Woke up this morning to an interesting column by colleague Larry Stone, which I feel cuts to the very heart of how a team like the Mariners could stay so mediocre for so long. Simply put, Stone concludes that the Mariners have once again become irrelevant after Labor Day.
I’d set the Fourth of July as my point of no return, mind you, and I know some of you would like Memorial Day to be the crossover date, but that’s quibbling. The overall point is that no one is minding the store. Folks in Seattle are now focused on college and NFL football and will be until the frigid weeks of January when spring training is right around the corner.
And unfortunately, by then, it will be too late to alter the course of the Mariners in 2014.
This is how it has gone just about every year since I arrived in 2006. No one really knows who is running the Mariners these days, whether it’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, Nintendo of America, Howard Lincoln, silent-as-a-mouse minority owners John Stanton and Chris Larson, Chuck Armstrong, Jack Zduriencik or all of the above. And none of the folks who should be minding the store and making sure there isn’t some three-card-monte game being run out the back entrance are really paying attention any more.
It’s been two weeks since Zduriencik was first reported to have received a contract extension for 2014 and yet none of the alleged “leaders” of the Mariners have come out in public to explain the rationale for that. Nor have they explained why, if they truly have confidence in the “plan” of a GM headed for another 90-loss season, they’d allow him to enter 2014 on a lame-duck one-year deal rather than fully commit to a real extension. And if the Mariners really have not decided on a course of action, why not just admit they are doing what any well-run organization would do and still evaluating Zduriencik before making a final decision?
Instead, the Mariners do what they always have done. They continue to duck and hide, hoping the scrutiny all goes away. They cite club policy as preventing them from disclosing Zduriencik’s contract status, ignoring the fact they put out a detailed press release two years ago in August when Zduriencik was last extended.
But again, they can get away with this when no one is minding the store. When bigger-voice media pundits drop in on the Mariners every so often between NFL exhibition games or bye-weeks. When radio talk show hosts wake up from another week out at the VMAC to proclaim how “interesting” they find the team’s latest batch of young players before returning to a debate about the merits of a third-string cornerback. When national media online or on MLB Network keep touting the Mariners as “up and comers” a few years down the road, ignoring that they did the exact same thing a few years ago. When fans and bloggers, with one eye on the halftime beer commercials, keep repeating the same “stay the course” mantra over and over, comparing the Mariners to teams like the Pirates, Rays and A’s without actually asking whether Seattle really has anything remotely in common with those franchises.
Do I blame all of those folks for turning away from the Mariners to sports that Seattle really cares about? Not at all. The media isn’t about giving free advertising to teams. Fans are tuning in to sports to be entertained, not bored beyond belief by a team that still can’t hit straight five years into a supposed rebuilding plan.
But the Mariners count on this. They count on the lack of scrutiny. They know that if they shut up about Zduriencik now, nobody in Seattle is really going to call them on it. There won’t be a daily feeding frenzy to force their hand in our quiet little town like there would be in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, or anyplace else where the store is being minded by somebody. Like there would be in most places where a team that headed into 2013 counting on a .500 season is now headed for 90 losses yet again.
And the Mariners will keep counting on this disinterest through the winter, when the real decisions are made that will impact the team in 2014 and ultimately decide how they’re going to finish.
I found it interesting yesterday when Eric Wedge made the comments about his players needing to learn what it takes to win games like the one his Mariners lost to the Royals. Interesting because Wedge, his bosses and his players have been saying the same thing in one form or another since 2010 and perhaps earlier.
Here’s a story from one year ago last August in which the Mariners won a fourth straight game in an eventual eight-game streak, and Brendan Ryan had this to say afterwards.
“It’s nice to win a close game,” Ryan said. “As a young team, we should be learning how to win these games.”
Yes, indeed, they should. Ryan, God bless him, will be on his way out after this season and I hardly hold him accountable for stating the obvious 12 1/2 months ago. But more than a year later, the Mariners still apparently haven’t learned how to win those games.
