The interest in this Mariners team is something I haven’t seen in at least a decade. The interest, the expectations, the WAR-counting by even casual fans is intense. If the Mariners were hoping to generate a fan buzz that hasn’t been here for a long time they’ve succeeded. Opening night is sold out, though the proof of sustained interest isn’t the ticket sales for April 6th, it’s the sales for the 7th and 8th.
I want to be on the rah-rah train and scream the Mariners will win it all along with the national and local press. Unfortunately all I can think about is the 2014 Texas Rangers and their pennant hopes derailed by a carload of injuries. Worse still, I remember being in the Kingdome for Opening Night of the 1992 season. Newly acquired Kevin Mitchell was in left field and Randy Johnson pitched the M’s to an 8-3 lead heading into the 8th. Closer Mike Schooler came in and gave up four of nine runs surrendered to the Rangers in the 8th, and the M’s imploded on the way to a 12-10 loss and 92 more in a season of high expectations and a horrible pitching staff.
I’m not suggesting for a minute this team is doomed, or that it shouldn’t contend. But I’m willing to withhold judgment and allow the games to be played out. It will reduce my Zantac consumption as well as my sleepless nights. i’m not a big believer in Steamer, FANS, ZiPS, or the Magic 8-ball. Just play the damn games.
That said, it’s hard not to like the way the team is shaping up. One of the big questions heading into Arizona was the fifth pitcher on the staff. Roenis Elias hasn’t pitched terribly, but Taijuan Walker seems to grabbed the job with good outings each time. J.A. Happ has looked good. Today James Paxton had his first outing after an early minor injury and looked good. Heck the whole team looked good as they pummeled the hapless Rangers 8-0, who look to be headed for the same injury train wreck of last year.
The shortstop competition was settled by default when Chris Taylor broke a bone in his wrist. Sidelined for 4-6 weeks, the job was left wide open for Brad Miller. Is Miller the guy? It’s hard to judge based on Spring Training numbers, but clearly there’s one less option available if Miller falters out of the gate as he did last year. I have my fingers crossed. They were crossed for Mike Schooler too.
The bullpen situation also seems to be sorting itself out. Though Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen have had their rough moments, again one shouldn’t make too much out of spring training. The lefties competition seems to be playing itself out with the competition coming down to David Rollins, the Rule 5 selection from Arizona, and Tyler Olson. Both have been superb. But with Olson having minor league options, and Rollins having to be returned to Arizona if he isn’t put on the major league options, it seems he’s the likely keeper. Rollins looked great in today’s game. Though Joe Saunders apparently remains in the competitions for the second lefty job, he’s been incinerated in each of his outings, so it’s hard to imagine he’ll win it.
It looks like the competitions are largely over, though Lloyd McClendon is unlikely to say so. The main challenge the M’s will have for the next couple of weeks is to keep everyone healthy, and insure the regulars get enough playing time to get sharp for Opening Night.
Just one more thing. I can say almost unreservedly I like the way the Mariners have constructed this team, and the way they seem to be positioning themselves for future seasons. This team still has a lot of young players. Zunino, Miller, Ackley, Seager, Paxton, Walker, the platoons of guys in the bullpen are all still quite young. But they’ve also brought in some veteran guys, some in starting roles like Cano and Cruz, and others who will share roles like Ruggiano, Smith and Weeks. There is just enough depth on the team to give guys a break from the M’s horrendous travel schedule and to ease minor hurts. But, best of all, this team, unlike past Mariners teams, are beginning to stockpile talent in the minors. There is no rush to bring up Patrick Kivlehan or D.J. Peterson, or even John Hicks. Danny Hultzen can take his time getting ready because Roenis Elias is likely to be the Rainiers staff ace. With the Mariners only carrying seven in the bullpen, Carson Smith or Dominic Leone are likely to close in Tacoma. This is different for the M’s, and I like it.