The Seattle Mariners, as currently constructed in the AL West, sit a miserable 16.5 games out of 1st place in their division and they are 10 out in the Wild Card race, possessing the worst record in the American League at 36-51. They once again are last in the American League in runs scored, having only mustered an anemic 3.87 per game, making Seattle the only team on the junior circuit scoring less than 4 per game. This is a problem, because this puts Seattle on a pace to finish last in the AL in runs scored for the 3rd consecutive year, and there doesn’t appear to be much hope on the horizon, because the youngsters who were supposed to turn the M’s offense around have already arrived, and they have hardly made a dent. What can Seattle do? They haven’t made the playoffs since 2001 and have only had 2 winning seasons since in the last 10 years. This is a team stuck in mediocrity and with division rivals Texas and Los Angeles at the peak of their success cycles, it looks like a very long road to the top for the Mariners. Should they trade off what they have and try to start over again, or should they keep the course and hope that this is a learning year for many of their young players? Let’s take a look, staring with 1st baseman Justin Smoak.
Out of the 22 qualifying 1st basemen, Justin Smoak ranks dead last in OPS at .597 which wouldn’t even be league average for a shortstop, and he plays a position where offensive production is expected. He now has over 1200 plate appearances in his career, and is a .220/.302/.370 hitter with 39 homers and 137 RBI. Smoak also strikes out more than the average hitter (21% of his total plate appearances) and walks at a below average rate (7.9% of plate appearances; ML average is around 10%).
If you throw all 1st basemen, including backups, into the mix, Smoak fairs even worse. He’s 46th among all 1st basemen in batting average, 47th in slugging, and 49th in getting on base, which basically means the Mariners could put any other team’s backup in and get similar, if not better production (numbers courtesy of Jerry Brewer, Seattle Times). Smoak is only 25, so there may be a slight chance that he improves, but it’s more likely that this is the player he is going to be: a light-hitting 1st baseman who doesn’t get on base enough to make up for his lack of power. I don’t think he’s ever going to improve to major league average even so it should be time for Seattle to look elsewhere and consider the return from the Cliff Lee trade in 2010 a lost cause.
Where should Seattle look? Well the Mariners should start by looking behind the plate, where Jesus Montero is making it painfully obvious that he does not have the tools to be a full-time, above-average defensive catcher. Montero has only thrown out 6 base runners in 31 attempts good for a 19% caught stealing rate, well below the league average of 27%. One could imagine the division rival Angels with Mike Trout having a field day, turning walks and singles into doubles and triples off of Montero’s average arm and his slow rise from the catching position into the throwing position. The Mariners also spent their 1st round pick (3rd overall) on Mike Zuzino, a catcher with a strong defensive reputation from the University of Florida, and the team would probably like to keep him behind the plate for 130-140 games a year. Montero could back up the other 20-30 games at catcher, play 1st some, and DH a little bit.
Montero came over from the New York Yankees after a strong September showing where he hit .328/.406/.556 with 4 homers an 12 RBI in 69 plate appearances. Montero adored the short right field porch in Yankee stadium, hitting 3 of his 4 homers into the Bleacher Creatures, and he has struggled to adjust to Safeco Field. He’s only hitting .245/.281/.376 with 8 homers and 28 RBI, not quite what was expected from the highly touted prospect. The good news is that Montero is only 22 and has plenty of time to adjust and to work on some of the more obvious flaws in his game.
The biggest hole in Montero’s offensive game currently is his approach at the plate. Montero walks far too infrequently for a hitter with his kind of big power ability, and a lot of that is his own fault. Montero has a tendency to swing at pitches outside of the zone. Montero is only walking in 4.8% of his plate appearances, a terrible rate for any major league player, and is striking out nearly a quarter of the time (23% of his plate appearances).
Montero could stand to be a little more patient at the plate, because he swings at the first pitch 39% of the time, 12% more than the average major league hitter. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because Josh Hamilton, hitter extraordinaire, has swung at 49% of first pitches this year and throughout his career he has done it about 45% of the time. Montero will probably never have the raw power Hamilton has however, and will probably have to learn to do a better job of working counts. He’s only 22 this season, so the Mariners still have plenty of time to groom him to be a middle-of-the-order force and a perennial All-Star. Look for him to have a better 2nd half of the season.
Another struggling young hitter for the Mariners is Dustin Ackley. Ackley was expected by many, including myself, to have a breakout season after a strong showing during his rookie year that saw him put up a 120 OPS+ despite playing in an offensive black hole. Ackley has been nearly the same player he was during his rookie year, walking at a decent clip while striking out a little to much, but has seen his BABIP drop and his extra base hits disappear. Ackley because of his talent is also a decent rebound candidate in the 2nd half of the season, and should be a nice player for the Mariners going forward.
The rest of the Mariner offense doesn’t look to hold much promise this season or in any future ones. Brendan Ryan is considered the best Mariner player in terms of WAR at 2.7 this season, but he’s only hitting .187/.287/.276 in over 250 plate appearances, the worst triple slash line for a starting shortstops in baseball. His total WAR is probably another case of a player’s defense being considered a little to much in comparison to his overall level of play. Chone Figgins has been a disaster again posting worse numbers than Ryan at .186/.245/.276. An offense can barely survive one black hole this size and the Mariners are playing with they are starting to tear the team apart. Minor league shortstop Nick Franklin looks promising, ranking in the top-50 and top-100 in multiple prospect rankings and he hit well in Double-A hitting over .300. Franklin has struggled since being promoted to Triple-A, which is normal for most hitters. The Mariners would do well to bring Franklin up to gain some valuable experience in September.
Otherwise the offense in the minor league system looks bleak. No other Mariner hitter ranks in the top-100 in any of the major prospect ranking systems, which is the biggest problem Seattle faces. They figure to have some talented arms coming through the ranks, including Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxon, but that means little to a team that turns every opposing starting pitcher into Justin Verlander or Roy Halladay each night out. Seattle currently ranks dead last in the AL in OBP, OPS, slugging, and 2nd to last in total bases and batting average. Those rankings aren’t going to change without some major improvements, and that brings me to my overall point:
The Mariners NEED to trade Felix Hernandez. If they want to hold onto him for the rest of the season that’s fine, but they should trade him in the off-season if that’s the case.
The reasoning behind trading Hernandez is this: If Michael Pineda can bring back a top-10 rated prospect after only 1 year of being slightly better than major league average, King Felix will bring back a King’s ransom. The Mariners could easily pull 2-3 top level offensive prospects off a pitching-needy team at the trade deadline, which would kick start the rebuilding process (again), and make the franchise more competitive sooner. And Hernandez probably won’t even be on the next competitive Seattle team because he’s going to command a huge contract on the open market, and will probably want to sign with a contender after a career of losing in Seattle. The Mariners should try to get the largest return they can on Felix, Ichiro, and anything else that won’t help the team win in 2014-2015, because with Texas and Los Angeles firmly entrenched atop the AL West, and Houston moving over to the division next season, things are only going to get more difficult.