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

March 31, 2009 at 11:52 PM

Mariners look better than expected

Today was the day I had to fill out my predictions for the Times’ baseball preview section, which comes out this Sunday. So, where did I pick the Mariners? You may remember that I picked them to finish first last season. We’ve hashed and re-hashed that one out, over and over, during the past year so let’s not go back there except to say I was wrong.
Did I pick them first again this year? Well, a wise old mentor, Mr. Spock (or was it Scotty?), once said “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
So, no.
But here’s what I did do. I picked the M’s to finish third, ahead of the Texas Rangers. I think they’ll finish behind both the Angels and Athletics. Now, that may not seem like much. But for me, it is. For months now, I’ve assumed this team would be an automatic last-place finisher. Some of its winter moves didn’t seem enough. Well, I saw enough this spring to change my mind. Not enough to pencil the M’s in as division contenders. But I truly do not believe this is a last place team.
A big reason is the guy in the photo above, rounding third after a home run a couple of weeks ago. Russell Branyan (Photo Credit/AP) hit one that day and he connected twice more today against the Cleveland Indians.
Tallking to Branyan in the clubhouse afterwards, something struck me. I didn’t realize it until I was leaving the ballpark an hour or so later, but the truth is, I’ve ignored Branyan through most of camp. I spoke to him on one of his first days here and that’s it. Here’s why. He’s done his job. So well, in fact, that I just see him and dismiss him casually as one of the team’s established veterans who has little to prove down here. It only dawned on me later that “Heck, yes, he has tons to prove.”
Branyan hasn’t had more than 378 at-bats in a single season in his career.
The M’s will try to get him 500 this season and based on what I’ve seen. he looks capable of attaining that. Hard to believe he strikes out so often. His bat has looked disciplined down here. Not all the time, mind you. He’d been dominated by lefties until today. Went to the team’s video co-ordinator to check some things out this morning, then focused on staying back while Indians lefty Scott Lewis delivered some pitches his way. And Branyan hit those balls a ton.
Right now, he looks so poised out there, I figure I don’t have to pay attention. Looks like a polished pro who has played first base full-time his whole life. It’s easy to forget he hasn’t.
So, for me, the M’s are going to make up for some power lacking at first base last year. I think they will also get some added pop from Ken Griffey Jr. at DH, as opposed to Jose Vidro. I also think Jose Lopez is poised to take his game to another level, especially at the plate. Throw in the usual Adrian Beltre effort and that’s four potential power sources in the lineup. Not fantastic, but better than what I thought they had going in.
We’ve talked about the other improvements, like a willingness to play the small ball game. But I’d always assumed this team would not have enough power. Well, I think they will have adequate power. I like what I see in Branyan. And if he can hit lefties, he might even get more playing time than expected. Really, they only need him to swat righties, since he’ll be platooning with Mike Sweeney. But if he hits lefties, too, that’s a good sign.
It’s not just Branyan, but an overall feel I get for this team.
We’ve spoken a lot about last year’s clubhouse issues. Well, I have to tell you, I have never — in a dozen seasons covering this game — seen such a clubhouse transformation from one year to the next as I have so far. Sure, we had to tidy up the unfinished Ichiro business last week, by giving him a chance to answer his critics from last season. But that’s over with now. So far, in 2009, it’s been night and day different. You feel it the minute you enter that clubhouse now. There are guys in control. And it’s no accident. A lot of effort has been put in, starting with the front office, moving on down to the coaches and to individual players like Sweeney and Griffey.
And it will matter. New GM Jack Zduriencik spoke last week about the importance of “character” in addition to “talent” on any team. How having too little of one will negate the importance of the other. I happen to believe him. What the Mariners are doing now is instilling a sense of accountability amongst themselves. And that was lacking in 2008 and it was noticed, even if some people like to downplay the importance of such things.
For instance, I get the sense this year that players aren’t satisfied with a mediocre effort on the field. That they will hear about it if they forget to do something. New manager Don Wakamatsu spoke a couple of weeks back about holding up two fingers in catcher Rob Johnson’s direction after a game. Johnson had let two pitches drop from his mitt. Lose too many of those, you cost your team outs and potentially runs, Wakamatsu didn;t have to say anything. Johnson knew what he’d done wrong and that somebody was watching.
It’s the same with the players themselves, They know if they mess up, or don’t give it their all this spring, that they are letting their teammates down. No joke. That’s the type of mentality some of the veterans are trying to instill.
I think it’s great.
