Churchill: What The M’s Can Do Now
The Seattle Mariners sit at 7-11 heading home from a 1-6 road trip to Texas and Miami. They won Game 1 of that trip, so it’s a 6-game losing streak they’ll look to snap when Felix Hernandez takes the mound Monday night at Safeco Field versus the Houston Astros. The M’s were 7-11 after 18 games a year ago, and haven’t had much success for years, so it’s understandable and natural for fans to feel like nothing has changed.
At the start of the year I didn’t see much reason to believe the club could be a true contender, but I did see a chance at .500, and I still do, especially considering they’re likely to get a little healthier in their starting rotation. It’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation: No club can take the beating to one area of the roster as the M’s have with their starting pitching and be anywhere near what they should be. The question is: What do fans think this roster should be? There’s little doubt, however, that the Mariners still lack the overall talent to make a playoff push, but take a look at the difference between last year and 2014 in terms of the regular lineup.
Game 18 in 2013 was a 7-0 loss to the Texas Rangers. Here was the lineup being used then — a fairly typical look at what the Mariners had at the time — versus the typical lineup skipper Lloyd McClendon is writing up this season through 18 games.
|2013 v. 2014
|1||Endy Chavez/Michael Saunders, CF||Abraham Almonte, CF|
|2||Kyle Seager, 3B||Brad Miller, SS
|3||Kendrys Morales, DH||Robinson Cano, 2B
|4||Michael Morse, RF
||Corey Hart, DH
|5||Justin Smoak, 1B
||Kyle Seager, 3B|
|6||Raul Ibanez, LF
||Justin Smoak, 1B
|7||Kelly Shoppach/Jesus Montero, C
||Michael Saunders/Stefen Romero, RF
|8||Dustin Ackley, 2B
||Dustin Ackley, LF|
|9||Brendan Ryan, SS||Mike Zunino, C|
There’s a rather significant difference in talent, even proven talent, on the right column. Cano hasn’t done a lot yet, but we know he will. Hart is hitting, and perhaps more importantly, has been able to play some right field. Why is that so critical? We’ll get to that in a few minutes. Smoak is Smoak, and at the top Almonte hasn’t been any better offensively or defensively than what the Ms got out of Saunders and Chavez last April. Miller has struggled, as has Seager, both are undoubtedly going to climb out of it and be who they are, which is, for Seager, about a league-average offensive and defensive third baseman. For Miller that’s a bat-first shortstop who is working toward adequacy in the field. Zunino is a defensive upgrade over Shoppach/Montero, and has been fine at the plate, despite not posting much on the on-base percentage department.
While it’s clearly a better team in 2014, the difference isn’t dramatic enough, hence my .500 prediction in March. It’s been a tough week or so and Mariners fans have seen this before. A sore lack of run production, shutouts not in their favor and heartbreaking losses when King Felix tosses a gem. What can they do? Not a lot. It’s difficult to make impact trades in April as teams are still feeling out their roster and are nowhere near throwing in the towel on their season. The farm help is already on the 25-man roster for the M’s after recalling Nick Franklin last week and starting the year with four near-rookies playing regularly and another, Romero, also on the 25-man. So, again, there isn’t a lot the club can do, but I didn’t there isn’t anything that can be done.
Much of my views on the early-season struggles are about Lloyd McClendon’s use of the bullpen, his refusal to treat Almonte like he is apparently treating every other player on the roster and in what manner he’s using the roster as a whole. For example, Romero enters play Monday with one plate appearance since April 15. Almonte has yet to be sat, even versus left-handed pitching where the switch hitter as useless as any pure lefty bat the club has, and it appears that Saunders is being set up to fail, often sitting versus right-handed pitcher he’s been strong against and even once wasted as a pinch runner for the designated hitter, which means he couldn’t be used defensively, perhaps his best asset to the club.
On the surface — and I do not know this, but it seems the only reasonable conclusion — that the coaching staff, ultimately McClendon — is judging Almonte on what they have seen from him, not off anything he has or hasn’t done prior to spring training 2014. If they were using anything pre-2014, they’d see he’s struggled mightily as a right-handed batter and would use him accordingly. I’m just confused as to why they’d judge Saunders and Romero in another manner. Romero is being used almost exclusively versus left-handed pitching. Saunders is being used as a defensive replacement for the most part. I’m not sure which is more absurd.
