Stecker: Three things Mariners need to go right to make a run in second half
The high hopes the Seattle Mariners entered 2017 with have been drastically altered heading into the second half of the season. Injuries and an inability to sustain any period of good baseball for more than a week at a time held the M’s back before the All-Star break, and they take a 43-47 record into this weekend’s series against the White Sox as a result. Luckily for Seattle, it’s been a year of remarkable parity in the American League, so it is still just four games out of a playoff spot.
Here are three things the Mariners need to happen in the second half to finally end the longest current playoff drought in baseball.
1. Find consistency with the pitching staff.
Talking to the media late last week at Safeco Field, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was pretty clear in what he sees as the biggest hurdle the team has yet to clear in 2017. “With Felix (Hernandez) back and having what I think is a generally full component in the bullpen, we still haven’t pitched particularly well,” he said. Seattle was in the midst of finishing up the first half with a disappointing 4-10 stretch when Dipoto said that, and he indicated that when the offense came back down to earth after carrying the M’s over a six-game win streak, the arms didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. “We need to get that group back on track. I think we have pitched better here in the last couple of weeks, but still not what we’re capable of.” How will the Mariners find the consistency they desperately need? Dipoto hasn’t been shy in saying the team is in the market for pitching, but good luck considering just about every contending team – of which there are plenty, especially in the American League – is looking for pitching prior to the July 31 trade deadline. Before any moves go down, the Mariners have to hope Hernandez’s scoreless outing last Sunday against the A’s is a sign that he has finally found comfort in a new approach on the mound. They also need James Paxton to continue heading in the direction he started going in his last two starts (three runs allowed on four hits and five walks over 13 1/3 innings). They can’t expect much more out of Ariel Miranda and rookies Andrew Moore and Sam Gaviglio past the trio providing more quality starts than not, so unless Dipoto can pull off a heist in a competitive trade market, the weight sits on the shoulders of the Mariners’ longtime ace and their potential new one to set the tone on the mound.
2. Jean Segura, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz all stay healthy.
The Mariners have elite offensive players at shortstop, second base and designated hitter, and when those three are producing together, the team is in good shape. The problem hasn’t been getting Segura, Cano and Cruz to all be hitting on all cylinders, however, but rather having all of them at 100 percent at the same time. Injuries have been the prevailing story of 2017 for the M’s, and their three best hitters each have their own chapter. Segura has the most hits through 60 games in a season by a Mariner not named Ichiro Suzuki, but that’s all he’s played, missing a combined 30 games with disabled list stints, first due to a hamstring strain and then with a high ankle sprain. If he’d played another five games, he’d likely lead the majors in hitting (his .349 average would be tops if he had a handful more at-bats) and would have been in Miami along with Cano and Cruz on the AL All-Star team. More importantly, it probably would have made a difference in the win column for Seattle, which could use all the help it can get in an especially muddy wild-card picture. As tough as it was for the Mariners to make due without Segura, it was even worse when Cano missed 11 games in May for a quad strain. Seattle went 3-8 during that stretch, and the funk lasted into his return as the Mariners won just one of his first five games back from the DL. When the Mariners did recover to the tune of nine wins over their next 10 games, Dipoto said it highlighted just how important Cano is to the team. “Never gained more of an appreciation for what he does than when looking at what the team played like when he was not out there,” Dipoto told “Danny, Dave and Moore” at the end of May. “As soon as he came back, you saw the rest of the lineup really start to apply themselves again.” Dipoto called Cano one of the drivers of the offense along with Cruz, whom the Mariners have been fortunate enough to have avoid any time on the DL. That’s not to say Cruz has been healthy, though, as he’s dealt with multiple lower-leg issues, missing games here and there and hobbling around the bases when he has played as a result. If ever there was a sign that Seattle has the kind of offense that can make a run, it’s the fact that Cruz and Cano have missed five and 11 games, respectively, yet Cruz leads the AL in RBIs (70) and Cano is tied for sixth (60). What that means is the Mariners’ chances of making the playoffs go up considerably so long as they have arguably the best leadoff man and two of the best middle-of-the-order sluggers in the league healthy for the rest of the campaign.
3. The younger core steps up.
The veteran presences of Cano, Cruz and Hernandez play a big role for the Mariners, but their roster is no longer dominated by players in their 30s. The core of the team is now younger, making 29-year-old Kyle Seager suddenly look like an elder statesman. Under contract through 2021, Seager is very much part of the long-term plan for Seattle, though, and it sure could use him taking the reins after what was a frustrating first half for the one-time All-Star. Seager is well off the pace he set in a breakout 2016 season, slashing a .248/.320/.404 line that would be his lowest numbers since his first full year with Seattle if the season were to end now. If there’s one positive to take out of his lackluster 2017 thus far, it’s that you would have to believe a bounce-back is in order – something helped out by the fact that his batting average on balls in play, a stat that tends to even out as a season progresses, is sitting at a career-low .271. Seager is far from the only player in his 20s that could play a big role in the second half. Outfielders Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia have all been solid more than not at the plate in 2017, and (along with Jarrod Dyson) they’ve put together the leading outfield in defensive runs saved, which has been a godsend for the beleaguered pitching staff. Those players, along with Paxton and catcher Mike Zunino, will be expected to take the baton from Cano, Cruz and Hernandez in the coming years. If they get a head start in the coming months, they could deliver playoff baseball to Seattle for the first time since 2001.