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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

August 7, 2012 at 9:12 AM

Next two months could prove very telling in which Mariners are ready for prime time

This morning, on my regular Sports Radio KJR Talkin’ Baseball segment with host Mitch Levy, I was asked why the Mariners are now back to scoring fewer than two runs per game in hitter’s parks like Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards.
I half-seriously suggested that the Kansas City Royals do not play home games there. Neither do the Toronto Blue Jays, a team sinking like a rock of late thanks to injuries that have decimated an already-shaky starting rotation.
But to be fair, the Mariners have looked slightly better on offense as the season moves along and I don’t want to discount all that they’ve done. They probably won’t lose three of every four games — as they have lately — the rest of the season, nor are they likely to embark on any more seven-game win streaks.
For me, this is a team that will likely lose 90-95 games (they are on-pace for 88 losses, even with the recent win streak and have tough opponents still looming on this trip) and at this point, their final record means little in evaluating where they’re headed. Losing fewer than 90 might help the team sell a few more tickets this winter and convince fans that the rebuilding is improving. And it would be tough to argue that there isn’t at least some improvement between 101 losses in 2010, 95 in 2011 and 88 or so in 2012, so who am I to disagree with that?
But if we’re going to look for meaningful strides towards narrowing the gap between the Mariners and the two division behemoths ahead of them — no, not the Oakland Athletics, already showing signs of the August fade I do expect is coming — it won’t be in the won-loss record. As I wrote before the season began, the won-loss record won’t tell you much if it’s within a certain range.
Surely, if this suddenly became a .500 team, it might portend to something dramatically different and cause us to bump our contention forecast up by a year or so. Likewise, a 100-loss season might indicate that things have taken a dramatic step backwards. But right now, the Mariners as a team are still in that rebuilding range of 85-to-95 losses where nobody really has to take them seriously as a threat, or point to them as an historically awful club. They are not a good team, but nor are they as bad as they once were.
Hope that spells it out for you.
Moving on to more important stuff, what should we be looking for these final two months?
Well, what I’m going to monitor closely is how some of these younger players hold up over the final two months of the season.


These are now what we commonly refer to as the Dog Days of August. They are the toughest part of any baseball schedule, whether your team is a contender, pretender, or rear fender. The weather in most cities is the warmest it will be all season, with abysmal humidity that causes players to really feel the wear and tear of a long season.
And unlike September, which brings that light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, these players know they have a long way to go. Anybody who has ever run a distance race knows what I’m talking about. This is the period before you can sense the finish line and feel the adrenaline that will carry you through your finishing kick. This is where you struggle to hold your ground and try not to fade, or think about all the work that still lies ahead.
And it isn’t easy.
Last year, we saw several young Mariners fall apart over the final two months. It was so bad that manager Eric Wedge and the team’s coaching staff met with several players individually and as a group and spelled out the physical work they needed to do over the off-season in order to better condition their bodies.
And now, we’ll see whether it pays off. Now, we find out which of these players are meant to be full-time major leaguers and which of them are better suited to back-up and utility roles on good teams.
I can’t put it any more plainly than that.
Sure, the Mariners could take another year or two to really figure that out and maybe that’s the plan. But this was supposed to be the year in which the team identified which players were going to be part of their core moving forward as they build a champion. Which of these players they can count on. Well, some of those guys aren’t going to make it and this team faces tough decisions ahead. No sense fooling yourself for another year or two if the goal is really to have this rebuiding plan pay off at some point during the lifetime of Felix Hernandez‘s contract.
Most people have identified Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders as the two biggest 2012 success stories for the Mariners from a position player standpoint. And for me, that’s an excellent place to start focusing our analysis of the next two months, because the Mariners need to decide whether Saunders truly projects as a full-time outfielder and Seager a full-time infielder.
The jury is still out on both. Can Seager really be a full-time third baseman? And no, his two-out RBI total is not the place to begin serious analysis of that. RBI are largely a function of luck and opportunity, though the two-out stuff does suggest an ability to bear down and focus on a quality at-bat when he needs to. But still, a .246 batting average and .709 OPS for the season doesn’t exactly scream starting MLB third baseman. It could make Seager an everyday second baseman if he can finish with those numbers, but again, we have to see how he holds up.
Seager has gotten on-base more in the second half (.330 to .306), but his slugging power has dropped tremendously (.420 to .322) over the past month or so. Again, that’s pointing more to a future at second base than an infield corner spot for a team this poor on offense overall. It’s also hinting at a decline in overall physical strength as the season wears on.
More worrisome to me is Seager’s start in August, albeit over a small sample of five games. He’s hitting .158 with a .358 OPS this month. Again, we’re not writing him off. But we’re going to find out a lot about how players like Seager hold up over these next couple of months and part of that will involve keeping things together during the Dog Days of August. If the Mariners have to start resting Seager in order to get his numbers back up, then that’s not typical of a full-time player.
Same with Saunders.
Overall, his .255 average and .726 OPS for the season doesn’t exactly scream championship corner outfielder, even with above average defense. But it’s a step in the right direction and those numbers are good for an everyday center fielder, which Saunders has pretty much been this year.
Now, we find out whether he can sustain it beyond the two-thirds point in the schedule.
Saunders, like Seager, has seen a drop in his second-half numbers. He’s gone from a .257 average and .743 OPS in the first half down to .250 with a .669 OPS since the All-Star Break.
This month, he’s hitting .214 with a .624 OPS.
So, yeah, he has to step it up as well.
Seager and Saunders, as mentioned, are two of the biggest success stories for the Mariners this season. But maintaining that success through the entirety of the schedule is key for this team to take a real step forward. Otherwise, their inability to hold out over an entire season might be a sign that the Mariners need to go out and import new players in certain spots.
They aren’t the only ones being looked at.
Casper Wells hit .325 with an .856 OPS in June, then dropped to .226 with a .689 OPS in July. In August, he’s .133 with a .486 OPS. When you hear guys describe Wells as a “fourth outfielder” type, it’s going to be based on his ability to maintain numbers when given full-time responsibilities. So far, he’s playing like a fourth outfielder.
Brendan Ryan is hurting once again. Is he going to bounce back soon and be in the lineup every day? Or will this be a repeat of last year, where Ryan was pretty much a non-factor the final two months as injuries took their toll?
Dustin Ackley fell apart late last season, hitting .219 with a .598 OPS in September, which appears to have carried over into most of his 2012 campaign. There was a point at the All-Star Break when it appeared Ackley might get sent to Class AAA. Given a second chance, his numbers have actually declined.
Ackley hit .233 with a .636 OPS in the first half, but now is at .189 with a .626 OPS since the break.
So, again, how Ackley finishes off the season will go a long way towards telling the Mariners what they need to improve upon this winter.
Right now, if current trends hold, this team will need to import multiple bats on a variety of fronts next winter if it hopes to significantly close the gap with division rivals next year. Yes, the second half results still amount to a “small sample size” but that excuse won’t hold unless something changes these next two months. That’s why it’s going to be interesting to monitor all of these players and more as the season progresses.
Because even if Munenori Kawasaki and Miguel Olivo can drive in some runs and help the M’s secure a few more wins against AAA-infused opponents in September, it won’t mean anything in the long run. The ability of young hitters being tabbed as “future pieces” to hold up physically and mentally over an entire season — i.e. show that they can be full-time players on more than just a bad team — will matter a great deal.
Again, some hitters might need more time to show that. This is only the first full season for guys like Ackley and Seager, after all. Jesus Montero is just a rookie. Not the same as for a guy like Saunders, or Justin Smoak. Or Mike Carp. So, the Mariners may justifiably need longer in order to make a call on some guys. But the longer it takes for that call to be made, the longer this team will have to wait in order to contend, or even reach .500.
As of right now, this looks like a team that needs multiple corner outfield and infield bats before it can be taken seriously. We’ll see whether anything happens to change that perspective over the next eight weeks.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero

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