The autumn wind that whispers through the trees of the Pacific Northwest has once again started to haunt the Seattle Mariners as they find themselves at a crossroads.
After five years of trying to help rebuild the Mariners, general manager Jack Zduriencik is running short on time and excuses as the ballclub continues to go nowhere fast.
Strange to think that this time just a few years earlier Zduriencik appeared poised to right the ship in a little more than a year's time. After coming aboard and helping the M's post a winning record straight away in 2009, 2010 seemed all the more promising following moves that added Cliff Lee, Milton Bradley and Chone Figgins to the Seattle roster.
Unfortunately, what happened next was nothing short of disaster.
It was so bad that Zduriencik has been trying to pick up the pieces ever since.
Initially, it seemed the Mariners would continue to rebuild from scratch through the amateur draft and trading for high-profile prospects that over time would help fill in the gaps following the disaster of 2010; however, in the years that have followed, that plan has yet to generate tangible results.
Two seasons of "playing the kids" in 2011 and 2012 yielded nothing, but with Figgins still on the books Zduriencik came across as a man haunted by his past each offseason when it came to free agency.
Whether the Mariners were being cost conscious or players simply considered Seattle a black hole mattered little as big-name free agents avoided signing, especially hitters.
Yet each of the past three offseasons, the M's have been linked to arguably the best free-agent hitter available.
In 2011, early whispers had Prince Fielder coming to Seattle and by December Seattle Times scribe Steve Kelley was basically shouting from the top of the Space Needle to sign him:
The Mariners have to change the way they are perceived in Seattle and throughout baseball.
They need a booming bat like Fielder's that can alter the way pitchers approach their batting order. Fielder, 27, is the 38 home runs and 120 RBI in the middle of the order the Mariners haven't had since Alex Rodriguez left.
In 2012, the whispers had Josh Hamilton coming instead, and true to form, Kelley once again lamented the M's missing out:
The Mariners could have had Josh Hamilton. They could have had his 40-plus home runs. Finally they could have had a serious anchor in the middle of the order, and they could have given fans a serious reason to come to Safeco Field.
I don't want to hear that familiar Mariners mumbo-jumbo that Hamilton didn't want to come to Seattle, didn't like the geography or the climate or the new Ferris wheel. Good front offices find ways to make these deals. Good front offices know how to recruit as well as John Calipari.
This year, I'm already lamenting the fact that Kelley who retired back in January won't be around to make his annual heartfelt appeal for one Jacoby Ellsbury.
But even without Rosenthal's prediction, odds are we would be talking about Ellsbury regardless given the Mariners burning need for help in the outfield.
It's at this point I truly feel that general manager Jack Zduriencik, largely of his own doing mind you, is in a no-win situation.
So, while there seem to be no lack of big decisions that need to be made this particular offseason, the story this winter will largely hinge upon Ellsbury and whether the Mariners sign him or not.
From that point onward, the biggest decision/question becomes an either-or scenario.
If the M's get him, can they build around him?
If they miss out on him, can they recover?
Meanwhile, whether you like Ellsbury or not, it just feels like we're all being set up, including Ellsbury.
Fortunately for him, he will likely have the final say. As for the rest of us, it's hard to tell which scenario is better or worse.
Is Ellsbury capable of being the face of the franchise?
Perhaps more importantly, is he capable of being the face of this franchise?
Expectations will likely be unreal and perhaps unfair if he signs for the money Rosenthal projected or anything even approaching it. Even if Ellsbury is as good as advertised, can he be enough of a difference-maker to push the Mariners past simply being a mediocre team?
In many ways, I can't escape the potential for Ellsbury's time in Seattle to rival that of Ichiro's final years with the Mariners. Both players capably serving as catalysts, only to be stranded time and again by an inept supporting cast.
To be painfully blunt, it's one thing to have Dustin Pedroia hitting behind you—it's another to have Dustin Ackley instead.
For the Mariners, signing Ellsbury may be a good starting point this winter, but that move by itself simply won't be enough to move the needle unless the team plans to clone him several times over.
All jokes aside, what will happen if Ellsbury decides to sign elsewhere?
Beyond those who will carry the torch of Steve Kelley in the immediate aftermath lamenting yet another missed opportunity at buying this year's superstar free agent, I'd imagine most of us will resign ourselves to another long cold winter spent pondering whether the current wave of youngsters is capable of stepping up next year.
While we wait, one would hope that Jack Z has Plans B and C ready to go, but I'm not entirely confident that will happen. Zduriencik in recent years seems like a guy who has lost a few miles per hour off his fastball and can't quite get his mojo back as the majority of his moves both attempted and actualized have backfired.
There was a time I might have pitied him, but those days have long since passed.
All I can say now is that there needs to be a plan, it needs to come together and it had better work. That's no small order especially when you consider that signing Ellsbury seems like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" proposition.
Honestly, I'm curious to see how things unfold as it's been a rough ride the past several years and you get the sense that something's got to give. Then again, it seemed that way last year and the year prior when it comes to big-ticket offseason moves.
Two years ago, I wanted the Mariners to sign Fielder.
Last year, I wanted them to avoid Hamilton.
This year, I still don't know what to think of Ellsbury.
I can see both positives and negatives to him either signing here or elsewhere. What's hard for me to separate is whether he makes sense or whether the idea of him makes sense for the Mariners. It's a question that I can't answer today, and I find that a bit vexing.
The good news is that I don't get to decide.
The bad news is that Zduriencik does.
This decision will likely be the biggest he ever makes in Seattle. Let's just hope he gets it right.
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