Events in recent weeks should have bolstered Seattle sports fans' morale: The Seahawks' exciting run toward a possible Super Bowl appearance; the Mariners' surprising outbidding of the Yankees for star second-baseman Robinson Cano; and the Washington Huskies' signing of former Boise State football coach Chris Petersen, one of the nation's best, to replace the less skilled Steve Sarkisian, who defected to the University of Southern California.
Yet all of these events have been diminshed, in one way or another, by disappointing sub-themes.
The Seahawks' success —and, especially, the excellence of their second-year quarterback, Russell Wilson — has been the most satisfying. But, last week, star cornerback Brandon Browner received the news that he had been suspended for a year for multiple violations of the National Football League's substance-abuse policies. Other Seahawks players have committed similar violations and the team, fairly or unfairly, is being characterized by some national sports media as a modern-day version of the old Oakland Raiders, known for their physical play on the field and their outlaw conduct off-field. Has Seahawks coach Pete Carroll adopted former Raiders' coach Al Davis' slogan: "Just win , baby!" — a message that all other factors were irrelevant?
Things don't seem to have gone that far with the Seahawks. Carroll often speaks of giving "second chances" to so-called high-risk players whose conduct got them in trouble in their college or earlier NFL careers. How many such players can a roster tolerate? With a late season loss or two, that question will be asked more vocally. In the meantime, winning obscures everything else.
The Mariners' signing of Cano to a 10-year, $240-million contract — one of the three richest in baseball history — was a stunner. They outbid the Yankees, his former team, by $60 million. Cano is one of the game's half-dozen finest players. At 31, however, he can be expected to perform at that level for, at most, another five years — leaving another five years on his contract at $24 million per year, about 25 percent of the team's total payroll. The contract contains a no-trade clause, meaning Cano is here for 10 years, period, unless he consents to a trade elsewhere.
Those applauding the signing said it restored the Mariners' credibility with its fan base.(Attendance has fallen off 50 percent over the past 10 years, as one losing team has followed another). Knowledgeable analysts also noted, however, that at least one other bigtime hitter had to be signed to protect Cano in the batting order and to make the Mariners truly competitive with their American League West rivals: the Athletics, Rangers, and Angels.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has since added hitters Corey Hart, Logan Morrison and Franklin Gutierrez, all former high performers plagued in recent years by injury. They can be characterized as low-risk, high-return bets or, if you're less optimistic, as low-cost gambles unlikely to work out. I personally would be surprised if even one of the three remained on the active roster at mid-season.
Jack Z. told a television interviewer last week that additional big-money signings would not happen unlesss upper management OK'd them. He was concentrating, he said, on trades and signings that could make marginal upgrades in the team. In other words, no big-time hitter on the horizon to complement Cano. That poses a problem since, in order to truly compete, the Mariners must capitalize fully on Cano's talents before age begins to diminish them. That means surrounding him with a stronger supporting cast.
If no big additions are made, the Mariners' 2014 roster will resemble 2013's, except that Cano will have replaced the departed Kendrys Morales in the batting order. That means the team's young returning players — Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Zunino, Michael Saunders, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, and pitchers Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez in particular — must up their games this coming season in order for the team to contend. Some no doubt will; others will fail.
The Mariners could have signed, as the Yankees ultimately did, two or three upper-tier if not superstar players for the money given to Cano — and for far shorter contract periods. But is it hard to criticize the Mariners for trying and, for a change, succeeding. The outcome could still be successful if — and this is the big "if" — some of the team's young players become the players they once were expected to be.
There was an uphappy prelude to the Cano signing. It was a well-researched investigative story by Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker, a former Mariners beat writer, which contained remarkable on-the-record statements by former manager Eric Wedge and several former senior Mariners baseball-operations executives portraying Zdurencik as out of his depth and as a butt-kisser to upper management while a bullying abuser of those working for him. Present Mariners employees made similar characterizations, although not for direct attribution. Zdurencik issued a general statement of rebuttal, which, not surprisingly, did not respond to specific criticisms.
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