The question I pose today is this: Why should Mariners’ fans feel more optimistic about their team’s future than they did at this time two years ago?
Or, in fact, should they?
In 2007, after 140 games, the Mariners stood 74-66, second in the AL West, nine games behind the Angels. They would go on to finish at 88-74, a significant improvement from the 78-84 mark the year before, which was their third straight last-place finish.
The Mariners currently stand at 72-68 after 140 games, 12 games behind the Angels. They will likely finish a few games worse off than the 2007 M’s, who pulled it together to win 13 of their last 19.
Yet I would maintain that their future prospects are much rosier than they were at this juncture in ’07.
Yes, I get to say that with the benefit of hindsight, knowing the unmitigated disaster that would mark the 2008 M’s season — terrible personnel decisions, internal strife, and 101 losses. It doesn’t take much vision to predict a brighter 2010 than 2008.
But the signs for impending doom had already started to fester in September of 2007. The whole weird Mike Hargrove midseason resignation was undeniably disruptive, and the performance of interim (but soon to be full-time) manager John McLaren as the team collapsed down the stretch (15 losses in 17 games after moving to 20 games over .500 on Aug. 24 and taking a three-game wild card lead) was raising red flags. The fact they were being outscored handily by their opponents (813-754 by year’s end) was cause for alarm (as is their current 612-555 run deficit, for that matter).
To show that I’m not just speaking after the fact, here’s a column I wrote late in the season (Sept. 25) about Howard Lincoln’s impending decision on whether or not to rehire general manager Bill Bavasi and McLaren (he brought both back). I said, “…for all the good things that happened this year, the Mariners as constituted still don’t have the definitive feel of a team that is poised to take the final step to a playoff berth.”
I went on to note that they needed one more winning pitcher, a deficiency that they ostensibly filled with the acquisition of Erik Bedard, and supplemented with the signing of Carlos Silva. Ouch, and double ouch.
Which brings me, in a round-about way, to the reason I believe the Mariners are better positioned now than they were after the 2007 season — even though this team has its own set of deficiencies that will need to be addressed.
The cause for hope is in who is doing the addressing. Jack Zduriencik, Bavasi’s replacement at GM, has shown in his first full season that he understands how to build a team — not through blind pocketbook diplomacy (four years, $48 million for Silva shows a profound lack of understanding of value), but through the shrewdest blend of scouting and sabermetrics. He’s already shown that he can unearth hidden talent (Franklin Gutierrez, David Aardsma, Russell Branyan). He’s done a remarkable job of sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of the previous regime, determining the keepers and systematically discarding the rest. He’s stockpiled inexpensive talent, which is much less painful to discard when they don’t work out. He made what’s proven to be an inspired choice at manager in Don Wakamatsu.
And the Zduriencik era, so far, is just as remarkable for what hasn’t been done as for what has been. No over-reaching free-agent contracts (Silva, Miguel Batista, et al) no head-scratching trades (Horacio Ramirez for Rafael Soriano, et al).
The 2007 Mariners gave 91 starts to Miguel Batista (who somehow won 16 games, a total that belied his statistics), Jeff Weaver , Ramirez and Cha Seung Baek. They had an increasingly faltering Richie Sexson and the misplaced Jose Vidro hanging over them. They had Yuniesky Betancourt at the brink of his decline. They thought they were set at closer with J.J. Putz, but they were wrong. They thought they were set at catcher with Kenji Johjima, but they were wrong. Their leading run producer, Jose Guillen, was one and done, replaced by the lamentable Brad Wilkerson. After the fact, it’s hard to imagine how anyone thought the 2008 M’s would be any good. I picked them to finish first, seduced by the allure of Bedard. I’ve already done my mea culpas many times over.
The Mariners of the moment still have a lot to sort out themselves. They need to settle first base, third base, catcher, left field and DH (assuming Jack Wilson returns at shortstop, and I have little doubt he will). They need to sort out their rotation, augment their bullpen and resolve the Ken Griffey Jr. issue in a way that leaves everyone feeling good about it, no matter which way it goes.
No question this year’s progress could again come unraveled. With some money to spend, Zduriencik will have the tempation to make the kind of big-ticket free-agent move that kept biting Bavasi. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, provided he chooses wisely.
There’s a world of possibility awaiting the 2010 Mariners, and a world of peril. Based on what he’s shown so far, I think it’s reasonable to believe that Zduriencik will keep moving the M’s forward.
(Photo by Associated Press. That’s Mariners’ fan Judy Shannon pictured at Safeco Field on Aug. 31).