In many ways, it's hard to imagine being disappointed by 89 wins. Eighty-nine wins would've earned you a wild-card berth in either league in 2017. Ditto in 2016. It would have won you a wild-card or the AL West title in 2015.
In 2018, in a top-heavy American League that featured two excellent rivals in the AL West, 89 wins got you bupkis. And while many general managers might've looked at that gaudy win total and figured they could build on that, Jerry Dipoto did just the opposite. He scanned the baseball landscape, perused his team's own roster...and blew the whole thing up.
Three explanations help crystallize Dipoto's rationale for starting a rebuild immediately following an 89-win season.
First, not all 89-win seasons look alike. In this case, you had a Mariners team that allowed 34 more runs than it scored. The M's won all those games anyway because they were supernaturally great in close contests, riding Edwin Diaz's Eckersleyian season and a little good fortune to a 36-21 record in one-run games, and an off-the-charts 14-1 in extra innings. Had Seattle racked up league-average results in close games and won as many games as that kind of run differential would typically suggest, it would have projected to win 77 games. By winning 12 more games than expected, the 2018 Mariners ranked as one of the most anomalous teams in baseball history, going by run differential.
- 2018 Result: 89-73, third place in AL West
- Key free agents/losses: James Paxton, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino, Juan Nicasio, Gordon Beckham, Andrew Romine, Cameron Maybin, Denard Span, James Pazos, Guillermo Heredia
- Needs: 57 more trades by the time you finish reading this article
Second, the M's weren't likely to improve in 2019 if they simply tried to run everything back again, because they were the oldest team in all of baseball last season. At a time when position players are often peaking around age 24 or 25, Seattle's group netted an average age a hair under 30. Two of the team's best hitters over the past few years were Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano. Cruz is now 38, while Cano turned 36 in October. You can't bank on 38- and 36-year-olds leading you to playoff glory; Cano getting busted for PED use last season only added to the uncertainty surrounding this aging duo.
All of which brings us to Dipoto's third rationale for blowing everything up: That's just what he does, man. No GM in baseball makes more trades than Dipoto, be it last winter when he was trying to snap the longest postseason drought in baseball for Seattle, or this winter, when he suddenly realized the horses he had wouldn't be enough. So Cano got shipped to the Mets along with Diaz for a package headed by Jarred Kelenic, the sixth overall pick in last summer's draft.
All-Star shortstop Jean Segura packed up for Philly, part of a five-player trade that brought back post-hype shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford and veteran slugger Carlos Santana. Then Dipoto flipped Santana to Cleveland for a competitive balance pick plus another veteran slugger in Edwin Encarnacion, whose chances of being a Mariner come opening day range from slim to none. If there's any doubt over Dipoto's continued willingness to swing a deal, consider how that last trade occurred while the M's GM was laid up in a hospital bed.
The good news for the Mariners and their GM's itchy trigger finger is that there are still pieces left to be dealt. Kyle Seager would seem tough to trade given he has three years and $56 million left on his contract, plus a 2022 club option for $15 million that converts into a player option if he's traded. But Seager was a 30-homer beast who finished 12th in MVP voting just two years ago, and could offer some value if he rebounds next season and the M's eat some contract money.
Dee Gordon is a two-time All-Star who hit .308 with a league-leading 60 stolen bases in 2017; his rough numbers last season likely stem from an early-season broken toe, and he could be an intriguing buy for a speed-hungry contender. Doubly so if the M's keep him for the start of next season, and Gordon rebounds as hoped.
Mike Leake is a soft-tossing right-hander who could still offer some trade value as a reliable innings eater once the free-agent market for starting pitchers dries up...but again, the M's would likely have to eat some money, with Leake owed a hefty $36 million through the end of his contract (two more years, plus a $5 million buyout for 2021).
Add Mets veteran imports Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, 26-year-old left-hander Marco Gonzales and newly acquired 25-year-old speed merchant Mallex Smith, plus almost anyone else not currently nailed to the floor as cards Dipoto could play over the next three months -- and possibly the next three minutes, given the GM's tendencies.
The closest thing the M's have to an untouchable in their current lineup is outfielder Mitch Haniger. Given that Haniger's already 28 years old despite breaking into the majors in 2016, he too could be worth shopping for the right price and the right time frame. After all, Dipoto mentioned Segura's age as a factor in the trade with the Phillies, and Segura too is 28.
Given how good and how young the core players on rival rosters in Houston, Boston, and New York are, the right time frame for Seattle should be some time next decade. The Mariners' other blockbuster deal this offseason sent staff ace James Paxton to the Yankees for Justus Sheffield, a 22-year-old left-hander who along with Crawford might be the only projected members of the 2019 Mariners likely to be a part of the next contending team in Seattle.
If you're an M's fan, that means you're better off investing in Sheffield and Kelenic jerseys than Seager and (sadface) King Felix unis. It means you hitch your wagon to the first-round picks in the past two drafts (promising first baseman Evan White and standout collegiate right-hander Logan Gilbert) while hoping that one-time prospect Kyle Lewis' rough 2018 was more a function of injuries and a slower adjustment to Double-A pitching than anything troublesome for the long run.
When the calendar flips over next week, it'll be 18 years since the Mariners' last playoff appearance. By starting the rebuild now, Dipoto's hoping to speed up the ETA for the next SoDo party.
Jonah on the MLB offseason
Braves: May be offseason's most compelling team
Marlins: Finding where to send Realmuto
Mets: How Mets could jumpstart BVW era
Phillies: Harper or Machado might not be enough
Nationals: What will the Nats do if Harper leaves?
Cubs: Keys to a Cubs rebound in 2019
Reds: Can Cincy revamp its pitching staff?
Brewers: Why Milwaukee should dig deeper in its war chest
Pirates: How Buccos can get aggressive
Cardinals: St. Louis can close the NL Central gap
Diamondbacks: How drastic will the rebuild be?
Rockies: Colorado needs bats to match pitching staff
Dodgers: How L.A. can spend big this winter
Padres: San Diego is the biggest mystery team of the offseason
Giants: Trading MadBum and others makes sense
Orioles: Nowhere to go but up for new O's leadership
Red Sox: Active offseason could lead to World Series repeat
Yankees: Machado fits Yanks' wants and needs
Rays: Tampa in position for unusually aggressive winter
Blue Jays: Toronto needs to embrace rebuild
White Sox: Compelling dark horse in Harper, Machado races
Indians: Why a Kluber or Bauer blockbuster makes sense
Tigers: Detroit facing plenty of rebuilding competition
Royals: Rebuild will rely on homegrown talent
Twins: Could be a big surprise team in 2019
Astros: How they can make another World Series run
Angels: LAA changes winter approach
Athletics: Trying to defy expectations again in 2019