After the Mariners began the season 4-4, it was written here that, other than the guy who is the agent for disgraced Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino, Eric Wedge has for the next six months the toughest job in sports.
That’s because the manager of this particular roster can do little to influence game outcomes. The season will require extraordinary patience from an impatient man, managing up to a foundering ownership while managing down to under-productive players. Awwwwkward.
He has to keep his mouth shut about playing with $10 million less in player payroll with which he began last season (the estimated $85 million is the lowest since 2004, following the lowest attendance in 2011 since Safeco Field’s 1999 opening), while the two chief rivals in the American League West, the Rangers and Angels, spend like oil sheiks. And he can do little but praise Ichiro, the franchise demi-god who is the only player to start every game this season in the same position.
Before the Yankees’ game Sunday in New York, however, Wedge showed signs that the pressure was building, when he steamed a little pre-game:
We dont have any veteran guys doing anything right now. Its as simple as that. So I cant say it any plainer. Weve got six to seven guys were starting today that are 25 or younger. The young guys are going to have to do it, because the veteran guys arent getting it done. Theres just no way of getting around it.
You look at all the other major league teams, and theyve got at least one guy, if not two or three, that they can count on as veteran guys who are experienced big league hitters. So our young guys are going to have to step up and do it. I have no problem saying that. And I believe they can. But its just harder without having that guy, or a couple guys ideally, at this level.
In case you missed it, that was a shot at management. Nothing that has happened this season is beyond the normal range of expectations for this group of players, only it’s tougher to accept the obvious on a day-to-day basis than it is during the theoretical time of spring training.
Wedge will deny that he was intending any shot, but it’s the same kind of remarks out of frustration that Lou Piniella made that led to his fall-out with the same management, which helped usher out after 10 seasons the most successful manager in club history.
It’s not that either man wasn’t telling the truth; it’s just that ownership didn’t want to hear that the roster he was provided was set up to fail.
Following the 5-0 loss in Boston Tuesday, the Mariners are 16-22, same 38-game record as 2011, which finished with 95 losses. While it is not hard to suggest that the mid-May record is about what many expected after seeing the meager off-season results in talent acquisition, Wedge’s frustration with having no better results for what should be a slightly better team is as obvious as the truth he spoke about the veteran position players.
Taking at closer look at Wedge’s claim, among position players, the Mariners have only five guys anyone would call veterans. In descending order of age, and including 2012 salary, they are Ichiro (38, $17M), Chone Figgins, (34, $9M), Miguel Olivo (33, $3.5M) Brendan Ryan (30, $1.75M) and Franklin Gutierrez (29, $5.5M).
That totals $36.75 million in payroll, and for what? Olivo and Gutierrez are on the disabled list, Figgins is on the futility list, Ryan is a great defender and and an abysmal hitter, and Ichiro is hitting out of place, according to Wedge, who went to trouble this off-season to create the experiment that, in his words, already has failed.
So for $37 million, the best the Mariners can say at the moment is they have purchased a great shortstop glove and a No. 3 hitter who is hitting .206 with runners in scoring position in 39 plate appearance entering Tuesday’s game.
The returns to health of Olivo and Gutierrez should help, but only incrementally. The most intriguing part of Wedge’s monologue was the concession that the experiment with Ichiro at No. 3 has not worked.
Hes not a guy thats going to be doing a lot of damage, Wedge said of Ichiro, believed to be the first time any Mariners manager has been blunt publicly about the limits of the franchise position player. Ichiro is by no means your prototypical three-hole hitter, but thats where we need him right now. And when it comes to the point in time where we feel we need him somewhere else, thats when well do that.
Hes going to get his hits, and hopefully he gets his hits at the right time. Where he ultimately ends up (in the lineup), well see. We have to work to get these young hitters going who profile better for different areas of our lineup. But theyve got to get themselves going and be more consistent.
The need for youngsters to grow up fast has been obvious since the Mariners’ failure to do much in the free agent market. That’s not new. The complication for Wedge is that this is Ichiro’s contract year. It is a bad time for Wedge to be speaking truth publicly to power about Ichiro.
Even though his numbers are up modestly from his worst season in the U.S. in 2011, the facts are that Ichiro is happy in Seattle and doesn’t want to be traded, even if there were a market for him, because no club will be as deferential to him as Seattle. And despite having a hard time finding a place for him, the current ownership has no intention of letting him go, because beyond sentiment, he generates modest income from ballpark advertisers and Japanese fans who otherwise would not engage with the Mariners.
Besides, Ichiro can offer up a compelling argument: Why should he uproot? Why aren’t the Mariners getting the kind of players they obtained in 2001, when Ichiro was rookie of the year and MVP while surrounded by exactly the kind of mid-career talents that Wedge pointed out were abundant among successful teams? How is this situation his responsibility when his .291 average leads the regulars?
Wedge’s candor is commendable, but dangerous for his career welfare, because Ichiro likely will be signed to a multi-year extension. If he doesn’t like a manager, well, ask former Mariners skipper Mike Hargrove how that worked out.
Wedge’s apparent advocacy of a change in plans — bench the vets and play the kids — while popular with fans, has a decent chance to retard some growth in some players who simply need more time to adjust to major league pitching and pressure.
It’s easy to say that more experience will make for better players, but how and when that experience happens is influential too. Any smart manager would like to have options regarding deployment of young players, but right now Wedge appears to have no options but to let the youngsters figure it out in the crucible.
Referring to Ichiro and Dustin Ackley, the likeliest successor at the leadoff spot, Wedge said, I dont know where either one of them will end up. It depends on what the supporting cast does, because I feel like all of them have a lot more upside. Theyre just so young. Whether Ackley ends up 1-2-3, whether Ichiro ends up 1-2-3 or somewhere else, well see.”
After a pair of futile series against the Yankees and Red Sox, the Mariners have managed to subvert all of lineup shuffles and player movements offered up by Wedge to solve the problems.
By word and deed, he’s nearly out of choices and patience. I don’t see Wedge getting fired over intemperate remarks. But using up his mulligan in mid-May could well be a club record.