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June 12, 2011 at 6:49 PM

Where my pre-season analysis of this Mariners team went way wrong

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Flying high in the sky, literally and figuratively, right now. I’ll tell you once again, as I have so often before, that it’s much more fun covering a winning team than a losing one. It’s June 12 and the Mariners are above .500 and 1 1/2 games out of first place. Who would have thought that possible? Not me.
I picked this team to lose anywhere from 90 to 100 games. In fact, I was certain about it. How good it is to be wrong. Seriously, the last month has just flown by. Last season, covering this team felt like a prison sentence. Night and day better for everybody right now. The players, the coaches, the front office, the fans and us media types who have to deal with them day-in and day-out.
But hey, I’m not letting myself off the hook that easy. It’s great that covering the team is more fun, but I still picked this team to finish dead last and perhaps be worse than last season with as much certainly as Felix Hernandez takes the mound knowing he’s going to strike at least one hitter out.
So, where did I go wrong? Believe me, I’ve been picking that one apart in my head for the past four weeks or so, when it became increasingly apparent this was not a one, or two-week hot streak. What’s so confounding about this team was that it began the season and spent 23 games doing exactly what I thought it would.
The Mariners couldn’t hit. Their fielding was bad. They pitched OK in starting roles, but the bullpen was shaky. In fact, I believed this year’s offense was actually worse than last season’s.
But here we are and to quote the late, great Dave Niehaus, My, oh my, how things have changed!
Looking back at key areas of the club, there is one in particular I know for a fact I could not have been more wrong about and that did seriously skew my perception of this club.
The bullpen.

