By Craig Edwards
We're technically a little more than half-way through the baseball season. However, the All-Star break traditionally marks the midseason point, separating the serious contenders from the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. As the second half gets underway here in 2007, Mariners fans can rejoice. After three years in last place, Seattle is a serious contender. However, what most people don't think about is that this year's success can be linked to a decision made three years ago.
Pro sports fans are often the victims of a vicious cycle. Teams build up, getting good enough to contend for several years. But with drafts weighted to support bad teams, contenders can only stay that way for so long before falling back to the pack. The best franchises manage to stay in contention the longest (The Atlanta Braves) without falling back too far, or manage to keep the gap between winning seasons as short as possible. This is what the Mariners appear to have accomplished.
In 2004, the Mariners hit the All-star break with a 32-54 record, 17 games out of first place (ironically, behind the Texas Rangers). The stars that had helped the M's win 116 games in 2001 just weren't getting it done. Rather than do what many teams do, trying to mix and match free agent pieces (a process that can work, but doesn't always. Ask the Yankees), team leaders decided to get the inevitable over with, choosing to hit rock bottom in 2004 and start rebuilding. Popular team stars John Olerud and Brett Boone were released or traded, allowing them to play for contenders, and the youth movement began quickly.
This was an incredibly risky decision, mainly because fans could have easily turned on the team. But it worked.
The loss of those stars freed up money help the team sign Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexon, two of the biggest free agent names that offseason. 2005 also saw Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt become fixtures in the starting lineup. That is the exact same infield the team plays with this year. I can't count the number of young pitchers who got major league throwing experience.
You take this smart and gutsy decision, add in some free agency gambles that paid off (Miguel Batista), and you have a contender in Seattle.
Mariner fans, enjoy the ride.