Seattle Mariners: How did we get here? Pt. 1

In Part 1 of our story we take a look at how the club came about their fourth 100 loss season in club history.

The magic of the club's 116-win season in 2001 is far removed alongside the once nearly electric aura of Seattle Mariner home games. Attendance surely shows us that the boat has been sinking for the better part of a decade. In their, "Two Outs? So What!", Major League tying record 2001 season the club led the American League drawing 3,507,326 visitors to Safeco Field. In 2012 the team dropped below two million fans in attendance for the second consecutive season, drawing just 1,721,920 to home games, finishing in the bottom five in the league. The Kingdome, deemed ‘un-fit' to host our fans, in its final full season outdrew Safeco Field in 2012 by nearly one million fans, bringing in 2,651,511. Where did the fans go? Are we ever going to get ‘The Wave' back at Safeco Field the way it was represented in the early parts of this century? Who is to blame?

There is a preconceived notion in the city of Seattle that a reoccurring message of rebuilding and faith has been broadcast by the club tendering no results since the team last qualified for the playoffs in 2001. The story of the post-magical Seattle Mariners is split into three different stories, not just one lump rebuilding sum. Our first chapter is filled with nearly unmatchable expectations capped by the departure of Mariners Hall-Of-Famer Pat Gillick. Our second chapter begins in 2003 with the off-season arrival of our pseudo villain, Bill Bavasi, who took the club in a direction the fan base was not familiar, an ill-conceived stab at competing in a tough AL-West division by making tough ‘on-the-fly' decisions regarding the clubs youth. Our third and final chapter begins with the arrival of Jack Zduriencik, who inherited a fragile minor league system and fan base in search of an identity as anything other than a ‘cellar dweller'.

Chapter 1 (2002-2003)

What should a fan expect from their Major League baseball team following a 116-win season? Well, if you were lucky enough to know a fan of the 1906 Chicago Cubs, the only other team to do so in Major League history the non-complicated answer is winning; lots and lots of winning. The Cubs went on to win upwards of 90 games the following six seasons reaching the World Series three times, winning twice, following their magical 116-win season. This is where the Seattle Mariners began to lose their identity as a winner in the eyes of their fan base. The separation of the clubs 116-win season and their return to sub-mediocrity three seasons later in 2004 was the beginning of the un-doing in the city's relationship with the club. The 2002 season set a franchise record for attendance, drawing 35,612 more visitors than the previous season as team expectations were at their highest. Despite posting a .574 winning percentage and winning 93 games during both the 2002 and 2003 seasons the club would fall under three million in attendance in 2004.

Chapter 2 (2004-2008)

To say that the expectations of Bill Bavasi were high in Seattle is an understatement. The club was coming off back-to-back-to-back record high winning seasons, posting a winning percentage of .621 under Mariners Hall-of-Fame General Manager Pat Gillick. To say that Bavasi took a Richie Sexson sized swing and struck out is also an understatement.

In his first full season in the General Manager position, the Seattle Mariners dropped a full 30 games in the standings. The club went from being on the cusp of perennial contention to the AL West cellar, finishing a total of 26 games behind the third place Texas Rangers and 29 games behind the first place Angels. This was the season the once touted signing of Bavasi turned into a sour affair for many Seattle supporters. The General Manager was ranked 22nd out of 30 in the Major Leagues by The Hardball Times following his inaugural season in Seattle. The 30 game drop in the standings had little to do with the front office management of Bavasi but should stay relevant as he was on hand for the full season.

Sub-Chapter 2.1 – The Free Agent Market

Bavasi inherited a club of veterans that had until the 2004 season been experiencing the pinnacle of their offensive performances the past half-decade. In 2003 the Mariners held the highest mark in all of baseball for average batter age at 31.9. No other team this season held an average age over 30 outside the New York Yankees (30.5), who arguably were the only team with a payroll high enough at that time to sustain success at that mark. The advanced age of the core led to a 2004 opening day roster with eight position players over the age of 30 and four over the age of 35. Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, and John Olerud all provided exactly half the home runs they hit in 2003 while Bret Boone hit his lowest amount since 2000. How would you expect your club's management to react after a season of veteran drop offs? If you said go out and grab younger impact offensive pieces in the off-season than you are in luck because that is exactly what the Seattle Mariners front office went out and did. Spending money on the offense is exactly where the team needed to go in the off-season, and at this point I believe there are no facts to validate that Bavasi is our villain in this story.

In the off-season of their last-place 2004 season, the Mariners behaved much as everyone expected. With the salaries of Jeff Cirillo, Mike Cameron, Kazuhiro Sasaki and others coming off the books, the team spent $114 million dollars on a four-year contract ($64 million) for former Dodgers third baseman Adrian Beltre and a five-year deal ($50 million) for National League slugger Richie Sexson, among other minor transactions. The two guaranteed deals would keep Beltre in Seattle through 2009 and Sexson in a Mariners uniform until 2008. These two deals are often decried as a scapegoat for the seasons that followed for the reasons below:

Player (Seasons) Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Percentage HR RBI
Richie Sexson (2001-2003) .274 .362 .533 40 117
Richie Sexon (2005-2008) .244 .334 .474 26 80
Adrian Beltre (2002-2004) .278 .328 .495 31 92
Adrian Beltre (2005-2009) .266 .317 .442 21 79

