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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 22, 2013 at 11:17 AM

Zduriencik blueprint hangs in balance

Justin Smoak pulls off his batting gloves after striking out in Saturday's 5-0 loss to Texas. Photo by Associated Press.

Justin Smoak pulls off his batting gloves after striking out in Saturday’s 5-0 loss to Texas. Photo by Associated Press.

(Here is today’s Mariners minor-league report).

The Mariners are facing the biggest crisis of the Jack Zduriencik era. And no, I don’t feel “crisis” is overstating matters. This season — a season that promised to be different, one in which the Mariners were to take some serious steps forward, one in which they finally looked to have put together a representative offense — couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.  And if the ballclub continues to plunge downward, well, at some point you’d have to conclude that their rebuilding blueprint is irreparably damaged. And then things get ugly. Let me amend that: They get uglier.

Has that point arrived? No, not quite yet. But you can see it from here. It’s true that many a team has righted itself after a miserable start, and eventually you forget about the first two or three weeks. But often those are teams that already have a proven track record. You’re currently seeing that with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They got off to the worst start in franchise at 4-10, leading to panic in the streets of Orange County. But the Angels just completed a three-game sweep of the very tough Detroit Tigers, and now have shot ahead of the Mariners, who are frantically trying to hold off a team — the Houston Astros — predicted by some to be the worst in the history of baseball. Seriously, there are those who thought, and think, the Astros may challenge the all-time loss record, and right now they are only one game worse than the Mariners (and beat the Mariners two games out of three, at Safeco Field). The Mariners start a three-game series with the Astros in Houston tonight. If you think things are tense now, watch what happens if they lose this series, too.

That offense we were all so optimistic about — I plead guilty — has somehow managed to be worse than last year, which was pretty bad. The Mariners currently rank 29th in batting average, 29th in slugging percentage, 28th in on-base percentage, 29th in OPS, and 28th in runs per game. In most of those categories, the only team keeping them from being the worst in baseball is the Miami Marlins — a team that punted on this season by trading all their star players, much like the Astros. The M’s are striking out at an alarming rate — 63 times in their last five games. It’s starting to remind me of the first Mariners team I covered, back in 1986. There was some optimism going into the year based on promising young players like Danny Tartabull, Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds and Ivan Calderon, and the presence of some “veteran leadership” in the likes of Steve Yeager, Gorman Thomas and Milt Wilcox. But they got off to a terrible start, with tons of strikeouts — including a record 20 against Roger Clemens on April 29 — and on May 7, mired at 9-19, manager Chuck Cottier was fired. General manager Dick Balderson wasn’t far behind.

It’s too soon to think about firings, even though there are many fans who are out for blood, and I understand the frustration. But we have to let things play out longer. It’s foolish to make any rash judgments on April 22, despite how brutal the team looks today. What’s most alarming to me, however, is that the core of young players upon which so much of the rebuilding blueprint has been predicated — the guy you drafted No. 2 overall, Dustin Ackley; the guy that was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade, Justin Smoak; and the guy for whom the Mariners gave up a young All-Star pitcher who at the time was healthy and a trade chip of tremendous value, Jesus Montero, are simply not making the strides they need to make. Ackley is hitting .161 with one extra-base hit. Smoak is hitting .188 with one extra-base hit. Montero is hitting .217 with one extra-base hit. Still no homers among the trio. Montero has pretty much lost his starting job and is now sharing it with Kelly Shoppach. They don’t have much time to show improvement or the Mariners will have to look for other options at those positions. And that’s a major setback.

You can’t pin this all on them, of course. It’s been virtually a team-wide malaise, one that was supposed to have been guarded against this year by bringing in veteran leadership (Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay)  and middle-of-the-lineup presence (Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales) to make up for the fact that every big-ticket item the Mariners went after this offseason (Josh Hamilton and Justin Upton, most notably) ended up elsewhere, for a variety of reasons. But other than Kyle Seager, it’s hard to find a Mariners hitter who is heading up rather than down. And we won’t even get into the rotation, which has been extremely shaky once you get past Felix Hernandez (the Mariners are 1-9 in his last 10 starts, dating back to last year) and Hisashi Iwakuma.

Yes, some good things are happening down in the minor leagues, with a lot of promising prospects. But right now, they are just that, prospects. What people are waiting to see, with increasing impatience, skepticism, and, yes, scorn — is for the major-league product to make progress. And the time for that is running low.

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