The Seattle Mariners have managed to sustain relative success just twice during their 36 years of existence. They averaged 85 wins and reached baseball's year-end tournament twice in three tries between 1995 and 1997. A step back and quick retooling led to a resurgence that saw the team top 90 wins four seasons in a row between 2000 and 2003, adding two more playoff berths. Combined, the nine year stretch between 1995 and 2003 was a gay ol' time for Mariner fans even if opportunities were missed and no championship banners were secured.
It was a nifty run, but it's been a decade since Pat Gillick handed the reins to Bill Bavasi and the whole thing went up in flames. Bavasi rode Gillick's aging offensive core into the ground and was wildly unsuccessful trying to retool, filling the roster with massive disappointments and betting on the wrong types of home-grown youths. He left the organization in ruins from top to bottom. Jack Zduriencik was tasked with picking up the pieces and has been given the leeway to try and do it right. Zduriencik has made his share of regrettable moves, but overall the job he's done has been commendable.
And yet the Mariners are still clearly outclassed by the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics four years into his reign. Fans largely bought in to Zduriencik's vision, but 10 years of losing has caused the fanbase to grow impatient. The time is now, they say.
It's easier to destroy a baseball organization than to rebuild one, but Gillick (with his complete neglect of the farm system during his tenure) and Bavasi had many more years to dismantle the Mariners than Zduriencik has had to implement his plan. Even so, if things went just a little differently Zduriencik wouldn't be on the defensive entering his fifth season.
There are at least a couple believable alternate realities in which Zduriencik's first few years with the Mariners are considered nothing but a raging success.
The first: Zduriencik added diamond-in-the-rough Gutierrez to his core in 2009 and liked what he saw. Gutierrez joined Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki and a few solid role players to form a quality foundation for a winning ballclub. He decided that things were progressing much faster than he could have ever imagined and he decided to go for it. He acquired three recent All-Stars in Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins, and Milton Bradley. The Mariners landed on the cover of ESPN the Magazine and became a sexy World Series pick for the talking heads.
In the alternate reality Lee won the Cy Young, Figgins was good, Bradley was a contributor, their teammates did what was expected of them, and the Mariners outpaced the Texas Rangers for the AL West crown. In our reality Lee missed the start of the season with an injury while Figgins, Bradley, Gutierrez and Jose Lopez saw their careers unexpectedly crumble into dust, among other catastrophes that led to the Mariners dropping out of the race well before the All-Star break.
The second: Zduriencik adds Gutierrez to his core in 2009 and signs him to a four year-$20 million extension. He continues building by acquiring blue-chip offensive prospects Dustin Ackley (in 2009), Justin Smoak (2010), and Jesus Montero (2012).
In the alternate reality Gutierrez stays relatively healthy and continues doing what he did in his debut season while the holy trinity begin living up to expectations, allowing Zduriencik to aggressively pursue high profile veterans to complete his team. But in our reality Gutierrez was neutralized by mysterious ailments and various injuries, each prospect teetered on bustsville and saw their ceiling lowered, and no moves aside from an improbable Toronto Blue Jays-esque flurry would get the Mariners into the playoff picture.
Had Zduriencik signed Josh Hamilton this offseason or should he go on to nab a free agent like Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn it's not going be enough to get the Mariners into the playoffs. It would make them a little bit better, yes, and it would make them a little more watchable, yes, but they'd still be looking up at the rest of the AL West (Houston Astros excluded). Those players would join Felix Hernandez and not a lot else.
If the idea is to convince Felix that the team is heading in the right direction so that he'll sign a contract extension, then that's not something to ignore. But Felix would be disappointed along with the majority of Mariner fans if a guy like Hamilton entered the fray and the Mariners still wound up in third or fourth place.
It might have been a little bit different if Ackley, Smoak and Montero had been able to answer some questions but not a single one of them has given us reason to believe that they're the dynamic, game-changing building blocks as advertised. If the Mariners make a big splash this offseason they'd be betting on a couple of those guys breaking through in time for a 2014 run. Is that a gamble worth making? If Ackley, Smoak and Montero fail to become foundational players the Mariners will have to scramble to try and find a new offensive core. The farm system doesn't have much to offer on the offensive side right now and we should know better than to count our chickens before they hatch regardless.
Adding a guy like Swisher won't hurt (barring a Figginsian collapse). If things come together around him he could be a key part of a Mariners playoff run. If things don't come together around him he could at least inject some intrigue and be cashed in via trade down the line. But while I'm getting fed up like the rest of you -- I completely checked out during the second half last season -- I think the Mariners would be smart to hold off on the "splash" and take one more season to figure out what they have in their young players. Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders revealed themselves as essential mortar, but Zduriencik and company still need to identify their building blocks. If a couple of Ackley, Smoak, Montero or anyone else emerge as 4+ WAR players, then perhaps they're in business. If that happens, the decision to pursue the big, expensive free agents will become less polarizing.
Next year's free agent crop currently includes Brian McCann, Kendrys Morales, Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Corey Hart and Hunter Pence on the offensive side. Those free agents won't mean much if 2012 repeats itself. The Mariners will be better off building on top of their young, cost-controlled players rather than struggling to attract proven veterans and hoping everything else comes together.
Maybe I'll dust off my pitchfork and join the angry fans next winter. For now, I think Zduriencik should have more time to rebuild. Given some of the tough luck he's encountered, I think he deserves a little more slack before facing the angry mob.