to navigate their browsers to this site who believe Servais should be sacrificed on the altar of the 2019 Mariners, but hey, I respect Jeff Passan a lot, and my jaw dropped when he went on 710 and suggested Servais would be fired after the season because...rebuild (?).

Invalid Argument:

Mallex Smith is another example of Dipoto’s failure to acquire major-league contributors, and a reason this rebuild will fail/the Walker-Marte-Segura-Haniger trade was a loss for the Mariners/Chris Taylor!

Valid question:

Was including Michael Plassmeyer really necessary for that deal to get done? How good is Jake Fraley going to be? How good is Omar Narvaez going to be?

I’m grouping these points together because they stem from the same core argument, which is essentially that Dipoto gets fleeced in major deals (the people arguing this always seem to leave out Díaz/Canó for Kelenic/Dunn, or argue that the Mariners cheapened the return for Díaz by packaging him with Canó, although if you consider Justin Dunn cheap, I’d like to know where you shop). Mostly these trade postmortems are argued in bad faith by people who want to vent to their tiny corner of the internet, but it’s worth just injecting a little bit of sense to the argument over the Diamondbacks trade: yes, Ketel Marte has been other-worldly this year, while Mitch Haniger has been ineffective and hurt; the Mariners still have come out almost three full wins ahead in player value on that trade, and that’s before adding in what J.P. Crawford, traded for Segura, has been (1.6 fWAR) and will be worth.

As for the Mallex Smith/Jake Fraley trade, it’s tough to know from here whether or not Fraley will blossom into an MLB regular, or if Mallex can develop enough consistency to make up for not keeping him in center, if that is the long-term plan. Plassmeyer might wind up to be the most impactful piece the Mariners traded away in that deal, although perhaps that was by design; sending Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia, both Floridians (one by birth, one who has adopted Miami as his home), has the feel of a make-nice deal; they’re both non-tender candidates this offseason with a wRC+ of 130 combined - NOT averaged - between the two of them (a solid two-thirds of which belongs to Guillermo), while Plassy Baby has an FIP of 3.24 at High-A after tearing up the Midwest League. It’s a tougher pill to swallow given how thin the Mariners are on pitching, although after they went pitching-heavy in the draft, maybe the next Plassmeyer is out there in the system somewhere. Side note: it will be curious to see what the Rays do to navigate around their impending roster crunch; there might be some interesting prospects up for grabs this winter.

And give Chris Taylor a rest, already. No one saw his five-win season coming, and that’s because he’s not a five-win player, as two subsequent seasons have shown.

Not all of Dipoto’s trades have worked out, but the ones that have been bone-achingly bad—I’m thinking here of Nick Rumbelow for JP Sears, although Seth Elledge for Sam Tuivailala might merit consideration here too—have mostly been spot trades to try to fix up holes at the major league level. Of the big moves, nothing looks egregiously bad unless Justus Sheffield—who is, it bears repeating, the same age as fellow Arkansas Travelers Evan White, Cal Raleigh, and 2019 draftee Utah Jones—completely falls apart. The narrative that Dipoto makes poor deals based on a couple of outlier years from players developed under the Jack Z regime is as parochial as it is incorrect.

Invalid argument:

The Astros would have been able to develop Kikuchi into an 7-win pitcher by this point.

Valid question:

How good is Logan Gilbert going to be?

Where to START with this one. Let’s start with Aaron Sanchez, part-author of the latest no-hitter thrown against the Mariners. Tons of baseball writers fell all over themselves to predict Sanchez would be fixed if he changed up his pitch mix; namely, to stop throwing the bad ones and start throwing the good one more. Revolutinary! Fast forward a few weeks, and Aaron Sanchez is an Astro, who in his first start, as predicted, threw less of his bad pitches and more of his good one, and like my last foray into the self-tanning world, the results were immediate, dramatic, and not particularly pleasant for me. This was largely heralded as the Astros being Pitching Geniuses, when really, how it should have been framed is: what the hell, Blue Jays? If some keyboard wonks can see this coming, perhaps maybe you, the billion dollar franchise, should also consider that? But see, here’s where things get tricky. It’s possible—likely, even—that even mired in the deepest Canadian wild, some brave soul ran a report that suggested Sanchez should throw his curveball more—or hell, read Eno Sarris’s twitter feed—brought it to someone who brought it to someone who brought it to someone who brought it to Sanchez, and Sanchez looked at this carefully compiled data and did his best Bartleby impression. Maybe not! Perhaps a higher-up ran interference and suggested Mr. Sanchez had enough to be thinking about, maybe he’s still puzzling over this week’s NPR Sunday puzzle (NO SPOILERS, I’m still working on it), and put the kibosh on right there. That feels less likely, but the central tenet is this: the information itself isn’t the issue. Information wants to be free, and it’s out there buzzing around in analysis and data sets and all these wonderful places. It’s harnessing, and utilizing, and getting the buy-in for that information, that’s the tricky part.

