Churchill: Hart, Ackley Key For M’s
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It’s 11 games into the 2014 season and the fan base — excited after a 4-1 start — already is worried sick over a struggling offense. While it’s much too early in the season to panic as if it’s the same old Seattle Mariners, particularly considering how many players are being used in mix-and-match scenarios rather than getting consistent at-bats as well as taking note of who these hitters are struggling against — the No. 1 pitching staff in baseball, the Oakland Athletics — the early-season struggles aren’t something to completely ignore, either.
First off all, let’s get the following out of the way:
No, the M’s should not call up Nick Franklin from Triple-A Tacoma and insert him into the outfield — the club’s glaring weakness — or at third base in place of a struggling Kyle Seager. More on that later.
No, it’s not time to freak out as if Seager forgot how to hit.
No, it means little to nothing that Seager also struggled last August and September. Watching Seager’s at-bats — every single one of them multiple times — he showed tired last summer, dropping his hands, swinging through 91 mph fastballs and even chasing balls out of the zone at a higher rate. In 2014, he’s simply being pitched to by the book. He’s a fly ball hitter without the kind of big power to drive enough of those fly balls out of the yard, so he flies out a lot, and clubs are staying up in the zone against him but out of his wheelhouse, which means even more fly balls.
No, Kendrys Morales is not the answer — yet. Right now, the club does not feel Corey Hart is ready to play right field with any regularity, so it would mean optioning out Logan Morrison after two weeks of baseball, or giving away via trade one of the team’s best defensive outfielders in Michael Saunders. More on this later, too.
No, the Mariners do not need to ship out Stefen Romero, either. In fact, pulling the plug on any of the regular or semi-regular hitters after 11 games is nonsense. I’m not suggesting all of a sudden Saunders will start lighting it up or that Morrison will figure it out and provide enough OBP and power to warrant being an everyday player, but baseball is a long season. Jhonny Peralta, a proven bat, is 4-for-41 thus far in 2014. Josh Reddick is 4-for-39 and has struck out once per three trips to the plate. Allen Craig is 5-for-45. Offense is down around baseball. Strikeouts are up. The weather has been cold, as usual. And again, it’s been 11 games.
Oh, before I forget — no, there’s not a single thing wrong with Robinson Cano, so stop freaking out about Cano’s “slow start” because he hasn’t started slow. Cano is batting .333 with a .417 on-base mark.
The Mariners do need to dictate a few alterations, however. While their pitching gets healthy — Taijuan Walker may be back in a matter of days and Hisashi Iwakuma continues to work from a mound and build toward a rehab assignment — the club should also do what they need to do get Hart healthy enough for right field.
That was the idea when he signed for $5 million guaranteed plus loads of incentives and clogging up the DH role with him hinders the club’s chances of maximizing both run production as well as run prevention. Granted, skipper Lloyd McClendon has gone to Saunders after six or seven innings to protect leads, but the first two-thirds of the game is twice as important as the final third. Honestly, I’m not sure what the M’s are waiting for. Hart is running just fine. He’s reach base eight times on his own volition and clearly is running without pain or restriction.
Hart isn’t a great athlete and won’t be much more than adequate in right field, but he’s better than Morrison out there and it appears he’s a much better bet to hit. If he can play three days a week in right — slowly working into four or more — then Morales should be signed and inserted into the lineup as the designated hitter. Even without Morales, though, Hart playing right field helps the M’s keep the very bad glove of Morrison in his Guardian and opens up the DH spot for the half-rests that could help Cano, Seager, Smoak and even catcher Mike Zunino stay rested.
The Franklin Factor
Yes, Franklin is raking in Tacoma. He did it last year, too, and he flashed the power in the majors last season. But he’s without a place to play right now and rushing him into the outfield only reduces his overall value to opposing clubs should a team come along and offer the right deal. Even though playing the outfield doesn’t rob Franklin of his ability to handle shortstop and second base, it does remove the chance another club sees him play the infield and become that much more convinced he’s their kind of value at short and/or second. It’s something that will be used against Seattle in negotiations as much as the move might suggest to teams the M’s would prefer to keep Franklin.
For now, Franklin’s value to the Seattle Mariners is as trade bait. He’s worth more as a middle infielder. A lot more. There may come a time, however, when it makes sense to transition Franklin to left or right field — yes, he has enough arm to warrant right field, especially for the shorter-term — get him accustomed and bring him to the major leagues to help the parent club directly. That time is not now. We may see Franklin get the occasional start in left in Tacoma, but until he’s playing there regularly, it’s not a sign he’s going to be recalled anytime soon.
