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.

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As Season Beckons We Have Optimism for Our Mariners

Looking toward Qwest (football) Field and Down...

Baseball season starts Monday for my Seattle Mariners and after years of low or no expectations we enter 2013 with just a we-tad bit of optimism. It seems possible, even likely, the Ms will have their first winning record since 2009. And while unlikely, I think we can have a prayer that our Northwest Nine can challenge for a playoff spot. Even if they don’t make it, how exciting would it be to have our baseball team hold our interests before falling out of contention at least until our beloved Seahawks get their Super Bowl season underway in early September.

Five things of undeniable significance allow me to hold this sense of optimism.

1. The young players have all got to get better, because they couldn’t do much worse.

2. The fences are coming in at Safeco Field.

3. The Houston Astros factor.

4. Oakland and Texas aren’t as good as last year.

5. Michael Morse and Kendry Morales are the real deal and great and necessary acquisitions.

First off, Seattle fans have had to endure some of the historically worst offenses in the history of Major League Baseball each of the past three seasons. The moribund offense was made so by being turned over to a bunch of diaper wearing toddlers who

English: Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik a...

Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik at Mariners FanFest

General Manager Jack Zduriencik placed high expectations on. Some of them didn’t live up to those lofty expectations and are gone (See Mike Carp, Trayvon Robinson). And only one came in and seemed to exceed expectations. That would be 3rd baseman Kyle Seager who took over the position by default  as a rookie last year and proceeded to lead the team in home runs (20) and RBI (86). Outfielder Michael Saunders last year was where 1st baseman Justin Smoak

Justin Smoak - Seattle - 2010 Home

is this year. It was his last chance to prove he can be a solid major league slugger. Saunders came through last year after four years of riding the Tacoma Express. Like he’s done before Smoak closed 2012 with a very impressive set of numbers in September, and like he’s done before he has carried it into a very impressive Spring Training. But in his three years since being acquired from Texas in the Cliff Lee trade he hasn’t hit except sporadically during the rest of the regular season. Manager Eric Wedge and

Justin Smoak

Justin Smoak

Zduriencik believe Smoak is going to do this year what Saunders did last. There is reason to believe them…this time.

The other former babies who must learn to walk this year are Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero. The 2nd baseman and the catcher both under achieved with their bats last year and since they were both labelled “can’t miss” prospects just two years ago Seattle can calculate an improvement in 2013.

Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners

Second, the fences are coming in at Safeco. Changing the field’s configurations will undoubtedly allow the team to hit more home runs. Besides adding confidence to players like Smoak who will benefit by the 17 foot difference in home-plate to outfield fence in left field, you can subtract the emotionally crushing, motivationally discouraging effects on players the cavernous feeling of the previous Safeco dimensions provided. More than a few times in recent years we’ve seen players sulk over a ball they CRUSHED getting caught on the warning track. And bringing in the fences will make it easier for outfielders to play defense at Safeco. This undoubtedly gave Zduriencik freedom to go after less-than-stellar defensive outfielders like Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, and Michael Morse; all of whom broke Spring Training in Cheney with the team and are expected to see a lot of action in the field this year since Morales is expected to hold down the designated hitter position regularly.

Seattle gets to play the

Gulf Coast League Astros

Houston Astros 19 times this year, and gets to play the Angels, Rangers, and A’s 19 fewer times. Houston had the worst record in baseball last year in the National League Central and many believe they’ll actually be worse this year. And while it’s true the other American League West teams get to play the Astros 19 times too, it’s much more significant for Seattle because Seattle will play a worse team rather than better teams each of those 19 times. The Angels, Ranger, and A’s will be substituting many of their games with Astros from a schedule that had them playing Seattle more where the results would be about the same.

Absolutely nobody expected Oakland to win the division last year. Few expect them to repeat, and most expect that last year was an aberration. The Rangers just lost Josh Hamilton, their best player. And they didn’t replace him with anybody. Nuff said.

Michael Morse

Michael Morse

Morse hit his 9th home run of the Spring yesterday, setting a new Mariner Cactus League record. I liked him tremendously when he played as a rookie shortstop and part-time outfielder with the Mariners in 2008. Hitting either #3 or clean up will be such a tremendous improvement for Seattle’s offense.

Kendry Morales

Kendry Morales

And Morales is also a huge improvement, whether he hits #3 or 4. Both players have hit 30 home runs in a season and unlike past veteran acquisitions by this franchise these guys are not so deep into their careers to be nearing their inevitable age-required decline or have it well underway. Morse is 31. Morales is only 29.

Seattle can win between 83-85 games this year. That 8-10 win improvement over last season’s 75-87 team can be mathematically expected just based on the 19 games against the Astros, all other things staying equal. But things are not equal. The Mariner pitching on paper (at least) is equal to last year, with hopeful expectations that some of their minor leagues can make late season appearances and improve the starting rotation. The offense is considerably better. Call me crazy but I’m predicting 88-89 wins and a pennant race at least into the start of September. God I hope I’m right. It would be so much fun.

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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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