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May 19, 2013 at 2:50 PM

Mariners seeing what that crucial speed element looks like

The Cleveland Indians are a win away from sweeping the Mariners in this four-game series.

The Cleveland Indians are a win away from sweeping the Mariners in this four-game series.

We’ve written many positive things in this space about the Mariners and their offense this season. But it’s safe to say, this team is far from perfect offensively. And one of the shortcomings that gets mentioned a lot is the lack of athleticism and speed in the batting order.

Heck, let’s drop the athleticism part of it. The Mariners are just slow at times.

They can really start clogging up the bases when the middle of the order gets on and we saw today what a team with real speed — like the Indians have — can do with it when it comes to manufacturing runs.

Today’s game was a 6-0 loss and some of the sluggishness in the field is what caused that. The Mariners looked bad on four different defensive plays the first four innings and it cost them three runs. The other three came on a Felix Hernandez sinker that didn’t sink and resulted in a Michael Brantley homer.

But the other aspect to today’s game was how the Indians took advantage of pure speed up top and at the very bottom of their batting order to make things happen. This Indians squad did a fantastic job of remaking their offense both via some trades and in good free agent signings this winter. They didn’t do it all with youth.

And now, they have the American League’s most dangerous-looking offense both in terms of power and speed. They can beat you in so many different ways. Plus, they are versatile. They have a bunch of switch-hitters they can flip around and use to stack their lineups from both sides of the plate depending on the handedness of the pitchers.

I see a lot of misdirected criticism being aimed at the Mariners and GM Jack Zduriencik for the fact they signed some veterans this winter and let go of some mid-to-lower-level role players like John Jaso and Casper Wells. Needless to say, I’ve never agreed with that criticism.

In the end, I think this is a better team with Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez on it. And in the end — regardless of this losing streak, now at three games and counting — this is still a good team that should win more than it loses and can stay in contention.

But all that said, there is still room for criticism here. Not because the Mariners got rejected by Josh Hamilton. Not because they were turned out on what would have been a good trade for Justin Upton.

No, there is criticism because the Mariners did not do all they could to maximize their own offense this winter. The Indians weren’t the first choices of guys like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Those players fell to the Tribe because of a lack of interest expressed by other clubs, some of them more worried about losing a first-round pick and spending some money than they were in the quality of those players.

Now, I’ve said it before, I’m not really that upset about Swisher. I think the Mariners have seen some good things from Justin Smoak so far at first base, they have Morales who can play there for now as well and some right fielder types. But some people may disagree with me on that, feeling Swisher is a better overall player, more proven and with the pedigree of having played important games for contending teams.

Hey, that’s fine. I don’t claim to always be right or have all the answers. Just saying I won’t personally sweat that one.

But the Bourn thing, for me, is a classic example of how this rebuilding process has played out for the Mariners. It’s taken a long time to get where we are and I do think we could have seen some better baseball a bit quicker had the Mariners spent some dough this winter and in prior ones to shore-up where they were lacking.

Being a rebuilding team does not mean having to suffer through a bunch of 95+-loss seasons.

Yeah, these Mariners could wind up a .500 team or better this year.

But the Indians are now a first-place team with one of the best offenses in baseball. Last year, they were a horrific team in the second half.

The Mariners knew going into this winter they had a hole at the leadoff spot atop the batting order. They knew they had a center fielder in Franklin Gutierrez who had not stayed fully healthy since midway through 2009.

And they knew that Bourn was out on the open market, having trouble finding suitors because of the first-round compensation thing and that his agent, Scott Boras, was probably going to have to cut a deal. The Mariners had conversations with Boras, but kept putting him off as they waited for other things to take hold — like the Upton deal that came apart.

Still, finally, when all was said and done, they did not manage to land Bourn.

The Indians did and we see the results.

The Mariners stuck with Gutierrez and will now have him for about four more months maximum once he comes off the DL. Then, they can exercise their option on him for 2014 at $7.5 million or walk away.

That was the call the Mariners made. In the end, they opted to keep payroll where it now sits and keep their 12th overall pick in June and the slot money that goes with that.

When you evaluate overall what type of impact that decision might have on the team both this year and in the next few years to come, it’s impossible not to conclude the Mariners might have made a big mistake. Or, at the very least, that they just prolonged the end stages of this “plan” by at least another year.

Casper Wells? John Jaso? That’s forgettable fodder.

There were potential impact moves staring the Mariners in the face this winter beyond Josh Hamilton that they opted not to make.

This isn’t an “I told you so!” because I also wanted Hamilton and that might not be looking so good right now if that move had been done.

But next winter, when we see a bunch of guys on the market and we hear the usual groaning from people who argue that free agency isn’t the way to build a team, or that guys are too old and we should be building through youth alone, or that this guy looks like the second coming of Chone Figgins, just stop and think. ┬áThere were plenty of guys out there who could have helped the Mariners be even more than they are right now.

Sure, part of it’s a crapshoot. But the good teams can often spot the crapshoots that will turn sour ahead of time. Sometimes no, but you’ve got to take the chance. The Indians could have spun their wheels for five more years fielding low-budget, young squads full of little else but empty promises of hope to smaller and smaller crowds.

Or, they could have tried to significantly better themselves.

Right now, it looks like they have. And if they finish third, that’s not going to change the fact they went out and tried and — more importantly — did actually sign some true impact guys long-term.

The Mariners also bettered themselves. Just not in the same way. They’d hoped to have more speed, but that’s tough when Gutierrez gets hurt and Dustin Ackley and Brendan Ryan can’t get on base.

It is what it is for now. The Mariners went with the money-saving and the draft pick. And they are now living with the results of that decision. It may not matter one bit when the season is done if they get back to winning games. But all of this has to be taken into context when evaluating the moves and progress of a team.

Right now, in terms of offense, the Indians have a critical speed component the Mariners lack. And they are the more dangerous team as a result. You don’t need track team speed if you’re the Mariners, but a few less base-clogging blunders like what we saw in Saturday’s loss — with the Jesus Montero pick off at second on the non-bunt by Endy Chavez — would be welcome.

The speed game, leadoff spot and permanent center field role long-term were not adequately addressed by the Mariners this winter. And if that problem is still here this winter, it’s an area well worth focusing on beyond the too many words spilled already over Jaso and Wells.

Comments | More in analysis | Topics: michael bourn; nick swisher; franklin gutierrez; josh hamilton

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