Justin Smoak, the former Texas Rangers first-round pick and their one-time next big thing at first base, has the amazing good fortune to hold the same conversation with me each year whenever he and the Seattle Mariners visit Arlington for the first time.
It usually has gone something like this:
Me: So, why will this be the Mariners’ year?
Smoak: Well, we have good pitching.
The question was the same Wednesday at Globe Life Park, but the tenor of the rest of the conversation had a different feel. There was a sense of accountability from Smoak as he talked about himself and the rest of the building blocks needing to build upward.
There was also the whole Robinson Cano element that added a new wrinkle.
But the question still lingers and probably will until the pitching-heavy Mariners, with all their young pieces with Cano and a few other veterans, can end a playoff drought that stretches to their remarkable 116-win 2001 season.
“Everybody knows we have good pitching,” Smoak said. “You got a guy like Cano that’s going to be in there day in and day out. If we can do some things around him and guys get on base and have some good at-bats, we expect to be a better team this year.”
That’s no small pile of ifs for a team that has been competitive in spurts the past few seasons before blowing four flat tires. At the same time, a four-game April series at Globe Life Park didn’t provide enough evidence to fairly judge the Mariners, who are dealing with a Rangers-like glut of injuries to their rotation.
Like the Rangers, the Mariners will see their mound situation, which already includes Felix Hernandez, gradually improve.
Hisashi Iwakuma, who finished third in the Cy Young vote last year, is the big piece missing and should return in May. Promising rookies James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are also shelved.
Cano is a special player, and every at-bat comes with the assumption that he is going to do something positive. No one in Seattle can doubt how much he changes the lineup, though many of those balls that flew into the right-field seats at Yankee Stadium might one-hop the Safeco Field wall or be caught for an out.
But general manager Jack Zduriencik pulled the trigger on a 10-year, $240 million deal anyway, even though the Cano money would have been better spent trying to upgrade the outfield.
The Mariners spent a little money there on Corey Hart, who has two bum knees, and traded for Logan Morrison, who has made more noise in his career with his Twitter account than his bat.
Michael Saunders is a fourth outfielder, and rookie Abraham Almonte is going to struggle once he is overexposed.
But if anyone on the Mariners’ payroll needs a good year, and needed a splash like Cano, it’s Zduriencik. Smoak, who is still trying to meet the expectations that came with being the centerpiece of the 2010 Cliff Lee trade with the Rangers, could use his best year, too.
He’s part of the young foundation Zduriencik has put in place, but that foundation isn’t quite so young anymore and needs to start producing. It’s not too early to judge that group based on its track record.
Smoak and Dustin Ackley have been disappointments. Shortstop Brad Miller is an upgrade over Brendan Ryan, offensively at least. Nick Franklin is an afterthought after Cano was signed to play second base.
Jesus Montero has eaten his way out of favor and has been supplanted behind the plate by Mike Zunino, a potential All-Star. Third baseman Kyle Seager looks like an All-Star whenever he plays the Rangers, but is a tick above average at best.
At least those players realize that they really need to do something this year.
“As a team we’re more relaxed than we have been in the past and we’re out there having more fun,” Smoak said. “The guys who have been around here for a couple years now are starting to get more comfortable. Guys have been here for another year. It’s kind of time for us to grow up a little bit.”
If they do grow up and become productive, and if the missing pitchers are healthy and produce, and if the American League West remains as wide open as it is now, the Mariners could contend.
That’s no small pile of ifs.