The Only Mariners Question Worth Asking

Let us set a stage

Heading into free agency the Mariners find themselves, yet again, at an organizational crossroads. Last offseason I wrote many words about the team’s options,to buy, sell, or stay the course. Already this offseason my good friend, excellent baseball mind, and substantially better writer Brendan Gawlowski has penned a similar series for The Athletic (subscription required). I highly recommend reading it, as it lays an excellent framework to talk around.

There are substantial, in depth things to consider where this organization is at, where it is headed, whether its current leadership is the one to take it there, and on and on. For the common fan however, and for anyone who has been around long enough to endure a sizable portion of this historically long playoff absence, the primary concern is doing what is needed to get the 2019 Mariners to a Game 163, at long last.

In his time here Jerry Dipoto has proven a certain level of competency as it pertains to finding undervalued assets. His identification, pursuit, and acquisition of Marco Gonzales, Mitch Haniger, and to a lesser extent Wade LeBlanc among others are commendable, quality moves.  These are moves that help a franchise be more “sustainable” (more on that later). However, given the landscape of the American League as a whole, and the AL West in particular, it’s hard to argue that the Mariners are a clever move or two away from building a team that seriously contends, even in a best case scenario, for anything but the Second Wild Card. If you choose to disagree with that statement after watching the level of unsustainable good fortune it took for the team to finish ten games out of a playoff spot last year, you’ve made up your mind in a way that my words and math won’t change. Being an irrational, blind optimist in sports fandom is largely harmless, and I hope you enjoy that.

The true facts were, are, and will continue to be these: The Mariners as currently constructed are not good enough to realistically expect a contending year in 2019. At minimum they have needs at catcher, first base, center field, left field, and starting pitching. They cannot trade for that needed talent from a surplus of depth at the big league roster, because no such surplus exists. Similarly, the state of the farm limits the talent that can be acquired through trade, and offers scant hope of any graduating prospects able to move the needle to a degree that it matters.

With the departure of Nick Vincent, Chris Herrmann, and Denard Span, Cots estimates the Mariners 2019 payroll at ~$152 milion. Last year the team’s payroll was ~$158 million. The luxury tax for next year is going to be $206 million. If the Mariners see next year as a serious year of contention the question, the only question, is whether the team’s ownership will authorize Dipoto to increase payroll significantly. As the organization stands today, November 5th, 2018 there is no other way to acquire the talent necessary to make statements of World Series aspirations anything other than more of the same empty lip service.

There are other, significant questions that would follow should ownership pursue this course: Which players should be targeted? What do the contract structures look like? Is Jerry Dipoto a good enough GM to pull off a spending spree makeover in a single offseason, or will the thrill of a multi-year reliever contract prove too tantalizing to ignore? These and many other issues would need to be faced and overcome in order to build a championship-caliber roster out of the current Good Ship .500. Without the first, foundational commitment from ownership, however, they are just empty, offseason-filling, content-quota-meeting hypotheticals.

The Mariners current leadership is many things, and chief among them is they are excellent, excellent salespeople. I have heard Jerry Dipoto and other front office employees speak, and spoken to them, enough to know this. Hearing them talk I want to believe in the gospel they continue to proselytize, because it always sounds so damn good and believable. But we have been here before, and we have seen that while the team may be fractionally healthier overall than it was when the Dipoto regime started its work, there is no sensational, overnight rebirth on the horizon. If the Mariners are “building a sustainable winner” as they often say is their intent, then they aren’t planning on doing so prior to the next presidential election at the very earliest.

If the Mariners are serious about winning; not getting close to winning, or Maybe Winning If It All Breaks Right By the Way We Have the Fifth Best AL Record Since 2016, but real, honest to god, cry my tears out rooting for this team in late October winning, the discussion starts with one question, and one question only:

Are they willing to pay the price?

 

9/24/17

I took my son to his first Mariners game on Sunday, September 24th, 2017, the final home game of the 2017 season. He won’t remember any of it, but that’s ok. It wasn’t really for him anyway.

