The Mariners' new mantra of competition at every position sounds good, but can it work on a team with Ichiro and without the weak NFC West?
PEORIA, Ariz. — Pete Carroll, the human corporation who doubles as the Seahawks’ coach/czar, has suffered a rare missed opportunity to enhance his brand. He should have trademarked the word “compete” long ago.
Because he could be making suitcases full of cash from the Mariners right now.
Roughly a year after Campaign ComPETE rumbled through Seattle with the anonymity of a Ken Griffey Jr. clubhouse nap, the local baseball team is following its sporting cousin and attempting to set the players’ trousers afire by actually making them do what they’re paid to do.
But can you ignite men who chew smokeless tobacco?
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“No one is on scholarship,” general manager Jack Zduriencik has said many times.
It’s a great quote, but, um, unless you’re playing for USC, a guaranteed pro contract is more lucrative than a college scholly.
The Mariners are talking tough and leaving some positions open for wrestling matches. Still, you must wonder if they’re truly prepared to take this competition thing to Carroll-ian proportions. They’d be wise to do so.
During Carroll’s first year in charge, the Seahawks became the most thrilling 7-9 team ever mostly because he challenged it out of them. The Seahawks weren’t very good, and a lot of the time it showed, but Uncle Pete — you know, the crazy uncle who both entertains and scares the mischief out of you — squeezed that team until it didn’t have a drop of talent more to give.
Carroll guaranteed no positions, shuffled the roster as if he were being paid by the transaction and guided his team past the defending-champion New Orleans Saints and into the second round of the NFL playoffs. The players feared his hammer, but they kept their focus and maxed out. That’s about all you can ask for in Year 1 of a rebuilding process.
Now it’s on the Mariners to do the same. Baseball is a different sport, and it has no NFC West division, so finishing slightly below .500 won’t allow the Mariners to stagger into the postseason. But even though they exist in a league that doesn’t allow constant shuffling because most players receive guaranteed deals, the Mariners should apply what they can from the Seahawks’ approach.
Even though patience is a far more important asset in baseball, the Mariners must display some impatience.
“The competition is real,” new manager Eric Wedge says. “We don’t have a lot of positions predetermined. It’s important to me. It’s important to the organization. We have some options with this ballclub, and we need to look at all of them. The players need to understand that jobs will be earned.”
Wedge is saying the right things, and so far, the players appear to be responding. But unlike Carroll did with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, Wedge doesn’t have someone to compete with his star player, Ichiro, to shock the team into obedience.
That said, it wasn’t Carroll’s wisest decision because he did no favors for his starting quarterback by overselling his competition, Charlie Whitehurst, and leaving fans to pine after a backup whose considerable raw talent rose to mythical heights. In the end, though, the risk worked because Hasselbeck played some of his best football in the playoffs.
Ichiro remains untouchable. The Mariners can’t employ that provoke-the-star stunt. Really, how would they even try? Who’s going to compete with Ichiro? Jody Gerut?
When the Mariners talk competition, they’re referring to openings at second base, left field, possibly shortstop, the back of the rotation, in the bullpen and utility players on the bench. Ichiro is the right fielder, period. Felix Hernandez is the ace. Franklin Gutierrez is the center fielder. Chone Figgins is the third baseman. Justin Smoak is the first baseman. Jack Cust is the designated hitter. And Miguel Olivo signed because he was told he’d be the starting catcher.
The tricky question is whether the Mariners can get the full benefit of competition while allowing for a privileged few. Mr. ComPETE would probably say it can’t happen. Therefore, the Mariners had better challenge those privileged few in some manner.
While everyone else is competing, the team must make its untouchables fight against their weaknesses. Make Ichiro play more unselfishly. Keep Hernandez engaged at all times and teach him to pitch even more economically. Ensure that Smoak rediscovers discipline at the plate, that Gutierrez becomes as consistent offensively as he is defensively, and that Figgins turns into a steady performer and clubhouse presence.
The Mariners don’t have the depth of talent to push every player like you can with a 53-man NFL roster. But Wedge can be more imaginative with his batting order than predecessor Don Wakamatsu was. He can sit down any player who doesn’t perform well over a period, even if it’s just for a few games, to prove a point. And even when players win jobs in spring training, he can reevaluate them more regularly than the norm. Routine is important during the grinding baseball season, but the Mariners can’t be prisoners of habit. They must mix things up to get the best out of a limited team.
Compete. Like Pete. Nothing less.
“We have some really talented young players, but by no means am I going to sit in awe of them,” says closer David Aardsma, who will have to regain his job after he recovers from hip surgery. “I’m going to fight and earn what I believe is mine. I might not be ready for the start of the season, but I’m not ready to say I won’t be this team’s closer. If somebody wants to beat me out, they’d better be prepared. I’m not going to let that happen easily.”
Well, there’s one convert. Twenty-four to go.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer