Can the Mariners Become Relevant?

The Mariner Moose, mascot of the Seattle Mariners.

The Seattle Mariner‘s 2nd half to the 2013 Major League Baseball season commences this evening and the hope of the team becoming relevant still exists. And since my hope and prayer at the start of the season was that this long time cellar dweller would remain relevant until the time that the Seahawk season got underway, I remain hopeful.

Prior to this week’s MLB All-Star break the Mariner’s had their first 3-game series sweep of the season against the Los Angeles Angels, and had gone 8-5 over the previous 13 games against some tough competition including Boston, Texas, and Cincinnati; all playoff contending teams. What makes this short stretch of winning noteworthy is that it coincides directly with the recent call-ups of promising rookies, and improved performance from other young players. With the expected return of some valuable veteran pieces of the team in the next 1-3 weeks, and a much more favorable schedule than was the start of the season, Seattle has realistic hopes of a .500 season or as mentioned earlier…staying relevant before the NFL season completely wipes them from the consciousness of every Puget Sound sports fan.

Seattle Mariners

Seattle currently starts 3 pure rookies in the regular every-day lineup; all of whom have joined the team in the past 6 weeks. Nick Franklin first, followed by Mike Zunino, and finally Brad Miller have all made the team better in spite of their inexperience. It matters not if these three are or become All-Stars or perform up to the high expectations each one possesses. At least not at this point. What matter’s is they perform better than who preceded them in their positions and they make the team better. That they are doing…not that it was a high bar to leap.

Franklin took the place of Dustin Ackley at 2nd base. His solid defense has been comparable to Ackley, which surprises some. Not surprising is how Franklin’s bat has become a tremendous boost compared to the increasingly ineffective Ackley. Franklin, currently hitting .268, with 6 HRs and a .788 OPS (On base-plus-Slugging percentage), is a huge leap from where Ackley sat (.205, 1, .522 currently)  when he was sent to Triple A Tacoma to learn how to hit again in late May. Whether Franklin can continue is unknown. But he can almost assuredly do better than what his predecessor performed over the past 1 1/2 years.

Zunino is much the same. His numbers of .230 Avg., 1 HRs, and .575 OPS are not lighting the world on fire, but, again, they represent a significant improvement over what was being posted by the team of catchers who preceded him Jesus Montero, Kelley Shoppach, and Jesus Sucre. And the is no contest when assessing last year’s top draft pick versus Montero, Shoppach, and Sucre’s defense. He is a pleasure to watch behind the plate. He blocks balls in the dirt, moves to stop wild pitches, and is such a threat to throw out base stealers Seattle is already seeing a measurable decline in stolen bases and attempted steals.

Brad Miller has been with the team the least amount of time. But we’ve been calling for him or Carlos Truinfel or Franklin to replace the no-stick Brendan Ryan since this time last year. Ryan’s defense is outstanding. But his complete and utter lack of any kind of offensive is not a liability this team can stand when so many others in their line-up have proven nearly as inept. Miller has done well in the 16 games he has played and over the next year is expected to improve, as are Franklin and Zunino.

Franklin like Zunino is a former first round draft choice. Miller is a 2nd round pick. Second year player Kyle Seager is the teams most dependable offensive force and was a 3rd round pick. Ackley, who now mans Center Field and is displaying modest improvement at the plate is also a former 1st round draft pick, as is 1st baseman Justin Smoak; though Smoak was a Texas Ranger’s draft choice. All of these guys are young. All were high draft picks. And at least for a short period recently are performing up to or close to their expectations.

Right Fielder Michael Saunders is another young guy who has raised his batting average 15-points over the past 10 games and seems to have finally found the stroke that made last year so successful for him. While still only averaging .225, his on-base-percentage of .303, base-stealing capabilities and above-average defense make him at-least serviceable. And like we wrote, he’s on an upswing. We’ll see.

