ANAHEIM, Calif. — When you walk into Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais’ office at T-Mobile Park, a picture hangs on the wall to the left of his desk. It catches your eye because of its large size and the moment and feeling it captures.
The picture is from the team’s memorable trip to Tokyo and captures iconic Mariners outfielder Ichiro walking off the field for the last time as a player — toward his teammates standing and applauding, like the rest of the crowd at the sold-out Tokyo Dome. The photo induces goosebumps, but it has a larger purpose. Servais’ theme for the 2019 season is displayed prominently along the bottom: The word “kaizen” serves as a reminder.
Loosely translated, kaizen means the state of continuous improvement. Japanese businesses use this term, which Servais adopted for this “step-back” season.
And now, as the Mariners return from the All-Star break to finish a season that will almost certainly feature more losses than wins and another year of watching the postseason at home, the kaizen mindset remains.
“Expectations as far as wins and losses, I don’t have any,” Servais said. “We’ve talked about it before, but can we consistently get better?”
After a 13-2 start to the season, the Mariners crashed, going 12-33 until June 1, including a 7-21 month of May.
“May was a struggle,” Servais said.
The Mariners were abysmal defensively, and the bullpen was a disaster. Those expected problems grew into glaring, if not embarrassing, issues. Some personnel changes have marginally improved their defense, and the bullpen has also shown signs of improvement, though recent injuries to Austin Adams and Brandon Brennan have limited that improvement.
From June 1 to the All-Star break, the Mariners posted a 14-20 record, winning four series and playing more respectable baseball.
Perhaps Servais’ lack of worry about their record is logical because that wasn’t a major concern coming into the season. The Mariners’ plan to rebuild an aging and expensive roster was well known. Making a run at ending the longest postseason drought in major professional sports wasn’t going to be the goal, as it was in seasons past. The hope was to be competitive, which hasn’t happened as often as Servais or fans would like. But this is where they are as a team.
“We are in a different situation right now than we have been in the past,” Servais said. “I like the way we’ve been grinding and playing over the last three or four weeks. It’s been pretty consistent. There are still some areas we need to tighten up. I cannot fault this group’s effort and work ethic.”
Friday in Anaheim, they start the second “half” of the season (94 games played, 68 to go) with a 39-55 record.
Given the Mariners’ desire to move veteran players such as starting pitcher Mike Leake, second baseman Dee Gordon and reliever Roenis Elias, it’s possible Seattle’s recent improved play will regress yet again if those players are traded. Leake has been solid if not spectacular. When healthy, Gordon is a still an above-average MLB player. Elias has been one of their best relievers. All three would be replaced by largely unproven prospects from the farm system or players cast off from other teams.
This team seems destined for 95 losses, which is why Servais won’t measure its improvement in terms of wins and losses. How does he plan to measure it?
“Are the guys coming to work every day?” he said “Are they getting better? Are they enjoying the work? Are they enjoying working with each other? Things like that are things I’m more in tune to than wins and losses at this point. I want to give as many guys as we can opportunity and we need to find out as much as we can about the people we have. That’s everybody — that’s me, that’s the coaches and mostly the players. What guys can we move forward with, what guys need more time and what guys don’t fit at all?”
Shortstop J.P. Crawford’s emergence, outfielder Mallex Smith’s resurgence, Daniel Vogelbach and Domingo Santana’s power presence and the combination of Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy at catcher are all positive trends toward improvement.
One priority will be getting more consistency from Yusei Kikuchi in games and in his preparation. Another storyline to monitor is the possibility of Shed Long and Jake Fraley getting extended looks at the MLB level.
Even for a team that will likely finish last in the American League West division, there is much to be gained in these final months of the season.
“You’re trying to give guys opportunities, and there’s a certain window for that opportunity,” Servais said. “You say, ‘OK, it’s not going to work for this guy, let’s move on to the next.’ The one thing you have to offer is at-bats and innings. At the end of the day, we want to find out about as many people as we can this season. You may see some guys in different positions or roles. Let’s find out if this guy can pitch with traffic and the game on the line. The only way to do it is to give them a chance.”