Struggles for Zduriencik’s Mariners not Especially Surprising
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Like pretty much everyone else, I was impressed by the work that Jack Zduriencik and his staff did this offseason in bailing out the Mariners from their poor financial situation, and starting to rebuild on the cheap. I was quite surprised, honestly, when the Mariners became a trendy pick to win the AL West.
This is not designed to be a column where I completely write off the Mariners for the rest of the year, and with Cliff Lee back and coming off a gem of a debut, we’re going to have a chance to evaluate the Mariners in the context of how they were built, but for a team that was performing as poorly as the Mariners were just two years ago, even a .500 record would be a significant improvement. Unfortunately, 500 is going to be a ceiling for a team that has as few major league quality hitters as the Mariners do.
The lineup is atrocious. I mean, it’s the worst professional lineup I’ve ever seen. It’s best hitter, through a month, has been Franklin Gutierrez, acquired primarily for his defense. He’ll hit third as long as he’s OPSing 800, and well, as long as no one else on the team is.
It could be awhile. Ichiro is a career 810 OPS guy, and produced at an 851 clip last season, but he’s off to a 741 start that is unlikely to significantly improve. Milton Bradley and Chone Figgins are offseason acquisitions who have both been strong offensive performers in the past, but both are greatly underperforming. And even if those two happen to get it turned around and have a great month or two, there’s just not much else wearing a Mariners uniform that can consistently get the ball out of the infield.
Last year, the Mariners were last in the AL in runs scored, and their best offensive weapon, Russell Branyan, is now doing his work for the Cleveland Indians. Not only have the Mariners been unable to replace his production, they didn’t really even address this hole in their order in theory.
The thing is, the Mariners aren’t even under producing. Their team philosophy, build around strong defense and pitching, has worked quite well. In 25 games, the Mariners have only given up 90 runs, which comes out to 3.6 runs per game. Last year, the Mariners actually gave up 4.3 runs per game employing a variation of the same strategy. The truth is that there’s not a whole lot of space remaining on the run prevention side of baseball’s winning equation for the Mariners to exploit. Right now, they are an 11-14 ballclub. Last year, they were 35-20 in one-run games, an unsustainable figure. This year, they are a completely sustainable 3-5.
Defense is still notoriously hard to project, and because of that, it’s the skill that figures to be the most likely to give out on the Mariners’ first. They have talented defenders at all the key positions, but at 2B and 3B they have players who are just learning those positions and could see a regression in defensive numbers over the next two months. Any solution that the Mariners could offer to the runs scored equation in the corner outfield or at first base is likely to drag down the defense with it.
The Mariners have an on-field product that teams across the league can respect, but the everyday lineup just isn’t good enough for the team to compete in one of baseball’s toughest divisions. While the Rangers look like a world-beater through a month of the season, and the Angels actually have legitimate upside going forward in which you would expect their defense batted ball rates to correct over the next month or so, and probably won’t continue to give up 5 runs per game.
But Seattle can’t count on their run prevention abilities to continue at historic rates no matter how awesome Cliff Lee pitches, and while they’ll certainly finish the season among the AL leaders in fewest runs allowed, the Mariners cannot pretend to compete any longer with a lineup that wouldn’t quite set the PCL on fire. So much of baseball is about the quality of it’s pitching performances, but ultimately, a staff without run support is just a hard-luck staff after all.