Heading into this season, I think most people agreed that the prime areas of concern for the Mariners were the back end of the rotation, and run production. And beyond that, there was some fretting about whether closer David Aardsma, after a rocky spring, could sustain his breakthrough performance from a year ago.
Sixteen games into a season that can be divided into two distinct, and diametrically opposed, sections — the 2-6 start, and the 7-1 follow — let’s look at how those areas of concern are doing. Yeah, yeah, it’s still early, but not too early to start seeing some trends developing.
Back end of the rotation: Picking up Cliff Lee was a master stroke by Jack Zduriencik, but there was some consternation that he didn’t do more to help the rotation — like signing Jarrod Washburn. So far, of course, Felix Hernandez has lived up to his high expectations — four starts, four wins by the Mariners, a 2-0 record that could be 3-0 or even 4-0, and a 2.15 ERA.
While Lee has been on the DL, the four starters not named Felix have, for the most part, aquitted themselves well.
Cumulatively, those four — three of whom will eventually constitute what you could call the back end of the rotation once Lee returns next week — have made 12 starts (three each). They are a combined 4-5, working 69.1 innings, allowing 60 hits, giving up 28 earned runs, walking 24 and striking out 38.
Not bad, with Fister (1.42 ERA, including two absolute gems) and Vargas (a 16 to 3 strikeout-to-walk ratio) leading the way. Rowland-Smith has been middle of the road, while Snell has struggled the most, though with some extenuating personal issues.
All in all, though, the performances have been encouraging enough on the back end to believe there’s potential for this group to be around .500. And if Hernandez and Lee win at the clip the Mariners expect, that will be enough for the Mariners to get where they want to go. If Erik Bedard comes back healthy, the rotation sets up beautifully, with enough depth to have fallbacks if someone in the back end falters.
Run production: Still a big red flag. The concerns about who was going to generate the power in Seattle’s lineup are being substantiated. The Mariners have hit just six homers, which through Wednesday’s games was the lowest total in the American League, and better than only the five of Houston (in two fewer games by the Astros). The Mariners’ slugging percentage of .343 ranks 28th (ahead of only Cleveland’s .334 and Houston’s .311). The M’s are 26th in OPS at .668. The M’s on-base percentage of .325 isn’t particularly good, but it does rank 17th among 30 MLB teams and fifth-best in the American League. That’s a testament to 1) Some poor offense around baseball so far in the early season; and 2) Their 57 walks, which are the fourth-highest total in the AL.
In runs scored, the most important offensive category, the Mariners rank 10th out of 16 AL teams with 60. But a rate of 3.75 runs per game is not something you want to hang your hat on. The Mariners need more offensive production, in particular from the DH position, which has produced a grand total of one extra-base hit and a horrible .465 OPS in 59 at-bats, and at catcher (.163 combined average.and .553 combined OPS).
Ichiro and Chone Figgins are showing great promise in their ability to get on base and cause disruption at the top of the order (Figgins despite a .192 batting average, augmented by 13 walks). Franklin Gutierrez has been superb at the plate, and Casey Kotchman has shown promising run-producing ability. Even Jack Wilson has chimed in with five doubles. But the Mariners desperately need to get some thump from the DH position, and they need to pump up their slugging numbers. So far, Jose Lopez has just one extra-base-hit, and Milton Bradley, despite delivering 10 RBI with his seven hits, can and will do a lot better than .167/.286/.357.
David Aardsma. Absolutely nothing to complain about so far. He’s been magnificent — six for six in saves, just one hit (a bloop single) allowed in six innings, with two walks and seven strikeouts.
So far, so good — a statement that goes for the Mariners’ season, despite the awful start.
(Seattle Times photo by Mark Harrison)