SEATTLE — Raul Ibanez is crushing homers at a rate better than Barry Bonds or Ted Williams did at age 41, Felix Hernandez has 10 victories at the All-Star break, more than any other time in his career, and young prospects Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino have provided a much-needed spark for the Seattle clubhouse.
And still the Mariners arrived at the All-Star break nine games below .500 at 43-52.
The second half of the season that begins Friday in Houston will have a significant impact on the direction of the franchise. General manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge have contracts that expire at the end of the season, and whether the Mariners can build on recent momentum could affect whether one or both return in 2014.
The Mariners left spring training confident that a .500 record would be attainable this season and prove as a springboard for 2014. But injuries to Michael Morse, Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez and Justin Smoak, combined with early struggles from key younger players like Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero have left Seattle in a hole.
Zduriencik said he doesn’t anticipate being aggressive around the trade deadline, but if the Mariners are completely out of postseason contention by July 31, will players like Morse, Kendrys Morales and Oliver Perez — all on one-year deals — become tradable pieces?
“It would have been nice to be healthy. That would have been fun to watch to see where it took us,” Zduriencik said. “With a lot of the setbacks we had early, it is what it is. It’s part of the game and we’ve had our share.”
Ibanez has been a pleasant surprise. Signed to be a clubhouse leader and occasional bat, Ibanez has 24 homers and 56 RBIs at the break. Twenty-two of his homers have come since May 10, including 10 in June. Williams holds the record for most homers in a season at age 41 with 29.
Ibanez is part of Seattle’s power surge at the plate. They entered the break with homers in 22 straight games and are tied for second in baseball with 115 homers after hitting just 149 all of last year. Throw in the consistency of Kyle Seager, the comeback of Smoak and the electric debuts of Miller and Franklin, and there’s validity to the Mariners optimism for the last two month of the season.
Seager continues to prove he was the real gem of the 2009 draft class for the Mariners. He’s hitting .293 with an .846 OPS. His strikeouts are up slightly, but so are his walks. While he still doesn’t have the power numbers expected from a third baseman — he has 15 homers at the break — he’s been hitting .310 since mid-April after an early slump.
The changes Smoak made first started last summer when he was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma led to a strong September once he was back with the Mariners. Smoak hit just .211 with one homer and five RBIs over the first 26 games in April, but has rediscovered his bat. In his last 42 games, Smoak is hitting .310 with 11 doubles, seven homers, 17 RBIs and .945 OPS. After more than two years of waiting, those are numbers the Mariners will take from their first baseman.
“I think what we’re seeing from him now is probably more real than it’s ever been. … What I think you’re seeing our guys do now is they’re playing tension free, probably more than they ever have,” Wedge said. “In this game, particularly, you have to hit tension free. You have to have everything going on upstairs with your plan and approach, but you have to be able to find that. And I think (Smoak) is as close as he’s ever been.”
Franklin’s confidence, Miller’s old-school style with no batting gloves and stirrups, and Zunino’s defense behind the plate brought youthful excitement in recent weeks and rekindled some hope they can be the anchors of a young core going into next season.
Next season is a familiar refrain for Mariners fans who have slogged through various rebuilding efforts since the last postseason appearance in 2001. Seattle appears close to reaching a competitive plateau, but August and September this year will be telling as to where they are in the process.
“If you look at since those guys have been coming up it’s a whole different feel. It’s a whole different level of athleticism in there and they bring a different attitude,” Seager said. “If you look at all of us we’re all around the same age so it’s a young team but they bring a lot of promise, that’s for sure.”