Drayer: After slow start, May will be hang-on time for the Mariners
With the first month of the season in the books, perhaps the theme for the 2017 Mariners is, “Nothing is going to be easy.” But after their 11-15 start, which manager Scott Servais admitted following Sunday’s loss in Cleveland was a little disappointing, I don’t think it is towel-throwing time yet.
The Mariners have had a ton of adversity thrown at them early. Six players who were expected to play key roles on the team are currently on the disabled list. The schedule has been ridiculous, with the Mariners playing between four and seven more road games than the rest of the division teams and having just one off day at home since the start of the season. Players will return from injuries and the schedule will get somewhat friendlier as the season goes on, but the month of May will have to be hang-on time if they want to be playing meaningful baseball in the second half.
I think a big question will be whether this team play .500 baseball while waiting to get key pieces back. On the encouraging side, the Mariners are 10-8 since returning home from their 1-6 start. Things seemed to be heading in the right direction when they set out on the last road trip, but losing Felix Hernandez and Mitch Haniger was a tremendous blow. We did see the club bounce back and win win three straight games after its disastrous 19-9 loss last Tuesday in Detroit.
Of course, the disaster coincided with what is now the top of the rotation being next up, so James Paxton was able to give them bounce-back in a big way, with quieter follow-ups from Hisashi Iwakuma and Ariel Miranda. The two losses after Felix and Haniger went down came from the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation.
The Mariners will need more from Nos. 4 and 5 and there are questions at this point about who will take the ball Saturday, with Servais not quite committing to give it to Chase De Jong following Sunday’s loss. Short of finding another Wade LeBlanc – a quick check shows that he is doing quite well in the Pirates’ bullpen right now and isn’t likely to be available – the answers will have to be found within the organization. Can De Jong shake off the first-start jitters or will they hand the ball to Dillon Overton? Does Chris Heston get another start or do they go in another direction?
It is probably too soon for Andrew Moore or Max Povse, who are both pitching extremely well in Double-A and were originally thought of as later-season depth. But one way or another, Paxton, Iwakuma and Miranda cannot be leaned on to do all of the lifting in the absences of Felix and Drew Smyly.
The innings are an issue. The Mariners’ rotation has averaged just over five innings per start over the last two weeks, which is no help to a bullpen that is no longer carrying the extra arm. The rotation needs another starter that can get into the seventh inning, and with Miranda young and Iwakuma hittable his third time through lineups, Yovani Gallardo would seem to be the most likely candidate. He has shown flashes of better stuff this season and has led staffs earlier in his career. An expectation of a return to that form would be unreasonable, but he has shown the ability to battle to stay in games. Finding a way to avoid the battle and the one bad inning could go a long way in helping a shaky rotation.
While the team has managed to score the second-most runs in the American League so far, there are glaring holes in the lineup that will need to be addressed.
The offseason plan of a platoon at first base didn’t make it out of spring training and isn’t looking good right now. Obviously, .160 from a power position is not going to cut it, but the Mariners’ internal options are thin unless you want to give D.J. Peterson a shot. Honestly, at this point, why not, particularly if you think he can play better defense at first base right now than Daniel Vogelbach?
Catcher is a little different of a situation with both Mike Zunino and Carlos Ruiz providing good defense behind the plate. Perhaps they can give Ruiz a few more starts and Zunino a few more work days. A small move that could make a difference for both players.
The 11-15 start is disappointing but not quite catastrophic. The Mariners are currently five and a half games out of the division lead, a number that most likely would put the team in go-for-it mode at the trade deadline if it’s playing decent baseball. They still have a shot to do that and returns from the DL plus smaller, earlier pickups could help put them in that position.
The month of May, however, could be rocky. Servais in his postgame comments Sunday pointed out that with the rotation now carrying two depth pitchers, they will stub their toes from time to time. It’s what they do in between those starts that will be most important. Winnable games need to be won. Those who are on the field need to play clean baseball. It’s not about doing anything extraordinary at this point, although that certainly would be welcomed. The Mariners just need to give themselves a shot until they can get key players back.
May will be hang-on time.