Seattle Mariners: 10 Keys to Getting Back into the Wild Card Hunt
Going into 2012, many baseball followers wrote the Mariners off as a developing team that had the potential to win big, but not until 2014 or 2015. The M's have lived up to that expectation in some ways, but they've also shown that they're not an easy win like they have been in previous years.
Before tonight's rain-delayed game with the Boston Red Sox, the Mariners were sporting a 16-20 record, good for third place in the AL West (with the LA Angels in fourth...there's a legitimate surprise).
The M's definitely haven't fared as well against the best teams in the league, but they're closer to the middle of the league this year than the bottom in terms of what they can do.
However, their current record doesn't exactly set them up for a Wild Card spot right now, even with the additional berth in each league. So what do they need to do?
Here are 10 keys to getting back in the hunt before it's too late.
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As a developing team, the Mariners have a lot of their talented players spread throughout the organization, easily as low as Double-A.
The starting lineup that manager Eric Wedge put together on Opening Day was a solid estimate of the top players at respective positions, but even the extra few days of spring training that the M's had didn't give Wedge enough time to ascertain the best fits.
Now that almost two months have elapsed since Opening Day, players like Carlos Peguero, Andrew Carraway and Stephen Pryor have had a great chance to prove they deserve a spot on the active roster.
There are clearly some inadequacies on the current 25-man roster, so there's room for general manager Jack Zduriencik and Wedge to make some call-ups. If they stay focused on having an updated major league squad, they'll have a better shot at keeping the team above water.
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John Jaso has shown us this year the power of what many call "clutch hitting." There's a whole debate about whether or not particular players actually play better in high-pressure situations, but there's no doubt that clutch hitting wins games.
For the Mariners, a team who was 26-28 in one-run games in 2011 and is 5-7 this year, there's room to improve.
In 2011, their one-run game win percentage was significantly higher than their overall win percentage, which is good, but games with margins that small are easier to win simply because they require fewer runs to take the lead.
If they can improve that win percentage this year with timely hitting, they'll be in better shape to contend for a Wild Card spot. That could mean pinch-hitting late in games (since currently the bench has a higher batting average than the starting lineup) or just finding the right hitters.
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Barring home runs, the only way to score is to get on base, and to score is to win—and even with home runs, having runners on acts as a multiplier.
The scorecard isn't picky; reaching base on a strikeout, a walk or catcher's interference for all we care is a step in the right direction. Once a runner's on, he presents an opportunity for a run. And runs equal wins.
This strategy is pretty self-explanatory, but it can easily slip into the back of the mind when a batter comes to the plate.
It seems like Wedge may've told the team to take more pitches, since the team is racking up more walks than usual, and that's a great way to get on base. Work up the pitch count and create opportunities.
Brief Bench Bouts
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Like I said before, the Mariners' bench this year is one of their nicest components. It's currently composed of Alex Liddi, Casper Wells, John Jaso, Mike Carp and Munenori Kawasaki, in terms of plate appearances.
The only one on the team hitting better than Alex Liddi right now is Kyle Seager, and, sadly enough, no one on the team is hitting over .300.
We can cut them a little slack since a lot of the hitters are young, but guys like Brendan Ryan (we'll get back to him) and Chone Figgins (him too) shouldn't be hitting under .200.
Part of what I mean by brief bench bouts is cycling the bench, giving the bench players starts, but I also think that in connection with one of the earlier "keys" they should get some fresh faces onto the active roster, like Chih-Hsien Chiang, Trayvon Robinson, Nick Franklin or Vinnie Catricala.
Obviously, too much movement will damage the team's chemistry, in which I'm a firm believer, but you can't have two starters hitting below the infamous Mendoza Line. Keep things fresh.
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Where ya goin', Brendan Ryan?
One does not simply hit .144/.266/.222 AVG/OBP/SLG. Among other questions that that stat line raises, how is his on-base percentage so much higher than his slugging percentage?
It's true that he's excellent in the field (did you see him bare-hand that grounder the other day?), but as Mariners fans have learned, defense doesn't win games. There's a single player on the diamond who does a lot more than the other eight in terms of preventing runs.