For all the hitters who dropped off last season because their careers were pretty much done — pitchers too — there were others who were simply mediocre. And that’s gone on a little too long in these parts. Acceptable mediocrity. I get the sense it’s being tolerated less and less now — by the coaches and the players. If Jeff Clement, who works hard at what he does, can get shipped to Class AAA despite his No, 1 draft status, it sends a message that you have to earn your way on to this team.
If the players hold themselves accountable, policing each other and getting in faces when need be — behind closed doors if possible — it can only lead to a better product on the field. There was some talent on this team in 2008. Maybe not playoff talent. But not 61-win talent either. There are a lot of things that need to be done to bring the results of this team back up to even the modest levels they should be at.
And I believe they are making strides.
It’s one thing to criticize in the media. After all, critiques are part of what we do. But after the criticism, for the sake of fairness, you have to see how a team responds to it.
Let’s do a checklist.
After our five-part series last September (found in the Mariners index of this site) on rebuilding this team. CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong promised a full investigation into clubhouse goings-on and vowed to eradicate trouble spots.
They also pledged a more open and straightforward franchise when it came to being accountable in public.
From here, at least, they have lived up to their promises on both fronts. This clubhouse has changed dramatically and the team — with the straightforward style of the Zduriencik regime — is a lot more open.
Accountability starts at the top, after all.
The coaching staff vowed accountability as well, saying players would have to earn spots on the team and would be expected to change their ways if ill-suited to helping win. It’s still early, but so far, from a general viewpoint, that appears to be happening, There was much more competition for jobs this spring. Even guys hitting .400 won’t make the squad. All kinds of things — not just stats — are being looked at. Guys are being called out in public when they mess up too many times. This team is actually getting bunts down, moving runners over and forcing others teams into miscues with aggressive baserunning. Never thought I’d see that from the Mariners. Not this quickly. More accountability. You keep preaching the message, hammer it home, and hope the results come. If not, you force those results.
And the players, beginning with Griffey and Sweeney, are making sure everyone inside that clubhouse knows there is a certain level professionalism both on and off the field expected at all times. You just feel the difference when you walk in the room. There is a force there that you sense, in a locker area controlled by Griffey, Sweeney, Branyan, Adrian Beltre. There can be no mistaking that it’s the center of the room. No more anarchy tolerated.
I like that.
Will it matter on the field? I think it will, but we’ll see. No, these Mariners won’t win 100 games. I don’t think they’re that good. But what they will do in 2009, I think, is come a lot closer to realizing their true talent level. When you cut out all the nonsense and finger-pointing and focus on winning games, getting to that level becomes a lot easier. Sure, winning is a cure for everything. And yeah, internal bickering tends to go away when you win. But that’s a tired cliche. If winning is the easy solution, why didn’t the M’s just go out and win last season? Heck, they spent $120 million on the roster.
Because they couldn’t, that’s why. It’s easy to talk about winning like you can just flip a switch and make it happen. But it takes work. It takes a foundation, The Mariners appear to have built a foundation this spring. Starting at the tippy top of the franchise, on down to the coaches and players. Now, whether it crumbles after a few series, as it did last year, remains to be seen. I don’t think it will. This is a different team. There are a lot of new faces here, between Griffey, Sweeney, Branyan, Franklin Gutierrez, Endy Chavez and others who will be playing key roles.
Of course, a team still has to prove itself on the field. But what seems to be the biggest concern right now? For me, it’s the bullpen. But let’s be realistic. Brandon Morrow may not look ready now, but he’ll probably be closing come late April. By then, Tyler Johnson could be the situaitonal lefty. So, while the pen seems a mess at the moment, the calm looks to be just around the corner. Its a short-term bother, yes. But hardly catastrophic.
For me, the longer term issues are more important. Getting this team on the same page, Getting them to move runners over, get bunts down. Having pitchers pick up fielders who make mistakes and vice versa. It all takes a foundation and this team has worked hard this spring at fixing what it could before the real games begin. The M’s appear to have done as much as they possibly could up to this point to eradicate those ghosts of 2008. The rest, as always, will be up to them to continue on the field. They have to be ready for prime time this year.
I’ve long believed this was a better club, last year, this year and in previous years, than the Texas Rangers. What stopped the M’s in years past was an inability to be ready to turn projections into reality. An almost rote acceptance of mediocrity, with no way of telling — or even caring to know — that it had set in.
Not anymore. It should be a much more interesting season this time around than it was by the third week of last April.



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