Mariners' rebirth stands on horizon
Club recovering after years of questionable decisions
We all know how great it is to be in Seattle, visit the Pike Place Market and get seafood on Elliott Bay. To be there in 1995 when Junior Griffey scored from first on Edgar Martinez's shot down the line is unforgettable, so, too, the Indians series in 1995 and 2001, and the 300 wins from 2000-02.
They fell, indeed, fell far. In 2008, they fell to 101 losses. Then in a year that started with the acquisition of Cliff Lee and the joys of Junior, everything fell apart. Don Wakamatsu was dismissed. Junior retired in a haze of misunderstandings beneath a man who in many ways built Safeco Field. Lee then was traded, and at the end of the year, they'd again lost 101 games and Eric Wedge was brought in to try to steer through Elliott Bay.
Wedge, of course, steered the Indians through their transition from the bomber Indians of the 1990s through a rebuilding effort that took them all the way to within a game of the 2007 World Series. "The situations aren't dissimilar," says Wedge. Well, the Indians had to dismantle because of the economics. The Mariners were also the victims of some decisions by good people that turned into disasters.
"We had a lot go wrong at the same time," says Mariners president Chuck Armstrong, the franchise pillar through numerous ownerships. "I can look back and make a case for certain things that happened. But we're trying to look forward."
Knowing that attendance and television ratings are down in what has been an upper-middle-class baseball economy.
To beat a dead horse, their problems came before Jack Zduriencik took over as general manager in October 2008. The Mariners had high Draft picks from 2005-08. In 2005, they took Jeff Clement instead of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun or Troy Tulowitzki, when right up to the Draft, it was going to be Tulowitzki. In 2006, they took Brandon Morrow with the fifth pick instead of local hero Tim Lincecum. Armstrong points out that there was logic behind that choice, but what happened was that instead of developing Morrow, they made him a reliever. He never developed, and Seattle eventually traded him to Toronto, where John Farrell believes he can be a top-of-the-rotation starter. In 2007, they took Phillipe Aumont -- who was used in the Lee deal with the Phillies and now has no fixed address -- and in 2008, they took reliever Josh Fields.
Enter Zduriencik, who in Milwaukee drafted Braun, et al. Not that everything has gone peachy for Zduriencik, who had to turn Lee around to Texas for Justin Smoak, Josh Lueke and Blake Beavan. "We knew it would take some time to get this franchise back where it should be," says Zduriencik. "We think we have talent coming, but the fans shouldn't have to listen to promises."
It didn't help that the Mariners started this season 4-11, and looked really bad doing so. But then came a six-game trip to Detroit and Boston. They swept the Tigers three straight, outscoring them 24-6. Seattle won two out of three at Fenway Park, losing, 3-2, Sunday in a finale matchup of Felix Hernandez and Tim Wakefield when Ichiro Suzuki lost a ninth-inning fly in the sun that hit him and rolled away for a Jed Lowrie triple.
"Still, 5-1 is something to build on," said Chone Figgins, who is finally getting that contagious smile back on his face and relaxing. "We're better than people think. We can start winning. This trip really helped."
Figgins is beginning to look like the Figgins of Anaheim. Smoak is over .300. Franklin Gutierrez is working out with the club. They think second baseman Dustin Ackley, shortstop Nick Franklin and some of their kids are edging closer to Seattle. At the end of the year, the contracts of Milton Bradley, Jack Wilson and others come off the books, and Armstrong says they can fill as best they can.
"We can turn it around and be competitive quickly because we have the pitching," says Wedge. King Felix is close to the best in the league. And 6-foot-7, 250-pound Michael Pineda is a beast. "When you have two top-end guys like that, we can be competitive," says Zduriencik. No kidding. Look what Jered Weaver and Danny Haren have done for the Angels.
"It's ridiculous when people talk about our trading Felix," says Armstrong. "We have Felix and Pineda for five years. Why would we move either one?"
Now they wait to see if the recent encouraging signs from Erik Bedard are legit. Jason Vargas is a workman. Doug Fister competes. On the horizon is big left-hander James Paxton.
Meanwhile, as closer David Aardsma rehabs, Brandon League has taken over at the end and looked like the closer the Jays once thought he could be. League has sat in the mid-90s and is second in the league in saves with seven.
"Sometimes you find someone when you give him a chance," says Wedge. "That's the nature of a bullpen. Unpredictable."
Are the Mariners ready to jump in with Texas and Oakland and the Angels? Probably not. But they're better today than they were at this time a month or a year ago.
"It's amazing how mindsets turn around," says Smoak.
King Felix and Pineda can do that for you.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.