By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer
It’s too early in the baseball season to say the Seattle Mariners’ formula is flawed.
Thirty games out of 162 aren’t enough to conclude that their pitching-and-defense emphasis has been irreparably harmed by an offense that has scored runs by the drip.
However, the numbers so far have been as painful to process as the Mariners have been to watch, especially during a horrid homestand that ends today almost as a blessing.
The Mariners went into Saturday’s game against the L.A. Angels:
n Next-to-last among baseball’s 30 teams with a .225 team batting average.
n Last in the American League and 29th overall with a .299 on-base percentage.
n Last in the majors with a .314 slugging percentage with a baseball-worst 10 home runs.
Only one player, center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, has begun the season by hitting at or above his career averages, entering Saturday with a .321 batting average (.272 career), .379 on-base percentage (.325) and .473 slugging percentage (.420).
Teams go through stretches like this, especially offensively.
In 2000, when the Mariners’ fast start to the season stalled with a late-May stretch when they quit scoring runs, they lost seven of 11 games and averaged 2.6 runs in those losses. In a two-week stretch, that season suddenly had an “oh no” feel.
Larry Bowa, the Mariners’ third-base coach that year, scoffed at the notion that everything the team had accomplished to that point, 18 games in which they’d scored seven or more runs, had disappeared with no hope of returning.
“Hitting will come and go,” Bowa said. “But pitching, speed and defense don’t slump.”
The Mariners won 91 games and returned to the playoffs that year, doing it with pitching, speed and defense but also with an offense that produced a .269 team batting average, .343 on-base percentage and .455 slugging percentage.
So far, this year’s Mariners would dream of such production.
There’s always hope that things will turn around, based on the belief that the Mariners have the pitching and defense that should keep games close. But close hasn’t been counting with this team, and the performance of the offense is troubling beyond the numbers.
Without a consistent home run threat, it’s an offense that often needs to string together three hits to score a run. Without power, the Mariners must rely on everyone from top to bottom in the lineup to execute the little things necessary to scratch out three, four runs per game — base hits, bunts, hit-and-runs, steals, sacrifice flies, etc. They must do it with an unselfish approach, and that hasn’t been happening.
“This team has to come together,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “We talk about the team last year and you heard all the time that, ‘We are playing as a team and guys care about one another.’ I think right now there are a lot of individuals trying to turn this around. We are going to work on coming together.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik has pursued run-producing hitters since the end of last season but has refused to overpay on free agents or trade away the key chips in a farm system that he’s trying to rebuild.
At this point, Zduriencik believes the answer lies more from within the current team’s ability to come together.
He says the offense has gotten much of the blame for the Mariners’ recent problems, but if the team had played fundamentally sound baseball in other areas, they could have won several of the close games that they lost.
But the counter argument is that the Mariners are playing with no margin for error because of the offense. Pitchers know one misplaced pitch may beat them and fielders realize any misplay could lead to the run that their offense can’t make up.
In trying to avoid mistakes, they’ve made more of them.
Short of acquiring another hitter, what needs to change?
1. It has been apparent since the beginning of the season that having two DHs on this team, especially two who’ve contributed a combined seven RBI and no home runs, doesn’t work.
Ken Griffey Jr. is batting .216 with no home runs and five RBI and shown no consistent sign of production. With all respect to the love for Griffey, the Mariners must decide how much longer they can exist with that kind of bat from their primary DH.
Mike Sweeney has been no better, batting .172, but he hasn’t gotten the playing time necessary (29 at-bats entering Saturday) to gauge whether his .500 average in spring training was an aberration or a sign that he can produce when he plays more regularly.
2. Figgins must produce out of the second spot in the batting order. His numbers have been so terrible — .198/.333/.257 — that it’s legitimate to ask if he can handle the No. 2 spot. Wakamatsu put that question to Figgins last week and he assured his skipper that it’s not a problem, that he’ll be fine.
Mariners third-base coach Mike Brumley has known Figgins since he began his rise through the Angels’ system and says there’s no question that Figgins can be comfortable hitting second. Brumley said he batted there much of his minor league career and, despite batting leadoff most of the time with the Angels, he hit second enough to know what that job entails.
Figgins’ main problem has been his struggle while batting left-handed, where he’s got a .121 average with a .299 on-base percentage. He’s been a traditionally slow starter, so the Mariners are trying to be patient.
3. The Mariners’ young catchers must improve or the team may consider getting veteran help — namely in Josh Bard, who’s catching at Class AAA Tacoma.
Rob Johnson and Adam Moore have committed a league-high eight passed balls. Moore, who’d played six major league games entering this season, hasn’t started in the past four games and, for now, the Mariners are backing away from the 50-50 playing time between he and Johnson.
4. Milton Bradley needs to come back from his stress-induced stay on the restricted list with a positive attitude and a .300 average. He was dragging the team down on both accounts.
When all else has failed, the Mariners eventually must face the question of what to do with Cliff Lee?
Say all you want about the vaunted 1-2 punch in the rotation with Lee and Felix Hernandez, but if the Mariners can’t be convinced he wants to come back — and who would if this continues? — they’ll have to consider trading him.
This isn’t how the Mariners thought their season would play out, and there’s still plenty of time for it to change. But, they knew their deficiencies when they left spring training and, in essence, the fears have come true.
The upside, of course, is that the season hasn’t reached the quarter mark. The Mariners cling to the belief that hitters will rebound to something close to their career averages, and that will be enough for a team that will prevent runs with its pitching and defense.
“For me to jump and panic is one thing, but playing fundamental baseball is another thing,” Wakamatsu said. “I am asking them to go out and give everything they’ve got on a daily basis and I think we will take our chances with that.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog