You ever just have one of those moments that just seems to stick with you forever? Something that seems so inconsequential but never escapes your brain, it leaves an impression on you unlike anything it appears to leave with anybody else that shared your experience. One of those things for me is July 14th, a date that will haunt me forever. Why has this date been so important to me for the last 15 years?
It's a quote:
"My daddy is coming home on July 14th. My birthday is July 14th. I'm going to see my daddy for the first time ever on July 14th."
Those words were spoken by the brilliant thespian John Malkovich in the classic Oscar-winning* film Con Air. They always stuck with me, and I will never let July 14th be "just another day" ever again.
*Well it certainly should have been!
So it's fitting that the Mariners have been playing much better baseball since the 14th of July. It's not a very large sample, just seventeen games, but for the better part of the last decade and especially the last three seasons, the Mariners have not had very many good stretches of seventeen games. It's even more encouraging that this team is young, and assumed-talented, so we know that we aren't just getting the best left of a veteran team that won't be here for the long-term. These are a bunch of under-30 players with team control that maybe, just maybe, have found a light at the end of the tunnel.
I've seen a lot of Mariners fans disappear this year. They're tired of it. They're tired of not just losing baseball, but boring baseball. They're tired of scoring 0, 1, or if you're really lucky, 2 runs. They're tired of the managing and they question the leadership in the front office. They've seen good players leave and other good players choose not to come. I'm not saying that these are bad fans, or that they're gone forever, but they've thrown their hands up and said, "To hell with it." and I can't say that I blame them.
My optimism mostly stems from the fact that ever since Jack Zduriencek has become the general manager of the team, I haven't been focusing on the major leagues as much as I've been focusing on the minor leagues. I never expected us to win at the major league level in the near future because rebuilding projects in baseball can take more years than you want to believe that they do, so I just wanted to see our minor league prospects get better.
And boy have they.
That's why I've remained optimistic throughout, even as Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and others have struggled this year. Because being a young baseball player is hard, and trying to be a young hitter in Safeco Field is even harder. I didn't like the fact that the team was hitting so poorly, but I tried to remain as optimistic as possible. That anything good they did was a positive sign, and anything bad they did? Well, I'll just use Safeco as a scapegoat.
Despite the fact that Seattle has struggled mightily to hit at home this year, Jack and company were convinced that eventually it would work. They had worked so hard on rebuilding a model to work in Safeco Field that it was too late to throw it in reverse and start rebuilding again. It had to work here.
It's too soon to say that anything is working, but after a four-game sweep of the Royals at home and winning their last five home games overall by outscoring opponents 25-12, we at least have a vision of what winning at home could look like if it ever does work out. The Mariners had worked hard on acquiring young bats, most prominently dealing Michael Pineda and Jose Campos for Montero and Hector Noesi, and also dealing Cliff Lee for Smoak. They stuck with the belief system that if they got the right hitters, it wouldn't matter if Safeco was the size of Lichtenstein. (Maybe bigger.) You just had to get the right kind of hitters and then scoring 4 or 5 runs at home would be enough, with change to spare.
Over their last seventeen games, Seattle is 12-5 and while they've played the Royals an astonishing eight times and won seven of those games, they've also held their own against the Rangers, Rays, and Yankees in that stretch. They aren't as good as those teams, but you could see a light at the end of the tunnel. You could see a maybe. You could say to yourself, "If we can compete with a team like that now, think about what it's like when the prospects get here and have a little experience under their belt." What could the Mariners do then? Well, Seattle is not short on interesting prospects.
Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Nick Franklin, just for starters. These are four players you could expect to start the 2014 season with the club, four prospects that could be top 100 names right now. The most optimistic person would say that they're all going to work out but that's not very realistic. However, the most pessimistic and realistic person would say that at least one of them will live up to their potential, with Walker being the most likely. Yet I'd say that it's a fair chance to say that two of these four guys will reach their potential, and two will not, but the good news is that two of these guys working out would be amazingly great news. I know that pessimism on prospects grows on Northwest Evergreens in bunches, but as long as you don't believe in curses or bad luck, you should realize that it's very likely that Seattle will be getting good major league help soon.
Go deeper and you'll find some more interesting names, like Victor Sanchez, Brad Miller, Carter Capps, and Stefen Romero. Again, if only a couple of these names pan out, we'll be that much closer to a contending ballclub. That much closer to realizing Jack's vision and not doubting every move that he makes, because the moves that he makes are rarely meant to have short-term consequences. He's made mistakes, but the good has out-weighed the bad.
Going back to the major leagues, you'll find that even if the Mariners lost 100 games again, it sure was a young team that lost 100 games: Ackley, Seager, Smoak, Montero, and Saunders are all under 26. They just traded away their oldest player and by next season we could see the 33-year-old Miguel Olivo replaced by somebody (anybody) else. But this team was young and they're getting younger. That's what I want people that doubt the Mariners, that believe that this is as bad as it gets, to remember; That youth is not something you ignore as a factor in bad performance, because it is a factor. It's usually just masked by having veterans around, and this team doesn't have many veterans around.
That Kevin Millwood and Jason Vargas could be replaced in next years rotation with Hultzen and/or Paxton and/or Erasmo Ramirez and/or another prospect. This team is young and it's going to get younger in some areas, but in other areas its gaining more experience.
Montero, a 22-year-old right-handed DH/Catcher has disappointed some people this year that would still rather have had Pineda, but he's hitting .370/.444/.556 over his last fourteen games and hitting .307/.344/.458 on the road. That's a guy you can start to see as a true middle-of-the-order hitter and soon people may start to believe that. People that stopped believing a couple of months ago.
The light is getting a little bit brighter.
It has been another difficult season for the Mariners and the fans. It's been difficult to watch and difficult to be encouraged by another poor-hitting season, but Seattle has scored 100 more runs on the road than they have at home. (Last season they scored 26 more runs on the road than at home for the entire season.) Seattle's average age of 27.6 is also their youngest age since 1994 and a year and a half younger than they were just a year ago.
Remember 1994? Remember 1995?
I know how hard it is to wash away the feelings of the last decade and remember what it was like to be good again, especially in the middle of another losing season, but optimism should start to poke its head out again. There's reason for optimism. There's reason to believe that the plan is working. There's reason to get in as a fan now as the Mariners have been outscored this season by a total of four runs. Yeah, four runs.
So before you start to give up and begin to panic on another season that seems destined to be under .500, I have only one thing to say to you:
"Put the bunny back in the box."