Mariners cruise into season’s second half

The M’s shocked me by blazing into the second half of the season eight games over .500.  I truly didn’t think they’d be here.  I’ve pointed out why I think they are there-improved starting and relief pitching and better defense.  But there are a few more things that have worked in their favor

1.  Schedule

The first two months of the season, the M’s suffered through a scheduling nightmare. Through May 21st they played a ridiculous number of road games, with lots of silly travel back and forth across the country.  They also played tons of games against division rivals.  By May 29th they’d played 18 games against the Athletics and Angels, both ahead of them in the AL West standings, and at this point, the two best teams in the A.L, well, okay, throw the Tigers in there too.  Since May 22nd the schedule has tipped in their favor.  There are more home games.  The road trips are shorter.  The strength of schedule is more advantageous, with games against the Red Sox, Cleveland, the Yankees, the Astros, and the White Sox.  Careful, things won’t stay that cozy, with series against the Athletics and Angels sandwiched around the All-Star Break.  Even so, July and August look like winnable months and the M’s will need some credits in the bank as they roll into a hellacious September. 

2. The Robbie and Kyle show

When the M’s signed Robinson Cano to a $240 million deal I was thrilled. They’d have a legit middle-of-the-order bat who could lead this team.  No retread recapturing the past. No prospect who might someday be good.  Cano’s signing was the real deal, a sign the fans were waiting for.  Of course, in their infinite penny-pinching ways, the Mariners management surrounded Cano with retreads (Corey Hart,) and prospects (Justin Smoak, and I use the term prospect loosely,) and said have at it. What has Cano done?  Let’s just say the words–he hasn’t hit for a lot of power, only six home runs and 17 doubles to date. Yet, he leads the team with 98 hits, runs scored with 43, and OBP with .378.  He is slightly behind Kyle Seager with an .818 OPS. That brings us to the second part of our story and that is Seager.  Seager is imperfect.  He has massive home/road splits. For example, of his 34 extra base hits, 19 of them are at home, including 11 of his 12 home runs. Yet somehow, when the M’s are at home, Seager finds a way to be the man.  When the M’s can’t score at Safeco, he is the one who gets it done. When the Mariners are offensively constipated, more often than not, Kyle is the Ex-Lax. May he continue to loosen their bowels on the current road trip.

3. Mike Zunino

It has been so long since the Mariners had a catcher worthy of the title, it is a pleasure to watch Mike Zunino behind the plate night in and night out. He does almost all those catcher things well.  He blocks balls in the dirt.  He calls a great game.  He is very good at framing pitches. According to Baseballreference.com, his defense rates in the top five of all major league catchers. That Zunino is also tied with Seager for the team lead in home runs is also nice.  At age 23, with little service in the high minor leagues, Zunino missed out on those developmental games that would have made him a better hitter.  Hence, he hits only .225, rarely walks, and has whiffed an amazing 86 times in 259 plate appearances.  Still there is something incredible to watch as he works with Felix on the mound, finding a way to get those changeups called strikes at the bottom of the strike zone.  That he often, in the same game, hits balls with majestic parabolas into the left field seats, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Richie Sexson, makes forgetting his offensive shortcomings easier.

4. James Jones

Jones is still young and still learning, but today he sits atop the second spot in the line up with a .295 average.  He leads the team with 17 steals and always seems a threat to run or score from wherever he is on base.  Yesterday’s triple was his fourth in only 212 plate appearances, and he seemed to jog for the the three-bagger.  The Mariners haven’t had a player like him since 2001 when Ichiro Suzuki signed with the team.  Though not as defensively polished as Ichiro, he should improve as a hitter and an outfielder.  His game would definitely improve with a higher walk rate.

LOOKING AHEAD

A. Trade or no trade

I think the M’s will need some help to get into the playoffs as a wild card.  There is next to no possibility they catch the A’s; they’re just too well constructed. However, I see little reason to trade for pitching.  Taijuan Walker took Erasmo Ramirez’s place.  While his first start was not a thing of beauty, it did all work out.  It’s said Roenis Elias will have his innings capped at 170; he currently has 104.2.  It’s likely James Paxton will return before Elias reaches his limit.  I know the M’s have been linked to David Price and Jeff Samardzia, but the cost to obtain someone of that quality will likely be considerably more than they can afford to pay. We’ve seen what Paxton can do.  It’s likely Walker will be better in the five spot than Maurer or Ramirez.  I’d let it ride.

But would I trade Walker for a bat?  Yes I would, as long as we’re talking a consistent performer with a proven track record, AND will be around for a few years. No Doug Fister or Cliff Lee deals.  The Mariners have offensive needs in the outfield, first base and/or DH.  I do believe Michael Saunders will give a M’s a bit of a bump, but not enough of one to carry the team. I don’t have faith Dustin Ackley will magically become what he is not. I think it is highly unlikely Corey Hart or Justin Smoak will come back to the M’s and provide a significant offensive boost. There are guys out there: Alex Rios of the Rangers, Seth Smith of the Padres and others that would improve the M’s where further production is needed.  There is no way Endy Chavez should be DHing, and Ackley needs another trip to Tacoma to find his missing swing. But don’t overpay.  Rios and Smith are both rentals, so deal accordingly.

B. Just win baby

I confess to being a scoreboard watcher, even in June.  It’s been a very long time since watching the Mariners standings was very interesting or relevant, so this is a pleasant surprise.  That said, there are still plenty of games to play, and teams that are close in the Wild Card standings.  Though the M’s are hot, they’ve still managed to lose a half game to the equally incendiary Angels.  The M’s are a game and a half ahead of the Orioles, and while other teams, like the Yankees and Royals have faded a bit, the Birds continue to win and remain on their heels.  The only solution to that problem is to keep winning.  After the final game against the Astros today, the M’s fly to Chicago for a weekend series against the White Sox.  They are a bad team, and Seattle has to find a way to overcome their past run of poor performances in the South Side if they want the fun to continue.  The Mariners have their destiny in their own hands, and while they can’t win them all, they must avoid lengthy losing streaks.

C. The offensive surge

The last couple of weeks witnessed burgeoning offensive performances by the M’s.  June 23rd, the Mariners beat the visiting Red Sox 12-3.  Since then the M’s have won some tight games and lost some tight games. In the games from June 23rd to the last night’s destruction of Houston, the Mariners hits totals were 14, 10, 8, 11, 1, 10, 11, 18.  The two games against the Astros were laughers.  The team batting numbers in every category of importance-runs scored, hits, slugging percentage, home runs-continue to rise.  The Mariners remain last int he league in the critical on-base percentage, but as batting averages have increased, so has OBP.  Team batting is now at .245, up from .232.  Even OBP, once stagnant in the .290’s is at .303.  The M’s need to take more walks and strikeout less, but as Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, and role players like Endy Chavez continue to improve, the team numbers will get better too.  The help wanted sign should still be out there, but this team no longer has the smell of desperation around it.  We should remember the M’s are clubbing some pretty terrible pitching staffs right now, but in the past, that knowledge didn’t seem to help much.  Always kick a bad team when they’re down, and McClendon and batting coach Howard Johnson seem to have the boys in blue doing just that.

 

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