Sunday, May 21, 2006

1977 Expansion Pt. 2

Seattle Mariners
The Seattle Mariners started as a joke -- even among expansion teams -- but soon developed into a franchise that fielded some of the greatest names of the 1990's. But the team that put together this much talent -- and even managed to win a record 116 games in 2001 -- never won a World Series or even got the recognition of a dynasty. This downfall is perhaps emblematic of a team that has always been on the fringes of major league baseball, a trend that continues into the 21st century.
The Marienrs were born as part of the 1977 expansion of the AL into 14 teams. Seattle was chosen because of promises given to Washington voters and lawmakers after the death of the Pilots in 1969. It was the same vague promise given to Kansas City when the A's left, that of a new team in the "near future." The ownership group was led by a businessman named Lester Smith and entertainer Danny Kaye. Lou Gorman was tabbed to run baseball operations, with Darrell Johnson to serve as the team's first manager.
While Toronto managed to at least form the base of a future in its expansion draft, Seattle fell short of that goal. There were some useful players obtained, for sure: #1 pick Ruppert Jones (Kansas City) was one of the franchise's first stars, although the Mariners couldn't afford to keep him around for long. On the unsuccessful side of the ledger was their second pick, Gary Wheelock, who pitched 91.1 innings with Seattle over two seasons and never saw the majors again.
The Mariners were able to get some useful regulars such as Dan Meyer and Bill Stein, but largely failed to get either impact players or quality prospects. The only impact player Seattle got was Angels slugger Leroy Stanton. Stanton was the franchise player during the debut year of 1977, hitting 27 HR with a 275/341/511 hitting line. But that was Stanton's last good season, and he was out of the majors a year later. The only quality pitcher obtained in the draft was Glenn Abbott (Oakland) who wasn't actually very good, but was able to eat up innings during his 5+ years with the Mariners.
In terms of prospects, the Mariners did acquire young speedster Dave Collins from the Angels in the draft. But after a disappointing year, they traded him to Cincinnati for Shane Rawley. Rawley served as a decent reliever in Seattle while Collins went on to a 16-year major league career. Apart from him, the only notable name on the draft roster was second baseman Julio Cruz, a fine-fielding second baseman and a truly dreadful hitter who nonetheless spent more than 6 seasons as a "star" in Seattle. The best draft pick Seattle made in 1977 was in the amateur draft, when they took future star Dave Henderson with their 1st-round pick.
Apart from Jones, Stanton and closer Enrique Romo (signed out of Mexico), there was little to cheer about as the inagural 1977 Mariners went 64-98, good enough for 6th place in the AL West (1/2 game ahead of Oakland). Despite the mediocrity, over 1.3 million fans came to the KingDome that year, 8th-best in the 14-team AL.
But it wasn't too much of a surprise when the team fell completely to the bottom. The team didn't have the means to compete in the new free agent market nor the savvy to build a competitive team (or productive farm system) on a budget. The team lost 104 games in 1978, rebounded for 95 losses and a 6th-place finish in 1979, then fell back to the cellar with a 59-103 1980. There was little reason to think things were changing; while the team had a number of semi-stars (Bruce Bochte, Leon Roberts, Tom Paciorek, Glenn Abbott) and fading stars (Willie Horton), there wasn't anything to suggest that the Mariners were headed to anything but more of the same in the near future.
The exception to this would be in a pitching staff that fielded some quality arms. Ace Floyd Bannister was an unsung pitcher of the 80's who was never great, but was actually pretty good for a number of years, particularly in his 1979-1982 Seattle stint. Young pitcher Rick Honeycutt was acquired in a shrewd trade with Pittsburgh in 1977. Closer Shane Rawley was also useful, as mentioned above. The problem was that each of these players spent a very short time in Seattle, traded away or lost to free agency before they could form any sort of cohesive unit.
1980 also saw the ownership group of Smith and Kaye announce its intention to sell. Seattle voters were upset that such an incompetent and (apparently) undercapitalized group was approved by the league. Those old enough to remember the Pilots weren't surprised, and some even wondered if the Mariners weren't just a ploy to settle lawsuits from the Pilots era before being moved somewhere else.
Fears were quieted when real estate mogul George Argyros bought the team. More notable (and infamous) was the on-field decision to replace original manager Johnson with former Dodger star Maury Wills. Wills' tenure as manager (1980-1981) can be described thusly: In Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders, Rob devotes a chapter to a short list of the worst managers to get a job in the majors. Wills, however, is the only one of them all that merits an entire chapter unto himself.
It's not just that Wills was a bad manager; he put the players through numerous drills, many of them apparently designed to turn the entire team into a group of slap-hitting base-stealers like Wills himself. In his defense, Wills had never managed before -- not even in the minors. His biggest qualification was the fact that he wrote a book -- his second of three autobiographies -- that was basically an argument for a big league managerial job. That combined with his reputation as a scrappy sort of player was apparently enough for the Seattle executives, who should have looked a little closer at the former stolen base king.
