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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 8, 2008 at 10:48 AM

Long days ahead

No two ways about it, this Mariners team — and all of us watching them — have some long days ahead, even if they somehow manage to turn their season around. I went through something like this covering the 2004 Toronto Blue Jays, a team that fans, some media and the manager felt was capable of winning 95 games. Instead, it wound up losing 94. I was not among the media picking that team as a favorite that year, so there was a certain inner satisfaction in knowing that I had the right feel for what transpired. Turns out, the team was a whole lot worse than the mere .500 squad I’d pinned it down as. And, after a couple of months of feeling smug, the season truly was one big drag to be a part of. Didn’t help when broadcast media colleague John Cerutti, the former major league pitcher, Toronto color analyst and all-around great guy, was found dead in his SkyDome hotel room of heart failure at age 43 on the morning of the season finale. Tom Cheek, the Dave Neihaus of Toronto radio, lost his elderly father one week, then got diagnosed with brain cancer the next and was dead within 15 months. That was the type of season I never wanted to cover again. Terrible memories and just a gloomy feeling all around, every single day you walked into that clubhouse. We’re supposed to be impartial in the media and generally are. But that clubhouse is still our workspace to a degree and if the mood is down, it’s a six-month, daily dose of depression you want to shed ASAP.
So, this time, I’m on the other side of the prognostication game, having picked the Mariners to make the playoffs. Obviously, some things I expected have not gone that way. This offense is a whole lot worse than I’d imagined it could be. And than I still think it will wind up being. But it had better wind up being something soon. Like tonight, or tomorrow. Because I’m not in favor of sitting through another season like in 2004. And even those of you who expected this offense to be lousy, I’m sure, would rather have been totally wrong than face the prospect of watching the worst team in the AL.
On that note, I received an email from some members of the Seattle blogosphere — no, not Dave Cameron of USS Mariner, though he and I have exchanged friendly emails in recent days — with concerns about how fans will perceive them. They were among those “out there” this winter warning that the offense was too weak and that the defense was terrible. I’ll still say, the defense (and runs allowed) is not what’s killing this team. It’s the bats and the runs scored. But of course, they were technically right. The defense is not very good. That, I think, many of us agreed upon this winter. It was the impact of said defense we disagreed with.
Anyhow, point is, these folks don’t feel very good about their predictions coming to fruition — so far at least. A couple of them were out at the ballgame the other night (they are names you’d recognize if you read other websites even semi-frequently) cheering on the team as any hardcore fans would. They would much rather see the team win than be right and were wondering what comes next. They are afraid to crow too loudy in public, worrying that fans who felt this team would contend will turn on them. I think their humble stance in public is a very good route to take for the moment. I remember my sports editor giving that advice to myself and our baseball columnist in 2004 after the Blue Jays were taken apart in a three-game sweep at home by Detroit — coming off a 119-loss season — to open that 2004 campaign. Not that we needed it. But it was good advice. Act like you’ve been there, done that before. Because for every pick you get right, you’ll get plenty wrong. It’s why none of us are millionaires betting sports in Las Vegas.
It’s in that frame of mind, too, that I believe we should all be in when we try to decide what this team should do moving forward. A calm, rational state of mind. Not one overcome by the euphoria of a positive prediction or the inflamed, knee-jerk response of someone whose dreams for the team are going up in smoke. As I said, there are going to be some long days ahead.

