BY Art Thiel 07:52PM 01/23/2013

Thiel: Infusion of Mariners vets fires up Wedge

Part of the deal in bringing in Morales, Morse, Bay and Ibanez for 2013 was to give the Mariners veteran leadership sorely lacking in last season’s kid-dominated lineup.

Is this the best offensive asset acquired by the Mariners in 2013? Workers are building a new left field wall at Safeco from four to 17 feet closer to home. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

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.”

Vacancies

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.”


YourThoughts

  • Trygvesture

    Thanks, Art, for chasing down the Wedgster and getting him to cop to his left-handed slap- down of Ichiro that was just plain smarmy and rude– inuendo by the inarticulate. ‘Spose he was dreading being specific lest he be asked in front of his bosses and the semi-attentive to explain Ichi’s resurgence once he stopped playing in Leaderless Loservill– as if this group outsmarts, outplays, outdraws the Yankees.

    These guys amaze, constantly.

    Blech.

    I hope they read this, but doubt they ever pull their heads out of their own (sand) long enough to look past Lincoln’s enduring, pilfered legacy of absolute, unadulterated, “we don’t give a damn/we don’t have to: we’re gonna sell this low overhead bucket of bolts soon enough.” Your work is always on the mark, going where the dictation scribes can’t seem to navigate.

    • art thiel

      Thanks Tryg. I really felt as if Wedge needed to explain himself, and he would do it better alone than in a group. Players from Japanese culture believe leadership is vested in owner and manager, never in a player. I’ve always said that that was neither right nor wrong, just a different culture. But Wedge is managing a mediocre team in America, and he needs all the help he can get. None came from Ichiro.

  • clayton puglisi

    i feel like your too hard on this team. I will be laughing at u when the mariners win 85 games this year. and yes they have that capability. I don’t think that is some thing that has ever crossed your mind this winter. I believe they could cause some havic in the division. Even though the angels are baseballs clear number 1 favorite. they spent the same amount of money last year and where did they go? Oakland has lost a lot of there veterans on the team especially johnny gomes. Oakland has something they did not have last year. PRESSURE!!!!! there is no way that team will have 14 walk off wins again. i see Texas being NOT the same Texas that has played great baseball for the last 5 years. LIGHT UP about this team art. this team has the bullpen to compete with anybody in the AL. Seager, saunders, ackley, montero, and hopefully smoak will take steps forward to make this team successful. With the addition of Morales, and Morse alone will help because the young guys will have somebody to look up to. the starting pitching will figure itself out.

    • Michael Kaiser

      Eight-five wins? Wow. I can die a happy man now.

      • art thiel

        So now you want to be king of Hooterville, right?

        • Michael Kaiser

          “King” has a nice ring to it. The “Hooterville” after it obviously detracts a bit.

    • art thiel

      I like your attitude, Clayton. The judgment is suspect, but that’s OK. And if you’re good with 85 for your increased ticket prices, I’m good with it too.

  • just passing thru

    Good stuff, Art. I’m pleased to see Wedge speak his mind, but I wonder how much he tried to influence those vets to step up. I watched a lot of games and rarely saw a lot of coach/player interaction. Did you observe much?

    And how does “Datzy” end up coaching third again? Many questionable calls there.

    • art thiel

      Whatever you and I can see in the dugout from TV is one percent of what’s going on over a season. Unless it’s Figgins and Wak, in which case it was 100 percent of what you needed to know.

  • Michael Kaiser

    There are so many laugh lines in those Wedge quotes I would not know where to begin. But I think this is the one that really got me going: “At some point in time, sooner than later, we will be a championship team.”

    • art thiel

      Well, the alternative is to say they’re going to be terrible or mediocre. That’s why the Mariners go through so many managers — almost impossible job.

  • Will

    Luv the logic of why the next M’s version will be terrific. Truth is, the devil’s not in the details but in the front office. “Wait ’til next year” has become a recurring, tedious and empty cliche.

    • art thiel

      Yes, we know about the front office. Remember that any good manager manages up as well as down. His quotes were directed up, not down.

      • Michael Kaiser

        I don’t understand what you are saying.

  • Bruce

    Oh, for crying out loud–give Wedge a break. What’s he supposed to say? “Yeah, we’re gonna stink again this year?” And about Ichiro, he came as close to the truth without actually saying Ichiro was a cancer on the team. He got his numbers and the Mariners got their Far East marketing but beyond that, as a one-of-a-kind player who stinks at ‘chemistry’ he was terrible for the team, and never mind that Wedge was correct in observing that you can’t ding a player for not providing what he’s incapable of providing–leadership. So Ichiro flourishes on the Yankees, where there are already enough leaders, thank you very much. And about offense? Art, you banged the nail squarely: the best acquisition this year is the shortened fences. My prediction for this season is plenty of offense–not enough to win the division, but 85 wins, yes.

    • Michael Kaiser

      Well, I would not necessarily say he “flourished,” but the Yankees are the type of team he should have been on to begin with, or perhaps the original Mariners’ teams, or team, he was on. A very talented bunch where he can be, essentially, a role player, or a cog, albeit a very talented one in certain ways.

      • art thiel

        see above.

    • art thiel

      No doubt Wedge is thrilled with Ichiro’s departure. When the team was winning (his first year), Ichiro’s eccentricities were cute. When losing, they became annoying. He’s a very smart, very different cat, and needs to be around premier talents, not a 4A club.