Usually, we’ll caution that the first month of a season is not the best time to make snap judgments about a baseball team. And I’ve been doing that where the 2012 Mariners are concerned.
In this space, it’s been written that it’s too early to yank Miguel Olivo from his starting catcher role. Too early to declare Chone Figgins washed up. Too early to say that Justin Smoak has been a bust. Too early to push Brendan Ryan out of town. Far too early to really figure out anything until the Mariners start to play teams other than the Oakland Athletics, which only just happened.
And it still is too early for all of those things.
But I’ll tell you what. It’s getting late real early for the 2012 Mariners as a team.
Forget the standings. Those were never going to merit watching in 2012 for all but the most delusional.
I’m talking about the stuff that really gets the attention of those running the team: the number of people paying attention to the squad. Whether it’s butts in the seats or conversation at the water cooler, the M’s had a ton of interest in what they were doing as spring training moved along and the 2012 season loomed.
Now, 17 games in, they are perilously close to having burned through that supply of goodwill. They are dangerously close to losing the fanbase’s support for a rebuilding plan that never seems to have any vaguely defined finish line.
And so, here we are. It all seems familliar. In fact, it seems one year ago familliar.
One year ago this week, the Mariners arrived in Detroit primed for six games here and in Boston that was pretty much going to bury them. They had started the season with an 8-15 record and an offense looking even worse than their abysmal 513-run squad of 2010 had produced.
But suddenly, out of nowhere, the M’s found some offensive life. Olivo found some power. The Mariners swept the Tigers here in Detroit, then took two of three in Boston. Within a few weeks, they had a winning record and were just two games out of first place as of late June.
Any hope of contending in 2011 was ultimately derailed by a 17-game losing streak in July. The shot at a respectable record was later scuttled by the front office’s determination to trade away Doug Fister to bring in multiple young bodies…and its desire to deal Erik Bedard for similar youth as well as to save money on looming bonuses about to be triggered in his incentive-laden contract (which the Red Sox ultimately had to pay).
But through it all, the few months of quasi-competitiveness coupled with fans willing to buy-in on the rebuilding stuff despite some of the attrocious second-half baseball we all witnessed did salvage something in 2011. Now, at the start of 2012, we appear to be right back where we began a year ago.
Sitting on the precipice.
Yes, the young players are all a year older, but their results look a little too similar. And they aren’t all young. For a rebuilding plan, there are still too many contracts on older guys that are being played through for purposes that appear — I said, appear — to have more to do with money than on-field talent.
Though, I suppose, this is what the business of baseball is about. We’ve said it all winter: nobody is playing Figgins because they believe he’s going to be part of a contending team come 2014.
This is the part where the talk of a complete rebuild doesn’t mesh with the reality of what the team is actually doing. You can apply it across the board to a whole bunch of players, really. Franklin Gutierrez? Anyone think he’ll still be here in 2014?
But this very mindset of “anyone not part of 2014 and beyond doesn’t count” was used by many fans to justify the team’s continued payroll cutting this past winter. The idea that there was no use spending on any free agent who wasn’t going to still be around in a year or two. There were segments of the fanbase willing to blow off the 2012 season before a game was even played rather than shop for mid-range free agent talent that might keep a more competitive team on the field. Even if it meant keeping just a half-decent team on the field for the majority of the season.
Nope, some fans didn’t want that. They wanted the rebuild, lumps and all. No patchwork substitutes, only the true, homegrown thing at most positions.
And the Mariners cannot afford to lose those fans. Any team in baseball would be extremely fortunate to have fans that trusting, that willing to sacrifice the present in the name of some unknown, undefined future.
But theory is one thing. Seeing a season sacrificed before your very eyes on April 23 is a much more difficult experience.
And for the sake of keeping those fans who still want to believe, the Mariners — as the band Poison once sang in the 1980s — have to give ’em something to believe in. Going out and losing games in the same old fashion as 2010 and later on in 2011 isn’t going to get the job done, whether it’s young guys, old guys or tweeners doing it.
Averaging three runs and change per night as this team has done for two-plus seasons now is not the way to keep the dwindling number of believers in your corner.
This next road trip is a toughie, with games in Detroit, Toronto and Tampa Bay. But the Mariners cannot afford to lay down and die here. Do that and we’ll find out just how low attendance really can fall in Seattle.
It’s too early for this type of rollover.
But that’s why they call it painting yourself into a corner. The M’s have done just that. They did it a year ago and managed to fight their way out. They have to do the exact same thing again right here and right now. They have to keep fans interested in their 2012 season beyond early May. The one thing they have going for them this week in Detroit is Felix Hernandez and no Justin Verlander.
That’s a start. And the Mariners will need far more.
Don’t get me wrong, they’ll still have some true believers in this plan even if they go 0-9 this week and next. But those believers won’t be enough. To succeed in Major League Baseball, you need paying customers. You need people watching you on TV. You need people wanting to wear your team’s merchandise.
Yeah, the M’s can just keep cutting payroll in future years — as they’ve done since October 2008 — to keep adjusting to their new attendance lows and revenue drop.
But eventually, that gambit will run its course. Eventually, such a strategy reaches rock bottom and runs the risk of perpetually alienating fans who won’t be around for a rerun by the time the Mariners truly are ready to try competing again. Ask the folks running teams in Cleveland, or Oakland, Toronto, or even Tampa Bay. Burn a fanbase once too often, it’s tough to get them to come back even with a winning record.
For the Mariners, it’s getting real late, real early. And it’s time to do something about it. Time to keep their true believers from joining those who have already bailed.