They’re winning when nobody thought they would. Not the analysts, not the numbers guys, not the fans, not even the most optimistic of Kool-Aid drinkers. The Mariners are defying the odds by winning ballgame after ballgame, and in the process maintaining an iron-clad grip on first place in the American League West.
If they’re going to make a run at the playoffs and keep on winning throughout the summer, they’re going to need to tweak a few things along the way. We’ve come up with three big areas of concern that need to be addressed by the Seattle brass if this team intends to continue the ride all season long.
1. Consistent starting pitching, one-through-five. Right now, the Mariners have three consistent starting pitchers in the forms of Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, and Jarrod Washburn. They also have two very inconsistent slots in that five-man rotation in the forms of Carlos Silva, and the fifth-starter tandem of Chris Jakubauskas and the currently injured Ryan Rowland-Smith.
If the M’s expect to win, they’re going to need to fill out their rotation with performers that, win or lose, can capably toss six-plus innings per start and chip away at the innings load.
Obviously, the biggest concern here is Silva. We expect him to give up anywhere between about four and six runs in fewer than five innings of work per start. He’s neither eating innings, nor keeping opponents at bay in the scoring department. If he can’t turn his season around, the Mariners will need to relegate him to the bullpen or place him on the disabled list, and in turn go a different direction in their rotation.
Also key is the health of the big three, in Hernandez, Washburn, and Bedard, as well as the continued maturation of Jakubauskas, who appears to have laid claim to the fifth starter’s spot, at least for now.
So what’s the solution? If you harken back to 1995 for a minute, you’ll remember that the M’s made two key starting pitching acquisitions in the second half of the season, obtaining right-handers Tim Belcher and Andy Benes. At the same time, they also handed the reins to a baby-faced rookie in 20-year-old Bob Wolcott, another right-hander who was entrusted to take the hill in key games throughout the playoffs and at the end of the regular season.
A rookie at 30 years of age, Jakubauskas may be this year’s Wolcott (despite the age difference), so long as he can eliminate mistakes and continue to force ground ball outs on opposing hitters.
Silva, should he not be able to turn it around, will have to be replaced by a veteran, as the M’s have little to no starting pitching depth in their minor league system. That would mean taking a guy like Jeff Clement, perhaps, and swapping him for a proven major league starter. We’ll see where that road takes us.
2. Find a closer. Teams that approach the ninth inning by committee typically don’t have success down the stretch or in the playoffs. Just ask the New York Mets, who have been faced with that very problem in each of the past two years.
Brandon Morrow is a closer who can’t stay healthy, and is completely unreliable if he can’t go on back-to-back nights. He may best be suited to a setup role, which is unfortunate based on his lofty draft status and superfluous talent, but is simply the nature of the beast.
If Morrow’s not the ninth-inning answer, the Mariners may not have an answer for that void on their current roster. David Aardsma throws hard, but hasn’t shown that he can slam the door on opponents. He, too, projects better as a setup man. Same for Shawn Kelley (lack of experience), Roy Corcoran (currently battling injury and control issues), and Miguel Batista (just flat-out not good enough), who would be the next most logical choices to take that role.
The M’s do have 2008 first-round pick Josh Fields throwing in the minors. Fields was drafted as a closer, and was exclusively used in that capacity at the University of Georgia. He could be ready to go as soon as June, barring injury or setback.
Two other intriguing possibilities are Jeff Zimmerman and Chad Cordero, both throwing in Peoria at extended Spring Training. Both pitchers have major league closing experience, and Cordero was one of the elite closers in the game just a few short years ago. Neither one of these guys throws as hard as Morrow or Fields, but both have the mentality to step right in and fill a big need in the M’s bullpen.
3. Middle-of-the-order production. In reality, it’s not as bad as it seems. Media pundits would have you believe that the Mariners big boppers are absolutely screwing the pooch right now, but that’s not the case. Outside of Ken Griffey, Jr. (.190 batting average/.338 on base percentage/.317 slugging percentage) and Adrian Beltre (.216/.250/.284), the rest of the Mariners sluggers aren’t horrible by any means.
Jose Lopez has a line of .272/.317/.370, with two home runs and a team-high 17 RBI.
Mike Sweeney is producing to the tune of .292/.346/.417, which trumps Griffey’s production from the left-hand side of that DH platoon.
And then there’s Russell Branyan, who is quickly turning into the steal of the ’08-’09 free agency class. The M’s new first baseman is knocking the ball around at a .324/.395/.648 clip, to go with a team-high six home runs, as well as 14 RBI. Branyan also leads the team in total bases, at 46, though likewise paces the club in strikeouts, with 19. So it’s not all good.
That said, the Branyan and Sweeney tandem will likely slow down at some point, and you would have to imagine that Junior and Beltre would begin to pick it up. Lopez is about on par with what we can expect throughout the season, so we shouldn’t anticipate too big of a change either way from him.
The fact of the matter is, if the Mariners continue to produce runs through that middle part of the order the way they currently are, it won’t be good enough to sustain this team throughout the dog days of summer. The team can afford slight regressions in the performance of Branyan, Sweeney, and Lopez, so long as Beltre and Griffey really step it up and perform to the numbers more indicative of their past history.
Will it happen? We have to hope so, and with Beltre and in a contract year and Griffey simply in a slump right now, you have to like the chances of that occurring.
If not, the M’s will be forced to make a move nearing the trade deadline and obtain a big hitter to rejuvenate this team through the second half.