Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said after 50 games he would know what kind of team he had. They have played 51 and are three games below .500 and twice of late have failed to rise above that mark. They are not a playoff team at present and most likely will not be. Even with over 100 games to play there is no sign they will get better.
In 2014 the M’s hit .244 next to last in the American League. After 51 games they are hitting .236 and only the Brewers .227 average is worse. Their .297 on base percentage is 28th in baseball. On the positive side they are slugging at a .396 clip, 16th in baseball. But since they are 28th in runs it means most of the home runs are solo blasts.
They are also 5th in baseball in batters striking out. That means not putting the ball in play; at least fly balls and ground balls have the chance to advance runners. Mike Zunino is striking out at a 42% clip. He is batting .183 and while I would loved to see him begin to hit, no team can carry a catcher, no matter how good is defense, if he is an offensive liability. An occasional home run does not help. Hitting below .200 for two consecutive seasons will bring into question of what to do with him in 2016.
Currently the Mariners have three hitters above .500. Nelson Cruz .333, Kyle Seager .277, and Seth Smith .262. Robinson Cano keeps swinging at balls out of the zone is batting an un-Cano .246. Dustin Ackley can catch the ball, can not throw it home, and is hitting .185.
Ackley and Zunino are the new Justin Smoak. Whenever Smoak got on one of his rare one week hitting binges, Mariner broadcaster Mike Blowers and others would bring out the old line, “it looks like he has it figured out now.” Of course Justin would go into a hitting funk lasting a month, then another brief fling of hitting brought out the tiresome cliché. When the 2015 season started and Ackley was hot, the cliché came out again, “it looks like Dustin has it figured out.” Wrong! When ever Zunino has a two hit game, we hear it again. Enough already. Neither has it figured out-as yet.
When the season started the Mariners wanted either Brad Miller or Chris Taylor to take the shortstop job. Neither has. Taylor, now in Tacoma, couldn’t hit, and Miller’s throws to first are not unlike a Fernando Rodney experience. And now Miller is not hitting.
Last season the Mariners got by with the best pitching in baseball, but that is not the case this year. Iwakuma is disabled and it is questionable whether he will return to his former self. James Paxton on the DL with a finger strain weakens the starting five and the bullpen has been inconsistent. Danny Farquhar, now in Tacoma is being stretched out to become a starting pitcher. It is a fail safe move in case Mike Montgomery, starting tonight against the Yankees, is not the answer with Paxton gone. So much for Mariner depth, the illusion of spring. The bullpen has been charged with 13 of the 27 losses.
The truth is there are no signs this is a playoff team. A weak hitting catcher, no shortstop, no left fielder, lack of hitting, too many players striking out, no depth in starting pitching, and an inconsistent bullpen are not signs of a playoff team. Wait till next year.
Other than pitching the Seattle Mariners infield was a strong suit in 2014 and will again in 2015. Robinson Cano, though tailing off in September, finished with a .314 average, 14 homers, and 82 RBI’s. His home run production dropped, but consider he spent his previous years in the band box of Yankee Stadium, a home run haven. While 100 RBI’s would be nice, consider the one and two slots in the order fluctuated greatly, with Abraham Almonte, James Jones, and then Austin Jackson batting leadoff and none were proficient at getting on base. The same was true of the number two slot until Dustin Ackley finally settled in.
Kyle Seager at third is also a sure thing with a .268 average, 26 home runs, and 96 RBI’s. He also works extremely hard on his defense, certainly a Gold Glove caliber candidate. One of those SABR mathematicians calculated this summer that the A’s John Donaldson was the best defensive third baseman in the American League and Seager was second.
I am including Mike Zunino among the infielders because I can. He is also a lock despite a .199 average. He hit 22 homers with 60 RBI’s and those numbers along with his ability to handle pitchers, call a game, and block pitches will keep him in the lineup. As long as his hitting improves he should be behind the plate for quite some time.
Now we get to the open positions at first and short. Justin Smoak is unlikely to return. His lack of production speaks for itself. In 2014 .202 with 7 homers and 30 RBI’s in 80 games. He lost his job to Logan Morrison. He is scheduled to make $3,650,000 in 2015, but the Mariners can buy out his contract for $150,000. The Mariners have the buyout option since he did not reach 525 plate appearances.
Morrison who signed a one year contract in the previous offseason is still under Mariner control, though he is arbitration eligible, and will not be a free agent until 2017. He hit .262 with 11 homers and 38 rbis in 99 games. Five of his homers and 11 of his RBI;s came in September when he hit .342. His main job for now is to man first base until D.J. Peterson, the Mariners Minor League Player of the Year is ready. That could be sometime in 2015,
Shortstop is up for grabs between Chris Taylor, a right handed batter-which the Mariners need-hitting .287 in 136 at bats, but no homers and only 9 RBI’s and Brad Miller, .221-10-36. It could be a spring training completion, though Mariner Manager Lloyd McClendon has hinted that Miller could be a super sub. It is also very possible that one could be packaged with a relief pitcher and a young pitcher for a strong right handed bat.
