Thiel: Deals leave Mariners "hoping" -- again


by Art Thiel


Posted on August 2, 2012 at 8:30 PM

Now that the  the non-waiver trade deadline has passed, here are the two most important quotes from Mariners executives regarding the next six months or so of the club's future. Can you identify the speaker and the context?

"Absolute nonsense."

"I hope so."

One quote was unequivocal. One was wishful. But in the reverse of what most Mariners fans would like to see happen.

The first one was from CEO Howard Lincoln. In a rare appearance before the media, Lincoln took  charge of the press conference the day the Mariners traded Ichiro to the Yankees.

After the explanation of the trade and ritual thank you/farewell, Lincoln was eager to take the first question from ESPN 710 Mariners reporter Shannon Drayer, who earlier speculated on air what everyone in the room was talking about -- Ichiro's departure may signal the potential sale of the club by majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi and Nintendo.

Eager to quash the speculation, Lincoln's voice rose: "Absolute nonsense!" He went on to assure that all would continue as is, despite the departure of the hero from Japan who had agreed with the Yankees to drop most of his Seattle preferences  -- yes, he would play left field; yes, he would hit eighth; yes, he would make nice with media; yes, he would do daily cartwheels in Times Square -- in order to get the hell out.

The second quote was from general manager Jack Zduriencik, responding to a media question Tuesday afternoon after the Mariners made no further trades following Monday night's swap of  marginal players for marginal players. He was asked whether the roster's payroll as it stands now will make it easier in the off-season to bring veteran free agents to Seattle.

"I hope so," he said.

The point? Would that the Mariners brain trust were as emphatic about a commitment to winning as they are about staying in place.

Lincoln's robust riposte was ownership's first public declaration following media and fan speculation that ownership wants to/needs to/should get out before they fall further behind the Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels, American League West rivals that are operating with fresh cable-TV revenues while the Mariners continue to cut payroll with each passing year of Zduriencik's term as GM.

It wasn't that the 2012 season is creating such great disappointment. Given the cumulative personnel/financial mistakes the club was still carrying, no discerning fan had many expectations  coming out of spring training, a sentiment almost eagerly reinforced by repeated pleas for patience by Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge. But still . . . the A's?

Ownership's payroll decisions this year left the roster so lopsided -- all the money going to veterans in decline, while 13 first-year players grappled with how to fill big-boy pants -- that it turns out the club wasn't able even keep up with the Oakland A's and their major-league-low $55 million payroll.

It's not as if the Mariners are hopeless. In Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders and Casper Wells, as well as unlikely finds such as Tom Wilhelmsen and John Jaso -- and yes, for genuine comic relief, Munenori "Energy Boy" Kawasaki --  the roster has been upgraded inexpensively, to slightly below ordinary.

The thing that is so aggravating for most fans is that the margin for error with talent is so thin that the Mariners haven't built anything consistent that can survive the inevitable mistakes.

In case it escaped your attention, the Monday transactions just brought another lost opportunity into view.

The departure of relief pitcher Brandon League for two middling prospects tosses probably the final lily on the grave of the Brandon Morrow trade. Serious fans know the sad saga -- taken with the fifth pick in the first round of the 2006 amateur draft (five ahead of Tim Lincecum), Morrow struggled between the starting rotation and the bullpen before the Mariners, on Zduriencik's watch, gave up after the 2009 season  and sent him to Toronto for League and a minor leaguer who didn't pan out.

As a starter in 69 games for the Blue Jays, Morrow has had an above-average career, including 7-4 record with a 3.01 ERA this season. He's sidelined temporarily by an oblique strain, but he figures to give the Jays years of quality service in the rotation. League, who had All-Star season in 2011, was never going to be anything but a closer, a position that, as Wilhelmsen proved this year, can be filled with former bartenders.

The Morrow flush continues a long string of despairing results from the one good thing that comes from being bad -- high draft choices. Between Gil Meche in 1996 and Dustin Ackley in 2009, exactly no No. 1 draft choices have made significant playing contributions for the Mariners, and the Ackley impact in his first full season has been on the low end of modest.

Another big investment, the Cliff Lee trade in 2010 that brought first baseman Justin Smoak and pitchers Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, has not ignited the premises.

Beavan, who may prove to be a solid mid-rotation starter, is it so far. Lueke is gone after the Mariners whiffed on a sex assault charge in his background, and Smoak is back in the minors to fix a swing that can't stay fixed. The trade's outcome is another leaking tire that must be worked around.

No help was expected or obtained around the trade deadline, except salary relief. There was welcome relief from the grim prospect of ownership forcing on Ichiro a contract extension. Until he convinced Lincoln/Yamauchi to put down the knife they were holding at the club's throat, it was really going to happen.

The recent run -- a 13-6 mark since the All-Star break prior to Wednesday's series finale against Toronto -- is nice, but full of games against Kansas City. The danger is it's another false positive, a stretch of good ball in a bad season.

What would be most welcome for Mariners fans is a priority of signing Jason Vargas to a multi-year extension that he has earned. He's that rare Mariner who, at 29, is in his prime and wants to stay here.

It would also give help to give the general manager a reason to use words stronger than "hope," when he talks of what this ownership plans to do about the stigma of being one of two teams never to have made the World Series.

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