When he was about two hours old, sleeping under the amber glow of a heat lamp, and his mother, exhausted from the effort needed to bring him into this world, was resting, I signed him up for the Mariners Kids Club. It was, at its core, an incredibly selfish gesture. Here I was, as one of my first acts of parenthood, assigning a fandom for a team known mostly for failure to my son. It was picking a college major and choosing a favorite color all rolled up into one. Except he had no choice in the matter, and I gave him a dud.

The day started as I would imagine most first games start. We made all the requisite stops: Section 128 for his First Game Certificate. The Kids Club for his backpack, complete with three wiffle balls. We said hi to Dave and got our picture with him. We spent most of the game in our seats, watching the game. And I do mean watching the game. I was convinced my 8-month old child would be distracted by the people, noises, and smells that give Safeco Field a large part of it’s charm. But like the die-hard old couple we’ve all sat next to that attends every game and insists on living the optimistic life until the siren’s call of the Fat Lady’s voice, he spent the vast majority of the game transfixed by the action on the field.

The Mariners, playing a game hundreds of feet away from the rarefied air of our seats in the 300 level, had my son enthralled. All the players, so tiny in our eyes, loomed larger in our minds. In the 5th inning, Ben Gamel drilled a first pitch fastball just over the fence for a home run to tie the game at two. Rather than get frightened at the sudden eruption of sound from what had been, up to that point, a rather reserved crowd, my son found the festivities amusing. He insisted on standing on my legs, dancing back and forth, a smile as wide as the gap in left-center field across his face.

Later on, between innings as the giveaways continued, Tom Hutyler’s familiar voice rang out with a sound I had never heard before. My section. My seat. We had won a signed Ben Gamel baseball. I’ve been attending baseball games for 30 years, having spent a large portion of my childhood inside the magical neon confines of the Kingdome, and referring to Safeco Field as my summer home for my entire adult life. I have not so much as whiffed the scent of a baseball. My son, in his first game, completely unaware of what was even happening, became the owner of not only a baseball, but a signed baseball by a player who had hit a home run that very day.

As the game wore on, and the group of dads I was with began to disperse, I wandered down with one of them and his son to the Kids Clubhouse. My son, being too young to independently play, quickly began to fuss. I assumed, perhaps naively, that because he had been awake for hours, he was tired, and that it was time to go home. When I was young, I rarely caught the end of games. We had a ferry to catch, and if you missed that 10 o’clock ferry, you were stuck in Seattle until nearly midnight. Things would be different when I got older, I vowed at a young age. I would never leave the game early. And for years, I kept my own ridiculous promise. But a child changes things. You no longer have jurisdiction over your schedule. When a child is ready to go home, it’s time to go home, even if that means missing the 9th inning.

But as we left the Kids Clubhouse to return to the car, I had to make a pitstop behind the right field foul pole to adjust a bag. As I stopped, my son’s attention turned back to the field, and his fussing eased up. It was the top of the ninth, and Emilio Pagan had just struck out Francisco Lindor on a 3-2 count. I couldn’t take him away from the game now, could I? Could he somehow survive another half inning of baseball? The most magical of innings – the bottom of the ninth. Where hope springs eternal and the home team can stave off the clock striking midnight for as long as the crowd believes.

The M’s were down 4-2 with the bottom of the order up. Of course it was the bottom of the order. Nothing is ever easy as a Mariners fan. But if just one man could reach base, it’s back to the top of the order and Hero of the Day Ben Gamel would have an opportunity to cement his legacy as the Gomez Family’s Favorite Mariner of All-Time. Facing Cleveland’s closer Cody Allen, Mike Zunino struck out, then Guillermo Heredia grounded out to second. With two outs, Daniel Vogelbach was brought in for only his fifth at bat of September to pinch hit and promptly struck out on three straight pitches. There was to be no miracle today, at least not in baseball terms. We made our way to the car, sat in traffic, and drove home. My son slept the whole way, exhausted from a day of new experiences he won’t remember, but will be one of the first scenes that plays on the highlight reel of my life.

I don’t know if my son is going to grow up to be a baseball fan. To be honest, it doesn’t matter. You don’t get to choose your kids’ interests. Ask any parent – you don’t choose their interests, they choose yours. Of course, I hope he becomes a baseball fan. I dream of him becoming the person I talk baseball with. Criticizing the team’s latest free agent signing, bemoaning the schedule, and endlessly repeating the mantra of every lifelong Mariners fan: “maybe next year.” Maybe he won’t like baseball. That’s OK, I’ll become a fan of whatever he’s interested in. But for one perfect, sunny, fall afternoon, we had each other, we had baseball, and all was right in the world.

FoulPole

The Denard Decision

D-Span has been a huge for the 2018 Mariners, which makes it sad to report he probably shouldn’t be retained

It’s September now, y’all, and the Mariners season is playing out one way or the other. Will they make the playoffs? Well heck, I dunno. Looking at all the smart math people’s numbers says it’s more than likely we’re all gonna spend October at the ol’ Adopt-A-Team Shelter again though. I’m a bad fan, but the A’s are looking mighty fine.

Anyway, with the end of the season looming it’s getting closer to TRANSACTION PLANNIN’, and here at Dome and Bedlam we believe in promptness! If you’re on time you’re late! If you’re early you’re on time! If you’re way early that means you’re super late for the last time! THAT’S FIVE LAPS SLACKERS HOP TO IT!

*****

The late May trade with Tampa Bay to acquire Alex Colome & Denard Span was one of Jerry Dipoto’s best moves of the past twelve months. That was true regardless of how both players performed as Mariners, but it has been nice that for once here in Seattle, good process produced good results. Colome has teamed up with The Divine Edwin Diaz to form one of baseball’s most lethal 8th/9th inning combinations, and Denard Span has hit better than anyone expected. Coming off 2016 and 2017, in which he checked in with a wRC+ of 94 and 100, respectively, Span’s offense is at a career high 123 wRC+ in 2018, and 129 since arriving in Seattle.

Late career offensive boosts, particularly ones that come from an increase in power (Dad strength is real y’all), are not unheard of. Hell, Nelson Cruz is the model of this very idea. However, they are not common, and counting on Span offsetting his clear and noticeable loss in defensive range by continuing to thwack dingers is a gamble, and not at the odds you want to take.

The merit to retaining Span on his $12 million mutual option is, in my view, further diminished given a few contextual factors. First is the 2018 rebound of Ben Gamel. Now I’ve notably been wrong about the Mariners young outfielders in the past, but after a Zunino-esque (Zuninian? Please help, linguists) second half in 2017, Gamel has rebounded nicely. He’s improved his walk rate, continued to be “fine” with the glove, and hit for just enough pop to keep pitchers honest. Overall, he’s played about like a two win outfielder. At 26, there’s the possibility of a little further development (cough SWINGPLANEDINGERZ cough), but if not, he still projects as a serviceable left fielder, a comparable level of production to Span projects at next year, at a fraction of the cost.

The second factor is the looming roster decisions facing this organization. Regardless of what you think the right direction is for this franchise, it would be a shock if they do anything after 2018 but attempt to take another run at the playoffs for 2019. Given that assumption, the team is in desperate need of a real centerfielder, at least one top of the rotation pitcher, and probably a catcher.

With our past experience both of the Jerry Dipoto Era, and the Mariners’ organizational practices at large, I think it’s fair to assume they won’t be throwing any huge free agent contracts to players this offseason. As such, every single dollar saved off potential luxuries, such as two major league left fielders, is needed to fill these very real and pressing holes in the big league roster. It’d be cool if there was some minor league depth in AA or AAA to help cheaply fill in those gaps. Guess what, pal, this is the Jerry Dipoto Mariners. Unless you want to see a tumbleweed in center field next year, the talent has to come from outside the organization.

