Robinson Cano’s 10-year, $240-million contract with the Seattle Mariners in 2013 turned heads across the baseball world. This contract wasn’t just normal-ridiculously large; it was even too expensive for the New York Yankees (a seemingly paradoxical phrase before that date). Seattle was clearly hoping to secure present value from the 31-year-old Cano before his skills began to deteriorate with age, and maximize those early years of the deal with multiple playoff appearances.
Three years later, the Mariners are still staring at a lengthy playoff drought (15 years at this point), and have an aging core that, in all likelihood, will decline over the next few years. With little flexibility—and no immediate help on the way from their farm system—the Mariners’ status of “fringe playoff contender” is unlikely to improve soon.
The 2016 Seattle Mariners finished with a record of 86-76, three games outside of the final Wild Card spot in the American League. This was a 10-win improvement over the 2015 season, and only one game worse than the 2014 team that missed the playoffs by a game. By pure wins and losses, then, Seattle isn’t far from the postseason.
The problem with the Mariners’ roster is that their core players are aging and will probably decline over the next few years. According to Baseball-Reference, their top three position players by WAR in 2016 were Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz. Seager is still solidly in his prime at 28, but Cano and Cruz are 34 and 35, respectively, and expecting them to keep contributing at this level would be unwise.
A similar story plays out with the team’s pitching staff. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma were easily the team’s two best starters last season, posting WAR totals of 1.6 and 2.6 respectively, and over the last three seasons, with WARs of 12.8 and 7.5 (again from Baseball-Reference). However, both pitchers are aging (Hernandez is 30, Iwakuma, 35), raising questions about their future viability. Hernandez’s numbers have trended in the wrong directions for the 2015 and 2016 seasons—his WHIP and FIP numbers rose significantly—suggesting that his years of elite production may be over. Iwakuma has posted respectable numbers over the past few seasons, but he isn’t a replacement for Hernandez at his prime, and faces much more pressing age concerns at 35.
Behind these two, the rotation gets even shakier. James Paxton, Wade Miley, and Taijuan Walker were the only other Mariners starters to log over 100 innings in 2016, and only Paxton reached a WAR of 1.0 or higher. These three are all younger than Hernandez and Iwakuma, but none of them appear ready to carry the rotation of a playoff team.
These arguments aren’t meant to criticize either these players or the team’s management, but it is difficult at this point to see a clear path for Seattle to get better. Most of these players have several years left on their contracts—Cano is signed through 2023, Hernandez through 2019, Cruz through 2018—meaning that for the next few years, the Mariners are going to look pretty much the way they look today.
Essentially, these contracts lock Seattle into “win-now” mode, but without giving the upside needed to actually win now. The farm system doesn’t appear ready to make any immediate contributions, either. According to Bleacher Report, the Mariners’ minor league talent ranks 21st in baseball, and before the 2016 season, they were ranked 28th by Baseball America.
FanGraphs’ 2017 projections have the Mariners finishing with 84 wins, squeezing them into the second Wild Card spot. As encouraging as this projection may be, there is little room for error; the Yankees and Tigers (projected at 83 wins each) will also be in the hunt. The American League had a glut of teams racing for its Wild Card berths last season, and that seems likely to continue in 2017. Seattle will be in that mix, but is hardly a lock to make it to October.
Seattle’s problem isn’t that its team is bad. Being consistently a few wins away from a playoff spot is no small achievement, and many teams would love to be in this situation. However, competing for the second Wild Card may be as high as this team ever reaches. The Mariners aren’t likely to improve over the next five years, and their aging core severely limits their flexibility. If and when they stop getting elite production from those older players, things could get ugly fast in Seattle.