Is it rebuild time in Seattle? That seems to be the case according to Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan, who reported on Tuesday that the Mariners “are considering a full-fledged teardown this winter” and have “told teams they’re willing to move just about anyone.” Such a decision would put stars like James Paxton, Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura, and Edwin Diaz on the trade market—but it would also signal yet another depressing addition to the league’s collection of teams that have decided they’d rather lose on the cheap than try to win.
On the surface, Seattle’s decision to burn it all down would be understandable. A second-half swoon cost the Mariners a postseason spot, and despite finishing with 89 wins—the franchise’s most since 2003—their playoff drought is now 17 years and counting. Seattle is solidly in the AL’s distant second tier of contenders, along with Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Los Angeles; as Passan puts it, the M’s “are in that awful no-man’s land where they’re good but not good enough.” Worse, they play in a division where they’re looking up at the mighty 100-win Astros and the 97-win A’s.
That’s not to say the Mariners can’t compete. When healthy, Paxton is one of the best lefthanded starters in baseball. Haniger and Segura are both coming off All-Star campaigns, as is Diaz, who led the majors in saves. But that’s about all they’ve got. Nelson Cruz, who banged 37 home runs last season, is 38 and a free agent. Robinson Canó is 36 and coming off a PED suspension. Felix Hernandez is a shell of himself at 32. Kyle Seager’s 2018 was a disaster offensively, and he just turned 31 last week. Mike Zunino, Ryon Healy and Dee Gordon were all barely average at the plate, and the outfield beyond Haniger is a mess. So is the rotation behind Paxton, and the bullpen aside from Diaz lacks impact arms. The farm system, meanwhile, is one of the worst in baseball, owing to years of bad drafts as well as several trades to prop up the major league roster.
The decision before general manager Jerry Dipoto is this: Do you spend in free agency and make some trades to try to build around the core of Paxton, Haniger, Segura and Diaz; or do you deal those four for prospects and tank for the next few years? Option A is almost certainly tougher, given that the Mariners already have $125.1 million on the books for next season—roughly $100 million of that going to Canó, Hernandez, Seager, Gordon and Mike Leake—and no prospects of their own to move to acquire talent. From that vantage point, a rebuild may feel like the only sensible course of action.
But while a teardown makes logical sense, it would still be a gigantic bummer to see the Mariners simply give up. Baseball is already drowning in teams that aren’t trying to win—who decided they’d rather play for some nebulous future than provide the fans with a fun and competitive season. Eight of the 15 AL teams last year finished below .500; five lost 95 or more games. The majority of those franchises intentionally came into 2018 with no plans to contend. Do we really want to see another team join that mix next season?
On top of that, even if the Mariners decide to sell, who out there is buying? Every team could use the likes of Paxton or Haniger or Diaz, but are there enough out there willing to give up the prospects required—Passan notes that the return for those players “would need to be massive”—to make a move? With more tankers than contenders, and with a good number of those contenders either set going forward or unwilling to spend more, the buyers’ market is small. Paxton may not even be the best pitcher available either: As ESPN’s Buster Olney reported last week, the Indians, fresh off an AL Central title, are willing to move Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. Dipoto may find that, if he does indeed make his stars available, no one’s willing to pay the price he wants. (And you can forget about getting anything of value in exchange for Canó, Gordon, Leake or any other high-priced yet declining veteran.)
Here’s my counter-argument to a rebuild: The Mariners would be better off adding to the roster instead of blowing it up. Seattle doesn’t measure up to the AL’s elite, but that’s a small group, and the rest of the league isn’t trying. Take advantage of that, and zag when everyone else is zigging (especially given that if everyone is tanking, it makes it impossible to tank effectively). It won’t be easy, and it will take a lot of money, but isn’t winning supposed to be the point of a baseball team? We just saw the Red Sox win the World Series by spending on elite players to supplement a young core. Shouldn’t that be the model going forward, instead of copycatting the Astros and Cubs and hoping that you replicate their results instead of ending up in the swamp where the Reds and Padres reside?
If the Mariners do decide to tank, it’ll be looked at as a pragmatic business decision (and that’s what it is; a business call made with dollars in mind) with eyes on the future. But it stinks for Mariners fans, who will have to watch awful teams play out the string for who-knows-how many years going forward, extending that postseason drought on and on. They deserve better than their franchise simply giving up. So, for that matter, does the rest of baseball.