While it seems as if the Mariners did next to nothing this off-season to fix a team that lost 95 games, that’s not the way to look at it.
They saved $214 million by not signing free agent Prince Fielder.
When is the last time you saved $214 million?
That sort of rationalization is how one keeps a chin up when coming to work each day as a Mariners employee. Comparing for comfort purposes the franchise to a goofier one began when Alex Rodriguez was given in 2000 $252 million by the Texas Rangers. Wouldn’t be prudent, the Mariners said then. They were right.
But the counter-argument is that this isn’t the Cub Scouts, it’s major league baseball, where imprudence, foolishness and recklessness are coins of the realm.
The Detroit Tigers carried on the tradition this week when they won the Fielder sweepstakes by paying a sum over nine years that even the most cynical Mariners follower would have agreed was stupid.
In a way, it lets the Mariners off the hook. A good club certainly made itself better in the short term — as long as no batted ball comes near chunky new third baseman Miguel Cabrera, supplanted from first base by Fielder’s arrival — but burdened itself financially the way the Rangers did with Rodriguez, eventually going into bankruptcy (that wasn’t all the contract’s fault, but we can’t blame the recession for everything).
The Tigers won’t go bankrupt — the owner made his fortune with Lil Caesar’s pizza, food that will outlast cockroaches and nuclear winter — but they will eventually be sorry.
The Mariners, meanwhile, won’t go bankrupt — at least, not as long as God keeps making bobbleheads. They will do what they have been doing: Keep building the foundation, climbing the ladder, knowing the challenge, recognizing how hard it is to win a major league baseball game . . .
OK, I’ll stop. You’ve heard this before from the Mariners.
Except they said it again Thursday at the annual pre-spring training luncheon. But as media types began nodding off at the sound of the annual lullaby, general manager Jack Zduriencik caused a few eyelids to flutter.
“You can’t ignore what Texas and Anaheim did,” he said. “They were ahead of us already.”
There it is, friends — a blurt of honesty, even if it were already obvious to the lowest invertebrates. Even the boss acknowledges it’s a two-team race with Oakland for third in the American League West. The Rangers and Angels have lapped the field even before the first dugout expectoration of tobacco juice.
The Mariners were never a serious player for Fielder. Although Zduriencik, slyly, offered unasked the news that Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, sent him a thank-you via text. For what exactly? A sandwich at the winter meetings?
If the Mariners added anything to the fire built around Fielder, it was kindling, not logs. The franchise had no serious intention of surrendering its most replaceable asset, cash, to fix the team. The owners instead approved giving up their most valuable treasure, young pitching, for someone else’s treasure, young hitting.
That’s not how a race is won. It is a way to stay afloat, although they’ve already swallowed a lot of salt water.
Instead, the Mariners in 2012 are moving around some familiar staples. Manager Eric Wedge said he’s “leaning in the direction” of moving Ichiro down the lineup from his traditional position at leadoff, where he started 1,720 of his 1,733 major league games. Wedge said he plans to use Chone Figgins at second base, shortstop, third base and outfield, despite the fact that in the last two years he has not shown the ability to do so well, nor hit.
What Wedge is forced to do with two aging, untradable, fading veterans who, at a combined $27 million, occupy more than a quarter of the payroll, is to hide them in plain sight.
Without saying so, I think that’s what Zduriencik meant when he offered another bit of candor, in an almost pleading tone: “I don’t have a magic wand . . .there’s no easy, quick way to fix what ails this franchise.”
After winning 95 games, the Tigers really don’t need fixing. They just want to win. They upgraded a position whose occupant finished fifth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting after hitting .344/.448/.586 with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. Cabrera’s batting average and on base percentage were good enough to lead the American League in 2011. In 2010, he led the league in RBI with 126.
It’s what the Mariners did with Montero, except it cost them stud young pitcher Michael Pineda.
Given the state of its young pitching, the franchise will work through the loss of Pineda. But enormous pressure has just been laid upon the young shoulders of Montero, by none other than Wedge himself.
“I’ll stick my neck out a little bit — this is the year we take a significant step forward offensively,” said Wedge, chin out. “That’s how much faith I have in our kids and our foundation.”
Good for Wedge to be bold. Bad for Wedge if he’s wrong.
Absent a productive veteran bat, Wedge is counting on a lot of young guys — the Mariners played 18 rookies last year, surprising even Zduriencik — having breakthroughs at once. The foundation will suddenly have to become the living room, kitchen and bath, despite have older furnishings (Ichiro, Figgins) that no longer fit.
Not impossible, but it is asking a lot. Better to have had in the off-season some other veterans — the owners, now in their 20th year of franchise stewardship — step up.
Instead, for 2012 ownership has won another Cub Scout badge for saving money in an industry that spends like the Pentagon.
The principle is sound. It makes no difference to the irrational, who pay most of the bills.