Top 11: Reasons to be Optimistic About the 2013 Seattle Mariners

mikemorseThe 2013 baseball season is underway and you don’t know how you should feel about our beloved Seattle Mariners. Fear not, M’s fans. I’m not here to tell you how you should feel (that’s no one’s place), but I can give you 11 reasons why you might be able to shed some cynicism and believe in this year’s team.

Without further delay…

11. Chone Figgins is gone.

Lest you think three years of vitriol directed towards the Mariners’ sometimes-third baseman was unwarranted, consider this:

In 2012, the team had a record of 75-87 (.451). Chone Figgins appeared in 67 games, during which time the Mariners plodded along at a 26-41 rate (.388). In the remaining 95 games, sans Figgins, the team played at an above-.500 clip, amassing a 49-46 total (.516). Damn near unbelievable.

The trend doesn’t end there, either. Over Figgins’ three-year tenure with the club, the M’s put together a less-than-impressive 203-283 win-loss sum (.418). With their diminutive Donkey from Shrek lookalike in the lineup, the team was just 123-186 (.398). Without him? Try five-plus percentage points higher, .451, at 80-97. So yeah, he actually did make a difference. In the worst way possible.

On top of all that, Figgy just wasn’t very likable, and at the end of the day, paying the guy $8.5 million to go away was worth it simply from a public relations standpoint. The public hated Figgins and now he’s gone. That’s good P.R. if I’ve ever seen it.

10. They get to play Houston 19 times this year.

Nineteen times!!! That’s like 19 games against a semi-pro squad!

I’m telling you right now, the American League Western Division champion will be the team that has the most victories over the Astros. This may as well be a presidential election, and Houston may as well be our Ohio. Swing state, all the way.

9. Felix Hernandez will make at least 30 starts.

That’s like 30 wins right there. A third of our triumphs are basically already counted for.

8. Every A.L. West team has its fair share of warts.

The Mariners may have some question marks at the back end of their rotation, as well as the ever-looming threat of a power outage in the lineup, but they certainly aren’t alone in showcasing a few blemishes on their pate.

Down in Los Angeles (better known to geography aficianados as “Anaheim”), the Angels are dealing with a revamped starting pitching staff that lost an ace (Zack Greinke) and a mainstay (Ervin Santana). Though Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson were obtained to fill the respective voids, one could easily infer that the overall quality of the rotation, one through five, has decreased.

In Oakland, the Athletics are comprised of the usual mish-mash of journeymen, up-and-comers, and no-names. If everything plays to perfection, the team will make a strong push around August, per usual. But as always, the A’s will be in wait-and-see mode until that time. A few key losses along the way and this team has just as good a chance to be out of the playoff picture as they do to be in it come late-summer.

The Rangers were most stricken by defections over the offseason, losing the heart of their order (Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli) and the soul of their team (Michael Young) to other ballclubs. Pitching is always a concern in Texas, and this year is no different. Relying heavily on a de facto ace in Matt Harrison and a soon-to-be-ace in Yu Darvish, the Rangers will need to keep all their arms healthy in order to stay at the top of the standings. An increased workload for Darvish, however, could very well land him on the disabled list by mid-year.

And then there’s Houston…yeah.

Point is, this division is by no means closed. The A’s were AL West champs a year ago, and they’re certainly no favorite to repeat. The Angels are considered the leaders in the clubhouse to finish first, but the same could have been said a year ago and they floundered. The Rangers have been to the World Series twice in the past three years, but they’re a completely different squad this season. The Astros are a punching bag who will serve as a season-long spoiler. And the Mariners are lying in the weeds, on the rise and with the ability to seize a golden opportunity if they so desire. It’s anyone’s race.

7. They have a real-life middle-of-the-order now.

The Mariners’ 2013 Opening Day lineup featured a 5-6-7-8 combo of Justin Smoak, Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, and Dustin Ackley, in that order. This same quartet was counted on last season to fill out the heart of the team’s lineup, often batting in some arrangement of 2-3-4-5. The difference? The arrivals of Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales.

Morse and Morales may not be first-tier major league stars, but they are imposing figures in a lineup that has lacked exactly that for many years now. Each is capable of blasting 30-plus home runs, while neither should sacrifice much in the way of average as they supply that power — Morse is a career .295 batter, while Morales has hit at a .280 pace over his big league tenure.

The presence of the M’s M&M duo has taken a hefty dose of pressure off the likes of the aforementioned youngsters, Smoak, Seager, Montero, and Ackley. Rather than being asked to carry the lineup, these four can now simply focus on contributing. And as a bonus, the team as a whole should see an uptick in offensive production.

6. The bullpen is ridiculous.

Three guys who consistently flirt with triple digits on the radar gun.

A guy who would start for many teams in the league.

A hard-throwing lefty with a (figurative) chip on his shoulder.

A left-handed specialist who can pitch two innings, if needed.

A six-foot-eight-inch ex-starter who can throw in long relief, middle relief, or simply induce a ground ball if needed.

Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps, and Tom Wilhelmsen.

Charlie Furbush.

Oliver Perez.

Lucas Luetge.

Kameron Loe.

You might not know all the names yet. But you will.

5. They instituted $5 draft beer at Safeco Field.

Look. We all know this team won’t win every game. Heck, they might not win enough games to make the postseason. It’s a real possibility, and frankly, considered a likelihood at this point. So what do we do when they lose? Drink. And if you happen to be at a game and the team is losing (or, you know, winning — the outcome is kind of irrelevant), you can drink for cheaper than you drank last year.

I noticed a glaring absence at Safeco Field in 2012: cheap beer. Of course, when it comes to big league ballparks, the term “cheap beer” is entirely relative. But two years ago, the team offered more affordable options like Miller High Life and Busch Light for around $6 per pint (as opposed to around $8.75 per pint for your standard American domestic draft).

I made the omission known to my buddy Kevin Martinez, who also doubles as the team’s Vice President of Marketing. Kevin took that information, then went and did us all a solid.

Thanks to Kevin and his team, instead of $6 cheap beers on tap, we now have $5 cheap beers on tap. And that deal exists every day at the ballpark. There’s no special arrangement for this sort of thing. It’s every single day.

The $5 beers are sold at two locations in the stadium: at a new bar behind home plate, right next to the semi-hidden Mariners Hall of Fame; and at a stand right outside the entrance to the Hit It Here Cafe.

They’re not bar prices, they’re not happy hour prices, but for a professional sporting event, this is about as good as it gets. I can’t justify a $9 Bud Light. But I can damn well sip on a $5 High Life and not feel bad about it. In this instance at least, we can thank the organization for doing right by the fans.

4. Ichiro is gone.

We all love Ichiro. He’s a baseball icon, a Mariners legend, and a future Hall of Famer. To label him otherwise would be entirely unjust.

For all his greatness, however, Ichiro served as a symbol of the franchise’s decade-long struggles with ineptitude. Though he bridged the gap from the team’s success of the 116-win 2001 season, Ichiro was not so much a leader as he was an individual talent that existed amidst a backdrop of failure.

As time went by and the Mariners continued their losing ways, Ichiro’s presence became less of a boon and more of a burden on a roster desperate for dramatic turnover. A veritable statue both in right field and atop the batting order, the aging outfielder blocked younger players from reaching the majors (consider that over his playing career, the M’s traded away the likes of Adam Jones and Shin-Soo Choo), and arguably stunted the development of others (Casper Wells and Michael Saunders, to name two).

With Ichiro’s departure last summer, the M’s have finally absolved themselves of the man who had come to personify the organization’s lack of commitment to winning. Entering our first full year without such a stalwart along for the ride will allow the team to finally emerge from the long shadow Ichiro cast upon this entire ballclub.

3. They have players who actually want to be here.

Raul Ibanez is back, and that says a lot. Yeah, the cynics will say that this is just another futile attempt at rekindling the flame with one of Seattle’s favorite sons, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Sure, in the past the Mariners have been known to flirt with nostalgia, but the differences between Ibanez and, say, a Ken Griffey Jr. are two-fold. One, Ibanez is still a productive major leaguer, even at the ripe old age of 40. And two, Ibanez elected to play here not out of sentimentality, but because he knows he can make a difference with a team that, believe it or not, has playoff potential.

Mike Morse is back, and that says a lot, too. Shortly after being acquired from the Nationals over the offseason, Morse took to all forms of media (print, radio, social) and announced his unbridled enthusiasm for a return to the Pacific Northwest. It was a little surprising, seeing as how his career never really took off until after the lanky outfielder shed his Mariners uniform, but the giddiness and excitement seemed genuine and resonated with fans at the same time.

These are just two individuals, of course, but if you think back over the past decade, there aren’t too many guys you can name who were this eager to play for the M’s.

“Buying in” is a mantra preached across the street, more synonymous with our football team than the club inhabiting Safeco Field. Short of Pete Carroll positioning himself atop the steps of the first base dugout, however, Morse and Ibanez have single-handedly perpetuated a culture of “team” that has been sorely lacking on this squad for years. Instead of individuals with personal agendas floating through our ballpark before embarking elsewhere, it seems that these two acquisitions (re-acquisitions) alone have changed the mentality of the on-field product for the better.

2. They’re undefeated.

As of print time, the Mariners are 2-0 and by definition among the best teams in Major League Baseball. Though some curmudgeonly pundits will have you believe otherwise, that record and those two initial triumphs are not entirely inconsequential. Every win, any win, is a great thing.

1. They’re likable.

Yeah, I get it. As long as Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong head up this organization, there will always be at least two reasons to loathe the Seattle Mariners. Forget those guys. They happen to be a pair of flies on our glorious buffet spread. They’ll get theirs eventually, and their legacies will always outlive their own regimes. Beyond the dictatorship of two bumbling fools, there’s a lot of good permeating throughout this team.

When it comes to the on-field product, let’s face it, it’s tough to despise the Mariners. There’s no Figgins and no Ichiro. There are no Milton Bradleys, no Jack Custs, no Johjimas or Sexsons or Lopezes or any other albatrosses destined to drag this team through the mud for a season.

This team is young, it’s rejuvenated, it has the potential to be entertaining, to be successful, to be a joy to watch play. It’s filled with promise (Ackley, Seager, Montero, Saunders, Brandon Maurer, to name five) and production (Morse, Morales, Felix, to name three).

There are smiles in the clubhouse, there are players who seem to enjoy one another’s company, and there’s a sense of quiet confidence that can be felt by fans.

There aren’t jerks wearing SEATTLE across their chests. There aren’t any unwarranted, bloated contracts raising eyebrows and lowering hopes. There aren’t slap-hitting pansies trying to pick fights with their manager. There aren’t malcontents pouting on the bench. There aren’t egotists pulling up half-assed on fly balls, unwilling to sell out for their teammates.

For the first time in a long time, this team feels like it’s headed in the right direction. Whether that leads us to the promised land in 2013 remains to be seen. Without a doubt, though, it’s something we can all believe in. That belief alone should be reason for optimism.

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