Making any guarantees this early in the spring is foolish, but there is a definite vibe
PEORIA, Ariz. — The first thing I would say about what the Mariners are doing right now — blasting balls all over the Valley of the Sun, and winning games at a breakneck clip — is that it beats the alternative. Especially for a team desperate to forge some semblance of hope from the morass of disillusionment that has clung to them for a decade.
The second thing I would say (Killjoy warning! Killjoy warning!) is that it most likely means absolutely nothing. Springs past are dotted with the illusion of surging Cactus League would-be powerhouses who fade to irrelevance once they start playing for real. Not to mention Arizona sluggers who turn out to be nothing more than supernova mirages in the desert sun.
Just for giggles, Google “Randy Elliott” and “spring training phenom” to see the story of the infamous 1970s Giants player who hit .547 one spring, with 18 extra-base-hits, and was barely heard from again. Or read about Jeff Stone, a Phillies outfielder who annually ripped the ball in the Grapefruit League but invariably slumped once the season started, earning himself the nickname “Palm Tree Stone.”
If you don’t want to make the effort, check out last year’s Mariners stat sheet from spring and settle on the line, Munenori Kawasaki, .455. Cactus Mune hit .192 with one extra-base hit last season.
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What you see isn’t always what you get in Arizona, where balls soar in the desert air, pitchers ease their way into form, and the victims of many blasts won’t be seen above Class AA once the bell rings. And hitters won’t be quite so jaunty once curve balls sharpen. Pedro Cerrano from the movie “Major League,” the archetype of the hitter who flails once the pitches pick up a wrinkle, isn’t just a screenwriter’s invention. Carlos Peguero zealots, be forewarned.
But because this is the season of hope and optimism, let’s provide some of it as a public service. For Mariners fans wondering when is it safe to believe again, and trying to balance bubbling giddiness with harsh reality, we’ll start with this:
This team is developing a good vibe. The addition of veterans Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, Kendrys Morales and Joe Saunders, on top of the increasingly comfortable young core, has led to what seems to be a close-knit squad. There is more visible camaraderie — circles of players in the clubhouse shooting the breeze — than I’ve seen in many a spring. And by all accounts, that extends on the field to mentorship of the more inexperienced.
“We have a fantastic clubhouse right now, and there’s no reason to believe that will change,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Those notions of veteran leadership and team chemistry are scoffed at by those with a sabermetric bent, and often for good reasons. To paraphrase Dennis Green, you are what your WAR says you are.
But if you want to be the 2012 Orioles or A’s, or the 2011 Diamondbacks, or the 2008 Rays — a previously downtrodden team making a playoff run that few saw coming — you have to start somewhere, right?
The best place to start a revival is always with talent, and the Mariners have more of it this year. It’s possible to squint hard and actually envision a functional major-league lineup, something sorely lacking the past three seasons, Not because of the spring numbers (the Mariners led all the majors in OPS last spring, and the Padres led the Cactus League in homers, and you can see where that got them) but because guys like Morse and Morales are proven entities. And the right guys are hitting the ball hard right now.
It’s certainly not difficult to dream about the integration of numerous impact arms into the Mariners staff, if not at the start of the season, then at some point after. It is, after all, the scenario that Mariners fans have been sold — aces on the rise! — and at some point the story line must play out for the hoped-for organizational transformation to take place. The caution is you never know with pitchers. The promising thought is that you just have to open your eyes to see the stockpile of undeniable pitching talent in camp.
“Even in bullpen settings, these guys have special abilities,” pitching coach Carl Willis said. “It’s just a matter of them learning how to pitch and use those abilities.”
The early success of Bay and Justin Smoak might be a tease. But imagine the panic if those two were struggling, and Franklin Gutierrez was hurting again. Just think of the cynicism if the Mariners were turning out meek offense on a daily basis and losing game after game. A little jolt of optimism, even if illusory, isn’t such a bad thing.
Whether all this will coalesce for the Mariners is the grand mystery of the 162-game baseball season. Enjoy it while you can, and watch it all unfold. If this spring is all sound and fury, signifying nothing, we warned you. And if it’s the precursor of contention, well, this might be where it all started.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry