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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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December 30, 2008 5:17 PM

2008: Year of Hope, dashed and otherwise

Posted by Geoff Baker

bedardap.jpg

Yes indeed, this past year was one of hope where the Mariners were concerned. Hope that proved both false and perhaps, eventually, prophetic.

The false hope came in the form of the Erik Bedard trade, a story that we broke -- with the help of a Venezuelan journalist -- last January right here on the blog. For nearly two weeks, the saga raged on, with the M's pennant hopes seemingly hanging in the balance.

Interestingly enough, it would be the traded Adam Jones, George Sherrill and their Baltimore Orioles who all but ended Seattle's season before it ever got going. A four-game sweep at the hands of the O's in the second series of the season was one the Mariners never really recovered from.

For me, the Bedard trade and all of its twists and turns since, rates as the top story of 2008 where the Mariners were concerned. Plenty of pundits across the continent, myself included, felt the Mariners had what it took to contend. We were wrong. They did not have it. When time came to produce, the Mariners fell flat on their collective faces. And while some players produced statistically strong seasons, much of that production came too little, too late, to be of consequence.

All of that false hope generated by Bill Bavasi's blockbuster deal eventually led to the GM's downfall and the firing as well of John McLaren. To blame Bedard for a 101-loss season would be wrong. But he was the highest profile piece of a collapsing puzzle of ineptitude. Bedard would not throw a pitch after July 4 and his innings total of 81 was at least 100 frames shy of where the team had projected him to be by season's end.

Subsequent shoulder surgery revealed that Bedard did not have a labrum tear, as he'd first feared. He has now been cleared to resume throwing and could start next season on time.

Which brings us to the current round of optimism that has engulfed portions of the Mariners fan base after the hiring of new GM Jack Zduriencik, manager Don Wakamatsu and an entirely new coaching staff. A big trade that bolstered the outfield defense, the signings of Russell Branyan and Chris Shelton to play first base and DH, combined with the knowledge that a healthy Bedard could help form a very solid starting rotation, has some fans brimming with optimism.

Over at U.S.S. Mariner, blogger Dave Cameron raised the specter of the Mariners, with a few shrewd moves, possibly contending in a weakened AL West division next year. I agree with his premise: that the Mariners on-paper don't look all that bad and should be better defensively. After all, this was largely the team I picked to win at least 90 games and the division last year. Much of my pick was based on the strength of the pitching staff and much of that group is still around -- at least in the rotation. But I'm still not sold. We'll talk again in the spring. As for now, I saw too many no-shows last season. Too many not-ready-for-prime time types who put up their best numbers when the pressure was off.

Wakamatsu and his staff have a huge challenge ahead of them in getting the Mariners to produce when it matters. There is a world of difference between doing that, and putting up stats that look good. Yes, good stats are a start. But it takes that and a while lot more to be a champion. Everytime, over the years, that I've heard some division is going to be an 85 or 86-win division, the champ winds up winning 95 or more. Happened in the AL West this past season once again, when pundits like Baseball Prospectus -- while correctly predicting the M's would falter offensively -- also said no team would win more than 85. They were wrong on that count. But the prediction game is tough. I usually find it's best to assume some team will win 95 and take it from there. If they stumble to 87 wins and still capture the division, so be it. But assuming that will happen, I've found, doesn't work all that often in the American League.

Still, Cameron's overall thesis, that the M's could actually contend next year, does not appear to be completely outlandish. As I said, much will depend on how the M's go about compiling their stats and whether they can win games when they are actually still in some type of race.

Which begs this question, one that a U.S.S. Mariner reader of Cameron's piece sort of raised with this comment:

And there are those who would interpret such an occurrence as proof that Bavasi really knew what he was doing and the team was premature in firing him. I suspect that many of those are the same people who view the Angels WS team of 2002 as being largely built by Bavasi before he was forced out in Anaheim.

Not sure I'd go as far as to say Bavasi "knew what he was doing" throughout his tenure. Nor is the author of those words saying it. But I do think it's fair to say that Bavasi, aside from trying to keep his job, could envision a window for contention. That window, assuming the Oakland A's would rebuild for a playoff drive by 2010 -- was going to be in 2008 and 2009. Exactly the years the M's had Bedard under club control. Bavasi could not control Bedard's injury. But I think it's fair to say he envisioned a strong rotation and adequate offense leading the way towards a contention shot. It was on offense where he failed miserably. On defense as well. Carlos Silva did not provide the returns Bavasi had envisioned. But the defense, at least early on, had a lot to do with that. A discouraged Silva took care of the rest with mound performances that alternated between strong, inconsistent and brutal.

But that was only 2008. What happens if this team, as Cameron suggests is possible, does go out and contend in 2009? Does that "vindicate" Bavasi in any way, shape or form? Or, do we simply dismiss Bavasi as someone who knows about foundations, but not the house that goes on top of it? Or knows about the house without the foundation?

Was the simple signing of Branyan and say, Milton Bradley, combined with the trade of a top closer for a promising third-year outfielder really all this team needed to go from worst to first? If so, then Bavasi probably deserves a little more credit than he gets. But I'm not too sure about all that. Sure makes for an interesting discussion, though. Let's hear what you think.

p.s. It's been a busy holiday season for me and tomorrow, I close off the grim year of 2008 by going into the hospital for a knee operation. I've already had five on my right knee from a really ugly amateur football career. This will be the first on my left knee, which bore the brunt of compensating for my bad one all these years and now needs attention. It will be microfracture surgery to repair a chondral defect in the cartilage (what Mark Lowe had in his elbow) and remove torn meniscus and a cyst (what Bedard had in his shoulder) from all the swelling. The problem has been bugging me since August, borne out of a partiallly torn MCL suffered in spring training (writing is more physical than it looks, apparently). I've looked for an opening to have the procedure done ever since and this is the best timeframe to do it. Nothing is going on M's-wise and we're far enough out of spring training where significant rehab can be done beforehand. What this means is, the blog won't be as frequent as you've been used to seeing.

We will still try to keep it as active as possible, but this is, after all, the off-season. In the past, the blog has been very sporadic in December and January -- and for good reason. No one brings you the blanket online coverage, in a multi-media format, that we do during the season. That takes its toll. To use an old closer's addage, you only have so many bullets. No use firing them at this time of year when the team is sound asleep. We are working hard to bring you new blog features starting in spring training. No one is sitting still. But for now, you'll all have to be a little patient as we "reload" for 2009. I'm looking forward to it. Spring training is only six weeks away.

Photo Credit: AP


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