What’s ailing Mariners’ lineup?


The Seattle Mariners have a 15-17 record after their first 32 games – which happens to be the 20-percent mark of their 2015 season – and it’s been a bumpy ride for a team that was projected to be a serious World Series contender by many national pundits. With such a small sample size of data, it’s still too early to put much credence into the statistical aspect of the team’s struggles. With that said, comparing a 20-percent sample against a player’s career history may help clarify a fan’s expectations for the team in 2015.

The main contributor for distress among the Mariners’ fan base has been the team’s offensive production – their four runs-per-game average (R/G) is ranked twelfth in the American League. Many pundits and fans alike believed that adding the bats of Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Rickie Weeks to complement holdovers Robinson Cano, Austin Jackson, Logan Morrison, and Kyle Seager would help the team climb above the league-average mark in R/G, which currently stands at 4.39. So, what’s the problem with this team’s lineup?

Heart-of-the-order
The three-through-six spots have a combined .825 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS), which is second-only to the Kansas City Royals in the American League. Granted, it helped having a clean-off hitter – Cruz – producing at such a torrid rate while Cano, Seager, and Morrison under-performed during April. But, there are signs of a turnaround from the trio.

During the last 11 games, Cano has a .326/.375/.395 triple slash– batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage – while Morrison is at .300/.404/.775 with five home runs during the same time-frame. Seager’s numbers are still below expectations, although his .244 batting average is actually one point higher than his 2014 average after 32 games. Since Seager has a proven track record, there’s no reason for alarm about the all-star third baseman so early in the season. The bottom line is that the middle-of-the-order will be fine. The rest of the batting order, however, isn’t getting the job done.

Rest of the bunch
The top two spots and last three spots in the batting order have combined for an anemic .217/.274/.358, which is well below the league-average of .252/.316/.396 for all players. Having such a tremendous drop-off in production in the five consecutive spots after Morrison isn’t acceptable for a team with postseason aspirations.

During the first 20-percent of the season, the only constant to the lineup has been the positions held by Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Morrison. The other five spots have varied from game-to-game as manager Lloyd McClendon has attempted to find the right mix of players. Since the line-up has been in a state of flux, let’s look at the team’s offense position-by-position rather than line-up spots. I’m forgoing a review of the positions held by Cano, Cruz, Seager, and Morrison since I’ve already discussed these players.

Note: the numbers in parenthesis next to each position are the cumulative statistics for every player who has played the position, while they were playing the position. Individual statistics encompass a player’s total production regardless of position played.

Left field (.209/.285/.327)
Dustin Ackley (.198/.221/.346) has been the primary left fielder with Weeks (.196/.317/.333) getting the second most plate appearances.  Ackley, who has a reputation for slow starts and being a streaky hitter throughout his four-year career, is off to another extremely slow start again. He’s been used primarily against right-handers and that hasn’t helped his performance at the plate. There’s not much left to say about the left-handed hitter. His numbers are not commensurate with those of a major-league starter.

Weeks’ overall numbers don’t look very good, although he’s done his job during 25 at-bats against left-handed pitching – two home runs and .320/.393/.600. Conversely, he hasn’t performed well during his limited appearances against right-handed pitching with only two hits in 26 at-bats for a .077 batting average. If he were playing more often against righties, his batting average would likely resemble the .227 he posted against righties between 2012 and 2014.

Designated hitter (.207/.273/.414)
Although Cruz has been entrenched in right field lately, he’s only two plate appearances behind Smith’s team-leading 43 at designated hitter. The left-handed hitting Smith, who has also spent time in left and right field, is performing as expected. He’s playing nearly exclusively against right-handed pitching and is delivering numbers very similar to what he did in 2014 with the San Diego Padres. Smith, like Weeks, is doing what he was brought to do – perform well as a platoon player.

Center field (.231/.291/.346)
This is a unique situation to examine since the player with the bulk of playing time – Austin Jackson – is on the disabled list. Last year, Jackson struggled tremendously after being traded to the Mariners on July 31. Although his 2015 numbers are better than what he posted as a Mariner last season, he’s only batting .229 against right-handers compared to .280 against southpaws.

Ruggiano has been given an opportunity to play more often since Jackson injured his ankle on May 3. With that said, the sample size of Ruggiano’s performance is still very small – only Willie Bloomquist, Chris Taylor, and Jesus Sucre have fewer plate appearances. Considering that the 33-year-old owns a career .266 batting average in 466 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, the right-handed hitting outfielder deserves more time and opportunities to demonstrate his value to the team.

It’s likely that Jackson will resume patrolling center field once he returns from the disabled list, which may be as early as next week. His ability to hit right-handed pitching will be worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

Shortstop (.236/.281/.330)
Shortstop is another unique situation because the team has recently transitioned from Brad Miller to Chris Taylor, who was recalled from Class-AAA Tacoma on May 3. Consequently, it’s too early to judge Taylor with such a small sample size of career major league playing time. The apparent reason for moving on from Miller at shortstop were his defensive lapses. Despite his  issues with the glove, the left-handed hitter has performed superbly against righties with a .282/.350/.451 triple slash. Conversely, he’s hitting a paltry .095 against left-handers.

The team has openly discussed using Miller as a super-utility player much in the vein of Bloomquist. It’s unclear if Seattle will send the left-handed hitting infielder to Class-AAA Tacoma to learn the outfield or have the 25-year-old learn on-the-job with the Mariners. It’s likely that Seattle’s path with Miller will become clearer when a roster space needs to be opened for Jackson next week.

Catcher (.171/.235/.343)
Due to the importance of the position from a defensive standpoint– blocking balls in the dirt, throwing out runners, calling games – under-performing with the bat is far easier to accept than at other positions. Both Mike Zunino and his back-up, Sucre, are performing superbly behind the plate even if their performance with the bat leaves much to be desired in 2015.

