Hickey: Putting the Mariners up for a vote

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on October 4, 2012 at 5:30 PM

In the middle of election season, one is led to wonder what Major League Baseball franchises might be like if they were like a democracy subject to a vote.

Imagine if the sports public, which supports the franchise with taxes and fees in the same way the electorate supports the government, had the opportunity to convey or withdraw legitimacy on the local squad.

Below is our suggested ballot, with a preceding pamphlet for voters.

At the top is a vote on the front office.

The blogs already have burned day and night campaigning on this one in 2012. The Mariners have gone more than a decade without a post-season appearance. That says something about the men at the top, CEO Howard Lincoln and President Chuck Armstrong.

What would be their campaign slogan: "Four More Decades"?

Fans already vote at the ticket window. The Mariners, once among the top teams in attendance, now rank 26th of 30. The vote, it would appear, is already in.

Next the ballot would ask to vote for the man charged with overall decision-making, general manager Jack Zduriencik. He came aboard in 2009, had a winning year out of the chute, but his efforts to turn that into sustained success foundered.

He’s removed most of the dead wood and made some trades whose quality is difficult to judge yet, although the short-term view isn’t flattering. All-Star starting pitchers Cliff Lee, Doug Fister and Michael Pineda are gone, and the players  in return (Blake Beavan and Justin Smoak in the case of Lee, Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush, Chance Ruffin and Francisco Martinez in the case of Fister, and Jesus Montero in the case of Pineda) have yet to prove themselves. Ichiro Suzuki, 38, was traded for prospects unlikely to reach the majors. While his departure seemed to help the team click in August, September’s slide suggests that the improvement may have been coincidental and short-lived.

Zduriencik likely would get more support at the ballot box than the Lincoln/Armstrong ticket, but when you look to D.C. and see what GM Mike Rizzo has done with the Washington Nationals, and when you look to Oakland and see what Billy Beane has done with the A’s, the question is what in the world is taking so long in Seattle? Does Zduriencik have enough support in Seattle to stay on?

Then the ballot asks about the man charged with day-to-day decision making, manager Eric Wedge.

This might be the toughest vote. After all, a manager is only as good as his players. Joe Torre was just another guy when he managed elsewhere – five winning seasons in 14 years with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, but back him with the Yankees’ unlimited bankroll and the willingness to go after the best in the game, and boom -- four World Series championships in five years.

How to vote on Wedge? He’s widely respected by his peers, but that doesn’t put wins on the ledger. Players like playing for him, too. Again, does that result in heightened performance? Wedge knows how he wants the game played, but it’s not at all clear that he has helped put them in positions to be successful. He suggests he has, but like the promises of politicians, what else can he say?

Here’s the choice: Has Wedge done enough to earn the right to execute the Zduriencik plan?

Regarding players, they can be seen as what politicians call the downside of the ticket, since there are many players and relatively few executives.

But in the case of baseball, that analogy doesn’t hold. These guys are the reason the other guys matter. Without players, we’re all off playing Shanghai rummy and waiting for the iPhone 6 to debut.

The Mariners have a young team. Most don’t have a substantial major league track record. Giving a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on individuals seems to be a little pointless. Better to take it in small groups. Here we go:

Starting pitching: Even if he wasn’t royalty, Felix Hernandez is an unqualified star. Jason Vargas could be a solid No. 2 with better support – he had seven games in which he gave up two runs or less and and dealt either a loss or a no-decision, yet still finished with 14 wins. Hisashi Iwakuma has had a very good second half in the rotation, including three wins over the Angels, a team the Mariners have struggled to beat. He’s a free agent, but wants to come back and shouldn’t cost much.

Beyond them, the Mariners, voting is harder. Erasmo Ramirez is just 22, but he’s given hints in September (1-1, 2.85) that’s he’s a keeper. Blake Beavan is a different pitcher (7-5, 3.73) after going down to Tacoma than he was before (3-6, 5.92).

Waiting are three of the best young prospects in the game, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Add to that Brandon Maurer, who was 9-2 in Double-A and there is reason for optimism.

What’s the call? Do you vote for staying the course, including the minor leaguers in the mix, or is there a need to go outside the organization for more help?

Relief pitching: The bullpen doesn’t look much like it did at the start of the season. Tom Wilhelmsen moved in as closer. Veterans Oliver Perez and Josh Kinney, of whom little was expected, moved up from Tacoma and produced. Rookies Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps were promoted for throwing bullets. Another rookie, Lucas Luetge, was put on the roster because Seattle didn’t want to give back the Rule 5 lefty to Milwaukee. Holdovers from last year, including Charlie Furbush and Shawn Kelley, have done well. All-Star Brandon  League is gone.

