By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Eric Wedge will tell you with a straight face — and when Wedge talks with that serious look, eyes bulging, you know the Mariners manager means business — that his team will have, 60-players deep, as talented a roster as any in baseball when spring training starts next month.
While that bodes well for the Mariners long-term future, it won’t mean much in 2013 if the Mariners aren’t strong 25-deep, or even nine-deep for that matter.
By all accounts, the Mariners have a lot of young talent developing in their minor league systems. They appear to be building the right way. But as Seattle’s continually dwindling attendance figures show, you can only sell hope to fans for so long. Eventually, significant progress at the major league level is required, and in the case of the Mariners, eventually means this season.
Now that’s not to say the Mariners have to win a very good American League West for this year to be a success. They shouldn’t rule that out, but after making incremental improvement over the past couple of years, it’s at least time for the Mariners to reward their fans with a winning record; with a team that is relevant enough in August to compete with Seahawks training camp for headlines.
At this time a year ago, general manager Jack Zduriencik was pretty blunt when assessing his team’s chances, admitting, “This is going to be a challenging year at the big league level for us. Let’s not kid ourselves.” Unfortunately, he was right.
On Tuesday at the team’s annual pre-spring training luncheon, Zduriencik was still realistic, if not slightly more optimistic.
“What I really hopes happens here, and I really hope this happens, is that this is an exciting year for us,” Zduriencik said. “I think this year (can) become a launching pad for people to look at this organization finally and say, they’ve got good young players, they’ve added some nice pieces there, and the players that are on this team, whether it be veteran players or younger players, spread the message through the baseball world, to their colleagues, that this club’s not that far away. An addition here, an addition there, this club could be pretty good.
“I hope we’ve laid the groundwork for that to happen.”
Zduriencik can’t come out and say it, but he inherited a mess when he was hired in 2008, so he deserved time to rebuild the right way. He and the rest of the Mariners’ front office have stayed on what they see as a long-term road to success rather than go for expensive quick fixes.
Or as Wedge puts it, they’ve avoided getting, “back on that merry-go-round like so many clubs and you regress.”
But because the Mariners were very much on that merry-go-round before Zduriencik and Wedge got here, fans’ patience is wearing very thin. Seattle can be a great baseball city, but even the best fans become jaded when the losing seasons start piling up. Will it be great fun if current minor leaguers are leading an AL West juggernaut in 2016? You bet, but there had better be some tangible progress before then.
Don’t think for a second that the Mariners’ “building the right way” approach means they don’t expect that progress to show on the field this season.
“We feel like we’re in a very, very good place,” Wedge said. “I get questions often in regard to the timetable of us being a championship team. The only thing I can tell you is that we’ll be better and we’ll continue to get better, as we have the last couple of years, and at some point in time we will be a championship team.”
There are a couple of reasons for Wedge’s optimism.
For starters, the core group of young players, many of whom struggled last season, have another year under their belt. Wedge and Zduriencik both believe players like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak all will benefit in the long run from the ups and downs they went through last year.
Adding a big-name free agent like Josh Hamilton certainly would have helped, and the Mariners would love it if a now-healthy Michael Morse can rediscover his 2011 form, or if Jason Bay can turn back the clock. But ultimately the biggest factor on how much the Mariners improve (or don’t) in 2013 is how much the young players who make up the nucleus of the team improve (or don’t).
“Our kids are more confident,” Zduriencik said. “We’ve challenged them. We should roll into spring training with them having been there, done that another year. A lot of those kids got half a year the year before and last year they got a full season under their belt. So now you’re looking at guys that walk into the ballpark like, ‘Hey, I belong here.’”
Another reason Wedge believes his team will take a needed step forward is its improved veteran leadership. It’s not that the Mariners roster was devoid of veterans in 2012, but Wedge hopes that the likes of Bay, Raul Ibanez, Morse and Kendrys Morales can do more to help their young teammates than did players like Ichiro Suzuki, Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo.
“If you look at the veterans we had in our clubhouse last year versus to the veterans we have in the clubhouse this year, it’s night and day,” Wedge said.
He dodged a bit when asked to elaborate.
“You guys know who the veterans we had last year were, and you guys know who the veterans are coming in this year, so you can probably figure that out,” Wedge said. “I mentioned the guys we have coming in, and I’m not going to talk about guys who aren’t here anymore, but you can look at their role or 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 help or you don’t. If you help, you’re on board with it; if you don’t, then we’re going to eliminate you.”
Whatever it takes, whether it’s young players improving, newly-added veterans discovering their past form or improved leadership making everyone better, it’s time for the Mariners to show some significant progress. It is time for this preseason optimism to turn into some late-season excitement.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.