Mariners’ Suzuki needs more time on bench

SEATTLE — Midway through the 2012 season, the Mariners are struggling, and once again they are a team headed for a lot more losses than wins.

But hey, we can’t say they didn’t warn us.

After all, it was back in January when general manager Jack Zduriencik, in an honest moment, said, “This is going to be a challenging year at the big-league level for us. Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve got a young club, no matter how you shake it.

So even though everyone in Seattle’s clubhouse was hoping for more wins this year, we shouldn’t be all that surprised that, barring a spectacular second-half turnaround, the Mariners will finish with a losing record for seventh time in the last nine years.

But even as the Mariners head for another season of 90-plus losses, a lot can be accomplished over the next three months beyond wins and losses. As Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge have said repeatedly, they believe in the foundation they are building; believe that the young players who are struggling now can still be a big part of the team’s future; and believe that the current struggles are necessary to help build a team that can sustain success.

If young and currently struggling players such as Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak can turn things around in the second half, that will be a very positive sign for the franchise regardless of how many games the Mariners win in 2012. And if other young players like Kyle Seager, Casper Wells, Michael Saunders and John Jaso can build off of their promising play in the first few months of this season, the Mariners can go into the offseason feeling much better about the future even if they are once again a last-place team when the dust settles.

But while figuring out the best plan for the future is an inexact science for Zduriencik and Wedge, there is one simple thing they can do that will help the team in the long-run: play Ichiro Suzuki less often.

When Wedge gave Suzuki a day off in Arizona last month, he told reporters that Suzuki “has to understand that it’s not a bad thing to get a day off now and again. I know what he’s conditioned for and that he wants to play every single day. Ultimately, what we’re looking for is to get the most out of everybody over 162 games.”

Since that day off, however, Suzuki has started every game. Now granted, Wedge has been short on outfielders recently with Franklin Gutierrez on the disabled list with a concussion, and with Saunders missing four games with the flu. But Saunders is back now, Gutierrez will be sometime after the All Star break, and now the Mariners also need to find at bats for outfielder Carlos Peguero, who was called up from Class AAA Tacoma on Thursday.

Wells, Saunders, Peguero, and Gutierrez, are all under 30-years-old, and at least potentially part of the team’s long-term future. Suzuki is 38, in the final year of his contract, and is clearly not the same player he was a few years ago.

It just doesn’t make sense for Suzuki to lead the team in games played and plate appearances when he isn’t producing, and may not be on the team beyond this season — not if that means fewer opportunities for the likes of Wells and Saunders.

And let’s hope that Wedge’s decision to move Suzuki out of the leadoff spot Saturday sticks. Since moving back into that spot, Suzuki has hit just .237 with a .255 on base percentage. Ackley, meanwhile, was at his best this year in the leadoff role, hitting .279 with a .359 on base percentage. Having Ackley hit leadoff isn’t just better for the 2012 Mariners, it’s better for this team’s future.

And this isn’t a call for Suzuki to ride the bench. Unlike the Mariners’ other high-priced veteran, Chone Figgins, Suzuki still has value to the team. He still has one of the highest batting averages on the team — which says more about Seattle’s offensive struggles than it does Suzuki’s hitting prowess — and he is still an exceptional defensive player. But if the Mariners plan on making Wells or Saunders or Gutierrez or Peguero sit every few days, Suzuki should also take his turns on the bench.

When the Mariners sent Wells to Tacoma, a lot of people, myself included, felt they should have instead finally cut ties with Figgins. As it turned out, however, that time at the Class AAA level was time well-spent for Wells, who after getting a chance to play every day, returned to Seattle and has become one of the team’s best hitters over the past few weeks. Even better, he is one of the few Seattle players actually capable of putting up decent numbers at Safeco Field.

Asked what changed after getting called back up, Wells said, “Everything’s different. I’m just trying to remain positive in all aspects of life. … This game is so negative, you can build up a lot of negativity and become less optimistic about things and then your confidence can suffer a little bit. That could have been happening with not having as much playing time.”

Wells made a few mechanical adjustments while playing for the Tacoma Rainiers. But playing every day, and the improved attitude that came with it, is what he credits with making the biggest difference. The Mariners shouldn’t mess with the progress Wells has made just so Suzuki can play every day.

Wedge said players like Wells will keep getting at bats, and that he can use the designated hitter spot to make sure everyone is playing. But with Jaso and Montero frequently DHing, and Peguero likely to see time there as well, Wedge is going to have to sit somebody to get Gutierrez back in the lineup.

“If in time, and it may be a short period of time, guys are getting it done, we’ll find a way to get them in there,” Wedge said. “That’s what we’re doing with Casper right now, and when (Gutierrez) comes back, we’ll still find a way to get him in there.”

In the second half of this season, the best way to get Wells and others into the lineup will be to take at bats away from Suzuki. Suzuki should still play, just not every day on a team that is building for a future that may not include him.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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