It’s opening night, and the true babies of the Seattle Mariners – rookies Michael Pineda, Tom Wilhelmsen and Josh Lueke – probably slept a solid eight hours, combined.
In baseball, opening night is Christmas, and everyone is allowed to believe in Santa. No one has lost a game yet, the pressure to win a spot on the roster has been relieved by the reality of being on a 25-man major league roster.
New manager Eric Wedge was out of baseball last opening day. Tonight, with his wife Kate in the stands, Wedge returns to a job only 30 men on the planet have. Yes, it’s special.
Felix Hernandez, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, takes the mound with a dazzling number of hopes for 2011. You can read more about them in a TNT story here, but in essence he wants to win another Cy Young Award, 20 games and, well, a World Series.
This is a season of transition for Seattle, and opening day is only Phase One of the new developments general manager Jack Zduriencik and Wedge will supervise. This 25-man roster? There are 12 members of it who weren’t with the team at this time last year.
And there will be plenty of players on it now that who may not be here in a few months.
At some point, closer David Aardsma and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez will return, and someone will go to make room. If, say, veteran lefty Nate Robertson pitches well as he rehabs from minor elbow surgery, right-hander Doug Fister could be replaced.
Fister is a great story, a long, lean rigtht-hander who won six games last year on heart and a sinker, but doesn’t have much else. No, Robertson isn’t a long-term answer – but as a No. 5 starter, he probably has more ability than Fister.
This is the month Michael Saunders needs to show he can hit. When Gutierrez returns, Saunders is the likely odd-man out. Milton Bradley is in the final year of a contract, and he needs to prove he can a) hit, b) stay healthy and c) not melt down.
If he does all that, and Jack Wilson doesn’t have a hamstring implode, both men could be mid-season trades for better fits. Dustin Ackley is in the wings and if Zduriencik can trade Bradley for talent – and dump some of his $12 million salary – he will have salvaged much of that Carlos Silva trade.
Chone Figgins, for all his pointing to the second half of 2010, had a dreadful season – on and off the field. This year could be about redemption of his image, but only if he walks the walk. We know he can talk.
Justin Smoak remains undefined. Jack Cust says 130 strikeouts would be a good season, and that’s a little ominious.
Miguel Olivo has the sweetest smile on the team, Ichiro remains the most intense Mariner position player and Brendan Ryan plays defense like a shortstop while swinging like a power hitter.
Erik Bedard is back in a big-league rotation for the best of reasons. He didn’t need the money, didn’t bolt a bad team for better run support – he simply wanted to pitch in Seattle again. Why? His friend Felix and his sense of responsibility to a team and community that haven’t yet seen his best.
There are a dozen more storylines that will unfold as the 2011 season does. At the moment, we know change is coming, we suspect losses are on their way, too.
But it’s opening night, and no one can prove Felix Hernandez is wrong when he says the Mariners could be the surprise team in baseball this season.