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What would winning the clubhouse back even look like?
Or anyone else, for that matter?
This is a pro-labor blog. If that wasn’t clear before, well, there you go. Labor runs the world. And baseball is about the players.
None of this works without the players, without their talent, without their drive, without their personalities or their passion.
And right now, Mariners players are pissed. Not only that, Mariners players have been pissed. That was the big takeaway for most of us from the latest comments from Paul Sewald.
They come, of course, via the venerable Larry Stone.
“I had things to say before the season, and it turned out exactly how I thought it was going to,” he said. “That’s frustrating, but [Mariners president of baseball operations] Jerry [Dipoto] and those guys have their work cut out for them to try and figure out how to make the Mariners better. … I felt like we could have gotten better than we did. I understand the moves they made. It’s just, they didn’t work out, and it was frustrating.”
It isn’t just about this year. It’s about a pattern. And it’s a pattern to the clubhouse, where core members of the team and its leadership group have seen how this organization’s tentative, cost-conscious and risk-averse nature have cost them.
When we say “them,” who exactly it’s costing, it starts with the players. It’s costing them the opportunity to compete at the sport’s highest level, it’s costing them their dreams and it’s costing them, in some ways, the opportunity to be the best version of themselves.
The quote above is obviously the most noteworthy in Larry’s story—because it underscores the frustration of the players and just how deep that frustration runs.
They were worried the organization wasn’t willing to do what it needed to do to compete and the worry became a reality. Repeatedly.
Where this tension, this frustration becomes reality is, of course, on the field. And there’s another quote in Larry’s piece that highlights the inverse of how Mariners players were feeling.
That comes from Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, commenting on when his team really took off.
“It turned at the trade deadline with getting Paul and bumping everybody back a level, and being able to piece it together the best way that I could to match up for the most advantageous outcome,” […]“Once we got Paul, it sewed up that ninth inning, allowed everybody to fall backwards, gave Kevin Ginkel an opportunity to be a better version of himself, and we took off.”
This is an important point in baseball. In all sports, really.
Mariners fans have this thing—and it’s a thing because ownership’s created the illusion of scarcity—where everything is either/or. Moves are often looked at in a zero sum way.
“If the Mariners did this, then they wouldn’t have that” or “Well that’d mean choosing this player over that player” and so on.
I’m not going to relitigate the trade but only use it to illustrate what I’m talking about.
When looking at the Sewald move from a 2023 perspective, fans often evaluate it in terms of “Did Josh Rojas and Dominic Canzone help the Mariners more than Paul Sewald helped the Diamondbacks—or more than Sewald would have helped the Mariners?”
And if the answer is ‘yes,’ boom, that’s a win.
To really over-simplify, it’s an equation that looks something like
(2023 Value acquired) - (2023 Value given away)
or, even simpler,
The thing is, that second figure DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A POSITIVE NUMBER.
Subtracting two to add three for a net gain of one is fine, sometimes. But it isn’t as good as just adding three and two together for a net of five.
Teams adding to the top-end of their roster and its respective position groups is so impactful because the net addition is so big.
Let’s go all the way back to reality and that Lovullo quote.
Fans will be quick to note that Sewald wasn’t all that hot down the stretch for the Diamondbacks (though he was definitely fine) and the post-deadline Mariners bullpen was solid on the aggregate. Also, Andres Muñoz and Matt Brash were and are just as good of high-leverage relievers as Sewald. All true.
But when you give Sewald’s innings to Muñoz and Brash, you’re giving them the actual ninth—but you’re triggering a chain reaction that is better reflected in the simple roster move.
Sewald isn’t being replaced by Muñoz or Brash, but instead the last reliever on the roster. That’s dudes like Trent Thornton and Dominic Leone. They come in and every other reliever gets bumped up a notch in the leverage of the situations they’re being dropped into.
Got a jam in the seventh in a must-win game? Welllll, you may go to Taylor Saucedo when that may have been Brash. Need a strikeout in extras with the zombie runner on second after you’ve already burned your closer and fireman? Well instead of throwing Muñoz, that may be Justin Topa—who, while good, doesn’t miss bats like those other three guys.
Or you may have a situation, as played out a month after the trade, where you have to lean a little more on one of your good young starters because you don’t have three innings of elite relief pitching…and it blows up in your face.
The starter is pissed, he says something regrettable and is the laughingstock of the baseball world for a day because the organization subtracted to add instead of just adding.
This all started with Cal Raleigh, who played game after game after game down the stretch, risking his own health again, because this team needed the offense for this essential Postseason push due to years of half-measures.
Under the weight of being the only superstar talent who could throw his team on his back, 22-year-old Julio Rodríguez had one hit on the team’s final homestand.
And why wouldn’t these guys be stung? The Mariners have worked for years to build a culture, to establish an environment where everyone is pulling in the same direction, puts in the work, competes their ass off and eventually reaps the rewards.
Players are asked to compete for and win every. single. pitch.
So where’s that level of competitiveness from their bosses? And their bosses’ bosses?
Let’s now get to the question in the headline. How does this change? Can it change?
I don’t know. But let’s look at how it has before, albeit on a different scale.
Because I am ostensibly pro-player, I love when dudes call out when their organizations are a bit too process-heavy, particularly under the guise of risk aversion and general cheapness.
Here’s a memorable example: at the trade deadline in 2017, Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel was not shy in expressing his frustration at his team doing little at the deadline.
“I’m not going to lie. Disappointment is a little bit of an understatement. I feel like a bunch of teams really bolstered their rosters for the long haul and for a huge playoff push. Us just kind of staying pat was really disappointing.”
You might remember that the Astros won* the World Series in 2017. And that baseball used to have two trade deadlines.
A minute before midnight on August 31st of that year, the Astros traded for Justin Verlander. They gave up three prospects who have yet to amount to much and, most important to the rebuilding Tigers, took on $40 million of the $56 million Verlander was owed the following two years.
This wasn’t long after a couple seasons (2014 and 2015) when it looked, for sure, like Verlander was in decline.
The Astros took their shot on the 34-year-old and landed a cornerstone for one of the best runs in recent baseball history.
That’s—that’s what it’s going to take.
The Mariners need a franchise-altering and era-defining move. And they need it to work.
They need their ownership group to compete on the level they’re asking their players to.
It’d be a lot easier if they’d done this over multiple offseasons, if they’d consistently added from the outside so that they were just one more piece or a couple shrewd moves from the promised land.
But they didn’t.
So, you want your players to believe this is an organization that strives to compete at the game’s highest level? You want your fans to understand this isn’t about profits over everything?