SEATTLE — Fear not, oh beleaguered Mariners fans, already fretting over some worrisome trends emerging early to dim the shine of a feel-good spring training.
The patsies are coming. The Houston Win-Padders. Yes, it’s the Lastros, arriving in the American League, or more specifically, the AL West, or most specifically, Safeco Field, tonight, home opener, just in the nick of time to gift the Mariners with some of those free victories we’ve heard so much about.
At least, that’s the popular wisdom, fomented all preseason by pundits — that the transfer of the Houston Astros, consensus worst team in baseball, into the Mariners’ division will be their ticket out of last place. And no need to stop there. By feasting on the 19 games against the Astros, the Mariners should be able to take a giant step toward just their third season over .500 since 2003. Right?
Just a couple of problems with that line of thinking: One, the Mariners aren’t in a position to assume anything about any opponent, even one that has stripped its on-field payroll to an astonishing $20 million.
And two, even if the Astros are indeed headed to their third consecutive 100-loss season, that still means that somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 wins — or 50, if the worst-case-scenario takes hold — will be theirs.
And those have to come somewhere. So they still have the capacity to mess up the best-laid plans of teams hoping to feast on their rebuilding carcass. Count Mariners manager Eric Wedge among the respectfully wary.
“I learned a long time ago, you don’t take anyone for granted on any particular day, any particular series, week, month or year,” he said during spring training. “It’s the big leagues, man. They’re all good. They all deserve to be here. And it’s baseball, which is the most slippery sport out of any sport, if you ask me.”
That said, the early signs are that the Astros may be just as bad as predicted — and there are scouts who believe they’ll challenge the Mets’ record of 120 defeats. In fact, there seems to be a contingent in baseball who is hoping it happens, to put the Astros in their place for gutting the team and seemingly gunning for the top draft pick again in 2014.
They also are in the middle of another one of those tiresome debates pitting traditionalists against those advocating advanced statistical analysis, though the Astros claim to be embracing both worlds.
They have created positions in their organization such as “director of decision sciences” and “senior technical architect,” while hiring Kevin Goldstein from Baseball Prospectus to be their pro scouting director. But they also are putting much emphasis on scouting as they endeavor to bolster what not long ago was one of the worst farm systems in baseball but now is on the rise, thanks to prospects like Carlos Correa (last year’s No. 1 overall pick), George Springer, Jonathan Singleton and Delino DeShields Jr.
Oakland GM Billy Beane, who knows a thing about both unorthodox team building and defying expectations, believes the Astros are doing it right.
“All that stuff (their poor records and rebuilding program) is temporary,” Beane said. “I think they’re going to be a great franchise, because they’ve got revenues, they have smart people running things, and they’re doing what needs to be done. My guess is, once they get there, they’re going to be there for a long time ... Over the long term, the inclusion of the Astros is going to be a pain for certainly us.”
My follow-up question to Beane, during our spring training conversation, was: What about the short term?
“I don’t know; we’ll see when we get there,” Beane replied. “I’m not foolish enough to go out and make assumptions until we start playing the games. As soon as you do, you find yourself on your back, looking up at the stars. I have a lot of respect for the people who are running that organization. I think they are going to be really good. Obviously, it’s a big city with big revenue. If someone perceives them as not being competitive now, I think that will be short term.”
After winning their opener against the Rangers, the Astros have lost five straight games. Their team batting average is .199, and they are striking out at a record pace: 74 whiffs in six games, which would play out to 1,998 over 162 games, breaking the 2010 mark of 1,529 by Arizona.
But on Monday, they will send Philip Humber to the mound; the last time the Mariners saw him at Safeco, he threw a perfect game. Humber will be followed by Erik Bedard, of whom the Mariners once thought so highly they sent a regrettably rich package of players to Baltimore to get him; and then Brad Peacock, who in two starts for the Nationals in 2011 gave up three hits and no runs over 10-2/3 innings.
In other words, on any given night, any pitcher, and thus any team, is dangerous. Even Houston.