With the passing of Seattle Mariners owner Hiroshi Yamauchi last week in Japan at the age of 85, that one question has been on the minds of Mariners fans all throughout the Pacific Northwest.
If you had asked me this question a week ago, I'd have probably either shrugged or laughed before offering a simplified game plan for the team and whoever is going to be the general manager this winter.
Over the weekend, however, I couldn't help but wonder whether the Mariners' current ownership group will now sell the team or continue with doing business as usual.
For now, it seems little will change based on what Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln told Patti Payne of the Puget Sound Business Journal within days of Yamauchi's passing:
"There are no plans to sell (Nintendo of America’s) majority interest in the team,” Lincoln said.
Nintendo’s interest is the same as Yamauchi’s, according to Lincoln. “I can't tell you what’s going to happen in the future, but now Nintendo feels very strongly that Nintendo wants to maintain its ownership interest in the Mariners.”
And what about the group of minority owners of the team? Lincoln observes it is a steady group of committed owners.
“I think all the members of our ownership group feel the same way. It’s basically the same group of people. Other than the fact that John Stanton acquired his (minority) interest from John McCaw (in 2002), and Mr. Yamauchi transferred his majority interest (in 2004), our group has remained the same. And it is very, very stable. In all those years since 1992, either under (now Mariners chairman emeritus) John Ellis or myself, we have had monthly ownership meetings. In all those meetings, we have never really had serious disagreement, never had a split in the ownership group. That in itself is a clear indication of how strongly the ownership group is committed to Seattle and the Northwest.”
With that matter settled and the fact that team president Chuck Armstrong confirmed on Tuesday that general manager Jack Zduriencik will be back next year, according to The Seattle Times, we can ask, "When exactly will the Mariners realistically contend again?"
It's been more than a decade now since the M's had a genuine shot at the postseason, and based on their current roster, it looks like we may have another decade of waiting in front of us.
"But wait," you say. "We have Felix Hernandez, a fresh batch of youngsters and a ton of money to spend this winter. Can't the Mariners catch lightning in a bottle with a few smart moves and a whole lot of luck?"
While I like to believe anything can happen, I'm not going to hold my breath with this team.
Beyond Felix, Hisashi Iwakuma and Kyle Seager, it's hard to tell what else the Mariners have to offer, as far as bankable talent is concerned.
Yes, there are plenty of prospects who at times have showed potential, but potential is a double-edged sword with this group. One minute, Nick Franklin looks like the second baseman of the future; the next, he's mired in a horrible slump while occasionally "getting rest" or shifting to shortstop so the man he replaced, Dustin Ackley, can play at second base.
Speaking of Ackley, what exactly does he bring to the table at this point?
Based on what I'm seeing from him and the rest of his young teammates, this is a Seattle team loaded with 7-8-9 hitters.
They have players who can occasionally get a hit and even have a little bit of power, but no one you would feel comfortable with as a catalyst hitting atop the lineup or in helping to drive in runs for the heart of the order.
In time, someone like Mike Zunino may mature into a cleanup hitter, but that may take years before he becomes the kind of hitter the team can rely on. The same could be said for just about any of the other Mariners' prospects we've seen promoted the past year, whether it's Franklin, Brad Miller, Abraham Almonte or even pitchers like Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer.
In fairness, not every prospect bursts out of the gate upon reaching the majors. When you also factor in that some of these young men players have been rushed up the organizational ladder, like Maurer and Zunino, it's hard to say how they will respond in their second or third seasons.
All we can do is cross our fingers and wait.
And what if the Mariners sign Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Tim Lincecum?
It's fun to think of Ellsbury leading off while Choo helps hit cleanup and Lincecum returns to form as a Cy Young Award contender, but even if general manager Jack Zduriencik gets the green light to spend and signs several top free agents who can stay healthy, does that make the Mariners contenders?
If the Mariners sign a certain player, trade for another, have the kids produce and if everyone can stay healthy, then sure...why not?
That's a lot of "ifs" to string together, however, and it's not too different from how things sounded at the beginning of this season.
To this point in his tenure, Jack Zduriencik and his staff have yet to consistently identify or cultivate full-grown major league talent capable of forming a potentially winning nucleus.
Sadly, the M's current roster does not inspire much hope for the near future. Plugging in a few free agents will not be enough to compensate for the shortcomings of a young lineup still learning how to play the game.
In short, whether Jack Z stays in Seattle beyond 2014 or not, it will probably take at least another five years before the Mariners can field a winner capable of more than merely pushing past .500 or staying in the hunt for a wild card beyond August.
The only way that I can see this timetable being accelerated is if the team was sold to a new owner who literally bursts on the scene and changes everything we know about the Mariners franchise. I'm talking about an owner who would do anything and everything short of taking down Safeco Field brick by brick while putting people in place all throughout the organization who are capable of carrying out his vision.
Essentially, someone very different from Hiroshi Yamauchi.
What's particularly sad is that all of these years of making Yamauchi out to be the villain were, in some ways, a bit misguided, as he really wasn't a bad man. He made a donation to the city of Seattle as a means of saying thanks to save the Mariners, yet beyond that, the details of his involvement with the team are fuzzy memories, at best, depending on who you talk to.
Moving forward, though, for the Mariners will need an owner that offers far more than a donation to field a winner in less than a decade.
That's not to say the Mariners need a George Steinbrenner or an Al Davis figure so much as someone capable of making some tough decisions with little or no remorse and with a clear vision of the future backed up by smart people, some serious money and an uncompromising commitment to winning.
Does such a person exist?
Perhaps, but we may not get a chance to find out for years to come, as Lincoln and Armstrong appear to be more entrenched than ever in running the ballclub.
Today, that is bitter pill to swallow, but it shouldn't come as a shock.
In many ways, it's a shame of what has become of the Mariners, especially when you look across the street at what both the Seahawks and Sounders have achieved in recent years in Seattle.
Seattle is no longer a city that is simply satisfied to have professional sports. It's a city with fans who want to see a winner, or at least be given some tangible sense of excitement and hope. Both the 'Hawks and Sounders have done great jobs to not only improve their products on the field, but even more importantly, they have made significant strides in making their fans feel that they are a part of their teams' success.
Until the Mariners understand that fans want more than a big scoreboard, another worthless trinket handed to them at the gate and the constant reminders of the team's once-storied past, this franchise will remain irrelevant or worse...a sad punchline.
When will the Mariners realistically contend again?
Until the franchise is stripped down and rebuilt from scratch, it's going to be a long time—a very, very long time.
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