The All-Star break is over and it's time to take stock of how the Seattle Mariners are doing this season, what they might do at the July 31 trading deadline, and where they are headed.
As of today the Mariners are 43-52, which makes for a winning percentage of .453. With 67 games remaining, it doesn't look like the M's are in any shape to improve a whole lot on last year's record of 77-85. To simply match that, they would have to go 34-33 the rest of the way.
As those hopeful, diehard Mariner fans (such as yours truly) always like to say, "It isn't all bad." But this time, I actually believe it when I say it: It ISN'T all bad.
When Jack Zduriencik was named General Manager five seasons ago, he inherited a mess created by his predecessor Bill Bavasi. Bavasi made a series of ill-advised trades that decimated the Mariners' farm system, and he made some pretty bad free agent signings. So how have things been different under Zduriencik?
First of all, Zduriencik was hired to rebuild Seattle's minor league system. The Mariners brought him in because they liked his record of finding and drafting talented young players when he was working for the Milwaukee Brewers. Over the past five years, and aided by the able eye of scouting director Tom McNamara, "Z" has managed to restock the Mariners minors to the point that they are consistently ranked as one of the better minor league systems in baseball. Where he has run into difficulty is providing fans with a quality product on the major league field.
Zduriencik has been hit-or-miss with his trades, and he has made some questionable free-agent signings. His record has not been stellar in those areas. But when taken in light of what many experts agree is a five-years-or-more timetable for success in most situations when an organization is pretty much being rebulit from scratch, he hasn't done too badly. Part of his objective has been to do the best the M's can do at bringing in some spare parts to fill in while the kids in the minors get ready for the majors.
He might have done a better job of putting a major-league-quality team on the field during his first five years, and it's hard to argue against that. And some of the problem the past couple of years is that he has not brought in enough decent veteran players, causing the team to rely too much on unproven young players such as Dustin Ackley (drafted by the Mariners) and Justin Smoak (acquired from the Texas Rangers in trade). Michael Saunders has also been somewhat of a disappointment. Prior to this season and as recently as early May, of the young players acquired by Zduriencik, only regular third baseman Kyle Seager was doing as well as the team had hoped.
But the new crop of kids looks like cause for celebration. Seager adapted quickly to the majors, and it looks like new second baseman Nick Franklin is on the same kind of track. Brad Miller appears to be the heir apparent to the shortstop position. That makes up three fourths of their infield, and as a bonus this season, Smoak is beginning to hit. He has improved his knowledge of the strike zone, increased his patience at the plate, and is now beginning to drive in runs. Smoak, Franklin, Miller and Seager look to be your Mariners infield for the rest of this season and possibly for some seasons to come. All four of them can field the ball adequately, and they look like they will all develop into more than adequate hitters.
Mike Zunino is the new catcher. Chosen by the Mariners in the first round of last year's draft, he is still very raw when it comes to hitting. Nonetheless, he is already giving the Mariners the same level of production they were getting from Jesus Montero and Kelly Shoppach when they sent Montero to the minors and designated Shoppach for assignment. Zunino's defensive skills look good; in fact in comparison to Montero, it is now like night and day when it comes to pitches getting blocked and throwing out would-be base-stealers. He has lots of work to do, but he should learn pretty quickly.
Dustin Ackley was a hit when he first came up from the minors two seasons ago, but last year he struggled. The league made adjustments on him, and he still has not quite figured out how to adjust back. Originally an outfielder and first baseman in college, the Mariners had him learn to play second base. He took to the new position remarkably well and played Gold Glove caliber defense there last season but still had a hard time hitting his way out of a paper bag. Now he is back in the outfield, playing in center field as he slowly starts to increase his hitting skills. Only time will tell there.
But the kids aren't the only thing providing fans with some excitement this season. Last winter Zduriencik added some veterans who have helped. Raul Ibanez, at age 41, has been a revelation. Kendrys Morales has done well as a designated hitter and first baseman, Jason Bay has filled in admirably at times in the outfield, Endy Chavez has been a valuable backup outfielder. Right fielder Michael Morse provided some home-run electricity early this seaosn, but he has been injured too much to be of great value to the team lately. Nonetheless the team has been scoring runs and playing very competitive baseball.
The team is riding a sweep of the Los Angeles Angels as it begins the final 67 games. The kids are making their presence known. Ibanez is having a career year as he provides clubhouse leadership and serves as a valuable mentor to the young players. Attendance is up slightly from last season. Now, with the July 31 trading deadline approaching, what will the Mariners do?
Probably not a whole lot.
