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The streaky Mariners: A quarter season review (Part 1)
The Mariners return home today having surpassed the quarter-season mark in 2012. Their current 19-24 record is identical to their 43-game mark a year ago, when they finished 67-95.
With a .442 winning percentage (or, as I like to call it, a .558 losing percentage), the Mariners are on pace to win 71 or 72 games this season, which would mean a third straight year with at least 90 losses. But I think they'll be better than that by season's end. Then again, I'm expecting it to be sunny today.
Here at The Brewery, we'll spend the next few days reviewing the Mariners now that they're more than a quarter through 2012. Here's the first post, hitting some of the high and low points of a streaky team. It's just a general appetizer to get started. We'll go more in depth on various issues later, and I'll also answer some questions that readers submitted via Twitter.
Best moment: The first game of the Tokyo trip Ichiro returned home and collected four hits in a 3-1 season-opening victory over Oakland. Dustin Ackley homered. Felix Hernandez threw eight impressive innings, but he didn't get the win because the game was tied at 1 when he left. But in the eleventh inning, Ackley drove in the go-ahead run, and Ichiro's homecoming was a successful one. And waking up at 3 a.m. to watch the game was worth it. And it has been all downhill since then. (OK, that's not true, but I couldn't resist saying that, for some reason.)
Worst moment: Philip Humber throws a perfect game against the Mariners Yes, perfect games are rare, historic events that often occur out of nowhere. There have only been 21 perfectos in MLB history. But has a team ever deserved it more than the Mariners, who have endured historic offensive futility for three straight seasons? So, April 21, 2012, will go down as an amazing feat, and although not completely fair, a lasting memory of how bad the Mariners have been during this period of offensive offense. And, oh, by the way, there's this: Since the perfecto against the M's, Humber is 1-4 with a 7.86 ERA.
Player of the quarter: Kyle Seager It's hard to believe now that there was preseason chatter that Seager would be the odd man out at third base. The fast-rising infielder has been the Mariners' most consistent offensive weapon thus far. He leads the regulars in batting average (.286), slugging percentage (.486), on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.794) and RBI (26). He's tied for the team lead with 11 doubles, and he's tied for second with five home runs. He still has plenty of room to improve (for instance, his on-base percentage is only .308), but you have to like where Seager is headed. Seager is on pace to hit about 19 home runs and drive in 98 runs. If he doesn't tail off, Seager has a chance to become the Mariners' first 100-RBI man since Raul Ibanez drove in 110 in 2008.
Pitcher of the quarter: Felix Hernandez Who else? King Felix is, by far, the most dominant pitcher on this roster. He had a phenomenal first seven starts (3-1 record, 1.89 ERA), but in his past two outings, Hernandez has allowed 12 runs (10 earned) and 21 hits in 10 1/3 innings to raise his ERA to 3.02. Concerned? Eh, let's see a larger sample size. For whatever reason, May is historically Hernandez's worst month. For his career, Hernandez is 9-19 with a 4.73 ERA in 228 1/3 innings pitched in May. His May WHIP (1.480) is way higher than any month and his strikeouts-to-walks ratio (2.64) is the lowest of any month. The good news? June has historically been his best month. So, be patient with him. He'll return to dominance soon, and he remains the best player the Mariners have.
Biggest disappointment (position players): Justin Smoak Smoak played much better during the Mariners' 10-game road trip and raised his batting average from .173 to .218, but for a highly-regarded prospect now in his third season of significant big-league playing time, his struggles are a major concern. Many have already labeled him a bust. I won't go that far just yet, but no question, he's moving rapidly in that direction. His OPS is .591, which is awful for any starter, let alone a first baseman who was the centerpiece in the Cliff Lee trade two years ago. Smoak is running out of chances. We'll see how he responds now that his reputation (and status as a building block) is on the line.
Biggest disappointment (pitchers): Brandon League It's not that League has been terrible. Just three weeks ago, he had a 1.54 ERA and had converted seven of eight save opportunities. Since then, though, League has suffered another quarter-season swoon. He had one last May, but that was a six-day barrage of disappointment. In that span, League blew three saves and lost four games. This time, he has had some good outings in between his struggles. But when he's off, cover your eyes. On April 30, League blew a brilliant Hernandez start by allowing four hits and two runs in 1 1/3 innings in a 3-2 extra-innings loss to Tampa Bay. Then he seemed to right the ship before walking three batters and giving up two runs in the 11th inning in a loss at Cleveland last week. And even though the Mariners had a 6-2 cushion on Sunday in Colorado, League was all over the place in the ninth against the Rockies, allowing two runs on a walk and four hits, but at least he was around for the final out in a 6-4 victory. You want and expect more from an All-Star closer. As much as you'd like to think that this is just another one of League's mini-slumps and he'll be fine, you can't ignore the fact that League, who is not a high-strikeout pitcher, is missing even fewer bats this season. His strikeouts-per-nine-innings is down to 5.4, which will be the worst of his career if he keeps it up.
