Local media have recently run stories featuring the 1995 Mariners, whose miracle late-season run carried them well into the American League playoffs. This season's Mariners are in a comparable position in the standings heading into September, but there will be no miracles this year. The team, regrettably, lacks both the talent and leadership to get there.
The 2015 Mariners entered the season with high hopes. But their hitting, then relief pitching let them down badly. They are likely to finish this year with a win-loss record in the Bottom Eight of major-league baseball. Time now to look to 2016.
The Mariners strengths and weaknesses going into 2016:
Starting pitching: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma (a free agent likely to re-sign in the off-season), Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, Roenis Elias and James Paxton, just coming back from the injured list, form a good nucleus. Pitchers often get sidelined during a season but, from these seven, a five-man rotation should be available throughout 2016.
Relief pitching: A black hole. There is no reliable 9th-inning closer now on the roster and none coming up from the high-minor farm system. If Charlie Furbush recovers from his present sore arm, he will be a reliable left-handed middle-inning reliever. But the bullpen, so strong a year ago, needs a complete rebuild either through trades or free-agent signings.
Infield: Second baseman Robinson Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager are fixtures. Ketel Marte is having a fine rookie season and looks to be a shortstop for the future. Behind him are Brad Miller, really a utility man, and fine-fielding Chris Taylor, soon to be called up from Tacoma. First base will be an open position, up for grabs among inconsistent slugger Mark Trumbo, still promising Jesus Montero, and incumbent Logan Morrison, a favorite of manager Lloyd McClendon's, who has played his way to the bench and is likely to be gone by next spring training. A solid everyday first baseman might have to be acquired via trade if Trumbo and Montero do not show enough bat this September.
Outfield: The present outfield features a left-field platoon of Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez, both journeyman hitters and fielders, center fielder Austin Jackson, another journeyman unlikely to be resigned for 2016, and right fielder Nelson Cruz. Marte could shift from shortstop to center field to replace Jackson but it is more likely a trade or free-agent signing will bring in fresh talent. Cruz, by next year, probably will be better suited for designated hitter, forcing Trumbo or Montero to the bench. The outfield presently lacks speed and range. It could use one or even two aggressive, doubles-hitting, good-fielding newcomers in 2016.
Catching: Mike Zunino is a good defensive catcher but has struggled to stay above .185 at the plate. If he continues to struggle in September as a hitter, the team will need to find a starting-level catcher to compete with him next spring. The loser in the competition would become the backup.
Management: McClendon appears to be liked by his players. He has a fine coaching staff, headed by hitting coach Edgar Martinez, who has made a real difference during his few weeks on the job. You wonder if pitching coach Rick Waits is in trouble with McClendon. The manager, rather than Waits, goes to the mound to confer with pitchers during shaky situations. That normally would be Waits' job.
The manager gets judged by his players' performance on the field. By that measure, 2015 has not gone well for him. The team has made consistent baserunning gaffes, killing rallies. The Mariners, overall, have not delivered at the plate with runners in scoring position. They have not bunted well or executed hit-and-run plays. Too high a percentage of base runners have been caught stealing. The team also at times has lacked baseball intelligence, both afield and at the plate, not making the right plays in the right situations. Too much carelessness. Periodic lapses in intensity. And McClendon has shown a tendency to stick too long with non-performing players, including notably Morrison and the recently (and finally) departed closer Fernando Rodney.
He also has stuck determinedly with the notion that there must be a 9th inning closer, even when there was none on the roster. Thus pitchers throwing well in the seventh and eighth innings have been lifted in favor of ninth-inning relievers who, time and again, have blown up and cost games.
It certainly is true that players have under-performed. But it is part of the manager's job to see that they perform up to their abilities. The Refuse to Lose ethic of the 1995 Mariners is not evident in this team. Too often it has been Accept Losing.
General manager Jack Zduriencik is almost certain to depart at season's end. He came on board with a promise to rebuild the farm system and keep major-league-ready players flowing onto the roster. There is not a single 2015 farm player, with the exception of Marte, who appears ready to step into a 2016 starting position — or even a backup position, with the possible exception of shortstop Taylor.
The team lacks surplus talent to use in trades to fill multiple positions. Already locked into rich, long-term contracts with Cano, Cruz and Hernandez, management is not likely to bid for more than one major free agent in the off-season.
Mariners ownership and upper management have not had a truly solid general manager since Pat Gillick who, like manager Lou Piniella, resigned in disgust. Can the leadership be trusted to hire someone who is an improvement on Zduriencik? Will that replacement, whomever he is, give McClendon another chance? Will the new general manager insist that Martinez be kept as batting coach, regardless of his choice as manager?
Lots of unanswered questions about 2016 after the disappointments of 2015. Barring wholesale brain and heart transplants among present management and players, next season is likely to resemble this season. Let us pray.