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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 24, 2012 at 12:09 PM

Mariners still waiting for Zduriencik’s pitching trades to pay off

fister58.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

No reason to mince words — Jack Zduriencik needs some of his trades to start paying bigger dividends. This thought comes to mind as the Mariners open a series with Detroit, now the home of Doug Fister, a young, talented, cost-controlled pitcher whom the Mariners dealt away on July 30 of last year. Fister had a 3-12 record with Seattle that was not close to being indicative of how well he was pitching for the Mariners. With an actual offense behind him in Detroit, Fister went 8-1, 1.79 down the stretch, then won two games in the postseason, becoming something of a folk hero to Tiger fans.

Zduriencik has given up a lot of coveted pitching in an attempt to bolster the obvious weakness of this team, which is offense. It’s a defensible strategy, because the Mariners haven’t been able to sign power hitters (since Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre), either because Safeco Field drives them away or the club is unwilling to pay the going rate. They don’t have enough quality hitters coming through the farm system. So trading from their relative surplus of arms to get bats makes sense.

But so far, it hasn’t happened, which is one reason why there is such a feeling of disgust — not too strong a word — surrounding the Mariners right now.

Not the only reason, obviously. There’s a lot of under-achieving going on at a lot of different levels, from veterans to young players. But when you trade pitchers like Cliff Lee, Doug Fister, Michael Pineda and Erik Bedard — not to mention Brandon Morrow — it would be nice to have one producing bat to show for it. And let me add the usual proviso: It’s still early. Way early. You can’t write off a season, or a player, after 17 games. But the early signs haven’t been promising. The Mariner offense has been as bad as ever, and that’s the most frustrating aspect of the early 2012 season.

In the Fister trade, the Mariners got outfielder Casper Wells, right-handed pitcher Chance Ruffin, left-handed pitcher Charlie Furbush and third baseman Francisco Martinez. Ruffin, billed as a closer of the future, is struggling in Tacoma with a 9.72 ERA in seven games. Furbush, after going 3-7, 6.62 in 11 games (10 starts) for the Mariners last year, is working out of their bullpen. Martinez, just 21, has potential, and is hitting .286 with no homers in Double-A. Wells was the player most reasonably expected to help the Mariners right away, and it looked promising early. In his first 16 games with Seattle after coming over from Detroit, Wells hit .333 with six homers in 57 at-bats, slugging .649. But in his last 15 — after getting tipped on his nose by a 97-mph Brandon Morrow fastball, and later experiencing symptoms of vertigo — Wells hit .067 (3-for-45). Now he’s a seldom-used bench player, with 14 at-bats in 17 games.

That’s not much to show for Fister, who is currently on the disabled list with a strained side suffered in his first start of the season. The deal could still work out for the Mariners, but it’s not helping them much right now.

For Pineda, of course, the centerpiece acquisition was Jesus Montero, who still has loads of promise. It’s way too early to write off Montero, and to do so would be foolish. But he’s having the sort of growing pains you’d expect from a 22-year-old rookie, hitting .241 with a .259 on-base percentage. Montero has hit two impressive bombs to center field that show off his power potential. But he has just one other extra-base hit through 15 games. It’s not fair to expect Montero to be a finished product, and he’s not. I still like this trade — even if Pineda hadn’t gotten hurt — because the Mariners absolutely had to get a power hitter. But the big payoff is likely to come down the road. For now, Montero is still a prospect trying to prove himself at the plate –let alone behind the plate.

For Bedard, the Mariners got Trayvon Robinson, who got off to a flashy start when he was called up but was awful over the last month. Now he’s hitting a weak .222 (with a .238 OBP) in Tacoma. Another outfielder picked up in that deal, Chih-Hsien Chiang, was hitting .340 in Double A when the deal was made but had a .208 average when he joined the Mariners’ AA team in Jackson. Chiang is hitting .281 for Tacoma this year without much power.

The key to the Morrow deal was Brandon League, of course, and he developed into an All-Star closer last year. But the Mariners also had high hopes for Johermyn Chavez, a big (6-3, 225) right-handed hitting outfielder picked up in that trade. But Chavez’s development in the minors has been slow.

In the Lee deal, the key player was Justin Smoak, whom Zduriencik settled upon ahead of Montero as a switch-hitting power hitter around whom the offense would build. It just hasn’t happened yet. Smoak has shown flashes, but in 168 games as a Mariner has put up an undistinguished .232/.309/.391 line — and is below that so far this year. More than any single player, Zduriencik needs Smoak to produce because you simply can’t trade someone of Lee’s caliber and not get a core player in return.

Once again, any and all of those players could still break out. But for now, the Mariners don’t have much production to show for a lot of good pitching.

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