For the 33rd year in a row, the Seattle Mariners held a pre-spring training media conference and luncheon. For the second year in a row, Lookout Landing was in attendance, and for the second year in a row, I very nearly wasn't late. You've probably read about the conference, on Twitter or on blogs or on both, but if I didn't write up a little something about it, I'd feel pretty shitty about myself, so here goes. Here is my proof that I didn't throw away the day, and was instead paying attention to baseball things.
Just based on a sample size of two, the air at these things is always positive, always optimistic. The Mariners expressed absolute certainty that they're going about things the right way, and that they're building a sustainable winner. It's galvanizing, but you have to understand that every team is confident it's going about things the right way. Every team is optimistic to some degree, because every team does the things that team thinks it needs to do. In isolation, the Mariners are very high on themselves. Every organization, though, is high on itself, so maybe it's more about optimism above or below the league average. Are the Mariners more or less confident than the Royals, who are also confident? Are they more or less confident than the Orioles, who are confident too?
You listen to Eric Wedge and Jack Zduriencik and the guys, and you come away wanting to believe. Maybe you come away believing a little more than you did beforehand. I will say: the line that stuck with me a year ago was Zduriencik's "let's not kid ourselves." There was no such remark this time around, and clearly the Mariners think they've gotten closer, even if they aren't yet to where they want to be in the future. There wasn't chatter today about making the playoffs. But there was chatter about how things were looking up, and you never know, and leashes will be shorter. Failure will be less acceptable; there will be greater accountability. These are things that become more urgent factors when a team begins to approach contention.
Eric Wedge probably believes that any unit could be turned into a winner. Zduriencik knows how much talent has been amassed within the system. Wedge said his group of players in spring training should be as good as anyone's, minor leaguers included, and he says these things in a way that doesn't leave you believing he's being tongue-in-cheek. Eric Wedge makes you want to believe him, which is probably a valuable trait for a baseball team manager.
It was an air of optimism across the board. Brendan Ryan's surgery went just fine, and he won't have any limitations. Dustin Ackley's surgery went just fine, and Rick Griffin believes the bone spur had an effect on Ackley's swing, so there's reason to believe he'll be a lot better in 2013. Franklin Gutierrez doesn't have any problems, or at least he doesn't have any new problems, on top of what he already had going on. He put together a very successful and very health stint in winterball.
Michael Morse? They like him. Raul Ibanez? They like him. Kendrys Morales? They like him. Jason Bay? They'll see. Wedge has a plan for how the roster will sort itself out, and while that plan isn't set in stone, Wedge's thinking now is that Justin Smoak will be the primary first baseman, while Morales will be the primary DH and Morse will be the primary left fielder. Smoak has gained weight, but he's gained the right kind of weight, so Wedge is optimistic about him, just like he's always been. I suspect Smoak won't be given the longest leash, but no longer should we be seriously considering the possibility of his opening in Tacoma. Of interest: Smoak recently passed some agility drills. When the Mariners first acquired him, he couldn't complete the same drills. Nobody really has any clue what Smoak has in store for us, but Wedge wants to give him every last shot, it seems.
Zduriencik said the right things about Felix, by which I mean he expressed once more that he intends to keep Felix around long-term. He wouldn't comment on extension negotiations, because of course he wouldn't; he wouldn't even say the name "Josh Hamilton", even when it was abundantly, embarrassingly clear that he was referring to Josh Hamilton at times during his talk. Maybe the most candid things Zduriencik said were that he wants to add a starter, and he wants to add a catcher or two. Ronny Paulino, presumably, will be that catcher, or one of those catchers, though he hasn't yet taken a physical and though he's getting a minor-league contract with a spring-training invite. He could easily be ticketed to be the guy at triple-A.
No word, of course, on who the Mariners might be pursuing. In terms of starters, they've been increasingly linked to Joe Saunders, and he would give them a lefty, if a boring lefty with unusually limited upside. They're not limited to the available free agents, and I personally wouldn't be surprised to see Casper Wells and Shawn Kelley used as bait. It would take more than that to land a quality arm, but those are guys who presently seem somewhat frozen out, for reasons both agreeable and disagreeable.
Asked about the current rotation as is, Wedge pointed to Felix, Iwakuma, Beavan, Ramirez, and Noesi, so, yeah, they're going to find someone, because they're not going to start Noesi. The prospects will be given their chances in the spring, and no door is closed, even though some doors are more closed than others. I found interesting the contrast between how Jack Zduriencik talked about Mike Zunino, and how Chris Gwynn talked about Zunino. Zduriencik noted that Zunino is right around the corner, which made it easier to deal John Jaso. Gwynn used the word "nervous" when talking about Zunino's limited professional track record, and he took care to point out that there are things Zunino has to work on both behind the plate and beside it. It would be a shock if Zunino broke camp with the Mariners, and he might not be up for several months, even if he does what he's asked. Catchers need development time and it's a hard enough job that you don't want to overwhelm a youngster by putting him in the majors before he's ready.
A great deal of emphasis, naturally, was placed on the acquisition of some veterans. The usual stuff -- good clubhouse influences, role models, guys who can take the pressure off of younger guys in the lineup. Enough people in the game talk about this that we can't dismiss the significance outright. Wedge made a few pointed remarks about last year's team veterans, albeit not by name, and he's more excited about this new crop. Granted, he hasn't yet dealt with this new crop, but this new crop doesn't have a Figgins in it.
Given that there are concerns about flexibility, Kyle Seager is going to get some reps at shortstop during spring training, to see if he could cut it in an emergency. Michael Morse might get a little action at third base, although I couldn't tell if that was serious or not. Morse hasn't appeared at third since 2009, and he hasn't started at third since 2007, but he used to be an infielder and, again, this is more about potential emergency situations, or we-pinch-hit-for-Brendan-Ryan situations. In 2009, Brendan Ryan posted a .740 OPS. I don't know either.
I think that about covers it, at least from a baseball operations perspective. Aaron Goldsmith talked for a little bit and was not unpleasant. The team is planning two scheduled, post-game fireworks displays. This will complement their new-found in-game fireworks displays. (Dingers.) A giveaway will be a combination knit hat and knit fake beard, which might end up looking like a terrifying balaclava. But I've always thought people in Safeco weren't frightened enough. People got too complacent, too comfortable. A frightened fan is an attentive, animated fan.
The fences aren't done yet, and the video board's not done yet, but they will be, even if they will be cutting it close. At present, the warning track is a construction site, and there's a small crater in the left-field corner that might literally kill Franklin Gutierrez if he goes walking around without paying attention. I didn't look over the edge to check for Munenori Kawasaki, but I'm comfortable with my assumption that that's where he's living these days. I assume construction workers toss in the occasional bagel or hard candy.
The Mariners like what they're in the process of building. If you squint, you can see parallels between these Mariners and the Rays right before they took off, in terms of accumulated organizational talent. The Mariners have to like what they've done, or else they'd just fire themselves, but it's not like their perspective is unwarranted. There's a lot of good here, and it's either at the majors, or it's rapidly approaching the majors. Specifically because one never knows, why not be optimistic, really? We'll see what else the Mariners do between now and the start of spring training. Competitive baseball isn't an impossibility, and 2014 only looks better than 2013. If you can feel like you're making progress, and if you can feel like the best is also still to come -- that's a pretty good position to be in, for a baseball team. But now I'm the one who's sounding too positive about things. God dammit, they got me.