In reality, these samples are skewed beyond just that Safeco Field is notorious for suppressing right-handed power hitting. Coming off two shoulder injuries that wiped out his 2004 season, Sexson bounced back for Seattle in 2005, finishing in the Top-10 for home runs and runs batted in across the league and finishing in the Top-15 for American League MVP voting that season. The team still finished 69-93 overall even with the slugger leading the team in WAR (Wins Above Replacement) at 4.2. In 2008 Beltre held the team's highest overall value measured both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball according to Baseball-Reference, an honor that was held by Ichiro Suzuki the previous four seasons. Beltre would win his second gold glove in a Mariners uniform while hitting 25 home runs for the third straight year and finishing with 77 runs batted in. The Mariners would respond as a team by posting their fourth all-time 100 loss season (61-101) and first since 1983. These two acquisitions were not the problem, and as of this part in our story, I still find it hard to locate factual evidence that Bill Bavasi is the switch that threw the team off their tracks following successful seasons in 2001 through 2003.

Sub-Chapter 2.2 – Trading Youth

Post 2005 is where the waters start to get rough. Along with his diminishing rank among Major League GMs, mentioned above, the hot seat rumors for Bavasi started almost immediately into the 2004 season from fans inside and outside the city. If baseball is one thing; it's winning, because fans live baseball. To spend the amount of money the Mariners did in a mid-market baseball city without producing immediate results is going to ruffle feathers. That is just the way it is. The 2006 season should have been about sticking to the team's long-term plan to produce in-house talent and become more competitive year in and year out until they were ready to put a winner on the field. Let Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, and company produce the fireworks for a few seasons until the minor league system was ready to produce their own. Instead, the front office threw together a handful of deals in that 2006 season that appear to have been more about producing an immediate winner than keeping baseball relevant in Seattle moving forward.

In 2003 Baseball America ranked the Seattle Mariners minor league system 9th overall in Major League baseball. Their notable prospects included Chris Snelling, Rafael Soriano, Jose Lopez, Shin-soo Choo, Clint Nageotte, and Asdrubal Cabrera. By the 2007 season the Mariners system was ranked 24th overall. Of the notables from 2003 only Lopez was playing for the Major League club as Nageotte was effectively out of baseball, Snelling was in the National League, and the other three were traded for Horacio Ramirez, Eduardo Perez, and Ben Broussard (and cash considerations).

Just in case you didn't catch that the Mariners traded away Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, and Rafael Soriano in 2006 for Ben Broussard, Eduardo Perez, and Horacio Ramirez in three separate deals.

• June 30, 2006 – Mariners trade Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez.
• July 26, 2006 – Mariners trade Shin-Soo Choo & Shawn Nottingham for Ben Broussard and cash considerations.
• December 30, 2006 – Mariners trade Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez.

Perez went on to play 43 games for the Mariners in 2006 batting .195 and was subsequently released during the off-season while Broussard played into 2007 with the club posting a .260/.311/.413 batting line. Horacio Ramirez likely goes down in club history as the worst pitcher with a minimum twenty games started in a Mariners uniform. Like Perez he was released following his only season in Seattle (2007) posting an ERA of 7.16 in 20 starts with a WHIP of 1.847 as he walked 42 and struck out 40 on the season.

Now is as good a time as any to point out that Choo (2010), Soriano (2010) and Cabrera (2011) all have finished in the Top-20 for American League MVP voting the past three seasons making three All-Star game trips between them. While Choo has played the majority of his time in right field, he has shown a penchant for fielding in LF, a position the Mariners could have filled with him having Ichiro in right field.

Player/Team (2007-2012) Plate Appearances Batting Average On-Base Percentage HR RBI WAR
Asdrubal Cabrera 2,893 .279 .342 59 326 17.1
Seattle Mariners 3,724 .241 .287 37 308 4.8

**Stats are complete MLB totals from the 2007 season to present
Player/Team (2008-2012) Plate Appearances Batting Average On-Base Percentage HR RBI WAR
Shin-Soo Choo 2,745 .291 .384 80 345 18.8
Seattle Mariners 4,285 .228 .300 113 443 2.6
**Stats are complete MLB totals from the 2008 season to present

That is a total of 35.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) that the Seattle Mariners effectively handed the Cleveland Indians over the next half decade during the 2006 season.

Rafael Soriano recorded more saves (45) in 2010 than the entire Seattle staff (38) and missed out on repeating this in 2012 by just one save in recording 42 with the Yankees. Since 2002, among pitchers with a minimum of 500 innings pitched, Soriano has the 5th lowest ERA in baseball. Who are the four ahead of him you ask? You might know them: Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Joe Nathan, and Francisco Rodriguez. He is also 15th overall in saves in that time even though he's been given just three full seasons of closing duties.

Under Bavasi the Seattle Mariners organization experienced large drops in terms of minor league development and ranking because of his often misguided dealings of youth.

• 2004: 12th
• 2005: 11th
• 2006: 27th
• 2007: 24th
• 2008: 12th
• 2009: 24th
**As ranked by Baseball America

Other notable Bavasi deals:
• January 8, 2004 – Mariners trade Carlos Guillen for Juan Gonzalez (not that one) and Ramon Santiago.
• March 20, 2006 – Mariners trade Matt Thornton for Joe Borchard.
• February 8, 2008 – Mariners trade Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Kam Mickolio, and Tony Butler for Erik Bedard.

Read the rest of the "How Did We Get Here" timeline in Part Two by clicking here.

Looking for more Mariners prospect player interviews, news and articles? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse Contributing Writer Josh Dobner on Twitter at @JPDobner and site Editor Rick Randall at @randallball.

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