Thiel: Mariners will need some luck to end playoff drought

Thiel: Mariners will need some luck to end playoff drought

Seattle was cautious in the offseason, but that can’t happen in July if the team’s contending

Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais enjoy hearing about the Seattle Mariners’ historic futility the way grandkids enjoy hearing about the Depression from grandparents.

Yeah. Too bad about that. Tough times. Can we go out now and play with the dog?

Yet with each passing year of emptiness, the Seattle baseball moans grow more pitiful. Yes, the current general manager and manager have had only two swings, and they were figuratively forced to use balsa bats, representing the fecklessness of previous regimes.

But hey, the bosses invited the franchise’s history into the contemporary discussion when they ghosted up Ichiro.

Servais confirmed after the team’s Safeco Field workout Wednesday that despite the late hire, despite a sore calf, despite going 0-for-10 in spring training and despite being 44 years old, he’ll be the Opening Night starter (7:10 p.m. Thursday) in left field and hit ninth.

“In a perfect world, he’d like to have had more at-bats,” Servais said. “He knows how to play. It’s not perfect, but I think he’ll be fine.”

No, it’s not perfect. It’s not even good that the Mariners didn’t have a young, healthy outfielder on the edge of MLB readiness to fill in until regular starter Ben Gamel returns to health.

Instead, they reached back into their feeble history for a golden figure, hoping the shiny part will keep people from staring into the void.

That’s the Mariners history. It just continues.

I’m not going to suggest that starting Ichiro in 2018 is strike three for Dipoto and Servais, and that if the season goes awry, they should ousted. The hole they inherited was deep, dark and wet, requiring more than three years to escape.

What I will say is that while I see the logic in their cautious approach to team-building this winter, including the interim hire of Ichiro, Dipoto, Servais and owner John Stanton better bring it hard at midseason upgrade time — assuming the team is not again swathed in bandages and tangled in IV-bag tubes.

The Mariners are in that curious middle ground that has developed in baseball, thanks largely to the 2016 adoption of a collective bargaining agreement that favors owners. Seattle is not among the so-called group of seven super teams — one of which is Cleveland, the opening foe at Safeco Field — nor is it among the larger cohort of the hopeless who feel compelled to engage in NBA-style tanking.

Yet there’s not that many dollars that separate the Mariners’ 2018 payroll from some of the game’s stalwarts. The opening day roster is anticipated to cost around $165 million. Amazingly, it’s about the same as payrolls for the big-ticket Yankees ($167M) and Dodgers ($170M), according to an Associated Press survey.

Ichiro’s presence in the starting lineup is strongly suggestive of the chronic failure to get serious bang for the baseball buck in Seattle.

The urgency is, of course, driven by the cruel fact, now memorized by the youngest schoolchildren in the Northwest: The Mariners are 16 years without playoffs, longest current lameness in American pro sports, the most festering sore in the body of four playoff appearances in 41 seasons.

A closer examination reveals something that should always chap the backsides of Mariners fans more than any other fact in this haplessness.

In the time since the unicorn of 116 wins in 2001, the Mariners have managed six winning seasons. Elsewhere in the American League West, the decrepit A’s have seven. The Rangers have eight. The Angels have nine. The Astros have nine.

As you can see, the division has not been a powerhouse this century, yet the Mariners allowed that vulnerability to go unexploited.

In the period since ‘01, only two AL West teams have won the World Series — the 2002 Angels and the 2017 Astros. In fact, only three other times have AL West teams made the Series — the 2005 Astros (when they were in the NL West) and the Texas Rangers of 2010 and 2011. Nothing, of course, for Seattle and Oakland. Pathetic.

Why emphasize the division outcomes? Because it’s the easiest route to the postseason: The Mariners have only to be better than four teams, fercripesakes.

Until the Astros relocated leagues in 2013, the Mariners had only to beat three teams, the greatest gerrymander in MLB for almost two decades. And the Astros in their first two AL seasons lost a combined 202 games.

The Mariners idled so long that the Astros were able to stockpile premium draft picks (George Springer, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers, Alex Bregman) from their annual tankings and vault over the Mariners to where they are the early betting favorites to repeat the title run.

Ceding the division title to the Astros leaves the Mariners to fight with a host of middling teams for the two wild card berths. It isn’t implausible to think that they might make it happen, especially with an offense that features a rare balance of speed with power.

But the lack of depth, illuminated by the presence of Ichiro, after years of trading away future prospects means that all varsity hands have to stay healthy and productive.

And that means they have to get lucky.

But already from spring training the Mariners are missing Gamel, set-up reliever David Phelps and starting pitcher Erasmo Ramirez.

As grandparents will tell you, don’t expect much from luck in a depression.

Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.

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