Things are More Hopeful than They Appear
Survey any Mariners fan out there for their outlook on the season and you’re not going to hear much that’s positive. Why should they say anything to that effect? The team has lost 101 games for the second time in the past three years. We’re going to have yet another new manager taking the field to start next season. There’s not a whole lot of payroll maneuverability to go out and to big things this winter.
And then, of course, there’s the matter of hope. Following this past offseason, we were an incredible story in the making. We had a huge turnaround to improve by twenty-four games over ’08. Felix had finally broken through, and happily signed a contract extension. Cliff Lee was a Mariner and the rest of the league was jealous. Our old third baseman left, but we replaced him with another strong fielder whose hitting wouldn’t likely be hurt by the park. We had finally found a regular center fielder, and an exciting one at that. Batista, Washburn, Silva, and Betancourt no longer played for us. Life was wonderful in many respects.
We all know what happened next. I could rehash all the individual points, but pouring salt, lemon juice, and maybe a little battery acid in the wounds wasn’t something that I really came here with the intention of doing. The team played badly. They also had the worst case scenario emerge as a reality for most of the players on the roster. Very little went right outside of the starting rotation. Not even the most committed of cynics could have predicted as many things going to pot as they did.
The interplay of expectations versus reality is something that’s inevitably going to colour the way we look at ’10, and ’08 has been coming up a lot for comparison’s sake. Now, the 2008 Mariners had been bad for a lot of demonstrable reasons. The expensive and mediocre players were still around, Miguel Cairo was playing first base for us by the season’s end, Jose Vidro was our designated hitter for half the year, and Jeremy Reed logged most of the games in center. But there also wasn’t a great deal of hope for the future either. What future options did we have at first heading into that offseason? Bryan LaHair. On the middle infield? A Carlos Triunfel who had recently hit eight home runs over a full season in High Desert. In center? Either you were hoping Saunders could stick it out there and get rid of his strikeout problems along the way or you had Halman, whose plate discipline was still horrifying, for whatever else you thought of his physical talents. Sure, we had Bedard, but for a short window of time. Morrow? Still a bit of an enigma. The rest of our good pitching prospects were just wrapping up a season in Wisconsin and were two or three years away.
And these days? We have Justin Smoak at first for the foreseeable future. He hit .325/.400/.525 in September and October after fixing his swing during his tenure in Tacoma. At second, we have one of the better prospects in baseball in Dustin Ackley, who will likely be ready to contribute at some point next year. Nick Franklin is a possibility down the road at shortstop, and rumors were circling by the end of the season that he would begin 2011 in double-A. Third base features enough possibilities to where something should eventually come together out of Figgins, Mangini, Liddi, and Morla. Gutierrez is going to recover. Ichiro is going to be Ichiro. Pineda is the most exciting arm we’ve had internally since Felix, and capable of stepping in to follow him from the early part of next season, health willing, fingers crossed, and wood knocked on. The rest of the rotation is going to be cheap and serviceable, if nothing else. Cortes is going to hit triple digits at some point. And that’s all just assuming we spend much of the offseason sitting on our hands. Historical precedent says that’s hardly likely. On top of all that, much more money will be coming off the books after next year.
It’s hard to be a Mariners fan right now. We just endured six months of historically bad baseball, in which nearly everything that could have gone wrong did. Still, we shouldn’t interpret horrifically bad luck as setting the new standard, nor should we see the current foundation as wholly lacking integrity. It’s pretty safe to say that we’re not heading to the playoffs next season, but we’re a lot closer to having a good, or at least watchable team than many might think.