Overall, the Denard Span acquisition has worked out beautifully both for the team and the player. Span is having his best season in years, and the Mariners and Jerry Dipoto have gotten a great return in a contending season, for giving up a few minor leaguers. There is a danger, though, of falling in love with the short-lived greatness of a player after trading for them. The Mariners have pressing needs elsewhere, and with D-Span unlikely to ever be this good again, it’s probably in the best interest of the team to let him get closer to his home in Florida, and spend that money on someone like, say, early career Denard Span.

Go M’s.

 

Episode 23 – The Jordan

In memoriam of the 2018 Seattle Mariners

Hi and/or hello you to, dear reader and listener! Dome and Bedlam has returned from a (for us) brief hiatus to pronounce the death of the 2018 Seattle Mariners. Now, wait, hear us out, we swear this isn’t more mindless complaining. In fact one of us wasn’t even drinking during this recording (see if you can spot which one!).

Scott, David, and Nathan talk about how the Mariners got here, the challenge of the future, and the frustrating mediocrity at the very core of this franchise’s DNA. For long time fans, for people who have spent years of our lives following, covering, and documenting this team’s moves, 2018 has felt like a lost year. The Mariners are, essentially exactly where they were two years ago, plus Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura. Things feel directionless, again. It’s hard to not feel some very real feelings about that.

Fortunately, we have each other. Thanks as always for listening.

Go Mariners.

(Music credits: Kanye West, Ryan Adams)

Episode 22 – El Scorcho (LIVE)

THE DOME IS BACK IN TOWN

In the beginning, there was The Pod, and Fun was with The Pod, and The Pod was Fun. But then The Pod was told to log off, and it did, and so with it, The Fun left, and there was darkness, and ceaseless torment. But lo, upon the dusk of the *checks notes* 86th day, The Pod logged back on, and there was light, and dancing, and joy once again.

O Death, where is thy sting? Yes I’ll have another drink, thank you.

***

Welcome back friends, to a special, in person, live podcast of Dome and Bedlam. We are hugely apologetic for our long absence. It was summer, and we had vacations to take. It’s tough to express how much it means to hear from so many of you (often angrily, and justifiably so) that you miss the show. Dome and Bedlam was always, before anything else, just three friends who loved baseball, and each other. That our nonsense has found such a loyal and passionate audience is something we never really expected,  and we definitely don’t deserve, but we’re truly thankful for.

A HUGE thank you to Pinxto and their speakeasy Branchwater for putting up with our noise, and the world’s least inconspicuous microphone while we recorded. Please remit to them your business for delicious food and drinks. Do not tell them we sent you, we want you to have a nice time.

We always say we’ll try to do this more often, and we always mean it, and we seemingly never do. But, we’ll try to do this more often. Thanks so much for listening.

***

(Music credits: Mom Jeans, Baroness, Bayside)

 

 

 

A Felix Hernandez FAQ

LET’S TALK ABOUT WHAT WAS, IS, AND SOON SHALL BE

So, like, you all have seen Felix’s numbers this year right? He’s got a 5.73 ERA, and a 5.03 FIP in over 120 IP. You all don’t like, still think he’s good. Right?

I am glad you asked. Felix Hernandez was among the very best pitchers alive from 2009-April of 2015. Unfortunately, it is now August of 2018 and, over the last three and a half seasons, the small leak in Felix’s dominance has been rapidly widened by the flood, and water is now gushing everywhere, ruining electronics and control panels, and reducing him to what he largely is today: An ok fifth starter with poor command, decent stuff, and an inconsistent outlook.

The answer to the question is no, I do not think Felix Hernandez is still good. He hasn’t even been “squint your eyes and pretend” good since a few starts in 2016. That’s a long time ago, and to deny that reality is pretty foolish and naive.

Ok, well then I’m confused. It seems like you’re always coming to Felix’s defense anytime the team talks about removing him from the rotation. Do you think he should stay in the rotation?