Let’s dig back a bit earlier, to May of last year, when Mike Carp — a guy no longer here — came up with a big home run to help the Mariners take a series from the Twins. Here’s what Wedge had to say postgame:
“It’s always nice to jump out early, take advantage of opportunities and get out in front like that,” Wedge said. “We had a couple of guys step up for us with those RBI opportunities, and that’s a good sign.
“I feel like we’ve got a couple of guys offensively heading in the right direction. Some a little bit quicker than others, but baby steps with that. They’re definitely a little more comfortable with runners in scoring position and that’s the biggest part of it—controlling your heartbeat and being comfortable and confident in those situations.”
Well, as of this road trip, 16 months later, Wedge is saying the Mariners still need to get their heartbeats controlled and take advantage of key RBI situations in order to learn to win games like the one here yesterday or on Sunday in Houston.
Let’s go back three-plus years, to June of 2010, when Zduriencik, in the midst of a 101-loss season, told 710 ESPN’s Shannon Drayer he was not going to deviate from his plan. At the time, he had just traded to add Russell Branyan back to the mix in order to — in part, as described by Drayer — help existing players on the 25-man MLB club learn how to win.
“Part of building an organization is winning at the big league level which obviously is the most important thing. Technically every (position) player on that field will be back here next year so I think it is important to add an element to the club that gives them a little boost that they can look around and say we do care what happens on the field with these players and if that gives us a chance to win ballgames which ultimately is what we hope happens, that is an important element.”
Of the 25 players on the Mariners when that Branyan deal was made, only Felix Hernandez, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders are still around.
So, we can keep playing this game all morning, but again, the point is that there has been a sort of circular pattern to these Mariners that keeps showing up. Where the players turn over time and again, the winning keeps eluding the club and the same buzzwords and catchphrases keep cropping up.
Again, it doesn’t take much more than a simple Google search to identify this. But it also requires people to be paying attention to what’s going on with the ballclub. And as Stone correctly points out this morning, very few people have continued to pay attention to the Mariners.
There truly is nobody minding the store right now. And unless something changes, there will be nobody minding it this winter when it’s time for the Mariners to add players to change their fortunes.
In recent years, the Mariners have avoided — or failed to acquire — the bigger talent free-agents that might have augmented their fortunes. Nor have they landed the top-talent position player prospects that other teams like the Pirates and Rays have.
You can either add those bigger-upside players via free agent signings, like the A’s with Yoenis Cespedes, or the Tigers with Prince Fielder. You can trade for them like the A’s did with Josh Reddick, or draft them like the Pirates did with Andrew McCutchen and the Rays with Evan Longoria, or the Giants with Buster Posey.
And sometimes, you’ll get it wrong. Sometimes, the Josh Hamilton signing might not work out.
But if you don’t try, you don’t win. Looking at the Mariners right now, I see some potentially good young players, but no top-tier elite star like a Posey. No break-out performer who can help catapult this team to where it needs to be.
So, you either spend some big money this winter — which the Mariners do have sitting in their coffers — or you get better trade results than you have. Draft-wise? That might tack a few more years on to this rebuilding plan at this stage.
But you have to do something more than you’ve done now, or expecting championship results anytime soon is delusional. Zduriencik tried to change the game with the Michael Morse trade after his other plans last winter fell apart. The Morse deal, clearly, did not work out. Right now, his biggest potential lineup game-changer is Kendrys Morales and even he isn’t putting up truly elite numbers.
Which is why, as yet another winter nears with team payroll about to slide even lower than right now, somebody needs to be minding the store. Somebody needs to hear from Lincoln or Armstrong why they believe that staying the course now with Zduriencik is truly the way to go. A better way, than, say, their ill-fated decision to hang on to Bill Bavasi after the 2007 season.
Perhaps they have a good explanation. One that goes beyond the “Hey, young players!” excuse that was there in 2010, 2011 and 2012 with largely different names and faces. Well, let’s hear it from Lincoln and Armstrong, then. So far, their way, under their leadership, has been an abysmal failure on the field stretching back more than a decade.
But right now, they’re hiding out. Right now, it’s football season in Seattle and once again, nobody is minding the store.