Seattle Mariners fans are accustomed to having their hearts broken by July 4. But unless the team mounts a winning streak during a tough road trip beginning Tuesday, it could happen sooner this year.
Last year's Mariners missed the American League playoffs by a single victory. A particular spark came from second baseman Robinson Cano, signed away from the New York Yankees for a stunning 10-year contract of some $240 million — a far longer and richer deal than any other team, including the Yankees, attempted to match. He excelled at bat and afield last season, although his traditional home run total fell off a bit. Only a lack of a bona fide cleanup hitter, it was conceded, held back the 2014 Mariners. That was rectified over the off-season with the signing of Nelson Cruz, who last year led the major leagues in home runs.
Cruz has delivered in a big way this season. Starting pitching, led by Felix Hernandez, has been excellent. Relief pitching also has been good, with the notable exception being the failures of veteran closer Fernando Rodney. But the team as a whole has floundered. Of most serious concern is Cano.
Cano, a cornerstone player, has failed miserably in the batter's box, especially with runners on base. His fielding range seems to have diminished. His careless base running has taken the team out of at least two games. As the team prepares for its road trip his batting average is around .240 and his on-base percentage around .280 (anything below .300 is considered subpar). He has two home runs. Those are numbers normally associated with minimum-wage backup infielders.
Is Cano, at 32, one of those players whose performance plummets unexpectedly in his early 30s and never rebounds? If so, Mariners management will have 8 2/3 seasons to contemplate Cano's ongoing $24 million annual salary, which amounted to nearly one-quarter of total team payroll at his signing.
He will be untradeable — unless the Mariners are willing to eat most of his remaining contract money.
Manager Lloyd McClendon sat Cano during Sunday's series-ending loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. He will return to the lineup as the road trip begins in Cleveland. Unless he catches fire dramatically, the Mariners as a team will not bounce back. The supporting cast does not have enough hitting juice to make up for a non-performing Cano.
All-star third baseman Kyle Seager is slowly climbing toward his 2014 hitting numbers. Outfielders Austin Jackson and Seth Smith and first baseman Logan Morrison are hitting about as predicted — which means respectably. Shortstop Brad Miller is batting below .230 and is an uneven fielder. Catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Dustin Ackley, both high No. 1 draft choices predicted for stardom, are batting well below .200, with on-base percentages below .250. Zunino is a fine defensive catcher and Ackley an OK outfielder and base runner. But they are dead weight in the batting order.
General manager Jack Zduriencik traded last week for slugger Mark Trumbo, whose normal season would include 30 home runs, 100 runs batted in, and huge numbers of strikeouts. Thus far the strikeouts have predominated.
The solid starting pitching will be strengthened further by the returns soon from injury of Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton. Showing unmistakable signs of Bobby Ayala Syndrome, Rodney gave way as closer last Saturday to Carson Smith. McClendon has made clear Rodney will not return to the job until or unless he is back to 2014 form. Rodney, 38, may be done. He contributed directly to three losses in the past week.
The Mariners, on paper, looked to be pennant and World Series contenders entering 2015. But the baseball gods are cruel, especially to Mariners fans.
The M's began last week at 24-24 and in position to climb into American League West contention during a long homestand. The homestand is now over, with eight losses in the last nine games, and the Mariners are rapidly sinking in the AL West. Unless these guys can start hitting and winning, it soon will be Go Seahawks, Go Sounders, Go Huskies, attendance and revenues will fall, and Zduriencik and perhaps others will exit for the folly of the 10-year Cano contract. Let us pray.