What if the Mariners don’t meet their expectations this season?

The Seattle Mariners are certainly frustrated.

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You look out on the pitch with helmets thrown and body language for missed opportunities in key situations, and you definitely see it in the online fan base reactions.

There were real expectations for this season. That became clear when the team turned Mitch Haniger’s offseason column for The Players’ Tribune, in which he stressed the importance of ending the franchise’s 20-year postseason drought, into a hype video that went into the advertised on social media and even played shortly before the first pitch of the home game at T-Mobile Park. There was a feeling that it would be this year the year.

Needless to say, a 17-25 record on May 23 that puts Seattle 10 games behind American League West leaders and just a half game clear of last place in the division isn’t what the Mariners are in made sense. Now the Ms are limping home to start Monday after a 3-7 road trip that started well with a surprise series win over the New York Mets but hit rock bottom on Sunday when the Red Sox threw a four-game sweep finished with a walkoff Grand Slam in extra innings.

Yes, a lot went wrong.

Haniger’s sprained ankle, which could keep him out until July (and coming back from a stint on his first record appearance on the COVID list), tops that list. An exhausted bullpen struggling to regain last season’s brilliance sits a close second. The additions of All-Stars Jesse Winker, Adam Frazier and Eugenio Suárez didn’t have the impact Seattle was hoping for. Jarred Kelenic and Matt Brash’s return to the minors was not in the original blueprint. Losing catcher Tom Murphy to a dislocated left shoulder hurt, and his recent setback was even worse news.

All of this has created a lack of depth that has the Mariners struggling against the Oakland A’s to stay out of the AL West basement. Seattle needs a spark, and it needs it fast, to save its season. The expected return of Kyle Lewis, who is likely to be limited to hitter-designate as he comes back from the second reconstructive surgery of his career on his right knee, has a slim chance of being that. Playing nine games against Oakland, Texas and Baltimore over the Mariners’ next 12 does, too.

But let’s assume the spark doesn’t fly this season, or at least not in time to salvage their hopes of ending the playoff drought. Then what?

Honestly, on the whole, it wouldn’t be such a big hit. What the Mariners do in 2022 doesn’t determine the overall success of the rebuild that general manager Jerry Dipoto began after the 2018 season, and it’s important to consider that in order to see the wood for the trees.

Now, I’m not saying that disappointing performance this year is a good thing. Making the playoffs, or at least seriously attacking, in 2021 after unexpectedly winning 90 games would have been a very clear signal that the M’s are on the right track. But the many things that have gone wrong so far this season should probably show how many things had to go right a year ago – and did. Seattle appeared to be catching lightning in a bottle, but lightning escaped, at least for now (let’s not forget it’s not even June yet).

The really interesting thing about what’s going on at the Mariners is that it’s happening even as rookie outfielder Julio Rodríguez and sophomore pitcher Logan Gilbert are developing into two of Seattle’s best players. That’s the kind of development you’d think might overdo the Ms, but that’s not how it works. Still, what these two do outweighs anything else that happens on the field for the Ms.

Yes, the M’s want to make the playoffs this year. Even more they want to be a perennial favorite. Whether that starts now or next year or the year after (hopefully not for so long because that’s really moving the goalposts), the biggest key is building young players with superstar potential. They need their Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez or Randy Johnson and those types of players are next to impossible to acquire at a young age. They have to be developed. If the Mariners win 70 or 90 games this year, it shouldn’t have much impact on the development of players in the team’s young core who could become All-Stars (although a win certainly wouldn’t hurt).

The 90-win season of 2021 likely did the Ms a disservice by accelerating expectations for Seattle to reach the playoffs while also failing to accelerate the development timeline for its young top players. As much as they want to be where the Toronto Blue Jays are, the Mariners’ potential superstars have at most a full year of MLB experience, while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are both in their fourth seasons and already have All-Star selections their baseball reference pages. Guerrero and Bichette also didn’t have a full minor league season in 2020 like Seattle prospects did at the time.

The Mariners’ rough start to the season is a harsh reminder (admittedly for me too) that the rebuild isn’t over yet. They are just starting to produce the players that have gone through their farm system.

Away from the farm, there seems to be growing concern in the Mariners fanbase about Dipoto’s approach to free agency, as his stated intentions for the offseason seemed to indicate more was about to happen than actually happened. And while I think it’s worth keeping an eye on and hopefully proving the Ms have learned from next off-season, I don’t think it should be more important than other things Dipoto’s team did during the rebuild Has. The same applies to this slump in the pre-season. Free Agents can still come in time, and they must, but they’re not what conversions are based on.

Dipoto made Seattle’s farm one of the best in baseball. It’s starting to produce players with high ceilings. Along the way, a multitude of players acquired by Dipoto led the team to a surprising 90-win season. All of these things bode well, even if this current team’s depth and record isn’t.

I want to see more of the Mariners. I think there’s going to be a tipping point where the players that Seattle developed themselves will take over, and that could happen this season. And I’m sorry to tell the fans who have waited 20 years, but patience is still required, even if the impatience is understandable at the moment. These 20 years were marked by constant managerial changes and GMs changing their philosophies in the middle. I haven’t seen that from Dipoto and manager Scott Servais since the rebuild began in fall 2018, and their vision deserves a little more time.

Put it this way, if the Ms parted ways with Dipoto, the next GM would be greeted with perhaps the best first-year situation of any GM in team history. That’s a pretty good sign of where the franchise is headed, don’t you think?

If the Mariners don’t meet their playoff expectations in 2022, it won’t sabotage the franchise’s long-term health. Abandoning the storyline that Dipoto and his team have been working on for the last four years – well, that might just be.

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