Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

The Seattle Mariners have been the butt of many jokes the past decade or so. The team hasn’t played a meaningful game beyond August since 2007. There have been just two years since 2003 where the M’s have won more games than they have lost. During that same span, they have lost 100 games or more twice, 90 or more four additional times and since 2001 have not played a single postseason game.

The organization has been forced to sing the tune of the family-friendly environment and greatness of ace Felix Hernandez to entice tickets sales. The youth movement has taken several years and because of the long, long list of explanations, excuses and ‘wait ’til next year’ mantras, the fan base has dwindled. Many fans would prefer to avoid more embarrassment and mass disappointment by not expecting anything but more mediocrity, more losing and more excuses for losing. It’s reached such a level with many in the region that there’s almost no such thing as optimism, even when it might make a little sense to view things in such a manner.

Fans have heard it all before: The young players will improve and the Mariners will take a step toward contention this year. Names such as Jeff Clement, Yuniesky Betancourt and Rob Johnson have been among the names thrust down the throats of fans. As promising as young talents can be, there’s a reason they are called prospects. Many of them fail. The better ones have been traded away for short-term answers — Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo were dealt for what amounts to next-to-nothing, all in an 18-month span — and when the Mariners were on the receiving side of such deals — Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak — the players stagnated and failed to deliver.

Even the club’s top draft picks under the current regime, namely Dustin Ackley, are taking longer to produce than the club hoped. Coupled with the so-far failures of Smoak and Montero, the club’s strength — identifying amateur talent — hasn’t been enough to change the culture at Safeco Field.

The Mariners’ fan base is scorned. It’s understandable and reasonable. But there’s legitimate reason to believe the compass finally is aimed in the right direction, and it’s not just about Hernandez. It’s also not just about the combo of Hernandez and Robinson Cano, the $240 million man.

Shortstop Brad Miller is the real deal. He’s not a prospect with promise who may produce in a few years. The No. 62 pick in the 2011 draft is already a good big-league player. There’s a chance he may be more than good, and that may be evident as early as this season. The skills he’s displayed in his short professional career and even shorter time in the majors has blown away scouts. “You can dislike the setup, you can crinkle your nose at the defensive actions, but you cannot pretend you can’t hear the sweet sound of his bat squaring up pitch after pitch,” one special assistant to the GM said just this week. “Miller can really, really hit.”

Catcher Mike Zunino isn’t likely to post great offensive numbers in 2014, but he’s a significant upgrade at the position and isn’t going to struggle to hit .200 while poking ground-ball singles to right field a half-dozen times per week as has some of the club’s recent options behind the plate. Zunino has major-league power. Right now. He also has major-league makeup, solid game-calling skills and is adequate to average in all other facets of catching. It’s the first time the Mariners have had such an option since Dan Wilson more than a decade ago.

Kyle Seager has batted .259 and .260 the past two seasons, league average marks that aren’t anything to write home about, but there’s still room for another significant growth spurt. Between 2012 and 2013, Seager added 22 points of on-base percentage and until tiring a bit and letting his hands drop before starting his swing in mid-September, the 2009 third-round draft pick was batting .283/.351/.468, a triple-slash he’s a good bet to replicate for all of 2014.

In 2013, Joe Saunders, Jeremy Bonderman, Brandon Maurer and Aaron Harang made 76 starts for the Mariners. In 2014, those 76 starts, and perhaps more, will go to James Paxton, Chris Young, Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker. Most, as many as 50-55, will go to Paxton and Walker, two of the better pitching prospects in baseball. And unlike position players, pitching talents tend to produce immediately, even if their peaks are a few years away.

Last season, the Mariners’ bullpen was better in raw talent than the numbers suggest. While the bullpen’s ERA was awful at 4.58, even the much more respectable 3.78 FIP was well below average, ranking No. 11 in the American League. Furthermore, the club blew more leads than all but one club in the circuit after the fifth inning.

