The history of the Seattle Mariners includes one lively interlude: a seven-year stretch of four playoff appearances that ended in the Bronx in October 2001, when the Yankees thumped them in the American League Championship Series.
Since then, 10 franchises have captured their first World Series title or ended a drought of at least two decades. The team that waited the longest, the 2016 Chicago Cubs, got their Game 7 closer, Mike Montgomery, in a trade with Seattle that summer.
Daniel Vogelbach, the power-hitting first baseman the Mariners received in return, watched from his home in Fort Myers, Fla., as Montgomery closed out the Cubs’ first title in 108 years. He was happy but conflicted.
“You have multiple feelings, because you dream about winning the World Series your whole life,” Vogelbach said. “But at the same time, you never question what happens or why things happen.”
That is good advice for anyone associated with the Mariners. During their 18-year playoff absence – the longest active streak in baseball, and longer than any team in the N.F.L., N.B.A. or N.H.L. – they have tried everything to return. They have developed and retained homegrown talent. They have signed marquee free agents. They have traded for complementary pieces.
It got them the fifth-best record in the A.L. from 2016 through 2018 – good enough to be interesting, but not to raise a banner on Edgar Martinez Drive.
“We were constantly playing what, I think, is a shell game,” General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We were trying to move pieces around the board to stay as competitive as we could.”
Last winter, Dipoto folded up his sidewalk card table and tried something new: he shed his best starter, his All-Star closer, and four everyday players, including designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who left for Minnesota as a free agent. But a strange thing happened on the way to the A.L. West cellar: for more than two weeks, it seemed, the Mariners could not lose.
“You come out 13-2 and everybody’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the greatest thing ever,’” Manager Scott Servais said. “We were going to regress a little bit. It’s fun, but it’s baseball. When it’s all said and done, we’ll be fine. The whole goal of the season was to just continue to get better.”
By that, he means the health of the organization, not necessarily the major league record. Predictably, the Mariners have slumped since their hot start, falling to 19-19 overall after fumbling the lead in a 5-4 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday. They led the majors in homers, with 71, but also in errors, with 41.
“We are a team that has been full of extremes so far,” right fielder Jay Bruce said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.”
For Bruce, who has a .196 average but 11 homers, it could play out as it has twice before – with a midseason trade to a contender. The Mets acquired him 2016, traded him in 2017, then re-signed him and dealt him to Seattle in a deal for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz last November.
The prospects the Mets gave up in that deal — outfielder Jarred Kelenic and starter Justin Dunn — have thrived in the minors this season. So has shortstop J.P. Crawford, a faded prospect for Philadelphia who arrived in a trade for shortstop Jean Segura and may soon be called up to Seattle.
The pitchers the Yankees dealt for the left-hander James Paxton – Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson – have already been promoted. Outfielder Domingo Santana, a forgotten man in Milwaukee who was acquired for outfielder Ben Gamel, has been among the league leaders in runs batted in.
The way Dipoto sees it, the team is likely to be about the same as it was before: competitive, if not a true championship contender. But this version has a deeper well of talent in the minors, which Dipoto could improve if he trades veterans like Edwin Encarnacion this summer.
“We felt like, ‘Well, we’ve been fifth or sixth in the league in general over the last handful of years, and if we pull back but we don’t tear down to the studs, we’re probably still in the middle of the pack, but we’ve set ourselves up so much better for the future by doing that,’” Dipoto said.
“The goal is to not have to go through the eight- or 10-year rebuild that is required when you strip it down and you’re waiting for draft picks to gestate and young players to mature and you’re ripping a payroll down with the intent of starting from scratch.”
The payroll is still bloated, for now, but only two players are signed beyond 2020: the injured third baseman Kyle Seager and Yusei Kikuchi, a rookie starter from Japan. Dipoto is eager for the next phase of his plan.
“By this time next year, we’re going to be an extraordinarily flexible roster, and we’ll be in a very different range in terms of available payroll,” Dipoto said. “So now we’re set up to really make a run, just about the time that we think that wave of prospects are going to start hitting the shore.”
In the meantime, the under-30 players on his patchwork roster — all acquired in trades or free agency — will try to show staying power. Outfielder Mitch Haniger and starter Marco Gonzales have become integral long-term pieces. Santana, infielder Tim Beckham and catcher Omar Narvaez are trying to do the same.
So is Vogelbach, whose average has fallen since a torrid start but still dreams big.
“It’s cool just winning a game in the big leagues,” Vogelbach said. “Even in the regular season, you win a game, there’s a vibe in your clubhouse, everyone’s excited. I can’t imagine winning a World Series. That’s what I want to do.”
Three years ago, Vogelbach indirectly helped the Cubs do it. And if that luckless franchise can win, maybe the star-crossed Mariners will someday get their chance.