M’s Second Half Preview: Offense

We’re only at the all-star break and it’s already been a trying season for the Seattle Mariners.

Seattle’s uneven performance through their first 90 games has some fans wondering if the club is drawing closer to meaningful October baseball or taking a step backwards on a seemingly endless journey to postseason glory.

Most observers acknowledge rotation injuries and bullpen inconsistency are behind the Mariners’ lackluster start, but the offense is starting to receive an increasing amount of scrutiny.

About those numbers
On the surface, concerns about run production seem unfounded. Seattle is averaging 4.79 runs scored/game. That’s good enough for sixth best in the American League and not far off the 4.87 runs the club was averaging at the same point last year.

Still, when you break down the Mariners’ run production by month, you see an offense with a Jekyll/Hyde quality to it.

Seattle’s First-Half Run Production
Month W L RS/Gm AL Rank
April 11 15 4.58 4
May 14 14 4.25 13
June 15 12 5.93 2
July 3 6 3.67 14
Season 43 47 4.79 6

Manager Scott Servais has seen his squad blow away the competition by winning 20 games by five-plus runs. Yet, the same roster has been shutout seven times — one more than all of last season. The offense’s inconsistency is attributable to several factors.

Injuries  
Shortstop Jean Segura has been on the disabled list twice thanks to a hamstring strain and high ankle sprain. In total, the 27-year-old missed 30 games due to physical issues in the first half. Fortunately, for the Mariners, Segura’s production didn’t miss beat; he’s the American League leader in batting average.

Rookie Mitch Haniger was torching opposing pitchers before going down with an oblique strain. In 95 plate appearances before his injury in late April, the right-handed hitter had four home runs and a .342/.447/.608 slash. Since returning, the 26-year-old is slashing a meager .216/.315/.361 with three dingers in 111 plate appearances.

Robinson Cano landed on the disabled list with a quad injury in early May, missing 11 games. The veteran second baseman remains hobbled by the injury and owns a non-Cano stat line since his May 23 return — .260/.309/.442.

After missing just six games last year, the incredibly durable Nelson Cruz has already sat out five contests due to calf and knee issues. Although clearly affected by his lingering leg injuries when running the bases, the 37-year-old designated hitter continues to perform at a high level.

Inconsistent performance
Leonys Martin and Mike Zunino struggled so badly in April both landed in Tacoma with the Class-AAA Rainiers by the end of the month.

Martin is still playing in the minors and no longer on the 40-man roster, while Zunino rejoined the big league club in late May and had a career-best month in June — .304/.371/.722 and 10 home runs.

Offseason acquisition Danny Valencia got off to a bad start with his new club and was a potential candidate for designation for assignment (DFA). At least he was in the eyes of the many thoughtful and experienced general managers inhabiting Twitter.

Fortunately, Seattle’s real general manager — Jerry Dipoto — wasn’t a slave to the moment. Valencia is now slashing .273/.335/.420.

Jarrod Dyson was another new Mariner slow out of the gate. In hindsight, some of the left-handed hitter’s early season ineffectiveness was a byproduct of difficulties against southpaws. The 32-year-old is slashing just .140/.229/.140 versus southpaws. Conversely, Dyson is enjoying a robust .282/.362/.441 slash versus righties.

A struggling star
Since becoming a regular in 2012, Kyle Seager has become an integral part of the club’s foundation. Lately though, he’s been the target of angry fans not pleased with his worst start in six years.

Seager’s First Half History
Year PA HR AVG OBP SLG OPS
2012 331 10 .243 .306 .420 .726
2013 407 15 .293 .359 .488 .846
2014 381 15 .279 .350 .493 .843
2015 356 12 .269 .329 .438 .767
2016 378 18 .287 .365 .537 .902
2017 363 10 .248 .320 .404 .723

Certainly, Seager’s first half numbers don’t resemble what we’ve come to expect from the former all-star. He’s currently a below average hitter, which is unacceptable to both fans and the player.

It’s tough to know what exactly is wrong with Seager. Perhaps, the former North Carolina Tar Heel is nursing an injury that’s affecting his performance. He did miss three games in April with hip discomfort, although he’s continued to be superb in the field and slashed .277/.339/.429 during May.

Maybe, Seager is prematurely regressing. That seems a bit far-fetched for a professional athlete in his prime with a reputation for a tireless work ethic and stringent training regime.

Barring an undisclosed physical restriction, the most likely scenario is Seager is simply in the midst of a prolonged slump and destined to bounce back in the second half. The veteran admitted as much when he told Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish he’s searching for the right feel at the plate.

