Some bad, some good.
By Mike Salk
OK, so this was not the way the year was supposed to start. Armed with a new faces at the top of the order and a new look infield , we were ready to Believe Big (as the slogan says).
And there are still plenty of reasons to do so, as we’ll explore. But the first road trip of the season was one inning short of disaster for the Mariners. Yes, it’s early. And while nobody should draw any final conclusions from a week of baseball, there are some observations that we can make. Some good, some bad.
Let’s start with the bad news (feel free to skip ahead to the good news if you don’t want to be irked on the day of the home opener!):
The Mariners are 2-5, and their offense looks anemic. They have scored in just 10 of their 64 innings and are hitting .223 as a team. Catcher Rob Johnson has the best OPS on the team (by virtue of a solo home run, a double and a few walks) and only Franklin Gutierrez has started off hot (hitting .444 with a pair of doubles).
What’s worse, they haven’t exactly faced the best pitchers in the league either. Colby Lewis picked up his first major league win since 2004 after spending the past two seasons in Japan. Matt Harrison is a fifth starter on a team without a premier rotation and Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson may turn out to be pretty good pitchers but are still young and inconsistent. The M’s made all four look like Cy Young candidates as they threw a combined 26 innings and gave up just three runs. Yikes.
The M’s offense is built around two things: speed and patience. They hope to get Ichiro and Chone Figgins on base and put pressure on the opponents. Then the rest of the order needs to be patient and take enough pitches to force the starters out early and get to the soft bullpen arms. So far, neither has been particularly effective. Figgins has gotten on base just 33% of the time, has been caught stealing once and ran into another out trying to take second on a fly ball to right.
But the M’s problems are not limited to the bats. This team was built more on pitching and defense and right now neither has been a positive. Defensively, they have made six errors including two catcher interferences called on rookie Adam Moore, a kicked ball by Ichiro, and a booted grounder by the usually sure-handed Jack Wilson. But the errors only tell part of the story. Wilson has failed to come up with a few other balls he could have had. Both catchers have failed to come up with catchable balls (including a throw to the plate dropped by Johnson) and Milton Bradley failed to make a play at the wall that cost them a game in Oakland. For a team with as small a margin for error (pun intended), these plays are magnified and hard to overcome.
As for the pitching, it has been all over the map. Felix has shown flashes of his Cy Young caliber stuff, including escaping from a situation with Vladamir Guerrero and Nelsonb Cruz up with a runner on third and no outs. Mark Lowe has shown the killer fastball-slider combination that made him so valuable last year and David Aardsma is perfect in his two save chances.
But Ryan Rowland-Smith only lasted five innings, not what they need from an expected innings eater. And while Ian Snell showed something in his first start in a pitchers park in Oakland, he was not effective at all in Texas. In his second start, Snell looked like the guy we saw laboring on the mound last season. He was nibbling, and when he threw strikes they got hit. Hard. He had zero strikeouts in Texas and I was surprised to see that 8 of his 50 strikes were swinging as it seemed like the Rangers hitters were never fooled. It’s not often you see a manager walk out to the mound and lecture the way Don Wakamasu appeared to in the first inning on Sunday. Color me concerned about the nominal number two starter.
Oh yeah, and Milton Bradley has flipped off fans as many times as he’s gotten a hit. This blog post is already too long and doesn’t need a full discussion of this, but Shannon Drayer has effect in the clubhouse.
Fortunately, there is lots of good news for Mariners fans and only some of it relates to how few games have been played:
The good news starts with Franklin Gutierrez. He has been the Mariners best player so far. And while last year he was a fantastic glove with a potential at the plate, he has been a force in all elements of the game so far this season. He has hit to all fields, hit into the gaps, taken pitches, and stolen a pair of bags. Oh yeah, and he made one of the coolest, game saving grabs I’ve seen on Saturday to go with a few other sterling plays on Friday night. He earned a nice contract this off-season and he seems determined to show he was worth the investment.
Remember how we said the M’s offense was built around speed/on base percentage at the top of the order putting pressure on the opponents? Well, they can’t do that if Ichiro and Figgins aren’t on base and so far that hasn’t happened. But if your think those two finish the year with an on-base percentages of 355 and.333 respectively, you are probably wrong. When they get going, this offense should follow.
It was also nice to see them show the ability to come back late in a game on Saturday. Sometimes it isn’t how many you score but when you score them. They picked the right time to have their best inning of the year.
The Mariners were also built to compete at Safeco Field above all else. Their ballpark should help slow down right-handed sluggers and their outfield defense should really help them in the 81 home games. It should also help young left-handed starters like Rowland-Smith and Jason Vargas who often let hitter put the ball in the air.
Speaking of Vargas, I was really encouraged by his first outing. He was outstanding for five innings against a string lineup in a hitters’ park. Another year beyond hip surgery, it was good to see him get through the fifth â€“ he had a 12.51 ERA in that inning last year and it usually marked the end of his outing.
Oh yeah, Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard have yet to throw a pitch but both appear to be progressing quite well and could return in May. They’re pretty good and would also knock Fister and possibly Snell out of this rotation. Fister could help this bullpen as well.
Finally, it helps to remember that the Angels were picked to win this division and they are also 2-5. And for those that believed the first series was embarrassing because it came against a lousy Oakland team â€“ we may need to revise those projections. Oakland may just be off to a hot start at 5-2, or they may be in the conversation. And that Texas team is strong. This may be the best division in baseball and while it’ll be tough to win it, it may be nice to start seeing the other teams in the league.