When I served in the Navy, I had the privilege of working with a superb aircraft maintenance officer and a dynamic leader who was simply known throughout Naval Aviation as “Big John.” On one particular occasion the unit that I was leading had endured a series of discouraging events, but we eventually bounced back and succeeded when it really mattered.
When I talked to John about the difficulties leading up to our eventual success, he simply said that you “can’t argue with results.” John’s philosophy was simple – all that matters is the outcome of your actions, not the preceding build-up or talk. This philosophy applies to all professions and certainly to the Seattle Mariners, who have underachieved this season.
With about 35-percent of the season completed, Seattle – once again – can’t effectively produce runs. The team ranks 29 out of 30 major league teams in runs-per-game – only the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies are worse. Think about that for a moment; the Mariners run-production is worse than the output of 14 National League teams – who permit their pitchers to hit. Throw in the slowest start of perennial all-star Robinson Cano’s career and you’re left with an underachieving offense and a frustrated fan base.
Many – including me – believed that the Mariners had a realistic shot to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001 after they reloaded their offense during the offseason. The biggest move was the signing of slugger Nelson Cruz, who hasn’t disappointed – so far. Cruz’s arrival along with the acquisitions of veterans Justin Ruggiano, Seth Smith, and Rickie Weeks signaled that the team knew that they needed to bolster an offense that had languished near the bottom of the league during the previous five seasons.
The arrival of proven players weren’t the only factor that fueled higher-than-usual expectations. Fans maintained a relatively reasonable expectation that Austin Jackson would bounce back from a disappointing 2014 and that their young players – Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Chris Taylor, Mike Zunino – would incrementally improve from their 2014 performances. Miller and Morrison have been productive, but, there isn’t enough historical data to gauge whether either will continue to perform for the remainder of the season and Taylor and Zunino have scuffled at the plate.
Although their recent offensive drought is not indicative of the talent on the roster, the team has not delivered results and will likely continue to struggle with run-production even after the current drought ends. Jackson is showing signs that he’s returning to his career norms at the plate and it’s reasonable to expect that Kyle Seager, Jackson, Smith, Trumbo, and Weeks will perform at career norms, if utilized properly. However, Cruz is due for a cool down – his career numbers say so – and there’s no other clear-cut candidate for a strong second half other than Cano.
With that reality staring them in the face, the team made several moves designed to help kick-start the offense, although it’s debatable if the changes will actually help their overall production. First, Seattle added slugging outfielder/first baseman Mark Trumbo a week ago. Then, they designated Ruggiano last Friday in order to make room for back-up catcher Jesus Sucre, who had been assigned to Class-AAA Tacoma. General Manager Jack Zduriencik explained the move – which included sending back-up catcher Welington Castillo to Arizona – and the team’s designation of Ruggiano for assignment on The Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan.
The team’s decision to designate Ruggiano for assignment was mildly surprising. As I’ve stated previously, waiving a right-handed hitter who could play all three outfield positions instead of Ackley or Weeks hurt the Mariners. Replacing Ackley and/or Weeks with Trumbo in the field is an improvement albeit a small one. The 29-year-old primarily played right field for Arizona and his .303 OBP at the position was below the league-average for that position (.324). Is he a better option than Ackley and Weeks? Absolutely! But, this was a small improvement for the struggling offense.
It’s not just Trumbo’s limitations that are unsettling to a fan base hoping for meaningful October baseball. The loss of the offensively-orientated Castillo as back-up for starting catcher Mike Zunino is counter-intuitive for a team needing more offense and power. When discussing the acquisition of the right-handed hitting catcher in May, Zduriencik himself stated that “he has the ability to hit, and he’s got power.” Now, the team has returned to the weak-hitting Sucre.
Unless the team falls completely out of contention, they will likely make more deals to improve the roster. Based on the available resources within the Mariners’ system and their trading history, it’s highly improbable that any blockbuster deals will be made by the July 31 trading deadline. In reality, this team is – at best – looking at incremental improvements.
