The age-old philosophical riddle asks: If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
By the same token, if a baseball team’s season ends and no one’s paying attention, did it actually happen?
Indeed, yet another forgettable Seattle Mariners campaign concludes Sunday afternoon, as the Mariners finish out the string against the Oakland A’s at T-Mobile Park. Another 90-loss season, another last-place finish, another mark scratched into the wall indicating the number of years since Seattle last smelled the postseason in 2001.
It’s hard to believe a team that started the season 13-2 was completely irrelevant to the playoff race before the start of June. Baseball season in Seattle was long ago swallowed up by the Seahawks, whose game at Arizona on Sunday takes place simultaneously to the Mariners’ finale — and will surely have many times more eyeballs on it.
But while the Mariners’ season is defying Dylan Thomas and most definitely going gentle into that good night, I’m here to tell you that the Mariners’ organization had a fantastic year. An A-plus kind of season.
How is that possible for a team that will finish 20-plus games below .500 and 20 games worse than last season, you ask? Well, it’s because the actual goals of this season were met in spectacular fashion.
The 2019 season for the Mariners was never about 2019. Before the season began, Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto made no bones about this being a rebuilding year. This season was all about what the organization could do to make the team better in the future, and in that regard 2019 was a grand slam.
This time last year the Mariners were staring into the abyss. Seattle overachieved big time, yet still fell short of the postseason. A falloff was inevitable, and with a farm system ranked dead last by Baseball America there appeared to be no hope for the future.
But everything the Mariners touched in terms of minor-league player development this season turned to gold.
Now, I’ve always been a prospecthead, and as is often the case with prospectheads we tend to get a tad overexuberant about the young talent in our organizations. But I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about the players in Seattle’s minor-league system.
This season the Mariners had three players achieve major breakthroughs and become legitimate grade-A prospects:
— Center fielder Jarred Kelenic, acquired from the New York Mets in the offseason deal for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, reached Double-A in his 19-year-old season, slugging 23 homers, swiping 20 bases and compiling a .904 OPS in 117 games across three levels.
— Right-handed pitcher Logan Gilbert, who didn’t throw a pitch in the pros last season after being selected in the first round of the draft, looked every bit the next ace from Stetson University (following Corey Kluber and Jacob de Grom), notching a 2.13 ERA in 135 innings across three levels, striking out 165 and walking just 33 as he also finished up at Double-A. Perhaps most impressively, he dominated the hitter-friendly California League.
— Dominican outfielder Julio Rodriguez, making his stateside debut, advanced to High-A, batting .320 with a .929 OPS in 84 contests, all at the tender age of 18. Based on age and level, he is actually ahead of Kelenic’s development pace.
With the kinds of seasons they had, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mariners had three of Baseball America’s top 25 prospects heading into 2020. The last time that happened was in 2012, when Seattle had Jesus Montero (6), Taijuan Walker (20) and Danny Hultzen (21). And frankly, I wasn’t nearly as excited about that group as Baseball America was. The last time I was this high on Seattle’s top prospects was in the early 2000s when the Mariners, led by Felix Hernandez, were awash in top pitching prospects.
The positive developments weren’t confined to Seattle’s top prospects, either. Left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, the crown jewel in the trade that sent James Paxton to the New York Yankees, had an uneven year, but he seemed to get things sorted out in Double-A. Right-hander Justin Dunn, acquired along with Kelenic, had a strong season in Double-A as he struck out 158 in 131.2 innings. This year’s top two draft picks, right-hander George Kirby and left-hander Brandon Williamson, both showed well in their time with the Everett AquaSox. And 17-year-old shortstop Noelvi Marte showed Rodriguez-like promise in the Dominican Summer League.
Even much-maligned outfielder Kyle Lewis, the former first-round pick who struggled to produce in the minors after blowing out his knee with Everett in 2016, provided some hope with his late-season call-up, in which he became just the fourth player to hit six homers in his first 10 major-league games.
Last year there were tumbleweeds blowing across the Mariners’ minor-league landscape. This year they’re finding $100 bills underneath every rock.
When Dipoto embraced the rebuild prior to spring training, he said the organization’s aim was to be interesting in 2020 before becoming a contender in 2021. I was skeptical of that timeline then, and I still think it’s overly optimistic.
But unlike at the conclusion of all the Mariners’ fruitless seasons in recent memory, this year I have actual enthusiasm about Seattle’s future. Given Seattle’s aims for 2019, it couldn’t have gone any better than that.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.