Hard-edged manager Eric Wedge walks a fine line with fledgling Mariners
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said coming into the season he would hold his players accountable, that it was time for both young players and veterans to produce. He has followed through, benching players who have not met his standards.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Give Eric Wedge credit. The tough-talking Mariners manager is also a man of action — at least when it comes to punishing Brendan Ryan.
It feels like Wedge has publicly reprimanded and benched his starting shortstop more times than No. 3 hitter Ichiro, a displaced leadoff man, has come through with runners in scoring position. It's not true, of course. Ichiro has a wonderful .206 average in those situations, not that you remember his seven random breakthroughs in 34 at-bats. But it's hard to rag on Ichiro when, overall, his decent numbers (.291 average, .725 on-base-plus-slugging percentage) mean that he's performing much better than the team as a whole. So if decency is the offensive standard and putrid is the norm, no wonder Wedge is barking more and accepting fewer excuses.
Before the season, Wedge vowed to hold his players to a higher standard and make this more than just another developmental season. It's a season for young players to transition from wide-eyed to productive, he said. It's a season for veteran players to play to their level of experience, he said. That is how, in Wedge's master plan, the Mariners will avoid floundering in 2012.
The problem is, emphasizing and making demands doesn't always yield immediate results, and nearly a quarter into this season, Wedge is fighting numerous little battles to force change, not to mention spur growth.
The most quotable example of this struggle came Saturday when Wedge jabbed Ryan with this line: "He's not 25 years old. He's 30 years old. It's time for him to figure out what he needs to do to be successful. I can't be any more honest than that."
Wedge benched his .140-hitting shortstop, who had a poor at-bat with the bases loaded Friday, for a day for the second time this season, explaining, "He needs a day. I need a day."
If this keeps up, Wedge will be saying, "I need a drink."
Wedge is doing what he was hired to do. He's trying to bring discipline and accountability to this team, and if you recall some of the unprofessionalism and borderline buffoonery that plagued the clubhouse before Wedge arrived — during the 2008 and 2010 seasons in particular — then you know his approach is necessary.
Still, I'm wondering two things as he attempts to transform the ballclub.
Will his discipline be selective or universal?
And if he does wind up prodding every underperforming player in the same manner, can he do so without alienating, or even intimidating, too much of the team?
It's a fine line that every manager or coach walks, and it's only made more complicated by having a mismatched roster of inconsistent young players and ineffective veterans.
The vets are making Wedge's job the toughest because there are few consistent, quality examples for the younger players to imitate. Wedge already has had to demote Chone Figgins, his great reclamation project, from the leadoff spot and the starting lineup. The story line of Ichiro, the wonky fit as a No. 3 hitter, is coming to a head. Wedge said Monday that his right fielder, who is trying to learn a new trick at age 38, needs to be more productive.
And what if that doesn't happen? And what if Justin Smoak, who finally showed some positive signs in the three-game series against the New York Yankees, continues his seasonlong slump? And what if catcher Miguel Olivo comes off the disabled list and continues to struggle and frustrate fans with his limitations?
Those are just a few simmering issues on a developing team that is bound to have several more. We're about to learn much about the consistency of Wedge's discipline. The sword he's pointing at Ryan is double-edged. If he doesn't hold the entire team to the same standard, critics will surely make him feel the sharpness of the other end.
The Mariners are about what I expected them to be at this point in the season — a little below .500, streaky, growing at a steady but unremarkable pace — and they'll make their strongest impression in the second half of the season. Right now, though, Wedge has too many things to figure out.
During his one-plus seasons leading the Mariners, Wedge has done a good job of balancing the roles of teacher, disciplinarian and, yes, even defender. Not sure how he does it, but Wedge is quite skilled at shuffling between protecting his players from scrutiny and shoving them into the harsh light without being seen as a waffling type.
Oh, but what if these Mariners keep testing him with their unsteady play? The franchise is still amid a vetting process, trying to determine which players are building blocks.
Hard-edged Wedge must tread deftly through this frustrating period.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.
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