So this is where it comes back to Kikuchi and to the Astros, who have poster child Justin Verlander sitting not-at-all menacingly in a room nearby, eager to sing the praises of Houston’s pitch design program and let you try on his World Series ring. And then there’s the Mariners, who have had Mike Leake standing outside the school selling loose cigarettes in a safety pinned jacket and encouraging impressionable young players to stick it to the man. While anti-authority is usually both my jam and jelly, it’s no secret Leake wasn’t happy, and that doesn’t create the best conditions for learning, experimenting, and growing.

The facts are the facts: the Mariners have a long way to go to earn player trust the way the Astros have it; but there are encouraging signs from the player development side. J.P. Crawford credits infield coach Perry Hill with “saving” his career. Austin Adams says the pitching trio of Brian DeLunas, Paul Davis, and Jim Brower is the best group of coaches he’s ever worked with. Connor Sadzeck (who like Adams, is also unfortunately injured) was also seeing Sanchez-esque gains when the Mariners made a similar adjustment to his pitch mix (is it really possible there are so many teams not telling pitchers “don’t throw your bad pitch, throw this good one more instead”?).

When evaluating why Kikuchi hasn’t had the same kind of miraculous transformation, there are a few elements to keep in mind: first, Kikuchi’s arsenal doesn’t necessarily benefit from a simple change in pitch mix. Each individual pitch needs to be more effective, and changing pitch shapes is much harder and more time-intensive than just telling a player to stop throwing their lousy fastball so much.

The amount of stress Kikuchi is undergoing in his transition to MLB—to say nothing of becoming a father for the first time, or losing his own—should also be taken into consideration, as should the diverse range of voices in his ear, everyone from the Mariners’ own staff to his personal analytics team from Japan to his advisors to Driveline and Trevor Bauer. Maybe the Astros, with their considerable heft, would be able to separate Kikuchi from all of these voices, shut down his natural curiosity, and put him on their plan, and would see gains from that, assuming Kikuchi would be willing to throw aside everything he’s personally invested in for the past half-decade or so. That’s not the way the Mariners work—there’s no One True Mariners Way, as former member of the Cardinals organization, Modesto pitcher Ian McKinney, noted with relief.

I bring McKinney up because it’s important to note that the player buy-in is unquestionably there at the lower levels. The Modesto pitching staff speak of pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr. with reverence and deep respect, but also with an appreciation for how he lets them be themselves. Hitting coach Rob Benjamin in the DSL is beloved by his players, with whom he banters in Spanish while equipping their bats with tracking technology and tossing them batting practice. Arkansas pitching coach Pete Woodworth regularly posts particularly nasty strikeouts on his Instagram stories with a flurry of emoji involving swords, ghosts, clowns; code for the secret language he shares with his players.

And this is really what a rebuild is about. It’s not just the individual players who come with deadline trades and high draft picks; it’s an opportunity to re-shape the culture of the organization. Our people, our process, as Andy McKay is fond of saying. Like an iceberg, the vast majority of what the organization will be is under the surface right now. It’s very tempting to look at the little bit that’s visible and try to extrapolate from that, especially when it is so hot outside, and the team is so bad, and summer in general has gone from a breezy day at the beach to the long, sandy trek back to the car. Sweeping generalizations aren’t a good idea at this point, but a list of open-ended questions might be both productive and cathartic—provided one is willing to be patient for the answers.