Jack Zduriencik cringed with each magazine cover that his Mariners appeared on in February and each flowery feature story that was written about his team during spring training. The general manager feared that the expectations were running too high over a team just two years removed from a 101-loss season. Zduriencik had pulled off the surprise move of the winter by acquiring ace left-hander Cliff Lee from the Phillies in a three-way trade that included Philadelphia getting another ace, right-hander Roy Halladay, from the Blue Jays. That move came on the heels of the Mariners increasing their victory total by 24 last season, going from 61-101 to 85-77. The Mariners also became the darling of the sabermetric and analytic set by emphasizing the new wave of defensive metrics to help rebuild their roster, as they led the American League in defensive efficiency and finished second to the Dodgers in the major leagues.
"It's nice to be recognized, but I was afraid that people were making our club out to be better than it was," Zduriencik said. "I like our team and I think it's a good team, but sometimes the expectations can be set so high that they become hard to meet. I knew we weren't the perfect team."
The Mariners haven't come close to meeting those expectations so far. They are 14-23 and last in the American League West. Furthermore, it has been a season of distractions. First, Lee needed to spend most of the first month on the disabled list after suffering a strained abdominal muscle in spring training. Then mercurial outfielder Milton Bradley melted down in the middle of a May 4 game against the Rays and was placed on the restricted list the next day as he seeks help for his well-chronicled anger issues. A few days later came a report that designated hitter/Mariners legend/future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. was found sleeping in the clubhouse during a May 8 game against the Angels when manager Don Wakamatsu needed him to pinch-hit, though the Mariners half-heartedly deny that actually happened.
Lee has been fine since coming off the DL, and the Mariners are optimistic that Bradley is making enough progress in therapy that he will return to the team at some point. They also insist that the Griffey incident is behind them, though Junior reluctantly admits he is still stinging from the report.
The merits of everyone on a professional baseball team getting along can be debated for hours without resolution. Those who believe that statistical analysis is the be-all and end-all often dismiss clubhouse chemistry. Conversely, those who eschew new-wave metrics and joke about all those statistical acronyms frequently place too much emphasis on chemistry. However, everyone associated with the Mariners, including statistical analyst Tony Blengino, will tell you that chemistry played a part in last season's turnaround. The upbeat Wakamatsu fostered a positive attitude in his first season, while Griffey and fellow veteran Mike Sweeny set a fun tone in the clubhouse.
Yet for a team portrayed by some reports to be in turmoil because of the Bradley and Griffey incidents, a visit to the Mariners' clubhouse over the weekend during their series with the Rays at Tropicana Field revealed no outward tension. It might not have been a fraternity house, but everyone seemed to be getting along.
"It's still a good atmosphere," said veteran utility infielder Josh Wilson, filling is as the regular shortstop with Jack Wilson on the disabled list. "Everyone gets along and we have a lot of fun. I don't see any difference from last year."
The Mariners' biggest problem has been on the field, with a lack of offense. They are last in the AL and 29th among the 30 major-league teams in runs scored with an average of 3.3 runs per game. The infield has been particularly feeble at the plate, as second baseman Chone Figgins' .236 TAv is the highest among the four regulars, followed by Jack Wilson (.229), first baseman Casey Kotchman (.228), and third baseman Jose Lopez (.183).
The lack of offense offsets the Mariners ranking fourth in the AL in runs allowed with an average of 3.9 a game. The Mariners, though, have been giving up runs at the most inopportune times as opponents have won nine games in their final at-bat over the last three weeks. Yet Zduriencik isn't as concerned as one might think about adding a bat to the lineup.
"We knew coming into the season that offense, particularly power, wasn't necessarily going to be our strong suit, but we have guys capable of producing and they will," Zduriencik said. "We feel with our pitching and defense, we don't need to lead the league in runs scored to win games. We do need more production, though, and I think we'll get it."
Look for Zduriencik to step up his search for a bat around mid-June when some teams begin conceding they aren't contenders in 2010 and become more willing to give up players in trades without seeking a bundle in return. Until then, the Mariners will sit tight and keep relying on run prevention.
As bleak as the outlook seems at times for the Mariners, it is certainly far from a lost season, as they are just 5 ½ games behind the West-leading Rangers, who are on pace for only 85 wins. The Mariners are also encouraged by left-hander Erik Bedard's rehabilitation from shoulder surgery and are hopeful of getting him back into the rotation perhaps as early as next month. If the Mariners can recover to win the division, they would be very dangerous in the postseason with a rotation fronted by Felix Hernandez, Lee, and Bedard.
"It's been a tough start for us, but things are getting better," Wakamatsu said. "We still have a lot of the season left and I know we're going to play better. We still feel really good about what we can do this season."
