Mariners at the quarter pole
The Mariners departed Thursday for a five-game road trip to Minnesota and Texas. One quarter of their season was gone, their record was 20-20, and opinion remained split as to whether they will do better or fall back into more of the same-ol’, same-ol’.
If grades were being handed out, the Ms would, on all fronts, be getting Incompletes, along with these progress reports.
New President Kevin Mather, Chuck Armstrong's replacement, leaves an impression as a common-sense, flexible manager who is aware of the financial bottom line but also wants a winning team — and recognizes how the two are connected. He comes across as a nice guy who loves baseball but will not tolerate much flubbing.
General manager Jack Zduriencik started the season on shaky ground made even shakier by some parting and public shots from former manager Eric Wedge, who refused to return for another year. Zduriencik responded by extravagantly outbidding the Yankees for all-star second baseman Robinson Cano.
Zduriencik signed Cano to a huge 10-year contract knowing full well that the 31-year-old likely won't be productive after his first five seasons. Zduriencik no doubt worried little about the tail end of the contract, since his own fate as GM depends on the team's short-term success.
During the off-season, Zduriencik also signed free agent outfielders/designated hitters Corey Hart and Logan Morrison. Both were risks because of prior injuries. Hart has held up physically as a DH and shows signs of life, although his batting average is low. Morrison is hurt again.
The Ms GM also awarded a big two-year contract to relief pitcher Fernando Rodney, a favorite of new manager Lloyd McClendon's. Zduriencik has repeatedly stated that his Plan — to grow and develop the team through its own farm system — was working and, with the addition of Cano and one or two other veterans, would bear fruit this year.
McClendon, Zduriencik's choice to replace Wedge, appears to have won over the players with his no-nonsense but protective approach toward them. They play hard for him. Beginning with spring training, he instituted more intense instructional drills. His only shortcoming to date, it would seem, has been his tendency to stick too long with players whose non-performance was hurting the team.
McClendon fell in love, during spring training, with rookie outfielder Abraham Almonte. He started him in centerfield, batting leadoff, until it was painfully clear that Almonte was shaky afield and an almost automatic out in the batting order. Almonte finally got sent down to Tacoma, where he still is not hitting. We may never see him on a major-league roster again.
Shortstop Brad Miller also dazzled in spring training only to fizzle in regular season play. Miller had an impressive late-season call up in 2013, showing aggressive hitting and overall play. But, like Almonte, he has faded badly, desperately slumping at bat and costing the Ms a couple of games with his unreliable glove. A shortstop should be the best fielder in any team's infield. With Kyle Seager at third, Cano at second and Justin Smoak at first, Miller is the Ms weakest infield link. But he continues to play every day.
Fernando Rodney, brought in as the closer, came with a reputation as a 37-year-old specialist in perilous, just-in-time escapes from opposition rallies. Would his luck hold out? The question remains unanswered. Rodney has saved several games but has also turned two victories into late losses and, to many fans, evokes memories of the immortal Bobby Ayala and Jose Mesa, former Mariners' closers who also had a habit of pitching into trouble.
McClendon has made it clear that Rodney is his guy and will remain so. It's unlikely, though, that he'll be able to keep Miller at shortstop, barring some immediate and dramatic revival. Two talented shortstops, Nick Franklin and Chris Taylor, are waiting in Tacoma. Utility man Willie Bloomquist has always been available as a spot replacement for Miller but has seldom been used.
Cano truly is an all-star and although he has yet to show the extra-base power he displayed in his years with the Yankees he is a cornerstone player. Smoak, Seager and leftfielder Dustin Ackley, all key parts of Zduriencik's Plan, appear to be establishing themselves as major-league regulars. Young Mike Zunino, unless felled by injury, will be the team's starting catcher for a decade. Rookie James Jones, called up to replace Almonte, has brought speed and energy to the team. He is a natural centerfielder, and has hit unexpectedly well. The jury still is out on Hart, although his swing is coming around. He could hit for low average yet collect 25 homeruns with 80-85 RBIs.
Michael Saunders, a graceful fielder with speed, a strong throwing arm and hitting potential, keeps getting hurt. But you get the feeling that, if healthy and playing regularly, he would break through this year.
Backup catcher John Buck is a plus. Backup outfielders Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie are competent supporting players at bat and in the field.
Going into spring training, Mariners pitching was thought to be exceptional. Felix Hernandez was the number one starter and Hishashi Iwakuma, a a finalist for last year's Cy Young Award, close behind at number two. Then there were rookie stars Taijuan Walker and James Paxton and potential number 5 starters in Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer and Blake Beaven, all with previous major-league starting experience.
Iwakuma came up with a finger injury and has only recently, and brilliantly, returned to the starting rotation. Walker and Paxton were hobbled and will not likely not be able to pitch regularly again until mid-June. Beaven is also hurt. Ramirez and Maurer have been uneven. Yet pitching has held up remarkably well, even though Hernandez has not been fully up to form. Chris Young, a Washington Nationals castoff, has become a reliable starter. Roenis Elias, a Cuban refugee expected to rise no further than Tacoma this season, has been equally solid. If the original Hernandez-Iwakuma-Walker-Paxton rotation is restored, with Young and Elias added to the mix, Mariners pitching again will be exceptional.
Though hardly exceptional, middle and late-inning relievers have been capable. Danny Farquhar, who ended 2013 as the Mariners' successful closer, is in the wings if Rodney, as suspected, continues to self-destruct in critical ninth-inning situations.
Sizing It Up
The team could just as easily be 25-15 as 20-20, were it not for some physical and mental glitches in the early season. If the injured pitchers return healthy and effective, there is no reason this season's Mariners should not be in playoff contention in September. On the other hand, more injuries — or slumping starting players — could leave the team just about where it is at year's end. That would be an improvement over 2013 but not up to this team's potential.
McClendon has a strong will to win but his players have yet to embrace it on a daily basis, going into short-term funks after setbacks. You've got to be optimistic to be a Mariners fan and I remain cautiously so at this, the 2014 season's one-quarter mark. If these guys stay healthy and consistent, this could be a very satisfying year for Seattle baseball.