Mariners own Yanks in offseason

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comMay 11, 2012 

The New York Yankees own 27 world championships, 27 more than the Seattle Mariners own.

The Yankees own 40 American League pennants, 40 more than the Mariners own.

The Yankees have retired the jersey numbers of 16 former players – smelling a trend? – 16 more than the Mariners have retired.

And yet, when the Mariners begin a weekend series this afternoon in The House Across The Street From The House That Ruth Built, the eyes of fans will be focused on catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero, the latest prospect Seattle pried from the New York farm system.

While logic holds that four months is much too soon to evaluate the “winner” and “loser” of a trade involving young players – four years would be more reasonable – logic and reason are as foreign to baseball culture in the Bronx as white flags and salary dumps. Despite the Yankees’ unchallenged status as America’s pre-eminent pro sports franchise, their fans dwell on Here and Now.

From that myopic perspective, the January trade that sent Montero and starting pitcher Hector Noesi to Seattle for starter Michael Pineda and 19-year old minor league pitcher Jose Campos finds the Yankees in a rare state of humiliation.

Montero is a Rookie of the Year candidate who needed only six weeks to secure dibs as his team’s cleanup hitter. He hasn’t delivered the opposite-field power that was supposed to make his right-handed swing such a nifty fit for Safeco Field, but Montero has shown enough power – four home runs and 16 RBI – to suspect a typical season of 35 homers and 100 RBI looms in his not-too-distant profile.

Noesi, meanwhile, has endured some ups and downs (the pronunciation of his last name ought to be “No-Easy”), but the 25-year-old right-hander is entrenched in the Mariners’ starting rotation – or at least more entrenched than 37-year-old Kevin Millwood.

As for the Yankees’ results in the blockbuster trade? Pineda, an All-Star selection last season, is on the disabled list with a torn labrum. The question isn’t whether he’ll pitch again in 2012. (He won’t.) The question is whether Pineda ever will regain the effectiveness that distinguished the first half of his rookie season with the Mariners.

Pineda’s tough luck put the Yankees’ hopes for salvaging the trade in the right hand of Campos, who was enjoying a stellar spring for the Single-A Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs (3-0, 1.23 ERA, 23 strikeouts) before an inflamed elbow sent him to the disabled list.

Thanks to the wonders of the tendon-replacement surgical procedure named after original beneficiary Tommy John, elbow injuries generally aren’t as career threatening as shoulder injuries.

Still, the Mariners ended up pilfering from the Yankees a middle-of-the-order bat and a serviceable starter, and the Yankees ended up with, uh, two pitchers whose arms are ailing.

Although Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has absolved Jack Zduriencik of blogger-based accusations he knowingly sent damaged goods to New York – both Pineda and Campos cleared physical examinations overseen by team doctors – Yankees fans are not prone to extending such forgiveness.

It was Zduriencik, you might recall, who reportedly agreed, in principle, to a 2010 trade that would’ve sent left-handed ace Cliff Lee to the Yankees in exchange for a prospects package highlighted by Montero. But when the Rangers dangled first baseman Justin Smoak at the 11th hour, Zduriencik scotched the deal for Montero. Texas ended up with Lee, whose pitching proved instrumental in the Rangers’ successful quest of their first American League pennant.

The notion of the Mariners being engaged in any kind of rivalry with the Yankees is absurd, of course. Seattle’s comeback in the 1995 playoffs – down 0-2 in a best-of-five series, Lou Piniella’s “Refuse to Lose” crew won three straight at the Kingdome – remains the stuff of legend throughout the Pacific Northwest. Fans in New York can be forgiven for not paying too much respect to 1995, as the Yankees went on to win four World Series titles during the five years that followed.

But when it comes to trades, the Mariners are a Yankees nemesis. The 1988 deal that brought slugging right fielder Jay Buhner and a pair of prospects to Seattle (for DH/first baseman Ken Phelps) was one-sided enough to rate a mention on “Seinfeld.” Another one-sided deal, which didn’t rate a mention on “Seinfeld,” was the Mariners’ 1991 trade for Bethel High School grad Mike Blowers. The third baseman came home for cash and a player to be named later. (The player’s name? Jim Blueberg.)

The Yankees countered by acquiring Tino Martinez (along with pitchers Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir) in a woebegone exchange for third baseman Russ Davis and starting pitcher Sterling Hitchcock. It was a fiscal attraction: The Mariners were challenged with stadium-funding issues during the winter of 1995, the franchise’s future was in peril, and Davis and Hitchcock were less expensive than giving a lucrative contract extension to a first baseman who was everything but spectacular.

In any case, when it comes to trades between the Evil Empire of the Northeast and the Obscure Outpost of the Northwest, the pendulum again is looking like it is swinging right to left on your homeland map. As a hitter, Montero appears to be fixture at cleanup. As a pitcher, Noesi appears to more than a mop-up player.

That’s quite a haul for two guys whose arms are hurt.

If only the Mariners were as adept at beating the Yankees during the regular season as they’ve been at beating them during the offseason, this lethargic spring of 2012 would have some spring to it.

If only.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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