If last year was a constant, repetitive nightmare for this Mariners fan, 2016 is a season bordering on severe bi-polar symptoms. I ranged from weeks of ecstatic flights of post-season fantasy, to valleys of hopeless gloom resembling 2010. Blech, got to purge that from my mind. No this is not commentary on my own emotional and psychological condition, it is the 2016 Mariners season. The exhilaration of May, to the stone, cruel reality of June, the early August comeback, and late August crash.
The 2016 Mariners campaign is the story of The Tease. The M’s have shown the ability to solve their problems for a couple of weeks at a time, and then absolutely fallen off a cliff. Six wins followed by a collapse. Not six wins then .500 ball for ten days. Six wins followed by an absolute nosedive.
And here we are. It’s September 10th. At 73-68, twenty one games left to play, 3.5 games out of the second wild card with four teams in front of them. Do the M’s have a shot at the playoffs? Probably not. But they’ve won three straight, play five more games against the A’s and Angels. Of course they can if they go 15-6, 16-5 the rest of they way. Maybe. Sure. And the teams in front of them obligingly lose. Doable. Maybe.
Here are a few factors that may contribute to their fate:
The Rotation Cannot be a Circus
If I had to point to one decisive factor in the Mariners season it is the instability in the Mariners rotation. The M’s started the season in a seemingly good position with Felix, Iwakuma, Miley, Walker and Karns and Paxton in the minors. All are guys with some success at the major league level. It seemed to me they were set. Five months later, only Iwakuma is close to making 30 starts. Due to injury and ineffectiveness, only Felix (20) and Walker (21) have made twenty starts. Okay, Miley made 19 starts before being shipped off to Baltimore for target practice and his replacement, Ariel Miranda has made six starts.
But the injuries to the King and Walker, Paxton, and Karns, and ineffective innings by virtually everyone in the rotation has led to fifteen starts given to various Wade LeBlancs, Vidal Nunos, Mike Montgomerys, Cody Martins, Joe Wielands and Adrian Sampsons. It has also led to the M’s bullpen taking on 447.2 innings. That’s 8th in AL, so not the worst, but the teams ahead of them either have terrible rotations like Baltimore or the Angels, or they are built around great bullpens like the Royals. The Mariners relief staff continues to struggle, though it has changed personnel since April, at least partly through overuse.
The Mariner rotation has a big job to do if the M’s are to keep even their remote hopes alive for the playoffs. 1) They must stay healthy. No more busted fingernails for James Paxton. 2) They have to pitch better. Four or five inning stinkers are not going to cut it. Seems obvious, but since the first game of the White Sox series in Chicago (August 27th) everybody in the current rotation has had at least one of them. Some more than one (yeah Paxton, I’m pointing at you.) Even if Tai Walker is trying to re-make himself, somehow he’ll have to go more than the five he threw against the Rangers Thursday. Finally, there’s no help. Watcha see is watcha got. Somehow these guys have to get it done.
The Cano, Cruz, Seager Train Keeps Rolling
Last night the Mariners scored their 665th run, passing their 2015 total with 21 games left to play. By comparison that number is fifth in the American League, and the most by any Mariner team since 2008 (671), but they probably won’t reach the mark of 794 scored by the 2007 team. That team won 88 games with pitching every bit as questionable as the 2016 team, with a -19 run differential.
One of the reasons for this team’s success is the steady and consistent performance by the guys earning big money in the middle of the lineup. I could post slash lines for Cano, Cruz and Seager, but try this on for size instead. Kyle Seager is 9th in the AL in OPS with .900. Nelson Cruz is 11th with .885. Robinson Cano is 12th with .883. Only Boston can boast as many or more players in the top 20. Geez, I hate those guys.
I could talk endlessly about how these factors fit with career numbers, but the most important thing to think about is that the Mariners could have three guys who finish the year with over 30 home runs, hitting .285 or more and around 100 RBI’s. It’s really only possible to produce those numbers if a player is pretty consistent for the year. While the rest of the team has had some bright moments and hot spots in the season, nobody else has contributed offensively like these three guys have. They’ll need to continue producing while Martin, Lind, Lee, Marte, Gutierrez, Smith and Zunino and the others chip in where they can.
Catch it and Throw it
Nothing has frustrated me more than the defensive problems the M’s have seemed to have this year.From a strictly traditional standpoint, the M’s are smack in the middle of the American League with 78 errors made. But those errors have led to 53 unearned runs, have prolonged innings, and put extra burdens on starters and relievers alike. Only the hapless Twins have allowed more.
And of course, before you can make an error, fielders actually have to get to the ball. ranging stats, measured by Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) or Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are equally accusing when it comes to Mariner defense. The Mariners rank 11th in DRS, and 13th in UZR, both with big negative numbers.
The point is, it’s tough when a pitching staff is scuffling to stay healthy and get outs,and much harder when fielders are giving away outs and runs. We may remember Leonys Martin’s play at the wall, and Seager’s game saving grab and throw on August 18th to beat the Angels, but the Mariners are a bad defensive team. Getting to balls is why we’re seeing an increasing number of games with Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia in the outfield, sacrificing some offensive prowess for defensive range. Expect to see an oufield makeover in the off-season.
Work the Schedule
Though the M’s remain in the hunt for the Wild Card, and let’s face it both wild card teams are in play with Baltimore and Blue Jays struggling, there are opportunities and obstacles for the Mariners given their schedule. First, they have six games with the Astros, a team ahead of them in the standings. The bad news is their record against Houston is only 5-8, so somehow those two series, at home and on the road, will have to turn the tables a bit. They also have three games at home against the Blue Jays, a team they handled at the Rogers Centre, and again a team ahead of them in the playoff chase.
Their remaining games, 12 of them are all against bad teams: the Twins, Athletics and Angels. But there is also no room for error. It’s not good enough just to win series anymore. With seven series remaining, and maybe six losses to give, there have to be sweeps. The schedule seems to be favorable, but in the end, the M’s will have to execute.
Somehow the Mariners will likely have to get to 88 wins to sneak in the Wild Card back door. It’s not an impossible task, but for the last 21 games, the M’s will have to play their best, most consistent ball of the season.