Well first of all, for me and my house, this is about loyalty before anything. Felix is the King. Secondly, look, I don’t know. Like I said above, Felix isn’t very good anymore. Felix was never going to be very good in 2018. Everyone knew this, including the team. That’s at least part of what has made Jerry Dipoto’s attempts to spin this season’s outcome as somehow contingent upon Felix becoming something he hasn’t been in years so infuriating.

If the team is half as smart as they very publicly try to make themselves appear, they know far more than we know. If we knew that Felix was probably going to struggle this year, it makes depending/planning on him being something other than that, with only Erasmo Ramirez and his 11.94 FIP to fall back on, seem like folly.

Well now it feels like we’re getting somewhere raw and pretty emotional. Do you think the Mariners want Felix to fail or something?

/bites inside of cheek extremely hard

Well, no. The Mariners front office wants to win baseball games. Felix Hernandez pitching like an above average starter in 2018 would have greatly helped them in that regard, particularly as they made little to no effort to build up major league depth at pitching. That’s something they could have really used, given that they’ve traded Luiz Gohara, Freddy Peralta, and Nick Niedert the past two years for Adam Lind, Nate Karns, and a leadoff hitter with a 1.6% walk rate.

The Mariners needed and wanted Felix to be good again, but the need was created through their own poor trades and inaction. Rather than look inward (or upward, to ownership’s miserly penny pinching) the team seems to have focused its frustration on Felix himself. To myself, and I believe to other like-minded fans, the pattern from the front office has been a combination of ill-founded/disingenuous expectation, coupled with a paternal, overly public shaking of the head whenever Felix has struggled. This pattern not only needlessly, publicly, agonizingly draws attention to Felix’s decline, but seeks to distract fans from the fact that this failure is at least as much one born by the team itself as the player they seem hellbent on shaming.

Well then, smart guy, what do you want them to do instead?

I want them to go back and exhaust their mental and financial resources to shore up this rotation. I want them to correctly predict, and proactively plan for, an incredible buyer’s market this past offseason. I want them to understand that this fanbase and franchise existed well before any of them got here. I want them to get that respect is earned, not given, and that slapping a “Mr. Manager” badge on your chest and walking around a dugout in uniform doesn’t earn you a damn thing with players or fans.

I want them to quit smiling and accepting all praise, and bristling and deflecting downward all blame. Given that they are more than willing to publicly consider the future of their franchise icon, I want them to do the same for their lead off man with a .303 OBP, or their starting first baseman who has been worth -0.6 fWAR.

More than anything, seeing as how this front office and management caters to public appearance and “openness” more than perhaps any other in the game, I want that same openness to indicate an understanding that the failure of the players; even proud, stubborn, declining icons, is their failure too. I want them to understand that there is a very good chance in seven or eight years, when we pack whatever Safeco Field is called at that time for Felix Hernandez’s jersey retirement and statue unveiling, that we will struggle to recall their names.

Wow, uh, that’s quite the rant. Do you have anything else you need to get off your chest?

Letting Felix burn in the Texas Hellfire  last night was unforgivable; an unnecessary and seemingly petty insult towards a longtime Mariner great. Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto are meddling with love forged over years of sacrifice and shared loyalty. They are forces they do not seem to fully understand.

Felix Hernandez forever. Long live the King.

 

Felix Hernandez Lasts

I have always struggled to write about Felix. I am a mediocre writer, and a mediocre man. Often the words I am happiest with are the ones I write without thinking or feeling. But Felix and my connection to this baseball team, and in many ways this region, are tied together too deeply. It is a knot my brain cannot untangle. With Felix, the music stops. There are, to quote the King of Prussia, too many notes.

That said, here on the cusp of what may actually be his last start as a Mariner before he suffers the indignity of whatever fate time, thousands of innings, and Jerry Dipoto have in store for him, is my honest attempt to express what Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariner, means to me.

