Sunday, May 16, 2010


By Jacson Bevens

There was a lot of hope for the Seattle Mariners entering this season. A team that had won 85 games last year added more defense, a potential lights-out reliever, and a second Cy Young candidate. They had the most chemistriest clubhouse in the majors, an even-keeled manager, and the strings were being pulled by puppet-master extraordinaire Jack Zduriencik. Well, the Mariners are losing. Frequently.

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If you ask me, this has very little to do with Milton Bradley’s temper, Ken Griffey Jr.’s alleged nap, or Erik Bedard’s injury. Let me explain.

28th. 28th. 29th. 29th. 29th.

Those are the Seattle Mariners’ MLB ranks in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, runs, and homeruns, respectively.

There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball. Thank God for the Houston Astros.

No one reasonably expected the 2010 Mariners to be a great hitting team, but the hope was that they wouldn’t be terrible. Measures were taken to insure against offensive ineptitude: Chone Figgins, a career .299 hitter and perennial thorn-in-the-side of the Mariners was acquired to add speed and on-base percentage behind Ichiro. Former rising star and solid Major League hitter Casey Kotchman was brought in to man first base. Milton Bradley, who hit over .300 in four different seasons, was attained in exchange for organizational albatross Carlos Silva.

Well, they’re terrible. Granted, some pop was lost when Russell Branyan and Adrian Beltre left through free agency, but the Mariners were certainly expected to do better than the performance they’ve put on thus far. As I write this, Figgins is hitting .182 (although still drawing walks with the best of them), Kotchman is hitting .190, and Bradley’s .214 batting average is on leave from the team until further notice. Throw in massive regression from Jose Lopez (.273 SLG %), complete lack of value from either Ken Griffey Jr (.214 SLG %) or Mike Sweeney (.244 BA), and a makeshift lineup composed of AAA players and you have the worst offense in the American League. The fact that Franklin Gutierrez (.303 BA, 20 RBIs) and Ichiro (.351, 10 steals) are hitting well has been rendered moot, as there hasn’t been nearly enough production around them to matter.

And yet, the Seattle Mariners are only 5.5 games out of first in the American League West. How is that possible? Well, mostly because the Rangers, A’s, and Angels are passing first place around like a hot potato, with no one wanting to hang on to it for more than a few seconds. Also, the Mariners can pitch and field pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, this is still a 14-23 team, but it’s a 14-23 team whose true talent level is probably (hopefully?) better than that record suggests.

The Mariners may have 99 problems, but a pitch ain’t one. The starters have been remarkable. Felix has been his usual outstanding self, with a couple of hiccups inflating his ERA (3.88). Former Cy Young award winner and new Mariner Cliff Lee has been even better (2.08 ERA, 25:1 K:BB ratio, .089 WHIP). But the true revelations have been Jason Vargas (2.93 ERA, 0.98 WHIP) and Doug Fister (1.71 ERA, 0.94 WHIP). As a result, the Mariners find themselves in very winnable games a vast majority of the time.

Additionally, the Mariners are either the 2nd or 3rd best defensive team in the Majors, depending on which rating system you go by. Gutierrez continues to provide miraculous run-prevention in centerfield, flanked by Ichiro’s above-average defense in right and a decent amalgamation of fielders in left. The infield has been tremendous, with Jack/Josh Wilson playing excellent shortstop, Kotchman turning in a phenomenal errorless streak at first, Figgins scurrying around at second and Lopez showing spectacular acumen at third. If “Rob Johnson: Professional Catcher” could catch, they’d be complete.

Unfortunately, our bullpen has been… well … available, at best. Considered a big strength last year, the M’s relief pitchers have regressed to the mean pretty harshly this season. For example, the 2009 Mariners were far and away the best team in the Bigs in one-run games, posting an implausible 35-20 record. History has shown that unless your closer is Mariano Rivera, one-run games are more or less a coin-flip, as teams who finish with an outlying one-run record (for better or worse) one season usually find themselves returning to the pack the next. The 2010 Mariners? 4-9. They also have a heartbreaking 10 losses in the opponents’ last at-bat and have surrendered five walk-off homers, as well as going 0-4 in extra inning games.

How did this happen? Well, the bullpen’s ERA last year was a bit fluky as they walked a lot of guys and saw opponents hit an unsustainably low average on balls in play. They walked the tightrope all season last year, and this year the inevitable crosswinds have knocked them off. They weren’t as good as their numbers last year, but my guess is that they’re not as bad as their numbers so far this year.

Add this all up, and you have a team that is winning less than two games out of every five. So is this season a lost cause? Probably, but there’re reasons for hope -- the first being that it’s very unlikely that the Mariners will continue to hit as poorly as they have. For so many players to be hitting so far below their career averages at the same time is highly unusual. Even if there isn’t a major redux, their true talent level should emerge and they could, with a few breaks, morph into an offensive team that doesn’t blow.

The second reason for hope is that the Mariners play in the idiotically composed AL West, which means there are only three teams for them to beat (teams in the NL Central must hate Bud Selig for this). Further, none of the other teams in the Mariners’ division are playing like world-beaters. It’s entirely possible that 85 wins nets the division this year. Also, the Mariners are currently playing without Milton Bradley and Erik Bedard, two enigmatic performers who can be catalysts for a major turnaround if they rejoin the roster healthy and at the top of their respective games.

Finally, let’s not forget that this team was built around the premise of pitching and defense and, on the whole, the Mariners have been very good at both. They rank 6th in the Majors in ERA, 6th in WHIP, and 7th in batting average against, and if they start hitting (and that “if” is too big for any font to do justice), they have the pieces in place to make a run and get back into contention. If they’re within three or four games entering September, anything can happen.

So buck up, Mariners fans. If the M’s can win two out of every three games for the next four and a half months, they’ll have a fighting chance. If not, at least take the time to appreciate the opportunity to watch two of the best pitchers on the planet in Felix and Cliff, one of the most unique players of all time in Ichiro, and Brandon League’s splitter. And get out to a game or two. Safeco is still the best way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

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