Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: After 2015’s friction, Mariners aim for clubhouse harmony

Star second baseman Robinson Cano and the Mariners are hoping to bounce back from a dissapointing season in 2015.
Star second baseman Robinson Cano and the Mariners are hoping to bounce back from a dissapointing season in 2015. AP

Regarded as playoff contenders a year ago, the Mariners won their opener and never spent another day over .500.

Unlike some teams that bring levity to losing — Casey Stengel’s 1962 New York Mets, for instance — there was nothing amusing about a season that induced more yawns than Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.

Rumors weren’t spread about how a player threatened to punch the future Hall-of-Famer who holds the single-season hits record. Another future Hall-of-Famer didn’t get into his car on the afternoon of a night game and drive halfway to Florida.

As the season wore on and hope dissolved into resignation, no splashy trades were made. Dustin Ackley and his .215 batting average got sent to the Yankees for somebody named Ramon Flores and somebody else named Jose Ramirez. At least Ackley, the second overall selection of the 2009 draft, brought a return. When Willie Bloomquist and Rickie Weeks were released, they returned nothing.

Meanwhile, manager Lloyd McClendon kept the lowest of profiles, grumbling every so often about his wishes for the team “to pick things up.” But McClendon is an old-school sort who believes that what goes on behind the closed doors of a clubhouse is meant to stay behind closed doors.

Turns out, there was some friction behind the closed doors. We found that out last November, when former coach Andy Van Slyke admitted his disgust with second baseman Robbie Cano during a phone interview with a St. Louis radio station.

“Robbie Cano cost the general manager his job,” said Van Slyke, referring to deposed GM Jack Zduriencik. “The hitting coach (Howard Johnson) got fired because of Cano, because that’s how much impact he has on the organization. He was the worst player and it cost people their jobs in the process.

“He couldn’t get a hit when it mattered,” continued Van Slyke. “He played the worst defense I’ve ever seen at second. I mean the worst defense by a second baseman I’ve ever, ever seen in 20 years in the big leagues.”

Such candor would have been appreciated during any of 180 afternoons last season that found the Mariners unable to give fans something to talk about. But on a weekday night in November, long after the Seahawks and football reduced the Mariners and baseball to a footnote, Van Slyke’s career-ending rant — awkward to the point of comical — drew more shrugs than gasps around here.

But Cano heard every word, and explained the source of his trouble with Van Slyke during a Friday interview on 710 ESPN Seattle’s “Brock and Salk Show.” It began when Cano approached Brad Miller and suggested he take a pitch for the team.

“Sometimes you can help us if you’re hitting second, if you could take a pitch for us hitting behind you. We can see what the movement was on that pitch,” Cano recalled saying.

A few days later, “Andy came into my locker,” Cano went on, paraphrasing the conversation like this:

Van Slyke: “I know you talked to Miller, but I mean, you know, he’s a guy you cannot say anything to. When it comes to hitting, don’t talk to him.”

Cano: “That’s how you like it, perfect.”

The terse exchange between a coach with longtime ties to the manager and the slumping superstar with eight years remaining on a $240 million contract revealed a clubhouse culture best described as fractious.

McClendon had to know about Cano’s conversation with Miller, and yet assigned the job of telling Cano his advice was unwanted to a trusted lieutenant. I’m not sure if Cano lost respect for McClendon after that, but the jigsaw pieces awaiting new general manager Jerry Dipoto — McClendon out, Miller traded to Tampa Bay — are starting to fit.

Since replacing Zduriencik, Dipoto has emphasized the importance of communication. Everybody needs to be on the same page, from the last minor-league kid assigned to the roster for the Class-A short season in Everett to, well, Cano, who spent last season dealing with an injury, kept quiet, that required double-hernia surgery in October.

The appointment of Scott Servais as manager, despite his paucity of managerial experience, was steeped in Dipoto’s trust in Servais’ communication skills. Daily team meetings begin with fun and frivolity before the chalk talks.

It’s possible that the 2016 Mariners will turn out to be as dull and lethargic as the 2015 Mariners. I doubt that — the 2015 Mariners set the dull-and-lethargic bar extremely high — but baseball being baseball, I am braced for anything.

What won’t happen is an edgy exchange, between a coach and a player, about differences in hitting philosophy.

An organization that hasn’t sent its big-league affiliate to the playoffs since 2001 figures to be in same-page concert. Not necessarily a recipe for success, but preferable to the alternative of hearing an angry man on the radio, depriving himself of any future in the game he loves.