On that note, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill commented during a recent chat with Bob, Groz, and Tom of 710 ESPN Seattle that Seager isn’t hitting the change-up with the same authority as he’s done in the past and pitchers are taking advantage.

Churchill went on to tell the 710 crew, “Seager is a process guy,” who’s likely to figure out his issue whether it’s trouble with the change-up or something else during the all-star break.

Looking forward
For the Mariners to have any chance of being serious contenders, the club will need more consistent run production. As always, the offense’s success is highly dependent on its core — Segura, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

At this point, there’s no reason to doubt whether Segura can sustain his current success at the plate. He may cool off some. Nevertheless, considering the veteran infielder led the National League in hits last season, it’s reasonable to view him as a contender to win the American League batting title.

In light of their recent physical setbacks, keeping Cano and Cruz in the lineup is paramount. They’re the only all-stars on the roster, yet the most visibly banged up. The Mariners may be able to endure a short absence from either player, but losing both would sink the 2017 season.

If Seager rebounds in the second half as Churchill and Mariners management expects, the level of production he delivers is tough to project. To illustrate the basis of my uncertainty, I compiled the following table comparing his production between 2013-15, last season, and 2017.

Seager Production (2013-15) vs 2016 vs 2017
Year BB% SO% HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ fWAR
2013-15 8.2% 16.7% 24 .265 .333 .444 .777 120 4.4
2016 10.2% 16.0% 30  .278 .359 .499 .859 133 5.5
2017 8.7% 16.6% 10 .250 .320 .408 .728 94 1.1

As you can see, Seager had a career year in 2016. Will he produce at a similar level after the all-star break or is he more prone to reproduce offensive numbers resembling 2013-15?

Obviously, anything would be better than what Seager is currently producing, especially in the power department. He’s on pace to hit the fewest home runs in a season since becoming a regular.

Adding more urgency to a Seager rebound is the likelihood several young players will regress to the norm as the season continues. Gamel, Haniger, and Heredia have been revelations, but the trio is destined to scuffle as the league adjusts to them during the dog days of summer.

Haniger is already scuffling, although he still can be a productive bat; just not the world-beater so many fans fell in love with during April. The same applies to both Gamel and Heredia. They’re destined to hit roadblocks, but both are capable of remaining useful pieces in the lineup rotation.

Despite Zunino’s revival since returning from Tacoma, the 26-year-old is going to regress to a more realistic slash line during the second half. Optimally, similar production to last season (.207/.318/.470) would be help Servais’ offense. Time will tell whether that’s a doable do for the backstop.

It’s reasonable to expect Valencia and Dyson will remain near their current stat lines; each is hovering near career norms. Having said that, the duo isn’t capable of offsetting the decline of others.

Room for improvement 
The Mariners enter the second half with a volatile offense capable of either exploding with a double-digit performance or being shut down by a replacement-level starter. There are several ways to help to stabilize productivity.

Ideally, adding a left-handed bat to complement Valencia at first base would help. Not a full-fledged platoon, but someone to reduce the 32-year-old’s exposure to right-handers. There was a time when minor leaguer Dan Vogelbach appeared to be that player, but that doesn’t seem to be the case now.

Continuing to minimize Dyson’s appearance against southpaws would be beneficial. Servais has been pairing the eight-year veteran with the right-handed hitting Heredia in center field.

An upgrade to the utility player spot would help. Taylor Motter got off to a tremendous start and was superb filling in at shortstop during Segura’s April absence. Since then, the 27-year-ol has provided minimal offensive production.

A potential solution could be the return of Shawn O’Malley — last year’s utility man. The switch-hitter has missed the entire season due to shoulder surgery, but he’s currently playing rehab games. The Richland, Washington native’s major league career is comprised of just three seasons and 305 plate appearances, but he’d provide an alternative to Motter.

The only drawback with a potential O’Malley-for-Motter swap is the fact O’Malley has no professional experience at first base and there’s no other experienced replacement to spot Valencia other than Motter.

The Mariners have been working out Gamel at first base prior to games and he has one inning of game experience at the position. Having said that, expecting the 25-year-old to seamlessly transition into a part-time first baseman during the season seems like a stretch.

Finally
Fans hoping Dipoto strikes a major deal to augment the offense are probably going to be disappointed. The second-year general manager is more likely to focus his energy on improving his pitching staff rather than expend limited resources to address the lineup.

In reality, Seattle appears destined to ride out the season with their current cast of position players. Can they propel the club into contention? Sure, but the margin between offensive excellence and mediocrity is paper-thin.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Mariners. Teetering between success and failure has been a recurring theme all season.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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