That said, this team is still not in a position where it will cry “Uncle!” on the 2008 season. That day is reasonably close, but the fact remains that had Seattle scored three runs last night it would be only 6 1/2 games out of first place. As long as the possibility exists that a three-game winning streak leaves this team a few games out of first place, no one in the front office is going to pull the plug. Regardless of the odds of this club playing .600 ball the rest of the way. That’s a daunting task, I agree. But every year, some team finds a way to do it. Maybe not the 2008 Mariners. But some team. So, while fans and media say it’s time to pack it in, most teams never will until the all-star break and the two weeks after that where you figure out if a club is a “buyer” or “seller” at the trade deadline.
That’s the one optimistic thing about this 14-21 club right now. It’s tanked so badly, so early, that we’re all on to our post-season analysis (you, me, everybody) on May 8. There is still a chance the club can turn things around, regardless of how likely to happen you feel that is. It does have the pitching. And it does have three bats in the heart or the order whose numbers with runners in scoring position are only a fraction of their regular batting averages. It does have a rookie, Jeff Clement, who has 13 strikeouts his last 23 at-bats in his first week as a major league regular. Some of those numbers are due to even up over time. If they do, the offense could get better.
As I mentioned earlier this week, though, time is of the essence.
But what if it doesn’t? What then?
Well, then you take stock of what you’ve got and move forward. And then those who predicted the offense will be this team’s Achilles heel can pat themselves on the back — quietly, of course, for your own sake — and look at what needs to be done.
If the season ended today, here’s what I’d see: a team with an excellent starting rotation and the makings of a pretty good bullpen, but in desperate need of some power bats. That would be my No. 1 off-season target right now. A pair of power bats. Not just one. And power with a good OPS — meaning a guy who can get on base. We know the team is going to lose Richie Sexson after this year, Jose Vidro as well and maybe Raul Ibanez. There will be some holes to fill, but you would hope that Clement and Wladimir Balentien can step in to fill some roles with nearly a full season under their belts.
To be honest, that’s a pretty easy shopping list. Far too many teams will have a much tougher time meeting their off-season needs.
And that’s why I don’t equate being “right” about the offense as automatically being “right” about the Erik Bedard trade. Bedard has done what was expected of him here. He is now going seven innings a night, giving up three earned runs or less. On a team with even an average offense, he’d be winning every time out. He is the real deal, folks, and he and Felix Hernandez make a superb 1-2 punch moving forward. That’s a great place to start building your playoff team.
Bedard is not the problem here. Adam Jones, as good as he could be someday, would likely not be giving the Mariners much more at this point. George Sherrill, after a great start — mostly against the M’s — has cooled a little while Seattle’s bullpen seems to be finding its form. Check out their numbers. They are steadily improving.
The big problem with this team, as I said, has been the bats. And if the season ended today, that’s what I’d fix. This team will also have to make a call at some point on its middle infielders. Are they the double-play combination you want on the field two or three years from now? If not, it will be time to seriously consider alternatives. Based on what I’ve seen so far, that’s still open to debate.
You can fire the front office, or change the manager again. But the manager can’t hit for these guys, he can’t catch or throw the ball. If the guys he has aren’t doing their jobs, there is only so much John McLaren can do. For me, the biggest thing he’s done that I disagree with is the composition of his bench. I’ve said it since spring training ended and kept on saying it after Greg Norton was traded. I know the thinking behind why the bench is as it is, but I do think it’s weakening an already weak-hitting team.
That said, it’s not a firing offense for a guy in his first full year.
Has he “lost the clubhouse”? I honestly don’t think so. As someone wrote in the comments thread last night, even Lou Piniella couldn’t get players to overachieve in Tampa Bay. McLaren is trying to make moves based on what he’s got. What he’s got isn’t giving him much right now.
As for Bill Bavasi, he built this team and will bear the ultimate responsibility. But I do believe, based on what I’ve seen, that he will get two seasons for this plan to work out. Don’t scream and yell at me for saying that, please. I simply believe the ownership and Howard Lincoln, based on the Bedard deal, will allow him this season and 2009 for his “plan” to work. As I said, this team will still have an excellent, frontline starter in Bedard going forward and can rememdy weaknesses by acquiring some bats next winter. Or by getting improved production from the players already here.
I disagree wholeheartedly with those who say this team should dismantle entirely, sell off veterans and “blow the whole thing up”. Given how much this team has committed towards building a contender in these two years that Bedard is guaranteed to be here, I think blowing it all up now would be a huge mistake. A panic move, so to speak. The makings of a contender are there, at least on the mound. And that’s often the hardest place to find the missing ingredients.
This notion that a team should only make a trade such as the Bedard deal when it’s “one piece away” is ridiculous and has to be laid to rest. First off, there is barely a team in baseball that ever thinks it’s only one piece away. And not every move is going to be laying out there for you to make when you’ve got that puzzle nearly completed. The Boston Red Sox went out and got Josh Beckett when he was available. Not when they were one piece away. It wasn’t until the second year of Beckett’s tenure that they won a World Series. They made several moves after acquiring him before they finally had all the pieces together.
The Cleveland Indians of the late 1990s (after their World Series appearances) were supposedly always one front-line starter away from winning it all. But they never could find that missing piece. A team that passes on a Bedard deal today could find itself “one move away” from contention a year later…and 10 years after that. Top pitchers don’t just fall into a team’s lap when they snap their fingers. Sometimes, you have to take what’s out there today and fill in the missing pieces later.
I still think, based on what I’ve seen, that this team is in much better shape than those 2004 Toronto Blue Jays were. I do think this team has the makings of a playoff rotation and bullpen. I also think the offense stinks and that something will have to change before that turnaround comes.
As I said, it may even come this year. I hope so. Not so that my prediciton will be “right”. But just because, as some of you will find out if things stay the same, the alternative is just too unpleasant.
ADDITIONAL NOTE (11:49 p.m.): For Rodman in the comments thread, coach Sam Perlozzo had torn the meniscus in his knee a couple of weeks back and underwent arthroscopic surgery yesterday. Should be back with the team in a few days, but I’m not sure when he’ll coach third again.



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