Biggest surprise (positive): Old Kevin Millwood looks just fine as a No. 5 starter -- for now The way Millwood began the season, I expected the Mariners to end the 37-year-old's reclamation project quickly. And it looked like they were all but ready to pull the plug three weeks ago, but since then, Millwood has shown he still has something left. His last two starts have been incredible: 16 innings, five hits, one earned run, including a two-hit shutout against Colorado on Friday. After posting a 5.24 ERA in April, Millwood is down to 3.29 this month. Overall, he's 2-4 with a 4.17 ERA. If he can keep his ERA in the low 4's and eat innings, the Mariners won't be desperate to get one of their young starters to the big leagues as quickly as possible. I'd still like to see James Paxton, Danny Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez (who started the year in the bullpen but is now down in Class AAA Tacoma stretching out as a starter) or even the youngest and most talented of them all, Taijuan Walker, get their opportunities sooner rather than later. But patience is important in developing young pitchers. And Millwood is giving the Mariners the ability to be patient. I'm still not sure how long he'll last, but last month, I might've predicted that he'd be gone by now. The old man still has game.
(By the way, for me, a close second would be the steady play of backup catcher John Jaso. He's a good, solid player who tends to produce when called upon. He's a nice fit on this ballclub, which is in the early stages of transitioning from Miguel Olivo to Jesus Montero as the starting catcher. With Olivo injured and Montero not good enough yet to catch every day, it's good that Jaso is around. Offensively, Jaso is basically doing what he showed he could in Tampa Bay when the Rays gave him good playing time -- 109 games and 404 plate appearances --two years ago. He's not a star, but he's a backup with a .779 OPS. Not bad at all.)
Biggest surprise (negative): Brendan Ryan You knew Ryan was merely a service player: a great glove at shortstop, but a weak offensive player. But his production at the plate has been even worse than imagined. He's hitting .165 with a .536 OPS. His slugging percentage is an embarrassing .248. Manager Eric Wedge has benched him twice already this season. On any other team, Ryan would've lost his starting job long ago. But the Mariners don't have any obvious replacement options. Munenori Kawasaki, for all his energy and clubhouse effervescence, is only hitting .176 in limited action. The other options are Seager, who struggled defensively at the position during a short stint last season; Alex Liddi, who's not a serious option; and Chone Figgins, who has already been glued to the bench with his .180 average. If the Mariners can put together any creative trades, you can bet they'll be hoping to get someone who can play shortstop in any package. They need a placeholder for Nick Franklin in the worst way, but even placeholders are hard to find.
Dominant storyline: The Mariners still can't hit. And, oh, he ongoing fight for credibility amid a painful rebuilding process continues. You know the story well enough to write it yourself. The Mariners believe in their youth movement. And you won't believe most of what they say until they prove something.
And so we go, on and on, back and forth. Whenever the Mariners win four games in a row, the plan is working. Whenever they lose five of six, it's back to complaining about how they haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 and considering all the mistakes they've made in the past decade, it's hard to trust them on anything. You wonder how much longer both sides can go on like this. Fan support is clearly eroding, but are those just fair weather fans who will return when all is sunny? Or do the Mariners risk doing permanent damage if they don't produce a winner as soon as possible?
That's the problem with long rebuilding processes. Taking abuse and getting second-guessed are inevitable. Will the Mariners see this through? Do they have the right players to see this through? Can Jack Zduriencik, who hasn't had much luck in free agency, acquire the right veteran pieces moving forward to complete the team? Heck, will he even be allowed to pursue more than just bargain basements?
The urgent need for a better offense continues to be a source of frustration. So far this season, the Mariners are hitting only .235, which is the second worst in the American League. (Oakland is in the cellar at .216). They're tied with Oakland for last in on-base percentage (.291). Their .374 slugging percentage is third-worst in the AL. And their .664 OPS is second worst. In 2011, the Mariners were ridiculed for hitting .233 with a .292 OBP, a .348 slugging and .640 OPS. In 2010, those numbers were, in order: .236, .298, .339, .637. So, the Mariners remain about as bad as it gets at the plate. The optimist will argue that, at least, they're struggling with young players who can learn and grow from the futility. The pessimist will say it's the same old Mariners and wonder if they'll ever hit again while playing half their games in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
The story of the Mariners' future and the proper way to handle it simmers even as this season progresses. I think the Mariners are still on the right path with their young players. I think they are developing some stars. But building a winning team requires a lot more than babysitting.
Coming in Part 2: Ichiro as the No. 3 hitter, who should be playing more/less, evaluations of Wedge and Zduriencik and more.