What began as a hopeful Mariners season has become a disagreeable nightmare.
The team as a whole, except notably Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki, has fallen into a dreadful batting slump. Up and down the lineup, players are performing dramatically below their career hitting levels.
Recently, the obviously demoralized players have been playing sloppily defensively as well. This is tearing the hearts of pitchers who have been performing strongly, day after day. Before long, pitching too will fall off, as pitchers expect little from their teammates and get careless.
In reaction to all this, attendance has fallen off sharply. Why come to Safeco to watch an underperfoming, noncompetitive team? The tickets are too costly. Fans will not come out to be diverted only by the hydro races on the scoreboard or various feel-good promotions.
If the Mariners have truly tough-minded management — and, in their history, they have not — they will make a vital decision in the next 10 days about the future of the team.
Plan No. 1 would be to bring their payroll level back to last year's and move a couple tradeable pitchers, and a prospect or two, to upgrade hitting. The Orioles, Nationals, Marlins, and several small-market teams have hitters available for trade. Regrettably, there are no unsigned, free-agent hitters available who would be a real improvement on what the team already has.
Underlying this plan would be a belief that this year is still salvageable and that, soon, Mariners hitters will begin to perform closer to their career numbers.
Plan No. 2 would concede that the team will not contend for a pennant this year. It would involve trading any player on the present roster who is not considered a likely starter in 2011. It also would involve trading pitcher Cliff Lee, a free agent at the end of the year, for the several good young players he could bring in return right now.
Why a decision in the next 10 days?
By then, after playing several weaker teams, it should be clear whether this team will be able to rise from its funk. If not, attendance and revenues could fall off precipitously.
General manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu are thorough professionals and should be retained. They made a calculated bet, entering this season, that good pitching, fielding, baserunning, and situational hitting could bring the team to contention without the addition of a power hitter. That bet already appears to have been lost. The power hitting is missing but only pitching has measured up among the other elements of the game.
The team's present performance is alienating its fans, who can turn to other pursuits over the summer. Waiting it out is not a viable management strategy.
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