With the Seattle Mariners season officially over, a friend of mine asked over the weekend what I thought was an interesting question.
"Do the M's need a position player to be the face of the franchise?"
Before I could even give it much thought, he continued, "If you figure Felix Hernandez is only on the field 20 percent of the time, do the Mariners need another “Ichiro” type presence on field every single night?
The answer in short, "Absolutely, the Mariners need all the help they can get."
However a more detailed answer required a little more time and consideration.
In an article just prior to the close of the season The Seattle Times Larry Stone questioned the Mariners' relevancy in a city that is itching for a winner by going as far as prioritizing it at the top of his list of necessary moves this winter:
Here's the No. 1 challenge for Jack Zduriencik this offseason: Make the Mariners relevant again. They need to send out a team that compels people to care — not just the hard-core zealots who would care if they lost 120, but the casual fans who checked out a long time ago.
The hard truth is that the Mariners have once again lost this town to the Seahawks.
Since the NFL season opened, the M's have barely registered on sports radio, or, more tellingly, in water cooler talk. Even the Sounders have made inroads in the "buzz" arena — and speaking of arenas, two more pro teams could be on the way. The Mariners are in danger of dropping further in the hierarchy.
Can anyone really take issue with that statement?
Argue all you want about the quality of the product on the field, but beyond Felix can any casual fan or someone living outside of the Pacific Northwest name a player on the Mariners?
Which is the point that Stone finishes his article with after highlighting the priorities of needing to win games and be exciting, first and second respectively:
The third factor is a charismatic team, one filled with personalities that people relate to and like. In their glory years, the Mariners had this covered beautifully with characters like Jay Buhner, Joey Cora, Bret Boone and Mike Cameron, not to mention Ken Griffey Jr.
This is something you can't force, by the way. It happens organically, and sometimes sneaks up on you, as was the case with the 2010 World Series champion Giants, a wild and crazy crew that totally won over the fan base, a love affair that is unabated.
What happens this offseason in Seattle will be telling, yet to Stone's point, I'm not sure the franchise will find its next superstar or develop the magical chemistry needed to win over fans either before, during, or by the end of next season.
The current crop of players could make for an entertaining team now that the shadow of Ichiro is gone. As much as I hate to say it, Ichiro's presence last year did almost more harm than good and perhaps could have been part of the reason one promising player regressed.
That player, of course, is second baseman Dustin Ackley.
Ackley for all intents an purposes was supposed to be the guy as follow up to his solid second half debut last season. His well-rounded offensive talent, pedigree (2009, second pick of the first round), and scrappy/energetic play made him the odds-on favorite amongst the M's current batch of young hitters to take the torch from Ichiro.
Unfortunately Ackley's 2012 season for all intents and purposes was an unmitigated disaster.
Did Ackley suffer from the dreaded sophomore jinx?
Sadly what happened to cause this slide remains a mystery and as a result you have to wonder how his credibility suffered when it comes to fans and pundits alike in the process?
Could he rebound?
Sure, but the comparisons of Ackley being "the next Wade Boggs" will probably have to wait a least another year to prove that 2012 was merely a fluke.
Could anyone else step up?
Arguments could be made for surprise players from this season, such as Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders given their exciting brand of baseball. Both players seemingly went from being spare parts in spring training to arguably the team's most consistent performers all throughout this past season.
Can they do it again?
Until they can prove it, they'll sit right alongside Ackley in the "maybe" pile of players.
Beyond those three players, only one other hitter has a chance at stardom, Jesus Montero.
At the beginning of the season, hopes were high that the former Yankee farmhand would take the majors and by extension the city of Seattle by storm.
The reality, though, is that Montero may some day be a decent hitter, but his days behind the plate appear numbered. If Montero ends up anywhere other than behind home plate, his value both on and off the field potentially takes a hit, that is unless he becomes the second coming of Edgar Martinez.
Perhaps moving in the fences at Safeco Field will help the young right handed slugger?
For now we'll keep a seat for him next to Ackley, Seager and Saunders.
Are there any hot prospects in the farm system on their way to the majors?
By my calculation, the Mariners' best prospects are mostly pitchers. However of the two highest rated positional players, one could some day be the face of the franchise.
Could Mike Zunino really become the Mariners' poster boy?
Zunino is certainly a long shot, but similar to Ackley, he is a high draft pick who brings similar intangibles to the table, especially a keen eye at the plate and a grittiness that should make fans swoon.
If he can take over behind the plate, hit the ball with authority and become a middle-of-the-order fixture, he could emerge from the pack of players mentioned.
None of them possess the megawatt electricity of a Ken Griffey Jr.
A five-tool can't-miss prospect capable of getting people across Puget Sound and the better part of the country to pay attention to the Mariners.
At some point the M's will probably need a player of that caliber to recapture that level of relevancy Larry Stone mentions in his article.
However as Seattle fans have learned all too often in the past, having a superstar Hall of Fame-caliber player on the roster is both a blessing and a curse as players such as Junior, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro and Randy Johnson, rarely play their entire careers with the M's.
Ultimately it leaves fans with an unsettling choice.
Which would you prefer?
A team of solid, but not spectacular players who win both games and hearts, yet never get to the World Series?
A team with a few Hall of Famers who in time will probably either leave by trade or free agency, but win a World Series in a span of a few years?
Tough choice, right?
For now I suppose that doesn't appear to be too much of a problem. On the bright side at least the current mix of players seem to be a likeable group that will hopefully mature together to form a solid nucleus capable of at least achieving relevancy in a city that could certainly use/enjoy a championship.
Until then we should enjoy the reign of King Felix and keep our fingers crossed that one of the handful of players mentioned can step up to take the crown or at least earn a share of it to help lead the way.