Wills was, by his own admission (in his third autobiography) in the midst of a dispute with one of his wives/girlfriends and also, by the way, abusing drugs. Few managers have proven an absolute embarassment to their teams on the field, but Wills managed. Neyer (among other sources) lists a number of Wills' drug-induced gaffes, among which would be calling for pinch-hitters long since traded from the team, leaving the dugout in the middle of a game to go get on a plane out of town, and a confrontational attitude with players, particularly star prospect Dave Henderson. It was on May 6 that management ended the pain by replacing Wills with Rene Lachemann. Disliked as he was, Wills' misadventures were well-chronicled in the Seattle media, giving a complete look at perhaps the worst manager in baseball history.
The strike year of 1981 was spent trying to stop the bleeding (44-65, 6th/5th place). In 1982, however, the M's surprised everyone by posting a 76-86 record for a respectable 4th-place finish. Part of the reason was an improved offense, mainly from the ascencion of Henderson (253/327/441) but also from Bochte and trade acquisitions Al Cowens and Richie Zisk. The rotation was anchored by Bannister and a young Jim Beattie, along with a nearly-retired but still-potent Gaylord Perry (Perry would win his 300th game as a member of the M's). More notable was a bullpen of good quality and depth, starting with ace closer Bill Caudill and including others such as Ed Vande Berg.
But the 1982 finish was only an illusion, the sign of many factors coming together at once, but fleetingly. The club went on to two more last-place finishes over the next 5 years, reclaiming its place at the bottom of the league. The reason behind the fall was the same as with many other tight-fisted teams: the good players either left as free agents (Bochte, Bannister), got traded away (Julio Cruz, Caudill) or simply got old (Cowens, Zisk, Perry). Of the 1982 stars, only Henderson, Vande Berg, and Beattie stayed with the team for any significant amount of time, and only Henderson could be called a star. The Mariners faced the further indignity of wearing some of the most oddly unattractive uniforms in an era that saw plenty of eyesores. Mauve, purple, and yellow isn't really a good color scheme under any circumstances, and the Poseidon/Neptune-ish "trident" luckily didn't make it to the 1990s.
The mid-80's saw a franchise in mass disarray, on the field and off. Managers came and went (nine in as many seasons), catchers got into fights with pitching coaches (Bob Kearney and Frank Funk, respectively), and owner Argyros caught the Seattle Sickness of threatened bankruptcy and relocation. What Argyros eventually got was more money out of the KingDome and an escape clause that allowed him to terminate the KingDome lease if ticket sales fell below a certain point. The optimistic view was that it was a chance for Seattle to prove itself as a major league town; the pessimistic view was that the city had been blackmailed by an owner right out of Major League.
Was there good news on the field? The best news was that, after a long dry post-Henderson spell, the Seattle farm system had finally produced two gems: first baseman Alvin Davis and pitcher Mark Langston. Davis (the 1984 Rookie of the Year) was a legitimate star, and while his career didn't last very long (1984/1992), he soon became the very-popular face of the team, known even today as "Mr. Mariner."
Langston was Davis' pitching counterpart. Also arriving in 1984, Langston tamed the AL with a 3.40 ERA and 204 K (along with 118 BB). Langston spent five and a half season in Seattle as the team's ace, a strikeout master (topping 200+ K each of his first 5 full ML seasons) with ERAs well above-average. Langston left the team in a cost-cutting trade in 1989, but the trade did bring in a top pitching prospect, a very tall felow we'll get to in a minute.
The club tried a different tactic in 1986 by hiring the hard-nosed veteran Dick Williams to manage the club. After coming under criticism for holding down prospects in the past, the Mariners under Williams let the young players play, with good results in 1987, as the team rose to a 78-84 record, a franchise-best good enough for 4th place in the AL West. But like all the other good years in the team's past, this one proved to be only temporary. Part of the reason was the trade of slugger Henderson and shortstop Spike Owen to Boston for prospect Rey Quinones. Quinones never mastered the use of a baseball bat, whereas Henderson and Owen were instrumental in Boston's 1986 pennant run (with Henderson providing more than one dramatic home run along the way). Another bone-headed trade saw young slugger Danny Tartabull sent off to Kansas City in return for pitcher Scott Bankhead, a head-scratcher even at the time.
The 1988 team went 68-93 and finished last, costing Williams his job. The Mariners were a mediocre organization simply spinning its wheels. A sidebar in Total Ballclubs notes that in 1987, the Mariners fired hitting coach Bobby Tolan because of a lack of communication with the team's hitters. The next year, hitting coach Frank Howard was fired for talking to the hitters too much.
