For the Mariners, looking for their first winning year since 2009, spring training has always served as a reliable forecast as to what will happen in the regular season.
Slightly more than a year ago, the Mariners concluded their third consecutive spring-training tease with a 22-11 record that featured a Cactus League-record 58 home runs. After providing that false hope, the Mariners delivered a 71-91 clunker that sent manager Eric Wedge ranting into unemployment and transformed GM Jack Zduriencik from fading genius into the lamest of ducks.
In 2012, the Mariners went 16-9-1 during their annual bivouac in Peoria, AZ., but failed to sustain the momentum during the regular season, finishing 75-87. In 2011, the Mariners navigated the Cactus League with a 16-13 record, only to go an unpalatable 67-95 over the ensuing six, torturous months.
There are those who hold that spring training results and records mean squat. Author Art Hill, who wrote “I Don’t Care If I Never Come Back” more than two decades ago, is among them. In that book, Hill neatly summarized spring training as “a season written in the sand.”
But as far as the Mariners are concerned, spring training is practically carved in marble. In fact, had we paid proper heed, spring training has almost always served as a reliable forecast for the regular season in a perverse sort of way.
Numbers can be a drudge, but bear with us. The Mariners have completed 37 spring trainings. Eliminate all the years, and they are agonizingly numerous, in which the Mariners eventually slogged home with a losing record.
That leaves 10 seasons in which the Mariners actually finished with a winning record. Those years were 1991 (manager Jim Lefebvre), 1993 (Lou Piniella), 1996 (Piniella), 1997 (Piniella), 2000 (Piniella), 2001 (Piniella), 2002 (Piniella), 2003 (Bob Melvin), 2007 (Mike Hargrove and John McLaren) and 2009 (Don Wakamatsu).
In those seasons, the Mariners produced a winning spring training record just twice. In 1991 the club went 17-13 in the spring and 83-79 during the regular season. In 1993, under Piniella, the Mariners followed a 16-14 spring with an 82-80 regular season.
We’ll never forget Jay Buhner’s remark – and spot-on commentary on franchise history — after the 1991 team went 83-79, the club’s first winning record, which set off a major clubhouse celebration.
“Why are we celebrating .500?” Buhner wondered.
Great question. Answer: Until then, that’s all there was to celebrate. In 14 previous years to 1977, .500 had never been achieved.
The Mariners have had eight winning years since 1993, most recently in 2009. They preceded each with a losing record in spring training.
In 37 seasons, the Mariners have delivered a winning season 11 times. Only twice (1991 and 1993), did they precede those years with a winning mark in spring training.
Indictments, with Howard Lincoln’s name in bold, uppercase letters, should be issued over the fact that the Mariners have had just four playoff teams in 37 years (even though Lincoln has only been around for 23 of those years). If we’d read the tea leaves correctly – a winning spring equals a losing season, a losing spring equals a winning year — we would have seen those seasons coming.
Best examples: The 2004 Mariners, with Edgar Martinez taking his last bow, had a winning spring for the first time in five years (18-10), but lost 99 regular-season games despite Ichiro’s record 262 hits. The 2001 Mariners went 116-46 following a 13-19 spring.
A look at Seattle’s four playoff teams – four! – also illustrates how spring training translates in the opposite direction.
1995: The year that saved major league baseball in Seattle started with 5-8 spring (abbreviated schedule due to a 1994 players’ strike). Down 13 games to the Angels in August, the Mariners rallied improbably to finish 79-66 and reach the postseason after a one-game playoff win over the Angels.
1997: The Mariners went 16-16 in the spring, foretelling a ho-hum year, but led the AL West almost from start to finish, ending at 90-72.
2000: Mariners went 13-16 in the spring, but 91-71 in the regular season, reaching the playoffs as a wild card entry.
2001: The greatest regular-season in American League history – 116-46 – began with a completely misleading 13-19 record during spring training.
Bottom line: Way more often than not, if the Mariners have a winning record in spring training, they will have a losing record at season’s end. They are 2-9 under such scenarios.
If they finished the regular season with a winning record (10 times), they probably had a losing spring. They are 2-8 in those scenarios.
When the Mariners reached the postseason, four times, they had a losing spring.
The Mariners are off to another hot start. After defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 4-1 Wednesday behind Felix Hernandez, they are 6-1, which does not bode well.
What bodes is what Robinson Cano said the other day in an interview with CBSsports.com that was summarized by colleague Art Thiel in his story Cano As GM: Mariners ‘Need Another Bat’: The Mariners need a right-handed bat (Cano urged the club to re-sign switch-hitter Kendrys Morales) and another starting pitcher (Cano lobbied on behalf of Ervin Santana). Zduriencik has yet to act.
Thiel’s conclusion: Cano knows the Mariners are already in trouble.
That obviously remains to be seen. But if the current spring training record looks promising, history suggests it’s probably another illusion.