Trumbone

Is it time to panic yet?

Apparently the Mariners think so. But let me back up a little.

We’re about a third of the way through the season. As usual, there have been a few surprises. Of course there have. Who would want to watch if everything could be predicted before the season started.

Among the surprises:

  • Houston, widely expected to underwhelm their remaining fans again, is 34-20–the second-best record in baseball.
  • Alex Rodriguez [spit], widely expected to literally fall apart, shedding bits of anatomy every time he swung the bat, has eleven home runs in 178 at-bats*.
  • Seattle, widely expected to do more or less what Houston has been doing, hasn’t been over .500 since the third day of the season, and is currently at 24-29–the eighth-worst record in baseball.

* That gives him 665 home runs for his career. If there’s any justice in the way the universe works, the next time he hits one over the fence, a bottomless pit will open under his feet as he rounds third. Not only will his resulting eternal plummet prevent him from touching home, thereby resulting in his being called out, but the unfillable pit will force the Yankees to play the remainder of their games on the road.

Kudos to the Astros–and I think I’ve made my feelings about A-Rod [spit] clear–but as you might have guessed, I’m here to talk about the Mariners.

It’s around this time of the year that teams start deciding whether they have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. That’s a decision that will determine what they do as the Non-Waiver Trading Deadline approaches–will they be trading away prospects to fill a few gaps in the roster, or trading away current players to improve their position in the future.

What are the Mariners thinking about their chances? I don’t have a clue, and quite honestly, I don’t think they do either.

A couple of paragraphs back, I mentioned they haven’t been above .500 since their record fell to 1-2. They have gotten to .500, most recently last week at 24-24, but they’ve followed each approach to respectability with a losing streak.

Apparently the latest losing streak (five games and counting) convinced them it was time to make a change. Shortly after they were swept by the Yankees (now four games over .500 thanks largely to those three wins), they traded their backup catcher*, a relief pitcher who’s had rough outings lately, and two prospects for a bag of magic beansMark “Big Trombone” Trumbo and a competent pitcher few people outside of Arizona have heard of.

* Poor Welington Castillo. The Mariners just picked him up in a trade a couple of weeks ago. All he wants to do is play baseball, and here he is spending more time packing and unpacking his suitcase than he is in games.

It’s a perplexing deal–and believe me, the professional commentators are just as perplexed as the fans. The Mariners’ biggest problems recently have been in getting runners on base* and holding leads when they manage to get them.

* You can only do so much with solo home runs. Generally speaking, you need to string a few hits and walks together, get men on base, and then either bring them in one at a time with a few more hits and walks or all at once with a home run. The Mariners have been trying–unsuccessfully–to disprove the general rule. They’ve hit 62 home runs, fifth best in baseball, and have scored 192 runs, third worst in baseball.

What do their new acquisitions bring? Well, the pitcher, Nuno, might help them hold leads. By all accounts, he’s been reasonably effective in limited action. Even average would be an upgrade over the recent performance of the man he’s replacing, so there’s that. But Trumbo’s only baseball skills seem to be hitting home runs and striking out*. Add his nine HRs so far this year to the Mariners’ total, and they’d move up to number three on the list instead of number five, but those nine additional runs–because, the way the Ms haven’t been getting men on base would mean they would likely have all been solo shots–would only move them up from twenty-eighth to twenty-sixth in runs scored. That’s a negligible difference.

* It’s not true that he got his nickname because he fields the ball as though he was using a trombone instead of a glove, but it’s an almost-plausible bit of folk etymology.

So, getting back to my original question, is it time to panic? Honestly, I don’t think so. There are still more than enough games left for the Ms to turn it around and squeak into the playoffs. But I’m not sure their management agrees. To me, the Trumbo deal smells like a “doing anything is better than nothing” move. It may not be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but it’s at least on par with repainting the Bay Bridge.

Ups and Downs

This is not a baseball post. It is a brief philosophical ramble couched in terms of baseball.

Yeah, OK, it’s a baseball post. Deal.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Well, maybe not. Aside from the fact that the line has been used before, things could be both better or worse.

The past week has been a vexing one for Mariners fans. We learned on Friday that in a stunning display of competence, the Mariners have landed Robinson Cano, unquestionably the best free agent available this year and widely considered one of the half-dozen best current players. That the Mariners grabbed him away from the hated Yankees made it all the sweeter.

Not everyone was thrilled with the deal (10 years, $240 million). Many commentators point out that this is Alex Rodriguez territory in terms of time, dollars, and expected career path (10 years, $250 million, declining rapidly in the later years). (The counter-argument here is that the Mariners have the money available, and if they’re overpaying for the last few years of the deal, they’re underpaying for the first few.) Interestingly, I haven’t seen anyone suggest that it could be Barry Zito territory (7 years, $126 million, largely stinking from day one); nothing is certain in baseball, after all.

From the fans’ perspective, there’s nothing not to like about the deal. It gives the Mariners’ fans hope, something that’s been sorely lacking the last few years. The adage “You have to spend money to make money” holds true in baseball* as elsewhere. The Mariners have failed to spend money for years; now we have a reason to hope that they’ll dig deep and pick up a few more needed pieces. Cano can’t rescue the team by himself, but he’ll certainly help (well, as certain as anything is in baseball).

* The As are a weird outlier here. On a consistent basis, they get more performance for fewer dollars than anyone else. Clearly, they’re investing something other than money. Since the Mariners are not the As, however, I’m going to figure that the rule applies.

From ownership’s perspective, it’s a win-win deal too. As noted, the money is available to get the deal done, and just having Cano on the team will give attendance a boost. More butts in seats and more eyes on TV screens equals more money coming in. At this point, even a modest improvement in the team’s performance–especially if they get off to a fast start–should mean big dollars all season.

Parenthetically, there’s an additional sign that the Mariners are willing to overspend this year; $5.8 million for two years of fan favorite Willie Bloomquist* is widely considered an overpay. In itself it may be too much, but in the context of the Cano signing, it does help support the message to free agents that the team is willing to spend what it will take to sign them. And let’s face it: when it comes to signing free agents, money will get you through times of no wins better than wins will get you through times of no money. (Apologies to Gilbert Shelton, of course.)

* Known in our family as “Bloodmouse”, due to a misread of his jersey in his first season. It can be tough to fit a long name across the shoulders of someone as skinny as he was that year. A few folds here and there, and you can see where the confusion arose.

So the weekend started on a high note. Then came Sunday. The Seattle Times ran a story which paints the Mariners upper management as incompetent meddlers who essentially sabotaged their own plan to rebuild the team by second-guessing the managers’ on-field decisions and abandoning the use of worthwhile player rating statistics. That everything the article said seems to confirm what fans have suspected for years only added to its perceive credibility.

Way to harsh our buzz, guys.

The cries of woe arose quickly. “We’ll never be able to hire another free agent again!” “The Cano deal isn’t finalized. He’ll never sign it now!” “WE’RE DOOMED!”

Let’s take a deep breath and step back for a second. Even in the worst case, this isn’t the end of the world. Assume for the moment that everything in the article is absolutely true. That would mean that the Mariners have come close to competing despite the best efforts of the guys in charge to foul things up. OK, maybe not “one good player” or “one good break” away from competing, but a .500 season has been in sight multiple times. Furthermore, you have to figure that agents, who spend much of their time dealing with upper management would have to have some inkling of what’s been going on. And yet the Cano deal came together. Other significant free agent deals over the last few years have come together. Remember what I said about money just a few paragraphs ago. If the dollars are there, deals will get done, regardless of the competence of the suits involved. And even in this doomsday scenario, if enough deals get done, the sheer competence of the players can overcome the incompetence of management.

In the real world, of course, it’s unlikely that everything in the Times’ story is completely true. Maybe the GM is throwing darts at a dartboard to pick his free agent and trade targets, or maybe he knows what he’s doing. We can’t tell from outside. All we can do is keep telling ourselves that the light at the end of the tunnel might not be a train.

So, with apologies to Charlie:

It was the pretty good times, it was the fairly sucky times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

In short, it was the off-season, just like every other off-season.