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I subscribe to the dictionary.com “Word of the Day” feature, which results in an exotic new word arriving via e-mail every day. I love words, and it’s a great way to expand the vocabulary and learn a little something about the etymology of words.
Last Tuesday, the word of the day was “zugzwang,” a noun defined thusly: “A situation in which a player is limited to moves that have a damaging effect.” As an example, the following sentence was provided: “Oh, he understands his position: he is in trouble, he is faced with the zugzwang to end all zugzwangs.” — Doug Dorst, The Surf Guru
Now, apparently this originated as a chess term, but it seems to me Eric Wedge is currently ensnared in a classic “zugzwang to end all zugzwangs.” He’s got a roster filled with guys who can’t hit (except, of course, for Dustin Ackley, who in one short month has already distinguished himself as the best hitter — by far — on the roster. That’s a tribute to Ackley’s talents, but also an indictment of the Mariners’ roster. Greg Halman has shown flashes, but he’s also struck out 26 times in 74 at-bats, and I fear he’ll eventually be exposed as another one of the Mariners’ “not quite ready” prospects).
As Wedge grapples for ways to pull them out of their horrendous skid, he must study the supply of players available to him, throw his hands up in the air, and mutter, “Zugzwang. Zugzwang. Zugzwang.” (That’s assuming he’s a chess player or subscribes to dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day.”).
You’re not likely to shake your way out of a slump by throwing Jack Wilson, Josh Bard or Jack Cust into the lineup. Not to dump unduly on them, by the way — the regulars aren’t distinguishing themselves in any way, either. Wedge can juggle the batting order all he wants, and dip into his bench all he wants, but
there simply aren’t any good answers at his disposal. (Of course, the grand slam Miguel Olivo just hit as I’m typing this is a very good answer, but I wouldn’t count on that every day; it’s taken 98 games to get the first one this season).
I just glanced at my preseason prediction (to be found at the very bottom of this blog post), and see I had the Mariners at 72-90. Heading into today’s game in Toronto, the Mariners are on pace to go precisely…72-90.
That would represent an 11-game improvement on 2010. So why does it feel like progress is fast turning into regress? For one thing, they’ll lose a lot more than 90 if they don’t get out of their current funk. But the big thing is the Mariners have done things is the exact wrong order this year. After a slow start that seemed to verify all the worst fears of their fans — they stood 8-15 on April 24 — the Mariners took off on a month-long surge that made us think that maybe the rebuilding process was being accelerated. They went 10 games over .500 — 22-12 — from April 25 through June 3, and stood in the thick of the AL West race. As late as July 5, they were still at .500, a mere 2 1/2 games out of first place. The flaws were apparent, but it seemed as if the Mariners had found a formula for respectability.
And then came the unmitigated disaster of the last two weeks, which has put a keen focus on those flaws. All the anger and bitterness that had been dormant in Mariner Nation for the past couple of months has come storming back to the surface. It feels as if the two steps foward has been followed by three, or maybe four, steps back. This season is supposed to be about rookie progress, and it’s been gratifying to see Ackley turn out to be every bit as talented as advertised (and, of course, Michael Pineda, but the pitching isn’t the concern right now; it’s the pitiful offense that is undermining yet another Mariner season). Who else has emerged as someone the Mariners can absolutely bank on going forward? Not Michael Saunders or Adam Moore. Not Carlos Peguero. Not Kyle Seager, Greg Halman or Mike Carp. Not even the slumping Justin Smoak. By no means am I writing off any of those players. Any or all could still wind up being fine players for the Mariners, even impact players. All have shown flashes of promise, either at the major- or minor-league level. But have we seen enough to be confident of that fact? Not yet.
It’s still a precarious future for the Mariners, one you’d feel better about if the winning portion of the season had happened at the end. But instead, the winning has been followed by the unraveling; speaking for myself, it’s severely denting my perception of the team having taken a solid step forward this season. That’s not a win-loss determination, either. It’s a determination made by looking at the pieces they have in place, moving forward.
Right now, those pieces are inadequate, to put it bluntly. The Mariners have compiled the pitching staff of a contender, and the every-day lineup of a glorified minor-league team. Today’s loss in Toronto is now official, by the way, despite Olivo’s salami; the Mariners are now on a pace to lose 91 — but check back tomorrow.
Maybe more help is on the way. Or maybe not as much as we’d like to think. All I know is that right now, Eric Wedge has got a whole lot of zugzwang to deal with.