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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.

July 2, 2012 at 8:57 AM

Mariners at the halfway point: So far, The Plan is not working

On Sunday, Eric Wedge gave another forceful declaration about his complete and utter faith that the Mariners will eventually be a championship-contending ballclub.

“It’s just important for everyone to understand, we are going to do this,” he said. “It’s just a matter of who’s going to be along for the ride. There’s no ifs, no in betweens, no 99 percent. I have 100 percent confidence we’re going to accomplish what I came here to accomplish. It takes special people in that locker room to make it happen. We’ll see.”

We’ll see, indeed. I truly admire Wedge’s passion, and I don’t think it’s fake. Sorry to not jump aboard, but I have a few ifs, and my confidence is waning– or, at least, my confidence that the turnaround is going to happen with this foundation. And if not, well, then a lot of rebuilding time has been squandered.

Through 81 games, the Mariners are on pace for a 68-94 record, which would be a one-game improvement on last year. Not good enough. Not even close. As I wrote recently, the second half will be a huge referendum on the direction of the rebuilding plan. If some of the key pieces make noticeable progress — and one would reasonably expect that to happen — then the outlook could become rosier heading into the offseason. But right now, I’m seeing regression, not progression. And I know I’m not alone. All you have to do is listen to the talk shows, read the blogs and peruse the comments to know that the frustration level of Mariners fans is at an unprecedented high (and I know I’ve written that before — but it keeps going up). Justin Smoak looks so lost, there is growing concern he’ll never find it. And if that’s the case, then Jack Zduriencik’s Cliff Lee trade is a bust. Dustin Ackley is struggling to an extent no one expected. I think he’ll break out of it, but you have to wonder how long it will take him to become the star player a No. 2 overall pick should be. I asked Ackley yesterday if he was confident that he can turn things around.

“Absolutely,” he replied. “I’ve been in situations like this in the minor leagues where I’ve struggled a lot worse than I’m struggling right now. You just have to keep grinding and find your way out of it. Hopefully, that time is coming soon.”

Jesus Montero has hit a wall. He had one homer, three doubles and one RBI in the month of June, and is hitting.139 with no extra-base hits over the last 10 games. Yes, he’s just 22 and in his first full season (as is Ackley). Growing pains are to be expected. But so is progress and a learning curve. We need to see it. Those are three huge pieces of the Zduriencik plan, and if they turn out to less than front-line players, then it’s a major setback.

That’s not to say this season has been a total disaster, and all is hopeless. The emergence of Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders has been a plus, and there’s the makings of a power bullpen with Tom Wilhelmsen, Stephen Pryor, Shawn Kelley, Charlie Furbush , Lucas Luetge and Carter Capps, among others. And, of course, there’s the vaunted young guns, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez (who was looking great until he hurt his elbow on Saturday night). But we’ve already learned this year that their progression is not always a straight line — Paxton has been shelved for weeks with a knee injury, and Walker has hit a bump in the road. Like the current young Mariners players struggling to find their way, they will face a learning curve in the majors — all while the Felix Hernandez contract clock keeps ticking.

Another positive has been the way the Mariners have hit on the road, where they rank second in the majors in runs, fourth in homers, and eight in OPS. But that has been negated but their utter inability to hit at Safeco Field, where they are on a pace for record futility. Now, there’s definitely something weird happening at the ballpark, because the opponents are struggling, too — though not nearly as much as the Mariners. No question whatsoever that Safeco is in the heads of Mariners hitters, big-time. Maybe moving in the fences will solve everything, or maybe the weather and the marine layer and all that atmospheric stuff will return to normal next year (or later this summer), and the averages will start trending upward. But right now, it’s reaching crisis proportions. The Mariners are hitting .197 with a .564 OPS at Safeco, where they have scored at a rate of 2.76 runs per game in 38 games. That’s nearly half the home season, and there have been no signs of improvement.

Is it possible that much of the Mariners’ perceived regression is merely the result of some strange phenomenon taking place at Safeco Field? Perhaps, but that’s where they play 81 of their games. They need to figure it out.

Wedge can keep preaching of his faith, but the rest of us need to start seeing more signs that it’s justified.

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