The Seattle Mariners open a series tonight (June 16) in San Diego after three dreadful, bumbling losses in Colorado. The Mariners, prior to the Colorado series, had scrapped their way back to a .500 record and were thought possible contenders in the American League West race. The stumbles in Denver exposed Mariners weaknesses that have been there all season and which stamp them as also-rans in 2009. They also should accelerate management decisions aimed at rebuilding the team for the future. Some will be difficult and painful.
First, what to do about Ken Griffey Jr.?
Griffey and, to a lesser degree, veteran Mike Sweeney have helped bring professionalism and spirit to a team that sadly lacked them in 2008. Griffey's presence has, among other things, reinvograted Ichiro Suzuki. But, nearing mid-season, it is clear that both veterans have lost their once outstanding skills. Both have injury histories; their reflexes and skills have diminished. No longer able to play effectively in the field, they are restricted to designated-hitter duty. But, there, they are not performing. Griffey, as of today, is batting .207 and Sweeney .237. In a team lacking hitting, they are a dead weight in the batting order and leaving runners on base. Griffey, 39, still has his picture-book swing but it has slowed; pitchers are throwing fastballs past him that he once would have converted to doubles and home runs.
Sweeney, 35, would be missed as a clubhouse leader but not on the field. Releasing him would be a relatively easy decision. But benching or releasing Griffey would not be easy. General manager Jack Zduriencik, with no previous ties to Seattle, tarried in pursuing free-agent Griffey in the off-season. Team President Chuck Armstrong, however, urged Griffey's signing and organized a recruitment campaign which resulted in Griffey's return here, for a presumably last season in his career, rather than his signing with Atlanta, much nearer his Orlando home and family. Griffey has excited fans and set an example for younger Mariners players. But he has become an almost automatic out in the middle of the batting order.
Griffey is a proud man. Perhaps of his own volition, he will announce his retirement and be honored in a farewell game at Safeco. But, as of now, he shows no such inclination. He would not respond well to benching or to being moved to the bottom of the batting order. After trying so hard to recruit him, and building a promotional campaign around his return, the Mariners cannot release him. If Griffey suddenly revives in the batter's box, and becomes even a .250 hitter, his last season can end happily. But, if his slump continues, the remainder of his last season will be painful for him, for the team, and for fans who had visions a happier ending.
What to do about Brandon Morrow?
Morrow has enormous pitching talent. The Mariners passed over former Husky pitcher Tim Lincecum in the amateur draft in order to sign Morrow. (Lincecum, drafted by San Francisco, last year won the Cy Young Award, given to baseball's best pitcher). But Morrow's role with the team has never been settled and his development has been stunted. He has spent no real time in the minor leagues and, instead, has been shuffled back and forth between starting and relieving with the major-league Mariners. At this point he lacks control and has developed no effective pitch but his fastball.
Last week he and the team declared that henceforth he would become a starting pitcher. He was about to be sent to Tacoma, the Mariners' top farm team, in order to spend the rest of his season developing his craft. But, then, another switch took place. With regular starter Erik Bedard down with a sore shoulder, Morrow started a game last Saturday in Denver. It was then announced, surprisingly, that Morrow would not be sent to Tacoma after all but would start again this week and, perhaps, continue his development at major-league level.
This looms as the first big major mistake of the Zduriencik/manager Don Wakamatsu era. Morrow's development already has been unnecessarily retarded. He has regressed from a year ago. Let us hope the team reconsiders and gives Morrow the rest of this season in Tacoma to polish his control and his pitches, then puts him into the Mariners starting rotation next year as a more confident and rounded performer.
What to do about trades?
Pitchers Bedard, Jarod Washburn, and Miguel Batista, third baseman Adrian Beltre, first baseman Russell Branyan, and outfielder Endy Chavez all have contracts expiring at the end of this season. All have skills that could help genuine pennant contenders for the remainder of 2009. Bedard and Washburn had been pitching brilliantly until recent ailments (a sore shoulder with Bedard, a stiff back with Washburn) sidelined them. If they return from the training room to effective pitching, they could bring good young prospects in trades with other teams. Beltre, always a solid fielder and now on a batting tear, and Branyan, having a career season, also are valuable commodities — at least for now.
On the other hand, the Mariners can hold onto these players, playing for respectability this season, and take their chances on signing them next year or seeing them depart for points elsewhere. Branyan and Chavez would re-sign in a flash; but Branyan, at 33, and Chavez, at 31, are unlikely to play again as well as they have in 2009. The team will be pleased to dump an overpaid Batista. Bedard and Washburn would want big money beyond their value to re-sign here. Same for Beltre.
The smart move is to unload these players before the July 31 trading deadline for as much value as they can bring in young playing talent. Bedard and Washburn, because of their fragility, should be traded as soon as they appear to be back in decent health.
Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and second baseman Jose Lopez have talent — Lopez, in particular, as a hitter — but often lack focus and are prone to errors of commission and omission in the field. Replacements need to be found, with Lopez, perhaps, moving to designated hitter, first base, or left field. Either of them should be traded if and when another team is prepared to come up with a decent offer. There is some talent in the Mariners minor-league system but only one or two players likely make the major-league roster next year. Such talent needs to be acquired from other teams — thus the need to trade aggressively now to get that talent.
An evening or weekend afternoon at Safeco remains an enjoyable experience. Zduriencik and Wakamatsu are thorough professionals who have brought stability and common sense to a franchise that badly needed them. But the present team cannot hit well enough to get past .500 and has obvious holes in its lineup. Let dealmaking begin which will give Zduriencik/Wakamatsu the tools to win in the future. Fans would gladly trade a few losses this year for a pennant in 2010 or 2011.