Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 30, 2012

As The Season Begins, Two Old Guys Take Charge

A NOTE TO READERS: This post was delayed slightly due to computer problems.  Thanks for your patience.

Half a world away the new season has begun, with the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics splitting a two-game set in Japan. The Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs since they tied the regular-season record for wins with 116 in 2001 and have finished last in the AL West three of the past four years; while the A’s last went to the post-season in 2006 and haven’t been above .500 since. But it is a sign of the Great Game’s increasingly global reach that the players on these two middling teams were greeted like rock stars by hundreds of fans when they arrived in Tokyo. No doubt the presence of Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki, the greatest Japanese player ever to bring his talents to the American major leagues had something to do with that; but he was by no means the only one receiving the acclaim of the Japanese fans.

In a division that has been dominated of late by the Texas Rangers and that saw the L.A. Angels sign slugger Albert Pujols and pitcher C. J. Wilson during the off-season, both Seattle and Oakland are teams that are thinking more about the future than about 2012. In Seattle, general manager Jack Zduriencik is building around 24-year old second baseman Dustin Ackley, 25-year old first baseman Justin Smoak, and 22-year old designated hitter Jesus Montero. Ackley is a product of Seattle’s farm system, while Smoak came from the Rangers as part of the 2010 Cliff Lee trade and Montero was acquired from the Yankees during the off-season in exchange for pitcher Michael Pineda. Zduriencik is betting that in time these three can provide some badly needed power to an offense that plated just 556 runs in 2011, the second-lowest total in the team’s history. Seattle has some fine pitching led by 25-year old Felix Hernandez, but even the best pitching in the world can’t win many games without some run support.

Meanwhile Oakland general manager Billy Beane is hoping that the A’s long-standing quest to move to San Jose will finally win approval from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, despite the objections of the San Francisco Giants. In Oakland the A’s had the lowest average attendance in the majors last year, and must play in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum. Just last week Forbes Magazine ranked the team dead last in value of all thirty big league franchises. As usual in the off-season, Beane was busy trading players who he knew he would soon no longer be able to afford for young prospects. But he did make one surprising move, signing 26-year old Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to a 4-year, $36 million deal. If the A’s do eventually move to a market where they can generate some revenue, and if Cespedes lives up to his hype, he could be the cornerstone around which Beane could build a viable team.

Yet as much as both these teams are about youth and the future, the stars for each in the two games in Japan were a couple of old guys whose best days are unquestionably behind them. Age seemed to finally catch up with Suzuki last year. He batted a career low .272, and for the first time since coming to Seattle failed to record 200 hits, was not voted to the All-Star team, and failed to win a Gold Glove. But in the new season’s opening contest, to the raucous delight of a sold-out crowd of 44,000, the 38-year old Ichiro went 4 for 5 and drove in the final run as the Mariners beat the A’s 3-1 in 11 innings. It was his first appearance in his homeland since he left for Seattle in 2001, and he was celebrated with standing ovations both before the game during player introductions and again at the end when he took his position in right field for the last of the 11th.

One day later it was another 38-year old, the well-traveled right hander Bartolo Colon who threw a three-hit gem for Oakland, as the A’s won 4-1. Colon has pitched for seven different teams during a major league career that began in 1997, including twice with the White Sox. While wearing an Angels uniform in 2005 he went 21-8 and won the AL Cy Young Award. But starting in 2006 he was increasingly plagued by injuries, missing time in every season thereafter. With damage to his rotator cuff, ligaments, and tendons in his throwing arm he missed all of the 2010 season and his career seemed finished. But after showing some promise on the mound in winter ball in Puerto Rico, the Yankees offered Colon a minor league contract and a chance to make their 2011 roster. To the surprise of just about everyone except possibly himself, Colon broke camp with the team as a long relief option in the bullpen, but shortly moved into the starting rotation when Phil Hughes proved first ineffective and then injured. While he ultimately wore down after the All-Star break, Colon threw 162 innings, the most he had pitched since his Cy Young year. For a mere $900,000 Colon gave the Yankees all they could have possibly hoped for and then some.

Perhaps because he had seemed to run out of gas as the season wore on New York opted to let Colon move on after 2011. Now wearing the green and gold of Oakland, he was almost unhittable on Thursday. He threw 86 pitches over eight innings, 63 for strikes. He surrendered just the three hits and but a single run, and struck out six while giving up just one free pass.

The young kids on both teams had their moments as well. King Felix threw eight strong innings for Seattle in the opener, and Ackley homered in the 7th and drove in the eventual winning run with a single in the 11th. In the second game Smoak’s homer produced the one run off Colon. Meanwhile Cespedes hit his first major league home run to provide Oakland’s margin of victory in the second game, and 25-year old right fielder Josh Reddick added a solo shot right after.

Of course these were but the first two games of the longest season. Both teams have 160 more to go, and the truth is that for both the odds are very good that more of those games will end in defeat than in victory. But for the moment, even after going hitless in the second game, 38-year old Ichiro Suzuki leads the majors with a .444 batting average; and for the moment 38-year old Bartolo Colon is tied with Hernandez for the lowest ERA in the majors at 1.13. The future for both Seattle and Oakland may rest with their youth; but for two days in Japan, it was a couple of aging veterans who stepped up to lead the way.

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