As Sportspress Northwest’s Art Thiel pointed out in a recent post from Tokyo, where the Mariners both thrilled (Game 1) and disgusted (Game 2) their fan base, Seattle is a young team following a plan (the plan, we assume, did not include Shawn Kelley serving up a hanging slider that Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes slammed for a game-winning home run Thursday, but, hey, stuff happens).
In a conversation with Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners’ GM told Thiel that the plan, bridging the end of 2011 and the start of 2012, primarily involved filling four jobs.
We wanted to acquire a veteran starting pitcher (Kevin Millwood), a left-handed reliever (converted starter Charlie Furbush), a big bat in the middle of the lineup that would be with us as we grew (Jesus Montero), and another infielder (Munenori Kawasaki), Zduriencik told Thiel. “We accomplished all those things.
To which Thiel responded, “Perhaps, but none are close to a lock regarding 2012 performance. And most of the rest of the roster is a collection of unprovens.”
The hope — not the plan — is that several miracles will wind up leaning on lamp posts as the 2012 season unfolds. Specifically:
- That Ichiro, the new No. 3 hitter in the Seattle order who went 4-for-5 in the season opener and then 0-for-4 in the second game, will play closer to his 2009-10 form than his 2011 form. Or, to borrow from horse racing, the Mariners pray that Ichiro becomes a stakes runner again instead of the claimer he was last season.
- That Chone Figgins, who has endured two perfectly dreadful seasons after inking a four-year, $36 million contract, can, with a move into Ichiro’s old leadoff role, re-discover the stroke he had with the Angels, which enabled him to get that $36 mil out of Mariners. Two games isn’t much of a sample, but Figgins is hitting .125 (a drop from his .188 last year).
- That Justin Smoak takes big strides toward becoming the sort of slugger the Mariners envisioned when they acquired him in 2010 in the Cliff Lee deal (Smoak went 1-for-9 in Japan, but that hit was a home run).
- That Alex Liddi, the Italian-born first baseman who led the Mariners in spring batting average, isn’t Casey Kotchman in disguise (Liddi has yet to play)
- That there is “expected improvement” from a variety of young players, most especially including Dustin Ackley (2 RBIs in the opener, 2 K’s in Game 2), Mike Carp (just placed on the DL) and Casper Wells (hasn’t yet played) among position players, and Hector Noesi and Blake Brevan among the pitchers.
- That none of the major veterans — Felix Hernandez (eight effective innings Wednesday) Brandon League (one save) to name just two — pitch to their historical form, and especially don’t blackslide.
The Mariners have finished last in a four-team AL West six times in the past eight years and lost 100 or more twice in the past four. Or, to slice it another way, they have lost at least 93 games in five of the past eight.
Of more consequence is that the Mariners have gone 22-54 over the past two years against division foes Rangers and Angels, which means that, over the past 24 months, 27 percent of Seattle’s losses have been administered by those two clubs.
Both Texas, coming off back-to-back American League pennants, and Los Angeles, coming off a huge free agent signing in Albert Pujols, are expected to battle for the AL West title. Oakland is expected to adopt the battle cry, “Hey, at least we’re not Seattle.”
But, as Zduriencik told Thiel, the Mariners have a plan. The question involves how long it will take for that plan to start delivering consistent, positive results. Or, given the paths taken by the Rangers and Angels, will it ever?