SEATTLE — So where do the Seattle Mariners go from here as they reflect on a 16th straight season in which they failed to make the postseason?
General manager Jerry Dipoto acknowledged earlier this week that his club faces a considerable challenge in bridging the 23-game gap that separated the Mariners from division champion Houston in the American League West.
Can it be done?
“How long are you giving me?” Dipoto asked. “We have a long way to go. … I don’t believe that we’re nipping at the heels of the Astros. That’s going to take some time and frankly a little bit of luck.”
It could take a lot of luck given that Dipoto’s offseason blueprint calls for only minor tweaks after an injury-riddled season produced a 78-84 record.
There is no need, Dipoto contends, for a big-time addition to the club’s rotation, although that doesn’t rule out pursuit of a marquee free agent such as Yu Darvish or Masahiro Tanaka or second-tier possibilities such as Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn.
“Would we like one?” Dipoto said. “Sure. Do we need one? No.”
Is he playing coy?
Perhaps, but in the past, Dipoto displayed a willingness to identify specific offseason needs (if not specific targets). When he says he doesn’t see the need for a marquee rotation addition, there’s reason to believe him.
Instead, Dipoto cites an evolving “wolf pack” approach.
“We’re going to see a different style of pitching staff and how it’s set up,” he said. “We have depth. We have quality pitchers on this staff.”
At this point, the Mariners’ rotation projects as James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and two from a collection that includes Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Marco Gonzales and Andrew Moore.
That group might seem thin by traditional standards, but Dipoto counters: “We are adjusting toward what the world looks like now for starting pitchers, which is a 15-to-18-out starter (rather) than the complete-game starter.”
It was circumstance rather than philosophy that resulted in the Mariners not having a single pitcher meet the 162-inning qualifying standard for the ERA title this season. Miranda came the closest at 160.
“We have to wrap our arms around that,” Dipoto said, “and wrap our minds around that (because) that’s where the game is.”
That means building a deep bullpen that can bridge 9-12 outs every night. The Mariners tried that approach this year, again out of necessity, and saw several of their key relievers falter in September.
Here, too, the hope is that better health provides a solution. Shae Simmons missed nearly the entire year because of an elbow injury, and David Phelps made just 10 appearances after arriving July 20 before an elbow injury forced surgery.
The bottom line? Don’t expect any major pitching additions.
Dipoto cited Yonder Alonso, a pending free agent, as a “strong consideration” among the many potential offseason free-agent targets to fill what is now a hole at first base.
“There are a lot of different options for us,” Dipoto said, “and we want to make sure that we’re maximizing our potential at that position. … Do we think we need to address first base for 2018 and beyond? Yes.
“Do we feel like we have future answers in guys like Daniel Vogelbach and Evan White? Yes. Is it their time in 2018? That remains to be seen.”
Beyond Alonso, free-agent first basemen who loom as potential targets include Lucas Duda, Mitch Moreland and even ex-Mariner Logan Morrison.
Signing any from that group likely would do little more than enable the Mariners to match their combined 2017 production at first base: 19 homers, 77 RBI and a .245 average.
That’s maintenance. Not an upgrade.
Dipoto also said the Mariners must add an outfielder to the three-rookie mix that closed out the season: left fielder Ben Gamel, center fielder Guillermo Heredia and right fielder Mitch Haniger.
Effectively, that means replacing (or re-signing) free-agent Jarrod Dyson, who was the club’s primary center fielder before suffering a sports hernia in August that led to season-ending surgery.
If the Mariners choose to replace Dyson, they won’t limit their search to center fielders.
“That’s going to largely depend on what’s available to us,” Dipoto said. “We’re very comfortable with Mitch Haniger playing center field.
“With either one of those two guys (Heredia and Haniger) on the roster, it gives us the flexibility to make a move that makes the most sense for the club depending on how the rest of the roster comes together.”
While a healthier roster should produce better results, Dipoto and manager Scott Servais each point to a need to reverse an alarming breakdown in fundamental skills, which included careless base-running and defensive lapses.
The pitching staff also served up 237 homers, which broke the previous franchise record by 21.
“It’s the little fundamental things that ultimately decide winning or losing at the major-league level,” Servais said. “It’s something that we were not good at this year. Base-running stood out.”
The Mariners were a net minus-12.3 runs on the bases.
“It’ll be a priority for us,” Servais said. “You may see days (in spring training) where we don’t take batting practice and we run the bases.
“It needs to be stressed to our guys how important it is. Outs are so valuable in this game, whether you’re on defense and you execute a rundown, to just doing the little things that allow you to win close ballgames.”
The Mariners’ response to correcting their homer-prone staff is to hope this season was merely an outlier. If it isn’t, well …
“There’s only so much of that that you can alter,” Dipoto said. “The ground-ball/strikeout pitcher is the most uncommon and sought-after commodity in baseball.
“Everybody wants those guys. They’re not readily available. There are very few of them, which is why they make a ton of dough.”
That positions luck atop the Mariners’ offseason checklist, and it has a name:
The Mariners plan to go all-in this winter in pursuing Otani, the two-way Japanese star who is expected to be posted for free agency by his club, the Nippon Ham Fighters, once the Japanese season ends.
An thigh injury this season limited Otani to five starts, but he pitched a two-hit shutout Wednesday in what might be his final start. He was a 25-9 over the previous two seasons with a 2.07 ERA and 370 strikeouts in 300 2/3 innings.
Even with the injury, Otani posted a .338/.410/.551 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) through Wednesday in 198 at-bats over 64 games.
Last month, Dipoto headed a Mariners’ delegation that traveled to Japan for a first-hand look at Otani in preparation for what shapes up as a fierce recruiting battle in which money, because of the circumstances, will play only a minor factor.
Because Otani is 23, the offer by any club must fall within its assigned bonus pool for international signings. It’s unlikely that any club will be able to offer much more than $10 million.
That means the sales pitch by any club is likely to center on its ability to offer a comfort zone for Otani to fulfill his big-league aspirations. Had he waited until age 25 to exit Japan, there would have been no restrictions on his financial package.
The Mariners can point to outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki, starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and others in making the case that Seattle offers a proven springboard for Japanese players in their acclimation to the big leagues.
The hardest sell for Dipoto and his lieutenants might be in convincing Otani that he can get sufficient at-bats to display his two-way skills. It’s a key point — Otani has made it clear that he wants to hit as well as pitch.
Here’s the rub: Otani served primarily as s designated hitter over recent years in Japan when not pitching, but the Mariners’ current DH, Nelson Cruz, just led the American League in RBI and is under contract through next season.
Many MLB execs privately say Otani must first establish himself as an effective big-league pitcher before getting regular at-bats. The Mariners’ chances might hinge on convincing Otani that doing so is the prudent approach.
Because of tampering concerns — Otani has not yet been posted — club officials are cautious in their statements. Dipoto is only willing at this point to address the matter of a two-way player in general terms.
“Is it possible for a player to sustain pitching a fixed number of innings over a course of a season while simultaneously taking at-bats?” he asked. “Neither one of them is going to be a full-time job. That’s just impossible to achieve.
“But you can do the two in bulk. It takes an extraordinary athlete. It takes a leap of faith in believing that you’re not going to wear that player down. But do I think it’s possible? Sure I do, and it’s happened before in baseball history.”
Can it happen again? In Seattle? Yes. With a little luck.
Maybe a lot of luck.