Are the Mariners’ days of future already past?

If the line is “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, then Seattle is truly a tale of two cities. Whereas the glow from the Seahawks’ Superbowl win still envelops the city, the Mariners have nearly exhausted any goodwill from their fanbase.

Mariners

70 wins. The Seattle Mariners have averaged 70 wins over the last five years. They have been long-term cellar-dwellers in the AL West until the arrival of the Houston Astros. What’s worse is that the despair of losing has at times given way to acts of absurdity.

  1. Outfielder Eric Byrnes’ failed squeeze attempt was amongst the strangest at bats ever by a Seattle Mariner.  So embarrassed after the gamer, Byrnes sped away on his bike through the clubhouse hallway past reporters and general manager Jack Zduriencik.
  2. Richie Sexson, who was unfortunately the last to know that his career was over, tried to spark the team by charging the mound on a pitch that was OUTSIDE. Bonus marks for throwing his helmet with the form of a 12 year old.
  3. When shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt wasn’t displaying a lack of discipline at the plate, he was ignoring his own outfielders calls on plays in the field. Let’s just say that his horrific collision with outfielder Endy Chavez was the worst, but not the only example of his defensive recklessness.
  4. The wife of outfielder Carlos Peguero was charged after defrauding Felix Hernandez’s wife of thousands of dollars at Saks Fifth Avenue.

This type of behavior is clearly not conducive to winning, but it also makes the team difficult for fans to rally behind. However, it wasn’t just the players that were sucked into this bipolar vortex.  A long line of managers have sacrificed a good measure of their physical and mental health during these times.

  1. Mike Hargrove thought so much of his lot that he quit during an eight game winning streak.
  2. His mild-mannered replacement John Mclaren was, well not so mild-mannered after months of losing. His public meltdown at a post-game presser was an instant classic.
  3. Chone Figgins took to actually fighting with manager Don Wakamatsu in the dugout.
  4. Poor Eric Wedge was subject not only to terrible play, but also suffered a stroke during the season!

Crazy behavior aside, the team’s losing on the field has led to dwindling crowds Griffey_banner at the gate. During the most recent offseason, Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker penned an eye-opening piece that pointed to wide-spread dysfunction in the Mariners’ front office. The team of GM Jack Zduriencik, President Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln appear to be so flawed that players, managers and coaches are at a competitive disadvantage.

Even when opportunity presents itself, it is unclear that the Mariners are capable of capitalizing.  The team signed a new television deal that will provide far more financial flexibility. Not that money was ever the biggest problem, remember they were the first team to lose 100 games with a $100 million roster. Their biggest offseason acquisition was ex-Yankee Robinson Cano (31 years old) to a 10 year deal that is sure to create problems at its tail end. On its face, it is a bad deal, bit the Mariners needed legitimacy and had to overpay to get it.  They needed a veteran position player who could lead the youngsters and a bat in the middle of their order. Cano fits the bill, at least for the near future. For Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent, their WAR fell off a cliff between the ages of 34-35, so it is unlikely that Cano will be helping much at age 40.

Then there was the curious case of Randy Wolf. Brought in this spring to compete with Scott Baker to provide veteran depth as the fifth starter, Wolf won the spot, or so it appeared. With Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker due back by May, the team asked Wolf to sign a waiver that would allow the team to release him after 45 days. Wolf balked, contending that the two parties had not agreed to such an arrangement at the beginning of spring training. The move was curious considering: 1) Wolf would only make $1 million as their fifth starter and; 2) the Mariners will have at least three rookies in the starting rotation and will likely need someone to eat innings late in the season. Instead, Wolf left and the Mariners signed 34 year old Chris Young to a $1.25 million contract

Still, the fortunes of this team rest on its youth. The Mariners have committed to this rebuild but have yet to see any payoff. Entire coherts have yielded surprisingly little. Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero represented the first wave of talent, with only Seager developing into an everyday player. The poor results thus far give Seattle fans the sinking feeling that the future for these players may have already past. Bringing in veterans Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse, Jason Bay and Kendrys Morales as stopgap measures last year gave way to calling up an even younger set of players from AAA.

Then a second wave of Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino and Abraham Almonte was brought in late last year making the Mariners a very young team indeed. The most alarming fact is that the players in Seattle’s system rarely develop. Is this a consequence of poor talent evaluation or poor coaching? It is difficult to say, but with two cohorts of young players without any breakout performances (and more commonly significant regression), the likelihood is that player development throughout the system could stand for some improvement.

All the same, there do exist some glimmers of hope.

Justin Smoak has always possessed an above average eye at the plate while providing steller defense at first. However, Smoak has struggled when he presses to much elevating his strikeout totals.  Last year Smoak seemed to turn the corner at the plate, hitting for decent average, but lacking enough power for first base (only 6 homeruns by July). New manager Lloyd McClendon has wisely encouraged him to hit more doubles, which should allow him to play to his strengths. Could 30 homeruns be within reach for Smoak this year? If so, a switching hitting first baseman with power and a good glove will be of great value.

For all the turmoil that Dustin Ackley has been through, it appears that he is settling in to his major league role. Ackley and Seager came up together after being drafted in 2009. After their first offseason, Seager gained considerable weight, while Ackley remained quite light. Seager immediately showed much more authority at the plate, while Ackley started adopting a slap-hitting approach. Losing his confidence, Ackley bottomed out last year when Wedge questioned his aggressiveness and demoted him to AAA. Note: my favorite Ackley picture below after going down two strikes on balls he couldn’t hit (and were outside). This year, Ackley looks like he has gained some weight and is swinging much more aggressively to all fields.

Ackley
Ackley with 2 strikes in ninth

Shortstop Brad Miller (24) and catcher Mike Zunino (23) have both looked good early this spring. Gaining consistency will be their challenge in 2014, but they have both flashed a level of genuine talent at the big league level.

James Paxton is expected to hold a starting spot throughout the season. He excelled during his call up last September and continued that success early this year. As the graph below illustrates, Paxton was able to vary the speed of his pitches very well in his first start. He stuck out nine over seven innings and looked like he belongs.

Paxton

The success of the team in the spring will also depend on the patchwork pitching staff. The starting rotation needs to find a way to bridge to May when the regulars return. The Mariners are taking a risk by asking pitchers that are returning from injury (Chris Young) or exceedingly inexperienced (Roenis Elias) to carry the load. The bullpen may be strained early in the season, so depth right down to AAA will be a pressing issue. Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer or Lucas Luetge may be called into action before too long.  There is a pathway to success, but the margin of error is vanishingly small for this fragile team. We’ll see if McClendon can install enough belief in these players to weather the storm.

 

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