The 1989 Mariners went 73-89 and finished 6th, a small victory for a fanbase that was accustomed to them. But it was the start of something new, at least on the field. The aforementioned Langston trade, made because of the star's impending free agency, brought in a top pitching prospect from the Montreal system: a tall left-hander named Randy Johnson. Johnson soon provided the club with an ace it had never really had; the team had fielded several pretty-good pitchers at the front of the rotation over the years, such as Bannister, Beattie, and Mike Moore, but never anyone nearly as good or as dominant as Johnson.
Joining Johnson as part of the Seattle youth movement was Ken Griffey, Jr. The benefit of finishing in last place every year is having high picks in the amateur draft. Seattle had usually failed to capitalize on them, but they landed a gold mine when the picked 17-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. in the 1987 draft. Griffey was a major-league ready 5-tool threat with a big-league pedigree. As the late 80's became the early 90's, the Mariners began to find more good young players to surround Griffey and Johnson and began their long, slow climb out of awfuldom.
As a note: The Mariners had the worst record in all of baseball for the decade of the 1980s. Their 673-894 record (.429 winning percentage) was significantly worse than more famous 80's losers such as Cleveland (.455), Atlanta (.457) and Texas (.462). It's a testament not just to how awful the Mariners were, but how forgettably awful they were; no one really noticed or cared, even though they -- like the Braves, Indians, and Rangers -- would all rebound significantly in the 1990s.
The Argyros soap opera also ended in 1989, when he announced the sale of the team to Indianapolis-based Emmis Broadcasting Company. One of the deal's provisos was that the team would not be relocated. But the curse of Seattle ownership struck again, as just one year later the head of Emmis Broadcasting began publicly bemoaning his money woes and putting out feelers for a possible move, eventually admitting to having contact with St. Petersburg about a potential relocation.
It seemed like crisis was averted when the Seattle-based Nintendo Corporation came forward with an offer to buy the team. Nintendo was a staple of Seattle, and certainly not short of cash in the early 90's. But baseball, led by Commissioner Fay Vincent, objected strongly to Nintendo's acquisition of the Mariners because baseball was apparently opposed to "foreign" ownership.
It must be said that this occurred in the early 1990's, an odd period when the success of the Japanese economy and subsequent Japanese ventures into American markets led to an amazingly vociferous, racist and hypocritical anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. Organized Baseball, representing not only several major commercial interests but continuing its traditionally conservative political mindset, jumped on the bandwagon and waved the American flag as much as anyone. It should be said that the Seattle voters and Washington politicians (presumably more at ease with Japanese people) were in favor of the sale, as it would keep the team in Seattle in the hands of wealthy owners. Old Pilot fans even suggested that baseball's real objection to the Nintendo bid was that it would prevent the move to St. Petersburg, a charge that is certainly believable and reasonable considering MLB's awful treatment of the city and desire to move to Florida.
The matter was finally settled when Nintendo compromised with 49% of the team's stock, with a large chunk of the rest paid for by Chris Larson, an executive with Microsoft. Dewey & Acocella say it best: "Although he ended up with less than one percent of the team, local businessman John Ellis was named as chief executive officer, thereby keeping the team in white hands."
(As noted in the previous entry, the later acquisition of the Blue Jays by Belgian brewers merited no such anti-foreign rhetoric, a truly sad example of the state of baseball -- and America -- even today).
The impossible happened in 1991 -- the Mariners finished above .500. They posted an 83-79 record that was only good enough for 5th place in the AL West, but still represented a milestone. It took Seattle 15 years before they finally reached .500. By comparison, it took the Mets and Astros 8 seasons, the Rangers 9, the Padres and Brewers 10, the Expos 11, the Royals just 3, the Angels just 2, and their expansion-mates Toronto just 7 seasons. The Mariners got off to the worst start (over the long run) of any expansion franchise in history (although they could be threatened by the Devil Rays; Tampa Bay is entering its 9th season still looking for its first .500 season -- their "best" season thus far being a 70-91, .435 record in 2004).
Obviously no one can compare to the Mets' 1962-1968 frustrations, but then they broke out and won the World Series in 1969, just their 8th season of existence.
After their 83-79 finish in 1991, the M's fell back to last place in 1992 at 64-98. Pessimistic Seattle fans thought "Here we go again," and there was nothing over the short run to disprove them, as the M's next two years showed. A solid 82-80, 3rd-place performance in 1993 was dashed aside in the strike-shortened 1994. The Mariners moved into the 4-team AL West, making their chances for the postseason greater than ever -- but in 1994 they went 49-63 and finished 3rd.
However . . .
