The monthlong nose dive that left a first-place team in wild-card limbo was not a terrible development for the Seattle Mariners. On the contrary, June will be recalled as the vaccine shot that prevented a dangerous outbreak of optimism.
General manager Jerry Dipoto never would say this, possibly because he doesn’t believe it and, in any case, extolling the benefits of a slump is lousy salesmanship.
But I can say it, and I will: By losing 16 of 22 June games going into the weekend, the Mariners spared Dipoto the temptation to overreact to their surprisingly strong start. This team is better than it looked on the recent road trip to perdition, notable for the creativity the Mariners used in finding eight different ways to lose in 10 days. But they are not destined to go deep into the postseason.
Upon reassembling the roster, Dipoto envisioned Seattle as a club capable of 85 victories, enough to put it on the fringe of the playoff race.
“If you can get in that 85-86 win zone, and let the chips fall where they may, it’s amazing how frequently you’re going to wind up winning a lot more games than that,” he said in late January, adding: “We’re probably done making significant moves.”
I believed him then. I believe him now. And yet, if the wheels don’t come off in June, Dipoto is under pressure to make significant moves in July.
Imagine if the Mariners had been able to hover 12 games over .500, a mark they reached in May. It translates into a 43-31 record, seemingly presenting a window of opportunity for a franchise that last advanced to the playoffs in 2001. Imagine the demands for Dipoto to do something — anything — to improve the odds of ending the playoff drought.
You’re familiar with the narrative: Second baseman Robinson Cano is 33, approaching the decline phase of his Hall of Fame career. Nelson Cruz turns 36 on Friday, and how many 40-homer seasons does he have left? At least Cano and Cruz have realized the dream of competing in the World Series; beloved ace Felix Hernandez has yet to throw one pitch in a playoff game.
Such a confluence of aging core players and rare expectations would have compelled Dipoto — any general manager, really — to consider going for broke to acquire the likes of, say, Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun.
Braun is hitting .321 and anticipating his seventh invitation to the All-Star Game, but the out-of-contention Brewers will make him available in a trade because he’s a 32-year-old, with an injury history, who’s guaranteed $91 million through 2021. They covet the rebuilding package — talented young players who’ve already reached the bigs, along with prospects certain to get there — he’d bring in return.
The Mariners aren’t overloaded with guys who fit that description, but they’ve got a few: shortstop Ketel Marte and reliever Edwin Diaz on the big club, as well as shortstop Drew Jackson and outfielders Tyler O’Neill and Alex Jackson in Double-A.
Braun would cost all of them, and then some.
The quest to identify That Special Somebody, the missing piece in an otherwise solved jigsaw puzzle, took former Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi down the dead-end road associated with a decade of futility at Safeco Field.
Sensing the Mariners were one established starting pitcher removed from playoff contention after their 88-74 finish in 2007, Bavasi pulled the trigger on what’s regarded as the most lopsided deal since Dutch explorers bought New York’s Manhattan island for the adjusted-for-inflation equivalent of $951.08 in beads and trinkets
In retrospect, it’s easy to mock Bavasi’s decision to part with such future Orioles stars as outfielder Adam Jones and starting pitcher Chris Tillman. Not fair. At the time of the trade, Mariners fans generally applauded the bold move to bolster a so-so rotation with a Cy Young Award candidate.
Erik Bedard was so highly regarded that he was given the honor, over King Felix, of starting 2008 season opener. The Mariners finished 61-101 and Bavasi got fired, the victim of a cruel optical illusion. He saw a team that won 88 games in 2007 as a team that could win more than 90 games in 2008, and he rolled the dice.
The Mariners’ June swoon discourages Dipoto’s inclination to participate in a similar, whatever-you-want-from-our-farm-for-your hoss gamble. Recognizing the reality that his team won’t overtake the Rangers in the AL West standings — the reality his team will be fortunate to finish ahead of the hard-charging Astros — is not to be confused with waving a white flag.
If left intact, the 2016 Mariners have every reason to believe they’ll end up in a 85-86 win zone where hope is kept alive on a life-support system that doesn’t doom their future.
Let the chips fall where they may.