SEATTLE — An injury-ravaged pitching staff that seems to change daily though an ongoing blitz of personnel moves is covering up a growing sore spot for the Seattle Mariners on the other side of the plate.
How much longer can they ride with a catching tandem of Carlos Ruiz and Tuffy Gosewisch while Mike Zunino seeks to unlock his swing on his latest remedial tour at Triple-A Tacoma?
Ruiz and Gosewisch are producing less — far less, actually — at the plate than Zunino did in his extended struggles. The major defensive metrics say they also represent a decline from Zunino’s performance.
“I expect (Zunino) to be back in a short amount of time,” manager Scott Servais said. “But how long can we go? We’ll go as long as we have to. But I’m realistic, and the guys are, too.
“They know they’re going to have to contribute a little more offensively.”
Check the numbers.
Zunino was batting .167 with a .250 on-base percentage and a .236 slugging percentage through 24 games when sent to the Rainiers on May 5 in hopes of getting his swing straightened out.
Club officials made the move, at least least in part, because they also saw the slump as affecting his defense.
Zunino rated at minus-2 in runs saved above average and a minus-0.1 defensive WAR rating after being at plus-8 and plus-0.8 last season in 52 defensive games.
Those numbers, in tandem with his offensive struggles, warranted a demotion — but look at what the Mariners are getting now:
Ruiz (.125) and Gosewisch (.048) entered Thursday batting a combined .098 with a .183 OBP and a .131 slugging percentage. Ruiz also rated at minus-4 in runs saved and a minus-1 in defensive WAR. Gosewisch was minus-1 in both metrics.
“I think Tuffy has done a really good job calling the game,” Servais said. “That’s the thing that the average fan doesn’t see. He reads the bat very well.
“Some guys need to throw more fastballs. Some need to throw three or four in a row. He’s got a good feel for that.
“But, obviously, you’ve got to make contact. You’ve got to do some things on the offensive side to stay in the major leagues.”
Gosewisch has an option remaining, but Ruiz has sufficient service time to refuse any assignment to the minors and still receive his major-league salary.
The Mariners summoned Gosewisch roughly two weeks ago to, effectively, send Zunino on remedial training. Zunino’s numbers to date at Tacoma, while better, hardly merit a recall based solely on performance.
He entered Thursday’s doubleheader at Omaha (Royals) with a .217 average (5-for-23) in seven games, but there are some encouraging signs:
Zunino had two homers after not hitting a single big-league homer this season in 80 at-bats. He also has just two strikeouts in those 23 minor-league at-bats after whiffing a whopping 30 times in his 80 big-league at-bats.
“We’re closely monitoring what’s going on with Mike Zunino,” Servais said. “Very closely. You get video clips, and I can see that he’s made a noticeable difference in his setup at the plate and how he’s going about it.
“He has not gotten the results. Hopefully, he gets a few balls to fall in. Mike’s done a much better job this year of controlling the strike zone. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was the balls in the strike zone. He needs to get them in play.
“That has been better (at Tacoma).”
Rotation starting to heal
These are mostly baby steps, but the Mariners appear to be making genuine progress toward restoring their projected rotation.
Lefty James Paxton is in line to be the first to return.
He threw a 25-pitch bullpen workout Thursday as the next step in his recovery from a strained forearm muscle, which surfaced after a May 2 start against the Los Angeles Angels.
His assessment: “Great.”
Plans call for Paxton to throw another bullpen workout Sunday before heading out on a minor-league rehab assignment — probably to Double-A Arkansas, which begins a six-game homestand on Tuesday in Little Rock.
“Give him 65-70 pitches, one rehab (start),” manager Scott Servais said, “and then get him back in the rotation.”
A best-case scenario would enable Paxton to return by the end of the upcoming road trip that begins Tuesday in Washington before a weekend series in Boston and two games at Colorado.
Paxton was 3-0 with a 1.43 ERA in six starts when he went to the disabled list.
— Right-handers Felix Hernandez (shoulder bursitis) and Hisashi Iwakuma (shoulder inflammation) played catch prior to Thursday’s game.
For Hernandez, it was resumption of activity after being backed off a week ago in his recovery from an injury diagnosed after an April 25 start at Detroit. Barring further setbacks, he could return by early June.
Iwakuma threw for the first time since being diagnosed after a May 3 start against the Los Angeles Angels. The original recovery projection of four-to-six weeks would, in a best-case scenario, permit him to return in mid-June.
— Left-hander Drew Smyly reported no day-after problems Thursday after playing catch for the first time since being diagnosed in spring with a strained flexor bundle (muscle and tendon) in his elbow.
“A big step,” he said. “Real big. First time in six weeks. Right now, we’re just doing every other day. Just 60 feet this week.”
A late June return seems a best-case scenario, but Smyly said club officials told him: “Until I get further into the catch, at least every day, they’re not going to do a timeline.”
The Mariners acquired Smyly in a Jan. 11 trade from Tampa Bay.
“It’s been the worst (situation),” he said. “For the team, it’s been brutal (with all of the injuries). Individually, you want to come over here and play right away and show the team what you can do.
“Hopefully, I can get healthy and be out there sooner than later.”
Outfielder Mitch Haniger passed a major test when he reported no day-after problems with his strained right oblique muscle after testing it Wednesday in batting practice.
Haniger took a another step Thursday by throwing to the bases from the outfield. He also could return to active duty at some point on the upcoming road trip.
Haniger was batting .342 with four homers and 16 RBI in 21 games when he suffered the injury April 25 in Detroit — the same game in which the Mariners lost Hernandez.
— Second baseman Robinson Cano planned to test his recovery from a strained right quadriceps muscle by hitting balls from a tee in the indoor cages. Barring a setback, he should be return for Tuesday’s series opener at Washington.
And some bullpen help
Right-handed reliever Shea Simmons is getting close to starting a minor-league rehab assignment in his recovery from a strained right elbow, which forced him to leave a March 11 game against Cincinnati in spring training.
Simmons, 26, had positioned himself to win a roster spot before the injury.
The Mariners acquired Simmons in a Jan. 11 trade from Atlanta. He spend most of the last two seasons recovering from reconstructive-elbow surgery but returned late last season and displayed upper-90s velocity.