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Mariners could use a little James Jones’ door rattling

Art Thiel

The pending              call-up of Nick Franklin, the Mariners’ IOW (infielder/ outfielder/what- ever), comes at an intriguing juncture in the season. It can be said that a third of the starting lineup from Opening Day isn’t functioning.

Yet if the Mariners (21-22) can snag a couple this week in Texas from the injury-blistered Rangers (21-23), they will remain a .500 team despite a slugging percentage from Robinson Cano that trails former Yankees teammate Ichiro (.424 to .406). Remarkable.

The inability of shortstop Brad Miller to hit; the inability of Abraham Almonte to hit and field; the inability of designated hitter Corey Hart to run (destined for the disabled list after pulling a hamstring Sunday stealing a base … that’s like a race-car driver crashing while texting); and the inability of Cano to hit for power, means Mariners’ general manager Jack Zduriencik’s plans for 2014 success are closing in on a full 52-card pickup.

Because signing Cano was a win-now proposition, Zduriencik seems to have done a poor job of priority No. 1: Supplementing Cano with new and better hitters before the 2014 season.

At 339, the Mariners have the fewest hits in the American League. The team’s DH batting average is .188, worst in the A.L. by a cool 26 points, and its on-base percentage is .281, a point better than last-place Kansas City.

After the failure to force-feed Almonte the leadoff spot and center field, the Mariners finally bounced him down to AAA. Until now, they have clung stubbornly to Miller in his more perplexing flop after a stellar spring. But if his presumptive replacement, Franklin, can reach the offensive heights of former Mariners shortstop Brandan Ryan, that would be about a 50-point improvement from Miller’s .154 batting average.

And while Hart has supplied a little pop with five home runs, he’s down to  a .209 average and .647 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). His hamstring injury, as with an injury to Logan Morrison (remember him?), are bad for them individually but probably an opportunity for the Mariners to jamesjones the position.

You haven’t heard the verb jamesjones? That is the new term for when a team that doesn’t know what it is doing with personnel gets lucky.

The replacement for Almonte in center and at the top of the lineup, rookie James Jones is already in the record books with a powerful name from Mariners history. He and Edgar Martinez are the club’s only players to hit safely in each of their first 10 big league starts.

No one is predicting a similar career arc yet. But in 15 games, Jones has a .326 BA and .861 OPS and with his speed, gets to most balls that would be expected of an average MLB center fielder. And as a pitcher for much of his college career, he has the arm for center.

A 6-foot-4, 200-pound lefty from Brooklyn and Long Island University, Jones isn’t completely an out-of-nowhere story, because he was taken in the fourth round of the 2009 draft and made steady progress in the Mariners system. But at 25, he was on no one’s hot-prospect list and in 2013 played only four games at AAA Tacoma.

A noteworthy spring training, however,  suggested to the bosses they might have a guy on the short list who could be … adequate at the MLB level. Remember this is the Mariners; even after 38 seasons, we’re still talking about baby steps.

He caught the eye of new manager Lloyd McClendon. Of course, so did Almonte. But for reasons still unclear, Almonte was given the job out of spring. Hindsight suggests that was a waste of time.

“He’s a pretty interesting young man,” McClendon told reporters at spring training about Jones. “He’s very talented and I really like what I’ve seen. I don’t think he’s going to knock on the door, I think he’s going to knock the door down when he’s ready to get there.”

After a three-game callup in April, Jones replaced Almonte May 5. The sample size is too small – remember that Miller and Franklin looked good in their first trips around in 2013 before the scouting reports caught up to them – to say whether the door is knocked down. But a few screws are loose.

Normally, that’s not a good thing to say around the Mariners. But we’ll run with it in McClendon’s context for now.

Which brings us to Franklin, who lost second base to the Cano hire and the shortstop job to Miller’s hot spring. Franklin’s name was popular in some trade talks, but the Mariners put on him a higher value than did the market, so nothing happened. Perhaps the Mariners, who have dabbled with Franklin in the outfield, caught another break.

Rather than pout – the fear was genuine, given his immature cockiness that borders on annoying – Franklin in 30 games in Tacoma is hitting .376 with seven homers and 26 RBIs.

No one is foolish enough to impose those numbers from the hit-happy Pacific Coast League on Franklin’s pending trial with the Mariners. But in 102 big-league games a year ago, he finished with .225, six homers and 45 RBIs. Given that the shortstop position so far has hit .166 for the Mariners, a mere repeat of ’13 will make him seem like a young Cal Ripken.

Speaking of young, Franklin, who was drafted out of high school, is 23 and just swallowed a bellyful of humility from his (temporary) fall from grace. If that experience inspires a more mature approach in his second rise to the bigs, imagine, if you dare, the possibilities here.

The other younger position players – catcher Mike Zunino, first baseman Justin Smoak, third baseman Kyle Seager, left fielder Dustin Ackley and right fielder Michael Saunders – have all shown in the season’s first quarter at least glimpses of their potential to be major-league-average players. If Jones and Franklin are fixes, not patches, for the two leaky positions – understand, those are big ifs –  consider what might happen if Cano hits a second home run this season. Or a third. Or a 24th.

The Mariners reached .500 ball with 39 lineups in 43 games and a pitching staff that at times has resembled a cat after hitting full-speed a sliding-glass door.

Is it asking of this group too much to shake it off and go 65-54 the rest of the way? Hell, bring back Kendrys Morales to DH.

Seattle baseball fans are entitled to a little jamesjonesing, even if they – and the Mariners front office – didn’t know that was what was needed.

Art Thiel is a columnist for sportspressnw.

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