By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
OAKLAND — They knew it, even if they didn’t want to admit it publicly. But day in and day out last season, the Seattle Mariners simply didn’t have an offense good enough to make them competitive on a nightly basis.
It’s not so much criticism as it is a fact. The Mariners went into last season knowing they were going to play their young players every day — good or bad — and have them learn life at the big league level.
Not surprisingly, there were struggles. They didn’t hit. They didn’t score runs. They struggled even worse at home. It was a lot to ask of young players in their first and second full seasons of major league baseball.
Seattle ranked last in the American League in batting average (.234), slugging percentage (.369), on-base percentage (.296), runs (619) and runs per game (3.82).
“It’s one thing where you are fooling yourself into believing you have a chance to win,” said shortstop Brendan Ryan.
And if they were ever to get behind by three runs, it felt like a 30-run deficit and there was no hope of a rally.
“We were not a team built to come from behind,” Ryan said. “We were built to try to win those one-run games, keep opponents to a minimal run score and execute the small ball.”
The margin of error between a win and a loss was tiny.
“If we made the slightest mistake that might have ruined the one rally we might have in a game,” Ryan said.
But it’s supposed to be different this year. The young hitters that struggled so much last year will have improved from the tough times. And more importantly, the Mariners have added some proven veteran hitters to take some of the production pressure off the likes of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager.
Sluggers Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse were acquired by trades in the offseason to provide a presence in the middle of the lineup. They will bat third and fourth. The team also brought in Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay to be bench players and sometime starters.
“It’s what we talked about that we didn’t have last year but we do have this year,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
It’s will be different than last season when the Mariners started the season with Ichiro Suzuki as their No. 3 hitter and the combination of Smoak, Montero and the since-traded John Jaso at cleanup.
“What I see is a legitimate big league lineup,” said Ibanez, who’s played in almost 2,000 big league games.
That wasn’t the case last season. The Mariners unfairly forced players like Seager, Smoak, Montero and Saunders into the heart of the order. They had the talent to bat there, but not the experience.
“In those situations, sometimes you rarely get to see a fastball, they are going to pitch you different and they are going to pitch you tough, you really have to relax and not try to do too much,” Morse said. “It’s tougher when you are young. It’s a big role and it’s a tough role. They had to learn the hard way.”
Morales called hitting in the middle of the order “a responsibility” that he took great pride in.
So much of the run-producing pressure is put on those 3-4-5 spots. Some players crumble under it.
“Me personally? I like it,” Morse said. “I like the pressure that comes with it. I love the responsibility that comes with it. I feel like it’s a compliment to me and I feel I can help my team win when I’m hitting there.”
There is an air of confidence with the older players. Morales and Morse never seem to be in a hurry at the plate. Ibanez is always locked in. Bay never shows emotion. And even if they do make an out, there is enough confidence from past success to not let panic enter into the equation.
“You gotta go up there cocky in your own way,” Morse said. “You have to go up there thinking you are better than the pitcher. You are going to see his best pitches and you are going to hit him.”
Morse (nine homers) and Morales (seven homers) led a record-setting power show this spring. The Mariners clubbed a major league-leading 58 homers, which was the most in franchise history and second most by any team over the last 20 years.
Sure spring training statistics are meaningless, but seeing some power from the middle of the order — no matter the circumstances — helps the overall confidence.
“It’s not even close,” Ryan said. “It really isn’t. The vibe is just so different, so much better.”
“It’s night and day,” said Wedge
But can those two guys in the middle of the order make that much difference?
“When you have that presence in the middle of lineup, it has to help,” Smoak said.
Sabermetric forecasting and projections vary on both Morse and Morales. They have Morales hitting anywhere from .265 to .284 with 17-23 homers and 52-78 RBI. Morse is projected to hit from .253 to .295 with also around 17-23 homers with 57-80 RBI. These projections don’t reflect the possible benefits of playing at the reconfigured Safeco Field, or the improved health of both Morales and Morse.
Players have said Morse is capable of hitting more than 30 home runs this season. The Mariners haven’t had that happen since Russell Branyan hit 31 in 2009. Meanwhile, the Mariners staff believes Morales is finally fully healthy from his gruesome leg break in 2010 and will be more like the player he was before the injury.
Bay and Ibanez will also work into games likely batting in the No. 5 spot.
“It’s just a different presence,” Wedge said.
But for the Mariners to truly make a stride in terms of offensive success and wins, players like Smoak and Ackley — two major foundations of the organization — must show improvement.
Both are coming off awful seasons. Both have made significant changes to their swings that they feel will help them this season.
Smoak has looked this spring like the hitter the Mariners have hoped he would be. He hit .407 (24-for-59) with eight doubles, five homers and 15 RBI. He posted a .455 on-base percentage and a .797 slugging percentage.
“I just want to carry it over to the season, keep doing what I’m doing,” Smoak said.
Ackley wasn’t quite as explosive this spring, but his swing looks better and he seems more balanced at the plate.
Montero also seemed to turn a corner this spring, showing patience and a focus pitch-by-pitch that he hadn’t shown before.
“He’s really starting to figure some things out,” Wedge said of Montero.
There’s an ease in the Mariners clubhouse this spring. In past years, there was an anxiety, a feeling of “what happens if we don’t hit?”
That’s been replaced by a self-confidence that says, “We will hit.”
“It’s a whole different feeling coming into the clubhouse this spring than it has been the last two years,” Ryan said.
The pressure has been reduced and divided.
“These guys had a lot of pressure on them the last couple years,” Ibanez said. “Bringing some of us older guys to take some of that pressure off them makes it easier to play to their abilities.”
It started to show this spring.
“Guys are relaxed and confident and they’re believing in their abilities,” Morse said. “It’s something we have to remember, bottle up and carry over to the season.”
Will it lead to success? The Mariners believe it will.
“We’ve got veteran guys now and everybody knows it’s going to be different,” Montero said. “Nobody has been talking about us, but we’re fine with that. We’re quiet, now we have a nice team. Everything is coming together. We’ve got power, we’ve got hitting, and we’ve got pitching. It’s going to be different.”