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

August 8, 2011 at 9:00 AM

A reminder that this latest “play the kids” effort by Mariners can’t be another false start

Lots of news made by the Los Angeles Dodgers yesterday with a Los Angeles Times report suggesting the team will lose $27 million in revenue from plunging ticket sales this season. The report states that the Dodgers lead all of MLB in one-year attendance declines from 43,979 per game last season to 36,730 this year.
Guess which team is cited as having the second-biggest fall? That’s right, the LA Times claims the Mariners are down 4,213 fans per game.
And that’s wrong.
The Mariners are only down half that total, from 25,746 to 23,478 — 2,268. Maybe it’s my Canadian math, but I’m not seeing the 4,213 part. Please correct me if I’m wrong.
Regardless, the fact the M’s are even being mentioned anyplace near the top in falling attendance is a reminder that this rebuilding plan does not have forever to kick into gear. There has been some better overall play by the Mariners over the last 10 games since snapping the 17-game losing streak, yes.
But the snapping the 17-game losing streak part is the key here. Such streaks can ruin an entire season. In this case, they pretty much did and the 6-4 record since is nice, but it’s important to remember that it only covers roughly a 60 percent portion of the losing that preceded it.
So, still plenty more games this team will have to compete in before that corner can begin to be turned.
As for all the “kids” now up here, yes, the Mariners do have an abundance. Dustin Ackley so far has lived up to every bit of his advance billing and the new-and-improved Mike Carp is opening some eyes and possibly setting himself up for a future role beyond what anyone envisioned a few weeks ago.
And yes, the newcomers like Trayvon Robinson (shown above making a home-run-robbing-catch Friday night), Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush, Kyle Seager and Blake Beavan are providing reasons to dream. Got all that.
And seen all that before. When? Well, on this scale, as recently as 2008.
This time, the M’s have to get it right.
Photo Credit: AP

Who can forget 2008? One of the more dysfunctional seasons a franchise can have. Other than last year’s Mariners, of course.
But once that season was abandoned early and the team unloaded Richie Sexson in July and Jose Vidro in August, we got to see a lot of “kids” played.
Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien were already up with the club. Bryan LaHair was playing first base. Brandon Morrow made everybody positively giddy with one September start versus the New York Yankees. Ryan Rowland-Smith was having a strong second-half as a starter. Sean Green had done a good job in the first half for the club in the bullpen. Mark Lowe was feeling better more than a year removed from microfracture surgery on his arm. Jose Lopez hit just below .300 with 17 homers and 89 RBI and was going to break out as the next power-hitting second baseman in the big leagues. Rob Johnson got his first taste of the majors and at that time, many fans were still excited about his potential. Matt Tuiasosopo was called up as well and wow, a local kid at that. Mike Morse was there, too.
You get where this is all going, right? Don’t have to draw anyone here a map.
None of those players are with the organization today, except Tuiasosopo and he probably won’t be for much longer.
I know, I know. None of those guys did what Ackley has done for the first two months of his career. Very encouraged by that. You expect a No. 2 overall pick to do stuff, not fade away like Clement quickly did as another top-five guy.
But the point is, with the “kids” you just never know.
Everybody here was gaga in 2009 over another “kid” in center fielder Franklin Gutierrez. Today, some of you want to see him replaced already, judging by what I read daily on this site. Michael Saunders was the “kid” to watch two years ago and last year as well. Now, he’s seemingly in a fight to stay on the team’s radar with all the new additions. Doug Fister was a fun “kid” to watch the final two months of 2009, but he’s now helping the Detroit Tigers contend, flipped for a bunch of new “kids”.
Carlos Peguero was a kid many were excited about as he climbed through the minors the past two seasons. Now, after his first extended taste of big league ball, some are already writing him off.
That’s the thing with “playing the kids”. Like playing with a spankin’ new toy at Christmas. All shiny and different at first, with sky’s the limit potential. Until you discover that they’re all human. They all have flaws in their games that need work. Some will take years to develop, even a blue chipper like Justin Smoak, who I think will be fine but keep getting daily emails about from worried fans. Don’t forget, he’s gone through a lot this year.
The point is, “playing the kids” can be fun and all. It’s preferable to watch that than a bunch of veterans playing out the string.
But it’s never the first choice of any organization. The first choice is always to play meaningful games, breaking a few kids in here and there, sure, but never an open audition where you turn the roster loose. That’s what losing teams do. And yes, spankin’ new or not, these M’s have gone from contenders in early July to a losing team “playing the kids” once again.
This time, though, it has to mean something.
This can’t be another dry run where we wake up in 2013 and find that only one or two of these guys are factors.
Because while the M’s attendance decline is not as catastrophic as the LA Times portrayed it as, being down 2,000 per game fan-wise is still significant. The M’s are down 5,000 fans per game since the 2008 season, corresponding to when GM Jack Zduriencik took over and began this rebuilding process.
Not all of that decline can be attributed to rebuilding. Yes, the economy is bad. But as the Cleveland Indians showed us this past decade, there comes a point where some of the fans you lose don’t return. Many people in Seattle assume this is a bandwagon town and that everyone will come back someday. Maybe they will. We can keep assuming that, I suppose, until the team wins and they don’t return. But then, it will be too late to do anything about it.
So, the solution? Don’t keep rebuilding forever.
At some point, some of these names will have to be more than shiny new Christmas presents forgotten about by New Year’s Day.
Because as much as many of us like to think we know more than the “casual fan” about prospects and how they’ll turn out, history has proved us wrong before. The truth is, we really don’t know that — other than maybe Ackley — this latest group of younguns’ will have more staying power with this team or in the big leagues than the kids we watched finish off the latter half of 2008.
And at times, I happen to think the “casual fans” might be more accurate in their impatience than some of us more patient types here on this blog and throughout the blogosphere. Yes, we all understand the need to be patient in rebuilding. But patience has its limits. You can’t just keep turning over prospect crops, flipping them for new players, without some sort of overall picture taking shape.
This winter will be critical for Zduriencik. If nothing else, the biggest advantage he has over the 2008 crop of “kids” is the sheer numbers of Class AAAA and MLB entry-level type of “kids” he can spin off into impact trades. After that, it will be up to the people owning the team to decide how much further they’ll be willing to go to get the Mariners playing meaningful baseball in late-July-through-September again.
Because tick-tock, tick-tock. Felix Hernandez has three more seasons on his contract. If the real goal is to contend by 2013, then you’ll have him for two seasons of meaningful baseball — or maybe just one if it becomes clear he won’t sign an extension. Forget what he says right now. It’s what he’ll be saying in 2013 and 2014 that will matter.
And you’ll also have to deal with that pesky old attendance thing, a figure that’s probably not about to start climbing anytime soon. Because the more it keeps dropping, the more this team’s ownership — based on past behavior — can use it as a reason to justify not increasing payroll. It’s a vicious cycle.
So, here’s to playing the kids. And hoping that, come 2013, we’ll be able to look back on these two months and not see the wasted exercise we’ve all watched before.



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