Finally, after three long years, a reason for hope

Let's just get this out of the way now: Yes, last night's loss hurt, for reasons I've already documented extensively. The fact that it happened with Felix on the hill, giving up seven runs on three homers -- after TWICE being given a lead -- doesn't exactly ease that sting, either.

Yet, I find myself strangely content this morning.

Am I happy? No -- that's probably not the right word, because no fan in his right mind is ever (A) happy when his team loses, or (B) happy when his team's playoff chances take a major hit.

But considering all we've been through with this team since 2001, I'm finding it hard to be too upset with the events that transpired on this 10-game road trip, and especially with what happened in Anaheim.

In fact, I'm encouraged.

The thing that's made it so positively painful to watch the Mariners over the past three years hasn't necessarily been the losing. Sometimes that's just the natural cycle of events (although Pat Gillick and the M's obviously could have done a better job preparing the organization for life after 116), and fans can deal with that -- if they believe it's not going to last forever.

The problem is, it did seem like it was going to last forever.

Boneheaded trades (Freddy Garcia, Randy Winn, Rafael Soriano), boneheaded contracts (Scott Spiezio, Rich Aurilia), a dearth of major league-ready prospects ... there just wasn't a lot to look forward to after two consecutive 90-loss seasons and an 84-loss season that only was that good after beating the crud out of the National League and an unnaturally hot streak in September. We wondered if we'd ever come out of the post-116 funk. Everything seemed so hopeless.

Today, however, I have hope. And that's why I feel surprisingly OK.

The first thing every Mariners fan needs to do today is put away those thoughts of a division championship. I think we have found out pretty clearly where this team stands, and it's not among the elite. Seattle is a good team that clearly is no longer wallowing with the dregs of the American League -- the trip through Kansas City and Tampa Bay showed us that -- but it's also a team that, to borrow a phrase from Saturday Night Live, is not quite ready for prime time. We hoped against hope that maybe we were catching lightning in a bottle again, but that's simply not the case.

Is that reason to be upset? I sure don't think so. It's naturaly to feel a little disappointed, but the Angels, who already arguably have the best rotation in the American League, are a darn good team that's probably going to get better in July -- they've got the prospects in their farm system to pick up a big bat for the stretch run. The Mariners have no such pieces. They might be able to move someone like Wladimir Balentien for a middle-of-the-rotation guy, but that's not going to be enough to propel them past Los Angeles (or any of the teams in the wild card mix).

But that's OK with me. You see, with its offense and pitching staff the way it is, this team is going to be involved in a lot of games like the one last night. And you can either choose to be entertained by what's going to develop over the next few months, or maddened.

I'll choose to be entertained. Because I'm fairly certain even better times are ahead.

This team is learning to win; I don't see those meek Mariners anymore who walk off the field with their tails between their legs after yet another game slipped away. I see a team that's clearly irritated by losing -- and finally doing something about it. I mean, seriously: Did you think the M's even had a prayer last night, after falling behind 4-1? Last year, the answer would have been absolutely no way. A month ago, it would have been probably not. Now? This team is showing an uncanny ability to battle back -- the mark of a rapidly improving ball club.

Additionally, this team his a nice nucleus of talent that it's building around, starting with a potential ace at the top of the rotation. Does this mean I'm suddenly happy with GM Bill Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove and the jobs that they've done? Um, no. Thanks to some inept moves by Bavasi, the rest of the rotation is still a mess, and I still have major issues with deciding to compose an offensive lineup almost exclusively with aggressive hitters, despite it's recent success.

Bavasi has made too many mistakes to cause me to trust that he's the guy to get them over the hump with some shrewd moves this offseason. When Bavasi is finally replaced (and it has to happen) it'll be kind of like Phil Jackson replacing Del Harris with the Lakers in 1999 -- thanks for getting us to this point, Del, but it's time to bring in the closer to win those championships. U.S.S. Mariner has been campaiging for Cleveland vice president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti for a while, but I don't even pretend to know who would be the best fit. I just know it's not Bavasi.

As for Hargrove, I'm not as down at this point on him as I was early in the season. I think, as Geoff Baker notes (all the way at the bottom), this recent stretch of consecutive games has forced Hargrove to be a more flexible manager and I think he's done a pretty nice job of it, with Richie Sexson sitting on the bench last night a prime example. I think he's now bought himself some time to show what he can do with an improving ball club. The question is, will he continue it as the season goes? I'll reserve judgement on his future until I see whether this recent trend of success using his bench, playing matchups, etc. continues.

Because of all this, I'm excited to see where this season goes. If the Mariners somehow figure out a way to get back into the AL West race -- unlikely, as you see from the graph above (thanks again, coolstandings.com, for permission to use your graphic) -- that'll be gravy. In the meantime, I'll be perfectly OK heading to Safeco Field this summer for some beautiful nights knowing that my team has a chance to win on any given night.

Because how long has it been since we've been able to say that?


Anna said...

Well put, Nuss!
I really think the M's are one or two good starters away from being a contending team. If they can solve the Ramirez and the Weaver problems, I think that the M's have a great shot at contending. Maybe not this year, but next year definitely.

I gotta say, JJ Putz's turnaround from a couple of years ago is reason enough for hope. He gave up a lot of runs during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, really turned it around last year, and is now one of the best closers in baseball.

Nuss said...

Didn't get to catch the game tonight, but I know Putz pitched. How'd he look after being off for a few days?

Anna said...

Putz -- awesome, as usual. His location was there -- he struck out two and got a fly-out. I didn't catch his velocity.

Morrow was a little shaky though. He has an ability to pitch out of trouble that I wish would rub off on a couple of the M's starters. He scared me a bit by walking the bases loaded, but was able to get out of the inning without giving up anything.

I found this over on MLB.com.http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20070531&content_id=1997448&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb
Apparently the Mariners need some offensive help (had to laugh at that one a little, after another night with hits in the double-digits). I haven't heard Texeira's name mentioned in trade rumors before, but it would be great to see him in an M's uniform someday. Trouble is, unless Texas wants Richie Sexson, there's no place for Texeira as a starter. Besides, if Richie were to be traded, Ben Broussard has earned consideration as an everyday 1st baseman. I'd rather see Mariner trade rumors involving a decent starter or two.

Nuss said...

Can you e-mail me that link? I don't think the whole thing got pasted.

Anna said...

Sure -- what's your email address? I tried clicking on the link to contact you, but I use a web-based email program.

I'll try posting the link again: