Less than a month into the season, things are already getting tense in Seattle.
Eric Wedge can sense it: He held a closed-door meeting following the team's 10-3 loss to the lowly Houston Astros on Wednesday, a disastrous outing capping a disastrous roadtrip through the state of Texas. While getting swept by the Texas Rangers -- and being outscored 21-3 in the process -- is no one's idea of fun, the Rangers are a talented team in the middle of their contention cycle while, simply put, the Mariners are not. Neither are the Houston Astros, however, and even though the Mariners were able to snatch the first of the three game series from them, the Astros took the next two, defeating Seattle 3-2 on Tuesday before slamming the door on the rubber match Wednesday night.
The Houston Astros should not be doing this to any team in 2013, let alone one that was hoping to take major steps forward towards contending. The Astros lost 100 games last year, and most people picked them to lose 100 more this year; they're in the middle of rebuilding a franchise destroyed by years of poor drafting and management, misplaced confidence in prospects that didn't pan out and consistent overspending in free agency for middling players in a vain attempt to at least reach .500. The team was in such dire straits when Drayton McLane finally sold the club to Jim Crane that the new General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, essentially had to burn the organization down and start from scratch.
If that sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Seattle's only one or two more years away from being just as bad as Houston was before McLane's exit from the MLB stage. And while Eric Wedge rants and raves at his players and benches starters for their even-worse backups, something's becoming more and more clear: the only way to save the future is to cut out the present. Seattle's management is living on borrowed time.
In a way, the Mariners' terrible start is a heavy dose of much-needed medicine. It doesn't delude ownership or fans into thinking that the team is just one or two pieces away from contention, but is instead in need of serious re-evaluation. General Manager Jack Zduriencik has held that position since the beginning of the 2008 offseason, and since then the team has essentially stagnated, producing no quality home-grown position players and effectively killing the development of any of the guys they've brought in. Scouts who watch Dustin Ackley play for the Mariners now who watched him in college marvel at how his bat-speed has just disappeared. Jesus Montero, the "catcher" who came over from the New York Yankees, seemed to lose his ability to hit right-handed pitching the moment he stepped off the plane to Seattle. Justin Smoak, the former power-hitting prospect the Mariners got from Texas for ace pitcher Cliff Lee, will likely be designated for assignment before too long, and besides the waiver-claim happy Blue Jays it's possible no one will even bother to take a flyer on him. When Michael Saunders developed from one of the worst-hitting outfielders in baseball into a solid but unremarkable hitter last year, by comparison it was like Seattle had just gotten their own Jose Bautista: he and Kyle Seager were the only everyday players to post an OPS over .700 that season.
If the Mariners are going to make this move, however, there's basically two times they can do it: now, immediately, so that whoever ownership appoints as the interim General Manager can make sure everyone's on the same page internally regarding the Rule 4 amateur draft in June, or immediately after said draft. Alternatively, they could present Zduriencik with the option of staying on through the end of the season with the stipulation that he is not to make any trades or acquisitions; the one thing the Mariners and their fans should not want to have happen here is for the team to get moderately hot in the middle of the season, get within five or six games of the second Wild Card spot with a bunch of lucky wins or overperforming players, and for a GM on the hot seat to seize the opportunity to trade away guys like Taijuan Walker or Danny Hultzen for rentals. Remember, the only reason a number of those players aren't in Arizona right now is because Justin Upton invoked his no trade clause to avoid going to Seattle -- and as good as Upton is at the moment, one guy can't win games by himself even with a 1.200 OPS. And considering there's almost no chance a player anywhere near as good as Upton with anywhere near his sort of team-friendly contract situation (relative to his talent) will be available at the trade deadline, it's best if the person running the team not even have the temptation of selling off what assets remain in the Mariners farm system to see if he can keep his job another season.
Another reason to start housecleaning right now instead of waiting is because of the other thing GMs on the hot seat do besides trading away young talent: rushing it. Brandon Maurer, for instance, probably should not be making starts at the MLB level right now. He should be developing in the minors. But he had a good spring training and since the Mariners need to at least look competitive right now, into the major league rotation he went. He got demolished by the Athletics and the Astros his first two times out, his ERA was over 7 going into last night's start and his peripherals are a disaster, with more walks than strikeouts his last time out against Texas. Maurer had a good start last night against a stumbling Anaheim squad, and it's important not to take that away from him, but until he refines his secondary pitches and shows that kind of fastball command consistently he's going to struggle. The Mariners should be sending almost anyone else in the organization, even Hector Noesi, out there instead of him.
Mike Zunino, last year's top pick for Seattle, is being aggressively promoted up through the organization as well, and there's been rumbling that he might be on his way to the majors soon. This would be a mistake. Zunino isn't ready and shouldn't be brought up before he is, and the timetable on him is late this season for a cup of coffee and then next year as a regular at absolute earliest. Promoting top prospects too early because of a hot start or two is a dangerous temptation, and one which comes too easily to executives with a sword hanging over their heads.
Seattle's not a contender, nor should they have been expected to be one this year. They have Felix Hernandez, true, and a couple good pieces in the minors that could translate their talent to success on the big stage, but pieces like this from Sports Illustrated are writing checks that the organization simply cannot cash. I suspect that as the losing continues and players like Endy Chavez, Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez get more and more playing time, we'll start to see more and more incidents like Wednesday night's closed door meetings. Eric Wedge can yell and scream and bench his starters all he likes. But in the end, Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley and Joe Saunders and all the rest aren't responsible for how this season is going, not in the abstract. They didn't put this team together. And really, that's the reason Wedge is yelling in the first place: he knows who's responsible. And in situations like this, he knows who gets held responsible first.