The Mariners have improved, but they don't deserve blind faith
Related column: Mariners in 2013 playoffs? Eric Wedge thinks so -- sort of
Eric Wedge didn't hesitate. He must've prepped for this season-ending interview. How else could he be so positive without reservation?
When asked if he considered the Mariners' season successful, Wedge turned his answer into a monologue about hope.
"Yeah, without a doubt," he said Wednesday. "Ultimately, it's about the wins and losses. But with a great deal of respect to what we're building here, it's much more than that. Obviously, we're a better club this year. We're moving in the right direction. But it goes back to the same thing I talked to you guys about when I got hired. It's about building that foundation. That's not easy to do. It's the road less traveled. It takes a little longer. It's a little bit harder. But in the end, it's worth it. Because it's not just about being a championship team. It's about being a championship team and sustaining that success.
"That's why people who don't have that kind of blind faith have a hard time seeing until you get there. But ultimately, they'll appreciate it because, when we get there, we're going to stay there."
The Mariners meet certain requirements for progress. They finished 75-87, eight games better than 2011. They scored 63 more runs than last season, reduced their ERA from 3.90 to 3.76 and improved from No. 20 to No. 2 in the majors in fielding percentage. They also pass the eye test of being a more dependable team. They're better, not dramatically so, but they're better.
Problem is, this improvement only inspires the excitement of a decent day in the winter. Yeah, today was nice, but it doesn't guarantee that tomorrow or next week or next month won't be cold. You know that, barring a surprise move to expedite the process, the Mariners are still in the middle of a long journey. And that's the difficult part of the rebuilding.
In our daily Times sports poll, which I posted last night and will put at the end of this entry, more than 82 percent of voters thus far believe the Mariners are making progress. But more than 52 percent also say progress isn't happening fast enough.
As I wrote before the 2012 season began: "The problem isn't this current plan. It's the old baggage weighing it down." The Mariners have done too much to infuriate and alienate fans. They delayed rebuilding for too long. They earned the distrust that burdens them now.
It's unfortunate because general manager Jack Zduriencik, though not perfect, is a personnel guy worthy believing in, and Wedge has done his job thus far. But while both men are generally well-liked, the belief still exits that their bosses will mess it all up eventually.
That's the perception Zduriencik and Wedge are fighting. That's why the Mariners did those ads in black and white this season to sell The Plan. And that's why Wedge was so effusive Wednesday in discussing the Mariners' future.
But after the persuasive rhetoric comes the backtracking. Even though Wedge dreams out loud of being in playoff contention in 2013, he doesn't want to pin his reputation on it. It's wise to couch considering the Mariners haven't hit .240 as a team since 2009. In the last three seasons, the past two of which Wedge has been the manager, the Mariners have posted team batting averages of .236 in 2010, .233 in 2011 and .234 in 2012.
This season, Jesus Montero lead their everyday starters with a .260 average. Kyle Seager lead them with a .738 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, as well as pacing the Mariners in home runs (20) and RBI (86). Seager also led all starters with a .316 on-base percentage. It was wonderful to see players such as Seager and Montero, in their first full-seasons, do their best to carry some of the offensive load. But their team-leading numbers also represent how far the Mariners offense is from even being functional.
Until the offense averages a mere four runs a game, which the Mariners haven't done since 2008, they'll have an extremely difficult time making the kind of progress that will spur excitement. Wedge can't go too far with his positivity because he doesn't want to hinder his credibility and set himself up for second-guessing if the Mariners fail.
After Wedge talked about the Mariners as a possible playoff contender next season, he danced around a question about whether he'd be disappointed if the team finished under .500 again next season.
"You're putting numbers on it," the manager said. "I think it's deeper than that. I know it's hard for people to understand, but it's deeper than that. It's about making sure we continue getting better as an organization, as a big-league club, within the framework of building that foundation for success and sustained success. That's the biggest thing. Because anything that deviates from that means we've wasted our time up to this point. We want to make sure that's what we keep our eye on. When you get there, you get there. It's hard to put a timetable on."
I understand what Wedge is saying. I agree with him, too, for the most part. But that's near impossible to sell. He has sold it about as well as anyone can, and he's barely moving the needle.
There's still the fear that the Mariners have spent all this time developing players who aren't good enough to make them a winner. The struggles of Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley certainly didn't help that perception this season. If the Mariners had received one superhuman offensive performance from a young player this season, it would've altered the public sentiment because stars possess that kind of magic. But it wouldn't have changed the fact that rebuilding the offense in this manner will require more patience than many people are willing to give a team that has missed the playoffs for 11 straight seasons.
Wedge keeps talking about blind faith. The world is too cynical for that level of trust. Criticism of the franchise is inevitable and, might I add, easy. The Mariners have done so much wrong. Instead of blind faith, the Mariners should focus on having an ironclad resolve to do what's necessary to build a winner.
Don't just fire the hitting coach. The Mariners canned Chris Chambliss on Thursday, repeating one of their favorite and most ineffectual reactions to their hitting woes. They go through hitting coaches like their players go through sunflower seeds. Still, they can't hit.
Don't just be content to move the Safeco Field fences in and see what happens.
The Mariners must evaluate all of their young players accurately, develop them correctly and spend money wisely on free agents who can make the lineup complete.
I'm more optimistic than most that the Mariners are making strides. But there's a big difference between making progress while rebuilding from a disaster and building an ideal championship team.
Without question, much work remains before the progressing Mariners can claim the latter.