Zunino, who has appeared in every game, has caught 247.2 of the 288.2 innings that Seattle has played in 2015 and has been the target of many frustrated fans due to his poor offensive production in April. Sucre is doing even worse with limited playing time – one hit and no walks during 14 plate appearances.

In May, Zunino’s bat has been showing signs of life (.294/.333/.618). But, his improvement is based on an extremely small sample size and, unlike Seager, Cano, and other veterans, the 25-year-old’s career numbers reflect offensive struggles. Regardless of Zunino’s challenges, the team can withstand poor offense from this position as long the rest of the order is performing.

Utility player (.200/.231/.200)
The lone player in this section is Bloomquist, who only has 26 plate appearances during twelve games in 2015. It’s hard to expect the Puget Sound native to be productive when he’s used so sparingly. During his three years in Arizona prior to returning to the Seattle, he posted an impressive .289/.328/.368 triple slash, including a .278 batting average during 558 at bats against right-handed pitching. Depending on he’s used, the 37-year-old could provide value to the team.

The replacements
So, who at Tacoma can help the Mariners? There are several names that continue to get bandied about by the media and fans alike. It’s important to note that minor-league replacements share a unique status with back-up quarterbacks; they’re trendy during bad times and generally not as good as the incumbent. Otherwise, they’d be starting. Despite the usually overinflated status that replacements generally hold with a team’s fan base, it’s appropriate to at least discuss the Mariners’ replacement options in Tacoma.

Jesús Montero (.336/.356/.500)
The mercurial former catcher and current Rainiers’ first baseman/designated hitter lost a significant amount of weight during the offseason and appears to taken a more serious approach to being a professional baseball player. The result of his transformation has been impressive numbers against both left and right-handed minor league pitching, although the right-handed hitter is striking out nearly twice as often against righties. It’s a small sample size, but Montero has demonstrated glimpses of the offensive potential that motivated Seattle to trade Michael Pineda to get the 25-year-old. If he were to be called up, he could fill roles as either a designated hitter or first baseman against tough left-handers.

Franklin Gutiérrez (.324/.457/.554)
The 32-year-old former Mariner has been performing superbly with Tacoma in 2015. As always with Gutiérrez, his ability to stay on the field has been the primary issue. So far, the right-handed hitter has demonstrated the ability to play multiple consecutive days, which has been the main concern of the Mariners in recent years. “Guti” is no longer the center fielder who was once described by the late Dave Niehaus as “Death to Flying Things.” Now, he’s primarily a left fielder and an occasional designated hitter. Gutiérrez would likely be a good fit in Seattle if they need to make a change at designated hitter and or need help in left field. Playing the latter would be predicated on his much-maligned durability.

James Jones (.271/.316/.343)
The 26-year-old was slowed by a concussion early in the season and has only appeared in 19 of the team’s 33 games. Jones spent over half of 2014 with the Mariners before the team’s acquisition of Jackson. During his time with the big-league club, the left-handed hitting center fielder struggled equally against both righties and lefties. Despite his difficulties with getting on base, he led the team with 27 stolen bases during just 108 games and he already has stolen eight bases this year. If Jones were to demonstrate that he could consistently hit right-handed pitching, he could provide the Mariners with several intriguing options, such as being part of a platoon in left or center field.

Ketel Marte (.346/.384/.419)
Just over a year ago, Prospect Insider founder and co-host of the Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090 The Fan, Jason A. Churchill, discussed the ascension of the 21-year-old switch-hitting infielder in great detail. Since then, Marte has continued to establish himself as an offensive table-setter – he’s played in all 33 games, stolen 12 bases, and leads the Pacific Coast League with 44 hits. The issue with Marte continues to be his defense. Until the call-up of Taylor, he was splitting his time between second base and shortstop and has already registered four errors at shortstop in 24 games and one at second base in 12 games. That follows 31 errors in 2014 and five errors during 58.2 Spring Training innings. Since Taylor has been in place for just over a week, I’d expect Marte to remain a Rainier and work on improving his glove work.

It’s important to note that all of the potential replacement players – with the exception of Taylor who was injured during Spring Training – weren’t ready or able to beat out the incumbents with the big-league club just six weeks ago. So, it’s tough to accept that 33 games of minor-league play suddenly makes these players better options than the players with the Mariners.

What’s next?
Adding a player from Tacoma sounds easy until it’s time to choose the player to remove from the 25-man roster. The first hard choice comes next week, assuming Jackson stays on track to return on time. The most likely candidates would be Miller, Bloomquist, and Ackley for varying reasons.

Miller, as mentioned earlier, is in state of transition with Seattle. If the team decides that he needs some seasoning at his new positions in the minors, the return of Jackson would seem to be the logical jumping off point. Bloomquist hasn’t done anything wrong from a performance perspective because he’s barely been had an opportunity to perform. The team is paying a player $3 million who is averaging approximately four at-bats weekly in 2015. The team’s reluctance to “eat” his salary will likely factor into their final decision with Bloomquist.

Fair or not, the 27-year-old Ackley has never lived up to the expectations that come with being a number-two overall draft selection and he hasn’t demonstrated the consistency to be a starter-level major-league player. Going into this season, he’s on his second manager and third hitting coach since debuting in 2011 and continues to be struggle at the plate.

It’s clear that offense needs to improve for this team to compete for a postseason berth. I suspect that Miller will be playing the outfield in Tacoma by the end of next week. Once he’s demonstrated he’s ready for prime time, he’ll return to the Mariners as their regular left fielder. At that time, the Dustin Ackley era in Seattle will likely end.

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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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