If It Goes Wrong

I hate when people say "oh that was _ in a nutshell." I hate it. Generally speaking, anyway. They do it too often, making it feel forced and cheap, and it usually doesn't work, because whatever they're trying to summarize tends to be complicated - too complicated to be all wrapped up in a neat little package. Life has details. Life has subtleties, it has nuance. Life is hard to compress.

With that said, though, there are occasions - rare as they are - that just lend themselves to that sort of interpretation. There's a reason why this became an expression in the first place. A guy in Houston getting beat up in an alley? That's not Astros fanhood in a nutshell. But the Mariners' loss to Texas on September 29th? If you'd been away on business or something, and you missed the first 157 games, and you only caught this one, you would've gotten it. Out of those two hours and thirty-seven minutes, you would've understood what our entire season felt like.

Felix was good. Yeah, that was the norm. Felix tossed seven innings of one-run ball. But so did Tommy Hunter, in what was just the latest example of the lineup failing to support its ace. Not that this was a problem unique to Felix; it was happening to everyone. Felix just caught the brunt of it again on this particular afternoon. There were chances, to be sure, but between Junior's double play and Bradley's two strikeouts, they weren't seized, which is why the score remained 1-1 as long as it did. And then for the bullpen to come in and struggle, and for the winning run to come around on Hamilton's roller through the hole...people defend baseball's impossibly long season by claiming that every game unfolds in a different way, but watching the M's lose to Texas that Wednesday, I sure felt like I'd seen that game a million times before.

That was our season. No, those nine innings didn't capture every storyline that played out all summer long, but they captured all the accompanying emotions, which is good enough. The disappointment of letting Felix down. The aggravation of struggling to score runs. The frustration of having to deal with injuries. The exasperation of leaning on an inconsistent bullpen. The sighing resignation of getting beat by Texas. I don't even know why we had to play those last four games against Oakland. I guess there was Junior's home sendoff, but then, we thought we'd had one of these before, so who knows?

Looking back, you could say we should've had a clue how this season was going to go from the beginning. Or from even before the beginning, as it were. Every team has its injury problems, but to lose Cliff Lee for a month and a half due to a freak spring injury really got us off on the wrong foot. It wasn't the first time the M's had to deal with an injury to their big offseason pitching acquisition, and you'll remember that the first time didn't work out so well. Then, of course, there were the problems with Hannahan, and the whispers about Jack Wilson towards the end of March. Perhaps we should've known then and there that this wasn't going to be our year.

But if March was our warning, April was our flash flood. Three years in a row, now, we've gone into the season with what we thought was a reliable closer, and three years in a row that closer has blown the second game. I can still see Kurt Suzuki getting around on Aardsma's heater when I close my eyes. I don't remember every game that the Mariners lose, but I do remember most of the devastating ones, and there's a big psychological difference between blowing a save in May and blowing a save in the first week. Even though the leverage is a little higher in May - by that point, the races are beginning to sort themselves out - all you want early on is to start well. For all the optimism from March to carry over into the season. Every fan of every team in baseball just wants to feel good about his players for at least a little while, and pity the poor fans who're dealt an immediate reality check. Pity us.

It started there, but that's not where it ended. Aardsma's blown save only set the tone, and by the end of the month the M's were sitting at 9-14 and Aardsma was staring at an 0-3 record. Which isn't to suggest that he was most at fault for the early struggles, but his problems were certainly the most visible. Look around the team, though, and you'll see he wasn't the only one. 6.75 ERA for Vargas. 7.15 for RRS. .250 BA for Ichiro. Five errors for Lopez. And so on. April was miserable all around, and the only consolation was that no other team had yet pulled away.

