Why the Mariners will be fine


A few days ago, I had to calm down a frustrated life-long Seattle Mariners fan who was frustrated by the team’s slow start. I felt like the Kevin Bacon character from the movie “Animal House” when he’s performing crowd control at a parade and tells the masses to “remain calm, all is well.” Yes, it’s certainly possible that the Mariners could underachieve and be a disappointment. But, after just 15 games of a 162-game baseball season, it’s way too early to panic about the Mariners or any other team in the majors.

Nonetheless, a groundswell of social-media angst has developed after the Mariners registered only six wins during their first 15 games. A slow start during the first half-month of a season that’s nearly six-months long has created a furor among some fans who are wondering if the team will be “the same old Mariners” that hasn’t appeared in the postseason for over a decade.

Considering the high expectations being placed on this team, it’s understandable if new fans are a bit anxious about Seattle’s slow start. After all, the Mariners came excruciatingly close to making the postseason in 2014 and they’ve aggressively upgraded their offense in order to overcome their most glaring weakness of the 2014 season – inadequate run production. Longtime Mariners fans are all too familiar with the fact that their team – along with Montreal/Washington – are one of only two Major League Baseball franchises to never appear in a World Series. Yet, they’ve faithfully stuck with the team despite no postseason appearances since 2001. The combination of pent-up frustrations, high expectations, and a slow start by the team have led to a somewhat frustrated baseball fan-base in the third week of April.

The standings
With all of that said, take a look at where the Mariners stood after their first 15 games in 2014 and compare it to this year’s start. For me, it’s easy to see that the factors that compelled many to project Seattle as a World Series contender haven’t changed – especially after just two weeks.

The first thing that becomes apparent is that the standings mean nothing after 15 games. Seattle isn’t the only team to have a less-than-ideal start to the 2015 season. They are just two games behind the American League (AL) West division-leading Houston Astros and only two games separate the entire division. Considering how things started last season, no team in the division should be too high or too low about their 2015 start.

At the 15-game point of last season – April 17 – the Oakland Athletics were off to a very hot start and the Texas Rangers also had a winning record. By the end of the season, the Rangers had self-destructed from injuries and were cellar-dwellers, while Oakland experienced an epic second-half collapse and barely reached the postseason with Seattle breathing down their neck. Here’s a reason to remain calm – the 2015 Mariners only have one less win than last year and that team was in the midst of an eight game losing streak.

The team finally ended the streak on April 23 when Kyle Seager hit two home runs, including a walk-off three-run shot in the bottom of the ninth against Houston. Afterwards, Seattle started its climb back towards eventual playoff contention. This year’s team has a far superior roster to the 2014 version, although it’s true that some elements of the roster have underachieved. But, there’s been no red-flags that would justify the concerns being expressed by some fans. No team has run away with the division, like the 1984 Detroit Tigers, and only one team even has a winning record. Yes, this fact should give Mariners fans a reason to believe that all is well.

Pitching
For many people, it was a foregone conclusion that the team’s strength in 2014 – pitching – would continue to be the foundation of the team’s success in 2015. After all, the team still has their ace – Felix Hernandez – and Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker are all healthy after having injury issues during 2014. Plus, the team added newcomer J.A. Happ to give the rotation veteran depth to complement the young arms of Paxton and Walker.

When the Mariners traded for Happ, many viewed the veteran southpaw as nothing more than a number-five starter who might not even make the rotation. After a rough Spring Training, that opinion continued to prevail with some pundits and fans who continued to clamor for the team to drop Happ from the rotation in favor of fellow southpaw Roenis Elias. Happ made the rotation and, after three starts, the perception of the lefty has shifted drastically.

Thus far, the 32-year-old has pitched the most innings and has been the most consistent starter in the rotation. More than likely, Happ’s numbers will normalize to his career averages as the season progresses. But, the team has been fortunate to have the veteran hurler during the early stages of the season. The troubling aspect for the rotation has been the inconsistent performances of Iwakuma, Paxton, and Walker. Each entered the season with a different set of expectations, while all suffering from a common challenge – struggling with their command.

