Not too long ago, Mariners fans were nervous. Those uneasy feelings had as much to do with an uncertainty as to how the team would approach a critical offseason as much as with how the team was currently performing on the field. I know because I was one of those fans.
How quickly things can change. Or how one trade of an aging franchise icon can change just how an entire fan base can feel about the direction of its team.
Because it all has changed since the Mariners traded Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees on Monday, July 23, 2012. Suzuki, 38, was in the last year of a 5-year contract signed back in 2007 that paid him $18 million annually (sort of, Suzuki was getting portions of each year’s salary deferred for payments to be made at later date) and for two straight seasons, was playing at a level barely recognizable of his former self.
Suzuki was the face of the Mariners. Whether it was because of his tie to the last great Mariners squad of 2001 or his early success — breaking George Sisler’s season hit record in 2004 — or his ethnicity, he was the guy. And when your franchise is owned by a Japanese man who doesn’t seem to care about the team’s performance on a day-to-day basis (Mr. Yamauchi has reportedly never attended a Mariners game), re-signing icons, especially ones that are Japanese, despite their eroding talents is always a possibility if not a lock.
Seattle was full of anxiety. Would the team make the move to keep Ichiro around for another season? Multiple seasons? And how much would they pay him to continue to get worse yet occupy the right field position on a daily basis while the team tried to complete a rebuilding plan concurrently?
Thankfully none of those questions got an answer as Ichiro did what he should have done last season by asking for a trade and the Mariners brass led by Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong acquiesced to that request.
Since then, the Mariners are 8-2 and making a late run at a possible playoff spot even if they are last in the American League West division, 12 games out of first and 7.5 out of a wild card spot, albeit with about 100 teams to leapfrog (actually seven but who’s counting?).
But more importantly, the team has positioned itself much better going forward than it was just two short weeks ago. Instead of awkward questions about an aging former star still playing every day despite better options, the team has a full blown youth movement going on with no cloud over its head. Moves are being made, players are performing and things are becoming clearer.
The Mariners starting rotation finished the month of July with a Majors-leading 2.73 earned-run average, 17 points better than the second place Cardinals. Mike Carp is hitting .367 since being recalled from Tacoma on July 24th. Eric Thames had a big debut hitting a game-tying two-run homer and making a nice catch since being acquired from the Blue Jays for reliever Steve Delabar. And Brendan Ryan, stalwart glove man at short, finally cracked the Mendoza line. Amazing.
We’re starting to see this team grow and the pieces start to fall into place for what should be a successful future. Two young arms, Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, were just added to the bullpen. Both have the power arms that could garner them spots in the back end of the bullpen shortly despite being in their early 20s. Capps, 21, in particular has the stuff to be closer if, and when, the team makes a move with current closer Tom Wilhelmsen. “The Bartender” is one of key pieces of the young nucleus of this club. He’s 28, but because he was out of baseball for six years before the Mariners took a flyer on him in 2010, he won’t even be arbitration eligible for another year. That makes him an absolute steal with the way he’s been pitching.
If Capps and Pryor develop the way they are expected to, one could envision Capps as the closer in 2014, Pryor as the set-up man and Wilhelmsen working in the starting rotation. Or, if the grand plan suddenly hit a bump in the road early in 2013, one could see Wilhelmsen being traded for a rather nice return. Either way, it’s a nice problem to have. And really, those problems are starting to develop all over the club because of the young talent down on the farm starting to mature.
With Carp stepping up, you have an interesting battle with Justin Smoak at first base. With Brendan Ryan improving offensively, signing him to a new deal in the offseason becomes automatic even with young shortstop prospect Nick Franklin waiting in the wings. With Jason Vargas and Hishashi Iwakuma dominating lately, it’s easy to envision a solid rotation next year around Felix Hernandez and another nice problem to have with too many arms by the end of next season (when their top three pitching prospects — Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker — should all be ready). Then there’s third base and catcher where the Mariners have Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero getting their feet wet while a boat load of young talent is nipping at their heels.
All the while the team is learning how to win during the stretch drive of a season. Two weeks ago this franchise’s future was muddier than a sloppy day at Churchill Downs. Flash forward to today and it’s crystal clear. There’s no guessing and there’s a lot of answers, the pieces are falling into place.
The picture is beginning to take shape.