They Are Who We Thought They Were: Why the Mariners’ Continued Struggles Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

After yesterday’s excruciating loss to the lowly Orioles it’s time to face the facts–the Seattle Mariners season is over.    

Yes it’s only May, and no they aren’t mathematically eliminated, but have the Mariners given us any reason to believe that they are capable of going on a tear and catching Texas in the AL West? Have they given us any reason to believe they won’t finish in the cellar of the division?   

The first month and a half of  the season has been filled with bullpen meltdowns, fielding miscues and a lineup that would have trouble scoring runs at Double A. Not only are the Mariners losing at an alarming rate, but they aren’t even fun to watch (unless you are a big fan of failed suicide squeeze bunts–happy trails Eric Byrnes). For a team that came into 2010 with such great expectations, Seattle might be the most frustrating and disappointing team in baseball.   

The offseason was filled with talk of a World Series run and a storybook ending to the career of Ken Griffey Jr. New additions like Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman and Cliff Lee were supposed to help Seattle return to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade. All that speculation looks like a pipe dream now, as the Mariners sit at 12-21, already 6 1/2 games out in a weak division.    

The team is so boring to watch that Mariners players are falling asleep during games (allegedly) and besides recent call-up Michael Saunders there is little reason to believe things will change. The magic that was supposed to surround this team is nowhere to be found and not all the Mike Sweeney hugs in the world can do anything to change that.    

The Mariners looked like a contender on paper but have turned out to be the biggest frauds in baseball. Should we have seen this coming?    

Unfortunately yes. Despite all the optimism surrounding the team heading into 2010, the Mariners were a fatally flawed team. Here’s why:   

1) Mike Brumley’s IQ<60: Seriously, if there is one single person responsible for the M’s poor start, it’s the third base coach. If he isn’t on the payroll of the Athletics, Rangers and Angels, he should be. Brumley has looked clueless all season, sending runners who get thrown out my 15 feet, waving his arms around like a mad man and generally killing any chance the team has of scoring runs. Seattle is a team built with zero margin for error and yet they’ve run themselves out of more innings than I can count. Please fire him Mariners. Please?  

It would take approximately 100,000 Mike Brumley cards to buy a loaf of bread in Slovenia.

2) The Law of Averages: In 2009 the Mariners compiled an 85-77 record despite a negative run differential. The last time that Seattle had a winning record with a negative run differential was 2007; the following season they lost 101 games. The Mariners thrived in one run games last year, but they can’t catch a break in 2010, and are finally experiencing the regression they should have in 2009. Baseball is a game of averages and right now those averages are bitch slapping the Mariners. The team almost certainly won’t lose over 100 games again (I think…I hope…I just don’t know) but they also aren’t going to post a winning record. Happy trails Cliff Lee!   

3) Milton Bradley=Crazy: I won’t second guess the Mariners for trading away Carlos Silva (even as he thrives with the Cubs) but expecting Milton Bradley to play left field and hit cleanup all season long was doomed to fail from the start. There’s no doubt that Bradley is a talented hitter, but there is also little doubt that he has more bats in the belfry than Lady Gaga. I’m pulling for him to turn it around and have a strong year at the dish, but I certainly wouldn’t bet a gem mint 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card on it. The Mariners’ had less of a contingency plan going into 2010 than John Hammond did for Jurassic Park and they are paying dearly for it now.    

4) Catchers Who Can’t Catch (or Hit): How bad is the combination of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore behind the plate? Bad enough that I’m dreaming of the glory days of Kenji Johjima, Ben Davis and Tom Lampkin. Neither Johnson nor Moore has shown the ability to consistently hit major league pitching so they combine for a black hole in the lineup, which might be okay if they were stellar defensively—they’re not. The Mariners lead the majors in passed balls which have led to numerous unearned runs we can ill afford to spare. 

