No ‘Figgy’ just one reason you gotta love these Mariners

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comApril 1, 2013 

Twelve reasons to feel good about the 2013 Seattle Mariners:

1. No matter what happens tonight against the Athletics at Oakland, the season’s first at-bat will auger better things for the Mariners than it did in 2012, when leadoff hitter Chone Figgins grounded out to shortstop.

2. The nickname “Figgy” never will be spoken during a Mariners broadcast. For that matter, neither will “Miggy,” the equally inane nickname given to former starting catcher Miguel Olivo.

3. Often-injured center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who has a very cool nickname — “Death to Flying Things” — survived spring training without sustaining a sprain, strain, contusion, pull, tear, rupture or fracture. And while it’s only April 1, you might remember that a year ago, Gutierrez didn’t even make it to March before hurting his right pectoral muscle on a throw from the outfield.

A mysterious stomach ailment gutted Gutierrez’s production in 2011, and between his pectoral injury and a concussion he suffered when a pickoff throw hit him in the head, he was limited to 40 games last season.

If Gutierrez manages to stay reasonably intact this summer, he’ll be a candidate for AL Comeback Player of the Year.

4. Speaking of the Comeback Player of the Year award, it’s an obscure benefit of performing well below expectations. Second baseman Dustin Ackley, for instance, regressed from a solid 2011 rookie season — upon his midsummer promotion from Tacoma, he was named Mariners MVP by the Seattle chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America — to a reclamation project in 2012.

Ackley may never be the consistent .300 hitter the Mariners once envisioned of him, but he should be able to hit better than .226.

“One of those kids who could wake up in the middle of the night and smack a line drive with his eyes closed,” was a standard-issue scouting report on Ackley after his college career at North Carolina.

Hmmm. Perhaps Ackley could find a soft, cozy chair to sleep in inside the Mariners clubhouse before attempting to smack a line drive with his eyes closed. It wouldn’t be unprecedented.

5. If Gutierrez and Ackley aren’t in the mix for Comeback Player of the Year, the award could always go to Justin Smoak. He didn’t hit his weight last year — the 220-pound first baseman finished with a .217 batting average — but he rebounded a bit in September (when stats tend to be inflated by pitchers called up from the minors) and he looked even better in March (when stats tend to be inflated by pitchers destined for the minors).

Despite his struggles as a switch hitter whose long, looping swing has holes on both sides of the plate, Smoak had 19 homers in 2012. He’s projected to bat eighth this season. Think about this: A No. 8 hitter with 19 homers.

6. Jason Bay probably won’t accumulate enough at-bats for Comeback Player of the Year consideration, but on Sunday he earned the unofficial distinction as Comeback Player of the Peoria Baseball Complex: He beat out Casper Wells for a roster spot as the backup outfielder to backup outfielder Raul Ibañez.

7. Raul Ibañez. Back where he began; back where he belongs. ‘Nuff said.

8. A lineup that found Ichiro Suzuki hitting third in the 2012 opener has undergone a heart-of-the-order transplant. For the M’s, it’s all about the M’s — Morse (Michael), Morales (Kendrys) and Montero (Jesus) — and the resolve they bring toward the task of slaying the Wicked Witch of the Pacific Northwest, Maureen Layer.

9. Manager Eric Wedge is preparing for his third season with the Mariners. There’s some history to this, and it bodes well.

In 2003, when Wedge made his managerial debut with Cleveland, the Indians finished 68-94. A year later, they improved to 80-82, and then to 93-69 in 2005.

That pattern is asserting itself in Seattle, where the Mariners went from 65-97 in 2011, Wedge’s first season with the team, to 75-87 in 2012. Another 10-victory spike this season — and it’s doable, thanks to a schedule offering 19 games against the Houston Astros — would push the Mariners to 85-77.

Although an 85-77 record might be worth no better than fourth place in the American League West, it would validate the manager’s insistence that the Mariners are making tangible strides toward contention.

10. Cactus League records are about as dependable at foreshadowing long-term success as a fifth-grader’s report card. To wit: the 1999 Mariners, with a roster boasting such superstars as Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez, went 20-12 in exhibitions, then flopped once the games counted. Lou Piniella’s most disappointing team finished 79-83 and 15 games out of first place.

Piniella’s 2001 team, on the other hand, lost 19 spring-training games in a little more than month. By the time the ’01 Mariners lost their 19th game of the real season, they were 54-19, and 35 games over .500.

In other words, pay no attention to the Mariners’ 22 victories — a team record — in the Cactus League this spring. Pay no attention to all those home runs they hit in the thin desert air. Pay no attention to reports that a once-fractured clubhouse is enjoying a smooth, business-first vibe extolled by veterans and emulated by kids.

But you might want to pay some attention to the pleasant confluence of it all: The 2013 Mariners broke spring camp habitually inclined toward winning.

11. Ace pitcher Felix Hernandez will start every fifth game. The King is in his prime — he turns 27 next week — and determined to make the seven-year, $175 million contract he signed over the winter look like a bargain.

12. The weather. Walking my dogs Saturday morning, around two parks graced by children’s Easter egg hunts, I concluded it was the most glorious day in the history of spring. Then came Sunday, which was so gorgeous I forgot about Saturday.

If you can’t feel good about the blossoming trees and the flowers rising to life, about baseball and the opening day of the Mariners’ new season, you have my sympathy. Just know you’re not a lost cause, and that there’s plenty of room on the bandwagon.

Personally? I’m on board, a happy victim of spring fever, eager to watch the great Felix Hernandez contend for another Cy Young Award while his many teammates vie for Comeback Player of the Year.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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