This time, at long last, the Mariners actually were building a very good team. It was based on a very strong offense, an offense generated mainly from an unexpected source -- their own farm system. It wasn't just Griffey that came out of the minors to form a dynamite offense. In 1982, the Mariners signed a young third baseman named Edgar Martinez as an amateur free agent. The greatest tragedy of Edgar's career was that the Mariners were convinced that he was a third baseman -- despite his performance to the contrary. Even when Edgar started to hit -- and hit very well -- in the majors, his playing time was still limited, because Seattle forced him to share time with incumbent third baseman Jim Presley -- who, incidentally, wasn't 1/100th the hitter Edgar was. Edgar performed very well in parts of three seasons from 1987-1989. Then, from 1990-1992, Edgar broke out as one of the best right-handed hitters in the game, winning a batting title in 1992 and twice finishing in the top 5 in OBP. But he was still spending most of his time at third base, a situation which not only left him more liable to injury (thus limiting the number of days his great bat was in the lineup) but was also a crime against defense. The question, "Why didn't the Mariners just stick him at DH?" is a very good one, especially since the position was "manned" by Pete O'Brien during Martinez's excellent 1993. There is no good answer, but in the Mariners' defense, few players ever get put in the DH slot that early in their career, and people who can hit as well as Martinez just seem more like "everyday" players (viz. on-the-field players). But the irony is that starting at DH in 1991 would have limited Edgar's injuries by keeping him off the KingDome AstroTurf, it would have automatically have improved the Mariner defense, and it would have enabled him to play literally everyday, as he did later in his career when he averaged about 150 games/year. And while Martinez is now seen as a marginal Hall-of-Famer, better handling by Seattle could have settled the issue in his favor.
But I digress. Wherever Edgar played, he hit, and he hit well enough to act as a juggernaut in the Seattle order. He finished 18 major league seasons (all in Seattle) with a daunting 312/418/515 career hitting line, which is amazing even in context.
The infield was boosted by first baseman Tino Martinez, who blossomed into a fine hitter in Seattle before being traded to the Yankees (for peanuts), where he became an even better hitter. Shortstop Omar Vizquel came up in Seattle, and although Omar's defensive brilliance has been grossly exaggerated, he played well and hit decently with the M's. But then he, too, was sent off in a horrible trade, going to Cleveland for Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson. This starts another, more unfortunate theme, of the period; that for all the great players the Mariners had in the 1990's, they had surprisingly little to show for it, as the trades of Martinez and Vizquel illustrate.
The one trade that did go in Seattle's favor was a very lopsided one, later made famous by George Costanza in a Seinfeld episode. The Mariners traded Ken Phelps -- an over-the-hill DH with a little pop still left in his bat -- to the Yankees for a young outfielder named Jay Buhner. Of course, that went about how you'd expect: Phelps was already washed-up, whereas Buhner blossomed into a star slugger and fine right fielder in Seattle. Yankee fans were able to vent their frustration over this (and every other Yankee trade that gave up good prospects for worthless veterans) in the persona of Jason Alexander, who took Steinbrenner to task for the Buhner/Phelps swap on the show.
What kept the Mariners of the early 90's from truly contending with this lineup was the lack of any kind of pitching staff, after Randy Johnson. While Johnson came into his own as an ace and later as a Hall-of-Famer, the Mariners were notoriously unable to find anybody to back him up in the rotation or support him in the bullpen. There were short-term solutions such as Erik Hanson, Tim Leary, Chris Bosio, and Dave Fleming, but there was never enough to make the Mariners competitive. They were the kind of team that -- to paraphrase Casey Stengel -- scored 7 runs and gave up 8. (Present-day Reds and Yankees fans can relate.)
The pitching problems were compounded by management's increasingly desperate moves to solve them. Of course, they also shot themselves in the foot more often than not. In 1992, GM Woody Woodward traded away pitchers Mike Jackson, Bill Swift, and Dave Burba to the Giants to get slugger Kevin Mitchell. While Mitchell had a meltdown compounded by injuries and attitude, the three pitchers -- none of them aces, but just the kind of group to form the meat of a solid pitching staff -- helped the Giants win 103 games in 1993.
But the tide started to turn when GM Woodward signed manager Lou Pineilla to manage the team. After winning the 1990 World Series with Cincinnati, Pineilla was let go for failing to reproduce the success in 1991. It was Pineilla's inaugural season in 1993 that saw the club's second above-.500 finish, although he wasn't able to prevent the fall to 3rd place in 1994. It wasn't just the player's strike that afflicted the team that year; falling tiles at the Kingdome necessitated a schedule change that saw the team play an exhausting 20 straight games on the road.
In 1995, though, it all came together. Despite injuries that limited franchise player Griffey to 72 games, the Mariners put together a very strong lineup, thanks to Jay Buhner and the Martinez duo. Randy Johnson ascended to the next level with a Cy Young season that saw him post a 2.48 ERA while striking out 294 batters -- the most since Nolan Ryan topped 300 in 1989. Pitching depth was still a problem, but the club was able to get tolerable performances from starters Chris Bosio and Tim Belcher. They looked to solve the problem by acquiring Andy Benes at the trading deadline, but Benes posted a 5.86 ERA in his 12 starts with the club. The bullpen was a problem, as evidenced by the struggles of closer Bobby Ayala (4.44 ERA), but the difference was in the depth behind Ayala, in the form of Norm Charlton (1.51), Jeff Nelson (2.17) and Bill Risley (3.13).