May did begin with a little hope. We started hearing good things about Lee's rehab, and then a week later Erik Bedard's timetable got set. With Lee due to come back on May 19th and Bedard due to return on May 31st, every Mariners fan in the world was thinking the same thing: "just hold on a little longer." All anyone wanted was to simply tread water, to tread water until the help came along. And the M's, for their part, complied, by playing .500 ball until Lee showed up, and then picking it up a bit in anticipation of Bedard. When Bedard made his 2010 debut and shut down the Twins for five innings, the consensus at the time was that, okay, now the M's are going to play some baseball.

That boost, though - that much-anticipated injection of life and zest and vitality that we were supposed to receive from our three-ace rotation - never arrived. From the beginning, people saw Lee and Bedard as the saviors. As "the best trade deadline acquisitions in the league," and a few months early to boot. It was like people thought that a mediocre team + Lee and Bedard would turn into a spectacular team, a team that would ride the high of complete rotation integrity and play like the M's from nine years ago.

It was a fun daydream, but it was a daydream, and the reality is that the M's never could kick it up to the next gear, even after debuting what was supposed to be the best pitching staff the team had ever seen. There were some promising signs of life, like the three-game sweep of the Angels in early June and then, later, the four-game sweep of the Angels after the break, but they were tricks. False starts. For every step forward the M's seemed to take, there was a speed bump to follow. Bedard's one-inning start in San Diego. Bradley's first trip to the DL. Wilson's first trip to the DL. The Brandon Morrow complete game shutout. The sweep in Milwaukee. The sweep in Detroit. The M's would one day play like champions and the next day play like Houston, and they just couldn't break themselves out of the cycle. This was a team that clearly had talent, but - and I hate the way this word is abused by sports fans and announcers so, so much - they couldn't find any consistency. While every team has its good days and its bad days, the M's just couldn't seem to shift their balance a little further towards the former.

Even at the break, the situation didn't seem so bad, with the M's sitting only five back of first-place Texas. Given everything this team had already been through, you could say it might've even been fortunate to have still been within striking distance. And coming out of that break with the second sweep of the Angels might've provided a big lift had it not been for Texas' simultaneous, improbable four-game sweep in Fenway. The M's gave it their best shot, but they couldn't make up any ground, as it seemed like the Rangers filled the break by rolling around in nuclear waste to gain super powers.

Texas won 14 of its first 17 games after the ASB, and by the time the Mariners came to town in early August, the division gap had stretched to 9.5. Too far behind Texas in the division and Tampa Bay in the wild card, there was nothing left for the M's to do for themselves but try some young guys out every so often while playing out the string. There were ups and downs over the final two months, but no longer did the games mean much of anything, so the ups were lower, and the downs were higher. The final week was nothing more than the nutshell loss to Texas and a four-game home Griffey tribute against Oakland. While Junior reminded everyone time and time again that he didn't want to be the center of attention, it's hard to blame Safeco or the fans for that final weekend, because truth be told, there wasn't much else to celebrate. Better to acknowledge a possible retirement than honor just another season that saw the M's fall short of the playoffs.

After a year like this, it's important to recognize that not everything went wrong. Lost in the mix was a lot of good. Felix had no problem coming off 2009's workload, putting up another Cy Young-caliber season. Rob Johnson took a step up while Adam Moore established himself as a legitimate big league backstop. Franklin Gutierrez didn't slow down one bit. RRS proved his durability. Shawn Kelley threw a good 100 innings. Michael Saunders had a much better Major League go-around this time than the last. In the system, Dustin Ackley had a huge year while guys like Mauricio Robles and Dan Cortes figured out the strike zone. Though this was a disappointing season for the Mariners, it wasn't 2008, or anything close.

The bad, however, clearly outweighed the good, and while I don't need to go over every last thing that went wrong, I can touch on the worst. For one thing, and perhaps most significantly, maybe we should've been more reasonable in our expectations of Erik Bedard. It was easy to get caught up in the name value, but Bedard was coming off major, major surgery, and we should've known that it would take him time to get comfortable and up to 100%. We should've expected the walks. We should've expected the short outings. We should've known better than to just slide him in with Felix and Lee and call it the best rotation in baseball.

