By John Boyle Herald Writer
Resuming a four-game series after more than a week off is hardly the norm for a Major League Baseball team.
But hey, how bad can a little change be for a team that has struggled as much as the Mariners in recent years? And when the Mariners resume their season today in Oakland, they hope to begin a season that will feel as unfamiliar to people who have watched them over the last two seasons as does a four-game series that takes 11 days and two continents to complete.
“Everybody here is looking to change things, change what has been happening in the past,” second baseman Dustin Ackley said in a phone interview from Oakland. “Everybody is just trying to be a part of that, from the young guys to the older guys. It’s an exciting time to be a Mariner and have all the hype of the young guys coming up — young hitting and young pitching. Hopefully this all comes together at some point.”
Notice Ackley said: “at some point.” Even the most optimistic of Mariners fans know this team will have growing pains. The roster is full of young and unproven players who, even if they exceed expectations, are sure to have their ups and downs. But the difference heading into this season is that there a lot more reasons to look forward to this team’s future than there have been in recent years.
Ackley, the former No. 2 overall pick who played 90 games last year as a midseason call-up, looks for all the world like a player who will hit well this year, and for many, many years to come. Jesus Montero, Seattle’s big offseason acquisition, is young and raw, but full of power. Justin Smoak is healthy and ready to bounce back after a tough 2011 and Kyle Seager, after hitting .360 this spring, did what every young player hopes to do by forcing his manager to find playing time for him.
Granted spring training stats are generally pretty meaningless, but for a team that was dead last in baseball in nearly every significant offensive category the past two years, leading all Major League teams with a .297 spring average isn’t entirely insignificant.
Of all the crazy things, manager Eric Wedge actually has some tough decisions because — gasp — people are hitting. Chone Figgins figured to get the bulk of the playing time, at least early, at third base, but Seager is playing too well to keep out of the lineup. Brendan Ryan is the team’s starting shortstop, but Munenori Kawasaki hit .455 this spring, so Wedge will have to find ways to get him on the field.
“Those are all good problems to have,” Wedge told reporters in Arizona. “We’ve got a lot of players here that can play, and we’ve got a lot of players who aren’t here but eventually will be who can play. As you get better as we are, you start to stack it up a little bit from an organizational standpoint. We had to make some tough decisions here at the end of camp, and those are all good things.”
And while those encouraging spring stats don’t mean anything by themselves, Wedge has seen encouraging signs that he thinks will carry over.
“It’s been a very good offensive spring for us,” he said. “That’s a big step for us to move in the right direction. We’ve got a lot of things going on here that are real, offensively, and it should play for us during the season.”
There are plenty of reasons to be cynical when it comes to the Mariners’ offense. The hopes of the team are being placed largely on unproven youngsters and veterans hoping to recover from a disastrous 2011. But let’s save all of that negativity for the time being, because if this team does what most people think it will, you’ll have all the chances you want to rip the Mariners all summer.
For now, instead just wonder what could happen if Figgins and Ichiro Suzuki can go from terrible in 2011 to solid in 2012, or if Smoak can bounce back from a year that saw him struggle with injury, and more significantly, the loss of his father, or if Montero can give the lineup some much-needed pop. The Mariners almost certainly will struggle to keep pace in a loaded AL West, but maybe, just maybe, they’ll surprise a few people along the way, particularly with their bats.
“I think we definitely will,” Ackley said. “From the outside, there aren’t a lot of expectations for us offensively, but we’re striving to improve and get better and we’ve added some guys that are really going to help us. I think we’ll definitely surprise some people.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.