Iwakuma was viewed as the number-two starter behind King Felix, but he’s struggled in each of his starts. After a solid 2014, Paxton was expected to advance and eventually replace “Kuma” as the number-two starter in the rotation, while Walker earned his spot in the rotation during a superb Spring Training when he beat out Elias for the final spot in the rotation. Certainly, the Mariners will need more from this threesome to be serious contenders. Since all three pitchers appear to be healthy and only need to work out the bugs in their individual deliveries, I don’t see any reason for concern after only three starts. Harken back to the early stages of 2014 when the Mariners had to rely on a group that included Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, and Blake Beavan – Seattle’s rotation has a far better outlook than they did at this time last year.

Another factor in the high expectations for Mariners’ staff is the fact that the team had one of the best bullpens in 2014 and had all of their key contributors returning with a few new potent arms added to the mix to help augment the holdovers. According to social media, the bullpen is a weakness, although I believe that it’s quite the opposite – the bullpen has been performing well. Granted, there have been a few lapses and it’s true that closer Fernando Rodney and fellow reliever Danny Farquhar have struggled in a few of their outings. But, the pen has worked nearly 11 extra innings and has virtually the same number of walks and hits-per-innings pitched (WHIP) as in 2014.

The Mariners’ bullpen ended last season with a 1.15 WHIP and there are signs that this year’s squad will see their WHIP to decline significantly as the season progresses and their innings pitched increases. My optimism is based on the superb performances from rookie Carson Smith and sophomore Dominic Leone, plus Rodney seems to have re-discovered his command during his last three outings. Lastly, I expect that Farquhar will get back on track in the near future. He, like every other Mariner pitcher who has struggled, is healthy and only needs to improve his command. The only area of concern for me is the increased workload of the bullpen as the rotation works through their issues.

Offense
Despite the dramatic home runs and offensive performance of Nelson Cruz, this year’s team offense has actually scored three fewer runs than the 2014 version. At this point last year, Corey Hart led the team with four home runs, although it should be noted that he would only two more homers during the remainder of the season.

The team’s batting average is up in 2015, but the sample size is so small to that it really has no bearing at this time. But, there are two positive signs that the Mariners could potentially be more productive in 2015– they’re walking more and striking out much less. That’s an encouraging development for a team that’s been offensively challenged during recent seasons. Let’s look at several players who’ve received a great deal of positive and negative attention during the young season.

First, Cruz has quickly demonstrated that is that he’s not just a slugger – he’s a professional right-handed hitter who has demonstrated that he can be productive at Safeco Field. Certainly, he’s not going to continue to hit at the torrid pace that resulted in his selection as AL Player of the Week for last week. But, he’s poised to be a solid cleanup hitter throughout the season and that’s something that the Mariners have sorely missed in recent years.  Catcher Mike Zunino has struggled at the plate during the first 15 games and has even looked lost at times. But, he’s shown signs of improving during the last few games and could be snapping out of his funk. If he’s still striking out 38-percent of his plate appearances at Memorial Day, there will be reason for concern – not now though.

Another holdover from 2014 – first baseman Logan Morrison – has struggled out of the chute this season. But, he had issues during the start of last season too. At the start of 2014, he was spending time in the outfield, designated hitter, and first base and wasn’t an everyday player like he is in 2015. The 27-year-old has been hitting the ball hard, but directly at fielders who are shifting to defend his tendency to pull the ball. Going forward, he’ll need to prove that he can beat the shift and be a dependable offensive first baseman. Like Zunino, there’s no need to be concerned until June.

Outlook
There’s no disputing that the Mariners and their fans would have preferred that the team avoided a slow start. But, every team goes through a 6-9 stretch at some point during the season. The key for Seattle will be turning around their fortunes in the next six weeks. Last year’s Mariners started slowly and ended up competing until the last day of the season. Considering that the team that eventually led the majors in wins during 2014 – the Los Angeles Angels – had a losing record after 15 games, I’m convinced that – barring injury – the Mariners will be fine in 2015. This year’s roster is far superior and built to win now.

If the team continues to stumble, I suppose that I could end-up suffering the same fate of Bacon’s “Animal House” character – being trampled during the mass hysteria. Nothing that I’ve seen in the last two weeks has me concerned about a possible trampling – the Mariners will be fine.

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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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