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August 24, 2012 at 8:03 AM

Mariners need an accurate gauge by season’s end of how they’ve climbed back to .500

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Given the way things have played out, there’s an excellent chance the Mariners could come off this road trip to Chicago and Minnesota a .500 team. All that is required is a 5-2 record and given how the teams involved have played lately, including the surging Mariners and faltering Twins, that kind of record is entirely doable.
And that will be great news because it will set the team up for some more exciting home games once the Angels show up after the trip.
And then, as August gives way to September, we’ll find out a lot more about this team. Is it really a team right on the verge of .500? Or is it a team that’s had some fun weeks in August, but is still a ways away from being a .500 club?

Once again, as we discussed on the show last night on Sports Radio KJR (above), the object here isn’t to take away from what the Mariners have done. Everybody who follows this team wants to see them eventually do well. I think I can speak for all reporters and say that none of us wants to be chronicling a 101-loss team anymore. All of us would like to be following a winner.
But by season’s end, we’ll all need to put down the pom-poms and figure out what it all means. Because as discussed on the show, it does nobody any good to misinterpret what’s taken place here. We need to know how to frame the off-season debate about what the team needs next. Need to know how major the off-season tinkering needs to be in order to bolster the squad so that it can live up to heightened fan expectations.
Because if the fanbase goes into next year thinking this was a legitimate .500 team, expecting 85-90 wins next season, we’re in for a huge shock if it really was more like the .414 team we saw at mid-season and it loses 85 next year. Then, you’ve got a ticked-off fanbase whose expectations were falsely inflated by a couple of August streaks. Then, all the fun we’re having now will be long forgotten. Nobody wants that. But once you wake your fanbase back up, as the Mariners have, there comes the pressure with actually having to live up to expectations.
It will be important to figure out whether this recent prolonged stretch of winning was primarily about the Mariners having taken a definitive step forward. Or, whether it had more to do with getting to play a bunch of games in a five-week span against the Royals, Blue Jays, Twins and Indians — teams that, after last night’s play, have just a combined winning percentage of .361 (56-99) since the All-Star Break.
Because, no, not every AL team has had a schedule that’s allowed them to play so many games against those squads in such a short time period at the exact point where the seasons of those losing teams have so utterly disintegrated. Cleveland and Toronto were contending for playoff spots in the first half. Since the All-Star Break, they have both collapsed with the league’s two worst records over that time.
So, please. Get excited about the team and stay that way. But let’s look for some signs that this thing really is built to last.
A caller on the show last night reminded me of what I wrote earlier this month about the Dog Days of August and how it was important for the Mariners to survive this test on both an individual and team basis. From a team standpoint, clearly the Mariners are winning a lot of games and that bodes well. So, what should we be looking for over the next 5 1/2 weeks? Let’s take a look.
1. Sustained high quality of offensive play: the Mariners have done a better job at times of not just scoring a couple of runs early and hanging on for dear life, or waiting all game to score then putting up a couple in the ninth to turn a 5-1 loss into a 5-3 loss.
But it hasn’t always been that way. There were some signs against Cleveland of the team reverting to old form the past two wins, when the Mariners struggled to push runs across until the very end. Against a team that wasn’t 4-21 over its past 25 games, the Mariners might have emerged with some different results entirely. So, that’s something to keep an eye on: how consistently the Mariners can execute throughout a game.
Photo Credit: AP


2. Development of the pitching staff outside of Felix Hernandez: We all know Hernandez can pitch and right now, he is my pick for the Cy Young Award. But we need to see whether Jason Vargas can continue to do what he’s done. Need to see whether these six-or-seven-inning outings from Hisashi Iwakuma in which he allows three runs or fewer are for real, or simply a one-month deal. The Mariners need to figure out howmuch to pay those guys. Iwakuma told me Sunday he’d like to come back to Seattle because he’s comfortable here. If he and Vargas are as good as they’ve looked, that helps the rotation. Let’s get a proper gauge on Blake Beavan as well and whether he’s taking a Doug Fister-like step forward, or is merely interchangeable with any number of Class AAA starters the team has.
3. Continue the development of the bullpen: This is the area of least concern right now, but just because Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps can throw 100 mph doesn’t mean they are automatically late-inning guys next April. As we saw in 2010 and 2011 from Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes, hard-throwers still need command in key situations. Pryor took a step forward against the Indians in the eighth inning on Sunday. So, we’ll see how they do over the next month and whether they stop putting guys on base. Cortes and Lueke never did. Again, though, this bullpen is pretty darned good.
4. Individual development of core hitters: This might be the most important area of all because we still don’t have a good enough read on the situation and this is the team’s weakest link — the offense. Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders have all seen their on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) numbers decline since the All-Star Break, even with the Mariners beating up on four of the league’s weakest teams.
I didn’t name Justin Smoak in that group because he was actually demoted to Class AAA during that time. Jesus Montero has picked his OPS up nicely in the second half, but mostly against left-handed pitching. Unfortunately, he’ll be facing right-handers three-quarters of the time as an everyday player, so again, much to watch for with him.
I didn’t include Eric Thames, Mike Carp, Casper Wells or Trayvon Robinson in that group because the Mariners are still figuring out whether those guys are full-time or part-time players. By season’s end, they should have a better idea and then we’ll know as well whether we can even include them in a “core player” discussion.
Finally, we won’t learn much at all about Franklin Gutierrez this year. He’ll probably come back in September and get some games in. But even if he has a brilliant September, we already know Gutierrez can play for one good month. The question will always be whether he can be counted on for six good ones and we won’t learn that, unfortunately, until 2013.
So, there you go. That’s stuff to look for outside of the won-lost record.
Naturally, if the Mariners come off this trip a .500 team and remain a .500 team at season’s end, they’ll have had to do it against much better squads in September. Then, we’ll be able to say — OK, these guys have certainly found something here.
But if they come out of September a 75-win team that many expected going into the year, then it won’t be so easy. And we’ll have to have been looking for the other signs in order to have an idea just what has taken place since the break.
To be honest, I don’t expect this to be a .500 team at season’s end. If it is, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But this can still be a very good, competitive team in remaining games and still not reach .500. We have to be able to spot the differences. To separate the won-lost record from what’s really going on, good or bad. And it won’t be as easy as last night’s boxscores, just as it hasn’t been easy the past couple of weeks. We know this team can pitch and play defense and we know it’s not as bad as the worst teams in the league. What we don’t know is whether it can hit enough to take that next step up.
Still, we have to figure it out, starting with these next 5 1/2 weeks. Then, we’ll know how to frame the off-season debate. That’s tough to do right now when everybody is sky-high about the team finally winning a bunch of games again. The trick will be to see whether this team is ready to do that from the start of next season — when it will be zero games behind anybody, with a world of possibilities ahead.

Comments | Topics: Dustin Ackley, Hisashi Iwakuma, Jesus Montero

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