PEORIA, AZ There were teams that had worse performances last year than the Seattle Mariners well, only one team, really, Pittsburgh and no team in all of Major League Baseball was further from achieving its expectations.
So the good news from the disastrous 101-loss season of 2010 is that as the 2011 Mariners pull together for the first time Monday with pitchers and catchers taking part in the first official workout of the spring, they dont have the weight of all those expectations hanging over them.
That doesnt mean much, though, because beyond that, bright spots are few and far between for Seattle under new manager Eric Wedge. Hes the man who is charged with trying to find winning pieces out of an organization that has spent most of the last half decade losing in the American League West, and he may well have the toughest assignment of any big league manager this season.
Thats because the man who hired him, Jack Zduriencik, may well have his job on the line this season. Attendance in Safeco Field has dropped steadily after four consecutive years in excess of 3 million fans (2000-03) to less than 2.1 million in 2010. For the record, the 2010 crowd count was less than in any of the last three full Mariner seasons in the much-reviled Kingdome.
The goodwill and the sense of competitive community the Mariners built from 1995-2003 has evaporated in the last seven seasons, three of which have seen Seattles winning percentage fall on the south side of .400.
Much of the damage was done in the Bill Bavasi era, but after a doing-it-with-mirrors 85-win season under Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu in 2009, the wheels fell off the Seattle go-cart last year, and another season even close to 2010 levels could be Zdurienciks last.
But instead of going around and ripping up the roster, Zduriencik had to spend what little money he had available this year on the band-aid approach. He wants his team to be about building from the inside, but it seems that the Mariner minor league organization is probably a year away from being able to contribute to the big league organization in any kind of major fashion.
There does seem to be talent, but the overarching question at the Seattle camp this year will be whether the kids Michael Saunders in left, Dustin Ackley at second, Michael Pineda in the rotation, Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke in the bullpen, Greg Halman in the outfield, Matt Mangini at third base are ready to contribute now.
It may be that theyd all be better served by spending another few months or even another full season in the minor leagues, but its not at all clear that the Zduriencik regime has that kind of time.
Wedge was asked Sunday afternoon how hed balance the need to win now with the goal of bringing players to the big leagues only when they are ready.
“Winning is first and foremost, always, Wedge said on the day pitchers and catchers underwent physical exams before the first workouts Monday. “That being said, sometimes you need to take one step backward to be able to take two steps forward.
The players that were brought onto the 40-man roster this winter included a DH with homer and strikeout potential in Jack Cust, a catcher who is back after having been with the Mariners when he was still learning the game in Miguel Olivo and a shortstop/second baseman who had a terrific year offensively in 2009 but who struggled because of injuries with St. Louis last year in Brendan Ryan.
And thats it. Yes, its true there are other veterans from other teams in camp, players with some possible upside like pitchers Chris Ray, Denny Bautista, Royce Ring and Nate Robertson, infielder Adam Kennedy, catcher Chris Gimenez and outfielders Jody Gerut and Gabe Gross.
But they are in camp on minor league contracts, and theres a reason for that no one, the Mariners included, thought enough of them to offer a Major League contract. These are veterans trying to extend their careers or rebuild their careers, and while its possible that Seattle will find some roses among the thorns, its at least as likely the Mariners will find the thorns.
Wedge says hes committed to building a winner and that he believes hes got the makings of a winner with the roster hes been dealt.
“I know what kind of mentality I want our guys to have, Wedge told sportspressnw.com. “It will take some time to develop the consistency we need from day-to-day. But the level of expectations has to go up. It will be high.
The Mariners offense a year ago was simply putrid. Its better now, perhaps, but going from a team that scored the fewest runs in baseball, far worse in fact than even the Pirates, almost anything has to be an improvement.
Seattle scored 513 runs last year. Lets say the Mariners gel and get some offense going in 2011. Lets say they average one run per game more than a year ago. The roster manipulations dont suggest thats anywhere close to happening, but lets just stipulate that improvement for the sake of argument. The jump would get the Mariners to 675 runs. The improvement would be from 14th-best to 11th-best in the American League, based on 2010 stats.
Thats not a pretty picture.
Maybe the Mariners will be able to paint a new picture this spring and beyond. The long-suffering Pacific Northwest baseball fan would like to think so. That kind of hope, after all, is part of the allure of spring training. A rebirth.
It just doesnt seem like a smart bet.
John Hickey is also Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)