By John Boyle Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners 2012 season will kick off Wednesday morning in Japan at an hour when the vast majority of the team’s fans will be sound asleep.
And while a more cynical person might point out that 3:04 a.m. is a fitting time for the Mariners, losers of 196 games over the past two seasons, to quietly begin another march towards irrelevance, I’m not here to rain on anyone’s parade. After all, if the experts are right and the Mariners are destined to struggle again this season, we’ll have plenty of time to examine their deficiencies once they’ve fallen out of contention. So for now, why not, as the Mariners told us to before losing 101 games in 2010, believe big? OK, OK, believing big may be a futile endeavor this season, but believing in progress, that seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it?
As every baseball fan will happily tell you with a healthy dose of nostalgia in his or her voice, spring is a time for fresh starts, for hoping against hope that your favorite team won’t break your heart like it did last year or the year before that. Yes the Mariners are still in all likelihood a ways from contending, particularly against loaded AL West rivals Texas and Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to be excited about the 2012 season, which by the time you wake up Wednesday, will likely already be a day old.
Here, in no particular order, are nine (obligatory baseball gimmick) reasons to look forward to the Mariners 2012 season:
9 They don’t play in Japan. While it would be foolish to say that teams in Japan’s top league are superior to those in Major League Baseball, we do know that the Mariners, against what I’ll grant you is way too small of a sample size, simply don’t stack up on the other side of the Pacific. After going a respectable 12-8 against MLB competition in meaningless exhibition games in Arizona, the Mariners are 0-2 in meaningless exhibition games against Japanese teams, having lost 5-1 to the Hanshin Tigers and 9-3 to the Yomiuri Giants.
8 Felix Hernandez, every five days. While many things have gone so terribly wrong over the past two years, we shouldn’t take for granted that we’ll get to see, every fifth day, one of the best pitchers of his era take the mound for Seattle. It’s not just that Hernandez is good, it’s that he is also incredibly entertaining to watch. He has ridiculous stuff and he’s a fierce competitor, but also someone who takes a ton of joy in what he is doing. No, this may not be the year the Mariners go back to the playoffs, but it will almost without a doubt be another year that King Felix does something that will thrill you.
7 The young guns, who should be good now, and perhaps great soon. Last year we got a tantalizing preview of just what kind of hitter second baseman Dustin Ackley, the former No. 2 draft pick, may someday become. This year he’ll have a full season to develop, and so far he has done nothing to make anyone doubt that he will someday become a phenomenal hitter. Now Seattle also has catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero, its big acquisition in the trade that sent pitcher Michael Pineda to New York. Montero may or may not develop into a major league catcher, but he will almost undoubtedly give a boost to an offense that was the worst in baseball for two straight years.
Add to the mix a seemingly rejuvenated first baseman in Justin Smoak, a still developing left fielder in Mike Carp and others, and this team at least can give fans hope. Two years ago, the Mariners were not only a bad team, they were a bad team without much of a future beyond Hernandez. Now, even if they struggle, the Mariners will provide a glimpse of brighter days to come.
6 Cheesy fish puns whenever Carp has a big game. What to do if the Mariners are out of contention by early summer? How about make a game out of keeping track of how many bad puns headline writers, TV and radio personalities, and even your friends make when Carp hits a home run or makes a nice play in left field.
5 Brendan Ryan making you laugh. First off, it’s hard not to be a fan of the Mariners shortstop for the way he plays the game. The guy is all hustle and full effort on every play. But if that’s not enough for you, then enjoy Ryan, the thoroughly entertaining guy. Those who have seen this year’s crop of Mariners commercials got a glimpse of the shortstop’s humorous side when he did a pretty solid Robert De Niro impression, but he’s also good for a great quote after almost any game, win or lose.
For example, when lamenting his team’s inability to put teams away after getting leads early, Ryan had this to say after a game last season: “It’s just too many nail-biters. It’d be nice to draw blood first and stomp on their neck and run away with it early.”
I mean, how can you not root for a guy like that?
4 The (still pending) career turnaround by Michael Saunders. Saunders, who began his professional career in Everett, finished last season with a .149 batting average, and has never hit above .221 in three major league seasons. By all accounts, he was going to have a hard time making the team, let alone finding a significant role in 2012. But with starting center fielder Franklin Gutierrez out for a while with a pectoral injury, Saunders seized the opportunity this spring and hit .324 with an .889 OPS in 13 games following a winter in which he overhauled his offseason regimen. No that won’t mean a thing if he can’t hit when the games start to matter, but if Saunders can be a productive part of the Mariners lineup, it will be one of the feel-good stories of the season for Seattle.
3 Chone Figgins, inspiration to underachievers everywhere. When most people are bad at their job, they are either fired demoted, but third baseman Figgins gives hope to underachievers all over America. Figgins followed up a disappointing 2010 with a downright terrible 2011, hitting just .188. So what happened to him in 2012? He was given the leadoff role in the hopes that, by making him more comfortable, he will become a more productive player.
Now in all seriousness, Figgins has been, by all accounts, a different person this spring, and if this move does work out, manager Eric Wedge should probably be considered a baseball genius. But if Figgins regresses once the season resumes, things could get ugly quickly for him and for Wedge. Either way, it will be interesting to watch.
2 Ichiro’s new role. Not only is Wedge defying conventional wisdom by giving the player who was one of his worst hitters a year ago the most at bats, he has also decided to move Ichiro Suzuki, a leadoff hitter for his entire career in Seattle, to the No. 3 spot in the lineup. Suzuki is well known for being a creature of habit, someone who adheres religiously to his routines, so how will a change like this affect the Mariners’ right fielder? That will be one of the most important storylines for the Mariners, because if Suzuki, who is set to be a free agent after this season, isn’t hitting, the Mariners and Wedge will have tough decisions to make. And even if Suzuki does improve after having his worst season last year, what kind of No. 3 hitter will he be? That is usually a spot in the lineup reserved for a power hitter. But Suzuki’s career high in home runs in 11 major league seasons is 15, and he has only had double-digit home run totals three times. The question then becomes, can the Mariners, a terrible offensive team in recent years, score significantly more runs without power from a traditional power spot in the lineup?
1 And finally, when all else is going wrong, there will still be bobbleheads. Lots and lots of bobbleheads.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.