MIKE SALK

Salk: 3 Mariners players crucial to Seattle completing turnaround

Jun 12, 2022, 10:46 AM | Updated: 6:05 pm
Mariners Robbie Ray...
Mariners pitcher Robbie Ray during a game against the Kansas City Royals on April 24. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners are in a precarious spot as the season hits mid-June.

Is Julio Rodríguez already the Mariners’ most irreplaceable player?

A swoon in late April and most of May left the M’s fighting with the Oakland Athletics to stay out of the cellar in the American League West. The good news is Seattle has rebounded to go 9-6 over its last 15 games, including 6-3 on a recent road trip. The Mariners remain six games under .500 at 27-33 on the season, however, which is 10 games below the division-leading Houston Astros.

At the moment, the M’s are not even a third of the way into an 11-game homestand, one that could play a big role in how their season ends up, as Seattle Sports’ Mike Salk explained on Friday.

“It is enormously important, and they made it enormous because of what they just did on the road trip, winning six of nine, getting themselves back into it by starting to play some good baseball,” Salk said. “That allowed this homestand to rise in importance because it’s your opportunity to keep that going and to maybe get back over the top, maybe get close to .500 and start moving this forward, because they’re right there. And it’s enormous because unfortunately what they did at the beginning of the year, they dug themselves a hole. They played so poorly in April and especially May, it’s made June series more important than they should be.”

June baseball isn’t do or die, as Salk said, but struggling before you get there does add a sense of urgency.

“So there’s a little bit more pressure on you to at some point go on that run,” he said.

And more pressure on players who have struggled to get on a run themselves, which is where Salk took the conversation next. Who do the Mariners need to get on track to give themselves the best chance at the playoffs this year? Salk focused on three.

Mariners players whose turnarounds would be crucial

1. Jesse Winker, LF

Winker was a starter for the National League in the 2021 All-Star Game, but he’s struggled to play like he did in a breakout season for the Cincinnati Reds last year since coming to Seattle. After Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Boston, the 28-year-old Winker has a .206/.314/.304 slash line for a .617 OPS. That’s certainly not what the M’s expected when they traded for him in spring training.

Winker had a .950 OPS in 110 games last year, and it’s certainly a surprise to see his slugging percentage (.304) is both lower than his .314 on-base percentage and over 200 points lower than the marks he posted in both 2020 and 2021.

“I’m still just waiting for this to happen,” Salk said of Winker finding his groove at the plate. “Maybe I’m a sucker but I’m just waiting for the real Jesse Winker to show up. And if and when he does, and we get that .950 OPS guy for the rest of the way, think about what that does to this lineup.”

Related: How much longer can the M’s wait for Winker to produce?

If Winker is going to turn things around, he may be getting started. He hit a towering home run Friday night and ripped a single down the line in right field that could have been a double Saturday, which helped him at least get his slugging mark back over .300.

2. Robbie Ray, SP

Another big Mariners offseason acquisition whose season hasn’t gone to plan so far is the 2021 American League Cy Young Award winner. Entering his start Sunday, the left-handed Ray was 5-6 with a 4.97 ERA and 1.316 WHIP, having allowed 14 home runs in his first 12 starts for the M’s.

The rest of the Mariners’ rotation has generally been taking care of business lately, so getting Ray on track would be a huge boost.

Related: What’s going on with Robbie Ray this season?

“I just don’t think he’s looked right,” Salk said. “He hasn’t looked like himself. I know you can kind of find numbers that paint a lot of different pictures and tell different stories, but based on what I’ve seen so far, just the eye test with Robbie Ray, he doesn’t look like the Cy Young Award winner that they paid a boatload of money to. And if he were to become that ace, think about what that does considering what you’ve gotten from Logan Gilbert and the rest of the crew. It’s a difference maker if you can get that ace going.”

Ray at least took a big step Sunday. He threw seven scoreless innings against the Red Sox, allowing just three hits, a walk and a hit batsmen while striking out four. It was the best start of his Mariners tenure so far, and a promising sign was his willingness to work in a two-seam fastball with sinking action along with the four-seam fastball and slider he usually relies on.

3. Andrés Muñoz, RP (or another key bullpen option)

The first two names Salk mentioned are “obvious” choices because they were big acquisitions who came into the season with high expectations, but his third choice is a bit under the radar. It’s also more open-ended.

“The third for me is Andrés Muñoz. … Just give me a third pitcher in that ‘pen that you can count on for the seventh inning in some of these important games.”

Muñoz, 23, is a talented and hard-throwing right-hander who could be the next shutdown pitcher in Seattle’s bullpen, but he’s had a hard time with keeping the ball in the ballpark and harnessing his stellar stuff. He has a 5.31 ERA and 1.377 WHIP in 20 1/3 innings over 22 appearances, and while his 25 strikeouts to six walks looks good, the five homers he’s allowed is an issue.

Salk is open to any third reliever joining Paul Sewald and a resurgent Diego Castillo as a reliable arm for manager Scott Servais to go to in close games, however. That could be Erik Swanson, who returned from the injured list Friday and had been enjoying a strong season before experiencing elbow inflammation. It could be Ken Giles, a veteran closer who is nearing his M’s debut after recovering from both Tommy John surgery in 2020 and a finger injury he suffered in spring training. Or maybe it’s rookie Penn Murfee, who has an 0.83 ERA this season and has allowed a run in only two of his 20 appearances.

“They need to have a third, and obviously it would be great if it was Muñoz,” Salk said. “If he could throw that 101 mph fastball and not have it get hit, that would be preferable, but if it turns out to be Ken Giles or Swanson comes back and does even a little bit better than what he did before, that would be great. They just they need another person in their ‘pen.”

You can hear the full discussion from Friday’s The Mike Salk Show in the podcast at this link or in the player below.

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