1995 also saw the debut of a phenom to rival Ken Griffey, Jr. The Mariners had the #1 overall pick in the 1993 draft and used it to select young Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod had superstar written all over him, reaching the majors at the age of 20 in 1995 and giving the team a future shortstop that was a big upgrade over Luis Sojo.
But it looked like it still just wasn't enough. The injuries to Griffey and the pitching woes kept the Mariners a safe distance behind the AL West leaders, the California Angels. The Angels built up a huge, double-digit lead in the West and then -- in dramatic and historic fashion -- they blew it.
Trades were made to strengthen the team, Griffey returned early from injury, and all of a sudden the M's were back in it. They gained ground on the Angels and eventually sped past them into 1st place in the division. It was one of the great comebacks/swoons in baseball history. But then the Mariners faltered, and they finished the regular season tied with California for the AL West lead. A one-game playoff was in order, with the winner going to the postseason and the loser going home. The Mariners started Randy Johnson, and that's about all you need to know. Johnson dominated the Angel hitters, and the offense notched 9 runs. The Mariners took the game and the AL West and were going to the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
If the playoff game was a dramatic affair, the ALDS against the Yankees was even moreso. It was the first season of the new playoff format (the 1994 playoffs being cancelled), and the first year of the ALDS. Competing were two teams experiencing a rebirth. For the Yankees it was their first trip to the postseason since 1981. Having degenerated into a team dominated by old players and poor free agent signings, the Yanks had finally reversed things under the eye of GM Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter. The team had turned things around thanks to a good mix of veterans and homegrown players, playing well enough to win the first-ever AL Wild Card. For the Mariners, it wasn't so much a rebirth as just a "birth," as they were playoff novices playing against the most storied franchise in professional sports.
Critics of the new playoff system were stymied when the two teams put on an excellent show. The Yankees took Games 1 and 2 in New York, both high-scoring affairs. It looked like a cake-walk for the Yankees, as the Mariner pitching was as unreliable as advertised. But Randy Johnson was available to start Game 3 in Seattle, and pitched well enough to propel the team to victory. The M's survived an 11-8 slugfest to win Game 4, forcing a deciding Game 5.
It was David Cone for the Yankees against trade acquisition Andy Benes. Neither starter was dominant, and a 4-4 tie meant extra innings. But extra innings meant dipping into Seattle's bullpen, a move that manager Piniella didn't relish. So Pineilla went to starter Johnson -- on two days rest -- and Johnson shut down the Yankees in relief. But even the Big Unit was mortal, allowing a run in the 11th that gave New York a 5-4 lead. The KingDome was rocking in the Bottom of the 11th when the Yankees sent disappointing starter Jack McDowell back out to the hill. After singles by Joey Cora and Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez stepped up. Martinez laced a double into the corner. Cora raced home to score the tying run and Griffey -- still hurting a bit due to injuries -- was right behind him. Griffey was safe at the plate with the winning run, and the Mariners had won their first-ever playoff series and earned a berth in the ALCS against the Indians. The dramatic ending is cited by many Seattle fans even today as the greatest moment in team history.
The ALCS against the equally fearsome Indians didn't end so happily. The Mariners took an early 2-1 lead in the Series thanks to the pitching of Bob Wolcott (?) and Randy Johnson, but dropped the next 3 games, with Johnson taking a tough 4-0 loss in the decisive Game 6.
The team returned, energized for the 1996 season, and finished with a decent 85-76 record, but that was 4.5 games behind the division-winning Rangers. This despite the amazing play of the 21-year-old A-Rod, who finished 2nd in the MVP voting and maybe should have finished first.
The M's returned in 1997, though, when their 90-72 record was good enough for 1st place in a dismal AL West, thanks mainly to a record-breaking team total of 264 home runs. It was most of the same faces returning again, but this time with more support for the still-dominant Johnson in the rotation, provided by Jeff Fassero (3.61 ERA) and Jamie Moyer (3.86 ERA). The bullpen was a quagmire, as was becoming Seattle tradition, and GM Woodward made a desperate move to fix it. Taking the "any old port" mantra to heart, Woodward traded for Boston "closer" Heathcliff Slocumb, a useful pitcher but not a difference-maker. The real tragedy was in the prospects given up: pitcher Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek. Not surprisingly, Heathcliff wasn't the answer to the team's postseason ills, as they lost the ALDS 3-1 to the Orioles.
