Micah Rice: Adrift Mariners need to find solid ground

Commentary: Micah Rice

By Micah Rice, Columbian sports editor

Published:

 

Hope springs with the start of every baseball season.

But as the losing seasons pile up for the Seattle Mariners, those tender sprouts of optimism struggle to push through the frost.

"Abandon hope all ye who enter here" hasn't yet been mounted above the Safeco Field gates. Still, Mariners fans have endured their own "Inferno" watching a comedy more erroneous than divine.

Monday's season opener will begin to answer many questions surrounding the Mariners.

Is this the year of the thaw after four straight losing seasons?

Is this the year Seattle's hitters, led by Robinson Cano, can offer King Felix more support than court jesters?

But the most important question of the season is basic: Can Seattle find stability?

Considering the turbulent seas plied by the Mariners in recent years, setting foot on solid ground is a more important barometer than wins and losses.

Aside from Felix Hernandez, has any Mariner been consistent and dependable?

The dysfunction has reached all the way to the captain's quarters. A Seattle Times report in December made more than a small ripple — former manager Eric Wedge described "total dysfunction and a lack of leadership" in the front office.

Was this a disgruntled former employee deflecting blame for his own failings? Or was Wedge frustrated about not being given the tools to perform his craft?

Whichever side you believe, Seattle's batting order has been inept. The Mariners had the worst batting average in the majors each season from 2010-12, never hitting better than .236.

Last year, Seattle brought in veteran hitters Raul Ibañez, Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse. Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak would finally realize their potential, we were told. The Safeco Field fences were moved in. Optimism flourished.

What happened? Seattle hit the second most home runs in the majors, but still batted .237. King Felix was backed by an offense that resembled Dave Kingman.

Another busy offseason followed, highlighted by the signing of Cano. Veterans Corey Hart and Logan Morrison were also brought in. Again we wait for Ackley, Smoak and Mike Zunino to come into their own.

Yet, there is hope. Cano, Ackley, Smoak and Brad Miller are all batting over .300 this spring. Along with Kyle Seager, it's not hard to imagine the offense not being terrible.

An offense that is merely adequate might be good enough to win 80 games if the pitching is good as advertised. Once Hasashi Iwakuma gets healthy, he and Hernandez should make a formidable one-two punch. If prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker evolve as promised, the Mariners have the makings of a solid rotation.

But those are a lot of what-ifs. This season will be a success if those uncertainties coalese into a steady nucleus.

It will be a failure if we're asking the same questions next year.

More than any professional sport, baseball rewards stability. Over a 162-game season, the successful teams have a dependable foundation between the baselines, in the dugout and in the front office.

Any team can get lucky on any given night. But the best teams forge a slight advantage that pays off over a long season — much like how a casino always wins in the long run.

Every team is hopeful on Opening Day. But winnners know the difference between confidence and hope.

Confidence comes from being comfortable with your identity. We'll soon see whether the Mariners can forge theirs.