BY John Hickey 01:23PM 02/13/2011

Present vs. future tough balancing act for M’s

Seattle’s kids probably need more time to develop, but need to win now runs counter to that

Eric Wedge Seattle Mariners October 2010

GM Jack Zduriencik, left, and manager Eric Wedge face a tough challenge with 2011 Mariners / Ben VanHouten

PEORIA, AZ – There were teams that had worse performances last year than the Seattle Mariners – well, only one team, really, Pittsburgh – and no team in all of Major League Baseball was further from achieving its expectations.

So the good news from the disastrous 101-loss season of 2010 is that as the 2011 Mariners pull together for the first time Monday with pitchers and catchers taking part in the first official workout of the spring, they don’t have the weight of all those expectations hanging over them.

That doesn’t mean much, though, because beyond that, bright spots are few and far between for Seattle under new manager Eric Wedge. He’s the man who is charged with trying to find winning pieces out of an organization that has spent most of the last half decade losing in the American League West, and he may well have the toughest assignment of any big league manager this season.

That’s because the man who hired him, Jack Zduriencik, may well have his job on the line this season. Attendance in Safeco Field has dropped steadily after four consecutive years in excess of 3 million fans (2000-03) to less than 2.1 million in 2010. For the record, the 2010 crowd count was less than in any of the last three full Mariner seasons in the much-reviled Kingdome.

The goodwill and the sense of competitive community the Mariners built from 1995-2003 has evaporated in the last seven seasons, three of which have seen Seattle’s winning percentage fall on the south side of .400.

Much of the damage was done in the Bill Bavasi era, but after a doing-it-with-mirrors 85-win season under Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu in 2009, the wheels fell off the Seattle go-cart last year, and another season even close to 2010 levels could be Zduriencik’s last.

But instead of going around and ripping up the roster, Zduriencik had to spend what little money he had available this year on the band-aid approach. He wants his team to be about building from the inside, but it seems that the Mariner minor league organization is probably a year away from being able to contribute to the big league organization in any kind of major fashion.

There does seem to be talent, but the overarching question at the Seattle camp this year will be whether the kids – Michael Saunders in left, Dustin Ackley at second, Michael Pineda in the rotation, Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke in the bullpen, Greg Halman in the outfield, Matt Mangini at third base – are ready to contribute now.

It may be that they’d all be better served by spending another few months or even another full season in the minor leagues, but it’s not at all clear that the Zduriencik regime has that kind of time.

Wedge was asked Sunday afternoon how he’d balance the need to win now with the goal of bringing players to the big leagues only when they are ready.

“Winning is first and foremost, always,’’ Wedge said on the day pitchers and catchers underwent physical exams before the first workouts Monday. “That being said, sometimes you need to take one step backward to be able to take two steps forward.’’

The players that were brought onto the 40-man roster this winter included a DH with homer and strikeout potential in Jack Cust, a catcher who is back after having been with the Mariners when he was still learning the game in Miguel Olivo and a shortstop/second baseman who had a terrific year offensively in 2009 but who struggled because of injuries with St. Louis last year in Brendan Ryan.

And that’s it. Yes, it’s true there are other veterans from other teams in camp, players with some possible upside like pitchers Chris Ray, Denny Bautista, Royce Ring and Nate Robertson, infielder Adam Kennedy, catcher Chris Gimenez and outfielders Jody Gerut and Gabe Gross.

But they are in camp on minor league contracts, and there’s a reason for that – no one, the Mariners included, thought enough of them to offer a Major League contract. These are veterans trying to extend their careers or rebuild their careers, and while it’s possible that Seattle will find some roses among the thorns, it’s at least as likely the Mariners will find the thorns.

Wedge says he’s committed to building a winner and that he believes he’s got the makings of a winner with the roster he’s been dealt.

“I know what kind of mentality I want our guys to have,’’ Wedge told sportspressnw.com. “It will take some time to develop the consistency we need from day-to-day. But the level of expectations has to go up. It will be high.’’

The Mariners’ offense a year ago was simply putrid. It’s better now, perhaps, but going from a team that scored the fewest runs in baseball, far worse in fact than even the Pirates, almost anything has to be an improvement.

Seattle scored 513 runs last year. Let’s say the Mariners gel and get some offense going in 2011. Let’s say they average one run per game more than a year ago. The roster manipulations don’t suggest that’s anywhere close to happening, but let’s just stipulate that improvement for the sake of argument. The jump would get the Mariners to 675 runs. The improvement would be from 14th-best to 11th-best in the American League, based on 2010 stats.

That’s not a pretty picture.

Maybe the Mariners will be able to paint a new picture this spring and beyond. The long-suffering Pacific Northwest baseball fan would like to think so. That kind of hope, after all, is part of the allure of spring training. A rebirth.

It just doesn’t seem like a smart bet.

John Hickey is also Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)

Twitter: @JHickey3


YourThoughts

  • NickBob

    Discussing the clock on Z without a mention of Howard or Chuck is hiding the story of this franchise. If Z really is doing the right thing by “building from within”, then an organization headed by two long term leaders ought to stand behind him even if the short term results are painful. But these long term men think and act like short sighted leaders looking for the quick fix. What good does it do the team to keep this losing pair at the top if they don’t stand behind the plan to make the M’s a long term winner? Giving Z two years to clean up the mess that Bavasi left behind- a mess very much like the one he left behind for the Angels, he was consistent, give him that – and one year for his own vision to bloom; that’s not much time for the guy putting things together. Put the light and the heat where it belongs, up top.

  • LuckyInfidel

    Hickey says “That doesn’t mean much, though, because beyond that, bright spots are few and far between for Seattle under new manager Eric Wedge. He’s the man who is charged with trying to find winning pieces out of an organization that has spent most of the last half decade losing in the American League West, and he may well have the toughest assignment of any big league manager this season.”

    Why don’t we turn that around properly. The Mariners have had one half-decade of decent baseball in their existence, the other twenty-five odd years have been pathetic and, as always, near the bottom of the American League West, regardless of how many teams have been in the division. And I also am tired of this “youth” crap. Why is it that we (Seattle) are even having such a conversation–YET AGAIN.

  • David J. Levesque

    If Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong fire Jack Z. This year regardless of how the M’s fare,they will once again show that they are the real problem in Seattle… The Mariners are on their way to becoming a very competitive team year in and year out. Jack has done a fantastic job of rebuilding our farm system,and has the M’s on the verge of being able to dictate to the rest of the league how to build a winner… If the M’s fire Jack Z. This year…even if they only win 50 games,I will trade in my season tickets for a trip to egypt!!

    • Lucky Infidel

      As the Mariners NEVER have been a competitive team “year in and year out,” I am curious where you EVIDENCE is that “[t]he Mariners are on their way to becoming a very competitive team year in and year out?” As for “Jack['s] . . . fantastic job of rebuilding our farm system,” there are many years the Mariners have had a more highly rated farm system than this year and, furthermore, as an aside, how far did that get the Mariners toward being a competitive team “year in and year out?”

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