The Seattle Mariners are way back in the American League West, 10 ½ games behind the Texas Rangers coming into Wednesday’s games. The Mariners aren’t much closer in the wild-card picture, where they’re nine off the pace. But the season isn’t quite to the halfway point and we always see a team or two we don’t expect make a surge. Could Seattle be that team?
This is a pertinent topic on my Monday podcast appearances over at Prime Sports Network, as host Greg DePalma picked the Mariners to win the World Series at the start of the year, and is still insistent that if they can just make the playoffs, the 1-2 punch their starting rotation can deliver makes them a good longshot bet to go all the way.
The latter point is true enough, with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma leading the pitching staff. But whether or not there’s enough help to make this a postseason topic is the question our MLB coverage will seek to answer today.
THREE KEY CHANGES
When your record is 34-44 and you don’t have players with a recent history of success, there need to be changes and Seattle has made three significant ones, affecting the everyday lineup, the starting rotation and the bullpen.
*In late May the organization called up Nick Franklin to play second base. Franklin has immediately made an impact with the bat, posting a stat line of .355 on-base percentage/.479 slugging percentage.
*After Brandon Maurer was a big disappointment in the rotation, with a 6.93 ERA in his ten starts, Seattle inserted a veteran castoff in Jeremy Bonderman. So far so good, with a 3.30 ERA in five trips to the mound for Bonderman.
*Most important, the team has finally given up on Tom Wilhelmsen at closer. He blew five saves, had a 4.09 ERA and has been replaced Yoervis Medina. With a 2.70 ERA, Medina has been good in setup work and now we’ll find out if he can close.
OFFENSIVE HELP STILL NEEDED
Seattle is going to need more than Franklin to lift the offense though. This is a team that ranks 13th in the American League in runs scored, and hasn’t shown any flashes of strength in either getting on base or hitting for power. I would cite two big disappointments, catcher Miguel Montero and first baseman Justin Smoak.
Montero and Smoak were once prize prospects, in the Yankee and Ranger organizations respectively. They were the key pieces when Seattle traded starting pitchers Michael Pineda and Cliff Lee. Montero has been so bad he’s been sent back to the minors. Smoak has finally, in his third year, produced a decent on-base percentage of .351, but he doesn’t actually hit, with a .244 batting average and five home runs.
I know in most cases, the OBP would be enough for me, but when you’re at a position that demands offense and were highly regarded enough to be swapped for Cliff Lee, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest you should actually swing the bat and connect with the baseball on occasion.
Third baseman Kyle Seager has been the one everyday player who has had a solid season in all facets of his game, with a. 343/.463 stat line. Others are mixed bags. Raul Ibanez has hit 17 home runs, but with a .286 on-base percentage, he doesn’t have value if the power slows. Michael Morse has the same profile, albeit less extreme on both sides, with a .313 OBP and 11 home runs. Morse is currently on the disabled list, but all accounts say it will be a short stay. Franklin Guiterrez slugs .583, but has just a .290 OBP.
Seattle’s team-wide rankings for OBP and slugging are equally bad (13th in both cases), but when you break the talent down individually it seems that the power is there, including Kendry Morales, who has slugged a respectable .430. But there are precious few who get on base consistently and that’s what make Franklin such an important call-up, and his continued good play essential.
BULLPEN HELP STILL NEEDED
Even if Medina pans out as the closer, there is a major depth problem in this bullpen. Oliver Perez is having an excellent year, with a 0.98 ERA, but after that, no one else is even tolerable. Carter Capps, Danny Farquah, Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan are all train wrecks waiting to happen if manager Eric Wedge calls them in. Maybe Wilhelmsen will respond to his demotion with better work, but that requires a lot of optimism.
Seattle’s bullpen ERA ranks 14th in the American League, which is impossible for almost any team to win with. When you’re a team that counts on winning games with pitching, it becomes even more glaring. Normally one might suggest this be fixed at the trade deadline, but with only a month to go, it’s more likely Seattle will be giving up major league talent rather than acquiring it.
THE SOLID SEATTLE STARTERS
When it comes to the starting pitching we can say nice things about Seattle. King Felix and Iwakuma have each made 16 starts and they could finish 1-2 in the Cy Young voting. And it’s Iwakuma who would be in line to be #1, with his 2.26 ERA, while Felix “languishes” at 2.71. Bonderman’s nice starts have been a lift and even if he doesn’t continue to pitch that well, he only has to perform well enough to be a #5.
Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang are the veterans in the middle, and while the season-long numbers are ugly, with both ERA hovering around 5, the recent form is much more positive. Over the last six starts, Harang’s ERA has dipped to 2.72, with Saunders at 3.22. In the case of Saunders we can add that should this team get in the playoff race, he has a lot of big-game experience from his days with the Angels in the late ‘00s, and then last year in Baltimore when he pitched well down the stretch and beat Yu Darvish in the wild-card game.
The rotation’s ERA is seventh in the American League, but when you factor in Maurer no longer being a part of it, and the improvement of Harang and Saunders, it’s fair to think of this as an elite starting five.
IS THERE PLAYOFF HOPE?
The fact Seattle gets such good work from their starting pitchers makes me loathe to completely dismiss them. Any team can go on a hot streak. But we have to point out that teams that win with pitching also have deep bullpens to accompany them. You can’t build a strategy around getting leads into the seventh inning of 3-2 or 3-1 and then have a disaster of a relief corps. Somewhere along the line, you either have to have an offense that can give you bigger leads or a lights-out bullpen that can get nine outs. Seattle has neither.
That’s why I can’t agree with my podcast colleague. Greg has been right far more often than me over our two-plus years of broadcasting together, but I think he blew this one. Seattle can put starting pitchers on the All-Star team and high in the Cy Young voting, but it’s going to take a lot of work for them to even get in the playoff conversation, much less actually qualify for postseason play.
AROUND THE AL WEST
Texas (44-33): How do you win when it seems like every starting pitcher you have goes on the DL? Try closing 26 of 30 save opportunities. The Rangers cash in their chances to win games.
Oakland (45-34): TheSportsNotebook featured the A’s a couple weeks ago, and unless Texas can get some starting pitching back healthy, you have to like Oakland’s odds over the long haul.
LA Angels (34-43): Forget the question about whether Mike Scoscia should be fired. The real question is whether Scoscia should even want to manage this team anymore, now that the organization has drifted so far from the fundamentally sound approach he used to make them a winner. This current roster is going to kill the skipper’s reputation.
Houston (29-49): They’ve won more games than Miami has over in the National League and for the Astros, I think that qualifies as a successful start to the year.