5) Clubhouse Chemistry Does Not Win Divisions: The impetus for the Mariners bringing in both Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney for 2010 was that good vibes and practical jokes would help Seattle return to the playoffs. Nevermind that both Griffey and Sweeney are one-dimensional at best and occupy two roster spots that are virtually worthless to the team right now because they’re great guys! And while manager Don Wakamatsu may be loved by the players, his handling of the bullpen this year makes Dusty Baker look like the Einstein of baseball, and it would be nice to see him show a little emotion from time to time (he’s quickly becoming baseball’s Art Shell). The Mariners roster was built to fail because it hinged on a mythical thing called chemistry rather than a very real thing called talent. Let’s hope the Mariners front office learn from their mistakes in 2010 and puts a product on the field in 2011 that resembles a major league baseball team, because the Mariners are anything but right now.  

Remember when Seattle was 9-7 and looking like a legitimate contender. Yeah, me either…

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Completing the Puzzle: Who Do the Mariners Need to Target in Free Agency?

Jason Bay has ties to the Pacific Northwest, but is he a good fit for the Seattle Mariners?

Though the Mariners signing of free-agent third baseman Chone Figgins  shows that they are serious about competing for the division, baseball’s Winter Meetings have come and gone and the team still has plenty of holes left to fill if they want to have a realistic shot at winning the AL West.

Texas has been busy all week, signing free-agent Rich Harden and acquiring Chris Ray and Mike Lowell (still pending) through trades, turning up the heat on Seattle to keep pace.

The Oakland Athletics were one of the most improved teams in all of baseball during last season’s second half, and figure to be even better in 2010 with all the experience their young players gained down the stretch.

Los Angeles lost Figgins and may be unable to resign their ace Jon Lackey, but the Angels are still dangerous after winning the division by 10 games last year despite battling injuries to key players the entire season.

All four teams in the AL West have a legitimate shot at winning the division next year, with no clear front-runner at this point in the offseason; what will it take for the Mariners to come out on top in 2010?

The addition of Figgins fills Seattle’s need for a third-baseman, but the Mariners still need help at first-base, catcher, left-field, designated hitter and in their rotation (more on this in a later post). Statistically one of the worst offensive teams in the American League last season, Seattle’s superb pitching staff carried the team all year, leading the AL with a 3.87 team ERA. While the pitching will likely regress a bit next year due to the losses of Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn, it’s clear that the Mariners main focus this offseason needs to be on adding offensive firepower; this may prove to be an expensive proposition with four positions yet to be filled.

After Endy Chavez’s season-ending injury the Mariners got virtually no production out of leftfield, with the trio of Bill Hall, Michael Saunders and Ryan Langerhans performing well below replacement level. Jason Bay is imminently available after being unable to come to terms with the Red Sox and has strong ties to the Pacific Northwest, but is seeking a contract in the range of 4-5 years and $60+ million dollars, a deal that would leave the Mariners out of cash and still needing a first baseman, catcher and right-handed DH. Additionally, there are concerns about whether a one-dimensional player like Bay, who hits for power but provides little else, would be worth a long-term investment in a park like Safeco Field that caters towards pitching.

Free-agent outfielder Matt Holliday offers more versatility than Bay but would need a similarly hand-cuffing contract to come aboard (he is represented by Scott Boras after all). A more budget friendly option is former Seattle Mariner Mike Cameron, who despite turning 36 last season, is still a plus defender in the outfield who offers good power and patience at the plate. The Mariners could probably ink Cameron to a one-year deal, limiting the risk if he performs poorly, which would also give Saunders another year to develop in Triple-A Tacoma. Other players to consider in left-field include Randy Winn, Jonny Gomes or Josh Willingham.

A breakout performer last year, Seattle would be happy to bring Branyan back at first base in 2010.