I’ve not even mentioned the solid performances of Kendry Morales and Raul Ibanez all season, or of Smoak in the past 2 months. All three, along with Seager, have OPS of .800 or higher. The team can also count on the return to productivity of OF Michael Morse soon. When healthy he is a stud. Franklin Gutierrez is still expected to contribute. He could return by August.

The team’s bullpen could get a needed boost from the return to health of Steven Pryor, who just began a rehab assignment. Felix Hernandez and Isashi Iwakuma were All Stars. Joe Saunders has been mostly solid as the third starter; though he has had a couple of big blooper blowouts. But what team’s #3 pitcher hasn’t. And after a horrible start to the season Aaron Harang is proving to be a pretty good #4 starter. Again, a blooper here and there isn’t welcome but is also not uncommon for a team’s 4th starter. It’s the #5 starting position that remains a concern. Jeremy Bonderman was let go and rookie Erasimo Ramirez was shelled his first time out. I am not confident in Ramirez. Though the Mariners are. So we’ll see.

We’ll see? That sums up the rest of the Mariner’s season. I’m not a complete dreamer. I don’t expect them to be playoff contenders. But I do think they can get back to a .500 season and wet our appetite for the 2014 season. And at bare minimum, they should have relevancy in the minds of diehards like me until the presumed Super Bowl season of the Seattle Seahawks gets under-way. I like being optimistic. It beats the alternative.

Thanks for visiting. Comments are welcome.

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Mariners Breaking My Heart

Safeco Field

Safeco Field 

 

We’ve reached the Major League baseball All-Star break and I’m overwhelmed with one recurring thought regarding my beloved Seattle Mariners…when does Seahawks Training Camp begin. This season’s Mariners season might be the most disappointing for me to date.

As I wrote in this blog before Spring Training, Really Looking Forward to Mariner Season, I wasn’t expecting a playoff team. I was expecting a team that would show considerable improvement over the debacles of the previous two seasons. So far, what improvement there has been, if any, has been so slight it doesn’t merit booking playoff dreams in 2013, 2014 or any time in the foreseeable future. And the future is never foreseeable.

 

Seattle enters this four day break with the worst record in the American League, fifth worst in baseball. Their team batting average is .230. For a whole season that would be the 2nd worst in franchise history, topped, or bottomed, only by last year’s .224 average. The lone bright spots are outfielder Michael Saunders and 3rd baseman Kyle Seager.  But after 3 years of failing to make a good impression at the Major League level and his teammates ineptitude Saunder’s .257 batting average and mere 25 RBI is inflated in the eyes of media and fans. Should we really be THAT excited about an outfielder that at best projects to a 50 rbi-guy in his 4th year of MBL service? And Seager wasn’t expected to make the team in Spring Training, did well, opened the season strong but has fallen off to a .243 average. His HRs and RBIs, 10 and 52, still project well. But it remains to be seen if he can pull himself out of his current long slump. And like Saunders, we’re all way to excited about a guy with a .243 average only because it exceeds what was expected and looks so favorable compared to teammates.

Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak remain the biggest disappoints, given the franchise’s future high expectations were largely built on the 1st and 2nd basemen. Ackley can be sent down to AAA Tacoma for some more schooling. But other than Smoak there is no other full-time first-baseman on either the Mariner’s roster or Tacoma’s. So sending down Smoak isn’t an easy answer. Who’s going to replace him?

The Mariner’s offensive ineptitude is particularly acute at home, at Safeco Field, where they collectively bat .197 for the season, and mustered only 1 run per game during their recent 10-game homestand. Talk of bringing in the fences continues to be thrown out for discussion by restless beat writers. But a simple and available partial solution continues to be ignored by the Mariners management. Closing the Safeco Field roof more frequently is an advantage to the home team offensive that mysteriously gets no discussion. Miller Park in Milwaukee and Toronto’s Roger’s Centre (formerly Skydome) regularly keep their roofs closed, even on clear-sky days. Doing so warms the air and allows the baseball’s to fly better off the hitter’s bats. But Seattle fans continue to shiver during 40 and 50 degree nights while watching the most offensively inept team in MLB since the advent of the Designated hitter.