*****

To grow up is to learn disillusionment, and in that way professional sports are an excellent teacher. The various games, leagues, mythos, romance, ideologies, and on in place were invented, refined, and sold to us for one purpose, and it was to profit the men who owned them. They sell themselves expertly, particularly to the young and naive, and once we learn to love something as children, it is incredibly difficult to rationalize away from it.

There comes a point, though, when we realize the empty falseness, the Wizard of Oz-like con game that can seem to be at the heart of so much of all this stuff we spend all this time loving and caring about. It’s usually a player leaving in free agency, or traded to another team once his useful (i.e. cheap) years with the team have run out. We don’t stop loving sports, because we have always done it, and to stop feels like we would stop being ourselves, but we learn the inequity of the transaction of feeling as a sports fan. Professional sports are, and will always be, a foolish and potentially emotionally damaging thing to care about.

*****

All hail King Felix. Hernandez worked five innings last night against Spokane, allowing just one run on two hits and striking out five. He also walked four, but it’s important to remember that he’s only 17 and facing much older competition, including some college players. I’m trying not to get too excited about him, but it’s difficult not to with the way he’s pitched so far.

The summer of 2003 was marked by the beginnings of the first split between the Mariners organization, and the newly burgeoning segment of its fans on the internet. On the field the team was in its final season of glory, a 93-win powerhouse, its fourth straight 90+ win season. Off the field, Lou Piniella’s recent war with the front office was fresh, Pat Gillick’s use of the the farm as nothing more than a resource to trade from to supplement the current run had bled it dry, and, to a few fans, the happy days were numbered.

There was disagreement, and there was infighting. There was name calling, and personal attacks, and resentment. In the tiny overlap in the venn diagram between the warring parties, there was Felix. He was 17 years old, and obliterating the Northwest League. USS Mariner, the mother tree of online Mariner fandom, called him King. Two years later he would be in Seattle, throwing eight shutout innings against the Twins.

As Felix ascended the Mariners spiraled into oblivion, like an untethered astronaut. They flailed, they screamed, they tried to change. Nothing worked. There was no friction. There was nothing. Only Felix.

*****

I was twenty-one when Felix was crowned King. I am thirty-six today. In between I have gotten married, had children, gotten fat, gotten skinny, gotten fat again, bought a house, nearly died, made and lost friends, and grown gray hairs. I’ve been to the Royal Court, seen Felix throw an immaculate inning, win a Cy Young, throw a Perfect Game, re-sign with the Mariners, and re-sign with them again and cry about it. I have never seen him pitch in the playoffs, and am now pretty close to convinced I never will.

Lasts are important. They serve as touchstones that spiral us backwards through our shared experiences, remembering that the feelings in our gut weren’t plopped there, but forged and nurtured, through time and affection. Lasts call back all that has come before, and with Felix, my god so much has come before today. The last Opening Day start already happened, the last shutout and complete game probably have too.

Now, today, with the Mariners desperately clinging to their playoff hopes, and Felix’s arm simply incapable of doing what it has done here for pushing two decades, we may be at the last start. The Blue Jays are the opponent, and it feels fitting. Maybe my favorite Felix memory is against Toronto, as is the game upon which it can be argued his career began its decline. That Safeco Field will be filled with non-Mariner fans feels similarly appropriate. Felix has always seemingly delighted in ripping out the soul of a hostile crowd.

****

“King” Felix has always been such a perfect nickname. At his height Felix not only reigned over games and seasons, but the talent gap between him and the rest of his typically terrible Mariner teammates was sufficient to set him apart. Like a noble of old. he stood atop the only raised part of the field and looks down like a monarch upon his kingdom. We rose and stood when he exited the bullpen and headed towards the mound. We chanted his name. I’ve grown into an adult with him, and he with us. Here, in the very lasts of his career, we recognize and acknowledge his legacy here is not contingent upon yesterday, today, or tomorrow. It is secure. It will last. So, tonight, we stand and rise, and we say, as we always have, and always will:

Long live the King.