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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.

January 31, 2013 at 12:37 PM

Key issue for Mariners: Avoiding black holes in the lineup (updated)

UPDATE 10:45 AM FRIDAY: Some people have made the point that I should have included Dustin Ackley and Ichiro in this discussion. It’s a valid one, so I re-crunched the numbers:

Dustin Ackley: 607 at-bats, 137 hits, .226 BA, .295 OBP, .328 slugging

Ichiro: 402 at-bats, 105 hits, .261 BA, .288 OBP, .353 slugging

The new totals for the selected “black hole” players are .218/.277/.331 for an OPS of .608 — a mere seven points higher than before, but now accounting for 3,127 at-bats — the rough equivalent of six full-time players, rather than four. And that moves me closer to the inevitable conclusion that much of the roster was dead wood.

This might seem simplistic and self-evident, but here goes: The Mariners in recent years have allotted far too many plate appearances to guys who simply were overmatched.

Part of that was a necessary off-shoot of player evaluation in a rebuilding situation — they had to find out who were keepers and who were expendable. Part of it was a necessary learning curve — even the keepers had to go through the tough process of figuring out how to hit major-league pitching, which often involves harsh struggles even for future All-Stars. And part of it was the stark reality that they didn’t have anyone better.

Let’s take a look some of the numbers from last season:

Mike Carp: 164 ABs, 35 hits, .213 BA, .312 OBP, .341 slugging

Chone Figgins: 166 at-bats, 30 hits, .181 BA, .262 OBP, .271 slugging

Luis Jimenez: 17 at-bats, one hit, .059 BA, .111 OBP, .059 slugging

Munenori Kawasaki: 104 at-bats, 20 hits, .192 BA, .257 OBP, .202 slugging

Alex Liddi: 116 at-bats, 26 hits, .224 BA, .278 OBP, .353 slugging

Miguel Olivo: 315 at-bats, 70 hits, .222 BA, .239 OBP, .381 slugging

Carlos Peguero: 56 at-bats, 10 hits, .179 BA, .193 OBP, .357 slugging

Trayvon Robinson: 145 at-bats, 32 hits, .221 BA, .294 OBP, .324 slugging

Brendan Ryan: 407 at-bats, 79 hits, .194 BA, .277 OBP, .278 slugging

Justin Smoak: 483 at-bats, 105 hits, .217 BA, .290 OBP, .364 slugging

Eric Thames: 123 at-bats, 27 hits, .220 BA, .256 OBP, .439 slugging

Carlos Triunfel: 22 at-bats, 5 hits, .227 BA, .261 OBP, .318 slugging

Total: 2,118 at-bats, 440 hits, .208 BA, .270 OBP, .331 slugging (.601 OPS)

That’s 2,118 at-bats — the rough equivalent of four full-time players — that resulted in severely below-par numbers. Some of those players, like Triunfel and Jimenez, really don’t belong because of their tiny sample size, but I wanted to get the full scope of all the wasted at-bats that dragged the Mariners down. There’s a reason they have seemed in recent years to have these interminable, nearly unwatchable, stretches of barren offense. When the lineup is filled with black holes, it’s hard to sustain many rallies.

Could this be the year that changes? One can only hope. Of the players on the list above, many are no longer in the organization. The only ones likely to play key roles in 2013 are Brendan Ryan and Justin Smoak. Ryan is a good enough glove man that he can theoretically be carried in an otherwise functional lineup – but once you fall below .200, that sentiment becomes more problematic. And I see no reason Ryan can’t get his average back up to a tolerable .240ish level, which hadn’t been a problem until this past year. Heck, Ryan once put up a .740 OPS in a nearly full-time role. If last year was truly an aberration, and Ryan can again be something approaching league average in offense, that will help.

As for Smoak, we’ve spoken before about how this is a make-or-break season for him. If he can build on last year’s strong finish, the Mariners will have filled one of those black holes. If not, I don’t expect them to wait as long to pull the plug, because if they are stocked with anything, it is first base/DH candidates.

The Mariners are counting on the additions of Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez to give their lineup more consistency. Even Robert Andino should provide more pop in the utility infield role than Munenori Kawasaki (who provided none). They did lose their top average and on-base hitter in John Jaso, which will hurt despite the fact he didn’t play every day. What can help compensate would be for Jesus Montero to take a step forward, a not unreasonable expectation for a player in his second full season. In fact, any scenario I can conjure for an unexpected breakthrough by the Mariners in 2013 is predicated upon growth and improvement by young core players like Montero, Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, et al. The friendlier confines of Safeco Field should aid and abet those efforts.

If that happens, and the dead wood in recent lineups aren’t replaced by more dead wood, perhaps the Mariners’ offense won’t be scraping the bottom yet again.

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