Until those acquisitions arrive, most of the answers will have to come from the team’s 40-man roster. I believe that there are several personnel moves and strategies that the team can do today with the resources under their control that would – at least – slightly improve their outlook. My suggestions are “limited” solutions because the replacements being suggested are just that – limited. But, the changes are doable by the team and should be done sooner than later while Zduriencik works the trade market and waiver wire.
Replace Dustin Ackley with James Jones
This move would provide an upgrade – but not a long-term fix – to an abysmal situation. Although the left-handed hitting Jones has significantly less power than Ackley, he’d be an offensive upgrade over the 2015-version of Ackley and he’d provide something that Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon seems to crave – a true base stealing threat. He’s successfully stolen 15 bases and has only been caught three times at Class-AAA Tacoma – the Mariners have 24 stolen bases as a team.
The left-handed Jones has posted a .275/.365/.394 triple slash – batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage against right-handed pitchers as a Rainier this year. The 26-year-old may not be able to reproduce those numbers in the majors, but his .251/.280/.309 slash against southpaws as a Mariner last season suggest that he wouldn’t be much worse than Ackley’s .259/.310/.442 output against lefties in 2014.
Deploy the Brad Miller/Chris Taylor tandem
No, removing Miller from shortstop is not the answer. Although he’s had his defensive lapses, he’s not a bad defender. His .714 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) ranks third in the American League among shortstops with more than 180 plate appearances. Miller is a far superior hitter against right-handed hitting as evidenced by his .254/.347/.469 slash. Having a right-handed platoon mate would help the team. That’s why I’ve previously suggested the tandem of the left-handed Miller and right-handed Taylor, who delivered a combined value of 2.8 wins-above-replacement (WAR) in 2014– which ranked sixth among all American League shortstops.
Despite Taylor’s difficulties during his brief stay in Seattle, the 24-year-old performed well against left-handed pitching with a .364/.417/.636 slash. Granted it’s small sample size. But, he did post a .276/.354/.345 slash against southpaws during 66 plate appearances in 2014. Returning the right-handed bat of Taylor from Class-AAA Tacoma would be a good addition and he’d provide more athleticism and better defense than the current back-up shortstop – Willie Bloomquist.
Replace Rickie Weeks with Justin Ruggiano
The Mariners should pull Ruggiano off of waivers and part ways with Weeks. Once again, this is a move with limited implications that is neither an indictment of Weeks nor an endorsement of Ruggiano as a long-term solution. The skill set of Trumbo replaces most of the value that Weeks potentially provided to the team and leaves the 32-year-old more expendable than the right-handed Ruggiano who can play all three outfield positions.
Play Trumbo at first base against southpaws
Morrison’s numbers – .200/.254/.218 – against lefties in 2015 make Trumbo a better option against left-handed pitching, plus resting “Lo Mo” – a player with an injury history – from time-to-time makes sense. This strategy isn’t exactly rocket-science, but it’ll help the offense and rest an every day player at the same time.
Stop trying high-risk base stealing attempts
It didn’t take a big brain to come up with this idea either. To date, the Mariners’ 53-percent base stealing success rate is the lowest in the American League and they’re tied with the Detroit Tigers with the most runners (23) caught stealing. The Tigers are able to withstand the runners caught stealing because they enjoy an on-base percentage that’s forty points higher than Seattle and they’ve put 239 more base runners on base than than the Mariners. Losing a significant number of base runners in high-risk situations is something that the offensively-challenged Mariners can ill-afford.
The outcome of the moves I’ve suggested won’t guarantee a winning record, but they would make the team more athletic and provide a slight uptick in offensive capability. As Big John plainly stated, results are inarguable and the Mariners’ results are inadequate. It’s clear that the strategy of juggling a line-up of the usual suspects won’t solve this team’s woes at the plate. Each day that passes with the current “status quo” roster diminishes the team’s hopes of realistically jumping back into the Wild Card conversation, let alone the American League West race.