Ned Yost walked into a worse situation last week than the Mariners are facing as the Royals hired him to replace fired manager Trey Hillman for the remainder of the season. The Royals were 12-23 at the time of the move, but Yost believes a shot of confidence would do wonders for his new team. Perhaps they got it over the weekend by taking two of three from the White Sox in Yost's first series at the helm.
"I definitely think, right now, they're a tad bit shell-shocked," Yost said of his players at his introductory news conference. "I think they kind of step on the field waiting for something negative to happen. We need to change that mind-set from, 'Geez, I hope we can win,' to walking through that clubhouse door and knowing deep in their heart that they can win. That's a bit of a process, but it's not as big of a process as you think."
Out of baseball last season after being fired by the Brewers as their manager late in the 2008 season, Yost watched from afar as the Rockies made a major in-season transformation. They were 18-28 when manager Clint Hurdle was fired, then went 74-42 the rest of the way under Jim Tracy to win the National League wild card. Yost believes the Royals can follow suit.
"This club is really not that far away," Yost said. "They've had their struggles. We've all seen it. But 10 games under .500 at this point of the year is not a death sentence. The Colorado Rockies proved that last year. I think that we can get this turned around. I think we will get this turned around. For me, my joy comes from seeing them play better, seeing them experience in what I got to experience in going to the World Series six times as a player and a coach."
Yost knows about turnarounds. The Brewers lost 106 games the season before Yost became manager in 2003 and made their first playoff appearance in 26 years in 2008 when they won the NL wild card. He feels the Royals are further ahead than when he replaced Jerry Royster with the Brewers.
"We cut back payroll and really focused on our younger prospects to the point where we were developing young kids at the big-league level that probably shouldn't have been in the major leagues," Yost said. "We've got a much better (group) of players here, veteran players mixed in with younger players."
The Angels are starting to heat up as they swept a three-game series from the Athletics over the weekend. So perhaps the Angels were justified in constantly pointing out during the first six weeks of this season that they also got off a slow start last year before rallying to win the AL West for the fifth time in six years. The Angels are 18-21 following their sweep. Last season, they were 29-29 on June 11 before going 68-36 in their last 104 games to finish with 97 victories.
The Angels, though, had excuses for their slow start last season, as starting pitchers John Lackey and Ervin Santana began the season on the disabled list and another member of the rotation, Nick Adenhart, was killed in an automobile accident after his first start of the year. Adenhart's death cast a pall over the team that lasted two months before it began to lift.
However, the Angels don't have any extenuating circumstances this season. They have suffered no major injuries other than catcher Jeff Mathis' fractured wrist, and they have another able-bodied backstop in Mike Napoli to pick up the slack. There also hasn't been anything remotely as traumatic as the loss of Adenhart. Now that the Angels appear to be on the right track, manager Mike Scioscia says they can stay on it by keeping things simple.
"We need to get back to basics," he said. "Maybe some guys are trying to jump from pitch one to pitch 99. Some guys have struggled on the offensive side, and that's put a lot of pressure on our pitching. Some guys just aren't playing up to their capabilities, and I know they're better players."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: Yost says he will use closer Joakim Soria for no more than three outs at a time after Hillman used the right-hander for four outs in four of his first 13 appearances this season. … The Padres are considering re-opening negotiations with Jermaine Dye after the veteran outfielder, who remains a free agent, turned down an offer from the them during the offseason. … The Angels have no plans to make a major trade for help, especially if it means giving up pitching prospect Trevor Reckling. … The Brewers, in desperate need of pitching, are considering fast-tracking left-hander Chris Capuano back to the major leagues. Capuano, rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery, had his rehabilitation assignment moved from A-ball to Triple-A Nashville last week. … Cubs manager Lou Piniella insists he has no plans to move Carlos Zambrano out of his set-up role and back into the starting rotation.
Scouts' Views on Various MLB Players:
Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz: "Hold off on writing the obituary on Big Papi. He's swinging the bat well again. He still doesn't have the bat speed he did in his prime, but he looks a lot more confident at the plate than he did early in the season."
Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez: "I thought he threw the ball really well (last Wednesday) in Detroit. He looked like the guy who had the big season with the Braves last season. He finally pitched with some confidence."
Pirates left-hander Brian Burres: "He is living, breathing proof of how much easier it is to pitch in the National League than the American League East. His stuff wasn't nearly good enough to get the big boys out from the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays when he was with the Orioles, but it's good enough to get a lot of National League hitters out."
Mariners left fielder Michael Saunders: "He looks a lot more comfortable than he did when he made his major-league debut last season. He has some pop in his bat and he's a good athlete. He could give that offense a much-needed lift."