The Mariners departed Thursday for a five-game road trip to Minnesota and Texas. One quarter of their season was gone, their record was 20-20, and opinion remained split as to whether they will do better or fall back into more of the same-ol’, same-ol’.
If grades were being handed out, the Ms would, on all fronts, be getting Incompletes, along with these progress reports.
New President Kevin Mather, Chuck Armstrong's replacement, leaves an impression as a common-sense, flexible manager who is aware of the financial bottom line but also wants a winning team — and recognizes how the two are connected. He comes across as a nice guy who loves baseball but will not tolerate much flubbing.
General manager Jack Zduriencik started the season on shaky ground made even shakier by some parting and public shots from former manager Eric Wedge, who refused to return for another year. Zduriencik responded by extravagantly outbidding the Yankees for all-star second baseman Robinson Cano.
Zduriencik signed Cano to a huge 10-year contract knowing full well that the 31-year-old likely won't be productive after his first five seasons. Zduriencik no doubt worried little about the tail end of the contract, since his own fate as GM depends on the team's short-term success.
During the off-season, Zduriencik also signed free agent outfielders/designated hitters Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. Both were risks because of prior injuries. Hart has held up physically as a DH and shows signs of life, although his batting average is low. Morrison is hurt again.
The Ms GM also awarded a big two-year contract to relief pitcher Fernando Rodney, a favorite of new manager Lloyd McClendon's. Zduriencik has repeatedly stated that his Plan — to grow and develop the team through its own farm system — was working and, with the addition of Cano and one or two other veterans, would bear fruit this year.
McClendon, Zduriencik's choice to replace Wedge, appears to have won over the players with his no-nonsense but protective approach toward them. They play hard for him. Beginning with spring training, he instituted more intense instructional drills. His only shortcoming to date, it would seem, has been his tendency to stick too long with players whose non-performance was hurting the team.
McClendon fell in love, during spring training, with rookie outfielder Abraham Almonte. He started him in centerfield, batting leadoff, until it was painfully clear that Almonte was shaky afield and an almost automatic out in the batting order. Almonte finally got sent down to Tacoma, where he still is not hitting. We may never see him on a major-league roster again.
Shortstop Brad Miller also dazzled in spring training only to fizzle in regular season play. Miller had an impressive late-season call up in 2013, showing aggressive hitting and overall play. But, like Almonte, he has faded badly, desperately slumping at bat and costing the Ms a couple of games with his unreliable glove. A shortstop should be the best fielder in any team's infield. With Kyle Seager at third, Cano at second and Justin Smoak at first, Miller is the Ms weakest infield link. But he continues to play every day.
Fernando Rodney, brought in as the closer, came with a reputation as a 37-year-old specialist in perilous, just-in-time escapes from opposition rallies. Would his luck hold out? The question remains unanswered. Rodney has saved several games but has also turned two victories into late losses and, to many fans, evokes memories of the immortal Bobby Ayala and Jose Mesa, former Mariners' closers who also had a habit of pitching into trouble.
McClendon has made it clear that Rodney is his guy and will remain so. It's unlikely, though, that he'll be able to keep Miller at shortstop, barring some immediate and dramatic revival. Two talented shortstops, Nick Franklin and Chris Taylor, are waiting in Tacoma. Utility man Willie Bloomquist has always been available as a spot replacement for Miller but has seldom been used.
Cano truly is an all-star and although he has yet to show the extra-base power he displayed in his years with the Yankees he is a cornerstone player. Smoak, Seager and leftfielder Dustin Ackley, all key parts of Zduriencik's Plan, appear to be establishing themselves as major-league regulars. Young Mike Zunino, unless felled by injury, will be the team's starting catcher for a decade. Rookie James Jones, called up to replace Almonte, has brought speed and energy to the team. He is a natural centerfielder, and has hit unexpectedly well. The jury still is out on Hart, although his swing is coming around. He could hit for low average yet collect 25 homeruns with 80-85 RBIs.
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