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July 18, 2013 at 8:13 AM

Be careful of how low you let that Mariners bar get lowered

As good as Nick Franklin was in June, he's been in a 10-game slump this month in which he's hit .136 with a plethora of strikeouts. The speed with which the newest Mariners additions pull out of their initial slumps could go a long way towards determining how valuable they'll be in coming seasons. Photo Credit: AP

As good as Nick Franklin was in June, he’s been in a 10-game slump this month in which he’s hit .136 with a plethora of strikeouts. The speed with which the newest Mariners additions pull out of their initial slumps could go a long way towards determining how valuable they’ll be in coming seasons. Photo Credit: AP

Last night on Sports Radio KJR (click box below to listen), I took a look at this oddly-Seattle phenomenon of how we continuously lower the bar for this Mariners team. We don’t do it for the Seahawks, mind-you, who many people I speak with locally insist must win a Super Bowl this year or else their season will be a disappointment.

Talk about setting yourself up for a fall. But I digress.

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The Mariners are in no such position with the local fanbase and much of the media. Turn on the radio these days, scan through the comments section on this blog or others, read some local newspaper guys and it’s tough to miss the proverbial bar getting lowered yet again for our baseball team.

At the start of the season, a .500 season seemed the common benchmark for what many — including myself — felt should happen for a squad that had the pleasure of playing 19 games against the terrible Houston Astros (on-pace for a 105-loss season despite a winning record against Seattle). And yet, when you listen to folks right now — giddy with excitement over another wave of young, largely unproven kids and an offensive uptick the past couple of weeks — they keep repeating that they will be satisfied with a season of anywhere between 73 and 78 wins.

Whoa! So, tell me, how exactly did we get there?

How did we get from an 81-season being the common consensus for minimal success to a 75-win season suddenly becoming fine? Especially when this team already won 75 games a year ago and had the added bonus this year of 19 games against Houston? Think one of the AL East teams wouldn’t kill for that now? But that’s where we’re at. The bar, it seems, continues to get lowered.

Look, I get that fans are excited about finally seeing the Mariners actually perform like they have a major league offense. I get that scoring six runs per game for a couple of weeks in July is better than the 3.5 or so runs per night they were scoring before. I get that the additions of Brad Miller, Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino have everybody gushing with future projections of glory.

But at what point does actual performance and the meeting of minimal .500 expectations start to matter? Is it really just as simple as calling up another batch of “kids” when a season goes off kilter and hitting the reset button? If so, what happens next year if the Mariners are a dozen games under in June? Do they call up all three of the “Big 3″ and maybe Stefen Romero, hope they can hit for a few weeks and have the fanbase shrug and say that a 77-win season will be just fine?

I mean, fans and media can say and do what they please, I suppose. But at what point do we actually set the bar for minimal results and expect them to be achieved? Because I’ll tell you what will happen if we keep accepting these seasons where the introduction of young players to the process allows everything that happened before that to be forgotten.

That’s where a rebuilding plan goes from five years (right now) to six years, to seven years and beyond. At some point, this team has to show signs of it all working beyond just a few weeks of hot offense. So, I’m wondering when that point is. From all accounts, it won’t be this year, where the team will likely fail to reach .500 even with an Astros-inflated schedule.

For those using the “kids defense” — meaning that it’s OK to fall short of expectations as long as young players are fueling a second-half upsurge — be careful in how you go about your analysis of that one. I keep hearing that the additions of Franklin, Miller and Zunino have ignited the Mariners on their current July surge of offense.

In reality, the numbers don’t totally back that up.

Lost in all the hoopla over the Mariners scoring some runs and going 8-5 the past two weeks is the fact that Franklin has been in a 10-game slump that’s seen him go 6-for-36 (.167) while striking out at a more-than-40 percent rate.

Miller is in a much more recent mini-slump, going 1-for-14 his past few games dating back to the finale of the Boston series. In other words, he had little to do with the team’s sweep of the Angels — at least, offensively. Overall, he’s done OK his first 16 games in the majors, hitting .246 while posting an OBP of .324. That’s decent for a debut, but not exactly Henderson-like from a leadoff perspective.

Zunino has played consistently well as a catcher. But hitting-wise? He’s at .230 with an OPS of .575.

So, are the three youngsters really fueling this offensive revival all that much? Especially in July, when the Mariners finally started scoring some runs? I’ll buy that Miller has provided an uptick over the offense the team was getting from Brendan Ryan. But the real power behind this offensive revival lies in Kyle Seager, Raul Ibanez, Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales.

Two of those guys are under contract for next year. Two others — Morales and Ibanez — are not.

So, as giddy as some may be about the “kids” that arrived recently, there is little indicator that they are the ones truly sparking what we’ve seen.

And it’s important to make that distinction for a couple of reasons.

Number one, we have no idea how good or bad Franklin, Miller and Zunino are going to be as we go forward. All three appear to be slumping offensively in various degrees and how quickly they pull out of it will be the first test of how well we can expect them to perform. But for those of you calling for Franklin to bump Dustin Ackley out of a job permanently with Seattle: it’s far too early to make that call. Franklin has 42 games on his resume. Miller has 16. Zunino has 22. Time to get hold of ourselves, stop the heavy breathing and start thinking a little more clearly, beyond the sunny haze of birth certificates and youth.

Number two, if it turns out that Miller, Franklin and Zunino are just young guys who had a few good weeks while facing several seasons of struggles ahead — like Ackley, Smoak and others — then this team could be in store for more mediocrity in seasons to come if we allow it to continue on without forcing those in charge to meet minimal expectations.

Had anyone suggested on March 31 that this team would be nine games under at the break, many would assume that GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge would be fearing for their jobs.

Today, I don’t hear that sentiment. I hear folks saying that, hey, as long as the team looks “interesting” in scoring a few more July runs, all that happened prior is moot. That if the Mariners can play close to .500 ball from July 19 onward, it won’t matter that they were a dozen games under .500 heading into the final series before the All-Star Break.

I just have trouble with that type of logic.

I listened to folks make similar arguments in 2011 after the Mariners promoted a bunch of kids — Ackley included — got a good September out of Smoak and lost 95 games. Listened to it again last year when the Mariners beat up on a bunch of terrible teams in late-July and early August, won eight in a row at one point and posted a winning record in the second half.

Did it matter? Nope.

Because when the Mariners took that same team, bolstered it with the likes of Morales and Ibanez, then asked it to play .500 ball on April 1 of this year, what did the Mariners do? They fell flat on their face. They played nine games under .500 in the first half — when they actually still had a shot at contending for something. So, no, last year’s play in late July and early August meant zip. It meant nada.

So, be careful how carried away you get this year. Enjoy any improved winning rate. Revel in the fact this team can now score four or more runs like most in baseball can.

Just watch how permissive you are with this team’s inability to meet minimal expectations. You can love the infusion of youth, but there is more to running a ballclub that that. And there is nothing out there preventing the Mariners from keeping their good, youthful pieces while bringing in new people to run things and maybe speed the whole process up.

Just be careful. Keep tolerating mediocrity in a season where the Mariners are still closer to the Astros than they are to contending, there is no guarantee that it will end. Keep lowering the bar, there is no real incentive for the folks in charge to build a better team — either by spending more or getting their trades and free agency picks right — from one year to the next.

Accept a 75-win, or a 78-win season this year with no questions asked, we might find the Mariners in the exact same position a year from now if all we’ve seen was a brief burst of adrenaline from the latest batch of kid callups.

At some point, results have to matter. At some point, expectations must be met. Keep lowering those expectations, chances are the initial ones will never be exceeded.

 

Comments | More in analysis | Topics: nick franklin; brad miller; mike zunino; jack zduriencik

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