PEORIA, Ariz. — Maybe I'm just the latest sucker to get seduced by the annual tease of spring training, where every rookie is a phenom, every new player is The Answer, and every team is a champion-in-waiting.
Or maybe I've just spent too much time in the 90-degree Arizona sun. Pitchers have the dead-arm stage in mid-March; writers endure the dead-brain stage.
But after close observation of the 2007 Mariners — and glimpses of the three flawed teams they have to beat out in the cozy AL West — I've come to the rousing conclusion that, that, that ...
They've got a shot.
Now, granted, that's not quite an invitation to the ticker-tape parade in October, but it beats the alternative: a one-way ticket back to the basement, where they've resided for three miserable years.
So, beaten-down Mariners fans, I'm here to pour some cool, soothing water on Howard Lincoln's fateful hot seat. Can you hear it hissing?
We're not quite talking juggernaut, but at least this year, it's not all for naught. This team has a good chance to contend in the AL West, and if a few things go right, even to win it. There, I said it.
Of course, if a few things go wrong, it could all unravel. The best-laid plans of mice and GMs often go awry. And if it does, the atmosphere surrounding the Mariners will get ugly in a hurry, what with all the talk about jobs being on the line, Ichiro's future hanging in the balance, and fans already in a state of full-frontal disgruntlement.
But the Mariners of this vintage at least have some solid pieces to inspire the greatest commodity of spring: hope.
They have a bona-fide ace candidate in Felix Hernandez, who seems poised, at age 20, for a breakout year. Don't underestimate what one indomitable pitcher can mean for a rotation. Felix has the ability, if harnessed, to carry a team in a fashion the Mariners haven't had since prime-time Randy Johnson.
The rest of the starters — newcomers Miguel Batista, Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver, and holdover Jarrod Washburn — aren't world-beaters. But they've pitched well enough this spring to make you think they could be a more consistent group than the Mariners have had in recent years. Yes, Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche, I'm talking to you.
If new additions Jose Guillen and Jose Vidro stay ambulatory, the offense should be demonstrably better, too. The DH spot in the Seattle lineup last year was where rallies went to die. But if Vidro can even approach being the player he was before leg ailments dragged him down, the upgrade over Carl Everett will be significant.
The volatile Guillen was developing into a reliable 25-homer man before Tommy John surgery last year. If he can produce like that again, the Mariners shouldn't finish 13th in the American League in runs again.
Yuniesky Betancourt and Adrian Beltre form an airtight left side of infield, a great asset for a team that GM Bill Bavasi clearly designed to feature a groundball-inducing rotation.
Ichiro is Ichiro, and has his pending free agency to serve as extra motivation. Enjoy him while you can: Should the Mariners collapse, the odds increase considerably that they would trade Ichiro by the July 31 deadline.
The Mariners, however, are in a division with no team you can expect to run away and hide, though the Angels and A's deserve to be rated the co-favorites. Both have their set of issues, as do the Texas Rangers, whose fans, even as we speak, are probably straining to come up with their best-case scenario for contention.
The potential pitfalls for Seattle are obvious. Beltre and Richie Sexson can't be missing in action again in April. Guillen needs to both hit and stay out of controversy. All the new acquisitions coming off injuries, which is most of them, need to stay healthy.
The Ichiro situation could become a distraction. The bullpen, while a potential strength, has been shaky this spring, with some elements of real concern remaining.
And if Felix gets hurt, it's panic in the streets.
Meanwhile, it would be nice down here for George Sherrill to get someone out, for Kenji Johjima to throw someone out, and for Guillen to just throw, period.
It would be nice for Sexson to mix in a few more hits — and until J.J. Putz proves once and for all that his elbow is sound enough to allow him back on the mound, his status is a crisis in waiting.
I'm trying hard not to be a Pollyanna. Maybe a Paulie Sorrento, but hey, too much Cactus League exposure will make even the staunchest cynic hearken back to the glory days.
Does renewed glory lie in the Mariners' future? To throw out the ceremonial first cliché of the season, that's why they play the games.
But the games should be a lot more compelling this year.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org