What Seattle needs is a DH. Corey Hart is already gone and Kendrys Morales most likely will be as well. One switch hitter on the free agent market is the Tigers Victor Martinez who hit .335 with 32 homers (career high) and 103 RBI’s. And he can play first base if needed. His last contract was 4 years and $50 million. He will be 36 next season. If he wants 4 years what is the price and will the Mariners be willing to pay. The Mariners have said the payroll will increase, but how much?
Stay tuned for an interesting off season as Jack pursues both a bat or two and a starting pitcher. Next blog we’ll look at the outfield.
I had thought that Jesus Montero, Endy Chavez, Logan Morrison, or Stephan Romero would be sent to Tacoma to make room for Justin Smoak, Corey Hart and Michael Saunders when they were eligible to return from their rehab assignment at AAA Tacoma.
Montero was sent down, as was Romero. Saunders came up, but so did Brandon Maurer, now a relief pitcher. Starting didn’t work for him, but he has been great out of the pen.
Things change though and a few things are keeping Hart and Smoak in Tacoma. One is that Chavez and Morrison both got hot; Chavez went from the .220’s to hitting in the .260’s and Morrison from .160’s to the 230’s. Meanwhile Hart in 33 at bats is hitting .273 with a homer and 4 rbis. Not bad, but Smoak is hitting .220 with a homer and 3 rbis in 41 at bats.
Besides Chavez and Morrison making big contributions there is one more reason why Smoak and Hart are stuck in Tacoma. It is the rule of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The Mariners are hot having won eight of ten. They are currently seven games above .500 at 45-38 and are in the wild card picture. The chemistry seems good, so why tinker when there is no player who should be sent down.
Okay there is one and only one player. The Mariners currently have 13 pitchers and 12 position players on the 25 man roster. If they continue to keep 13 pitchers then only one player could be sent down and the only player not making contributions is Dustin Ackley. Batting .214 with 4 homers and only 27 at bats in 74 games, he is in a 2-28 slump and has not gotten a hit since June 22nd.
With Smoak floundering in Tacoma and Morrison hitting with Seattle that leaves Hart as a possible call up with Ackley-providing he still has options left-being sent back to AAA. He has been a huge disappointment since being the Mariners number one pick, second overall in the 2009 draft. (The number one pick was Stephen Strasburg). Ouch! That hurts like a 100 miles per hour fastball plunking your elbow.
Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, and Corey Hart are all on rehab in Tacoma, but at some point they will be return to Seattle and three players will either be sent to Tacoma or released.
Since Cole Gillespie and Stefan Romero both bat from the right side and M’s need batters right handed bats, they are likely to stay, though Romero batting .204 could find himself in Tacoma when Saunders returns. The outfielder most in danger is Endy Chavez hitting .224. He is one of those bench players who always seems to find different ways to contribute and that could keep him in Seattle. Tough call either way for Jackie Z and Lloyd McClendon.
Logan Morrison would have been the odd man out with Smoak’s return. Morrison was hitting .164 in 61 at bats, but Monday night against Boston went 4-4 with 2 homers, raising his average to .215. With McClendon, if you are hot you play, so Morrison would DH when Smoak returns. Smoak is batting .208 with 7 homers and 29 rbis. He is an excellent defensive player at first, but for every hot week he has, Smoak has three weeks of abject, rally floundering futility. He is a favorite of Jackie Z which means Mariner fans will suffer through the 2014 season. He will be a free agent at the end of the season and if he is resigned Mariner fans should boycott Safeco Field.
When Hart returns that means Jesus Montero will head back to Tacoma. Montero is 4 for 14 with a homer. He is the fallback should Hart struggle when he returns. Hart was hitting .209 with 5 homers an 17 rbis in 37 games. As an injury plagued player that makes Montero an important bat to keep warm with the Rainiers. Even if send down, he is likely to return.
Jackie Z and McClendon have some difficult decisions to make. Chavez, Montero, and who?
A record of 3-1 with a 2.73 ERA sounds good, but the numbers, as often can be in baseball, are misleading.
In his first four starts King Felix was 3-0, winning his first three before a no decision. He pitched 28 1/3 innings, allowed only 18 hits and 6 runs. And he struck out 39 walking only 3. His ERA was 1.91. Those are kingly numbers.
But in his last four starts, he pitched 24 1/3 innings giving up 29 hits and 10 runs. He struck out 14 and walked 9. He was 0-1 with 3 no decisions. What is really worrisome is that in his last start against Oakland 6 1/3 innings and zero strikeouts. What? King Felix not getting a strikeout. That has not happened since 2008 against the White Sox when he tossed 5 innings.
