CLEVELAND -- The Mariners were a popular pick to be a "surprise" team this season, which, frankly, kind of ruins the surprise in the event that the surprise even occurs. They sealed their sleeper status with a Spring Training assault on opposing arms. They were a source of curiosity, much like Eric Wedge's goatee.
Well, nearly two months into the season itself, Wedge's facial hair is awesomely intact, but it's hard to know what to make of the Mariners.
They just got swept in four games by the Indians, losing one game in the bottom of the ninth after mounting a stunning comeback in the top of the inning, losing another when catcher Jesus Montero took his foot off the plate on a pivotal play, losing a third when Felix Hernandez was uncharacteristically out of sorts and losing a fourth thanks to not one, but two late-inning errors at first base that negated some homer heroics against a tough Cleveland bullpen.
"We're just on the south side of things right now," Wedge said. "We've played seven games on this road trip and easily could have won six of them. So we're that close."
Close but no contender.
At least, not yet.
The Mariners had an abnormally challenging early schedule -- 30 games in 31 days to start the season and a current stretch of 14 of 17 on the road -- and now they are already 9 1/2 games back of a Rangers team that is abnormally hot. So they have doubled-down on the difficulty of going from worst to first in the AL West, though at least the whims of the Wild Card are always in play.
Current state and standings aside, there are real reasons for optimism here. Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will have more excellent games than otherwise, a deep bullpen loaded with hard throwers will protect more late-inning leads than it blows, a more veteran lineup won't go through those interminable stretches of ineptitude that were once the Seattle standard and there are some darn good prospects waiting in the wings.
But there are also developmental difficulties that are keeping the M's from making "The Leap," so to speak.
They are waiting on the 26-year-old Justin Smoak, just as they have been from the day he came to the organization in the July 2010 Cliff Lee trade. They are waiting on the 23-year-old Montero, the much-ballyhooed bat who arrived from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda swap (and yes, the Yanks are still waiting on Pineda). They are waiting on the 25-year-old Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.
These are the three guys the Mariners planned to build around, and while there are flashes of potential (Ackley's grand slam in a win over the Blue Jays, Montero's decisive opposite-field blast in a win over the Pirates, Smoak's 10th-inning homer Monday that nearly served as the go-ahead), it's a simple fact that none has yet hit as projected or expected. And that's the primary reason the Mariners remain a lower-rung offensive unit, ranking 26th in runs per game.
"What's important with young players is you can't put a timetable on them," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "There's just no way to judge it because everybody acts differently. It's just taking steps, progress. That's the important thing, and I think you're seeing signs of that."
Zduriencik had an interesting offseason, making a strong play for two of the Hot Stove's most high-profile commodities -- Josh Hamilton in free agency and Justin Upton in the trade market. But Hamilton turned down the Mariners' money and Upton turned down their trade. Beyond that, the M's weren't serious bidders for the likes of Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn. They went instead with short-term solutions -- Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay -- to help improve the club's famously futile offensive attack.
These were sound, solid moves, but the overall success of the short-term investments is directly tied to the cementing of a young core.
Kyle Seager has developed into a productive third baseman, and Michael Saunders has shown the ability to jumpstart a lineup. Largely, though, the core hasn't come in line with the reinforcements brought in from the outside. One of the hardest aspects of a job like Zduriencik's is knowing when or if the elements will align. Thus far, they haven't.
"You have to be prepared when opportunities present themselves, because you never know," Zduriencik said. "As an organization, I like where we're at. Pretty much, we're a young club up here, we have a really good bullpen, our top prospects are in the Double-A and Triple-A level, which is very good. As an organization, we're a very healthy organization. We just have to take the next step."
That next step is complicated. It could mean backing off the Montero-as-catcher experiment and bringing up Mike Zunino. It could mean backing off Ackley and giving Nick Franklin a shot. The decisions take a keen evaluative eye, because Ackley and Smoak are in that mid-20s area where the sample size is piling up and Montero is in that state where you wonder if he's better served just dropping the catcher's glove and concentrating completely on his offense.
This series illustrated, in often weird ways, that the Mariners are close, but not yet a finished product. If they learn and grow from tough stretches like this, perhaps there are some surprises in store.