In the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the title character, Borat Sagdiyev, imparts the story of his younger brother Bilo, a tragedy-stricken young man who lives in a cage. For years Bilo is taunted by his sister, Natalya, the No. 4 prostitute in all of Kazakhstan. Natalya, who has even earned a trophy for her whoring efforts, often dances before her confined sibling, flashing her “vazheen,” shouting, “You will never get this, you will never get it, la la la la la la!”
Restricted to a life behind cold, metal bars, Bilo cries. He cries, says Borat, as everybody laughs. And as they laugh, Bilo’s older sister issues a firm decree: “You never get this.”
As far as the Seattle Mariners are concerned, a .500 record might as well be their mystical “vazheen.” Like the cage that imprisons Bilo Sagdiyev, the M’s are seemingly bound to a certain cosmic futility that prevents them from achieving so much as sustained mediocrity. Forget division titles, wildcard berths, playoffs, or championships. No, the immediate goal should be much less than that. Every team has to start somewhere, and for the 2013 Mariners, success commences with a balanced record.
It’s almost cruel the way equilibrium toys with the Mariners. The last time the team had an even mark was way back on April 8, following a 3-0 disposing of the Houston Astros that brought the ballclub to a stable 4-4. Since then, the M’s have lost 20 of 36 games — bad enough to not feel good about things, but not so bad that par can’t easily be attained.
On May 16, just a few short days ago, the Mariners cut their win-loss deficit to a mere one game for the first time since a defeat on April 9 dropped the team to 4-5. Entering a weekend series in Cleveland, the team was poised to level its record anew. What happened next? If you’ve been following the fate of the club, you know all too well: three consecutive losses at the hands of the Indians, dropping the Mariners to four games under .500. It seems like every time the team chips away at their debt to victory, a losing streak rears its ugly head and sends the organization spiraling back down into the red.
For fans, remaining bullish despite such a bear market is difficult, to say the least. While some may write the team off in the heat of the moment, however, there are few who have truly given up on the Mariners. Hope springs eternal…at least through May, I suppose. Pessimism may surround losing, but there are plenty of reasons for fans to believe in a more optimistic future.
For starters, the Mariners have gaping holes at a number of positions. And while the holes themselves aren’t cause for celebration, the imminent patching of those holes should bring about a few smiles.
The most glaring void is at shortstop, where Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino have combined to hit the weight of a supermodel. Neither player has emerged as a winner in this slapfight for playing time, leading to public outcry for alternate solutions. Those alternatives can be found at Triple-A Tacoma, where Carlos Triunfel and Nick Franklin wait patiently for an opportunity with the big club.
Though fans ooze enthusiasm for the left-handed-hitting Franklin, the team may wait on their uber-prospect in favor of the more seasoned Triunfel. Once an uber-prospect himself, Triunfel has had his cup of coffee in the bigs and can provide serviceable ability with both the glove and the bat. Triunfel may not hit .300, but this lineup would be markedly improvement by even a .200 batting average at the shortstop position.
Catcher is another area where upgrades need to be made. Jesus Montero simply isn’t cutting it in the majors, whether as a starter or part-time backup. Montero has struggled all season with the bat (he’s currently hitting .210 with a .596 OPS), but it’s his defense that has warranted the most criticism of late. The 23-year-old has trouble making the routine plays behind the dish, which presents a whole new set of problems since the Mariners are oddly committed to Montero as a catcher.
The M’s stubbornness to keep a mitt on Montero’s left hand seems like it might be a ploy to boost his trade value. Long term, Montero has no future donning the tools of ignorance for Seattle. But with another organization? It’s possible. Hence, the franchise continues to believe in Montero, the catcher, rather than just Montero, the hitter. Either way, Jesus has not earned his roster spot with the bat nor the glove, so what’s he still doing here? It’s a question that has yet to be answered.
Finally, the back end of the starting rotation continues to be an area of weakness. Between the inconsistencies of a rookie (Brandon Maurer), the road woes of Joe Saunders, and the perpetual sadness that is Aaron Harang, the team could use some stability beyond their one-two punch of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.
If a move is made in the near future, expect Harang to be the departing party. The 35-year-old right-hander appears to be in the twilight’s twilight of his career, and frankly if Harang can’t succeed in the pitcher-friendly confines of Seattle, where can he succeed?
The M’s have their share of Harang replacements grooming in Tacoma. The most immediate option could be 30-year-old reclamation project Jeremy Bonderman, who, if promoted, would essentially serve as a stopgap until a younger arm proved worthy of a call-up. Bonderman has been good, not great, in Triple-A; the same could be said for his more youthful teammates. Undoubtedly, fans would like to see top prospects Danny Hultzen or James Paxton make their Mariners debuts, but Hultzen has been on the disabled list since mid-April, while Paxton has had an up-and-down year.
Right now, the Rainiers’ best starting pitcher is probably 26-year-old right-hander Andrew Carraway. Carraway is as unassuming as they come, blessed with a low-nineties fastball and ho-hum off-speed pitches. He gets outs, though, and that’s all that really matters. Once upon a time the Mariners had another minor leaguer in the Carraway mold who you may remember, a guy by the name of Doug Fister. Carraway may not turn out to be a Fister clone, but if he induces blanks on the scoreboard, he could ease the pain of having to watch a pus-throwing Harang every five days.
Hesitation to pull the trigger on any of these promotions hangs on a variety of different reasons. Promoting Triunfel or Franklin would likely result in the team designating Andino for assignment, all but ending his tenure in Seattle. Demoting Montero would mean promoting an unproven backup in Jesus Sucre, or rushing Mike Zunino. And bestowing the fifth spot in the rotation to anyone not named Aaron Harang would mean entrusting significant innings pitched to a call-up with whom the ballclub may not have much faith. Each move comes with a bevy of question marks, yet each move has become warranted.
Change may be difficult for this team to embrace, but it’s time for change to occur. The M’s have been staying afloat with four key contributors (or three-ish, if you count Ryan and Andino as a tandem) doing almost no contributing. It’s unfair to keep everyone wondering what contributions in each of those roles could do for this ballclub. If nothing else, we have to believe that positive changes would lead this team to a .500 record. And from .500, who knows what’s next? Getting back to even has a way of becoming something more, something greater. Division titles, wildcard berths, playoffs, and championships all start with a .500 record or better. But for now, our goals remain simple.
The tale Borat Sagdiyev tells of his younger brother does not end with Bilo sobbing behind bars. Like all good tales, this one has a happy ending. Amidst daily taunts of “You will never get this,” Bilo perseveres in his quest for both his freedom and his sister’s vazheen. And then one day, one magical day, it happens. “One time,” reveals Borat, “he break cage and he ‘get this.’ And then we all laugh!”
It’s about time the Mariners break from their cage and “get this.” We could all use a good laugh.