Who would be a fitting replacement for Ryan then? Well, Wedge has had most of the guys on the bench practice all around the infield and outfield, so they could plug the hole that way. Another alternative is one of the team's top prospects, Nick Franklin.
Franklin is having a great year with the Jackson Generals in Double-A, and he'll be ready to come up pretty soon, though it may not be this year.
In any case, they have to get Ryan out of the batting order, even if that means DH-ing for him instead of the pitcher.
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Figgins isn't working properly as a baseball player anymore; he needs fixing. I doubt that means correcting his mechanics, because his stats show how successful he can be, and he's a veteran, but I'm not entirely sure what the best solution is.
For 2012 and 2013, the team owes Figgins $17 million. There's a club option for 2014: $9 million contingent upon 600 plate appearances in 2013. Currently, that doesn't look probable. It's also improbably that another team wants Figgins and his contract at this point.
With enough incentives, could they negotiate a deal with a team in need of a quick, versatile player? Possibly. I don't know enough about how trades work to accurately answer that question, but it seems like Figgins still has enough to make it in the majors, so he could be of some worth to some team.
That team isn't the Mariners, though. He needs a new, happier home.
Tapping Toroidal Talent
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Interesting word choice? Yes. Interesting idea? Also yes.
What I mean by tapping toroidal talent is digging into the huge reserve of players that comprise the other 29 major league organizations.
Toroidal means of or relating to a toroid, which is a shape that goes all the way around in a doughnut-like shape. I did just use it to keep with my alliterative slide title pattern, but it's an interesting way of thinking about the body of talent in professional baseball.
A knowledgeable writer could go on for pages about the Mariners and their minor league affiliates alone, but there are 29 other teams with similarly deep farm systems. While the easiest method to fill a gap is to find remedies from within, it's definitely worth looking elsewhere.
Last July, Jack Z contracted Trayvon Robinson from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chih-Hsien Chiang from the Red Sox in a three-way trade that also involved Erik Bedard.
The other notable trade before last year's deadline was with the Detroit Tigers—Doug Fister and David Pauley for Francisco Martinez, Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush and Chance Ruffin.
And then this offseason the Mariners got Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi from the New York Yankees. So Jack Z has been doing a good job of this toroidal tapping, and I think it's important that he keeps it up.
The Opening Day rotation (Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hector Noesi, Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood) is falling apart. Beavan took a line drive to the elbow, Noesi hasn't lived up to expectations and Millwood is hanging onto his major league career by a thread.
I don't blame Eric Wedge at all for putting Millwood into the rotation back in March since there was an unstable experience imbalance, but he doesn't fit in any longer.
I also don't see a reason to keep Noesi at the major league level; it seems like he just wasn't ready yet. There's no harm in sending him down to get some work in at a lower level.
Felix and Vargas can stay, and Beavan has earned himself some more time, provided he's healthy.
That leaves two spots open for Erasmo Ramirez and Andrew Carraway. Ramirez began the year working out of the bullpen for the Mariners, but he's currently extending into a starter with Triple-A Tacoma.
Carraway just got the call-up to Tacoma and went 7.1 innings in his first start with no runs, one hit, one walk and four strikeouts.
While those two are more promising options for the immediate future, the Mariners also have Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen on the way. A revamped rotation indeed.
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We don't want any more pectoral tears, pulled groins, broken noses or certainly any trampoline accidents in Seattle.
Injuries create discontinuity on a team and in a player's career. It's frustrating to all parties when an injury occurs, and, to a certain degree, they can be prevented.
Everyone should take note of Ichiro in this case. If he isn't mid-swing, mid-stride or mid-throw, he's stretching, and look at his career.
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Gotta flaunt your stuff, right? Well, Felix Hernandez is pretty much the extent of the Mariners' stuff. For now...
Honestly, the probability of making the playoffs this year, even with a Wild Card spot, are slim to none. That's okay, though. We're Mariners fans, and we've seen rougher days. Luckily for us, there's a very bright future that's approaching fast.
In the meantime, we can enjoy the bright spots sprinkled throughout this season. Go M's!