Smoak started off hot, crushing fastballs into the gaps from the right side and hitting a couple of four-baggers as a left-handed batter. He’s been thrown more offspeed pitches early in counts the past four games, getting him thinking soft, then he’s being challenged with fastballs in breaking ball counts. He doesn’t have the bat speed to make that adjustment. The best possible fix is for Smoak to approach his plate appearances as a hitter, not a power hitter. Always. Drive the ball to the middle of the field or even the other way. Doing so gives him a chance to hit the heat, albeit possibly for less power in certain counts, but still allows him the extra split-second staying back with his hands and his weight to hit the off-speed stuff.
In 2014, Smoak is seeing more fastballs and more curveballs — and fewer sliders — and that isn’t simply a small sample size scenario. The velocity difference is key here, as it’s enough to keep a slider-speed bat off balance, way out front on curveballs or late on good fastballs.
Top of the Lineup
I still do not like the lead-off situation with Abraham Almonte carrying the job on his shoulders every game thus far. I don’t like pulling the plug on things after 11 games, but Almonte isn’t lead-off material for me. Neither he nor Brad Miller has found a lot of consistency just yet, but McClendon’s insistence on using Almonte at the top means Seager bats in the six-hole. I don’t believe in lineup protection as a hole, but giving Seager an extra fastball per game — which is a real thing when Cano is batting behind the hitter in question, could do wonders.
Almonte has drawn some walks and that looks great next to Miller’s walk rates, but Miller is the more productive hitter now and BABIP is at .259 with Almonte’s more than 100 points higher. Neither will stick and the rate stats will favor Miller in a landslide once they do.
Ackley has nice numbers — .308/.341/.513 with three doubles a triple a long ball. But just like those that are struggling it’s too early to suggest Ackley has indeed figured it out. He did have a great month of August last summer but struggled to hit line drives in September. Still, his approach at the plate was better and he’s carried that into 2014.
The key result I see is fewer pop-ups, slightly fewer ground balls, more line drives and he’s been pulling more of his line drives but clearly hasn’t sold out to do so, as you can see by the spray chart below. The chart on the left is from the start of the 2012 season through June, 2013 (he was optioned to Tacoma at the end of May and returned late in June), a total of 840 plate appearances. The chart on the right is from August 1, 2013 through this season entering Monday’s game in Arlington, 221 plate appearances. He’s still foul line to foul line, but the fly balls are being hit harder — so they’re travelling greater distances and landing for hits more often — and the line drive rate has greatly increased.
[click to enlarge]
Spray chart courtesy BrooksBaseball.net
That increase, plus Ackley’s improved rate of contact, suggests some of his early-season success is sustainable. I do still see him pulling off pitches — head, body and then hands — but he’s in a much better place now than he was before his demotion.
The Mariners are 6-5 without the services of Iwakuma, whom they had a year ago, and Seager, who was a league average third baseball both in the field and at the plate in 2013. Both are going to return and make a similar impact this season. Sure, the numbers don’t look good — .225/.289/.379 team triple-slash — but they aren’t going to be a good offense. They just don’t have the horses for it. They do have a real shot to be somewhere closer to league average and that’s enough production to support a a pitching staff, 1-12, that could be top 5 in the American League by season’s end.
The club won 71 games a year ago. They’re going to win more than that in 2014, perhaps finishing above .500 for the first time since 2009. But they can’t win 81 or more games in April. The baseball season is about the long haul. The Milwaukee Brewers, on a current 9-game winning streak, also won nine in a row last April. They finished the season 74-88 and played exactly zero meaningful games after the All-Star break. In fact, by June 1 they were 12 games under .500.
It’s not time to pass judgment on this year’s Mariners team, nor any of its regulars. My advice is to wait out three or four more home stands and a chance for the rotation — and Hart — to get fully healthy. Until then, keep an eye on where Seager’s hands start as the pitch is released. Watch for Smoak to keep the ball in the middle of the field a little bit more so gives himself a chance to hit the curveball. Don’t miss any of Ackley’s at-bats as he looks to build on his fine two-week start.
And keep your ear to the rumor mill, because if this baseball team is within shouting distance of the Wild Card after 65 or 70 games, Zduriencik is going to be burning up the phones looking to add the pitching and outfield help they’re open to adding right now. The difference between then and now is, the price the club is willing to pay to get those pieces will change.
The M’s, in that situation, will shift gears to go-for-it mode.
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