Lefko: Without Haniger, Mariners’ struggling offense searching for identity

May 9, 2022, 9:58 AM
Mariners Julio Rodríguez...
Julio Rodríguez reacts after striking out to end the game against the Rays on Saturday. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Mariners’ offense is slumping. Even after a walkoff win on Sunday, the M’s are in the midst of a major offensive funk.

Stecker: What’s most important for the M’s after a disappointing week

With injuries to veterans and newcomers finding their way, this is a lineup searching for its identity. Sure, it’s much better to endure the growing pains now rather than have a crisis of confidence late in the season, but it makes for a laborious grind to find wins while the Mariners find their collective rhythm.

Concerns about run production on the opening road trip of the season were put aside after a 7-2 homestand where the Mariners scored at least four runs in eight of the nine games. Yet the abundance of offense from the opening home stretch seems to be the outlier after this stretch of 13 games in 13 straight days, which culminates with three more against the Phillies before the Mariners get a much needed off day Thursday. The M’s have scored two runs or less in seven of those games, including back-to-back shutout losses in Houston last week. The highest run total came in the first game of the road trip, an 8-4 win over the Rays, and that was a game where seven of the eight runs were unearned.

That is a big laundry list of run totals, but what it shows is that the Mariners clearly miss Mitch Haniger. There is a dearth of veteran leadership in the lineup, and early on in a season when a team is molding together a lot of different parts, having the presence of an experienced, All-Star-caliber bat would make a world of difference. If you take a look at the Mariners’ starting lineup from Saturday night, the longest-tenured Mariner was J.P. Crawford, and he has only been here since 2019. It is a group full of young – and new – pieces, and that has resulted in a disjointed team approach.

It’s something that MLB Network insider Jon Morosi touched on last week during his weekly segment on Seattle Sports Station’s Wyman and Bob, indicating how guys may be pressing too much in order to shoulder the burden of trying to replace the production and heft that Haniger brings. That could be the case for a guy like Jesse Winker, who understandably wants to make a good impression on a team that traded for him. Amidst some tough BABIP luck to start the year and a long home drought, it’s easy to see how internalized pressure can build to knock a player off his game. The same can be said for Jarred Kelenic. His struggles have been well-documented even if he is in a better place to handle adversity this season.

Not to dive too deep into a philosophic realm here, but the Mariners can’t know who they are offensively if they are trying to be something that they are not. More MLB at-bats for Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez will certainly help, but whenever Haniger does return, it will also help ease the burden off everyone in the lineup. That is a fundamental truth across sports, and probably applicable to a handful of situations in everyday life: if you have a guy that the opponent fears, it makes the job a little easier for everyone else.

There are a lot of “three-run home run swings with the bases empty” going on with the Mariners right now. It’s another thing Morosi mentioned to Wyman and Bob, that the Mariners have a lot of “swing and miss” in the lineup. Three everyday players have over 30 strikeouts right now, and a dive back through recent Mariners box scores show tough numbers for the M’s batting with runners in scoring position.

It might not be a direct correlation, but having a veteran like Haniger in the lineup works twofold in this aspect: he provides a good example for the young guys on how to approach different at-bats, and he becomes the guy taking some of those big at-bats. He is, of course, the man who provided what was perhaps the seminal moment of the 2021 season.

If this seems like needless scrutiny early in a season, it’s because there is increased expectation on the offense this year. Regression has already started to occur in the area the Mariners owned last year: one-run games. The M’s are 3-5 in those games this year and were handed four one-run losses by the Rays over the course of the now-completed seven-game season series, which Tampa Bay won 5-2. The bullpen is also a relative unknown, especially with Sergio Romo and Ken Giles still on the injured list, the latter of whom has yet to even make his debut for the Mariners.

There is extra weight on the lineup because of Seattle’s playoff expectations, and because the Mariners have a pitching rotation that should give them a chance to win every single night. Plus, you don’t want to waste an MLB debut like the Mariners nearly did on Sunday after George Kirby dazzled with six scoreless innings, striking out seven and not walking a single batter. For that simple fact alone, score some runs so George Kirby can get his first major league win next time.

Sunday: George Kirby shines in debut, M’s rally to beat Rays 2-1

Date Starting Pitcher
Saturday, May 28 @ 7:10 pm

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Lefko: Without Haniger, Mariners’ struggling offense searching for identity