In 2008, a group led by Clay Bennett ripped the Supersonics from Seattle to search for browner pastures in Oklahoma City. It is rumored that during the move they took Seattle’s baseball team with them. The Mariners have finished last in the AL West in three of the past four seasons, while finishing next to last in the other. After committing in earnest to a rebuilding effort with a cohort of promising young players, the 2012 Mariners again find themselves in the West’s basement. The team, its players and their fans are again left searching for answers.
Safety not guaranteed: no home field advantage.
With the season nearing the halfway mark, one alarming truth has emerged for the 2012 Mariners – they struggle to win at home. At 12-19 (.387), the Mariners currently hold the worst home winning percentage in baseball. The most obvious problem appears to be rooted in the team’s inability to score runs on their home turf. Over the past month, Safeco Field has been a house of horrors for the Mariners where they score a mere 2.8 runs per game while allowing 3.9 runs against. On the road, however, the Mariners have scored 5.2 runs per game while allowing a comparable 5.3 runs (throwing out the crazy 21 run outburst the Mariners had against Texas on May 30). Although opponents do tend to score less at Safeco Field, the large outfield and thick marine air appear to be getting into the heads of some of the Mariners young hitters. Justin Smoak, expected to be a heart of the order masher, has shown outward signs of frustration both on the field and during recent post-game interviews. Things have gotten so bad that talk around Seattle now centres around whether the Mariners should bring the fences in during the offseason. Until the team starts making it tough for opposing pitchers to come through Seattle, they will remain an easy out in the West.
Looking for a leadoff hitter… Buehler? Buehler?
For over a decade, Seattle managers have penciled Ichiroin at top of the lineup and went from there. But this offseason the Mariners superstar was asked to bat third, allowing Chone Figgins, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders to audition for the leadoff spot. Things were so bad at one point that manager Eric Wedge had CATCHER John Jaso leading off for a game. By May, Ichiro was struggling mightily with runners in scoring position and Kyle Seager had emerged as a clutch hitter (24 RBI with 2 outs), so the team moved their veteran outfielder back to his customary leadoff position. Unfortunately, this is not the 2001 version of Ichiro, but rather a 38 year old outfielder sporting a 0.282 on base percentage. It appears the sun is finally setting on Suzuki’s all-star career and the Mariners now need to find a long-term solution to fill the top of their order.
We Are Young, but this is not Fun.
Seattle fans entered the season understanding that any rebuilding plan requires above all else, patience. The core of the team is clearly talented, but the growing pains have been overwhelming with no guarantee that any of them are future franchise players. Smoak started the season as the cleanup hitter, but he struggled early and was batting an ugly 0.183 on the “Smoakamotive” promotion night. He has raised his average to 0.218, but his inability to power balls out of Safeco Field has led to frustrated comments such as this,
“You go up there and you try to put yourself in the best position to succeed. And you hit a ball like that and it goes nowhere.”
Thus far, results from the other youngsters have been a mixed bag. Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero have hit for a 0.270 average, Kyle Seager 0.256, Dustin Ackley 0.247 and Mike Carp 0.157. As the losses began to pile up, and with the veterans unable to right the offense, the younger players on the team started to play with an air of desperation. For example, Montero may be the slowest player in the MLB, and yet he has been caught three times in recent games as a result of overly aggressive running errors. These gaffes emerge because the young catcher is pushing himself beyond his natural game in hopes of helping the struggling offense. If the veterans on the team cannot provide some cover for these talented youngsters, this will be a painful season with periods of regression and long hitting droughts.
The slow progression of so many young prospects has been all the more painful when compared to other rookies that are successfully making adjustments on more stable rosters (e.g., Bryce Harper hitting 0.294 and Brett Lawrie 0.286). Most alarming, however, is that the resurgent Los Angeles Angels are being led by youngster Mark Trumbo (0.321) and phenom outfielder Mike Trout (0.324). For a Mariners team committed to rebuilding with youth, it looks very much like they are being passed by a divisional rival that is simply reloading.
The Seattle fans that rallied to bring back their beloved Sonics last week are evidence that in sports, there are always second acts. For the young Mariners, there is much baseball left to be played this season and their fans will continue to wait for a hero.