Even so, the terrible September (9-18 through Monday) has much to do with the collapse of the bullpen. The last two weeks have seen relievers go 1-5 with a 5.11 ERA and three blown saves.

Here’s the question on the ballot for relievers: Is the bullpen in over its head, or are they just tired at the end of their longest season, none of them having been in Seattle two years ago?

Infielders: Zduriencik thought the infield of the future included first baseman Justin Smoak, second baseman Dustin Ackley and third baseman Kyle Seager. Things are more problematic with shortstop Brendan Ryan, 30, a terrific fielder who is arbitration eligible this winter and open to free agency next winter. But he's hitting under .200.

The least was expected from Seager, who has been the most productive hitter (19 homers, 83 RBIs), but the most error-prone defender. Ackley’s transition to second base has been shaky and his offense bears little resemblance to his 2011 rookie season, his average down almost 50 points. Smoak has had, as usual, a big September (.338 heading into a season-ending series with the A’s), but was under .200 most of the rest of the season.

None of the backups – Munenori Kawasaki (shortstop/second base), Alex Liddi (third base/first base and some left field), September call-up Carlos Triunfel (shortstop/second base), Chone Figgins (third base and plenty of time in the outfield) and Mike Carp (limited to first base since injuring his shoulder playing left field) – has shown that much.

Here’s the ballot question: Growing pains or expectations that were unjustified?

Outfielders: With Ichiro gone, no one has stepped up to claim right field. Further,  Carp hasn’t been healthy enough to play left. If he had been, then Michael Saunders’ breakthrough 2012 (one homer shy of a 20-20 season) might have established him in right.

Then there is Franklin Gutierrez, who Sunday had to come out of the game in Oakland with a groin issue. The man has not stayed healthy for a month at a time in two years, which is why Saunders has more 2012 starts in center than Gutierrez.

Casper Wells has a fine glove and a great arm, and has some home run power. But his level of consistency frustrates Wedge. Trayvon Robinson has gotten playing time less for what he’s done (.216) and more to fill out the lineup with others injured. Eric Thames has shown some unexpected power (six homers) since coming over in a trade, but his mediocre offensive output elsewhere (.220 and an on-base percentage of .256) isn’t a winner.

On the ballot for the outfield: Count on Gutierrez to stay healthy, for Saunders to continue to improve and for Carp (or Wells) to live up to potential? Or do the Mariners look elsewhere?

Catcher/DH: The season began with Miguel Olivo the regular starter behind the plate, Jesus Montero the regular starter at DH and twice-a-week starter behind the plate, and John Jaso at the end of the bench. It ended with Jaso the team’s top hitter in the clutch, Olivo losing playing time with an average that now sits below .220 and Montero spending most of his time at DH despite hitting much better as a catcher (.306, 64-for-209, 10 homers) than DH (.223, 65-for-292 with five homers).

Do the Mariners offer free agent-to-be Olivo (the club has an option for 2013 unlikely to be picked up) a minimal contract with the idea that he can tutor Montero some more while he, Montero and Jaso, who combined for 37 homers, try for a repeat? Or does Seattle go with Jaso and Montero and see if first-round draft pick Mike Zunino is ready? Zunino hit .373 with 10 doubles and 10 homers in 29 games for Everett, went to Double-A Jackson and hit .333 in 15 games with three homers, then hit three more bombs in the Southern League playoffs. For what it’s worth, scouts say he’s very close to being MLB-ready.

Your ballot choices recap:

Would you make serious changes in the front office/owners? Yes or no.

Are you willing to ride with general manager Jack Zduriencik? Yes or no.

Has manager Eric Wedge done enough to stick around? Yes or no.

Starters -- Option 1: Stay the course. Option 2: Go outside the organization.

Bullpen -- Option 1: In over its head. Option 2: Tired at the end of a long season.

Infield -- Option 1: Growing pains were expected. Option 2: Expectations were excessive.

Outfield -- Option 1: Gutierrez will be healthy, and he and Saunders will anchor the outfield. Option 2: Look elsewhere.

Catcher/DH -- Option 1: Olivo at minimal cost to go with Montero and Jaso. Option 2: Bring Zunino in with Montero and Jaso.

No option: Nov. 6, vote.

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