SEATTLE — Assuming Felix Hernandez’s elbow remains a part of his arm, the Mariners will soon commit to their ace like never before. Hernandez will become the first $100 million man in team history, and if you dare call him overpaid, may your dreams be haunted by King Felix throwing 93 mph tridents at your helmetless noggin.
The anticipated Hernandez mega deal is both a happy story line to start spring training and a symbolic decision. The Mariners embark Tuesday on a season that is all about determining how much they commit to their current crop.
Hernandez is the star and the outlier of this team. He’s not just about to become the highest-paid player in franchise history; he’s also the only Mariner locked into a significant long-term contract. The ever-rebuilding ballclub is full of inexpensive youngsters full of potential who are under club control for several years and veterans such as Franklin Gutierrez and new acquisitions Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse at the end of their contracts.
It’s a classic roster for a team in transition. The Mariners are developing and learning about young players and plugging holes with veterans at reasonable prices. They haven’t made major commitments because the blueprint for a youth movement demands that kind of discipline. But as Year 3 with manager Eric Wedge begins, and as Year 5 with general manager Jack Zduriencik commences, the pressure to expedite this process (when prudent) increases.
Zduriencik did a solid job scrounging together an alternate plan this offseason after he was outbid for Josh Hamilton and dismissed by Justin Upton, who rejected a trade to Seattle. Zduriencik’s moves may have lacked sizzle, but they were plenty sensible, and the likes of Morales, Morse and pitcher Joe Saunders should help the Mariners continue their incremental improvement under Wedge.
The Mariners improved from 61 to 67 wins in Wedge’s first season, then won 75 a year ago. If they keep growing at the same rate, the Mariners should win 81-85 games this season, meaning it’s realistic to expect the team to finish above .500 for the first time since 2009.
Incremental progress is neither thrilling nor marketable, but there are plenty of encouraging signs. The major concern: When will more dependable longterm solutions become clear? And if there aren’t enough of those on this roster, when will the Mariners invest substantial, longterm money into some difference makers?
The subplot of this season is that the Mariners will be looking to answer those questions definitively.
Two years ago, the mission was to simply let the young guys play. Last year, the mission was to start making them productive players and learning how to win. Now, the demand for more is as urgent as it has been — the Mariners need to know, without question, which players they can build around.
Impatience is the sports fan’s birthright, and considering what the Mariners put their faithful through before committing to a true rebuilding process, it’s understandable that many are fed up and plan to be fashionably late when it’s time to believe again. Nevertheless, the building continues, and this is a critical year.
The Mariners will continue developing young players for years to come. But they can’t keep waiting on the majority of the roster to mature and live up to their potential. With many of their players, it’s no longer about needing to know what they have. It’s about taking a final long look and deciding what they’re going to do about those players.
Zduriencik must figure out where Justin Smoak stands long term. He must figure out whether Dustin Ackley will be the special bat the Mariners expected when they drafted him. Kyle Seager: Good player or star? Jesus Montero: Catcher or no? Michael Saunders: Key cog or fourth outfielder? Erasmo Ramirez, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Taijuan Walker: Who are the keepers and who are the trade chips?
It would also help if veterans such as Morse and Morales, who are in the last year of their contracts, could become a part of the solution. Acquiring two proven hitters will change the entire lineup for the better, but do the Mariners still lack a middle-of-the-lineup bat truly capable of carrying their offense?
Whatever the Mariners don’t have, they must go about fixing in free agency next winter with more intensity than they’ve had the past few years. Zduriencik has dabbled his feet in those waters, often wisely but sometimes too methodically, careful not to make a crippling decision.
But there will come a point when the Mariners can’t wait for the promise of youth to fill all of their holes. Some would say they’ve waited too long. But if you trust Zduriencik’s ability to evaluate young talent, which you should, then his plan will come together in an undeniable way soon.
The evaluations the Mariners make in 2013 should be lasting ones. It’s a season to commit. While King Felix can occupy a throne all by himself, it sure would be better if others joined him.