PEORIA, Ariz. – It’s happening again. But this time I’m going to stand strong.
You get off the plane in Phoenix, feel that rush of warm air, and something starts to percolate in your brain. Then you step onto the back fields in Peoria, watch the balls soar into the magnificent blue sky, and the process is complete.
Call it Spring Training Seduction. Or the Cactus League baseball brainwash. Immerse yourself in training camp long enough, and all those Mariner flaws that were so obvious when you left Seattle suddenly start to dissipate.
But not this year. I’m not going to be overcome by Seasonal Optimism Syndrome. Not like last spring, when I caught a case so severe that my veteran savvy failed to provide immunity.
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You remember: Michael Morse was hitting tape-measure bombs in spring training, Franklin Gutierrez seemed healthy again, Justin Smoak looked like a new man. Those offensive woes of years gone by? Not this season.
What’s more, Brandon Maurer was Tom Seaver incarnate. Joe Saunders was going to provide the ever popular “veteran savvy.” Tom Wilhelmsen looked like the new Trevor Hoffman.
And, oh, the attitude, the resolve, the determination! The Mariners’ collective grit practically reverberated off the clubhouse walls, at the same time line drives were smashing off outfield walls. They bashed a record number of homers in Cactus League games, presaging a revamped offense.
Yep, they were on their way … to 91 losses. The home runs continued once the season started – the Mariners finished second in the majors with 188 – but it didn’t translate to a much-improved offense. In fact, they improved by a whopping five runs over 2012, when they had the worst attack in the league.
But now, let me tell you, folks, just watching that sweet, compact swing of Robinson Cano in the cages, seeing the power strokes of new acquisitions Corey Hart and Logan Morrison as they take BP, envisioning the return of Kendrys Morales as his options dry up … I’m trying to keep from a relapse. Surely there must be a vaccine I can get.
Did I mention that Justin Smoak looks like a new man? Again.
Nope, I’m not going to be swayed by the tough talk and impressive aura of manager Lloyd McClendon, who is bringing a new vision and no-nonsense attitude to this team. Just like Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Don Wakamatsu and Eric Wedge before him.
I’m not going to be mesmerized by the new muscle-bound physique of young shortstop Brad Miller, or hyperbolized by the opposite-field power of Mike Zunino as he tattoos line drive after line drive, or hypnotized by the sound of Taijuan Walker fastballs popping into the catchers’ mitt during early-morning bullpen sessions. I’ll avert my eyes as James Paxton breaks off knee-buckling curveballs.
And remind me not to listen too avidly to McClendon during our pre-workout media powwows as he extols the virtues of players he has yet to manage in a game situation. After hearing McClendon talk Saturday morning about how well Cano is fitting in with his new ballclub (“He makes his teammates feel very comfortable around him”) and how valuable Willie Bloomquist will be (“When I took the job, I said: ‘We’ve got to have this guy.’ I love him. He’s the type of guy who makes his teammates better”), I must repeat this phrase 10 times: “The Mariners have holes. The Mariners have holes. The Mariners…”
They have two players etched into their starting lineup – Cano and Kyle Seager – while the rest are either unproven kids, or veterans with one question mark or another: Health, underachievement, defense, what have you.
They have two rock-solid veterans in their rotation in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma (the latter nursing a worrisome finger injury), and then it’s a crapshoot (albeit a crapshoot with potential).
The new closer, Fernando Rodney, has been dominating at his best, but is 36 and coming off an up-and-down season. The rest of the bullpen must show it’s better now than the unit that finished 29th among 30 teams with a 4.58 earned-run average in 2013.
What’s that? Danny Farquhar has a new pitch? Dustin Ackley has a new swing? Nick Franklin has a new resolve? Stefen Romero can be the breakout star of camp? And don’t sleep on Abraham Almonte – he’s rippling with tools, and as McClendon said Saturday, “You can’t teach speed.”
Yeah, it’s happening, all right. It’s spring. Enjoy it while you can.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry