This isn’t just a hail mary. This is the hail mary of all hail marys! The writing is on the wall, in big ol’ capital letters: START WINNING GAMES NOW, OR YOU’RE OUT ON YOUR ASS.
It all starts with promise. A universally loathed general manager is fired, a new guy comes in to replace him. No matter what he does in the early going, he gets the benefit of the doubt. He’s got a plan. Give him time; he needs time to see his vision realized! So, we give him time. And the team keeps losing. It gets a little better, but ultimately it keeps losing. Then, after enough time has passed (anywhere from 3-5 years; anything less than 3 or more than 5 is just criminal), when we should start seeing this thing bear some fruit, the team not only stops improving, but actually looks worse than it did before.
In the case of the 2013 Mariners, it coincides with a few factors. First, the organization crapped its pants in the offseason. While paying oodles of lip-service to “building the right way”, they went out and filled the roster with over-the-hill geezers (Ibanez, Bay, Shoppach, Chavez, Saunders, Harang, Bonderman) and semi-studs on 1-year contracts (Morse & Morales). Second, the “youth movement” has failed miserably, with Montero being sent down, then injuring himself (which requires surgery); with Ackley being sent down and torturing AAA pitching (because he’s not quite good enough to hack it in the Bigs, yet not quite bad enough to struggle in the minors); with Michael Saunders reverting back to his suck-ass form; with Smoak never making good on the promise he shows every Spring Training and every September (and now being injured, obvs); with Brandon Maurer being rushed to the Major Leagues too early (and without an out-pitch to lefties); with Hultzen and Ramirez constantly battling injuries; with Paxton constantly battling his own inconsistencies … the list goes on and on.
Finally, the third factor killing the 2013 Mariners has been that very same injury bug. No shock that it struck Guti once again (who seriously MUST have some sort of debilitating disease that leaves him open to any and all types of injuries). It also hit Stephen Pryor (up-and-coming reliever) which has contributed to our bullpen being less-than-consistent. It has crushed our catcher position (losing Montero a few days after being sent down has been a bigger burden than originally anticipated thanks to also losing Jesus Sucre to the DL). It has limited Smoak and Morse’s productivity. There’s a possibility that it’s also limiting Michael Saunders’ productivity (and he’s just hiding it from everyone).
Put all of this together and what do you get? A team that was supposed to approach a .500 record, that had an outside shot of contending for the playoffs, that is now underperforming so much that the organization is trying anything and everything in its power to turn things around. Maybe not to the point of contention, but at the very least to the point of approaching .500 again.
This has come in the form of Nick Franklin being given the everyday second baseman job. If you’re going to send three prospects back to Tacoma (Montero, Ackley, & Maurer), then you’ve got to come back with SOMETHING to get the fans excited. Nick Franklin has been exactly that in his limited duty – exciting – so the team is trying another long-shot who is up in the Bigs too early: uber-prospect Mike Zunino.
People were clamoring for Zunino back in April when he was red-hot and the Mariners were ice cold. The team did the smart thing and held their ground, which has led us to today: the Mariners are still ice cold, but now so is Zunino. His numbers fell off the face of the Earth in the month of May and lo and behold, no one was calling for him to be brought up to Seattle – imagine that! He’s still nowhere near the point where you’d feel comfortable handing him the keys to the starting catcher position for the Mariners, but who gives a shit, because he’s here!
This isn’t the very last Ace up the organization’s sleeve, but it’s certainly the biggest. There’s still the Big Three, though as I mentioned, one is injured, one is struggling, and one is still in AA. Erasmo Ramirez should be up relatively soon, but I’d wager on seeing Brandon Maurer back up here before we see any of the Big Three.
Essentially, the fates of Jackie Z and Eric Wedge rest on the bat of Mike Zunino. It isn’t fair to him (because that’s a lot of pressure for someone who’s not ready) and it isn’t fair to them (because he’s NOT ready, only a year removed from being in college). It’s not quite a no-win situation – after all, Zunino COULD shock the world and become the catching version of Mike Trout – but it’s as close to a no-win situation as it gets.
The best-case scenario isn’t all that likely. The most-realistic scenario is that he struggles now, gets sent back to Tacoma eventually (whenever a respectable backup catcher is healthy enough to replace him), and is no worse for wear as in a year or two he returns to the Majors as an everyday catcher. The worst-case scenario is that he struggles like no one has struggled before (see: Shaq Thompson’s professional baseball career), his confidence is ruined, he gets injured, and he’s forever lost to the organization as a viable prospect going forward. Either way, what we’re talking about here is a 99% likelihood that the organization cleans house and all new leadership gets implemented.
Mike Zunino: the last great hope of the damned. For the general manager, for the field manager, and quite frankly for the fans. There’s always another reason for Hope right around the corner, but it would be a crushing blow to lose all confidence in both Ackley and Zunino in the very same season. Two of the best, most assured prospects this organization has seen in twenty years … it’s enough to make a guy switch allegiances and start rooting for the Chicago White Sox!