I call them the Steely Seven Grand, those remaining hardies from a Mariners season-ticket list that once numbered 23,000. They are either strong of soul or dim of wit, the choice is left to the reader.
But in the baseball deadness of January, they deserve sustenance. So sayeth Mariners manager Eric Wedge:
“We feel we’re in a very, very good place.”
“At some point in time, sooner than later, we will be a championship team.”
“If you look at our camp, from head to toe, we’ll be as talented with our 60 players as anybody in baseball.”
For the sake of the Steely Seven Grand, Wedge offered solace, even inspiration. For the rest of us Wednesday at the Mariners’ annual mid-winter ritual media lunch, where the club is never behind the Oakland A’s, we’d heard it before.
The listeners mostly stared blankly at him, having spent the winter writing and talking about not getting Josh Hamilton, not getting Justin Upton, not getting Nick Swisher and not getting Torii Hunter, yet still paying Chone Figgins $8 million to tee it up, should he choose, six days a week at Torrey Pines.
In fact, in the battered baseball imagination it was possible to conjure up the notion that the major asset acquired was already at work on the field at Safeco — a backhoe, helping construct a new, closer left field fence that might do more than any off-season personnel move to help avoid being the worst offense in the American League for the first time since the Martin Van Buren administration.
Then Wedge snapped us from our dull reveries with a shot at last year’s team, by way of explaining why this year’s team will be better than a backhoe.
“You guys know who the veterans we had last year were, and you know who the veterans we have this year are,” he said. “You can probably figure that out. I’m not going to talk about guys that aren’t here any more, but you can look at their role and their impact or lack thereof. It is what it is.
“This is professional sports. This is the big leagues. This is the highest level. Either you do it, or you don’t. Either you help, or you don’t. If you help, you’re on board with it. If you don’t, we’re going to eliminate you.”
Well, take that, Figgins — and Ichiro, and Miguel Olivo. Wedge’s candid disdain for the supposed veteran leaders dispatched last season helps explain why he didn’t think GM Jack Zduriencik’s shopping trip to the blue-light table was nothing but left-footed slippers and lava lamps.
In Kendrys Morales, 29, Mike Morse 30, Jason Bay, 34 and Raul Ibanez, 40, the Mariners went sideways in the attempt to go up. These four hitters (field positions can be summarized in one word: Whatever . . .) are supposed to take the heat off the returning youngsters such as Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero and others who wobbled in moving from kids table to the adult table. The new oldsters are also supposed to provide survival tips for a sports season like no other.
“You gotta have people who do it every day,” Wedge said. “You can get away with (an absence of veteran leadership) in football, and basketball and hockey to an extent. But when you’re doing it every day in baseball, a sport of failure, you need people in the clubhouse to take care of business.
“If you look at the veterans we had in the clubhouse last year versus the veterans we have this year, it’s night and day. We didn’t have veterans that were participating with the attitude they needed to have.”
While not a surprise to anyone who followed the club, Wedge’s bluntness about Ichiro’s ways — long a taboo subject — was worthy of clarification. I caught up to Wedge afterward, and he backtracked on Ichiro, who was traded to the Yankees last summer, a matter of private relief for everyone concerned.
“When I talk about (an absence of) leadership, I’m not talking about him,” Wedge said. “Coming in, I knew what he was. It’s about the other guys. Even if you do understand, doesn’t mean you’re capable of doing it. Ichi wasn’t a leader. It’s the other guys who were capable, but didn’t do it.”
The absence of engaged, veteran position players “was significant,” Wedge said. “It just wasn’t really fair to (young hitters) with where they are in their careers. They weren’t able to be protected. They weren’t in the best possible position to succeed.
“But I’m an optimist. Because they had to sink or swim on their own, they’ll be tougher for it. Because they had to lean on each other, they’ll be stronger that much quicker. Even though it was painful at times, they didn’t give in.”
What Wedge is talking about is something unquantifiable, so sabermetricians will scoff. But a statistical argument can be made that the four newcomers all were about as good, if not better, than the best Mariners hitters. I mean, if backup catcher John Jaso is the top bat guy, then you believe Danny DeVito can play James Bond.
And if the older hitters can put the kids in the 6-through-9 spots in the lineup, where should have been, well, the backhoe can be sent to Class AAA Tacoma sewer repair.
At least they were healthy
Trainer Rick Griffin said the Mariners lost the fewest player days to the disabled list of any MLB team in 2012. Two off-season arthroscopic surgeries went well: 2B Dustin Ackley had a bone spur taken off his right ankle that was keeping him from pushing off during his swing, and SS Brendan Ryan had a spur and loose bodies cleaned up from his throwing elbow. “When Dustin came in for some days, we couldn’t tell if he was 23 or 90,” said Griffin.
He also reported 1B Justin Smoak has added nine pounds of muscle and reduced his body fat. He will need a big spring to stay in the majors.
“I’ve made it very clear I feel strong about Justin Smoak and what his abilities are,” Wedge said. “I have every anticipation that he’s going to be our first baseman this year. Now if he shows us something different, then so be it.
“What you don’t want to do is give up a day early. You’d rather be late than early.”
The Mariners are looking to fill two spots before Opening Day April 1 in Oakland: A spot in the starting rotation and backup catcher. The trade of Jason Vargas leaves Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez as the top four, but they don’t want to see No. 5 spot fall to Hector Noesi.
With the departures of Jaso and Olivo, Jesus Montero is the lone catcher with major league experience, and he fell short defensively last year.
“We’re going to ask him to catch as much as we feel he can,” said Wedge. “We’ll leave it at that right now.”
How many OF/DH/1B types does a team need?
Of the seeming overload at three positions, Wedge said, “I have a clear idea of how I see it playing out, but they’ll ultimately determine that. Players make decisions for you. They decide how much they’re going to play by their performance and how they act, how they handle both the good and the bad.
“In regard to our numbers, I look at it like a healthy thing. You’re one trade or injury away from getting thin again.”
Ibanez is a classic Wedgie
Even though he has known Ibanez only by reputation, you can tell he’s Wedge’s type of guy.
“You can make an argument that Raul Ibanez is as good as anybody in the game in regard to going out there and performing and playing,” he said. “You sign him to be a baseball player. Beyond that, the intangibles . . . he’s been part of championship clubs and really done everything in the game.”
Ibanez has long planned to retire to Seattle, buying the Issaquah home of former Mariners shortstop Omar Vizquel. Wedge said they wanted Ibanez last year, but the fit wasn’t right.
Ackley is still No. 1, but not with a bullet
Asked whether he was comfortable with Ackley as a leadoff hitter, Wedge said, “I am. I’m not going to say that’s exactly for sure where he’s going to be, but I am comfortable with him there because I believe he’s going to be a solid big league player for a number of years. He wasn’t in the leadoff spot very long last year. He didn’t have a very good year by most people’s standards offensively, but he still scored 85 runs.”
At 6-5 and 245, is Morse still a shortstop?
“I might let him play third base,” Wedge said. “Just because behind (new backup infielder) Robert Andino, depending who makes the team, we need another guy in case we need another infielder. we can move Seager, Andino or Brendan when we need to have somebody come in and play in the infield. I am going to have Seager play some shortstop this spring so we have a third behind Ryan and Andino.”