When news broke on Sunday that the Mariners had lost All-Star second baseman Robinson Canó to a fractured hand, it was hard not to feel for snakebitten Seattle. Off to a 23–17 start and in the playoff hunt, the loss of Canó was a tough one to take, as his injury would keep him out at least a month and likely longer. Still, though, bones heal, and while Canó’s absence would hurt, at least he would be back in time to help the Mariners make a playoff push in the summer and fall.
Well, fittingly for the team of the Pacific Northwest, when it rains, it pours. Just two days after Canó's bad break, the Mariners got one of their own when they learned that he would be suspended 80 games for violating MLB’s joint drug agreement. The particulars of his offense are tangled—he got popped not for a positive steroid test, but for using a diuretic that is a commonly employed masking agent for performance-enhancing drugs—but the result for Canó is a season fully lost and a legacy perhaps permanently tarnished. It’s also the latest calamity to befall the perpetually star-crossed Mariners, who now face an uncertain and unpleasant future without their star.
Start with the immediate concern of replacing Canó for the rest of the year. While there have been some bumps for Canó since coming to the Mariners in 2014, he’s been a productive piece of their lineup, with a .294/.353/.471 line, a 128 OPS+ and an average of 25 homers and 4.4 WAR per year in four-plus seasons in Seattle, and he was churning out similarly strong numbers in ‘18 (.287/.385/.441 and a 129 OPS+ in 169 plate appearances). Among all regular second baseman in that span of time, meanwhile, only Houston’s pint-sized MVP, Jose Altuve, beats Canó’s 22.0 WAR at 28.2.
In short: Canó is valuable and borderline irreplaceable. The task will likely fall first to recently acquired former first-round pick Gordon Beckham, whose career long ago stalled out but who is being given another chance just a few months shy of his 32nd birthday. But nothing in his past—a 2017 season spent with Seattle’s Triple-A team hitting a meager .262/.313/.393, or a career MLB line of .239/.303/.368—suggests anything useful there. Nor is there reason to expect much from backup infielder Andrew Romine (a career .237/.294/.305 hitter). One intriguing option is moving centerfielder Dee Gordon back to his old position at second, but that would open up a new hole that the Mariners can’t close either.
The trade market offers better options than those internal choices. It’s safe to assume that Jerry Dipoto, who’s never met a potential deal he didn’t want to make, will spend the next few weeks on the phone seeing what’s out there. Prying veteran Starlin Castro from the rebuilding Marlins would make sense, or perhaps Dipoto could see if the cost-cutting Pirates would like to dump Josh Harrison’s salary.
But before Dipoto can make a move, he has to decide what the Mariners are going to be going forward. Seattle is in the thick of both the AL West race (only 1 ½ games back of the Angels and Astros) and the wild-card chase, and while Canó was a large part of that early success, the offense has hummed beyond him. Nelson Cruz continues to defy time; Mitch Haniger is breaking out at age 27 with a 155 OPS+; and offseason additions Gordon and Ryon Healy have helped make up for sluggish starts from Jean Segura and Kyle Seager. But that lineup has had to carry a mediocre rotation featuring the excellent James Paxton and a lot of filler, including a compromised King Felix; the same is true of a bullpen featuring hard-throwing Edwin Diaz and not much else.
Are the talented but flawed Mariners good enough to make the playoffs without Canó? The West is stronger than ever, with the defending champion Astros, the Trout-and-Ohtani led Angels, and the quietly competent A’s all vying for first. The wild card will be no easier a task, with as many as a half-dozen teams fighting over what will be only one spot (assuming either of the Yankees or Red Sox take the other). Subtracting a five-win player from Seattle’s uneven roster is a heavy blow, and with the Mariners’ margin for error already dreadfully thin before his loss, it could prove fatal.
Losing Canó doesn’t just hurt on the field, though. It’s another psychic stomach punch to a franchise that has absorbed countless already. Few teams have waded through suffering over the last two decades like the Mariners have. It’s been 17 years since they last made the postseason, currently the longest playoff-less stretch in professional North American sports, and in that time, the Mariners have watched every other team in their division extend their season into October. Two of them, the Angels in 2002 and Astros last year, won the World Series, the first for each in franchise history. For Seattle, meanwhile, the title counter remains stuck at zero, 41 years after the club came into existence.
Entire careers have been born and winked out of existence since the Mariners last made the playoffs. Ichiro arrived, won MVP and Rookie of the Year honors, set records, left, and came back this winter a wizened and gray man before going on a temporary career hiatus. Felix Hernandez went from teenage super-prospect with a rocket arm to a wily veteran surviving on smarts and sub-90-mph fastballs. Top draft picks have been made and flamed out with regularity; the ghosts of Jeff Clement, Danny Hultzen and Dustin Ackley still haunt Safeco. Through it all, the Mariners put together good seasons and bad ones, toiling as the most .500 of clubs; the only constant was their absence from the postseason.
Canó was supposed to put an end to that. When the Mariners lured him away from the Yankees with a colossal 10-year, $240 million contract after the 2013 season, it was with the expectation that the superstar second baseman would jumpstart a losing club that had faded out of baseball relevancy. His goal was to bring a championship to Seattle in the back half of what already looked like a potential Hall of Fame career.
Now that’s all in flux. And most concerning for the Mariners isn’t just the damage Canó’s suspension does to their 2018 hopes, but what the rest of his time in Seattle looks like. Five years and $120 million remain on his mega-deal after this season, and with the steroid suspension casting a cloud over his previous production, can anyone reasonably know whether Canó will continue to hit like he has in the past? Some form of decay was inevitably coming—Canó turned 35 last October, and time always wins—but the last four years made it look like the decline might be gradual and relatively painless. Instead, Canó will next suit up at 36 years old and, if the allegations are true, without chemical support. There’s no telling what he’ll be when he returns, or if he’ll be worth even a fraction of what he’s owed.
Such is the state of the Mariners, though—a franchise afflicted by more than its fair share of small-scale tragedies and all-too-human failures. (For proof, consult your local Mariners fan blog and its writers, who’ve chronicled so much high-grade suffering that they make Hemingway look like a children’s book author.) The pre-2004 Red Sox came up short on the biggest of stages, and the pre-2016 Cubs were the game’s preeminent losers, but the Mariners are their own special brand of inadequacy. The parts have never added up to a functional whole, even when they were gifted with gods like Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez or Randy Johnson or Ichiro or the young Felix. Instead, something always ends up off with the Mariners, who are the baseball equivalent of a guest bedroom painted a color you don’t like, or a midsize sedan with a seat stuck too far forward, or a meal where you missed a small but crucial step in making it.
It’s too early to say whether Canó’s suspension sinks this team or merely hampers it, but in so many ways, this turn of events doesn’t feel like a surprise. Disappointment is the Mariners’ specialty, and so is the attendant sadness of a team that doesn’t so much fail to get over the hump as even get within striking distance of it. A week ago, the team and its fans were celebrating Paxton’s no-hitter, a dominant and triumphant display from the man set to inherit Hernandez’s mantle as team ace and perhaps become the franchise’s post-Canó face. That joy didn’t last long, though; in Seattle, it never seems to.