Whenever the Mariners miss out on a big free agent bat, or don’t try hard enough, or whatever, the usual whistling in the dark begins from some quarters about how the team didn’t really need one in the first place. I can understand these sentiments, since nobody really wants to admit their favorite team — or front office — is up against it when the season is still three months away from actually beginning.
But there is a glaring middle-of-the-order need for this ballclub, a legitimate lineup power presence that the Mariners have lacked for years. The results have been there to see for three years running and no amount of logic-twisting, wishful thinking or burying our collective heads in the sand will make it go away. The Mariners had historically bad offenses in 2010 and 2011 and were again worst in most important MLB categories last season. A huge factor has been the liberties taken against Seattle’s young lineup by pitchers who have little to fear from a game-breaking, home run and extra-base slugging guy.
I tried to spell this out yesterday in a post about why Nick Swisher — for all the good he can bring to an offense — won’t be that type of guy the way Josh Hamilton was. Within minutes, somebody jumped into the comments thread with one of those ludicrous, useless factoids about how the San Francisco Giants were 30th out of 30 teams in home run hitting and still won the World Series.
That point about the Giants would be a great one if it at all addressed the issue at hand, which it doesn’t. Because limiting the discussion of a “big” bat to a team’s overall home run total alone adds absolutely nothing to this discussion. Worse, those who don’t know any better might buy into the faux logic on-display and help contribute to the kind of complacent acquiescense to mediocrity that has become commonplace in internet discussions surrounding the Mariners.
What the point about the Giants and their home run total ignores is that San Francisco had two players in their everyday lineup with slugging percentages of .500 or greater. In baseball circles, .500-slugging is generally considered the differentiator between elite sluggers and more ordinary ones. We can quibble about the odd exception but in general terms, if you get a .500 slugger in your lineup he will tend to strike a certain fear into pitchers.
So, the Giants had Buster Posey at a .549 slugging percentage and Melky Cabrera at .516 in their lineup for most of last season. And that’s playing home games at AT&T Park, where offense can be suppressed just like at Safeco Field. Obviously, Cabrera wasn’t around for the playoffs but Posey sure was and in that lineup he is indeed a difference-maker.
Know who else had .500-slugging difference-makers in the lineup? Eight of the nine remaining playoff teams.
The only exception was the Atlanta Braves, where Jason Heyward only slugged .479 with 27 homers as that wild-card team’s leading extra-base guy.
Hey, there are exceptions to every rule. But if you want to get better as a baseball team, you’re better off at least trying to emulate some of the successful franchises rather than always attempting to buck the trend.
Six of the 10 playoff teams in baseball last season had two lineup regulars who slugged at least .500.
The Mariners? Their leading slugger was John Jaso at .456, but he’s a part-time player with 361 plate appearances. The team’s best-slugging full-time player was Michael Saunders at .432 over 553 plate appearances.
How does that stack up with playoff teams? Not very well.
For the record, Swisher had a slugging percentage of .473 last year with 24 home runs playing home games at the right field bandbox that is Yankee Stadium. Hamilton had a slugging percentage of .577, which is a huge difference in terms of the kind of one-swing damage a guy can do.
Now, this is not an indictment of Swisher, who is still a good hitter overall by virtue of his on-base ability. The Mariners need more good hitters overall to round out their lineup and Swisher would be a start in the right direction. So would Michael Bourn.
But the addition of either of those guys would still leave the need for a “big” bat to be added somewhere down the line. I’ve said all along the Mariners need two or three bats to help this offense out and one of those would have to be a bigger one.
The Mariners understand this.
It’s why they tried to sign Mike Napoli, who slugged .469 in a down year last season but was at .631 in 2011 and .507 for his career.
It’s why they tried to trade for Billy Butler, who slugged .510 last year.
And it’s why, for all their phony media-posturing three weeks ago about having little chance at signing Hamilton, they were going hard after him in Nashville last week and still thought they had a shot this week.
But just because that dream has died, the need didn’t vanish along with it. The need has been there and has remained there throughout the entirety of Jack Zduriencik’s tenure as GM.
Even the presence of slugging Russell Branyan back in 2009 didn’t cure all of Seattle’s offensive woes. That team had the “big” bat for four of the season’s six months in Branyan, but lacked the good hitters overall.
And so, while the ability to gain a “big” bat this winter is probably gone now, that doesn’t mean the Mariners can stop trying to upgrade some of the missing offense. As we said last year at this time, you pick up the upgrades where you can one year and then try to complete the puzzle the following season if you absolutely have to.
It’s better than this strategy of trying to fix everything in one off-season. When you do that, you paint yourself into a corner and run the risk of frustrating fans by looking like you’re coming up empty. Had the Mariners upgraded with a piece or two a year ago, they could have put more of their resources into landing that “big” bat this year.
Or, had they scored the “big” bat a year ago, then nobody would be getting that bent out of shape over Hamilton.
What we can’t keep doing here in Seattle is missing out every winter, finishing last and then justifying it as part of some five, six, or seven or eight-year rebuilding plan. There have been ways to speed this plan up for years now and landing that “big” bat has been the most obvious one. The Mariners themselves know this.
And us pretending it’s not the case won’t do fans any good. If anything, it misleads them into the state of complacency that, in-turn, hasn’t resulted in anything the non-bat proponents are promising. The Mariners are lagging well behind three 89+-win teams in their own division, two of which have the financial resources to keep getting better.
Baseball’s marketplace is changing fast, in terms of what good players cost and the value of what it takes to get them via trade.
If the Mariners find they can’t fill their offensive needs, they’re going to have to step up their game, adjust to those new costs, or risk spending several more yerars being outdone in their own division.
Pretending that everything is right on course isn’t going to change anything. The Mariners, through inability or inaction, allowed the situation to get to this stage. The onus is now on them to fix it. They can start by upgrading the offense with what’s still out there, then hope to do better at this time next trade deadline or next winter.