The 1998 club was a similar story; a powerhouse offense just looking for some help. Despite the fact that the building of a new stadium would give the franchise more cash, it was apparent going into the season that the club would be unable to re-sign free agent Randy Johnson. Whether this contributed to Johnson's malaise is unclear, but as the team limped to a 3rd-place finish, Johnson posted a 4.33 ERA. But the idea that Johnson was slumping isn't exactly legitimate -- Johnson also struck out an ungodly 213 batters in 160 IP with Seattle, a sign that it might not have been a slump after all. This was confirmed after Johnson was traded to Houston (for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Halama), whereupon Johnson became a pitching god, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and a 26:116 BB:K ratio in just 84.1 IP with Houston, catapulting the Astros into the postseason. The good news was that the Mariners had -- this time -- received good value in their trade.
The belief that the club couldn't contend without Johnson was reinforced in 1999, when the club again went 79-83 and again finished 3rd. The team scored a respectable 859 runs -- but allowed 905, 2nd-worst in the AL.
So it was with great surprise that the 2000 Mariners won the Wild Card behind a 91-71 performance. The great surprise came because the club had traded away franchise player Ken Griffey, Jr. to Cincinnati in the off-season. They received Mike Cameron and Brett Tomko in exchange in what looked like a cold-hearted salary dump (although it wasn't such an awful trade considering what happened to Griffey in Cincinnati). But even without Junior, the new-look Mariners could win. They had a new ballpark, the beautiful Safeco Field, financed by the growth of Seattle as a modern, high-tech city with a much more lucrative market. They had a new GM in Pat Gillick, architect of the championship Toronto teams of 1992-1993. Gillick went to the free agent market to get a valuable first baseman in John Olerud, Cameron was able to at least partially replace Griffey (with a 267/365/438 hitting line and great defense), and of course, Buhner, A-Rod, and Edgar Martinez were still there. The team's problem was, to no one's surprise, pitching. Young Freddy Garcia showed a good deal of promise, but mainstay Jamie Moyer struggled, and free agent Aaron Sele turned out to be a very poor investment. The starting pitching troubles were offset somewhat by an improved bullpen, anchored by Japanese import (and Rookie of the Year) closer Kazuhiro Sasaki. The team was good enough for an upset ALDS sweep of the Chicago White Sox, but once again couldn't get past the ALCS, losing to the Yankees in 6 games.
After losing Johnson in 1998 and Griffey in 2000, the crowning blow was struck in the 2000 offseason when free agent Alex Rodriguez signed a historic free agent deal with the Texas Rangers, paying him more than $25 million a year for 10 years and making him the richest man in baseball by an absurd margin. Seattle fans, out of spite and frustrated with the realities of free agency, demonized A-Rod as a heartless profit-seeker. And with Johnson, Griffey, and A-Rod gone, what chance would the 2001 Mariners have?
As it turned out, a pretty good one.
The 2001 Mariners went 116-46. This is such a historic (and unprecedented) achievement that it deserves some discussion.
In 1998, the Yankees went 114-48, setting a new record for regular-season wins and becoming (in the eyes of many) the best team in baseball history. So it was considered a humongous shock that the record should be broken so quickly -- and by the Seattle Mariners?! Not only that, but a Mariner team that had lost three sure-fire Hall-of-Famers in 3 years.
But they were for real. The 2001 Mariners scored 5.72 runs/game, the best mark in the league. They did not lead the league in doubles or home runs, although they did finish 2nd in walks and struck out less often than all but 2 AL teams. Their .288 batting average and .360 batting average led the league -- both by 10 points -- and their .445 slugging percentage was fourth in the league, still quite amazing when you consider that Safeco Field that year was a strong pitchers' park; it had a 93 Park Factor for hitters, a 7% advantage for pitchers that made it the second-toughest hitter's park in the league.
Pitching-wise, the Mariners led the league with a 3.54 team ERA. Only two teams allowed fewer walks, while the team's 1051 strikeouts ranked 5th in the league. Defensively, the Mariners made a league-low 83 errors for a league-best .986 fielding percentage. More importantly, they posted the league's best Defensive Efficiency Ratio. DER is a simple measure of what percentage of balls in play (excluding HR, BB, K, HBP, etc.) a team turned into outs. DER can be subject to various effects and must be put into context, but it's a great rough, simple measure of how well a defense is doing its job -- turning balls in play into outs. Seattle's DER in 2001 was .727. The next-best was Anaheim's .700, with a league average in the high .680s. In other words, their defense was off-the-charts good. Combining pitching and defense, Seattle allowed only 3.87 runs/game in 2001, the best in the league.
