SEATTLE — It was just over a year ago that the Mariners signed All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year contract for $240 million.
And admit it:
Today, as the calendar moves toward 2015, that contract no longer draws the disbelieving (and often outraged) howls from within the industry that greeted its announcement.
The Mariners, when they lured Cano away from the New York Yankees, were coming off a 91-loss season and badly in need of a way to reset a franchise that had drifted steadily into irrelevance over the previous decade.
“We didn’t have that elite player on the field or in the lineup,” general manager Jack Zduriencik admitted. “We needed that position-player impact guy, and we got the best one available.”
Club officials, even at the time, privately acknowledged Cano, then 31, was unlikely to remain an elite player throughout the decade-long commitment.
They do, though, believe he can be a productive player as he closes in on age 40 — and they see no reason he can’t remain among the game’s best players for several years.
Certainly, Cano gave no reason last season to alter that view.
His on-field performance mirrored his career norms in nearly all areas except home runs. He was picked as an All-Star and, as he did in 2013, finished fifth in balloting for the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
More than that, though, Cano helped transform the Mariners in the manner that club officials hoped and envisioned. Tellingly, he put down a marker in early May just as the Mariners were climbing out of an eight-game spin.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, “I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be there at the end of the season. Here’s what I’m saying: There’s going to be a point when it all comes together.
“We’ve got pitching. I think we have the best bullpen in the league. And our rotation…We’ve got what you need. We’ve got pitching. That’s what you need to win.”
It played out pretty much that way.
The Mariners rode their pitching staff, which led the American League in earned-run average, to an 87-75 record, which marked a 16-victory improvement over 2013.
They remained in postseason contention until midway through the final game of the season. Oddly, perhaps, the moment they were eliminated turned into one of the season’s highlights.
Once the scoreboard at Safeco Field confirmed Oakland had clinched the final wild-card berth by winning at Texas, the crowd rose and cheered.
“That was a pretty cool moment from the fans,” third baseman Kyle Seager said. “I was on-deck for that. That was pretty special to be able to look around and see everybody standing up and applauding.”
The Mariners were relevant again. Attendance at Safeco soared past two million for the first time in four years. The 17-percent increase over the previous year was the biggest jump in the majors.
“I can’t wait for next year,” staff ace Felix Hernandez said. “I can’t wait. Next year is going to be a great year for the Seattle Mariners.”
For all that, the way last season ended left a sour taste. The Mariners’ postseason drought, which now stands at 13 years, is the second-longest among the sport’s 30 franchises. (Only Toronto is longer.)
“One thing I want to impress upon our fans,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “We are not satisfied with the year that we had. We’re pleased with the improvements that we made. But in the end, we want to win a World Series.
“We all know, from time to time, we were challenged offensively. So to add pieces to that offense is very important. Preferably, we like to add right-handed bats. Somebody to hit behind Robby.”
The Mariners believe they found that bat earlier this month when they signed free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz, a right-handed hitter, to a four-year deal for $57 million.
Cruz led the majors last season with 40 homers and chose the Mariners, he said, because it was the “right fit” — notwithstanding Safeco’s reputation for muting power hitters.
“I’m here to win,” Cruz declared. “That’s why I say this is the right fit. We have one of the best starting pitchers and one of the best bullpens in the league.
“I think with my bat, and the guys who we have here, we should go a long way.”
Think about that for a moment.
Have the Mariners really become a destination franchise for players looking to win? Just asking the question shows how much things have changed in a year.
Now…that’s a reset.
“It’s like I said when I first signed here,” Cano said, “there’s a lot of great young talent. Guys who are going to be superstars. The bullpen did a great job. So did the starting rotation.
“We’re pretty close.”
Spring training starts in less than eight weeks.
Feb. 20: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Peoria, Ariz.
Feb. 21: Pitchers and catchers hold first workout.
Feb. 24: Rest of the big-league camp roster reports
Feb. 25: First full-squad workout
March 4: Cactus League opener vs. San Diego at Peoria Stadium
April 4: Final Cactus League game vs. Colorado in Scottsdale, Ariz.
April 6: Season opener vs. Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field