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July 14, 2011 at 8:33 AM

Some things worth following in second half of Mariners season

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Regardless of how things go at the trade deadline, there will still be plenty of things worth following through the months of August and September for the Mariners.
Here are four good ones to start with. I’m sure some of you can come up with more.
1. HOW DOES JUSTIN SMOAK FINISH HIS SEASON?
For the first five weeks this season, Justin Smoak appeared to be blossoming into exactly the middle of the order hitter this team has been missing for a while. He was hitting .315 with five homers, 21 RBI and a .989 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).
But then, he was moved from the No. 5 spot up to No. 3 and it all started to come undone. Actually, it began right before that move.
From May 7 onward, Smoak has hit just .190. with 7 homers, 22 RBI and a .633 OPS.
Wow.
That’s quite a drop. The Mariners have chosen to make this season more about rebuilding than the short-term and few things are as key to the rebuilding plan as Smoak emerging into a reliable power threat for a team with as little power as any in baseball. One thing to remember is that this is only Smoak’s first full season of big-league ball without an extended stint in Class AAA. It takes time for young players to develop, regardless of their AAA stats. And Smoak, based on what we’ve seen from two-thirds of his season to-date, still has some developing to do. The key here is for him to develop consistency on a month-to-month basis. His overall stat line of .229 average, 12 homers, 43 RBI and a .744 OPS isn’t terrible (except for the batting average) but much of it was compiled over the first five weeks. You want your biggest bats to impact the maximum number of games. It will be interesting to see what Smoak does from here.
2. CAN FRANKLIN GUTIERREZ FINISH STRONG?
Speaking of key pieces moving forward, this is Franklin Gutierrez’s fourth full season of major league ball. In the first three seasons — one in Cleveland and two with the Mariners — the knock on him has been that he can’t finish. With the Indians, the excuse was that he was still adjusting to the rigors of a full major league season. In 2009 with the M’s, it was sore knees that were said to have done him in. Last year, it was his stomach issue that was blamed.
At some point, whether it’s something he can control or not, Gutierrez is going to have to put the entire package together. Because solid-glove center fielders — even those well above average like Gutierrez — are not all that uncommon. The trick is to find the ones who can hit. And Gutierrez, for his Gold Glove ability, has yet to morph into the hitter folks envision. He doesn’t have to be a 30-homer guy. But he does have to bring that same month-to-month consistency that is also missing from Smoak’s game. Gutierrez has departed somewhat from his previous traits in that he did not enjoy the kind of strong start to this season that he has in the past. M’s manager Eric Wedge says the issue is not physical. But clearly, the Mariners need — and fans have every right to expect…no, demand — more than a .187 average, one homer, eight RBI and a .444 OPS from an everyday major league outfielder.
So, let’s see whether Gutierrez regains his game or not. Because if he doesn’t, it would not be unreasonable of the M’s to start looking in another direction — perhaps as early as this winter.


3. CAN DUSTIN ACKLEY KEEP THIS UP?
The huge success story of the season so far has been the play of Dustin Ackley the first three weeks plus of his big-league career. It isn’t so much the numbers — with Ackley hitting .304 with three homers, nine RBI and a .900 OPS — but more the confidence his manager has already shown him in moving him to a middle-of-the-order role in the lineup. No spoon-feeding this guy’s confidence. Ackley isn’t supposed to even be a power hitter in the home run sense, but he’s on-pace for more than 25 over a full season. No, that part will not continue. But a .900 OPS from your second baseman? At that position, anything above .800 is golden. Doubt the .900 stuff continues, but again, it doesn’t really have to. Ackley can drop 100 points and still be well ahead of where he’s supposed to be at this young stage of his career.
Can he maintain this consistency? Especially in an offense relying on his bat far more than any team should expect to with a 3-week rookie? We’ll see. He’s still yet to experience his first prolonged slump. And he will. Every player goes through it. It will be interesting to see how he responds and whether he can finish the year in the No. 2 spot many envision him eventually filling. That will depend more on other players than on Ackley. Right now, he’s more valuable in the middle of the order.
4. WHAT ON EARTH CAN THE TEAM DO WITH CHONE FIGGINS?
This will be real interesting to watch going forward, as some suspect the team might just release Figgins outright. Not sure GM Jack Zduriencik has reached that point just yet, but his options remain very limited. The less Figgins plays, the rustier he’ll get and that doesn’t make him likely to rebound from a .183 average and .476 OPS.
Figgins likely gets limited to some spot duty from here on in. But if the team keeps him and hopes to revive his career next year, he’ll have to get regular playing time at some point. There is always the possibility of a “problem-for-problem” trade like we saw with Carlos Silva and Milton Bradley but those can be real risky as well. You don’t want to throw good money after bad and that can happen in such cases.
For now, it will be interesting just to see whether Figgins survives the year with the team. I still think he will, but would have to put it at 50-50 right now.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins

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