By Danny O'Neil
Imagine this is a road trip. You're in the back seat, it's dark and you've never been down this particular stretch of highway.
The driver has an unflinching stare and aggressive facial hair while the guy riding shotgun – the one who's giving directions – is perfectly bald.
It has been days since you started driving, hours since you last saw a gas station and you haven't seen any of the landmarks you've been expecting. The driver keeps his foot on the gas, insistent this is the best way to go, while the navigator reminds you he has made this trip before.
Do you trust them?
|2011:||67-95 (.414)||2012:||75-87 (.463)||2013:||37-48 (.435)|
I can't tell you I know for certain the Mariners on the right track, but I also haven't seen enough to know they're going down the wrong road, which is what makes this final half a season so very important for the future of this franchise.
It's natural to be worried at this point. In fact, it's impossible not to. Jack Zduriencik has provided directions for five years now as the general manager while Eric Wedge is in his third season at the wheel. But the steady progress of the previous two seasons has faded beyond the rearview mirror at this point, and you haven't seen the stars that this team hoped to find in Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. The engine that was supposed to get more powerful with time is still clunking along to the point there are serious concerns about the horsepower.
There hasn't been a Mike Trout-like phenom to validate this rebuilding effort, no one that can be hailed as a star. But failing to find a prodigy is hardly grounds for dismissal. After all, the Mariners have been fortunate enough to have two phenoms in the past 25 years in Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, and they would be pressing their luck to think they should land a third.
There are some signs that you're on the right track. Baseball America declared Seattle had the second-best farm system in the game while Sports Illustrated hailed the Mariners as the next embodiment of the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this year.
But that's all conjecture at this point. Right now, this team has a trio of young infielders who are promising, a competent catcher who's in the majors too soon to expect him to hit consistently and a wave of minor-league pitching that's loaded with talent but not yet ready. Throw in some serious voids in the outfield and a fanbase that isn't asking, "Are we there yet?" so much as it's hollering that question and you've described the situation facing the Mariners.
Do you trust them?
Jack Zduriencik inherited a club that had been set back by several of the previous regime's poor decisions, including the infamous trade for Erik Bedard. (AP)
Zduriencik inherited a team whose highest-paid player was largely a singles hitter whose isolation and insistence on a specific routine was an issue. The farm system had been pillaged by a scorched-earth approach that yielded Erik Bedard, a pitcher who couldn't start consistently, and a payroll that was burdened by Carlos Silva, an innings eater who appeared to consume a whole range of things from doughnut holes to fried chickens (yes, that's plural).
But you can't call up Bill Bavasi and fire him again. Adam Jones is gone. So is Chris Tillman. So is Bedard, that petulant Canadian those two were traded for.
But Felix Hernandez is still here, and the Mariners' mandate of rebuilding through the farm system is only now beginning to produce a major-league harvest.
There have been mistakes over the past five years, most notably the signing of Chone Figgins and the trade of Doug Fister. The team's inability to build a major-league outfield is enough of a long-term concern that Ackley – a guy who wasn't hitting well enough to play in the middle infield – is now in center.
But this team has largely avoided franchise-straining gambles. There are no albatrosses on the payroll after this season, and let's not forget that these guys have been here before.
Zduriencik rebuilt a franchise through the draft before in Milwaukee. So has Tom McNamara, the director of scouting he brought from the Brewers. Wedge was the guy who steered Cleveland into a postseason renaissance after a complete overhaul of that franchise.
It's not like those guys forgot what they knew about baseball once they came to Seattle, yet five years after Zduriencik arrived and three seasons into Wedge's managerial tenure, the question about the Mariners' direction is going to put the franchise at a crossroads with both men nearing the end of their respective contracts.
Yes, Seattle could turn around and start over after this season. It could choose a new driver and a new navigator, but that is a risk, too, because what if the team is on the right track and it's just taking a little longer to reach the destination.
Do you trust them? I haven't seen enough reasons not to yet.