It's rare when a team leads the league in most runs scored and fewest runs allowed. It's usually done by historically great teams -- teams that are dominant both in scoring runs and preventing them. The last team before the Mariners to lead the league in both categories was, of course, the 1998 Yankees. Other recent teams to accomplish the feat include:
'95 Cleveland Indians (100-44); '88 N.Y. Mets (100-60); '84 Detroit Tigers (104-58); '78 L.A. Dodgers (95-67); '74 L.A. Dodgers (102-60); '71 Baltimore Orioles (101-57); and others. Add to the list '01 Seattle Mariners (116-46); '04 St. Louis Cardinals (105-57)
So what happened to make the '01 Mariners historic? And should they be regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time?
What happened was, with all due respect to the players, due more to chance than talent. Certainly it takes a lot of talent to win 116 games under any circumstances, but it's simply hard to argue that the '01 Mariners should go on the same list as the '98 Yankees or the '27 Yankees.
To give you an idea of what I mean, here's a rundown of the '01 Mariners' key players, compared to the '98 Yankees:
* - represents future Hall-of-Famer
** -- represents borderline Hall-of-Famer or true franchise player
2001 Mariners Lineup
Manager: Lou Pineilla** -- won Manager of the Year
1B -- John Olerud** (302/401/472)
2B -- Bret Boone (331/372/578)
SS -- Carlos Guillen (259/333/355)
3B -- David Bell (260/303/415)
LF -- Al Martin (240/330/382)
CF -- Mike Cameron (267/353/480)
RF -- Ichiro Suzuki** (350/381/457), Gold Glove, Rookie Of Yr., MVP
C -- Dan Wilson (265/305/403)
DH -- Edgar Martinez** (306/423/543)
Mark McLemore, Stan Javier, Tom Lampkin, Jay Buhner

1998 New York Yankees Lineup
Manager: Joe Torre** -- won Manager of the Year
1B -- Tino Martinez (281/355/505)
2B -- Chuck Knoblauch (265/361/405)
SS -- Derek Jeter* (324/384/481)
3B -- Scott Brosius (300/371/472)
LF -- Chad Curtis (243/355/360)
CF -- Bernie Williams** (339/422/575), Gold Glove
RF -- Paul O'Neill (317/372/510)
C -- Jorge Posada** (268/350/475)
DH -- Darryl Strawberry (247/354/542)
Tim Raines**, Joe Girardi, Chili Davis, Luis Sojo

2001 Seattle Mariners Pitching Staff
Freddy Garcia: 3.05 ERA, 138 ERA+, 69 BB : 163 K
Jamie Moyer**: 3.43 ERA, 123 ERA+, 44 BB : 119 K
Aaron Sele: 3.60 ERA, 117 ERA+, 51 BB : 114 K
Paul Abbott: 4.25 ERA, 99 ERA+, 87 BB : 118 K
John Halama: 4.73 ERA, 89 ERA+, 26 BB : 50 K
Kazuhiro Sasaki: 3.24 ERA, 45 SV, 11 BB : 62 K
Arthur Rhodes, Jeff Nelson, Jose Paniagua, Norm Charlton

1998 New York Yankees Pitching Staff
Andy Pettitte**: 4.24 ERA, 105 ERA+, 87 BB : 146 K
David Cone**: 3.55 ERA, 126 ERA+, 59 BB : 209 K
David Wells**: 349 ERA, 128 ERA+29 BB : 163 K
Hideki Irabu: 4.06 ERA, 110 ERA+, 76 BB : 126 K
Orlando Hernandez: 3.13 ERA, 143 ERA+, 52 BB : 131 K
Mariano Rivera*: 1.91 ERA, 234 ERA+, 36 SV, 17 BB : 36 K
Mike Stanton, Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson

There's really not any comparison. While the '98 Yanks may have a weak spot here and there (Chad Curtis, Hideki Irabu), every great team does. But the Mariners' pitching staff is a weak spot, in terms of historical performance, and even in terms of their season. They rode two good starting pitchers and a strong bullpen to the postseason, which is good but not historic.
And while their lineup performed well that year, it's a huge stretch to call it historic. The '98 Yankees have 1 sure-fire HOFer in their lineup (Jeter), three possibles (Williams, Posada, Raines) and many others who will get some Hall of Fame support (Tino Martinez, Knoblauch, O'Neill, Strawberry, basically the rest of the lineup).
If the 2001 Mariners produce a Hall of Famer, I will be surprised. And how can you be a really great team if you don't have even one Hall-of-Famer? The only possibility is Ichiro, and that's a stretch. The M's do have some guys who will get nibbles from voters (Olerud, Boone, Cameron, Edgar, Moyer), but they just can't compare to the Yanks.
This is held up, I think, by the postseason performance of the M's. They beat the Indians in the ALDS, but it took them the full 5 games (dominant?). Then, they fell to the Yankees (as fate would have it) in the ALCS in 6 games. Postseason success isn't always indicative of true quality, but this is the final nail in the coffin for the case of the "Great" Mariners.

