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

June 26, 2012 at 10:11 AM

Mariners need to show second-half improvement to validate rebuilding plan


(That’s a dejected Michael Saunders after grounding out to end last night’s game, a 1-0 Mariners’ loss to Oakland. Photo by Associated Press).

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Here is today’s Mariners minor-league report.

Eric Wedge is still remarkably, and unfailingly, steadfast in his certainty that the long-awaited Mariners’ turnaround is going to happen. He talks often about “when” their hitters get past their inconsistencies, and “when” the pitchers put it all together, and “when” they’re contending, and “when” they’re playing for championships. Never an “if.” Not once.

I don’t think that belief system — to steal a phrase from a previous optimistic Mariners’ manager — extends down to the masses, however. Not yet. And right now, the confidence level in this team and its future is back to being highly skeptical.

This has been a season of ebbs and flows. There have been times, such as when the Mariners came off their last road trip having taken two of three from both the Rangers and Angels, and then tossed a no-hitter at the Dodgers in the first game back at Safeco, when it was easy to think, “Man, this is really coming together.” And I’m convinced people really, really want to believe in the young players, believe in Jack Zduriencik and Wedge, believe in “The Plan.”

But what has happened since then has been disturbing. Since the no-hitter, they have lost 11 out of 15, and confidence in The Plan is once again waning. There are legitimate concerns about Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley, two cornerstone pieces of the brighter future envisioned by Wedge and management. The starting pitching has been woefully inconsistent, and even Felix Hernandez, the last person you’d ever expect to worry about, has not been his vintage, lights-out self (though his last two starts have been highly encouraging).

Let’s remember that this season was never supposed to be about contending. That was always unrealistic in a division that includes a talent-packed Rangers’ team that is coming off two straight American League pennants, and an Angels team that added Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, and, oh, yeah, loaded up a month into the season by adding Mike Trout, who just might be the best player in the league right now.

But what this Mariners season wasn’t supposed to be about was another 95-plus loss debacle. And right now, that’s where they are headed. In fact, if you extrapolate their numbers after 75 games — 31-44 — over 162 games, they are on pace for precisely that record: 67-95. They now have the lowest winning percentage in the American League (.413), having been surpassed last night by the Twins (.417). The A’s — the one team in the division the Mariners could have been expected to hold off — are 5 1/2 games ahead of them at 36-38. Their rebuilding plan is coalescing a lot better than the Mariners’ right now. The only teams in the majors with a worse winning percentage than Seattle’s .413 are the Astros (.411), Rockies (.389), Padres (.365) and Cubs (.342). Not the sort of company you want to keep.

Here is a look at the Mariners’ 75-game record, and final record, over the last eight years, dating back to 2004, when they fall into an abyss out of which they have yet to climb. Only once, in 2008, have they been worse at this point of the season, and that was one of the ugliest seasons imaginable:

2012: 31-44

2011: 37-38 (67-95 final)

2010: 31-44 (61-101)

2009: 39-36 (85-77)

2008: 26-49 (61-101)

2007: 42-33 (88-74)

2006: 36-39 (78-84)

2005: 33-42 (69-93)

2004: 31-44 (63-99)

It’s not exactly a great jumping-off point. Remember that last year, things were going pretty well in the first half — the Mariners were at .500 and just 2 1/2 games out of first as late as July 5 — until a 17-game losing streak from July 6-26, followed by the trades of Erik Bedard and Doug Fister, and then the growing pains of turning the team over to youth. From the 75-game point until the end of the season last year, the Mariners went 30-57. Repeat that finish this year, and they lose 101 games for the third time in the last five years, and there’s panic in the streets, rightfully so.

I don’t see that. The Mariners are not the hopeless offensive team they’ve been the last two seasons. (At least not on the road. Unfortunately, they play half their games at Safeco Field. More than half the rest of the way, in fact).

Here’s where I’m going to bring in some optimism — or, more accurately, some hope. There’s still plenty of time to salvage this season, to head into 2013 believing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that The Plan has a chance for success. However, for that to happen, the second half of the season must be about real, sustained progress by the young foundation. Already this year, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders have emerged as potentially strong pieces of a better future. Jesus Montero has shown enough flashes in his rookie season to show that his bat is one they can build around. They need more progress by those three, and for Ackley and Smoak to figure things out (but this doesn’t give you much hope for Smoak). Let’s see Casper Wells and, eventually, Mike Carp show that they can be part of the future, and Franklin Gutierrez show he can stay healthy enough to be the same.

And then, of course, there’s the young pitching around which much of the future hope is built — Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, not to mention Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi. Everyone knows how flighty and unpredictable young pitching can be. Walker has had three straight poor starts in Jackson, and Paxton is just coming off a long stint on the disabled list (it’s a contusion on his knee, not his arm, so all should be well in the end). We’ve seen flashes from both Noesi and Ramirez (who looked like an All-Star last night). And Hultzen was absolutely dominant in Double-A before stumbling in his first Triple-A start. He goes again on Thursday in Tacoma — perhaps against 49-year-old Jamie Moyer in what would be an epic battle of youth and experience). The point is, there’s still legitimate hope of a pretty strong starting rotation down the road (remember, Felix is still around, too, at least for now) with a dominating back end of the bullpen led by Tom Wilhelmsen.

But, then again, all that’s the same rosy vision with which the Mariners went into the season. At some point, it has to stop being theoretical and become reality. The Mariners need to start moving rapidly in that direction in the second half of this season or face major questions about the efficacy of their rebuilding plan.



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