Trades often bring prospect players back, but right now the Mariners do not need more prospects. Thanks to Zduriencik and McNamara's work, they now have plenty of prospects in their own farm system. Look for the names Taijuan Walker (P), Danny Hultzen (P), Brian Moran (P), Stefen Romero (IF/OF), Victor Sanchez (P), Tyler Pike (P), and Ji-Man Choi (1B/DH) to move up in the ranks during the next couple of seasons.
What they need is some help in their outfield. Do they have the trade bait this year to bring back players who can help the rest of this season and beyond? Possibly. Several of their players are pretty highly sought-after, and those include reliever Oliver Perez, starting pitcher Joe Saunders, and Kendrys Morales. Others who could be dealt might include Michael Morse (OF) and SS Brendan Ryan.
They also need some help with their pitching staff. Felix Hernandez is a great starting pitcher, one of the best in the game. Hisashi Iwakuma, named to this year's American League All-Star team with Felix, is a very capable #2 guy in the rotation. Joe Saunders is #3, and he has pitched very well over his last 7-8 starts. Aaron Harang has not helped the rotation much, and the M's have not had any luck finding a capable fifth starter yet... so they have about half of a good rotation. Erasmo Ramirez could help solve that problem soon if he has fully recovered from an injury that kept him out of action for a while. While young Brandon Maurer showed a lot of promise at the beginning of the season, but wasn't ready for the majors. He is in Tacoma now, and I suspect he will be back at some point either this season or next. Walker and Hultzen are waiting in the wings, also both in Tacoma. So there could be in-house help on the horizon.
And in the bullpen, Perez has been the only sure thing this year. Youngster Carter Capps has a fastball that can touch 100 mph but he proved he needed more time in the minors and was recently demoted to AAA Tacoma. Young reliever Steven Pryor has been on the DL most of the year (but should be back soon); he is another flame-thrower, like Capps. Left-handed hitters are batting way below .200 against lefty reliever Charlie Furbush, and that has been helpful. Usually-reliable closer Tom Wilhelmsen went through an inexplicably awful month of June, but appears to be returning to form. The pitching staff could use some solidifying and could use a few new faces. Look for young lefty reliever Brian Moran (now in AAA) to make his major league debut between now and the end of the season. So help could be on the way for the bullpen too.
But Zduriencik has made it known that he "won't be the aggressor" when it comes to making deals between now and July 31. In other words, he is quite willing to sit back and let himself be wowed by an offer or two. Someone will have to offer a really good return for him to trade away M's players.
I know, I know, many of you who have followed the M's over the years know about what is practically a tradition and love to bring it up in conversation: players from the Mariners go on to become superstars when traded to other teams, the Mariners don't hang on to their good players, their rookie players are always busts, etc. Well... if you are still living in the Bill Bavasi era, those points might hold a lot more water than they do now. Aside from Zduriencik's trade of starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Detroit Tigers for a bag of nothing a couple of years ago, and maybe his trade of young pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for young catcher/DH Jesus Montero, I'm not sure his trades have been all that bad. He has held onto the team's best young players, too. Let's see if what Zduriencik does now and during the winter will give some proof of this.
So, I think if the M's don't make any moves in ten days or so it won't really be a big deal. They're sitting on what looks like a pretty good situation right now. If they don't make trades now, they can always do some dealing during the winter. And in fact, it may be more important right now to just keep as many of their most useful players as they can, so they can have a chance to finish this year with their sense of optimism more or less intact.
Can they finish .500 this year? To go 81-81 they would need to go 38-29 over their last 67 games. That may not be easy for them to do, but the way things are beginning to trend (with Smoak starting to hit and drive in runs, with the new kids in the infield providing spark, with a natural young team leader like Zunino behind the plate, and with the prospects of helpful outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Morse coming back soon from the DL), you just don't know what might happen.
Ibanez and Morales are both free agents at the end of the season, and while most free agents don't want to come to play for the Mariners, these two guys seem to enjoy playing here. I hope the M's don't trade either one, and I hope both will re-sign with the team for 2014. If they bring those two guys back, if they keep their young infield, if Zunino and Ackley continue to learn to hit, and if they can bring in a good starting pitcher and a couple of decent and dependable outfielders either now or over the winter... look out for them next season. They're already pushing the vaunted Los Angeles Angels for third place in the American League West Division.
It;s true, third place isn't much to brag about, and playing .453 ball suggests little more than mediocrity. But I believe there is finally some magic afoot at Safeco Field and in the Mariners organization.
I'll revisit this later, at the end of the season. By then, Mariners fans will have a much better idea of where the team sits as it prepares for next year. But things are trending in a good direction, and the light at the end of the tunnel is no longer the headlamp of an oncoming train.