By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
SEATTLE — It doesn’t get easier.
When the traditional second half of the season begins Friday at Safeco Field, the Seattle Mariners may or may not have a slightly altered roster. Either way, they’ll be facing the Texas Rangers.
General manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge have huddled during the All-Star break to determine what moves can be made to improve a 36-51 team that’s long on potential and short on results.
Players who struggled through the first half — and there are plenty on a team ranks 25th in runs, 29th in batting average, 30th in on-base percentage and 29th in slugging percentage — don’t have a free pass in the second half, Zduriencik said.
“Nobody is on scholarship here. We look for players to improve, and they’re evaluated every time they take the field. If they don’t think that’s true, they’re fooling themselves,” he said.
There aren’t as many moves available as you might think.
Franklin Gutierrez, for instance, won’t be back from his concussion. Erasmo Ramirez will miss his first turn in the rotation as his right elbow heals. Mike Carp is closer — but his shoulder issues will likely need more time.
Listen to any sports radio talk show, and fans are making plenty of moves.
Send Justin Smoak to Tacoma. Get rid of Chone Figgins. Send out Dustin Ackley. Stop catching Miguel Olivo. Dump Brandon League …
There may be merit to some or all of those suggestions, but the Mariners need a 25-man roster vs. Texas on Friday, and sending players out means replacing them.
And for the only team under .500 in the American League West, there’s not much help available in Class AAA right now.
In Tacoma, for instance, 32-year-old Luis Rodriguez is batting .310 and can play anywhere in the infield. His big-league career average over 407 games: .238.
First baseman/designated hitter Luis Jimenez is batting .318 with 13 home runs and 52 RBI. While that’s been good enough to make him a Class AAA all-star, the 30-year-old has never played in the majors.
Third/first baseman Alex Liddi, who started the year with the Mariners, is at .267. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz — a marvelous defensive player and another Class AAA all-star — is batting .307 but is a lifetime .208 hitter in 255 major-league at-bats.
Young infielders Carlos Triunfel (.240) and Nick Franklin (.239) have struggled in Tacoma.
Only Liddi and Triunfel are on the Mariners 40-man roster, meaning to bring any of the others up, someone on that 40-man would have to be designated for assignment.
Trade options appear no better unless the Mariners are willing to deal their young players for the young players of another team. League’s value is down. Figgins doesn’t have one. Olivo might bring back a minor league player.
Zduriencik doesn’t like dealing from a point of weakness. Unless a move helps, why make it? And his glass-half-full view of the 2012 Mariners remains more than optimistic.
“I think we’re in a reasonably good spot. The win-loss record is disappointing, but if you look at what’s been accomplished, the team is better than a year ago,” Zduriencik said. “Take the bullpen. We’ve seen Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge — even Stephen Pryor — emerge in the first half. All of them look like ‘plusses’ moving forward.
“We knew the team was going to have spurts, be inconsistent. But you look at Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero. They’re just kids. You look at the 3-4-5- spots in our lineup this first half, many times they’ve all had less than a year of experience at this level.”
Zduriencik praised John Jaso and said, “he’s going to be in a Mariners uniform for a long time.” He also noted that Michael Saunders has established himself as a major league player.
He called Brendan Ryan “as good a defensive shortstop as there is in the league, and in the past he’s shown he’s a better hitter than this. If we can get him in the mid-.250s, what a player!”
Bring Zduriencik back to his struggling young players, he will acknowledge not everything is where he’d hoped it would be.
“Players like Smoak, Ackley are facing a challenge — they’re not there yet, not where we think they can be. I think they can bounce back,” Zduriencik said. “Justin was the Player of the Week one week, then fell back. He hasn’t been consistent.”
So what do the Mariners need most? Wedge points to a veteran leader in the clubhouse — and the clear absence of one in Seattle.
“We don’t have a mentor in the clubhouse, and our young players could use that,” Wedge said. “I don’t care how good your staff is, how often you talk to your players, a veteran leader can be more effective at times.
“You ask any manager, he’ll tell you the same thing. One, two guys like that in any clubhouse makes you better.”
The Mariners’ veteran position players aren’t that guy.
Figgins isn’t playing, Olivo is more a cheerleader than a mentor and Icihro, the only other veteran player, always has chosen to lead by example.
At the All-Star break, the Mariners team batting average was .230, the second worst in franchise history. The worst? That was .225 — last year.
Where’s the improvement?
When the second half opens, Smoak, Seager, Ackley, Carp, Olivo, Ryan and Ichiro will each have a lower batting average than they did last season.
Does that point a finger at batting coach Chris Chambliss? Wedge insists it does not.
“We hired Chris Chambliss because we knew we’d struggle. We wanted his experience, his confidence, his patience. Chris is a confident baseball man,” Wedge said. “He’s told these players what they need to know. He’s worked with them every day. The ball is in their court now.”
Zduriencik isn’t totally surprised by the struggles of his young team.
“We knew we might struggle at times. If we’re behind in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings, we’re seeing the best the opposing team’s bullpen has — and it’s our kids vs. those pitchers. That’s a challenge,” he said.
Zduriencik said the Mariners won’t shy away from adding players to improve.
“But this year we need to gauge what we have, determine what we need,” he said. “In the past, there are players this organization has given up on and traded away, and they’ve become much better players.
“Before we trade a player, we have to know we know his upside. We have to think we have someone with a better upside.”
Wedge talked about the inexperience of his club.
“The kids we have up here have less than a thousand minor league at-bats,” he said. “They’re going through their turmoil up here. We believe in their talent.
“You look at the first half. Jaso has given us the best at-bat. Saunders has been the most consistent, and Seager has been the most productive hitter we’ve got.
“A year ago, Seager had just gotten here, Saunders was in the minor leagues and Jaso was on the bench in Tampa. They’ve come a long way. We’re asking a lot of young, inexperienced players to come a long way all at once.
“That’s tough on them,” Wedge said. “And it’s tough on everyone else.”