Somewhere between the Seahawks afterglow and the delightful new Winter Olympics competitions of Find The Elevator Car and Bathroom-Door Breakdowns, the Mariners season arises tenuously as daffodil leaves, looking for the warmth of attention. It is a struggle, but the Mariners have again committed to another 162 games. So we shall look.
Two things are apparent:
- For a team entering its 38th year, it’s remarkable how expansion-like the lineup seems. Five positions are settled: The first two spots in the starting rotation, second base and third base, and the closer. Six, if you count the position of Token Local Retread Guy, Willie Bloomquist, reprising the role of Raul Ibanez and Ken Griffey Jr. Next: Norm Charlton.
- High salaries are no longer an impediment to success. That is the only conclusion available after the Mariners outbid the Yankees by $65 million for the services of second baseman Robinson Cano. The $240 million commitment is possible because of the purchase of majority interest in the regional sports network, Root. The Mariners will never publicly disclose the value of the deal, so we will infer from Cano contract a value: It is enough to run their shop as the big boys run their shops.
That brings us to this week’s start of spring training and the most immediate question: Why hasn’t free agent slugger Nelson Cruz signed with the Mariners?
It can’t be money: See above. And if it’s length of contract, that is mostly out the window too, since they gave Cano a 10-year deal at 31, and declining closer Fernando Rodney a two-year deal at 37. If that is the template, giving Cruz, 33, five years is not unreasonable.
This is exactly the opposite kind of team-building that Seattle just experienced with the Seahawks, who became the youngest team in history to win the Super Bowl. But this is baseball, and they are the Mariners, so being contrary is mandatory.
For weeks, the Mariners have been in pursuit of Cruz. who last season had a .266/.327/.506 line, including 23 home runs and 76 RBIs in 109 games in his eighth season with Texas. Even GM Jack (Eric who?) Zduriencik has acknowledged interest by name.
It may be Cruz who is holding up matters by creating a market with other interested parties, said to be the Orioles and Pirates. That would be reasonable. Desperate teams are multiple at this time of year. He is said to be seeking around $14 million for each of two years, which is a considerable drop from his original asking price.
I presume the stall isn’t because of some late misgivings by the Mariners about PED use that caused Cruz to miss, via MLB suspension, the final 50 games of last season.
Cruz was one of 14 players caught in the Biogenesis scandal. Unlike Alex Rodriguez, Cruz owned up and admitted use, claiming a lapse in judgment over an intense desire to get back on the field quickly while battling an illness. I no more believe that excuse than I believe Zduriencik is all about hip-hop, as he said after the Cano signing. But it doesn’t much matter.
Cruz was busted, and served the punishment that was collectively bargained. Some fans are anguished that PED users are rewarded post-punishment with large contracts, but that is neither the fault of the player nor the team, because baseball rules call for no period of purgatory.
MLB’s conduct in the Biogenesis investigation of Rodriguez was so inexcusable that it renders inert any substantive caring about baseball’s policies regarding PEDs. I mean, if MLB is nearly out-sliming Rodriguez, any hope of decency and respect is lost.
In any event, Cruz, despite the PED history and his shortcomings, particularly in the outfield (imagine a blindfolded Ibanez), is worth the risk. Above all else, the Mariners need a hitter to protect Cano in the lineup, and Cruz, a right-handed hitter in a lineup of many lefties, is the last guy left in the marketplace who has a decent shot to do that.
The Mariners have also hired Logan Morrison and Corey Hart, two once-good hitters coming from the same remnant bin from which Seattle a year ago plucked Mike Morse and Jason Bay — broken-down vets on the back end.
The one decent hitter they had was Kendrys Morales, who is still a free agent, shocked at the absence of a market for him. Even Ibanez at 42 found a job with the Angels.
Cruz essentially is a slight upgrade from Morales (.277/.336/.449 with 23 home runs in 156 games) but is three years older. Yet without Cruz, the Mariners are going to have about the same offense as a year ago, because Cano will be intentionally walked 500 times.
The Mariners had an American League-worst .237 batting average and, despite finishing second in homers, scored just 14 more runs than the Houston Astros, the worst sports team since the first Jamaican bobsledders.
Zduriencik thought the Mariners were closer to success than the 71-91 record indicated, primarily because the pitching staff blew 23 saves that, in part, accounted for a ghastly 13 walk-off losses. While that’s true, and Rodney is a partial fix, it is also true that if the offense actually gets a substantive lead occasionally, the bullpen isn’t subjected to the daily firing squad.
After spending so absurdly — but affordably — for Cano, the mandatory minimum requirement was to support the investment with upgraded bats around him. Without Cruz, Morales and Ibanez, the Mariners’ best season-long offensive strategy is likely the leadoff walk by Cano.
Sort of like watching the Broncos offense, only from the Denver side.