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

October 1, 2009 at 9:40 AM

Mariners earned their winning season, now need to make key improvements

Say whatever you want about the 2009 Mariners, but you’d be hard-pressed trying to argue they do not deserve their winning season. That winning campaign was secured with last night’s victory, giving the M’s no worse than an 82-80 record which they’ll have four more contests to try to better.
The Mariners did not exactly do what other teams in the 80-85-win category often have. Some of those teams play lousy baseball for five months, then pile on wins in September against inferior or mainly Class AAA opposition. When that happens, you get the fan base all riled up, only to see plenty of disappointment waiting down the road.
We saw disappointment with the 88-win Mariners squad from 2007. That team was a rollercoaster all year long, going off on long losing streaks, then prolonged winning stretches. It took one long streak in which the team dropped 15 of 17 to ruin its playoff aspirations. That team then finished the year with a pretty good winning run to get its victory total up to 88 and perhaps hide some shortcomings. If not, then the 88 wins at least saved the jobs of John McLaren and Bill Bavasi. Because had the season ended right after the 15 losses in 17 games, or continued long enough past September for the next losing streak to roll around, we might have seen coaching and front office changes much sooner.
As it is, the next losing streak didn’t roll around until the start of the 2008 season. By then, the M’s were stuck with what they’d kept.
Not so this season. The Mariners, frankly, are full value for everything they’ve done. This team rarely loses more than three in a row and doesn’t win more than three straight very often either. It is what its record shows it to be. A team that never stops playing hard and gets the most out of the minimal talent it has out there. And that says something about the team in this day and age. Believe me, not every major league team keeps playing this way once its playoff dreams die with two months still to go.
But now, as we mentioned last week, the real work begins for the folks running this squad.
We’ve noted before that the Mariners are one of only 13 teams to go from a 100-loss season to a .500 record or better. Well, guess which team was the last to do that? The 2003 Kansas City Royals.
Oh yeah, that juggernaut. Where have the Royals gone since? Absolutely nowhere. I’m sure Mike Sweeney, a member of that squad, has a few stories. Raul Ibanez was on that team as well and he and I have discussed it in the past.
That Royals team ran out of gas by the final month, so it’s not quite the same as what we’re seeing with an M’s team that has kept playing hard. But still, there are some warning signs that have to be heeded. And it’s not enough to say “The Mariners have Jack Zduriencik, so nothing can possibly go wrong!”
The Royals, let’s not forget, finally got tired of losing by 2007 and supposedly hired their own new-and-improved GM in Drayton Moore, a guy not afraid to combine progressive stats analysis with traditional scouting. And they are still losing. No, Moore wasn’t around for 2004, 2005 and 2006 when the Royals made everyone forget about 2003, but he’s been unable to fully reverse the damage. In fact, he’s contributed to some of it.
Zduriencik is off to a much better start, I’ll give him that. And yeah, I’d rather be on the giving end of a Yuniesky Betancourt deal than the receiving one. But Zduriencik has to get plenty more right this winter for things to continue.
Photo Credit: AP

We’ve mentioned the team’s Pythagorean record based on runs scored/runs against before.
The Mariners are 82-76, but their run differential suggests they “should” be about 73-85.
Back in 2003, the Royals were 83-79, but their run differential suggested they were more of a 78-84 team. Turns out, they were a 58-104 team the following year.
Royals manager Tony Pena was widely hailed at the time for getting the 2003 squad to play “over it’s head” much like the current M’s appear to be doing if one goes by their run differential.
Now, the M’s have a lot going for them compared to those Royals. For one, they have Felix Hernandez. They have Ryan Rowland-Smith. And maybe, just maybe, they have the Brandon Morrow we saw last night. I’m not penciling him in for anything just yet, but you can only hope. Still the first two guys give you a much better rotation than anything those Royals had. Seattle has a better closer in David Aardsma than the Royals have had in a long, long time.
And I’d take Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez and Jose Lopez over most of the aging team those Royals were trotting out. But that’s still a long way from a championship.
And what the Mariners are doing now, trying to get their win total up as high as possible — 85 would be a nice figure for them to use in ticket sale pushes — is only going to get the expectations of fans worked up higher. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. As long as the team can deliver in 2010.
Because if it can’t, if it falls to, say, a 75-win team next season, those raised expectations are going to make it feel like the M’s went out and lost 100 again.
And trust me, there isn’t much of a difference between being a 75-game winner under those circumstances and maybe winning only 60. Ask the 2008 team. Once the expectations aren’t met and the losses begin, it’s not as easy to go out there and play hard every night like this year’s team does. When the fans are on your case in the first or second inning, that ability to stay focused and keep trying to come back in the latter stages of a game starts to wane.
Anything this year’s team did was going to seem like an improvement over 2008. Was going to earn the m’s a pat on the back from fans. And there has been much back-patting since.
Nothing the 2010 team does will feel that way unless it goes out and wins 85 or more. That’s just human nature and the beast you deal with when you set expectations higher.
Now, nobody is saying that’s going to happen. We’re just thinking things through beyond next week, which is the purpose of having this blog. No use having the space to think in-depth if you aren’t going to use it.
Zduriencik has certainly shown he can put together a winning team. Now, he has to keep it winning.
More importantly, he has to get it to take the next step.
Winning 85 would be nice and all, but, as of this morning, it would have taken 95 wins to capture the AL West. That’s about what it is most years. We saw some forecasts pre-season that said 85 wins could take the division. Well, those were wrong — way wrong, as they usually are. In fact, it will probably take about 97 or 98 wins to capture the AL West and you usually won’t go wrong over-estimating just to be on the safe side.
So, much work lies ahead.
The fact that Adam Moore became the 22nd Mariners player to hit a home run this season — a franchise record and two shy of the AL mark — is a huge indicator of that. Teams really don’t want 22 guys hitting home runs in one year. You want the nine guys you started with to do the home run hitting and to keep it relatively close to that figure. Otherwise, it means plenty of roster turnover, which we’ve seen. There are a few positions settled heading into next year and a whole bunch of question marks.
So, savor this winning season. Get ready for what should be an exciting winter. And hope that Zduriencik is as good as he looks. Because the M’s have a long way to go before they can look themselves in the mirror and be fairly certain of topping this year’s win total come 2010.
Photo Credit: AP



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