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Five thoughts about the Mariners modifying Safeco Field
1. Mariners sought middle ground in making changes and may have achieved it. Obviously, every opinion about these tweaks comes with a "We'll see how the ballpark plays next season" caveat, but this quote from assistant general manager Jeff Kingston, who thoroughly researched the issue, was revealing on what the Mariners were thinking: "But rather than being an outlier, or 28th, 29th (in offense), we think we'll be closer to, say, 20th," Kingston said. "We still want to build this team around pitching and defense. But we wanted to give the hitters a chance where if they felt they really squared a ball up and hit it 390, 400-plus feet, they'd be rewarded for it."
I wouldn't be in favor of the modifications if the Mariners were trying to spur fundamental change in the ballpark. But the reconfiguring isn't a dramatic one, except for left-center field, a black hole for right-handed power hitters, where the fences will be moved in 12 feet in the left-center power alley and up to 17 feet between left-center and straightaway center field. It still looks to be a pitcher-friendly ballpark. That's what it was designed to be, and that's what it needs to remain. But the Mariners can't hit at home anymore (.219 average and 3.06 runs this year, .222 and .315 in 2011, .235 and 2.95 in 2010), and we'll get to the mental part of that in a minute. It makes sense to take away a little of the advantage to help promote fixing what has become a severe weakness.
2. The perception of the Safeco Field advantage was even greater than the actual advantage, and that's what needed to change the most. Listen to catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero: "I'm not going to lie. Everybody knows that sometimes you crush a ball and you think that it's gone and it's not. Sometimes, you hit the ball hard and just hit the wall. So, it's going to be awesome for us next year, for the hitters."
Baseball scribe Larry Stone did a wonderful job expressing the sentiment of the Mariners in his column today. The quotes were telling, including this one from first baseman Justin Smoak, a frequent Safeco victim: "I'm sure there are a lot of veteran guys out there, free agents, that have declined because of that reason. This should definitely change some things."
The Mariners need hitters, both in their locker room and potential free agents, to feel like they have a chance at Safeco Field. Now, I'm a big believer that the ballpark isn't even the primary reason the Mariners are such a poor-hitting club. It's not like they hit a bunch of singles and simply can't drive the ball at home. They're bad offensively across the board. But there's a mental component to that, too. The Mariners can't change the heavy air and cool climate at home. They can alter the dimensions of a ballpark that was originally designed during the homer-crazed, steroids-enhanced era. Fair is a word that kept being said Tuesday, and once again, the Mariners may have achieved that.
You can't change the perception of Safeco Field with one well-publicized decision, but this is a nice initial step.
3. The Mariners' inability to hit at Safeco Field remains more of a talent and player development issue than a ballpark issue. In order to build a good offense, they must fix both. The Mariners are making these changes during the most exaggerated period of poor offense in franchise history. They need to be mindful of that and assign blame in all the proper places. It's not like these are the 1997 Mariners struggling to drive the ball. They're a bad offense in any setting. They're built bad, and general manager Jack Zduriencik is working to fix that. But he still needs time for the organization to develop the quality young hitters they have. And he needs the commitment from ownership to spend significant money on free agents who can add to the likes of Montero, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley (he'll figure it out) and bolster the offense.
4. My biggest fear is that, in the short term, the Mariners will continue to struggle on offense while opposing hitters reap most of the benefits of the Safeco Field modification. Oh, what a nightmare that would be. And the Mariners might see it next season. I still think they're at least a year away from graduating to a good offense. But let's also not resort to knee-jerk reactions regardless of how the ballpark plays in 2013. Let a trend develop over five years before considering the tweak a success or failure.
5. This is perhaps a goodbye to one of the great Seattle sports debates. And so there will be even more time to devote to the Seahawks' so-called quarterback controversy. Joy. Pardon the faux enthusiasm.