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November 9, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Mariners face a delicate balancing act as they try to rebuild

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The good news continues to pour out of the Arizona Fall League (AFL) where future Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley is concerned.
Ackley, seen above in an AFL photo from last year, has enjoyed a stellar sophomore season in the desert circuit, hitting .429 with four homers, six doubles and 17 RBI. Yesterday, he was named AFL Player of the Week for a second time.
Now, let’s be clear. Ackley isn’t exactly facing MLB caliber pitching in Arizona and — as we see every spring with the Mariners — offensive numbers do tend to get inflated in the desert air. But Ackley played in those exact same conditions a year ago and it’s easy to see some marked improvement in his offensive play overall.
The biggest is in his power. A year ago, he was slapping singles all over the Phoenix area. Today, he’s got a .796 slugging percentage. Ackley has gotten his feet wet in pro ball and now — at least, in the AFL — the power is beginning to show up.
That’s great news for a Mariners team that expects Ackley to be more than an empty singles hitter at the big league level. So far, at least, his defense has been average as a second baseman, so it’s Ackley’s bat that’s going to be his MLB meal ticket. And power (even just the doubles/slugging percentage kind) is something the Mariners desperately need at the big league level.
Especially at non-traditional power positions.
One of the challenges the M’s face this year in trying to rebuild one of the worst producing offenses of all-time is finding enough power to be competitive night after night. Because this is a rebuilding year, the Mariners will be committed to playing a number of prospects at everyday positions. At the same time, they will be trying to pull off the delicate balancing act of not losing a huge chunk of their fanbase for years to come.
And it’s tough to convince fans to keep shelling out money for a losing product. But the whole thing gets compounded when the fans believe a game is already over once an opponent scores more than two runs. This was a problem for the M’s last season as they trotted out an historically awful offense that had trouble scoring even three runs on too many a night.
There are some — though certainly not all — within the organization who believe that a lack of power was the culprit behind so many Mariners collapsing well below their traditional and projected norms at the plate. The theory being that the team had too many slap hitters and non-game-changers up and down the lineup, enabling opponents to simply go right at hitters without fear of a three-run homer.
This was the kind of thinking that prompted the team to go after Russell Branyan in a mid-season trade. Branyan alone wasn’t going to change much. The team needed a handful of Branyans to emerge, but, unfortunately, none really did. Casey Kotchman was not a typical first baseman at the plate and never became one. Jose Lopez never really hit like a third baseman, either. Franklin Gutierrez got worse and worse as the season wore on.
When you look at the lineups of most good teams, they all have at least one and usually two or three game-changers who can make a pitcher pay for putting runners on base. The truth is, Chone Figgins had a productive second half and notched a .402 on-base-percentage in September, to go with a .358 clip for Ichiro that month.
In other words, there is the 1-2 punch the Mariners envisioned for their offense when they drew up the 2010 blueprint.
And yet, in September, the Mariners scored three runs or fewer in 23 of their 30 games.
So, there is the logic for the theory that good hitters alone won’t help the M’s get their offense back to respectability. That there has to be something other than singles driving the OBP of the rest of the lineup. Because a team that needs three or four hits to produce a single run is not going to keep piling up a dozen or more night after night. It just doesn’t happen that way in baseball.
There were too many teams going right at the Mariners from the mound, knowing that, even with two on and none out, the best the M’s could usually hope for was a run — and maybe two. That the chances of a three-run homer were slimmer than that of M’s fans paying their way into Safeco Field for a Howard Lincoln Appreciation Night.
So, whether it was because of more aggressive, fearless pitching by opponents, or M’s hitters squeezing their bats too hard and trying to hit that elusive three-run homer every time up, this team couldn’t score even when the top of the order was getting on base at a pretty high clip.
But heading into 2011, the M’s will again be challenged to do anything about the problem simply because of how the team is configured.

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The big problem is that the team has already committed itself — for now — to playing a bunch of guys at power positions who lack traditional power.
Ichiro is again in right field. Chone Figgins was awful at second base and will likely be heading back to his customary third base spot in 2011, barring some major changes by the team — like a trade. Justin Smoak displayed some of the power expected of him over the final eight days of the regular season (no, not over the entire month of September, just the final eight days) and will be counted on to continue. Michael Saunders had one very good month of July as a left fielder and that was it.
As far as DH goes, the only candidate the M’s now have in their fold is Milton Bradley, coming off arguably the worst season of his career and who will be 33 next year. Seattle will almost certainly sign another DH type, which is why Victor Martinez is intriguing as a free agent because he can provide some stability behind the plate and then serve as a DH on other days.
But as far as traditional power spots go, there is very little certainty in Seattle. Good teams usually have at least three or four big power guys at the five traditional power spots. Some have five. The ones with three tend to get above-average power production from a non-traditional spot someplace else.
With Seattle, they will be fortunate to have two. You could envision Smoak panning out because of the number of people who project him as a good power hitter. Ichiro and Figgins? They are what they are. That’s not changing. Saunders? Flip a coin. He has to show more.
As for the DH spot, if I had a dime for everyone who’s told me how easy it is to fill that spot, well, I’d have a lot of dimes. But the reality is the Mariners have yet to find a stable, full-time DH since Edgar Martinez left. For those not yet clear on the concept, Edgar left a long time ago.
And so, that’s why Ackley becoming more than a singles hitter at the big-league level is so important to the M’s long-term. He doesn’t have to become a 30-homer guy and most likely will not. But when we talk power here, doubles power and a higher slugging percentage is key. Yeah, it would be nice to have some real big boppers in the lineup as well, which is where Smoak comes in. Maybe Saunders.
But the M’s need power from non-traditional spots as well. It’s why they made Jeff Clement a No. 3 overall pick, hoping he’d become a 30-homer catcher.
It’s why the current M’s have such high hopes for Franklin Gutierrez, knowing that Gold Glove type center fielders with extra-base power potential are a rare commodity. Gutierrez flashed that power early on, but faded as the season wore on. It’s becoming a regular occurence with Gutierrez, who did the same thing in Cleveland in 2008 and then struggled to finish 2009 with the M’s (though his knee troubles were a valid excuse at the time).
In the short term, there are no easy fixes for the M’s offense without some radical surgery. Radical meaning you trade Gutierrez for a multi-player package, put Figgins in center field and plug third base with a power producer. No, I’m not saying the M’s will do that. Or even advocating it as the right way to go. Just suggesting one fix so you can see what I mean by “radical”.
You can trade for Grady Sizemore, put him in left field and hope he rebounds to prior form after microfracture surgery on his knee. That’s pretty radical.
Signing catcher Martinez is another way to jumpstart this offense somewhat.
And of course, you hope Smoak pans out. You hope Saunders blossoms. And maybe even Adam Moore.
But without some combination of the above — marked improvement from within and a serious power injection from outside the organization — expecting this offense to be even mediocre is a little much. We saw evidence of the 1-2 Ichiro-Figgins punch throughout the second half and very little changed as far as this team’s ability to generate runs.
So, even if last year’s every day players (those still here) do get closer to their career norms over an entire year, it’s a question mark as to how much that will really help the lineup as a whole without a game-changer bat or two being added. I’ll say they need at least two, most likely three. Perhaps Smoak continues his hot hand from the season’s final week and becomes one of the game-changers quicker than expected. Then, you only need one or two more and maybe you’re back to respectability.
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Don’t forget, this offense isn’t starting from middle-of-the-pack as a baseline. It finished last season 74 runs behind the next worst team in all of MLB. And it finished 100 runs behind the next worst AL offense.
This team has a long way to go to catch up to even the other putrid teams in baseball. A couple of improved performances won’t change all that. A dramatic transformation from guys already here, along with some well-placed acquisitions could help.
And the short term is important.
Contrary to popular belief, drawing fans in baseball isn’t only about winning as a cure-all. It’s about giving fans the impression they at least have a shot at something before a season begins. Every year in which you don’t give them that hope, you are taking a risk as a franchise. Even the so-called “proper” rebuilding plans risk alienating fans. And without the proper base of fans to begin with, even an improved on-field record is no guarantee that a team’s bottom line will be secure.
Ask the Cleveland Indians, who never got their fans back after a lengthy rebuilding plan. What’s that you say? The local economy killed them?
OK, how about the Tampa Bay Rays? Same thing. Years of perpetual losing, then no significant fan bump when they made the playoffs two years out of three. What’s that? Bad baseball market? Too many migrants from elsewhere in the country?
OK, how about the Oakland A’s? Bad market excuse again?
OK, how about the Toronto Blue Jays? They had a winning record last year and still drew 12,000 fans to some games. They used to draw over three million a year and won two World Series. But then, one too many rebuilding plans in which entire seasons were written off. What’s that? Oh, they’re Canadians. I see.
At some point, you can keep making excuses forever, or else accept the fact that you play with fire when you engage in one too many write-off seasons. That rebuilding has its price and that there are penalties to pay if it takes too long.
The M’s might be willing to risk another season of 90+ losses where fans figure the game is over when an opponent goes up 1-0 in the second inning.
I actually don’t think this team figures it can afford that. I do think the M’s plan on losing more games than they win this season. Maybe they even expect to lose at least 90. But I do think this is an intelligent regime and that they realize the kind of offense that was put on the field in 2010 could be hazardous to the franchise’s long-term health if it’s repeated in 2011.
We’ll know more a year from today. Maybe even three months from today, depending on who is picked up before the M’s head to spring training.
Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to watch. But no matter what you hear elsewhere, this offense is not one or two improved performances away from regaining its swagger. I’ve yet to meet anyone within the M’s organization — those with decision-making power, in any case — who truly believe that.
And it’s going to be interesting to see how the M’s navigate this delicate balancing act of needing to develop young prospects, with the business reality of giving their paying fans an offensive product that won’t embarrass them on a national scale.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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