I’ve said this season was a disappointment enough times-over and over-I’ve made myself nauseous. But it was, and there it is. But if it was disappointing to me, it certainly must have been so to the players. They read the pre-season hype, just like the fans, and I’m sure they had expectations.
And without a doubt Lloyd McClendon had expectations too. Jack Zdurencik went out and got him Nelson Cruz for the middle of his line-up, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton were that much more experienced. Felix and Iwakuma were at the front of his rotation. The young guys-Ackley, Zunino and Miller-were another year older, another year more experienced. And that bullpen. Give me that bullpen any day. And some guys, problem performers, were gone. No more breakage worries with Michael Saunders gone. Justin Smoak was no longer a strikeout waiting to happen in the lineup. More pitching with J.A. Happ to go with a very good rotation. And Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano were a made for each other tandem in the outfield.
Except none of it worked. None of it. The rotation broke when Paxton and Iwakuma went down with injuries and Happ was traded after a month of ineffectiveness. The carefully assembled offensive lineup didn’t produce, the heroics of Nelson Cruz notwithstanding. And the bullpen seemed as though it was struck by lightning. The same guys who formed the best relief corps in Mariners history, suddenly were among the worst. And in a puzzling move, the Smith/Ruggiano tandem wasn’t allowed to function. Cruz went to right field and Ruggiano was banished to Tacoma without explanation.
The Mariners lost, out of the playoffs again. But the season was so weird. The M’s had two abysmal stretches of ineffectiveness. The first was the infamous 2-9 homestand from May 28-June 7th after fighting back to .500 on the road. And then after playing .500 ball most of the rest of the season, and sneaking back within three games of .500 in late September the M’s collapsed utterly going 2-9 over their last 11 games. It’s hard to see how McClendon was somehow responsible for this.The team really didn’t give up, though it definitely had a couple of bad patches. Even at the end, playing through serious injuries, Cano and Cruz insisted on playing. Kyle Seager didn’t miss a game this year.
So how much of this belongs in Lloyd McClendon’s lap; how much is his responsibility? On the Mariners Nation Facebook page I’ve watched fans screaming for Lloyd’s head for a variety of reasons. Players clearly underperformed, the team underperformed, should Lloyd pay the price? The fans were angriest when he regularly ran Fernando Rodney out against all sense and experience. But they didn’t know that McClendon wanted Rodney and his $7.5 million salary gone. a month before he was released. More importantly, there was nobody to replace him with. Tom Wilhelmsen, Joe Beimel, Danny Farquar, Mayckol Guaipe, David Rollins: all were B-A-D. Only Carson Smith seemed consistently decent, until he was overworked and suffered setbacks as a result.
Though he not so secretly loves the M’s, ESPN’s Sweetspot writer David Schoenfeld wrote in his preseason comments that while he was picking the Mariners to win the AL West, they were the most fragile team. If there was injury or underperformance by one of three key players, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz or Felix Hernandez, they would have a hard time winning. In another pre-season article he identified Rodney as one of the most flammable closers in the league, one that could cost the Mariners games and maybe their playoff hopes. Cano struggled the first half of the season with illness and ineffectiveness and Rodney was, well, that guy Schoenfeld wrote about. Should McClendon’s job be on the hook for this?
I don’t hold McClenon responsible for the team’s failure any more than I think he is responsible for their success on the field. Too many things went sideways for him to own this. I do think he has a bad habit, and that is just being done with a player. Lloyd McClendon, like Lou Piniella, has a dog house and when a player is in it, it’s really hard to get out of it. Erasmo Ramirez was in Lloyd’s doghouse, was shipped off to Tampa Bay and had a decent year. Ruggiano was in his dog house and never recovered, though he had a good year in Tacoma.
I wonder if McClendon had the complete power to make on-field decisions. I’d like to believe he did. But the early abandonment of the Smith/Ruggiano platoon in favor of Cruz in right field leaves me suspicious. The Mariners are as good as any team in MLB at maintaining that opaque curtain of secrecy. Cruz made no secret when he met with the Seattle media the first time that he found DH’ing boring. Did Zdurencik instruct McClendon to play Cruz in right field? Did Ruggiano react negatively to the reduced playing time, inspiring Lloyd to wash his hands of him?
I’ve always liked McClendon. I think he is frank with his players and with the press. He does everything he can to isolate his team from drama, and seems focused on the day to day. He doesn’t seem to be a great field tactician, although he sure seemed like a wizard with the bullpen in 2014 when he had something to work with. I think he’s deserving of that last year remaining on his contact.
But my gut tells me he’s gone. DiPoto will want his own man, one he can trust and collaborate with, who sees the game with his eyes. I can’t say I blame him after his experience with the Angels. I also think his analytics philosophy may be further along than Lloyd’s, and that may require a different guy, who is more comfortable using them on the field.