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May 6, 2009 at 9:36 AM

Carlos Silva the least of Mariners problems right now

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So, here we are, the Mariners on the verge of their first three-game losing streak of the season. Yes, it’s an important outing for Carlos Silva tonight — and not just for his own personal reasons. This team is struggling to score runs and faces the prospect of a prolonged slump if Silva can’t get them back on winning footing tonight. I don’t like these scenarios, where a struggling team has to play a night game and then an afternoon contest roughly 14 hours later.
By late tomorrow afternoon, the M’s could be on a four-game losing streak if they keep doing exactly what they have been.
Silva goes tonight and then Jarrod Washburn, whose offense goes AWOL whenever he takes the mound, pitches tomorrow. Not to mention hot-and-cold Chris Jakubauskas after that. So, yes, this is an important start for Silva. The team is running out of patience with him, but it’s a calculated impatience. Nobody really wants to take Silva out of the rotation. It’s not merely the fact he’s owed another $33 million or so. It’s also that the team believes, deep down, that he’s their best option right now.
But the timing of this “impatience” is key. If Silva struggles again tonight, the team has an off-day next Monday and then can skip Silva’s spot in the rotation. So, that buys them 10 more days to figure out what needs to be done. Ryan Rowland-Smith will be further along in his injury rehabilitation by then. Also, the team will have a better idea of what to do with Jakubauskas. Is he the pitcher who two-hit the White Sox? Or the guy who struggles to go five innings? It’s possible that Jason Vargas, or Garret Olson, or whoever, might not be added to the rotation in Silva’s place. They may, in fact, go in to take Jakubauskas’s spot eventually. So, we’ll have to wait and see what Silva does tonight.
But of more pressing concern than the one rotation spot, for now, is the sorry state of this team’s offense. It can no longer be ignored because — early as it is in the season — these games are still important to the Mariners. Don’t forget, this team has some key decisions to make regarding trades come the July 31 deadline. One factor will be whether or not the M’s are in contention. And that could very well depend on how much distance the M’s put between themselves and the division-favorite Angels by the end of this month.
Many of the Angels’ top pitchers and slugger Vladimir Guerrero are expected back by June 1. So, these games are of added importance to the Mariners right now. If they aren’t right up there with the Angels by July 31, we could see some bodies start to get shipped out. Guys like Adrian Beltre, Erik Bedard and Washburn. So, this season, early as it is, is actually shorter than usual for the M’s if they hope to contend. And they can’t keep wasting starts like the one Bedard gave them yesterday.
As we saw a year ago, the Mariners are now well into May and still waiting for their two highest-paid players to do what they are supposed to. Beltre has yet to hit a home run and he’s struggling to keep his on-base-plus-slugging percentage above .500 — .500! A slap-hitting middle infielder can’t get away with numbers that bad, never mind a clean-up hitter. And moving Beltre to No. 5 isn’t the answer either. If you’re in the middle of the order, you have to hit.
If you were wondering, that OPS total makes Beltre the worst clean-up hitter in all of baseball by roughly 120 points of OPS. In other words, even the next worst guy is in the mid-.600s.
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And then there’s Ichiro, who has a .322 on-base percentage at the moment that ties him for second-worst among AL leadoff hitters with at least 50 plate appearances. His OPS is also second-worst, as is his runs total. Now, the runs can be explained away by his early ulcer and lack of games played relative to others. But not those other stats. His batting average is .291, but it’s an empty number. The kind Jose Vidro used to put up. A leadoff hitter has to have an on-base percentage up in the mid-300s and Ichiro’s isn’t there. He’s only 20th best in the majors at the moment and the M’s are paying him big money to do a whole lot more.
It took Ichiro until about mid-to-late May to get it going last season and then he was relatively fine. But this offense, dismal as it’s been in the heart of the order, needs a better catalyst up top.
Suggestions? There aren’t a whole lot of answers for the middle of the order right now and that’s the biggest problem facing this team. Ken Griffey Jr. is hitting .190 and seems to have to miss a bunch of games anytime he appears to be getting his bat going. Jose Lopez has been a disappointment at the plate so far, barely maintaining an OBP above .300 and posting a slugging percentage that’s about 100 points lower than anybody on this team thought it would be at.
So, no answers there.
As for the leadoff role, if the team wanted to replace Ichiro with Endy Chavez for a game or two, that could generate some sparks. Chavez has an OBP up at .365, is actually working the count, seeing pitches and drawing walks. Franklin Gutierrez also seems to have found his batting stroke again, so you could move him up into the No. 2 spot and then use Ichiro at No. 3. But would that work long term? Chavez has never been a successful long-term leadoff man. And Gutierrez, so far this year, has tended to hit better when he’s further back in the order. No telling how he’d do at No. 2 for a prolonged stint.
For a game or two, to help this offense score some runs for Silva and Washburn, I’d be all for it. Longer term? I don’t think this team contends in 2009 with anyone but Ichiro as the regular leadoff guy.
So, I’d favor a bit of a jumpstart until Ichiro gets things going full-out. But on a full-time basis, you can’t dump the entire blueprint when you’ve got this much invested in it.
Same with Beltre. For now, I’d favor Russell Branyan taking over at clean-up (like yesterday), though he seems to thrive as a No. 5 guy and I’m sure the team is loathe to mess that up. But there are no other clear-cut options right now. Mike Sweeney isn’t hitting for any power either. Maybe you give Wladimir Balentien added playing time.
You could call up some guys from Class AAA, but I still don’t think we’re quite at that stage yet. You have to wait for Beltre to inevitably shake that slump, as he does every year. And to see whether Griffey, once healthy again, picks up where he seemed to be leaving off in Chicago last week.
If neither does it, and this team starts losing more than it wins and tumbling in the standings, a Class AAA call-up could be an option.
But seriously, there is only one bottom line here. The guys being paid handsomely to hit have to start hitting. As was the case a year ago, several are underperforming their career norms. In fact, just about everybody other than Branyan, Chavez and Gutierrez seems to be disappointing these days among the regular nine. And that can’t go on much longer. It’s already May 6. By July 31, this team’s season could be all but over if the offense causes it to fall out of contention. Yes, the Mariners are still in first place and as I’ve said before, that buys them time. But the clock is ticking on this offense.



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