In the middle of August, and the Mariners out of contention, again, it’s hard to write much about this team. Three-fifths of the starting rotations is inconsistent to terrible. The bullpen is a major disappointment. Defense is deteriorating. The bats are sleeping-again. I’m never going to be a beat writer, so it’s hard to be super positive based on the results. Am I just supposed to say–geez, these guys suck, again?
It’s often difficult to watch this teams without thinking solely about next year, or without getting demoralized and moving on to the excitement building around the Seahawks. Though I wish the Seahawks well, and will doubtless watch their games on the tube, I’m not as emotionally invested in them as I am the M’s. C’mon it’s football, there’s at least a hundred reason why baseball is better than football (see Thomas Boswell.) And for all their troubles, the M’s still hold out promise for improvement, even if they haven’t played like it lately.
Here are some things to think about:
Justin Smoak: No player in recent M’s history has attracted as many words or as much angst as the M’s big first baseman. After years flailing in the wilderness, Smoak has crafted an interesting year. With a line of .270/.367/.450, and an OP’S+ of 135, the former Gamecock is finally approaching the potential expected of him when he was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal with Texas a few years back. He’s learned to command the strike zone, isn’t afraid to take a walk, and no longer looks like a deranged windmill flailing away at low inside pitches he can’t possibly get to.
Justin is making himself an integral piece of the Mariners’ future, but he still has a few things to improve on. Though he’s had far fewer plate appearances than last year, his extra-base hits are down. Smoak also hits poorly from the right side against left handed pitchers. His splits are-left handed-.304/.406/.611, and right-handed .189/.270/.233. Is it time to abandon the switch?
The Kids: I dunno about you, but I love watching Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and (before he was hurt) Mike Zunino play. Yes, they are inconsistent and they make mistakes. They’ll have periods of struggle at the plate because they are young. But they bring a fire to the game this team desperately needs. The Brendan Ryan regime at shortstop has ended. The Ackley experiment at second base has evolved into, well, we don’t know. The litany of failed catching experiments from Ben Davis to Kenji Johjima to Miguel Olivo 2.0 is over. Will these young players take us to the promised land? Too early to tell, check back next year at this time. But they play hard, and they could be the M’s version of Trammell to Whittaker. They seem eager to learn. They’re fun to watch . . . most of the time.
Kyle Seager-I’m not sure, given the Mariners history with their kids and sophomore crashes, everyone believed the young third baseman would have the kind of year he’s having. Last year .259/.316/.423 an OPS+ of 109. This year .290/.357/.472 with OPS+ of 137. Seager is clearly the leader of the youth movement. He’s played a decent third base and his OPS + puts him at 10th in the league. Kyle Seager is no longer a prospect, rather he is an offensive star in the American League.
Felix and Kuma-I am not one of those who say pitching and defense make for a boring game. I think the steroid era was a blight on the game and continues to shape baseball today with the rise in strikeouts and the way some players, such as Mark Reynolds and even Michael Morse are all-or-nothing hitters. That said, the Mariners are quite fortunate to have the services of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. They’ve demonstrated that, at least in this season, they are two of the finest pitchers in the game. Though both have blown up occasionally (I mean Cy Young leads the majors in most career wins and career losses) they’ve been steadily among the league leaders in things that matter, like innings pitched, ERA, hits and walks per nine innings. In fact, it’s just amazing how consistently they are ranked among the top ten for the good stuff. The M’s are fortunate to have two fine starters under their control for next year. About the remaining three spots . . . not so much.
Kendrys Morales-The M’s brought in lots of veterans to add some offensive leadership to this team. Jason Bay, Kendrys Morales, Raoul Ibanez, and Michael Morse were all intended to take some of the offensive load of the youngsters and provide some leadership in the clubhouse. In the beginning of the season they did exactly that. Injury took out Morse and veteran holdover Franklin Gutierrez. Bay and Ibanez were forced into the roles of regulars they were not intended for. Bay is gone. Ibanez, though he hit well in the first half simply hasn’t hit a lick since the All-Star break (.167/.222/.231 with no homers.)
Morales, however, has been steady Eddie for the Mariners. He leads the team in RBI’s and has kept his average between .280 and .300 through most of the season. Though there was a fear he’d be a no walk, big strikeout guy, his OBP of .345 is well above league average. Though he slightly trails Seager for the team lead in extra base hits, Morales is a tranquil leader in the middle of the line up. The M’s should do what is necessary to bring him back next year to insure the most productive DH since Edgar Martinez and provide a solid anchor in the middle of the order.
While this season is nothing to scream about, there are some reasons to continue watching and reading the Mariners. Don’t know if they’ll make my prediction of 75-81 wins, but it’s still not out of reach. The young guys at least make them interesting.