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May 30, 2011

On the Beat

The Clouds Part in Seattle

by John Perrotto

Conventional wisdom says that it is nearly impossible to rebuild and contend at the same time. Just as they did two years ago, though, the Mariners are laughing at conventional wisdom.

The Mariners have only a 26-26 record, but are just 1 1/2 games behind the division-leading Rangers in the tight American League West race. While the Mariners looked like also-rans just a few weeks ago, a run of 10 victories in 13 games has suddenly given them the look of contenders, even if in what's turning out to be a weak division.

It may be too soon to get too excited about the Mariners, as the season is still just a hair short of one-third old. However, they do have momentum going, just like in 2009 when they came off a 101-loss season by going 85-77 and contending into September. This year, the Mariners are again coming off a 101-loss season and beginning to believe they can be winners.

"We talked about the need to be consistent from the first day of spring training," Mariners first-year manager Eric Wedge said. "I really believe that if you do things consistently that the process will play itself out and you'll be successful. Our guys have given a consistent effort from the start, and now the wins are a testament to that."

Coming into the season, it did not seem that the Mariners were very much improved from last year, when they scored the fewest runs in a season by an American League team since the designated hitter went into effect in 1973, averaging 3.17 a game. They added catcher Miguel Olivo, shortstop Brendan Ryan, and designated hitter Jack Cust, none of whom could be considered impact hitters. None have been world beaters, as Cust has a .275 True Average, Ryan's is .265, and Olivo is at .260, and as a team the Mariners are still scoring just 3.63 runs a game, which ranks 12th in the AL and 25th in the major leagues.

However, adding those three players seems to have had a calming effect on the Mariners, as did the release of volatile outfielder Milton Bradley earlier this month. After leading all major-league shortstops in Fielding Runs Above Average last season with the Cardinals, Ryan has a team-leading 3.5 mark, helping to steady a Mariners defense that is 15th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency with a .715 mark. The solid defense and strong pitching have combined to make the Mariners one of the best run-prevention teams in the game, as their 3.73 runs allowed a game is third in the AL and sixth in the majors.

In the starting rotation, rookie Michael Pineda has been even better than reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez. Pineda has a 2.98 Fair Run Average and Hernandez has a 3.44 mark. Surprisingly strong contributions from David Pauley (3.51) and Jamey Wright (3.67) have helped the bullpen overcome the inconsistency of closer Brandon League (5.01), who has gotten back on track in recent days after taking losses in four consecutive appearances earlier this month.

"We're just a lot better team than we were last year," Hernandez said. "We're playing much better baseball. We're a lot more consistent. Last year was bad. We expected to lose every day. This year, we expect to win."

While Pineda has certainly made a difference, another young player is also making a big impact for the Mariners. First baseman Justin Smoak has a team-leading .306 TAv in 188 plate appearances despite playing with a heavy heart after losing his father to lung cancer last month.

Smoak was the centerpiece of the four-player package the Mariners received when they traded left-hander Cliff Lee to the Rangers last July. Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was roundly criticized for making that trade when the Yankees had offered top catching prospect Jesus Montero in a deal for Lee.

However, Smoak is proving to be a good acquisition, showing plate discipline and power potential with a triple slash line of .256/.362/.444. Smoak has hit seven home runs after going deep 13 times in 397 plate appearances as a rookie last season. While Smoak may not develop into the classic 30-homer-a-year first baseman, especially playing his home games in spacious Safeco Field, scouts believe he is capable of 20-25 homers with plenty of walks.

"He's a really good situational hitter for a young hitter with power," Wedge said. "He has a good feel for hitting. He doesn't get himself on bad pitches very often. I hesitated to put him in the number three spot in the batting order because he's so young, but he's handled it really well."

Smoak admitted the trade stunned him, as he felt he would be part of the Rangers' long-term plans after being their first-round draft pick in 2008 from South Carolina. It stung even more when the Mariners shipped him to Triple-A Tacoma after the trade and kept him there until the Pacific Coast League season ended. Furthermore, Smoak watched from afar as the Rangers won their first AL pennant in franchise history while the Mariners sunk to deep in the AL West basement. However, Smoak couldn't be happier now.

"I feel so much more comfortable," Smoak said. "I know my teammates better and I know the organization better. I'm really excited to be with the Mariners. It reminds me of what the Rangers were doing the last few years: they kept building and building until they broke through and won the division last year. We're doing the same thing. You can tell we're building something special here, and we're getting better every day."

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Rumors and Rumblings: Right-hander Brandon Webb will begin his long-awaited rehab assignment with Double-A Frisco on Monday, and the Rangers will have 30 days to determine whether he can join the major-league rotation. That will go a long way in shaping the Rangers' direction at the trade deadline. … Ryan Raburn becomes the Tigers' everyday second baseman following the trade of Scott Sizemore, which opens up more playing time for Casper "The Friendly Outfielder" Wells and Andy Dirks in the outfield. … The Athletics plan to use Sizemore at third base at Triple-A Sacramento, yet another indication they are losing faith in Kevin Kouzmanoff. … Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez has now made enough progress in his recovery from irritable bowel syndrome that he will return to playing every day this week. … Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino is expected to return from the disabled list Friday, but Tigers right fielder Magglio Ordonez is still likely two weeks away from being activated.

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Scouts' views:

Cardinals infielder Daniel Descalso: "I like this guy. He won't overwhelm you with tools, and he'll probably be stretched to be a regular in the major leagues. He hits the breaking ball well, especially for a guy with so little big-league experience, and he's just generally a tough out."

Rays right fielder Matt Joyce: "He is absolutely crushing fastballs this year. I haven't seen anybody get a fastball by him yet. He's hitting off-speed stuff, too, so it's hard to really come up a plan to get him out. He'll chase with two strikes, but he's rarely ever hitting with two strikes."

Nationals first baseman Michael Morse: "It's going to be interesting to see what he can do with the chance to be a regular. He has some pop and he has some tools. I've always kind of liked the guy, and I think he's going to be a pleasant surprise."

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins: "He has got back on track at the plate this season, and he's setting himself for possibly a pretty nice payday as a free agent. He's hitting the ball hard and his plate discipline is as good as I've ever seen it. The one thing to be wary of, though, is that he's lost a step in field. He's still decent, but he's not a Gold Glover."

Giants catcher Eli Whiteside: "It's a big, big dropoff from Buster Posey to Whiteside, who is a good catch-and-throw guy behind the plate but strictly a backup. If the Giants are serious about trying to win it all again, they're going to have to make a move to get a catcher."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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