The Milton Bradley situation was a rough one, and even though he remained incident-free all season long, the leg problems flared up again and wouldn't go away, limiting him to 103 games and a substandard batting line. Jack Wilson wasn't the same in the field after coming off the DL, and between that and Jose Lopez never flashing much in the way of range, we saw a lot of hits just like Hamilton's grounder on the 29th. Mark Lowe and Brandon League's problems finding the strike zone perfectly complemented Aardsma's predictable regression. Ian Snell couldn't remember how to strike people out.

And on, and on. There was a story for every single player on the team this season, and too many of them were bad for the M's to remain in the race. At the beginning of the year, this looked like a tight division with all four teams within just a few games of each other in terms of true talent, but that's not how things shake out. In a situation where you have four teams projected somewhere around 85, odds are someone's going to push 95, and the Texas Rangers - with all of their youth, talent, and depth - were better-positioned to be the team to make that run than the Mariners were. This was a team that looked pretty good, but it didn't come with nearly the upside.

So, what have we learned? As you've all surely noticed, there's been a lot of piling on from media members and fans of other teams. The Mariners were the darlings of the '09 offseason, drawing seemingly endless attention and praise, and when they stumbled, people made fun. This is what happens when a bandwagon develops. When the bandwagon loses a wheel, passersby stop just long enough to spray mud from a puddle.

Those people should realize, though, that the minds who were most familiar with this team at the start of the year never once made it out to be favorites. Jack Zduriencik himself said that the Angels remained the team to beat while downplaying the awesomeness of his construction, and while you might expect a statement like that from a general manager, the analysts - the true analysts - backed him up. The Mariners were just a decent team in a pack of decent teams, with the Angels a little out in front. The M's were never the favorites, the M's were never supposed to be some amazing baseball team, and the only people who made them out as such were people who took a good story and chose to embellish it to sell papers and capture attention.

Still, while we were reasonable about the Mariners' chances this year and always understood that the odds were better that they'd miss the playoffs than make them, this season did come as what some might say was a necessary reality check, a reminder that, while the M's have a good front office, everything they touch doesn't turn to gold. The public backlash, of course, has been exaggerated - even Theo's Red Sox disappointed in 2006 - but nevertheless, 2010 cautions us to remain forever critical, even when we trust the men in charge. It's possible to be simultaneously supportive and objective, and I think, prior to the season, we were at risk of leaning too far to the left. We, as a community, can be better, and 2010 is our prompt.

Going forward, there's work to be done. I guess the most important thing to realize is that we still do have a really good front office, most recent season be damned. This team looked fine seven months ago, and a sample of one season doesn't prove that an FO is overrated or incapable. But it's a really good front office that needs to find some really good players if it wants the M's to reach the next level. Ackley and Saunders will step up, and that's good news, but there's a hole at first base. There's a hole at DH, hopefully. There are holes in the rotation and the bullpen and the bench. This team needs to get renovated, and it needs to get better.

So we head into a big offseason. I guess they're all big offseasons. Good teams need to stay good. Average teams need to improve. Horrible teams need to get average. There's no such thing as a minor offseason, for anyone. Of course the Mariners have a big offseason, then. And it's a big offseason because, even though there will likely be fewer eyes on the FO, there's going to be more pressure. 2011 is going to be Year 3 of the Zduriencik administration. Three offseasons isn't a lot of time, but it's enough time for the they-inherited-a-catastrophe excuse to hold less meaning. The expressed goal of the front office is for the team to "get good and stay good," and to get good, they have to get better. They have to get better, and they have to get better by bringing in players who aren't currently in the organization.

The situation isn't dire, by any means. There's a lot of talent here, and there's a good front office with financial flexibility. Overall, I'm thrilled to be a fan of the Mariners instead of, say, the Astros, or the Padres. We have it pretty good, and Jack and Tony and everyone still have my trust. But I'm getting tired of this climb. I'm getting tired of false summits. Let this be the offseason that the top finally comes into view.

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