Seattle’s refusal to make tough decisions on veterans infects this franchise like no other I’ve ever seen. Ichiro is clearly not the spectacular hitter he once was. He hit .271 all last season and is hitting only .261 this season with an on-base percentage of less than .300, worst in the league. And as mediocre as those numbers are for most major-leaguers they’re made absolutely pedestrian by the total lack of power from the Japanese future-Hall-of-Famer. Manager Eric Wedgefinally moved Ichiro from the lead-off spot he is no longer suited to hold, and batted him #2 for the last two games against Oakland before the break. It remains to be seen if this is a permanent move. Ichiro should be allowed to finish his season here in Seattle. Then let him drift away back to Japan for an honorable retirement. His weak bat an 39 year old age make him no asset to a Mariner team seemingly more interested in nostalgia than winning.

English: Ken Griffey in June 2009.

Ken Griffey Jr

Ken Griffey Junior being the most recent previous example of this franchise holding too tightly to a star’s past glory long since vanished.

Chone Figgins

Chone Figgins 

And Seattle’s unwillingness to cut Chone Figgins is understandable, given his contract, but unforgivable given the team’s poor play and the fact that other younger more capable players are being deprived learning experiences every time Wedge marches Figgins out onto the field with his pathetic .186 average. Seattle needs to eat the remaining 1 1/2 years on Figgins contract and call it what it is, a failed free-agent signing. Then move on with the younger guys. I’m fairly confident Tacoma’s AAA outfielders Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero, or Mike Wilson could manage a .186 average while having more HR pop than the diminutive Figgins. And being career minor leaguers thier MLB minimum salaries shouldn’t be a money concern like Figgins’ contract.

And speaking of Tacoma, Seattle’s highest level minor league affiliate is currently 38-51 on the season, last in their division and 4th worst in the entire Pacific Coast League. So much for building the franchise through the minor-league system.

English: Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik a...

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik at Mariners FanFest 2011. 

So a couple of things are clear for the remainder of the Mariner season. One-hitting coach Chris Chambliss has to go. I’m not saying the poor offense is his fault. But given such limited options for fixing the problem, and given 2 seasons of the worst offense any where at any time some new ideas wouldn’t hurt. Second- General Manager Jack Zduriencik may need to start polishing up his resume. He’s had nearly four years to make the team better. It isn’t working. My patience is through. I’m really disappointed. And I can’t wait to see Matt Flynn throw the football.

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Seattle Mariners: No Hit.

Safeco Field in Seattle.

Safeco Field in Seattle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the 21st time in the 120 years of Major League Baseball history a pitcher threw a perfect game Saturday in Seattle at Safeco Field. Chicago White Sox pitcher Phillip Humber (pronounced um-ber) threw only 96 pitches to go through the 27 outs without allowing a single runner on base necessary to record a nine inning perfect pitching performance. It’s instructive to note who it is that did the pitching, and who this amazing feat was accomplished against. In summary it marked the death of my optimism for an interesting season of growth for my home town Mariners who I no longer feel are “up-and-coming”.

Humber should be lavishly praised for inserting his name into the same pantheon of pitchers to record such a day’s performance. Most of the 21 perfect games were accomplished by pitchers of significant career achievement. The list includes John Montgomery Ward, Cy Young, Don Larson, Sandy Koufax, Catfish Hunter, Dennis Martinez, Kenny Rogers, David Cone, David Wells, Mark Buehrle, Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson.  All Hall of Famers or NEAR-Hall of Famers. Humber is 29 years old and has an 11-10 career record. And while he may yet develop into an All-Star caliber pitcher he is already past the age when most pitchers establish the arc of their careers. And his arc is decidedly mediocre at best.

The Mariners who ignominiously inserted themselves into the loser side of this historic story included not one hitter with a batting average above the pedestrian level of .275.

