Mariners have plenty to play for in second half
What's at stake for the Mariners in the second half of a lost season? Plenty, for the players trying to prove they belong, and a manager and general manager hoping to prove they're the right men to lead the franchise.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
During his annual All-Star appearance at the Baseball Writers' Association of America meeting, commissioner Bud Selig boasted about the success of the second wild card in turning more teams than ever into contenders. It's shaping up to be a wild ride down the stretch, he predicted.
But once again, the Mariners aren't invited to the party, even this one with a less-exclusive guest list. Or, to put it more accurately, they went and got themselves kicked out by virtue of underachieving play and a baffling inability to muster even a minor-league offense at home.
Not that they were ever really set up to be serious contenders this season. But it would have been nice if they could have maintained the illusion a little bit longer. Instead, they are buried deeper in the cellar than any team in baseball, 16 ½ games out of first place, and with their increasingly frustrated fans still waiting impatiently to see tangible progress from their vaunted rebuilding program.
Yet all that doesn't mean that the second half of the season, which by tradition begins Friday at Safeco Field, when the All-Star break ends, will be bereft of meaning. In fact, I'd maintain that these next 2 ½ months are teeming with significance for the Mariners — starting with the players, and moving on up the organizational flow chart.
So while other teams are fighting for the postseason, the Mariners will be playing for moral — or, just as important, morale — victories.
The youthful core around which so much hope has revolved must show real progress to renew the belief that general manager Jack Zduriencik has identified the right pieces to build around. No one is begrudging these players some growing pains, which all youngsters go through. But you'd expect the learning curve to result in steadier growth as the season, and their careers, move forward. That might require a stint at Tacoma for Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak or Jesus Montero to help get them back on track — not as punishment, but as a chance to figure things out in a less pressurized environment.
The Mariners must also take a good, hard look at Safeco Field and figure out what factors — environmental, psychological, dimensional — are making it such an offensive black hole for their hitters.
With a .195 home batting average, it's approaching crisis proportions, and not only the well-being of their own hitters, long term, is at stake, but also the Mariners' ability to ever hope to lure a top free-agent bat to Seattle. Not to mention the ability to lure back fans who are growing weary of watching the home team flail away night after night.
I've already gone on record advocating that they move in the fences because what they have now just isn't working. The signals being given by management is that they are seriously considering doing so. It's easy to say bring in better hitters, but if the ones you have, and the ones around baseball, believe with absolute conviction that Safeco Field is Death Valley for offense — and trust me on this one, they do — it's a major problem that must be rectified.
This will be a big second half for Zduriencik, under increasing scrutiny as the team continues to struggle. Once again, he'll enter the trade season — the July 31 non-waiver deadline is looming — with veteran pieces to deal, and the opportunity to be creative in augmenting the Mariners' talent level. If that means exploring ways to land an established hitter like Justin Upton, he should see where it takes him.
If this season falls apart more dramatically (and at this point last year, the Mariners were one game into a 17-game losing streak), then you'd have to wonder if CEO Howard Lincoln would drag out his infamous hot seat.
Here's what I believe: The Mariners can't keep changing GMs and plans, managers and visions. They need to let Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge ride this out. No rebuild is without stumbles and setbacks; does anyone really want to scrap it all and begin another five-year plan with a new architect and field leader?
Zduriencik knows talent; no GM bats 1.000, but the system is in much better shape now than when he took over. As for Wedge, you can quarrel with strategical moves and lineup decisions, as with any manager, but I believe he's been a steady leader while providing the right blend of patience and tough love.
If anyone should be on the hot seat, it's Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong, who have presided over the steady decline of a franchise that once was an industry standard. Being at the All-Star Game this week in Kansas City reminded me of what a vibrant, electric atmosphere existed 11 years ago in Seattle during the Midsummer Classic here, when the Mariners were on top of the baseball world, en route to matching the best record in history and jamming the ballpark each night.
Sadly, that's now a distant memory, the goodwill bank just about tapped out. Attendance has plummeted, victories have dissipated, and fan unrest keeps reaching unprecedented levels — and then rising even more. Even Lincoln said at the end of the 101-loss 2008 season that he was on the hot seat until the Mariners' performance improved.
Mind you, the team has finished last in two of three seasons since (one with 101 losses again), and is headed toward another, which would be seven out of nine years in the basement. Considering that stretch covers five managers (plus two interim) and two general managers — but the same CEO and president — the scrutiny on them must only intensify.
If the Mariners should start to click in the second half — as they showed signs of doing at various junctures in the first half — and the core players make visible breakthroughs, only then will the hot seats start to cool. Maybe a modicum of hope and optimism will return, and the burning topics will stop being which players are overmatched, and which personnel should be sent packing.
So, yeah, I'd say the Mariners have something to play for in the second half.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com.
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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.