Boys Into Men

Two moments, two boys, two men, two futures, and one choice

It is Thursday, and Michigan State is losing to Bradley. Because college sports is the least regulated (and not coincidentally most wildly corrupt) institution in major American sports it’s easy for gross inequalities to form and widen. Michigan State and Bradley sit upon opposite sides of this now gaping chasm, and let’s just say Bradley shouldn’t be winning. There’s a time out and, from nowhere, chaos.

This is a man screaming at a boy. He does so not to instruct, nor to impart wisdom. He does so because he is furious. He does so because once, when he was a boy, someone near him was furious, and screamed at him. He screams because he can, because he has worked for it. His title, his tenure, his bank balance afford him unlimited power. He is not mad at a bad defensive rotation, a failure to make the extra pass, or a lack of hustle on the break. He is simply mad, and all that money and power affords him a convenient target, one so helpless and vulnerable he can be screamed at live on television and the majority of humans will think almost nothing of it. This is how boys become men.

***

It is very early in the morning on that very same Thursday, and in the middle of a baseball game a ceremony has broken out. Ichiro, a global icon whose impact on the game stands among the greats even if he were not also one of the greatest baseball players to ever live, is leaving the field as a player, for the final time. His teammates have lined up to hug, to high five, to pay their due respect for the legend. He reaches his teammate and countryman Yusei Kikuchi, who has just made his major league debut.

This is a man weeping into the shoulder of his idol. He does not cry because he is sad. He cries because, despite a world that declared it to be weak, someone near him made it clear to him that it’s OK. They told him no matter where, or when, or how, there will come times when the effort to hold it all in will not be worth the cost. That doing so will make us hard, and full of rage. He is crying because as a boy he found a man to idolize, a star by which to set his course. Unlike most of us, this boy stayed the course. He followed the path of his idol and, at the very end of that idol’s career, he shared the field with him. One game, one day, one moment shared. When it was over, he wept, and his idol embraced him. Two men, and one exchange. This is how boys become men.

 

What are the Mariners rebuilding?

They’re finally doing what we wanted right? Right!?

Since the signing of Robinson Cano in 2014 the Mariners have been caught in the middle. Their roster has been fun and competitive, but not elite. As the organization has entered season after season forever content to be as far from greatness as they were from failure, the clock kept ticking. As the the team’s core aged, the catastrophic state of the farm system only furthered the horror at the big league team’s inability to make the postseason, and ownership’s refusal to loosen the purse strings to help them do so. It has been a stressful, combative, and largely unenjoyable era.

So I’m happy to offer a belated congratulations to all Mariner fans: We did it! The Mariners are rebuilding. It took a season-long case of whiplash worthy of an immense court settlement, but Jerry Dipoto and friends have finally acquiesced to the inevitable. While Dipoto’s silicon valley thesaurus calls it a “step back” or “re-prioritizing” the decision to trade James Paxton and Mike Zunino for younger players signals, at long last, the Mariners’ acknowledgement that a change in course was necessary. We can quibble over whether Dipoto is the right man to lead a rebuild, or whether the talent returns thus far are sufficient. We can (and definitely should) point out that the necessity of a rebuild could be entirely avoided by an obscenely wealthy ownership group sinking consistent investment into on field talent, and committing fully to winning, but those are conversations for another day.

With Paxton and Zunino in New York and Tampa, respectively, Seattle finds itself already near the bottom of its barrel of valuable major league assets. This dearth is both why a rebuild is so necessary, and at least part of why the team has been so hesitant to get it underway. Outside of Mitch Haniger, who is the one current big leaguer with value I can see a clear case for retaining, the team is down to Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz, and Marco Gonzales.

That state of things is what has made the past 48 hours so distressing as a Mariner fan. While Segura rumors are indeed out there, the past two news cycles have been dominated not by the young talent the Mariners can acquire, but by the persistent and multiply-sourced rumors that the team is “desperate” to move Robinson Cano. Most concerning of all, is the thought that this desperation is sufficient for the team to package Diaz or a comparable talent with him. It is here, friends, we find ourselves with a booming “SAME OLD MARINERS” echoing from the back, and with good cause.

The idea of trading Robinson Cano is difficult to stomach. He is one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise. His acquisition in 2014 could have, and should have, heralded a new era, with the Mariners joining the game’s upper crust, as ownership continued to invest in the product on the field. Watching him play daily has been a constant joy. Outside of last year’s regrettable (and overly hand wrung over) PED suspension, he has been consistently great since the moment he arrived. He has been great, he is still great, and I imagine he’ll be great for a few more years. Still, with the course of the franchise’s next 2-3 years seemingly set and destined to continue the team’s comically long playoff absence, it is understandable why all parties might be ready to move on. Cano wants to win, and the Mariners have no urgent competitive need to spend $24 million a year for the last productive seasons of a player’s career. I get it. I hate it, but I get it.

ALL THAT BEING SAID, if the franchise is willing to neuter the substantial value in desperately needed young talent a player like Edwin Diaz can return by attaching him to a contract they no longer wish to pay, a contract that has zero negative impact on this team’s ability to win games now or in the future, then it says the Mariners are, at least in part, using this rebuild as a smokescreen to justify simply culling payroll to cull payroll. I want to be careful not to act as though this is something the team has actually done at this point. Rumors are rumors. But they do not spring out magically from the ground. Someone somewhere is leaking the idea. While it may not be someone connected to the Mariners, the team could easily enough squash the idea with public statement. They have not done so, and as such I feel comfortable believing it is a concept they are at least considering. This, to be blunt, is unacceptable, and should be loudly decried from every corner of the fanbase. I am pleased to see in some ways it already has been.

To newer fans it may seem rash to leap so readily to the call for torches and barricades, but consider the track record the organization has offered us over the present era. They have not made the playoffs. They have not committed the financial resources necessary to make not making the playoffs a statistical unlikelihood. They have bad mouthed and vilified Felix Hernandez, the most loyal player in team history, and one of its most beloved stars. It has come out that the team’s president and other members of the organization settled sexual harassment cases while with the org. The front office is in the midst of a scandal involving accusations of misogyny and racism that, at best, makes them look wholly incompetent. As the team looks to shed payroll they stand on the brink of a new naming rights deal for the taxpayer-funded stadium we built for them, a deal that will bring them many times more revenue than the previous deal with Safeco ever did. For anyone who has followed this team closely for any amount of time, the Mariners have offered us little rational choice but to assume the worst case scenario is also probably the most likely one.

It was three and a half years ago, the day Jack Zduriencik was fired, that I wrote about how tired the team had made me, and how concerning Kevin Mather’s spoken priorities were. As Jerry Dipoto’s era lurches onward, everything about the team speaks to an organization that places vastly more emphasis on process-oriented life hacks and trumpeted announcements of same, rather than simply trusting, believing in, and paying the talented men who produce the phenomenal level of baseball that made us all fans in the first place. The team is rebuilding at long last, but our experience with the Mariners tells us that we must watch carefully, and speak out quickly. Do they intend to rebuild their talent, or their profits?

 

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)

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.