John McGrath: Lack of dominance in AL may be just what Mariners need

Staff WriterMay 9, 2014 

Lloyd McClendon believes it’s best to wait 50 games before making judgments about the Seattle Mariners. Such patience is prudent for a manager who, from the looks of a lineup card he tweaks daily, still is getting to know his team.

The rest of us can be more foolish rushing to conclusions.

Mine? I think the 2014 Mariners have a legitimate shot at competing in the franchise’s first playoff game since Oct. 22, 2001, when the Yankee Stadium crowd, during the late innings of a blowout, mocked Seattle’s 116-victory powerhouse by chanting “Oh-Ver-Ray-Ted!”

That was almost 13 years ago, which helps explain the urge to declare the Mariners serious contenders after only 34 games.

When the Mariners woke up Thursday with a 17-16 record, it was the first time they had been over .500 on May 8 since 2009. This also helps explain the urge to declare them serious contenders.

But here’s the main reason: Few teams in the American League have the look of a dominant club capable of coasting to the playoffs. Detroit might be one. That’s it. Everybody else — aside from Houston, of course — is stuck in the middle of that old Stealers Wheel song, with clowns to the left and jokers to the right.

Speaking of jokers, a second wild-card qualifier was added to the playoff format in 2012. The idea was similar to the original wild card: keeping hope alive for flawed teams that aren’t so flawed their general managers go into contract-dumping mode before the All-Star break.

When play began Thursday, 11 of the 12 AL teams not in first place were within three games of a wild card. The Mariners aren’t obviously better than any of them, but they’re not obviously worse, either.

From the beginning of time — or at least the beginning of the rekindled “Evil Empire” rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox, regarded on the East Coast as the same thing — the AL East has been seen as baseball’s elite division. This season, it’s shaping up as five so-so teams, any of which appear capable of finishing first — or fifth.

There’s almost as much parity in the AL Central, which figures to be a four-team scrum for second place behind the Tigers. Does anything about the White Sox, Twins, Royals or Indians suggest they’re better equipped to make a wild-card run than the Mariners?

And then there’s the AL West, where the league’s balance of power supposedly began to shift when the Angels went on a spending spree for free agents (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson), while the Rangers utilized a pipeline from a superior farm system stocked by scouts with a keen eye for international talent.

But the Mariners have no reason to fear the Angels and their creaky bullpen, or the Rangers and their streaky moods. Come to think of it, there’s no reason to fear the A’s, either. The A’s are 13-6 on the road, but all those plumbing problems at Coliseum seem to have affected their home-field advantage.

Players on visiting teams can reassure themselves they’re out of that dump after three or four days. The A’s are stuck there for 81 games.

Yes, there’s a lot of baseball left, which is another way of saying “it’s still early,” three words I stopped using sometime during the seventh-inning stretch of the Mariners’ season-opening victory against the Angels.

(“It’s still early” is one of those code terms masking an edgier, more sinister meaning. “It’s still early,” when applied to a baseball team that finds itself over .500 on May 8, translates into “don’t dream, don’t hope, go directly to jail, don’t collect $200.”)

Anyway, there’s a lot of baseball left, a reality the Mariners are in position to embrace. Reinforcements for the starting rotation are on their way, and the reinforcements — James Paxton and Taijuan Walker — happen to be big-time prospects whose brief work in the majors not only met expectations, but also surpassed them.

McClendon’s plans for the outfield, meanwhile, eventually will be sorted out into something consistent, perhaps with left-handed hitter Dustin Ackley and Stefen Romero, who bats from the right side, sharing time in a platoon role. James Jones, based on a Seattle career shorter than some of Drew Barrymore’s marriages, already has replaced Abe Almonte as the speedy center fielder McClendon covets.

The outfield is a work in progress, evolving day by day, inning by inning, a microcosm of a Mariners team doing the same thing.

They aren’t playoff-bound, not yet — there’s still a lot of baseball left — but playoff caliber? Serious contenders for one of five postseason berths in a league whose standings on Thursday showed Detroit five games up in first, Houston 91/2 games down in last and everybody else pretty much stuck in the middle?


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