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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

December 14, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Hamilton reaction shows Mariners’ vast credibility crisis

josh.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

As an isolated event, Josh Hamilton’s decision to sign with the Angels is not cause for excessive angst from Mariners’ fans.

While Hamilton is an indisputably great player, there is a strong case to be made that a five-year, $125-million deal for a 31-year-old outfielder, with all his well-known issues and red flags, is just too big a risk. I think there has also been a sense all along that Hamilton would wind up back with the Rangers, so the fact the Mariners didn’t nab him is not exactly a shocker. Instead of the Rangers, he ends up with a different AL West team, weakening the Texas club that has won the AL pennant in two of the last three years and was a wild-card team last year while finishing a game out of the division lead behind Oakland — and which can’t seem to get anyone to sign with them this winter. The Angels, even with their fearsome lineup, still have pitching issues that could keep them out of the playoffs again.

Also, there’s still time for the Mariners to make some impactful moves — perhaps not of the Hamilton caliber, but acquisitions that could make them better, perhaps significantly. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn remain unsigned, and trade possibilities exist. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Team-building doesn’t have to be a race. You have all winter to get things done. Here are some of the players who were dealt or signed free-agent contracts last year after Dec. 15: Rafael Furcal, Gregor Blanco, Prince Fielder, Hiroki Kuroda, Josh Reddick, Bartolo Colon, Carlos Beltran, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Mat Latos and Josh Willingham. I might have missed some, but you get the point. It’s not like a bell went off when Hamilton signed, signaling the end of the player-acquisition period.

Still, the fan reaction when the news of the Hamilton signing came down was instant, and fiercely negative toward the Mariners. I think part of that was the fact that he went to the Angels, which provided a stark juxtaposition of ownership styles: Arte Moreno, once he decides he wants a player, can be an unstoppable force, as has been witnessed with Vlad Guerrero, Albert Pujols and now Hamilton. The Mariners, well, not so much. They have a knack for falling short when they target a high-profile guy, as they seem to have done with Hamilton.

Mostly, though, what happened Thursday and beyond, I believe, was just a cumulative venting of pent-up frustration over the decline and fall of the Mariners organization. Losing out on Hamilton was just a symbolic tipping point, and the fact that they appear to have made a a legitimate effort to sign him doesn’t assuage the discontent. The apparent reality that so many big-time free agents are reluctant to come to Seattle, no matter what the offer is, is itself an indictment of the organization, and the disrepair it has fallen into.

Any confidence in the leadership of CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong long ago disappeared, and now the feeling toward them, on most fronts, is total disdain, bordering on hostility. I don’t like the personal attacks against them. But the Mariners’ sad state of affairs lands at their feet, as the ones in charge. The Mariners’ steadfastly tone-deaf stance against the proposed arena merely hastens and deepens the perceived disconnect between management and their fan base. I knew people were disenchanted, obviously, but the point was really driven home to me when we ran a story a couple of weeks ago about the giant new videoscreen. It should be a nice addition to Safeco Field, one that enhances the fan experience, and it comes out of a different budget than payroll. Yet our comment section exploded, and 99 percent of them were variations of the same theme: Typical idiot Mariners, worrying more about aesthetics than the product on the field.

It’s a full-blown crisis of confidence, one that informs the reaction to every move the organization makes. Whether it be moving in the fences, raising some season-ticket prices without informing customers, or the Jason Bay signing, it is viewed, overwhelming, through a prism of scorn, distrust and cynicism. At least, that’s the vibe that is reaching me.

And that brings us to Thursday, when Josh Hamilton chose someone else besides the Mariners, and fans went bonkers . Most saw it coming, yet his signing with the Angels became just the latest “proof” that the Mariners are not-ready-for-prime-time players. I predict the initial reaction to virtually any subsequent acquisition this winter by GM Jack Zduriencik — unless they trade for Mike Trout — will be more hard-core skepticism.

That’s where this organization is right now, like it or not. And the only way I see to change it, short of an ownership or upper-management change, is by winning.

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