SEATTLE – As the notion of “rock bottom” for this Mariners season keeps shifting (and dropping lower) by the day, the great guessing game Monday was who would get on the plane to Oakland, California, for the start of a road trip.
Or, more to the point, who wouldn’t.
The debacle of a five-game series against the Angels, in which the combination of Mike Trout’s superhumanness and the Mariners’ bereft offense combined for four demoralizing losses, cried out for a scapegoat. I’ve been around enough cratering baseball teams in my time to know the telltale signs of an impending cleansing.
But the only casualties turned out to be 39-year-old relief pitcher Sergio Romo and veteran lefty Roenis Elias, both designated for assignment. Not quite the bloodletting that many fans were clamoring for in the wake of a doubleheader loss Saturday to the Angels and the latest in a seemingly endless line of shutout losses Sunday.
The truth is, the troubles of this Mariners team can’t be pinpointed to one person, the removal of whom would magically fix what ails them. There are numerous fingerprints on this moribund body of work.
It is, of course, longtime baseball orthodoxy that the manager is the first one to take the fall. (Because, as the old saying goes, you can’t fire 25 players. Or, to modernize, you can’t fire 26 players.) The Phillies went that route June 3 when they canned Joe Girardi with the team mired at 22-29. It had exactly the galvanizing effect that was desired: The Phillies are 14-3 under interim manager Rob Thomson, formerly the bench coach, and back in the thick of the NL wild-card race. Four days later, the Angels axed Joe Maddon in the midst of a 12-game losing streak, which reached 14 games under his replacement, Phil Nevin. The Angels are 6-7 under Nevin, with 67% of those wins coming in the just-completed series in Seattle.
Girardi and Maddon both have a World Series title on their managerial resumes. The Mariners haven’t had a manager with even a playoff berth in Seattle on theirs since Lou Piniella in 2001, which was seven skippers ago, not counting the interims. Scott Servais, in his seventh season, was lauded last year when he guided an overachieving team to 90 victories, 14 games above its expected win total with its minus-51 run differential.
Servais finished runner-up to Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash for American League Manager of the Year and was awarded a contract extension Sept. 1. That surge of contention led to considerable optimism that the M’s were poised to end their seemingly endless drought in 2022, a not unreasonable expectation that has made the ensuing collapse far more frustrating.
Now the Mariners are flailing, 10 games under .500 with another playoff-free season staring them in the face. Did Servais suddenly get dumb? I don’t think so. Sure, you can second-guess any number of decisions regarding the lineup deployment, pitching usage and, especially this weekend, whether or not to keep pitching to Trout in the face of mounting evidence they were incapable of stopping him.
As longtime minor league manager Rocky Bridges once said: “There are three things that the average man thinks he can do better than anybody else. Build a fire, run a hotel and manage a baseball team.”
But in many cases, Servais is choosing between unappealing options, a sort of Hobson’s choice (not named after former Red Sox slugger Butch Hobson, though the Mariners could use his bat) where there are often no good answers. That’s what happens when your roster is filled with struggling players who either are performing far below their body of work, or don’t yet have a representative body of work. Yet if he can’t get the players to perform, and soon, Servais could well pay with his job. That’s just baseball. A lot of people were refreshing Twitter on Monday to see if the manager would survive.
President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, like Servais, is in Year 7 in Seattle (and Year 4 of the rebuild, which bought some extra time to produce a playoff team). He bears responsibility for the roster, which looked a lot better on paper in March. No one knew back then that Robbie Ray wouldn’t approach his Cy Young form until two starts ago, or that the two big offensive additions, Jesse Winker and Adam Frazier, would suffer massive drop-offs, or Jarred Kelenic would be plagued by the same offensive issues as he was as a rookie, or that Mitch Haniger would miss two months because an ankle injury. Beyond that, there are depth issues that have plagued the Mariners all season, without many answers in the minor leagues despite the glittering rankings of their farm system.
The lineup the Mariners throw out on most days is as wafer thin as it was last year. They have already been shut out 10 times in 68 games, or roughly once every two series. The bullpen has had its expected regression, and the Mariners aren’t pulling out the close games like they did last year. No team leaves more men on base than the M’s, and only two teams are worse at getting them home from third with fewer than two outs. It’s getting harder to look at this team, as currently constituted, and see the seeds of a surge that will draw it back into contention.
The burning question is to what extent Dipoto was hamstrung in his off-season pursuit of free agents by ownership, and how much of their inability to sign players such as Trevor Story and Marcus Semien was simply an inability to coax them to Seattle – an increasing issue as the losing seasons and negative word-of-mouth mounts.
Regardless, it’s fair to ask the same question that has permeated this organization for two decades: How intense is the commitment to win within the ownership group? Where is the burning desire to end the drought that continues to be a black mark on the organization? It’s not reflected in a payroll that ranks in the bottom third of the league. And it could be tested even more in the coming weeks.
This season would (and still could, with just under 100 games still to play) have a much different tenor if players had performed up to their level of expectation. Too few have, and the general malaise has led to a familiar stance of anger and frustration among the fan base; it’s justified based on this organization’s 20-year body of work.
Just when it seemed like the Mariners were on the verge of turning the season around, having won four consecutive series coming off the last road trip, they suffered a 3-8 homestand that again has them reeling.
No heads, apparently, rolled Monday, outside those two relievers. But the Mariners’ headaches are only getting stronger.