June 24, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
The Team that Won't Die
"No way... no way... NO WAY!"
I guess it just had to be this way. In a four-team division light on legitimately captivating narratives, the Mariners appear to have cornered the market on thrilling highs and unspeakable lows. Their latest hardship came in rough back-to-back losses in the nation's capital—the first being the Tuesday night collapse, where Seattle lost despite possessing a win expectancy north of 99 percent at one point in the ninth inning, and the second a 2-1 loss on Wednesday night, where the cause of defeat was a pair of unearned runs charged to an otherwise brilliant Erik Bedard.
But just three days earlier, the Mariners closed out a three-game series win at home against the best team in baseball (Philadelphia) behind a three-hit shutout from Jason Vargas, and a couple days before that came the stirring arrival of franchise second baseman Dustin Ackley. The run prevention has been nothing short of magnificent and potentially franchise record-shattering (Seattle remains on pace to allow just 591 runs this season), but the offense remains the same highly-debilitating factor that it has been for the last several years; the Mariners are collectively hitting an A.L.-worst .230/.298/.342 and are on pace to score only 569 runs. The club is this mystifying quantity that part of you wants to write off, but another part of you wants to irrationally embrace as possibly being the real deal, as intradivision parity has led to the Mariners’ 37-37 record being good enough for a mere two-game deficit.
Unfortunately, that same continued flirtation with the pole position in the AL West creates its own unique dilemma—namely, what are the Mariners supposed to do transaction-wise as the non-waiver trade deadline draws nearer, and to what extent should they get involved? It's entirely possible that Seattle folds like a patio lawn chair between now and July 31 (a possibility that would inject a sobering dose of clarity into their post-July plans, but would also greatly reduce the risk of committing a huge deadline folly), but with a mostly sub-.500 cast of opponents looming on the schedule between now and the All-Star Break, it’s easier to believe the Mariners will enter the final 10 days of July clinging to contention in some form at worst, and being in first place at best. Therein lies yet another problem: From July 22-31, Seattle plays nine games in 10 days against what are arguably the three best teams (the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rays) in the junior circuit, a stretch of games that could go a long way toward making or breaking their season.
Put simply, there's a problematic timing element here that leaves Seattle in something of a bind and, to a certain degree, caught in the proverbial no-man's land where the solutions to the questions of, "Buy or sell?" and, "How much to buy?" are less than completely obvious. There's a pressing need for additional offense at left field and designated hitter, a fact which the Mariners are cognizant of (they've been linked to Padres left fielder Ryan Ludwick, who could require only a sub-$3 million commitment, depending on the timing of his departure, and would constitute an immediate improvement over Seattle’s motley crew of in-house options), but the cost of acquiring that help is likely higher now than it will be in a month's time.
And depending on how each team in the division fares over the next month, Seattle could elect to deviate from their youth movement script by splurging for higher-quality, more certain talent in the name of trying to capitalize upon the deep flaws that permeate their competition and steal a division title that might not be as winnable in future years. I view this as a less likely possibility, since I am operating under the assumption that Jack Zduriencik and friends are all too aware of the consequences of pulling the trigger too hard and too early, and understand what lasting negative effects could result from a drastic miscalculation of their division-winning chances. Ask Jon Daniels about what happened when the Rangers thought they were ready to contend after the 2006 season and accelerated their timetable by acquiring Brandon McCarthy from the White Sox in exchange for some 21-year-old kid named John Danks.
With that in mind, we must assume the bulk of the improvement in the Mariners' run production—if there is any improvement to be had, that is—will have to be derived from presently underperforming players elevating their game. It’s a nice thought in the abstract, but a tad unrealistic. There's the well-compensated disaster, Chone Figgins (263 PA, .193/.241/.258); it would give Seattle a shot in the arm if he could revert into even a .260/.340/.330-type hitter, but the whispers about Figgins propose his outright release if he doesn't manage to show some flash of competence soon. There’s the prospect of getting more out of 24-year-old outfielder Carlos Peguero (113 PA, .200/.257/.410), and there has been some legitimate small-sample improvement there this month (51 PA, .239/.314/.522), but how much can Seattle trust in him being able to maintain performance anywhere near that threshold going forward?
Beyond that, there’s Ichiro (325 PA, .279/.327/.336), who may hold the key to powering Seattle's run-producing machine if only he could elevate his batting average by another 30 or so points and bring it into greater congruence with recent history; his similarly punchless outfield partner-in-crime, Franklin Gutierrez (100 PA, .211/.242/.274), has only been off the disabled list for a month after dealing with a prolonged stomach ailment; and then the likes of Adam Kennedy, Brendan Ryan, Miguel Olivo, Justin Smoak, and Greg Halman, all of whom are either hitting at or above their established offensive baselines, or are already performing better than is reasonably expected. The problem is that even if you regress this collection of parts toward their career norms and throw in a Ludwick or a Luke Scott for good measure, it's unclear if that team can be good for anything more than 83-84 wins.
That said, even making it back to 81 wins—which is still very much on the table—would represent a whopping 20-game improvement over the last year’s 61-101 showing. Since 2000, there have been three other instances of an AL West club enjoying a 20-game leap from one season to the next: The Los Angeles in 2001-02 (from 75-87 to 99-63), and, unsurprisingly, Seattle twice, in 2000-01 (from 91-71 to 116-46) and 2008-09 (from 61-101 to 85-77). I dare not go on the record in predicting another such 24-game jump to the 85-win threshold, because everything that has gone right for the Mariners to date would need to keep going right, and they would need to do a bang-up job of shoring up their present deficiencies in the next 35-40 days... but if they do somehow pull it off, and if the Rangers maintain their maddeningly inconsistent level of play, we just might have one of the most surprising division champions in recent memory on our hands.