With a week to go in spring training, I was chatting with a player agent and told him the bullpen the M’s were about to break camp with was the worst I had ever come across at any point in a season — let alone the one headed for Opening Day. I’d seen Brandon League before and in Toronto and wasn’t buying him as a closer. Not enough strikeout ability. More of a set-up man. Looked lousy most of the spring in struggling to find his release point.
How this team was ever going to survive without David Aardsma for a month — let alone most of a season — was beyond me. It looked like a patchwork collection of dime-a-dozen rent-an-arms any team could have picked up for nothing in a waiver release or two…or three…maybe four.
And yet, David Pauley has put together an all-star first 2 1/2 months. Aaron Laffey has been solid. Jamey Wright, until his recent struggles, was money. And Brandon League just may be the best closer in baseball. Sorry, Mariano. League — with the exception of that one week in May — has been all-but-unhittable.
Even Chris Ray, my April pick to win the DFA race, has bounced back and become useful again. Sure, the team missed on Josh Lueke early on. Yeah, Tom Wilhelmsen needed more seasoning.
But that was corrected. Going to the six-man bullpen changed the look of this team and what Eric Wedge could do with his bench. And ultimately, even with only six guys (does anyone remember the debate about that? Seems like decades ago) this bullpen has been a big strength. Not a liability.
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Looking at the rest of it, my take on the starting pitching was about what all of you had. I thought it was pretty good. But I never expected Michael Pineda to be this dominant. Erik Bedard has put some real nice games together as well and Doug Fister and Jason Vargas have delivered more innings than I thought they could so far.
But I still thought going in that the rotation was one of the team’s stengths. Not as good as this, but not a liability either. So, I won’t beat myself up over that one.
Because ultimately, in my analysis, I’d allowed for the fact the entire rotation would be very good and it still didn’t matter.
Hernandez was as good as it got last year and won only 13 games because the offense couldn’t score. And with this M’s offense and a bullpen blowing games, I reasoned that it wouldn’t matter how great the starters were. A few blown saves in the ninth, some 2-1 losses, and morale would be beaten into the ground.
The first 23 games of the season, as I said, that’s exactly what happened. The Mariners were 8-15 and going nowhere fast — except another 100-loss season.
And then, Detroit happened. The Mariners showed up to Motown for a series that began April 26 and something magical occured. Something I’d never seen before. The Mariners, who I’d felt comfortable enough to lambast in the blog on the April 25 off-day, did a complete switcheroo. I mean, they stopped and turned on a dime.
They went out and scored 24 runs in three games on the road in Detroit. Went on to win five straight games on the road. And even with a hiccup or two since, they really have not looked back. They are not the team that had been winning only once every three games prior.
We can analyze the stats and stuff and try to break down this period of time versus that. But what happened on that road trip was that this team saw what it was capable of. This team stopped talking the talk and began walking the walk. If I had a dime for every player on bad teams that’s told me “We know how good we are, even if nobody else does” let me tell you, I could build another Space Needle with all those dimes and have enough left over to prank call every one of you from a payphone.
So, yeah, a lot of dimes.
But these Mariners stopped talking and began hitting. Not every day, mind you. They still struggle to score even three runs per game at times. But I’d never have believed they could score four or more in roughly half their games since that Detroit series began.
And yet, they’ve found a way. And when they do, they win. They are 18-2 dating back to that first series in Detroit when scoring four or more. Any team in baseball would take those numbers. Because scoring four runs ain’t exactly climbing Everest. You win 90 percent of those games, the playoffs are not some daydream anymore.
The big bats some of us have called out for since 2009 have materialized from within. You now have two guys — Justin Smoak and Miguel Olivo — at double-digits for home runs. Carlos Peguero has hit five. Adam Kennedy has five as well.
It ain’t the Bash Brothers. Just their little nephews playing wiffle ball by equivalent. But if it gets the Mariners four runs, they win.
So, I won’t beat myself up as much as I will do it for my bullpen miscalculation. But it looks like I was still wrong. I misjudged this offense and its potential to change. And in doing so, I broke one of my cardinal rules about looking at only stats and not considering the human element to ballplayers.
Now that I’ve had several more weeks to study Brendan Ryan and Olivo up close, I see the intangibles that I’d missed. These guys have it. Ryan began seriously impressing me about a month ago and hasn’t stopped. The Mariners have not had a player with his energy level in the five years I’ve been here. He’s given this club a dimension it did not have before and it’s come at a time when the M’s needed a boost at the top of the order.
Olivo is a bit quieter, but he’s a warrior. He goes out there prepared to leave it all on the field every day. It’s not a cliche. He really does. The Mariners have not had players like Olivo since their glory years. He is the leader of this team. Kennedy might be next in the leadership department, squeezing every bit of talent he has into the four games per week this club can risk playing him.
And for the newer guys, Ryan, despite his youth, is the on-field, gung-ho leader this team has missed. His enthusiasm is infectious and it has nothing to do with his talking to the media. Plenty of guys are nice to the media. But they don’t elevate a team’s game the way Ryan has.
I had a feeling Kennedy would be a contributor because he looked real good this spring and I knew the M’s wanted him to play a lot. But Olivo and Ryan? I completely missed on those guys. Totally underestimated the impact they’d have.
And I completely underestimated the impact Eric Wedge would have. Hey, he’s not out of the woods yet on this season. But Wedge so far has gotten this team to dramatically change the approach it takes at the plate. He’s gotten this team to believe in itself. He’s challenged players to do more, been willing to make waves to get there and he’s achieved results.
And he’s done it after this team spent the first 23 games burying itself in a hole nearly too deep to climb out of. Done it with Ichiro and Chone Figgins AWOL for a good part of the season.
Even if I did buy into this offense potentially improving over last year’s 513 runs just by the sheer awfulness of last year, if you’d told me in March that Ichiro and Figgins would be this bad for this long, all bets would have been off.
But the Mariners have found a way.
They may crash and burn still. You never know what baseball holds just around the corner. But as of now, they are 1 1/2 games out of first place and –perish the thought — if they could somehow ever make the playoffs with that starting rotation…well…yeah, let’s just stick to June for now. There is a long, long way to go.
But it’s been long enough that I’m not going to sit here waiting for the team to fail in order to avoid admitting I was wrong.
I’ve seen enough. I was wrong about the 2011 Mariners.
For all of their faults, this team is a fun product to watch and one I look forward to going out to see because I know it can compete with anyone. I know now that it has the intangibles to compensate for certain shortcomings.
And believe it or not, even in this day and age of everyone needing to be right about stuff, it feels great to have missed the boat on this team. It feels great because any of us who follows a team day-in and day-out wants to see it do well, whether as part of a job or just sheer fandom.
Never has being so wrong felt so right.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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