Mariners must decide if they can contend
An underperforming offense, mixed with dominating pitching, has left the Seattle Mariners at the All-Star break with a surprising record, mixed with a tinge of missed opportunity.
It’s created a murky definition for the 43-48 Mariners who before the year appeared headed for a rough season trying to bridge a troubled past with the promise of young stars and a bright future.
But as the second half begins tonight at home against A.L. West-leading Texas, Seattle faces a balance between taking advantage of its pitching staff and attempting to be a contender, or continuing its youth movement toward 2012.
The final week before the All-Star break could have sealed which direction the Mariners head in the second half, with five straight losses that dropped Seattle 71/2 games back in the division.
They begin the second half with a brutal 13-game stretch – four at home versus Texas, then a road trip to Toronto, Boston and the New York Yankees.
By the time Seattle returns home on July 29, its status should be clearer.
Then again, just using the “contender” phrase associated with the Mariners in a season with no expectations is an accomplishment for first-year manager Eric Wedge.
The surprising success is largely because of a pitching staff that has the second-best ERA in the American League and has tried to make up for the Mariners anemic offense that has seen underperformances by everyone from Chone Figgins and his .183 batting average to a slumping Ichiro Suzuki.
But for all Seattle’s rotation of Felix Hernandez, rookie Michael Pineda, a resurgent Erik Bedard, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister have done, it may not be enough to overcome the team’s offensive problems.
“You want to be able to go out there and give everyone a break from time to time,” Wedge said just before the All-Star break. “I feel we’re going to be a better offensive club in the second half, but the fight has been good. The experience in all these close games is going to come back to help us. Every day is tight. Having the experience of playing those tight games, those tough games emotionally, mentally whatever it is, it’s taxing and these guys have been able to come through and handle it.”
It hasn’t been the easiest first half for Wedge to manage. The Mariners have debuted eight rookies during the first three months and with that can come headaches. The team has also had to deal with substandard performances by some of the veterans.
Troubled outfielder Milton Bradley was sent packing in May. Jack Wilson, despite a $5 million salary, has become a bench player, same with Figgins now after the arrival of third-base prospect Kyle Seager.
Jack Cust, thought to be a possible answer for Seattle’s lacking left-handed pop, has been replaced as the regular designated hitter by a combo of others.
The Mariners might stick around on the fringes a bit longer thanks to its pitching. Hernandez is the reigning A.L. Cy Young Award winner, yet has the fourth-best ERA among Seattle’s starters. Pineda has flashed an arm that makes fans dream of Hernandez and Pineda at the top of a dominant staff for years to come. Fister is just 3-10, but has a 3.09 ERA, while Vargas already has thrown four complete games. All five Seattle starters have sub-3.50 ERAs.
In the bullpen, Brandon League stepped into the closer role and became an All-Star with 23 saves in the first half.
“I’m close, but I’ve been inconsistent. I throw one game good then one OK. I’ve got to be more consistent and just try to do what I did last year,” Hernandez said.
Much of the final 21/2 months will focus on the development of second baseman Dustin Ackley, first baseman Justin Smoak, Seager and outfielders Greg Halman and Carlos Peguero.
Just 20 games into his major league career, Ackley might already be the Mariners’ best hitter with a .304 average and three homers. Smoak endured a two-month slump but has flashed a bat that made him the centerpiece of what Seattle acquired from Texas in exchange for Cliff Lee last summer. Seager rolled through the minor league system needing just a handful of games at Triple-A before getting promoted.
Just what Seattle does at the trade deadline could be determined in the next week. Make a push and perhaps general manager Jack Zduriencik tries to acquire some offense. Continue to struggle and some pieces may be shipped out.
Most speculation has centered on the comeback of Bedard, a pleasant surprise after missing most of the past two seasons with shoulder trouble. But he recently found himself on the disabled list with a sprained knee. He’s only on a one-year contract and could have some significant suitors as July progresses if he can get back on the mound.
Beyond that, there might not be much Zduriencik can do without potentially tapping too much into the Mariners’ long-term plans.
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