Miguel Olivo

The nine man lineup included two, Miguel Olivo and Japanese Rookie Munenori Kawasaki, hitting well , well, well below the long-established “Mendoza Line” for offensive futility. And first baseman Justin Smoak at .203 and Michael Saunders at .209 are just above the .200 level Hall of Famer George Brett named for the former Mariner shortstop Mario Mendoza 30 years ago. To say the Mariner lineup was and is weak is equivalent to saying Tom Brady is a good quarterback. It’s an obvious understatement.

Three months ago after the Mariner’s failed to sign Prince Fielder and instead traded for catcher Jesus Montero to bulk up their impotent offense I wrote of my optimism for an interesting season. A season that wouldn’t rise to the level of the Mariners being a playoff contender but would feature a lot of up-and-coming young stars who would forge a better season than either of the past two years and establish a strong foundation for winning seasons in the near future. But what has Manager Eric Wedge done since then? He inserted Chone Figgins into the lead-off spot in the lineup where he is currently hitting .226 after slapping a measly .180 last season. He has continued to use Olivo as his primary catcher though Olivo is only a .241 career hitter who hit only .224 last season and led MLB in pass-balls. This in spite of the Mariner’s acquiring not only the 23-year-old Montero but also veteran catcher John Jaso. Jaso started over 130 games for the playoff contending Tampa Rays over the past two years and in limited duty has been among the Mariner leaders this season in RBI and batting average.

Michael Saunders

Michael Saunders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that Michael Saunders in flounder in replacing the injured Franklin Gutierrez is no surprise. I question why he was on the roster at the start of Spring Training to begin with. This is Saunders 4th season with Seattle. He hit .149 in 2011 and a career best .221 way back in 2009. While Saunders continues to flail Casper Wells sits on the bench, presumably counting empty seats at Safeco Field. Wells is only 27 years old and has a career .264 batting average in just two Major League seasons. And he also plays above average defense.

I strongly suspect Wedge is getting strong encouragement from Mariner General Manager Jack Zduriencik to play Figgins, Saunders and Olivo in a desperate hope of letting these players revive or kick-start their careers or in order to justify Z-Man’s decision to acquire these flops. What other explanation could there be? To continue to play players with a long history of poor performance over other young players with a history of far superior performance doesn’t make sense.

Furthermore, to allow 1/3 of your lineup to be devoted to last-chance reclamation projects that appear to be failing while other parts of your lineup also continue to under perform is criminal. Smoak has started the year worse than the .234 season he posted during an injury filled 2011 campaign. 38-year-old Ichiro is hitting only .266 and showing that last seasons fall to .272 was not an anomaly, but a trend. Starting short-stop Brendan Ryan pinch-hit as the final out in yesterday’s historic game. He was being given the day off to contemplate his .200 batting average and erratic defense. And youngsters Montero and 2nd baseman Dustin Ackley  still show promise, but have started the season slowly.

All these players are hurt by two-thirds of the Mariners projected starting outfield being on the disabled list.

Mike Carp

Mike Carp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mike Carp injured his shoulder in the opening game of the year. And Gutierrez injured a pectoral muscle in Spring Training. Carp has begun a re-hab assignment in Tacoma. Gutierrez has not started any re-hab and the time of his return is uncertain, though easily weeks away. Nonetheless, neither Carp nor Gutierrez were sure bets to be strong performers this year. In their careers both have longer stretches of poor-to-mediocre play than good-to-great performing.

It’s time to start wondering whether Zderiencik’s plan is working. Seattle baseball fans haven’t seen playoff baseball in 11 years, and won’t see it this season. But after two seasons of historically weak offense little has been done to make the team more capable of scoring runs. I had put my faith in the fact that Zderiencik and Wedge knew more than I did and the younger players and weak performing veterans would HAVE TO do better this year than last. Here’s the crux of this blog. I can be wrong, and few people care. After more than a decade of mostly bad baseball Zderiencik and Wedge can’t be. Certainly not when their “Plan” involves a slow, patient re-building that isn’t working.

Perfect pitching performance? Sure. Congrats Phillip Humber. Pathetic sub-Major League caliber offense? Definitely!

Thanks for visiting. Comments are welcome.

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