By Edward Overend, Lead Baseball Writer
Sometimes you move into your dream home only to find that the local version of the Kardashians live next door. Sometimes you plan a wedding meticulously only for the day to arrive and the heavens to open. Sometimes things just aren’t meant to be despite all the best laid plans.
The age-old saying is that games are played on the field not on paper. I abhor cliches, find them indolent, lazy, simply trotted out when someone has little of interest to add to a conversation. Sometimes the very spewing of the phrase makes me want to punch the culprit in the face. Sometimes, however, there is an element of truth in them.
Thus has been the 2015 season for your Seattle Mariners.
Perhaps this should not have been a surprise, seeing that this is one of the most downtrodden franchises in sports, not just in MLB. This is a club remember that, despite being in existence for 38 years, has yet to get one of its players into the Hall of Fame, its sole representative being the much missed Dave Niehaus, the long time announcer. This year, seemingly just to annoy the fan base further, Randy Johnson went in wearing a Diamondbacks cap despite playing in the Pacific North West for nine seasons against six in the desert. Next year Ken Griffey Jr is eligible. Knowing the Mariners’ luck, he’ll be revealed as the next Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens.
These are, of course, mere gripes but should emphasise how starved of any sort of real success the franchise has been during its near four decades in the league.
There have been good teams, sure. The mid to late 90s brought the aforementioned Junior and Big Unit as well as the wunderkind turned antichrist A-Rod and, arguably baseball’s greatest ever DH, Edgar Martinez. Most of them went elsewhere to do their winning, however. Then there was the perfect season, where everything went right and an almost impossible 116-46 record ensued. But even that year petered out once the postseason came around.
That year was 2001. Playoff baseball has been absent in the Emerald City ever since, and not just missing but lost without trace, until last year when a good team snuck up on us. That they didn’t quite make it wasn’t a problem. For the first time in more than a decade, Seattle had hope rather than derision for its baseball team. The Seahawks were not the only show in town. Perhaps the locals could stop moaning about the injustice of the Supersonics being taken away from them and concentrate on a winning ball club for once.
Where could the Mariners improve? Where did they need to go to eke out the extra few wins to make the elusive? The obvious answer was the offense. Here was a team built on pitching and, to a lesser extent, defense. And all of that pitching was returning, a staff headed up by the King and his Japanese General and bolstered by two of the more promising starting pitchers in the bigs, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Added to the rotation was a bullpen that possessed MLB’s second best ERA in 2014, a veritable strength.
What the Mariners needed was a big right-handed bopper. And they got one in Nelson Cruz. In three other positions they decided to go the platoon route, something they had never really previously explored under GM Jack Zduriencik. Perhaps Jack Z was finally thinking along more modern lines. If Dustin Ackley was not going to be the superstar he was meant to be but could still hit right-handed pitching, why not get Justin Ruggiano in when a lefty took the mound?
Often coming into a season, fans will play out a perfect scenario in their mind which inevitably means every player playing to the best of his ability and the team becoming a juggernaut. Often this scenario is proven to be pie in the sky once the irritating matter of actual games come around. Yet all the projection systems added to the optimism surrounding the Mariners. This was a team with few holes that shouldn’t require miracles to challenge the best. They even had a manager that seemed to engender the much heralded team chemistry that all great teams need.
And then the season actually began.
And what a disappointment, nay omnishambles, nay clusterfuck it has been.
What’s gone wrong? Hah! What’s gone right would be the best place to start. If you’d said Nelson Cruz was going to be 80% of what he’s been the Mariners would have snapped your hand off. And that’s about it.
Injuries can always get in the way and ruin a season, of course they can. And yet the club has been hit by the disabled list less than anyone else in the American League. So no excuse there.
Everywhere you look, there’s been under achievement.
You can point to the bullpen, headed up by the much derided Fernando Rodney. You can point to the offense, which despite Cruz’s best endeavours still ranks as one of the lowest scoring in the American League. You can also look towards the starting rotation, where even Felix Hernandez has fallen short of his lofty standards.
Truth is very little has gone right. Robinson Cano, one could argue, and the numbers would back you up, has been horrendously unlucky. His hard hit rate would substantiate that and his last six weeks or so have been the Cano we expect. Kyle Seager hasn’t quite been Kyle Seager, one of the less heralded but hugely valuable players in baseball. Mike Zunino, for all his prowess behind the plate has been nothing short of an abomination with bat in hand. The platoons just haven’t worked, or rather haven’t been allowed to work, as they were abandoned very early on at the first sign of trouble. Outfield defense has been abysmal, unsurprisingly when Austin Jackson has had to cover just about the whole area himself, owing to the two corpses playing either side of him.
Manager Lloyd McClendon has been excruciatingly stubborn. It can be facile to point the finger at those in charge when matters go awry. When it’s justified though is when tiny sample sizes are used in deciding lineups, bullpens remain rigid in their order, bunting is seen as de rigueur and fielding prowess is seemingly ignored.
Jack Zduriencik has been in charge for seven years now, brought in ostensibly to restock the farm system having done so successfully in Milwaukee. Owing to the M’s futility, he has had a lot of very high draft picks in his tenure, none of which could be regarded as a rip-roaring plus. Dustin Ackley is now gone, Danny Hultzen may never be seen and Zunino’s woes are well documented. Even when trading for others’ prospects he has failed, such as the Justin Smoak fiasco.
With the major league roster, he’s tried numerous different strategies. Initially Zduriencik was all about pitching and defense. However, in recent times defense has certainly become less of a priority as the presence of the likes of Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse and Mark Trumbo in the outfield would demonstrate. He’s been exceptionally fortunate to have one of the game’s preeminent pitchers at the top of his rotation throughout his tenure and yet still success has been elusive.
Perhaps the greatest success, if you can call it that, of this year is that Zduriencik has not traded away those prospects the club do actually have, such as Walker and Ketel Marte, newly promoted to the big club. He could so easily have done so in one last throw of the dice at the trade deadline simply out of desperation to save his job. Perhaps the little activity at Safeco at the end of July was a sign that ownership has had enough and this is Jack Z’s last season. It is certainly heavily rumoured and anticipated.
Maybe a new GM arrives, tinkers a bit with what was obviously seen as a talented roster only a few short months ago, and next year will be the year. Maybe the stars just didn’t quite align in 2015. Maybe the plans were great and yet it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe one day King Felix will actually pitch in a playoff game.
Ed Overend is the lead baseball writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @EdwardOverend, leave a comment in the section below or join in the conversation @CTBPod or on our Facebook Page.