So what's my ultimate conclusion about the 2001 M's? They were a very talented team and deserve to be remembered as one of the best teams of their time. But they had so much good fortune in compiling their record, especially considering their personnel (Al Martin? Paul Abbott??) that they cannot be seriously considered one of the all-time "greats," along with the '27, '39, or '98 Yankees, the '75 Reds, or any of the Boys of Summer teams, John McGraw's Giant teams, or Connie Mack's A's.

So what's happened since 2001? In both 2002 and 2003, the Mariners won 93 games and came just this close to making the postseason. While the regulars like Edgar, Olerud, Ichiro, Cameron, Boone, and Moyer stayed around, they were all on the wrong side of 30, and the M's weren't replacing them from the farm system, nor were they making canny moves on the free agent market.
This truth came crashing down in 2004, when the M's went 63-99 and finished last. It was under a new manager, Bob Melvin (Pineilla having been "traded" to Tampa Bay for outfielder Randy Winn) and a new GM, Bill Bavasi. Of all the young pitchers who were supposed to be the future (Meche, Franklin, Pineiro), all collapsed save Freddy Garcia, whose impending free agency got him traded to the White Sox for little outside of decent CF prospect Jeremy Reed. The free agents and trade acquisitions who were supposed to make the team better were either only modestly succesful (Raul Ibanez, Eddie Guardado) or abject failures (Rich Aurilia, Scott Spiezio). Off-the-field, the team, no longer drawing historic crowds, was still raking in the money mainly due to merchandising and Japanese marketing of the team due to Ichiro's continued stardom. Ichiro gave Mariner fans a reason to cheer when he set a new single-season record for hits, with 262. Left unsaid was that Ichiro's 704 at-bats were 2nd-most all-time, a dent in the armor of a record that baseball tried hard to push as significant. This despite the fact that the record was previosuly unknown to nearly every casual fan, as was its previous holder, Hall-of-Famer George Sisler.
2005 was more of the same; the M's did nothing to improve their woeful pitching staff, while spending all of their money on two big free agents: Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre. The question going into the 2004-2005 off-season was about Adrian Beltre. Beltre was coming off a 2004 where he was nearly the league MVP and played like one of the elite. The problem was that Beltre had never played anywhere near as good before; he was just 25 in 2004, so it could have been a break-out season or it could have just been a career year. So which General Manager was going to blink first and pay Beltre MVP money?
It was Mariners GM Bill Bavasi who ponied up for Beltre. And the early returns from 2005 and the first two months of 2006 are telling: Beltre is good, but not as good as he was in 2004 and not nearly worth the contract he signed. Bavasi took a big risk and is now paying for it. Sexson, although also overpaid, at least killed the ball at the plate (263/369/541) to justify his money.
The future for the Mariners is bleak. Still making money, they feel compelled to spend it on free agents, but the amount of money spent simply doesn't merit the small returns those free agents bring. The M's signed Jarrod Washburn as a free agent for the 2006 season; Washburn is a good pitcher and will improve the pitching staff, but he's not as good as the Mariners think he is and isn't worth the money they're paying him. Hope from the farm system is bare; prospect Reed has taken over center field with defensive elan, but it doesn't look like he can hit. The same could be said for the middle-infield combination of Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt. Betancourt looks like a great young defensive shortstop, but he doesn't hit well even for a shortstop. The Mariners' future is the same as many other middle-market clubs; when they stopped overspending on marginal free agents and invest in their farm system, they will succeed. It will mean some time spent out of contention, but then the present plan hasn't shot the M's into contention either. The difference is admitting to your stockholders and your fanbase that you won't contend for another 5 years. It may be the truth and the best move in the long term, but no one wants to hear it. They'll fool themselves into believing some yahoo with a harebrained scheme to make the team competitive next year. After the failure, they'll find another yahoo and repeat ad infinitum. The M's have a chance to break the slide with new ownership (Nintendo finally bought a majority share), a new manager (Mike Hargrove), and a new General Manager . . . at least, as soon as they fire Bill Bavasi.
The Mariners' long-term legacy may be as the team that accomplished so little with so much. That title previously rested with the Miwaukee Braves. The Braves took the best years of three legends -- Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Mathews -- along with franchise players such as Johnny Sain, Lew Burdette, and Joe Adcock -- and translated it into 2 pennants (3 if you count 1948) and 1 World Series.
The Mariners have them beat. They had better players than the Braves -- the best years of Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez, as well as Jay Buhner, Bret Boone, Tino Martinez, Omar Vizquel, Jamie Moyer, John Olerud, and Ichiro Suzuki -- and translated it into 0 pennants and 0 World Series. The Mariners from 1995-2003 won 3 division titles and 1 Wild Card -- that's it. They reached the ALCS on 3 separate occasions and losts every time in 6 games -- once to Cleveland and twice to New York. Unfortunately for Mariner fans, the greatest years in Seattle might become more famous for what might have been than for what actually was.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders by Rob Neyer
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

No comments: