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This Mariners' homestand should be one of significant change
The Mariners return to Safeco Field today, and they bring home a depressing present -- a six-game losing streak.
At 11-16, they're already seven games behind first-place Texas in the American League West. They're just a half game ahead of last-place Anaheim, so the division cellar may soon be theirs. Most disappointing, though, is that the Mariners are in another one of their offensive funks, having scored only 12 runs during this losing streak. It included an embarrassing 0-for-30 skid with runners in scoring position.
After scoring 30 runs and winning the first four games of the road trip, the Mariners are in a free fall. More than a month into this season, they resemble the same offensively-challenged ballclub that they have been since 2008. They're hitting .237 with a .633 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and are averaging only 3.7 runs per game.
Now, it's time for manager Eric Wedge to show us what he's going to do about it.
That's the intrigue of this homestand. It's certainly not the competition. The Mariners face the Minnesota Twins (6-18), who have the worst record in baseball, and then play Detroit (12-12) before embarking on another 10-game road trip. Nearly one-fifth of the season has passed, so the Wedge has a sample size large enough to justify change. With so many players struggling, the only questions are where to start and how much to alter.
It seems a given that, during this homestand, the Mariners need, at least, to start backing off the plan to play Chone Figgins everyday at their leadoff hitter. Figgins is hitting .189 now after going 4 for 31 during the road trip. It's also disturbing that he has struck out a team-high 28 times in 95 at-bats. That's an astounding number. Figgins is striking out once every 3.4 at-bats. It would be hard to stomach even if he were a power hitter who provided 40 homers and 120 RBI a season. But Figgins is your leadoff hitter.
For his career, Figgins has averaged a strike out every 5.7 at-bats, so his current K rate is another indicator that he's in dramatic decline. At 34 years old and in Year 3 of this decline, it's impossible to imagine Figgins returning to form. It's almost as difficult to imagine him merely being serviceable. The Mariners are destined to release him before his contract expires at the end of next season. Do they want to do it now and swallow about $15 million? Or do they want to continue playing this dreadful game? My guess is that they'll gradually back off and make the ultimate decision in a month or so. But I think they should end the charade now.
Wedge has plenty of other difficult decisions to make. First baseman Justin Smoak is right there with Figgins in the dubious .189-hitting club. He has dropped from the cleanup spot to No. 7 in the lineup. As I wrote in a post last night, I think the next step Wedge should take is to make Smoak compete with Mike Carp and Alex Liddi at first base. He can also DH when Jesus Montero is catching. But after watching Smoak struggle at the plate his entire big-league career, including 179 games with the Mariners, I don't think he deserves to play through his struggles. He needs to prove something. And perhaps an open competition will be good for him. It would certainly be better for the franchise to see who among those three young players is willing to accept the challenge.
Of course, shortstop Brendan Ryan is the team's worst-hitting regular starter, at .125. He's a good guy with a lot of admirable qualities. He's a team guy. He's a very good defensive player. But you can't allow a .125 hitter to keep playing regularly. Wedge is going to have to use Munenori Kawasaki more, and I'd like to see Kyle Seager at shortstop some, too. Anything to get Seager on the field every day. Beyond that, left field, where Figgins has played a lot, is about to turn into a revolving door. Michael Saunders, who has had an early season of dramatic highs and lows, is still just manning the center-field spot until Franklin Gutierrez returns. And with Miguel Olivo on the disabled list, Montero and John Jaso have a shot to prove to Wedge that there's a better option at catcher.
So, right now, the Mariners are really only stable in right field, where a 38-year-old Ichiro is hitting .310 and playing OK despite being a misfit in the No. 3 spot in the batting order (.738 OPS); and at second base, no one is really challenging Dustin Ackley, unless the Mariners put Seager there, which they don't want to do. But Ackley (.231 average) isn't hitting much right now, either, and he might soon take on the added pressure of batting leadoff. We're talking about two somewhat reliable regulars -- three if you include wherever Montero is playing -- and last I checked, you still need nine to play baseball.
That's another reason to commit to Seager, who has been the Mariners' best all-around hitter so far this season. Let him play against lefties. Get him as many at-bats at possible -- at third base, at shortstop, at second on occasion, maybe even DH on some really rare days. Seager deserves to be the everyday third basemen, but if Liddi continues to show some promise at the plate, I understand there will be situations in which the Mariners would be best served with Liddi at third. But in those instances, Seager needs to be somewhere in the lineup, not on the bench. He is one of the few Mariners who has embraced competition and earned an increased role.
Basically, the Mariners have a bunch of dudes right now, and they're hoping to find a stable nine among them. They have depth because they have no other choice. Wedge might as well embrace the predicament and shuffle this team like crazy. He has already done plenty of lineup juggling, but he'll need to do even more. He has to scale back on playing Smoak, Figgins and Ryan.
It's not ideal. Consistent playing time means much to creating a steady offense. But with these Mariners, staying the same will only mean prolonged suffering. They will have to be random in hopes of remaining the streaky team they've been through 27 games. They'll have to go with what works until it doesn't work, and failure is clearly happening currently, and then they'll have to try something else.
The next wave of change should begin now. And it should be significant.