And for the first time in this post-Super Bowl era of Seattle sports, we’ve collided with reality.
The Mariners are back.
So, too, is the understanding that joy is fleeting.
Pitchers and catchers report Wednesday. The full squad arrives within a week. If it sounds like the bartender is screaming last call to end the best night of your life, wait until you feel the hangover in the morning.
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Actually, the dawn of the Mariners’ 2014 season won’t be that bad. In fact, if the Seahawks hadn’t won a little game in front of a record 111.5 million television viewers, the anticipation for this M’s season would be greater than it is.
The Mariners did a crazy, wonderful thing this offseason, signing superstar second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract. And then they did a crazy, not-so wonderful thing this offseason, failing to surround Cano with great talent (though we should add the disclaimer “as of yet” because they’re still in the running for slugger Nelson Cruz and pitcher Ervin Santana, and they also have the pieces to make a major trade). All in all, though, they’re a far more interesting ballclub than they were. They’re still young, but they’re not engulfed in a youth movement. They have more proven players, but the potential for disaster is even higher.
The Mariners will serve as the ideal case study of our post-Super Bowl sports scene. On one hand, it’s a time to be wildly optimistic about every Seattle team because the Seahawks’ triumph is proof of the possibilities. On the other hand, expectations and pressure should rise significantly for all teams, especially the ones failing to meet a competitive standard.
Here come the Mariners into this era, trying to execute Plan Q or Plan U or wherever they are in the alphabet, needing desperately to make progress toward ending a 13-year playoff drought. For a team that has invested $175 million in ace Felix Hernandez and $240 million in Cano over the past calendar year, they remain a gigantic question mark. It’s easier to detail what they’re not than to declare what they are.
For certain, they’re not a rebuilding team waiting for the young guys to develop anymore. They haven’t exactly ditched that plan; Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Michael Saunders are still Mariners, at least for now. But when you invest in Cano, then sign veterans such as Corey Hart and Fernando Rodney, you’re not playing for tomorrow. When you have Cano and Hernandez accounting for nearly $50 million of your payroll, you’re not hoping to take baby steps.
Hernandez, who turns 28 on April 8, is in his prime. Cano, 31, is near the end of his prime. The Mariners have about a four-year window to build a great team around two of the best players in baseball. Hernandez is only in Year 2 of a seven-year deal, and Cano is just beginning his 10-year contract, but if the Mariners don’t feel the urgency to maximize their talents, they’re being foolish. If the Mariners don’t realize that either they’re all in or they’re wasting their money, they’re not being prudent.
I believe they get that. As I’ve written many times before, desire to win isn’t this franchise’s problem. The savvy required to build a winner has been the issue. Now they have a new manager in Lloyd McClendon, who is quite impressive. And they have promoted Kevin Mather to replace Chuck Armstrong as the team president.
The Mather hiring didn’t satisfy fans who wanted someone from outside the organization in that position, but he has a clean slate as the team president and represents an opportunity to break from the much-maligned norm. The Mariners have undergone significant change at various levels this offseason, and it has mostly been positive.
But on paper, this baseball team is still a notch or two below Texas and Oakland in the American League West. It’s still not even as dangerous as the talented and expensive roster of the Los Angeles Angels. In the end, the Mariners’ upgrades might not move them out of fourth place in their own division.
Their offense should be better, but it could be at the expense of their defense, especially in the outfield. Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are a 1-2 punch at the top of the starting pitching rotation, but the Mariners are still searching for a No. 3 starter. Walker and Paxton are great young talents who should be just fine, and I still like Erasmo Ramirez despite his injury history.
But if Walker, Paxton and Ramirez fill out the rotation, the Mariners would have three young pitchers who likely won’t reach 200 innings behind their two studs. It’s a bullpen-killing recipe.
For all their upgrades, the Mariners look like a 72-78 win team as spring training opens. We’ll probably have to revisit that number because general manager Jack Zduriencik is almost certain to make another significant move, if not a few more.
The youth movement is over. The Mariners are out of their wait-and-see mode. But if the edict is to win now — OK, win soon — then they have much work to do.
Still, the Mariners lag behind the standard of their neighbors over at CenturyLink Field. And in this post-Super Bowl era, there are two things you don’t want to be for very long:
1. The party pooper.
2. That Other Team.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer