PEORIA, Ariz. – Judging a team by its won-lost record is an exercise often fraught with peril.
After all, a contending team can fall out of the race with two weeks to go, plunge into a nosedive of indifference and finish with fewer wins than a .500 club that pads its September record against rosters laden with Triple-A call-ups. On the flip side, a Mariners squad that lost 101 games in 2010 – sealing that with a final-week collapse and season-ending sweep suffered at the hands of the Oakland Athletics – could go on a tear the final two weeks this coming season, wind up with just 90 losses, and really be no better than its predecessor.
So judging a rebuilding Mariners squad that saw pitchers and catchers report for spring-training physicals Sunday will have to involve something more sophisticated. And there will be no better place to start than with an offense that scored only 513 runs last season, the lowest total by any club in the designated-hitter era.
“We didn’t have a lot of flexibility going in,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said recently in reference to the team’s payroll limit of about $93.5 million. “And we did some things in some areas where I thought we had some need.”
The offense is where the team needed it most.
Everyone knows the Mariners can count on Felix Hernandez, a Safeco Field ballpark factor and solid glovework behind their remaining pitchers to keep opponents from scoring in droves. But the Mariners will have to start scoring runs if they are ever going to be contenders again.
One year ago, anyone watching the Mariners up close at spring training had to be alarmed at Seattle’s inability to score runs. And so, those watching again this spring will be looking for signs that things will improve. Then, they will also be looking at the seeds of those improvements and whether it is coming via a systematic change, as well as from players who still will be around in 2012 and 2013.
On the systematic front, the Mariners appear to be banking on the theory that a lot of what happened to their offense in 2010 was a result of random bad luck. Seattle made few impact changes on offense this past winter, swapping out Russell Branyan for a more injury-free Jack Cust, while adding Miguel Olivo at catcher.
Other than that, little has changed offensively from the 2010 blueprint that relied on on-base oriented hitters with few proven power guys. The Mariners will hope to generate some added power from first baseman Justin Smoak, left fielder Michael Saunders and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez. But if any two of those bats continue to disappoint, the team risks struggling to push runners around the bases.
As far as exactly who is contributing to any offensive improvement, keeping an eye on the shelf life of the players involved will also be key. If Milton Bradley swats 30 home runs, but then leaves as a free agent once his contract ends next fall, that won’t help the team’s future outlook.
Same with Cust, who is also on a one-year deal.
Safe to say the Mariners would love to see Smoak and Gutierrez step up and become the potential mid-order bats they envision them to be. They’d love to see Saunders hit like he did last July for a period longer than just one month. And for second baseman Dustin Ackley to join the team at some point and demonstrate the quick learning curve he’s had in the minors so far.
The Mariners were so bad in 2010 they could score 100 more runs this year and still be the worst offense in baseball. So for anyone to be convinced of a lasting improvement, any offensive boost will have to be significant.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge, hired in October to replace fired full-time field boss Don Wakamatsu, plans to generate some of that improvement by demanding more accountability. The Mariners wasted far too much energy last season dealing with off-field distractions and Wedge says he’ll make it a priority this spring to get his players focused on performance between the lines.
“You have to have a routine,” Wedge said when hired. “And part of it that’s underestimated is the mental portion of it: your thought process driving to the ballpark, when you get out of the car, opening the door to the parking lot, opening the door to the clubhouse … taking your shirt off and putting your uniform on. Whatever it may be, I want to see that routine. I don’t care if all the routines are different – I hope they are – but there has to be something there, because otherwise we’re flipping a coin. We’re not looking to flip a coin here, people.”
After that, it becomes a talent issue. It likely won’t take long for the Mariners to figure out whether the offensive collapse of 2010 was strictly bad luck, or whether something more profound was at play. There have been theories suggested that the lack of true impact bats throughout the lineup required the Mariners to need too many hits to drive runners home and caused hitters to put extraordinary pressure on themselves.
A natural talent progression for younger hitters such as Smoak, Gutierrez, Saunders and Adam Moore could take care of some of that. But then again, the Mariners were the majors’ worst offensive team in years last season, so a slight improvement just won’t cut it.
So for the team to take a significant leap forward, it might need more than just a progressive talent evolution. For anyone to mention the Mariners as a contender in the distant future, they will likely need one or more of their core players to emerge as the type of impact bat – with both on-base and power ability – that all contending teams tend to have.
Such players tend to eliminate the guesswork. They keep fans from wondering whether their team will ever score again. And they limit words like “luck” in the discussion of whether a team can truly contend.