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June 18, 2013 at 11:47 AM

Justin Smoak tries to save Mariners, reputation of young ‘core’

Mariners need Justin Smoak to start producing right away now that he's being activated today off the 15-day DL. He's been out since late May with an oblique strain. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners need Justin Smoak to start producing right away now that he’s being activated today off the 15-day DL. He’s been out since late May with an oblique strain. Photo Credit: AP

With the news last night that Justin Smoak would be activated off the disabled list — something the Mariners will officially announce once he gets here to Anaheim — the team officially begins its last-ditch bid to salvage the 2013 season.

At nine games under .500, the addition of Smoak — with Franklin Gutierrez and Dustin Ackley soon to follow — might happen too late. But you never know when the next winning streak will start (or if a decent one ever will for this team) and the road trip still has three games remaining.

The big thing Smoak brings — assuming he won’t need a week to round back into form — is the ability to get on-base. That’s a skill that has diminished greatly for this team ever since injuries and Class AAA demotions began piling up back in mid-May.

Back when the Mariners came out of that hard-fought series in Cleveland a month ago, their team OBP stood at .312 for the season, even with Jesus Montero not performing and some players beginning to wear down.

Today, in the month of games played since, team OBP has been a dismal .283 and sent the overall OBP for the year plummeting down to .301.

The major culprit in this downward spiral has been Michael Saunders, who on May 5 had a .351 OBP and a .971 OPS and was looking like one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball. Since then, his OBP has been just .281 with a .549 OPS. Naturally, he is no longer at the top of the order.

The sheer disintegration of Saunders the past six weeks coincided with that other dip I’ve mentioned over the past month.

For those who criticize the roster makeup of this team as being flawed with too many first-base/DH types, you are technically correct.¬†As of right now there are too many of those cluttering up the nightly lineup and the addition of Smoak — one would think — would not stand to improve that much.

But that critique of the roster, while valid in a literal sense, is also flawed.

The root cause of the team’s current problems is not that the roster add-ons this winter leaned towards the first base/DH varitety. It’s that the young “core” of everyday players expected to man the skill positions simply have not done their jobs. And that reality has forced the team to lean too heavily on the surplus of first base/DH types that were brought in.

Now, had GM Jack Zduriencik known ahead of time that all of Ackley, Montero and Saunders were going to flop, that Smoak would fail to hit for power and that Gutierrez would again miss most of the season, then yeah, he would have been absolutely nuts to round out his roster with first base/DH types.

And I can buy the argument that he should have known better than to lean so heavily on Gutierrez as an every day center fielder and leadoff man. Or that making Montero the main catcher was a flawed decision.

But nobody expected Montero to completely vanish as a hitter. The team gambled that it could live with Montero’s poor catching a couple of months until Mike Zunino was ready. What it didn’t bank on was Montero losing every ounce of power in his bat and not hitting even singles by mid-May.

What the team didn’t bank on was the rest of the young core outside of Kyle Seager doing a faceplant.

And that’s why this team is in so much trouble.

Not because Michael Morse doesn’t look great playing the field as a corner outfielder. A team can live with one lousy corner outfielder whose bat is still good enough to produce a .775 OPS hobbling around on one good leg and swinging for weeks with a busted finger.

But it can’t live with that below average corner defense if the rest of the everyday lineup is not producing as planned.

The plans went astray this year the minute the young core failed.

No plan involved using Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez in the same outfield every night for weeks on end. No plan involved Endy Chavez playing as much as he has. Or Kelly Shoppach.

This team is very old right now and looks it. And it’s because the young guys haven’t cut it.

Want basepath speed? Gutierrez has it. So does Ackley. So does Saunders. But Gutierrez can’t bring it from the DL, Ackley can’t show it off from AAA and Saunders can’t display it while walking back to the dugout following his latest whiff.

That’s why this team is clunking around the bases. The only guys producing are the first base/DH types. So, no, the analysis that the roster is flawed because of the only guys on it actually doing anything does not pass muster.

And while you can fault Zduriencik for his Gutierrez decision and the catching part of his Montero gamble — and can certainly hold him responsible for the state of his young “core” five years in — expecting him to fill out the roster with light-hitting speed guys in anticipation of a team-wide collapse is somewhat silly.

This team couldn’t hit for years when it filled the roster with light-hitting, speedier skill players. The reason it was rounded out in reservist spots with first base/DH types this year is because those guys tend to hit. The reason Morse was brought here was that he tends to hit.

And they have hit.

What’s happened is that the young core flopped. Plain and simple. And now, the entire team is staggering trying to cover for them.

Smoak won’t add speed, that’s for sure. But he’s supposed to be able to hit and hit for power. His OBP ability should help right away. But it sure would be nice to see him show some of that long-promised power.

If he can, it might even come in time to help save this team’s goal of a winning season. If it’s already too late for that and the Mariners are indeed doomed to finish below .500 despite 19 games against the Astros, there is still time for Smoak to save something.

The reputation of this young core.

With Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino off to solid starts, a demonstration by Smoak that he, too, can bring more to the table would really restore some optimism that the Mariners might actually get someplace come 2015 or later.

Whether the guys who put them in place will still be here by then is anyone’s guess. But if they aren’t around, it won’t be because they used first base/DH types to round out their roster and saw them produce in the roles they were supposed to fill. It will be because of the everyday, core players they did not get expected production from.

Let’s see what Smoak can do.

Comments | More in young core | Topics: justin smoak; dustin ackley; franklin gutierrez; jack zduriencik

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