Until Wednesday, I liked the Mariners chances of ending Major League Baseball’s longest playoff drought. And darn it, I still like their chances.
But when the news broke that left-handed pitcher Drew Smyly had been scratched from his final spring-training start, it reminded me how quickly baseball emotions can swing from sky-is-the-limit optimism to uh-oh, look-out angst.
It’s possible the discomfort Smyly felt during a recent bullpen session will be determined a minor concern. Then again, we’re talking about somebody who makes his living as a pitcher. With pitchers, there are no such things as minor concerns. There are only concerns, typically upgraded into aggravations that precede problems requiring surgery.
Manager Scott Servais described Smyly’s left arm as “just a little soggy,” which made the 27-year-old the first victim of an injury we’ve never heard about: Soggy Arm.
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It sounds like a small town in Tennessee, or the main character in a horror movie — “The Invasion of Soggy Arm” — or the title of a country song about how a spilled beer stein caused the bar brawl that led to a divorce.
Here’s what I know about Soggy Arm: I won’t let it affect my belief that the 2017 Mariners are title contenders in the AL West. I refuse to accept the notion that Smyly’s health will be the difference between an 81-81 record and a 90-72 record.
How will I accomplish this? By telling myself, over and over, that Smyly’s health won’t be the difference between an 81-81 record and a 90-72 record.
Exercising such blind faith will be a challenge, because Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has admitted that among the 10,000 moves he made over the offseason, none was more important than obtaining Smyly from the Tampa Bay Rays.
Dipoto’s enthusiasm might have been contrived. Over 85 career starts, Smyly owns one complete game, a 2015 shutout he threw for the Rays. His most productive season was as a Tigers reliever, in 2013, when he finished 6-0, with a 2.37 ERA.
Smyly’s 2016 work was not his best — he went 7-12, with a 4.88 ERA — and because he was scheduled to earn $6.85 million in 2017, the Rays made him available for three young players Dipoto didn’t expect to contribute any time soon.
What intrigued Dipoto was Smyly’s potential to solidify the middle of a rotation weakened by trading Taijuan Walker to Arizona. Smyly, who pitched effectively in both the Cactus League and the World Baseball Classic, looked capable of solidifying.
But if Smyly is sidelined, the rotation could be as patchwork an operation as the Seahawks offensive line. There’s an aging ace determined to prove why he once was an ace (Felix Hernandez), a talented lefty whose quest to showcase his electric stuff hinges on his dubious durability (James Paxton) and, beyond that ...
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Hisashi Iwakuma is 35, struggling during the sunset of a career spent largely in Japan, where pitch counts aren’t monitored with a vigilance. In his final Cactus League start, on Wednesday, Iwakuma failed to make it out of the second inning. He walked four batters and surrendered two earned runs, fattening his spring-training ERA to 7.13.
And yet Iwakuma has been lights out compared with Yovani Gallardo, he of the 9.24 spring-training ERA. Because of the Cactus League’s atmospheric conditions, stats favor hitters, but still: It fulfills any definition of wishful thinking to presume Gallardo will resemble the dependable starter he was with the 2015 Rangers rather than the rally tosser he became with the 2016 Orioles.
The Mariners rotation was fraught with questions before Smyly’s bullpen session went awry. But with his availability in limbo for the first week of the season — for the entirety of the season, actually — there’s a temptation to fear the worst.
Not gonna happen, no way, no how.
One pitcher’s issues with Soggy Arm Syndrome cannot deprive me of the joy of high hopes I had when the shaky Mariners rotation appeared sustainable, and my faith wasn’t blind.
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath