September 16, 2013 at 7:47 AM
Mariners offense sputtering to the finish line
Yesterday, we wrote about how the Mariners are struggling to make it to the finish line with a depleted bullpen that was rocked by the St. Louis Cardinals in their series finale. Most disconcerting, if you’re looking ahead beyond the 2013 season, are the continued struggles of Carter Capps, one of the youthful pieces who was supposed to factor in to a contending team down the road. Capps now has a .907 OPS against for the year and truthfully, nobody with numbers that bad over a prolonged stretch should expect to stay in the majors.
The rest of the bullpen guys who got shellacked were September callups and none are being counted on as of right now in any meaningful way for 2014.
But the team’s offense is another story. This fifth year of Seattle’s rebuilding plan now sees the Mariners headed for 90-plus losses without some type of drastic turnaround these final 13 games. In other words, another season sacrificed to a plan that is heading backwards in the win-loss department. Developing position players is supposed to be the big part of that plan, given how the team’s offense has struggled on historical levels since the 2009 season ended.
And yet, the team’s offense, after a mid-summer surge, is once again sputtering to the finish line. A 600-run season used to be the benchmark for where a team went from struggling to downright terrible. Now, it’s viewed in Seattle as some type of goal for success. And even with this lowering of the minimal standards bar once again, the Mariners are still struggling to attain that goal.
Seattle has scored 574 runs with 13 games to play. What once seemed like a shoo-in — 600 runs — is still going to take some work. Normally, averaging just over two runs per game would seem simple. But the Mariners are barely averaging three runs per game the first 14 they’ve played this month and are at just 2.1 per contest over their last seven.
So, no, with a steady stream of contenders now looming on the schedule, even a 600-run season is not assured. Who are the culprits behind this end-of-season swoon? Not always the guys you might think.
First and foremost is Kyle Seager, who has arguably been the team’s best overall player this year. But he’s now mired in a 2-for-28 (.069) slump the past eight games, even as the team lauds his “iron man” status for having played in more than 100 consecutive games at third base. Well, here’s a suggestion: if Seager can’t start hitting in coming days, it might be time to end that streak and give him a night off.
The Mariners have lacked middle-of-the-order hitting throughout the second half. Michael Morse was finally traded, Raul Ibanez hit the proverbial wall after being overused in carrying the offensive — and corner outfield — load at age 41 throughout the first half in-place of younger players hurt or simply not getting it done.
Kendrys Morales slumped for a month but has since picked his game back up. So, that’s one mid-order hitter doing what he’s supposed to in September. But the club can’t afford to have Seager vanish for prolonged stretches like this. You see what happens when he does.
As for other young “core” members?
Nick Franklin is hitting .175 with a .598 OPS since June ended. He’s at .176 with a .582 OPS in September.
Michael Saunders is at .194 with a .487 OPS in September. His second half numbers have improved over his terrible start, but like others, he’s now staggering to the finish.
Justin Smoak is hitting .149 with a .520 OPS the past month. He’s batting .190 with a .649 OPS in September.
Brad Miller was hitting .222 with a .575 OPS in September before straining his hamstring on Saturday. His OBP has fallen from .331 to .314, which is not a good number for a leadoff hitter.
Mike Zunino is .162 with a .505 OPS this month since returning from his hand injury.
So, far, Dustin Ackley has been the best of a young bunch, but even his September numbers are down to a .242 batting average and .691 OPS.
Now, we can cite reasons for all of the team-wide struggles, be it Zunino missing a month to injury, Franklin and Miller not being used to the grind of a full MLB schedule, Seager playing too much or whatever. Yeah, the Mariners are playing a bunch of good teams. There are usually good reasons for everything we see happen on a baseball field.
But it the end, it still comes down to not getting the job done. And for a team and front office that has been selling fans on its young core and its future for the past several months as the losses piled up and a hoped-for .500 season vanished, there are too many young players fading fast.
You can gripe all you want about Ibanez’s power swoon. He’s a 41-year-old guy who was brought here to be a DH and part-time outfield reservist. Instead, he was played as a full-time outfielder and still leads the team in home runs and slugging.
Nobody has to bring Ibanez back next year. He was brought here for a specific role, outperformed even the wildest expectations and will be 42 next season. So, either bring him back in the same, limited role and use him in it next year, or bid farewell.
Same with Morales and Franklin Gutierrez. If you don’t think Morales is worth $14 million on a one-year qualifying offer, or, know you can do better than that for the money (not just think but know) then sure, go in another direction.
But with these younger players? There isn’t much choice. These are the fruits of this rebuilding plan that’s going to now need at least six or seven years to even produce a .500 season. And they are falling apart in the final sixth of their season. Some have been coming undone since well before that.
And that can’t be. As manager Eric Wedge keeps saying, it’s a 162-game schedule. There are no trophies handed out for how you do up until mid-August. These players are young and still developing, yes. Some of them will go on to be good MLB players, even if some do not.
But they are not, as a core, getting the job done. They are headed for 90-plus losses and are tanking on a mass scale with too many September OPS totals in the .500 and .600 range.
And five years into the rebuilding plan — young players or not — things have not gone according to plan. Shooting for 600 runs three years after you made modern baseball history with offensive campaigns of 513 and 558 runs is hardly the type of progress expected. The Mariners went into this season with revamped Safeco Field fences and a blueprint they hoped would generate at least 700 runs and make them a respected offense once again.
Not a world-beating offense, just respectable.
Right now, that’s not even close to happening. Yes, the Mariners can say they have a bunch of younger players they can trot out at almost every position of the diamond. But that alone is not a measurement of anything other than years on birth certificates. The offensive numbers — in black and white — paint a much less rosy picture. They tell us that, five years into GM Jack Zduriencik’s tenure, the minimal goals of this rebuilding plan are simply not being met.