Strikeouts and King Felix go together like strawberries and cream, like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese Cup, like jam on toast, like maple syrup on pancakes. Can you tell it I am hungry?
The crazy thing is that his downslide occurred during the Mariners hot streak that saw them erase an eight game losing streak, winning 9 of 11 before losing the second game of the doubleheader in Oakland.
A couple of starts Felix was reportedly sick, struggling to get through innings. He even took himself out of the Houston start after five innings as he was too tired, too sick to go on.
In his next start against Oakland he was well, but still struggled, as mentioned with the zero K’s. It could be his strength is not yet back. It could be Oakland has already seen him twice and are making adjustments.
In the past Felix carried the Mariners, truly an ace. But the Mariners have displayed clutch hitting of late, especially in extra innings. Justin Smoak leads the majors with 19 two out rbis. He is batting over .350 from the 7th inning on. Seager, Cano, and others all contributing late inning heroics. And Roenis Elias is quickly becoming a reliable starter to go with Felix and Iwakuma.
If Felix can get back on track and the M’s clutch hitting continues the Mariners should have a nice season. But is Felix well?
One Mariner who has already been benched is Abraham Almonte, but two others are on the verge of losing theirs.
Almonte lost his job because at the time of the benching he was leading the league in strikeouts and batting below the Mendoza line at .198. He also struggled in the field making two errors in one game. Michael Saunders who replaced him is hot, hot, hot. 8 for 18 batting leadoff with 4 rbis. As long as he hits, he plays.
Brad Miller may find himself in Tacoma soon. He is hitting .188 and the Mariners offense is such they can’t afford to keep that average in the lineup. Though Nick Franklin could return, the Mariners may take a look at Chris Taylor, batting .361 at Tacoma with 11 doubles, 2 triples, 3 homers, 16 rbis, and 5 steals. He has made only three errors in 26 games. He was a team mate of pitcher Danny Hultzen at Virginia.
Franklin is doing well in Tacoma, hitting .324 with 4 homers and 15 rbis, but I feel the Mariners would like to see what Taylor can do at the major league level.
Another problem is Charlie Furbush who is 0-3 with a 7.71 ERA. Fifteen hits in 9.1 innings allowing eight runs will get any pitcher in a doghouse, even a lefty. Lucas Luetge could be recalled, but he has not fared well either. Unless they want to bring up a righty from Tacoma, Furbush will stay on the Good Ship Mariner.
Dustin Ackley is batting .241 with one homer and 12 rbis. Traditionally left field is a power spot and Ackley has little. It could be, that like Justin Smoak, Ackley has settled into a .240 hitter. I doubt the M’s will make change here unless Dustin drops further down, but without help in Tacoma he will probably platoon with Cole Gillespie. The M’s do like James Jones .313 in Tacoma. If Dustin falters look for a Jones call up.
And lastly, when either Taijuan walker or James Paxton is ready it is adios Brandon Maurer. No explanation needed here.
The Mariners were hitting the ball everywhere in spring training and in the season opening series in Anaheim, the Mariners swept the Angels by hitting the ball everywhere, just like spring training. In fact they pounded the Angels outscoring them 26-8 with 18 runs coming with two outs, hitting .429 with runners in scoring position. They outhit the Angels 34-17.
There were many questions that needed answers: Would Justin Smoak finally do something this year? He was 6 for 13, 2 doubles, 2 homers, 7 rbis. Would Dustin Ackley get untracked? He was 4 for 11, a double and triple with 4 rbis. Can Corey Hart come back from his year off? He is 3 for 9 with a home run. Would rookies Abraham Almonte and Stefen Romero hit major league pitching? Romero went hitless in first game then got two hits Wednesday night, one an rbi double. Almonte is 3-13 with 2 doubles and 2 rbis. Zunino the young catcher is hitting .333 with a triple and homer. Brad Miller had a 2 homer game and is hitting .333 And that Cano guy is hitting .455.
Are the questions answered?
No, but give them credit for doing what they did in the spring. For once the Mariners are off to a good start at 3-0.
And Pitching? Erasmo Ramirez following King Felix in the rotation pitched 7 innings, 6 k’s, no walks, and 2 runs. Wednesday, lefty James Paxton, who one pretentious reporter covering the Mariners claims should be a reliever, likening Paxton to Eric Bedard, was even better, pitching 7, allowing 2 hits, walking 2, and striking out 9. Paxton is 5-0 as a starter with a 1.16 ERA. In 31 innings, 30 k’s and 17 hits. Bullpen? I say BS. Paxton watched tape of fellow lefty Clayton Kershaw and based on what he saw, changed his delivery and you can see the results.
We have yet to see the young Cuban Roenis Elias or Chris Young making his comeback. But so far, so good.
Yes there will be rough waters during the 2014 cruise, every team has them. Time will answer all questions, but for now enjoy the smooth sailing.