I just talked to Lonnie (who heads up Mariner Central) about our excitement about the upcoming year. It being the Mariners, naturally some pessimism crept in. "Have you seen everyone picking the Ms? We've somehow become the front-runners, and the front-runners NEVER win."
I find this scenario interesting. Last Spring and even into summer, Jack's job was supposedly in jeopardy. Our finishing sprint (no thanks to our pathetic deadline additions) got us ALMOST to the playoffs, but since then there's been this sort of groundswell for the Mariners. Hopes and dreams are floating up, up and away this offseason. It's not even that our free agent adds were beloved - the Cruz contract was counted as an overpay, and that Seth Smith was a fallback. Ruggiano a non-entity.
But somehow were still being picked to win the West here, and the AL there, and the WORLD SERIES even in some ambitious parts of the interwebs. We're on the cover of SI. Yes, it's regional, but they still only did it for four teams, and we're one of em. Vegas has us 7th in their more rational odds, at 15/1 - right behind the Cubs. Now since the Cubs will win it when fallen angels are having snowball fights, maybe our odds don't look that great. But we're ahead of the Tigers. And the world champion Giants. And WELL anead of the Yankees and Blue Jays and Orioles and defending pennant winners the Royals.
We're behind only the Angels and the Bo Sox in the AL to the oddsmakers. Now, the betting line is influenced by the bettors as much as by the book, but all that means is that people were taking them up on the Mariners at any fewer odds than we had now. Jumping all over it. So the line moved.
When did we get this trendy?
And more importantly, how do we deal with the pressure? Watching the NCAA tournament, what they keep talking about is experience. Teams loaded with juniors and seniors who've been here before. Who understand tourney pressure. Who don't collapse under the weight of expectations. Talent is great, but plenty of talented teams got booted over the first weekend. You need talent, belief, and the ability to overcome hardships to make it deep in any tournament. Not everything will go your way. If Felix loses Game One, can you come back? Or are you counting on him to do to everything?
Funnily enough, we didn't just go add a MOTO thumper this offseason. We added a guy who has been through pennant chases, who has made it to a couple of World Series (and happens to have OPSed over 1.000 in the playoffs). Cano is no longer the only player on offense who has been through the wars (and though I'm mostly talking about Cruz, Smith has been in the playoffs and to a World Series of his own in his younger days too). Cruz is a great clubhouse guy from all accounts, but he's also going to be able to add his steady voice to Cano's when the pressure is on. We'll need all that veteran presence from Cano, Cruz and Smith.
Because make no mistake, being a front-runner is definitely more pressure than being the scrappy underdog. We're going to be expected to win, this year. Making the playoffs is a GIVEN (even though Felix has never attended the postseason dance) and the only question is whether we'll make it to the AL championship or throw down over the Major League title.
Is that fair to a bunch of guys who could barely hit their way out of a paper bag a year ago, or to pitchers who were in the minor leagues back then? Probably not.
But we're not sneaking up on anybody this year. The Mariners are coming, and announcing their presence with pomp and circumstance.
Our playoff drought is in its 14th year. Backtrack that from our FIRST playoff appearance and you are in Reagan's first term and sandwiched by a couple of Olympic boycotts. We are hopefully seeing the same buildup of talent that was featured on those mid-90s teams - except with a lockdown pen and better starting pitching 1-through-5 than we've seen in a long time... maybe ever.
I understand the hype. I get why the Mariners have suddenly become sexy after years of being the bearded lady of the AL West. I have faith that McClendon and company will have the boys on the right track, and that the locker room leaders can keep everybody calm and focused.
But being the favorite, when no one has ever expected anything of you, can be a painful growing experience. We're not under the radar any more. Anything we do well will be expected, and any struggles will be roundly criticized. Last year, we could have snuck up on some people. They'll know we're coming in 2015.
If our pitching is right and our offense is as expected, though, it won't mattter. Might as well be trying to stop Godzilla with nukes as take a series from the Mariners with a starting 5 like they might sport. The staff might be young, but the Giants won it with babes in the rotation and a couple steadying vet hands in the lineup around some star youngster. It CAN happen - and if it's going to happen to anyone, it should happen to us, right? Pressure or no pressure, hand in the lineups and throw the opening pitch. We have games to win.
Get excited! Don't let the pressure of a playoff season get to you when we lose a couple of games. And don't hate bandwaggoners. We've been wandering in the desert a long time, Mariners fans - enjoy the land of milk and honey and garlic fries.
It's been a long time coming.