ADDITIONAL NOTE 2:25 p.m.: I should make clear that I do indeed feel it would be a step forward for the Mariners if they finish the season a .500 club, namely because their schedule gets much tougher in September and will require sustained good play to get there. What I am saying for now is, a .500 record by month’s end won’t be something to read too much into development wise unless it is sustained through September. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the same 75 win team many expected prior to the year. That’s all. But I want to be fair. A .500 record by season’s end would indeed be a big step forward. Did not mean to imply otherwise below. On to the post…
Well, these final days of August are certainly going to be interesting as the Mariners prepare for seven more games out of 10 against terrible teams from Cleveland (starting tonight) and then in Minnesota next week. If you’ve been waiting for years to see the Mariners finally win a bunch of games in a row, you’d best get out to the ballpark in coming days.
Now’s your chance and it hasn’t been this good since 2009.
The Mariners have a five-game winning streak that’s carried them to within six games of .500 and that means it’s possible they could be a team with as many wins as losses come the end of the month. Should the Mariners somehow finish the season close to being a .500 club, there will be many, many fans who will hail it as a decisive turning point in the franchise’s rebuilding plans.
And they will be right, but only to a point.
This is indeed a serious time in the team’s rebuilding and it’s important for Mariners fans to keep their eyes on the prize. Important to keep perspective about what it is that has fueled this post-All Star Game resurgence and not lose sight of the big picture: that this team needs to get better on multiple fronts this winter.
Simply put: the Mariners — with the rare exception — continue to beat a lot of either very bad teams, or good teams that have been in sustained slumps.
That in itself is not Seattle’s fault. The Mariners have no control over who they play and have done their best to capitalize on some quirky, fortunate scheduling that has enabled them to face a string of mostly sub-par opponents.
But the worst thing that could happen to this team is for it to finish somewhere close to .500 and for upper management to say “That’s it, we’re good!” To assume that leaving the team alone and allowing the development process to continue at the same, snail’s pace will lead to any playoff contention in the next few years.
Because as mentioned above, there are still far too many things that need to happen with this squad if it hopes to contend for real someday. Keep sticking with the status quo, this club could just as easily finish in last place again next year, as it almost certainly will this time around — recent winning aside.
Photo Credit: AP
Again, none of this is the Mariners fault. They have beaten the teams they have played the majority of the time of late and have bettered their record. And there is a good chance they will better their record even more these next 10 days.
But when you look at the reasons behind the recent winning and whether it’s sustainable, the question becomes more muddied.
Has the offense gotten better? Only marginally. And only marginally over the historically bad performances in 2010 and 2011.
And the offense was the prime area in need of improvement going into the season.
Kyle Seager is the team’s only regular player carrying an OPS+ (park-weighted on-base-plus-slugging percentage) that is even league average. The team’s best hitter, John Jaso, is a backup catcher. I asked manager Eric Wedge yesterday, during his pre-game session with reporters, whether he’s satisfied with the team’s offense.
“The offense, I think, has been better but it’s still not at the point to where it needs to be,” Wedge said. “I mean, for me, it’s not just end results. (Saturday) night was a good example. I felt like we had good at-bats. Felt like we had good outs. Felt like we had spirited at-bats, as you’ve heard me say before…those are the types of at-bats that can lead to success.”
As of right now, the team faces questions at all three outfied positions. It faces questions at first base, where neither Justin Smoak nor Mike Carp has enjoyed any sustained success. Right now, the team does not have a catcher it feels comfortable playing more than two days in a row. Dustin Ackley was a .220 hitter at the beginning of last week and there will be winter questions about whether he’s better off going to the outfield so that Seager can slide over to second base and the team can go after a more powerful third baseman.
That covers pretty much every spot on the diamond. We’ll assume Brendan Ryan sticks at shortstop.
Wedge said he’ll use these next few weeks to continue to evaluate. He has an idea already of who his full-time players are versus part-timers, but is keeping an “open” mind about it these final six weeks.
“Nothing is set in stone for me,” he said. “I’m very open-minded and very patient. I’m going to give these guys every opportunity to be a guy.”
Wedge said some players could change his perspective going forward. And some have already changed his perspective since mid-summer. But he maintained that patience is a virtue and that “nine times out of 10” staying patient in the business of baseball will pay off in the long run.
So, I asked him, how does he figure out when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em on a player? Because not every team has the luxury of waiting years and years for a Mike Morse to pan out. Sometimes, mediocre players just stay that way and waiting on them sets a team’s rebuilding back.
“That’s a great question, too,” he said. “But I can’t explain that to you. Because that’s just something within me and within (GM) Jack (Zduriencik) and within the coaches that have been in this game for 20, 30 or 40 years. That’s our job.”
For a team that entered 2012 looking to answer questions at a number of positions, there have been precious few answered. Seager has shown he can play someplace. Wedge says Saunders has done the same, though we’re not sure where that someplace is in his case. Jesus Montero has shown he can be a DH and a catcher on a limited basis, but the Mariners pretty much knew that heading into the year.
Things look better on the pitching front. Tom Wilhelmsen has established himself as the closer, Lucas Luetge and Charlie Furbush as dependable lefties and there are a slew of hard-throwing righties after that.
In the rotation, the only new emergences have been slightly improved versions of Jason Vargas and Blake Beavan. The peripheral numbers of both pitchers suggest they really aren’t all that different from prior versions, though both have shown a penchant for limiting damage this season that wasn’t around prior.
Can that be sustained? We’ll find out next year.
Hisashi Iwakuma is a free agent after this season. Whether the Mariners want to pay significantly more money in coming years for a second-half performance he’s delivered this season is something not entirely in their hands to begin with. That remains up for debate.
What isn’t up for debate is that there are still many holes that need to be filled on this team and which will require two, and likely three bats to be brought in from outside the organization this winter.
In many ways, that part hasn’t changed from last winter. It hasn’t changed because this year of answering questions about hitters has continued to fuel more questions than responses.
And that’s why, while we can all enjoy watching the team win a bit more these days, it’s important not to lose sight of the serious work that lies ahead. The good news? This second wild-card addition means that any team remotely close to .500 can pretty much be in a playoff race of sorts in the second-half. There is now less excuse than ever before for teams to write off entire seasons in the name of rebuilding. Less excuse than ever to not at least try to win as many as you lose and give your fans something to cheer for in at least five of the season’s six months.
And with the Houston Astros coming into the AL West next year, the Mariners could theoretically earn a good six additional wins on second wild-card opponents around the league. But first, the M’s have to stay competitive with the three current teams within their own division. To this point, they haven’t been, even with the total second half collapse of the Angels.
So, enjoy the winning while it lasts. I’ll tell you, it’s far more fun to cover a winning team than a losing one. And yes, this team is clearly better than the 2010 and 2011 version. But other AL West teams are better than their prior versions as well.
And that’s why it’s important to keep an eye on the team’s real development outside of the won-lost record. Don’t be satisfied with a few crumbs here and there. Keep the pressure on the team to make significant improvements this coming winter. To have fallback plans in case somebody doesn’t pan out, or veterans with ability brought in to push and guide younger players.
Don’t use this recent upturn as a reason to fete the team for mission accomplished before it actually does something significant.
Make sure the Mariners feel they have to do everything in their power to better this squad for 2013 so that the past few weeks of “learning how to win” actually lead to something that matters.
Otherwise, we could be having the same conversations 12 months from now as we were 12 months ago. And that schedule in August 2013 might not prove nearly as kind.