The Mariners got surprising production out of first base last season, with Russell Branyan taking advantage of his first chance to play full-time by slugging 31 HR’s and driving in 76 runs. The early indications seem to suggest that Seattle plans on bringing Branyan back for at least one more year, although he would probably be due a substantial raise over the $1.4 million dollars he earned in 2009. Branyan stated all season long that he owed it to the Mariners to resign with the club because they were the only team willing to give him a full-time role, but it remains to be seen whether that will hold true if another team offers him a lucrative deal.

If Seattle loses Branyan to another team they could replace him internally with Mike Carp, who performed admirably in a short trial last season (.315 in 54 AB’s), or they could pursue free-agent Nick Johnson. Though injury prone, the 31-year-old Johnson has one of the best batting eyes in the game (.426 OBP in 2009) and is a solid defensive first baseman who could fit comfortably into the Mariner’s lineup as their number three hitter. There has also been some speculation that Seattle would consider shifting second baseman Jose Lopez (a defensive liability up the middle) to first base and moving Matt Tuiasosopo (a third baseman in the minors) to second, a possibility now that the hot corner has been filled by Figgins.

Catcher was another gaping hole for the Mariners in 2009, with a disappointing season from Kenji Johjima and young catchers Rob Johnson and Adam Moore struggling to adjust to big league pitching. With Johjima back in Japan, the battle for starting catcher in 2010 will boil down to Johnson and Moore unless the Mariners try to acquire a catcher via free agency or trade. Johnson received praise from the pitching staff for his game-calling abilities but he hit only .213 with 2 HR’s and 27 RBI’s. Moore saw limited action with the Mariners, spending the majority of the season in the minor leagues, hitting a combined .287-13 HR’s-56 RBI’s between Double and Triple-A. S

eattle has been mentioned as a possible destination for free-agent catcher Miguel Olivo, a defensively-challenged backstop who hit 23 HR’s in only 390 AB’s last season. While Olivo has never shown the ability to draw a walk, he has consistently produced good power numbers and is the best player available in a very thin catching market. If the M’s could sign him to an incetive-laden one-year deal, Olivo is probably a worthwhile gamble; if he wants a multi-year deal Seattle is better off allowing Johnson and Moore to develop in the majors.

Could the former Mariner killer become a killer Mariner?

Designated hitter may have been the most popular position for Seattle in 2009, with clubhouse favorites Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. manning the post, but it certainly wasn’t the most productive. Griffey’s back and figures to get the majority of at-bats against right-handed pitching; the Mariners hope he can rebound from a sub par return to the Emerald City last year (.214-19 HR’s-57 RBI’s). Seattle needs to find a player who hits left-handed pitching well to platoon with Griffey, but this year’s free agent crop is very thin in terms of quality hitters.

The M’s might have to take a flier on someone coming off an injury or a bad season. Some possible candidates include Xavier Nady, Olivo, Carlos Delgado or even longtime thorn-in-the-side Vladimir Guerrero. While Guerrero’s power has dipped in recent years, he would still be a significant upgrade over Sweeney as a part-time DH, and could become a solid run producer with Ichiro and Figgins at the top of the lineup.

As of today there are still 266 free agents available for the Mariners to sign, so despite the team’s need to fill multiple holes in their lineup, there’s no need to panic–yet. The Rangers’ lastest moves have upped the ante, but Jack Zduriencik has shown himself to be a very capable baseball man, and will work tirelessly to make Seattle a frontrunner for the 2010 AL West title.

The Mariners certainly have issues to address, but the pieces to build a title contender are out there; now it’s just up to the Mariners and their front office to fit them all together.

Mariners Monthly Roundup: May “Well, That’s More of What We Expected” Edition

Aardsma has proved a capable closer for the Mariners.

Aardsma has proved a capable closer for the Mariners.

Record: 11-18 (24-27 overall)

AL West Standings: Texas (30-20), LA 4.5 GB, Seattle 7 GB, Oakland 10.5 GB.

