Good news for Mariners: Here come the Quadruple-A Astros

February 6, 2013 

Barring the intervention of something miraculous, the Seattle Mariners will win more games this season than they did in 2012.

Not just a few more, by the way. I’m talking substantially more, enough to reverse their 75-87 record into a respectable 87-75.

Front-office personnel decisions made over the winter will be responsible for the turnaround, except the front office work on the Mariners’ behalf does not really work on the Mariners’ behalf. It works in Houston, where the Astros are awaiting their conversion from National League Central cellar dwellers to American League West bottom feeders.

Seattle’s 2013 schedule includes 19 dates against the Astros, who will visit Safeco Field for three series of three games apiece, beginning with the April 8 home opener. Accommodating Houston in the league means AL teams will play traditional opponents less often.

The Yankees, for instance, used to face the Mariners nine times a season, which assured two Safeco Field series between the Yanks and M’s every other year. Same with the Boston Red Sox. Both teams assured large crowds and, in any case, were easier for the Mariners to promote than the Houston Astros, whose big-league roster has fewer recognizable faces than an art-house movie with subtitles.

From a marketing perspective, less Yankees and Red Sox at Safeco Field, and more Houston Astros, is nothing to celebrate. Then again, beating the other team is usually something to celebrate, and on that score, the Astros figure to be as compliant as litter runts.

The team’s 2013 payroll shrank to $15.1 million Monday when it traded shortstop Jed Lowrie – an authentic major leaguer, with a baseball card to prove it – to Oakland in exchange for some prospects. In other words, the Astros managed to get worse, which is saying something: They lost 107 times last year.

If the Astros trump that ignominious total in 2013, management won’t care. It covets another premium first-round draft pick, following the organizational overhaul blueprint established at Tampa Bay and copied by the Washington Nationals: Stink it up for a few years and go cheap, while stocking the farm system with talent that paves the way for a playoff run down the road.

The Astros could be a juggernaut by 2015. But in 2013, they’re looking like a cross between a punching bag and a tomato can. A punching can? A tomato bag? Something like that.

Now the Mariners get Houston for 19 games, and if they don’t win at least 12 of them, there will be some ’splainin’ to do, Lucy. Heck, 15 out of 19 is doable, and while a 19-for-19 season sweep might be unrealistic, we’re talking about an organization whose response to finishing 55-107 was to reduce payroll.

When it comes to playing the Astros, no ambition is off the table.

Ah, but there’s a caveat: The Angels and Rangers also will face the Astros 19 times, and so will the defending-division champion A’s. The Mariners’ improved 2013 record won’t translate into an improvement from fourth place in the standings.

But at least they won’t finish last, and there’s a very good chance they won’t finish under .500. For those bemoaning a home schedule that’s reduced the visits of the Yankees and the Red Sox into one annual series apiece, consider fewer games against the Orioles (8-1 versus the Mariners in 2012, and 5-1 at Safeco Field) and the White Sox, who also were 8-1 against the Mariners last season.

The highlight of the White Sox’s three-game sweep at Safeco Field was Philip Humber’s perfect game on April 21. Humber followed up on that milestone by allowing 20 runs over his next three starts. He finished 5-5 with a 6.44 ERA, and on Nov. 30 was put on waivers. Houston claimed him.

So the Astros boast that guy, the author of the first of two perfect games pitched at Safeco Field last season, and they’ve also signed former Mariners starter Erik Bedard as a free agent. Bedard would rank as a long shot to make a normal major-league rotation, but the Astros’ pitching rotation is not close to major-league standards.

Nor is their batting order, for that matter.

It’d be inaccurate to label Houston as a glorified Triple-A team, because whatever adjective describes the 2013 Astros, “glorified” ain’t in the mix. But it’d be just as inaccurate to label Houston as a big-league team, because the Astros will be fortunate to win 50 games.

Whatever their designation – Quadruple-A? – the Astros’ inability to fill Safeco Field seats will be offset by their tendency to fatten the Mariners’ stats.

Nine home games against Houston should translate into eight victories, and a lot of second-guess quibbling over all that went wrong, so terribly wrong, in the one that got away.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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