The Mariners’ Kyle Seager (right) reacts after striking out in front of Tigers catcher Eric Haase during the eighth inning of a game May 19, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Mariners’ Kyle Seager (right) reacts after striking out in front of Tigers catcher Eric Haase during the eighth inning of a game May 19, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Hard to see path to improvement for M’s offense

Seattle is the worst-hitting team in baseball and there’s not much help currently on the way.

  • Larry Stone The Seattle Times (TNS)
  • Thursday, May 20, 2021 9:56pm
  • SportsMariners

By Larry Stone / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — It’s not just the two no-hitters against them (at home, no less) in the span of 13 days, though that’s bad enough.

Nor is it the one-hitter, three two-hitters, three three-hitters, four four-hitters and four five-hitters that have been thrown against them this year.

It’s not even the .198 team batting average, the lowest at this stage of the season since the 1968 White Sox, that stands as an unwelcome tribute to Seattle alumnus Mario Mendoza.

No, the most troubling part of the Mariners’ ongoing offensive malaise is that it’s hard to see an easy path out of it this season.

This isn’t a coaching problem, though it would be standard baseball procedure for hitting coach Tim Laker and/or his assistant, Jarret DeHart, to pay the price. It has certainly happened before in Seattle, and everywhere else, when the bats have gone into hibernation.

But this is far more of a roster problem than one of mechanics, approach or instruction. The Mariners went into this season counting on a lot of players who had never proven themselves at the big-league level other than in short flashes. And more than one-fourth of the way through the season, you have Dylan Moore hitting .168, Tom Murphy at .130, Luis Torrens at .178, Jose Marmolejos at .139 and Sam Haggerty at .185.

And time ran out for a couple of those players on Thursday.

The Mariners optioned Luis Torrens to Triple-A Tacoma and designated Jose Marmolejos for assignment. To replace Torrens, Seattle claimed Jacob Nottingham off waivers from Milwaukee for the second time this season. The Mariners also selected catcher Jose Godoy from Tacoma and designated right-handed pitcher Brady lail for assignment.

You also have a group of touted young players — the future of the organization, the key to the success of the rebuild — who are going through inevitable growing pains. Thus you have Evan White at .144 before landing on the injured list, Taylor Trammell at .157 before being demoted to Triple-A Tacoma, and Jarred Kelenic at .179 in a very small sample size despite the hoopla of his arrival and the splash of his second-game eruption. Kyle Lewis, with just five extra-base hits in nearly 100 at-bats, hasn’t gotten untracked either.

On any given night when Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, J.P. Crawford or Ty France (before his average plummeted in the wake of getting hit on his forearm) are struggling, the Mariners are in danger of getting no-hit.

Seager has been relatively productive with nine home runs and 29 RBI, but is hitting just .224 overall. Haniger leads the team with 12 home runs 30 RBI and a .256 batting average.

What they needed in the offseason was a couple veteran bats to reduce the reliance on the unproven players, and help bridge the gap to the wave of prospects.

Second baseman Kolten Wong has been mentioned frequently as a perfect candidate. They were outbid by Milwaukee, which signed Wong to a two-year, $18 million contract. Wong, a two-time Gold Glove winner, is not tearing up the league, but his .259/.339/.375 slash line is Ruthian compared with some of the Mariners’ production.

There aren’t many answers in Tacoma, either. Kelenic is already here and demonstrating what White had showed last year and Trammell this year: It’s not easy to make the jump to the big leagues with minimal exposure at the Triple-A level, no matter how talented you are.

Trammell could well be earning himself a return trip to Seattle, once his mandatory 10-game stint in Triple-A ends, with an insane showing during his first week with Tacoma. He’s hit .577 (15 for 26) and slugged 1.154 with four homers, three doubles and 14 runs batted in six games. Not to minimize that achievement — hard hits are hard hits — but he’s done it at high-elevation Salt Lake City against a pitching staff that doesn’t have many high-velocity arms. This is the same guy who struck out 41 times in 83 at-bats with Seattle; it would be naive to think all his problems are solved.

Catcher Cal Raleigh, one of the organization’s top prospects, is certainly a candidate for promotion considering the fact that Mariners’ catchers rank dead last in the majors with a .140/.184/.287 slash line. Again, the switch-hitting Raleigh looks positively Bench-like with his .286/.367/548 marks at Tacoma. But Raleigh has exactly 10 career games in Triple-A. Just as it was unfair to expect Kelenic to be a savior, same goes for Raleigh.

Now would be a good time to step back and offer some perspective, which is hard to come by in the torrent of frustration over Tuesday’s no-hit masterpiece by Detroit’s Spencer Turnbull.

It must be noted that this is hardly a Seattle-centric problem. Offense throughout the major leagues is at historic lows. The April numbers across the board were beneath even the infamous 1968 season, dubbed “The Year of the Pitcher,” that prompted the lowering of the mounds and eventually the institution of the designated hitter.

You know the drill — strikeouts are soaring at epidemic rates as pitchers’ velocity rises and spin rates increase. The hyper-focus on hitting home runs via “launch angle” swings has led to vast reductions in the number of singles and doubles. Shifting and analytics has made it exponentially harder to “hit ‘em where they ain’t,” which has led to the MLB cumulative batting average plummeting to the low .230s.

Even saying that, the Mariners are the worst of the bunch in average, on-base percentage (.280) and OPS (.642). They’re on pace for the worst hitting season in franchise history; their previous lowest batting average was .226 — last year.

Yet (here comes more perspective) the Mariners somehow stand 21-23, which is something of an overachievement for a team widely projected for 90-plus losses. It’s mainly a tribute to their bullpen, which has been a top-five unit all season. But their flirtation with .500 seems impossible to sustain with an offense this paltry.

In the minors, encouragingly, several top prospects are off to brilliant starts, most notably outfielder Julio Rodriguez and shortstop Noelvi Marte in Class A. But one hard truth of this and every other rebuild: Minor-league numbers mean nothing until they translate into major-league success.

The Mariners still have a farm system to savor that could well lead them out of the wilderness — eventually. But for now, there’s not much to do but wait. And hope that the learning curve hastens for the likes of Kelenic and White, while the struggling veterans find a way out of their collective funks.

Meanwhile, a continued roster shake-up seems inevitable. A major-league team can’t keep running out that many .150 to .175 batting averages at this stage of the season.

But when looking for replacements, the pickings are slim. General manager Jerry Dipoto is no doubt scanning the waiver wire daily. Dillon Thomas has been the best-looking Tacoma hitter besides Trammell. He’s hitting .364 in 33 at-bats.

But a 28-year-old outfielder with his third organization is not going to be the savior of the Mariners’ offense. The sad truth is that at this point, there are no saviors. Only potential scapegoats.

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