As we all know, the Mariners of 2010 were vile. Their 101 losses showed them to be inept on the field and incompetent in the front office. Though I've been a devoted follower since 1977, I found them difficult to watch after about July 1st. I don't think I've ever given up watching them so early.
The year's attendance at Safeco field totaled about 2,085,000, an average of about 25,700 per game, 19th in major league baseball, according to ESPN-MLB. This represents the lowest attendance since the miracle of 1995. Attendance continues in steady decline since 2002, the last year the Mariners were in competition for a playoff spot. In that year the Mariners averaged nearly 44,000 per game, and drew over 3.5 million for the season according to Baseball-Almanac.com
Though radio ratings were up about 10% according to John Ourand in July 26th Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal , television ratings were down 15.6%.
Clearly my concerns are not mine alone, fan interest is diminishing as the Mariners remain mired in a decade long absence from the playoffs, seem unremittingly noncompetitive, and, based on last year's demoralizing performance, offer no short term escape from baseball hell. I'll offer one fan's perspective on the problem, as well as suggestions the Mariners will likely not read, let alone adopt as a blueprint for rebuilding. But this is a blog, so I'm entitled to my views.
Here are some four big picture suggestions for my favorite baseball team.
1. Cast off Anchors
Though it is hard to admit failure, cut loose some of the contracts that simply won't help the M's this year. First, I'm speaking of Milton Bradley. Certainly nobody expected he would contribute as little as he did this year, and the M's are on the hook for another $12 M, not exactly chicken feed. Bradley performed poorly in the field and at bat with an UZR of -.5 and an OPS of .641. He was perpetually injured physically and emotionally and there is no reason to believe this won't continue. I would love to believe Bradley could repeat his fantastic 2008 season and provide some run producing spark to this offensively challenged team, but I don't, sorry Milton. Further, the only positions he plays are left field where he is likely to block the development of a more productive player, oh and he's terrible there, or at DH where he is not the kind of power guy the M's need in that spot. Milton off the bench seems like a horrific accident waiting to happen, given his charming past. Milton should go.
The other player needing a "Thank you for your services . . ." card is Jack Wilson. This pains me to say because I think Jack Wilson is a tremendous defensive player and I love great defensive players. Unfortunately Jack is only available for 15-20 minutes every other Tuesday once per month. Not much of a hitter, when he isn't available the Mariners are forced to use a bench player who is an adequate utility guy who should never be a starter. Jack's hamstrings simply won't let him play anymore and the only person who can't admit it is Jack. Do the right thing Jack and sail off into the sunset. Failing that, Zdurencik needs to do the right thing and let Jack and his $5 M deal go.
2. Remember Where You Play
I'm sure Jackie Z. has a plan, he just hasn't shared much with us lately. I would encourage him to consider the park he plays in. Perhaps no team took better advantage of their home field than the mid-80's Whitey Herzog Cardinals teams. Playing in roomy Busch Stadium, those teams relied on good pitching, good defense, and lots of team speed. They had some guys who could get on base and one guy whose job it was to hit home runs, Jack Clark. But, Terry Pendleton and Willie McGee could hit gaps and play great D. They had awesome outfield defenders. Ozzie Smith played an otherworldly shortstop, and we forget he could hit a little too (in case you've forgotten he hit 40 doubles in '87.) Not just a bunch of slappy hitters. Building a team that has right handers who could hit the left field gaps and run like the wind wouldn''t be a bad thing. Rely on a couple of lefty's for the porch in right. Most of all, build on good defense and athleticism to match solid pitching. Jack Cust and Matt Stairs need not apply. That will win a lot of games.
3. Patience, patience.
There will be offers, no, traps and snares for the Mariners brass to give away the jewels. Okay, they may not be jewels, but they may be solid major league players. I'm speaking of pitcher Michael Pineda, 1B Justin Smoak, and 2B Dustin Ackley. The M's have already been named in the Justin Upton sweepstakes, how many other veteran players will be dangled in front of them in order to snatch major-league ready prospects from them. Why not, others have done it. Every time I see Jason Varitek I remember the Heathcliff Slocumb trade and steam comes out of my ears. Cleveland has Shin Soo-Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera whom they got for virtually nothing (okay, Ben Broussard and Edouardo Perez, same thing). I could go on and on about bad trades just in this decade, but it makes me nauseous. The temptation to cut corners and catch lightning in a bottle with a quick deal or two will be out there. It hasn't worked, it won't work. Been there, done that.
I'm not a professional, but it seems like Dustin Ackley is the real deal. Hitting doesn't seem to be a problem based on his performance with the Rainiers and the Arizona Fall League. If anything, he seems to need more work on his 2B defense, not a surprise given the little time he's played there. See where he is in June and plug him into the M's lineup. Smoak made strides in September and in his small sample of at bats showed us the player we all hoped he could be when he came over in the Cliff Lee trade. Pineda, the Mariners' Minor League Player of the Year, has nothing left to prove at the minor league level. He seems to have the stuff to be successful in the majors, a complement to Felix Hernandez.
The M's front office is rebuilding a largely empty farm system. They have some talent at the top and some on the way, but is shallow, according to Baseball Prospectus. Well run baseball organizations, the Red Sox, the Twins, and the vastly improved Rangers depend on their minor league system to produce good players BEFORE going the trade and free agent route to fill holes. Note I said before rather than RUNNING DESPERATELY TO. The M's have relatively few players who are close. Treat them as the gifts they are and find out what you have. If deals must be made they have to go for proven, young talent, not for fading veterans with mammoth contracts and one or two years of productivity. Oh, you mean nobody likes to trade the former? Sorry, nevermind.
4. Embrace the Badness
The Mariners often seem to be doing stuff just to prove to fans they're trying to get better to build fan excitement. Believe me, supporters of the team have seen through this. Knowledgeable fans want to see a commitment to real improvement toward a consistent winner. They don't want a team that offers a bright and shiny product that can't win on the field. We drank the kool-aid last year, embraced the wishful thinking that Eric Byrnes, Casey Kotchman, and Milton Bradley could spark the M's offense last year. No more. Just give us the straight scoop. We're going to be young, inexperienced and undermanned in many positions. The 2011 Mariners will be bad, not 2003 Detroit Tigers bad, but not very good. Don't make superficial moves (which is all we can afford) and crown the M's as the next West division winners. The Tigers lost 119 games in 2003, but were in the World Series in 2006, and very competitive in their division three of the last five years. They told the world they were rebuilding, developed their kids and added the pieces they needed to win. The Mariners need to do the same.