The Rise of the 89 Percent

The Mariners need more than Robinson Cano to fill the stands.

By Joshua Boulet photo 556px-team_zps376f5282.jpg

Illustration by Joshua Boulet

The Mariners won’t have an unsuccessful 2014. Success depends on expectations, and for the Seattle Mariners, there are none. The M’s are like March 24. You expect 50s and rainy, you plan for 50s and rainy, and when 50s and rainy comes you barely notice. But when it’s 68 and sunny, as it was two weeks ago? You’re overjoyed! You didn’t even know that could happen. All previous crappy March 24s are forgiven.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, have driven their expectations to August 24 levels. You expect sun, you plan for sun, and if you get 50s and rainy, you’re livid. For the 2014 Seahawks, anything less than a Super Bowl victory will be a disappointment. For the 2014 Mariners, all they need is a winning season to bring baseball fever back to Seattle.

And yes, I do mean baseball fever. You may think of Seattle as a football town, but if the M’s match an August 24 experience to their March 24 expectations, fans will flood Safeco.

I hear your doubtful clucks. In reply, I point you to Pittsburgh. Home of the wildly successful Steelers. A metropolis serving western Pennsylvania and northeast Ohio, the throbbing heart of gridiron fanaticism. Pittsburgh’s baseball team had 20 consecutive losing seasons. What happened when the Pirates finally gave their city a winner in 2013? They sold out nearly a third of their games—including one the day of a Steelers home game. It can happen here. But only if the worst-paid, least-noticed members of Mariners society make it happen.

The single expectation for the Mariners is the one that’s least likely to come true: Robinson Cano will earn his $24 million salary. $24 million is an insane amount of money to pay a single athlete. The entire Seahawks starting defense in the Super Bowl, plus Russell Wilson, made $23.9 million last year. Could Cano equal the return on that investment? It’s not likely. Actually, it’s impossible. Basketball stars like LeBron James ($19.1m/year) and football stars like Peyton Manning ($20m/year) touch the ball on nearly every offensive play. But eight out of nine times a Mariner comes to bat, it will be someone other than Robinson Cano. Should the M’s win the World Series, Cano won’t have done it alone. He’ll need the other eight guys in the lineup to hit too. The Mariners need a rise of the 89 percent.

The mystery of the offseason was why the Mariners would splurge on Cano when they have so many questions on their roster. The 89 percent can answer those questions. The M’s can win with Cano if—and only if—young, inexpensive players like those in the 89 percent play well. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s exactly how Pete Carroll built the Seahawks. Draft what you can (Earl Thomas) and spend big on the rest (Percy Harvin). Three years ago Richard Sherman was a backup, Malcolm Smith was a special teamer, and Russell Wilson was just a name on a draft board. Their names were no more familiar than Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, and Taijuan Walker are now.

Like those Seahawks, the Mariners’ 89 percent are underpaid—compared to Cano, at least. Some deserve to be as outraged as a Westlake Park protester. Kyle Seager was one of baseball’s best third basemen last year, and earned “just” $510,000. On the open market, he’d probably earn $10m/year; Nationals’ 3B Ryan Zimmerman, who posted similar numbers, will earn $14 million in 2014. But since Seager isn’t eligible for free agency, the Mariners can pay him the major league minimum. Seager’s 2014 salary will be about what Cano earns in a week.

But let’s not make the mistake of Occupy Wall Street and demonize the wealthy. Cano worked his way up through the system, and if Mariner desperation inflated his take, he’s hardly to blame. If the 89 percent join Cano to make the Mariners a contender, that rising tide really will lift all ships.

The captain, new manager Lloyd McClendon, was also part of the 89 percent. A career backup, he never earned more than $650,000 in a season. Maybe because of his undistinguished career, McClendon judges players by performance, not reputation. This spring the M’s cut veterans Endy Chavez and Scott Baker, with a combined 20 years of MLB experience, in favor of Stefen Romero and Roenis Elias—neither of whom had yet to play a major league game.

McClendon also brings a sailor’s fondness for straight talk and salty language. “This is not about development at this level, it’s about winning games,” McClendon said at the start of spring training. “If you want to be developed, then we’ll send you back to the minor leagues and you can do all the developing you want to do.” Pete Carroll’s philosophy of competition isn’t much different, he just expresses it in a more positive way. Hard to imagine Carroll saying something like “Erasmo Ramirez made a lot of horseshit pitches,” as McClendon did this spring.

With McClendon’s expletives cutting the wind, the Mariners’ 89 percent can make the utopian vision of a sold-out Safeco Field a reality. Eleven-percenters like Cano can’t do it alone. Don’t expect any help from Seattle’s politicians; they’re too busy making it harder for you to find a ride home from the game. Start a popular movement. Make August 24 a day of sun and pennant-race baseball. Rise up, 89 percent! You have nothing to lose but another 100 games.

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Meet the 89 Percent

The unproven players who will make or break the Mariners’ 2014 campaign.

Brad Miller, 24 • shortstop The M’s second-year shortstop is attracting national attention, popping up on plenty of “rookies to watch” or “fantasy sleeper” lists after hitting four homers this spring.

Abraham Almonte, 24 • outfielder He beat alcohol addiction and now looks to have won the starting centerfield job. Almonte is stocky, speedy, and aggressive—think Kirby Puckett—so McClendon’s putting him in the leadoff spot.

Mike Zunino, 23 • catcher The M’s starting catcher quietly had an outstanding spring at the plate. Maybe his dismal September last season was due to fatigue?

John Buck, 33 • catcher The M’s backup catcher lived in an RV park during spring training—his Instagram of the going-away party his elderly neighbors threw him (#livingthedream, #trailorlife) got 1,767 likes, including mine.

Stefen Romero, 25 • outfielder Converted to outfield last year, this star of Oregon State’s national championship teams won a major league job thanks to four spring homers.

Danny Farquhar, 27 • relief pitcher Started 2013 with AAA Tacoma; ended it as the Mariners’ closer after developing a tricky cut fastball. Expected to be the 8th-inning bridge to new closer Fernando Rodney.

Yoervis Medina, 25 • relief pitcher One of the M’s big bullpen arms, Medina’s low walk total this spring gives us hope he’s finally learned to control his nasty stuff.

Erasmo Ramirez, 23 • starting pitcher Stands just 5´11˝ and relies on savvy beyond his years to trick hitters. One of just two active big-leaguers from Nicaragua.

James Paxton, 25 • starting pitcher The lefty with a mid-90s fastball went 3-0 in four starts last September. He’d be the first pitcher drafted by Jack Zduriencik to stick in the M’s rotation.

Roenis Elias, 25 • starting pitcher Four years ago, he was a Cuban defector pitching in beer leagues in Monterrey. Now, his mid-90s fastball and devastating curve helped him beat eight-year veteran Scott Baker for a spot in the M’s starting rotation.

Taijuan Walker, 21 • starting pitcher The Mariners’ best prospect flashed brilliance in a September call-up, effortlessly firing a mid-90s fastball past hitters. Scary shoulder pain put Walker behind this spring, but he’s pitching again and could be contributing in Seattle by April.

To read the rest of Seattle Weekly’s Very Unofficial Guide to the 2014 Mariners, click here.

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