The 2014 bullpen is very likely to be significantly better. Danny Farquhar and Fernando Rodney will handle the late innings from Day 1, which makes Yoervis Medina the seventh-inning option — not the setup man as he was for much of 2013 — and allows the struggling and inconsistent Tom Wilhelmsen to be used in fewer high-leverage situations.

In 2013, the Mariners traipsed out one of the worst defensive outfields in baseball. Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse and to a lesser extent Jason Bay were designated hitters being disguised as outfielders, costing the club dozens of runs over the course of the schedule. This season, a much more fleet-of-foot Dustin Ackley will man left field — instead of Ibanez — and a combination of Corey Hart, when healthy, and Michael Saunders will handle right field. Saunders and Abraham Almonte will play center. The outfield defense this season will not be stellar. None of the regulars are plus defenders. But they all may be around average, which is clearly a big-time upgrade from a year ago, helping the fly ball pitchers on the staff.

Another reason to be optimistic about the 2014 Seattle Mariners: Eric Wedge is no longer the skipper. At one time I believed Wedge was the right manager for the job. It’s difficult, from afar, to assess the abilities and fit of a baseball manager but he had experience with young players in Cleveland and made it work, earning a trip to the 2007 American League Championship Series. Clearly, however, Wedge failed at certain key aspects in 2013, mainly in the area of giving young, developing hitters the attention they desperately needed. Wedge was willing to play young players, but this isn’t 1982. Young players in baseball these days often remain in need of teaching.

There were at least a small handful of instances where a player needed a voice in his ear last season and did not get it. A few of the players’ agents said as much following the completion of the frustrating season. Instead, they were allowed to just swing themselves into the ground and struggle until they were lifted from the lineup. You can blame the player for not asking for help, but it’s specifically and especially the manager’s — and his coaches — responsibility to recognize these scenarios and tend to them accordingly.

New manager Lloyd McClendon may or may not be a better fit, but it’s difficult to imagine a baseball person with McClendon’s experiences — player, coach, failed manager of young players, long-time coach under future Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland — failing to address extended scuffles of any hitter, let alone a 25-year-old with less than two years of big-league service time.

One can add Chuck Armstrong’s retirement as another reason to believe in the now and future of the Mariners, but the positive in the change is the new team president, Kevin Mather, and the fact that the club is obviously more willing to spend money on the right player, even if it means a gross overpay, as they did with Cano.

General manager Jack Zduriencik is not guaranteed to be back in 2015. The ownership, and CEO Howard Lincoln, appear to be at their wits end trying to figure out how to bring the baseball community back to Safeco Field. One can criticize that adding Cano was not enough and perhaps was just a public relations stunt to trick fans into getting excited about the team again. Furthermore, one can reasonably suggest that the Mariners, still, did not do enough to build around Cano. Signing off on the Cano contract is a significant sign, however, that the Mariners realize they do indeed need to spend money to get back where they want to be, where they once were nearly 15 years ago. Their trouble adding more impact players over the offseason was not about being cheap, it was not for lack of trying and it was not because they believed they already had a great roster. The organization still is fighting an uphill battle toward respectability and repairing their image.

The Mariners have upgraded every single unit on the roster, however, whether it be via trade, free agency or from their own farm system and player development. They did so without sacrificing their future in the slightest. They didn’t trade Paxton or Walker, they didn’t sign veteran free agents to crippling contracts and they didn’t deal Nick Franklin just because there wasn’t a spot for him on the Opening Day roster.

The 71 victories in 162 games from a year ago is a realistic goal for Labor Day, 129 games into the 2014 season. The club has more depth, more answers and more resources to plug holes that develop as the season progresses than they have had any year since Zduriencik was hired. A .500 season is a realistic expectation. Perhaps they fall short and land at 78 or 79 wins. But there may be as much chance the Mariners exceed those expectations as there is they come up short.

It’s Opening Day. It’s Felix Day. And there’s reason to buy into the promise a new season brings. There is hope. And as Andy Dufresne once said, hope is a good thing.

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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