Top Hitter: While it doesn’t take much to stand out in the Mariners’ rag-tag lineup, Ichiro enjoyed a very productive month at the dish during May. Suzuki hit .377 in the month, riding a 24-game hitting streak that raised his season average to .354. The Japanese Juggernaut also contributed 3 HRs, 10 RBIs and 5 SBs. While he still doesn’t draw any walks, and his speed is on the decline, Ichiro is still one of the lone bright spots for an offense that ranks near the bottom of the American League in nearly every category (12th in BA, 14th in Runs, 14th in OBP, 13th in Slugging). If the M’s are going to have any chance at competing in the AL West, Suzuki is going to have to continue to play as well as he did in May.

Top Pitcher(s): Besides having the distinct honor of appearing before aardvark in the dictionary, David Aardsma has also thrived as the Mariners’ closer since he took over for the erratic Brandon Morrow. Most fans (including myself) probably didn’t think Aardsma had a chance to be a successful stopper because the former 1st round draft pick came into the season with a career ERA near 5.00. But besides his Jose Mesa-eqsue implosion on the last day of May (2/3 IP, 3 R, 4 BB), Aardsma proved his mettle, converting 5 of 6 saves with a 2.25 ERA. The former Rice closer has electric stuff; Aardsma dials up a mid-90s fastball and dares hitters to catch up to it—so far they haven’t been able to (18 Ks in 16 May innings). He still needs to cut down on the walks (12 BBs in May), but otherwise Aardsma looks like one of the Mariner’s best offseason acquisitions. Another pleasant surprise for Seattle has been lefty Jason Vargas who came to the M’s in the J.J. Putz trade. Since his call-up at the beginning of May, Vargas has gone 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA between the bullpen and starting rotation. If he keeps this early season success going, Don Wakamatsu will have a tough decision to make when Ryan Rowland-Smith returns to the team.

Big Russell Branyan--the Mariner's lone source of power.

Big Russell Branyan--the Mariner's lone source of power.

Biggest Surprise: Russell Branyan has proven to be the only consistent source of power in the Mariner’s lineup, leading the team with 11 HRs on the season. Even more shocking is that the .237 career hitter followed up a .333 April by hitting .317 in May with 7 HRs and 13 RBIs. Branyan has predominately been a three true outcomes (HR, K, BB) player throughout his career, but has pulled a page out of Ichiro’s book and his ability to hit singles and doubles this year has kept his average above .300. Given the chance to play full-time for the first time in his career Branyan has thrived, and while undoubtedly his average will fall, he at least gives the Mariners one player in their lineup that pitchers need to respect.

Biggest Disappointment: The last time Adrian Beltre entered a contract year he went bananas, hitting .334 with 48 HRs and 121 RBIs. So far this season, Beltre has made Mariners’ fans long for the day of Russ Davis or David Bell, hitting .250 in May with 3 HRs and 11 RBIs (not to mention his 4/21 BB-to-K ratio). Seattle would probably like to trade Beltre when if they fall out of contention, but he sure isn’t making it easy on them. While he plays Gold Glove caliber defense at third, he hasn’t been able to rediscover the steroids swing that made him an MVP-caliber player with the Dodgers.

Griffey Watch: Junior hit .214-3 HRs-9 RBIs in May, which suprisingly enough, was better than his April. Mr. Zduriencik, Jose Vidro is on line one…

Injuries: Kenji Johjima (15-day DL, fractured big left toe); Ray Corcoran (15-day DL, sore neck, early June return); Ryan Rowland-Smith (15-day DL, triceps tendinitis, early June return); Carlos Silva (15-day DL, general terribleness, teammates/fans hope for extended stay on DL).

June Schedule: 3 vs. Baltimore; 3 vs. Minnesota; 3 @ Baltimore; 3 @ Colorado; 3 @ San Diego; 3 vs. Arizona; 3 vs. San Diego; 3 @ LA Dodgers; 1 @ NY Yankees.

Overall Grade: (C) After a hot start the Mariners have come crashing back to earth and unless their offense improves there is no reason to expect a change anytime soon. Their pitching staff has been superb, but an utter lack of run support will leave the Mariners struggling to stay around.500. Hopefully they can use interleague play as a springboard back towards contention, but don’t bet on it.

Mariners Monthly Roundup: April “Oh My God Are We Actually in 1st Place?” Edition

He's not actually so bad after all.

Erik Bedard was stellar in April.

Record: 13-9

AL West Standings: Seattle, Texas 2 GB, LA 3 GB, Oakland 4 GB

Top Hitter: Many of the Mariners’ projected top hitters have struggled in the early going with Jose Lopez, Adrian Beltre, Ken Griffey Jr and Franklin Gutierrez all hitting under .255. The catalyst for the offense in the first month was offseason acquisition Endy Chavez, known for his glove but not necessarily for his bat. Despite his Nicole Richie-eqsue physique, Chavez has been coming up big for the Mariners’, whether batting leadoff or in the number 2 hole behind Ichiro. In addition to getting on base at a good clip, Chavez has  been a threat on the basepaths stealing five bases to go along with his .305 average. A defensive whiz in leftfield, Chavez will prove an invaluable member of the M’s on both sides of the ball if he can continue to anchor the top of the lineup with Ichiro.

Top Pitcher(s): Two surprises have headlined the Mariner’s pitching staff thus far and are a big reason why the team is near the top of the majors in ERA (despite the best efforts of Carlos Silva). Even though he was roughed up in his last start Jerrod Washburn is pitching like a man on a mission after posting a 5-14 record last season. Washburn nearly matched last season’s win total in April alone, going 3-1 with 3.42 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. He has been complemented nicely in the rotation by the reemergence of Erik Bedard. Bedard pitched well last season but because he spent so much time on the disabled list, he had little effect on the M’s horrific 2008 pitching numbers. He is once again looking the ace that Seattle had hoped for, and through April is sporting a 2-1 record, 2.61 ERA and has 32 Ks in only 31 innings. Felix Hernandez, the one consistent pitcher for the M’s last year, has led the staff since day one and after the first month of the season is 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA and 36 Ks. Is the Cy Young talk far off? If these three can continue to deliver quality starts the Mariners should stay in contention all season long.

Chavez has been a big reason for the M's great start.

Chavez has been a big reason for the M's great start.

Biggest Surprise: The calendar has turned to May and the Mariners are still in first place…enough said. Let’s just hope we’re saying the same thing come September.

Biggest Disappointment: Although he has been a positive influence in the clubhouse and on attendance, Ken Griffey is playing much more like the senior rather than the junior version these days. Always one for seizing the moment, Griffey started the year strong by homering in his first game and still has about as many walks as strikeouts, but otherwise has struggled mightily at the plate. If he continues to hit at his current clip, Junior will be a major liability in the Mariners’ hunt for the AL West title, leaving manager Don Wakamatsu with a very tough decision about what to do with the aging slugger.

Injuries: The pitching staff has been missing starter Ryan Rowland-Smith since Spring Training. Rowland-Smith started the year with triceps tendinitis, but is expected to resume throwing soon and could return the first week of May, taking the place of Chris Jakubauskas (much to the delight of announcers everywhere). Catcher Kenji Johjima was placed on the 15-DL due to hamstring issues and is also expected to return in early May. Chad Cordero, a free agent signing in the offseason, is slated to throw batting practice soon and could join the roster in within a week or two if his right shoulder soreness improves.

May Schedule: 3 vs. Oakland, 2 vs. Texas, 2 @ Kansas City, 3 @ Minnesota, 3 @ Texas, 3 vs. Boston, 4 vs. Los Angeles, 3 vs. San Francisco, 3 @ Oakland, 3 @ Los Angeles.

Overall Grade: (A-) The Mariners have greatly exceeded expectations thus far despite a sub-par offense and some early issues in the bullpen. If Wakamatsu can figure out an effective lineup this squad could still be playing come October.