By Alex Bigelow
Special to 710Sports.com
This wasn’t the way the Mariners’ outfield was supposed to look.
Wrecked by injuries and a lack of depth, the Mariners’ turn to an aging rotation of 41-year-old Raul Ibanez, 35-year-old Endy Chavez and 34-year-old Jason Bay is a microcosm for a season that was once filled with promise.
But that isn’t to say the play of these three veterans has been the reason for the Mariners’ lack of success. Quite the opposite, actually.
Ibanez is currently on pace to hit 32 home runs, drive in 79 runs and play 110 games, while Chavez’s .292 batting average has helped solidify the top of the lineup. Bay has been less impressive, but he has still produced eight home runs, driven in 17 RBIs and scored 22 runs.
The problem isn’t their play, Mariners insider Shannon Drayer told “Bob and Groz” this week, it’s the role they’ve been thrust into.
“Your big problem right now is that you have a couple of veteran guys out there who you really weren’t depending on to play every day – and they have been – in Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez,” Drayer said.
Heightening the need for the weary legs of Ibanez and Bay to play every day has been the consistent absence of Franklin Gutierrez. Balky hamstrings have limited the 30-year-old center fielder to just 16 games and 54 at-bats this season, and while he was set to return off a rehab assignment sometime last week, continued discomfort forced the Mariners to move him to the 60-day disabled list with a return date as uncertain as is his future with the Mariners.
“Eric Wedge said (Sunday) that they received clearance to send him on another rehab assignment, but they don’t even want to send him on that until he can show he can get out there back-to-back-to-back,” Drayer said. “It’s the same issues with the legs.”
“You know Franklin Gutierrez is not going to be here next year,” Drayer added. “He’s got the option, but I can’t see them picking that up.”
The Mariners have a team option for Gutierrez that would pay him $7.5 million next season.
Intensifying the lack of depth in the outfield has been the recent struggles of Michael Saunders.
Since May 14, Saunders has seen his on-base percentage fall from .359 to .250, and his batting average has fallen from .278 to a paltry .200, accruing just 12 hits along the way.
“Michael Saunders is in one of the biggest struggles in his professional career,” Drayer said. “When you look at his strikeouts, he is starting to look at strike three a lot more than he did at the beginning of the year, and that is when we thought we saw him take another significant step forward.
“I think he is a little in between. I don’t think it is a swinging problem. I think it is a pitcher-identification (problem), and maybe a little bit of a confidence problem, as well as when to swing and when he is going to go for it â€¦ He is so far separated from what he was before he got injured.”
While sending down Saunders may be ideal, Drayer noted, that would leave Chavez as the only capable center fielder, and nobody in the minors right now is either ready for the call or able to play the position.
Although unseasoned, Abraham Almonte is a name Drayer mentioned as someone who could spell some relief if the outfield deteriorates further.
“One guy who was called up (to Tacoma) about three weeks ago is Abraham Almonte, who has been playing very well,” Drayer said, “but I don’t think you want to make another 40-man move and take a risk on a kid that is barely up at Triple-A right now.”
Almonte has played in just 23 games for the Rainiers, but is managing a .361 batting average with 18 runs scored and 13 RBIs. He’s also shown a propensity to get on base, as evidenced by a .452 on-base percentage while not committing a single error in the outfield.
Drayer noted that while a potential trade for a starting outfielder is possible, she doesn’t see the Mariners packaging prospects unless it is for a long-term solution.