Stop it with Almonte, already
Granted, the Mariners do not have a hitter right this second that so sorely belongs in the leadoff spot, and it’s been just 18 games, but Almonte is one of the worst options at the top of the order at this point. Sure, he can run. Sure, he can bunt. Sure, he can make consistent contact. His speed is useless, though, if he can’t get on base, he hasn’t bunted for a hit all year and is having problems working counts to his favor, leading to far too many strikeouts. Your leadoff hitter should not be leading the league in punch outs. Almonte’s 27 lead the American League and his strikeout rate of 32.1 percent is third-worst. Most of the other bats that end the year over 25 percent also hit for power, have a solid walk rate, or they simply don’t play everyday. It’s small sample size theater, but it’s worth noting Almonte’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) sits at .340 while Miller, who is also struggling and piling up the whiffs a little too often, boasts a .229 BABIP. If those even out, as they should, Miller has a significantly better shot to do what we thought he’d do than Almonte has to be what McClendon somehow believes he can.
I’m not suggesting Almonte shouldn’t play. I’m not even suggesting he shouldn’t play a lot, or even leadoff, as the roster lacks obvious options. I’m suggesting perhaps McClendon should play the matchup game with Almonte like he is Ackley, Saunders and Romero, and actually give Almonte, and by extension the team, a better chance to succeed.
Best relievers in high-leverage situations
It seems simple, but apparently it’s not. I ask: Is Danny Farquhar not clearly a better reliever than Tom Wilhelmsen right now? Seems obvious as well as it is drastic. Farquhar does everything better than Wilhelmsen; he throws more strikes, he commands his fastball better, has four pitches to offer — four-seam, two-seam, cutter, breaking ball — and since he arrived in the majors his curveball has been better than Wilhelmsen’s. It’s 100 percent senseless to use Wilhelmsen with the game on the line if Farquhar is available. It’s insanity to do it regularly, and that is what we have seen so far in 2014.
Beyond the usage issues, there are a few moves that can be made that might make some sense for the Mariners.
Option Romero, call up Cole Gillespie
Romero isn’t being used — though he may get the start Monday night versus Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel — and he’s not used to having to pinch hit and make a spot start once per 4-5 days, so he’s not being utilized in scenarios where he is most likely to succeed, so any further development, both at the plate and in the outfield where Romero is still relatively unfamiliar, is being stagnated. It’s a complete waste and ultimate crushing of a young player’s potential. Gillespie is 30 years of age, an adequate corner outfielder, also a right-handed bat and is more likely to perform in spot duty than is Romero. The one thing he has against him here is he’s not on the 40-man roster and is typically better versus right-handed pitching.
The idea for me is Romero more than anything. He’s not able to help the big club, playing sparingly and being handcuffed by his manager, so why not get him back in Tacoma playing regularly for awhile, waste the player in Gillespie that has zero chance to be part of the longer-term future, instead. And Gillespie may actually hit a little bit in that spit duty, since he’s done it before.
Option Morrison, sign Morales
Logan Morrison is on the disabled list, but when he’s ready to come back, optioning him to Tacoma and signing Morales makes sense — as long as Hart can continue to play right field, and do so about four times per week. Morales and agent Scott Boras still may want big money on a multi-year deal, and if that is the case this idea won’t work. But if he’s willing to take a pro-rated, one-year deal at the qualifying offer number of about $14 million, the M’s should do it.
Morales is a solid left-handed bat and would instantly become the team’s best or second-best right-handed option, too, along with Hart. He can DH, play first base here and there, particularly versus left-handed pitching when Smoak is less likely to be productive, and Hart can DH when Morales plays first, keeping him from being pushed too hard in the field.
I don’t know what the Morales/Boras view is right now, and I don’t know where the Mariners’ valuation of Morales is, but he does make the team better.
Other than the above, the Mariners are stuck waiting for their starting pitching to get healthy and for their young bats to heat up around Hart and Cano. Hopefully for the M’s themselves and their fan base, those that remain anyway, McClendon is still in the feeling-out phase of the season. The chance to be a .500 team, or slightly better, is there.
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