They began spring training high on the high expectations of the best tandem of starting pitchers in baseball and one of the game’s most dangerous combinations at the top of the batting order.
Monday night at Oakland, the Seattle Mariners begin the season no less enthused.
But things haven’t fallen together quite as they envisioned, at both the top of the starting rotation and the head of the batting order.
Cliff Lee, the star left-hander who was supposed to be the second half of the Mariners’ dangerous pitching duo with Felix Hernandez, will miss the first few weeks of the season because of a strained abdomen muscle.
And the offense, which must make up for its lack of power with speed and gap hitting, didn’t show its potential at Arizona despite the intimidating presence of Ichiro Suzuki at the leadoff spot and Chone Figgins batting behind him.
At some point, the Mariners expect their two tandems — Hernandez and Lee in the rotation, Suzuki and Figgins atop the lineup — to perform as advertised. But first, they’ll have to ride out an April of uncertainty with their pitching and their offense.
Lee’s recovery from the abdomen strain has gone well, especially in the past week when he played catch without discomfort. He hasn’t pitched from a mound since March 18, but Lee says his arm feels extremely strong.
There’s also the issue of Lee’s five-game suspension for throwing at a batter in spring training. The Mariners don’t know when Major League Baseball will hold a hearing for Lee to describe his side of the incident, and until then the team isn’t sure how the suspension will affect the roster.
One plan is for Lee to serve the suspension as soon as possible, then have him go on the disabled list and complete his recovery. Baseball may not allow that and force Lee serve his time after he comes off the DL.
However it shakes out, the Mariners expect to play much of April with a rotation of Hernandez and four relatively untested starters — Ian Snell, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas.
What are the Mariners missing without Lee?
Besides everything he can do on the mound, there’s his presence off it. Many of the young pitchers couldn’t wait for spring training so they watch Lee work and talk with the World Series star to learn his secrets.
“But with him being hurt, you lose that,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “It started out that way. There was a lot of dialogue and guys were watching him, especially the lefties. It gives them an example and something to feed off. One thing about Cliff is that he’s become more efficient over the years, and that’s what all young pitchers need to learn.”
Offensively, the Mariners say there’s no question they’re capable of scoring more runs than last year. They don’t have the sheer power they’d like, or even the power potential of last year when they got 31 home runs from first baseman Russell Branyan.
But they have Ichiro and Figgins at the top, along with Milton Bradley in the middle, and expect smarter at-bats and a better on-base percentage throughout the lineup than last year.
The Mariners didn’t get a true sense at spring training of how the Suzuki-Figgins pairing will work despite the fact they played most of their 18 Arizona games back-to-back in the lineup.
“I think we’re still learning,” Wakamatsu said.
It comes down to the simple-sounding process of getting Suzuki from first base to second — or beyond — to provide RBI opportunities to the hitters in the middle of the lineup.
“There are different ways to accomplish that, and I talked to Figgy the other day about whether we feel Ichi has the ability to steal,” Wakamatsu said. “If not, then we have to look at a secondary plan, whether that’s bunting or hit-and-running. We’re going to continue to look at how we get Ichi to second, but I think they’re feeding off each other well.
“People ask if I’m concerned about it. Yeah, I’m concerned about it. But do I think that we’re physically able to do a lot more? Absolutely.”
The last time Suzuki had a hitter behind him who could control at-bats like Figgins was 2001 when Mark McLemore batted second. That’s the year Suzuki, a major league rookie, recorded 242 hits, 127 runs and 56 steals, while behind him McLemore hit for a .286 average with a .384 on-base percentage and 39 steals.
Last year, Ichiro had 225 hits but scored only 88 runs and stole a career-low 26 bases, hitting in most games with Franklin Gutierrez (.339 on-base percentage) and Branyan (.347) batting second. Figgins produced some very McLemore-like numbers last year with the Angels, a .298 average, 42 steals and a .392 on-base percentage.
“Ichi is going to get hits and he’s always going to be on base,” hitting coach Alan Cockrell said. “Figgy plays his game to a T. He’s very disciplined and he’s going to draw a walk and he can hit, too. He’s going to be on base a lot, so there’s going to be opportunity for our 3-4-5 guys to drive in some runs.
“Ichi and Figgy are going to be on base quite a bit. It puts pressure on the pitcher and puts pressure on the defense. Both of those guys can run and it creates a dynamic for us that we didn’t have last year.”
Will it all be enough for the Mariners to unseat the Angels at the top of the American League West Division?
General manager Jack Zduriencik reminds everyone that the Mariners, despite winning 85 games last year, finished third and must overtake the Texas Rangers as well as the Angels to reach the top.
“What was our strength last year? Pitching and defense,” Zduriencik said. “I think we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re a better defensive club. I think our bullpen can be stronger than it was a year ago. And we’ve added some guys who are going to put the ball in play and challenge other clubs.
But, Zduriencik reminded, the Mariners must prove on the field that they’re better than last year.
“We’re still chasing Anaheim and Texas,” he said.