Seattle Mariners: 10 Keys to Getting Back in the AL West
Over the weekend, small signs of life came with wins on Saturday and Sunday against the San Francisco Giants.
If so, could that lead to bigger things?
Right now, like most Mariner fans, I'm simply looking for positive signs that can help build towards sustained greatness in years to come. However, for the big dreamers out there, here's a not-so-short list of things that will need to happen in order for the M's to contend in the AL West in 2012.
Keep in mind I'm not making any major deals or crazy roster moves; I'm sticking with what the M's have in house. This might be a bit of a fantasy, but it's not fantasy baseball...
Win 10 in a Row
Ok, easier said than done, but let's be realistic here.
Today the Mariners are 29-39. Exactly ten games under .500 with more than half the season to play, but less than 100 games to go.
If we do the math over the rest of the season, in order to simply finish at .500, the M's would need to go 52-42, winning 55 percent of their games.
In order to put up a fight for the division, let's assume the M's would need to win 90 games. It's a nice round number and a benchmark that most would consider a fair goal to contend in any division on average throughout baseball.
For the M's to make that goal they would need to make up an additional nine wins while going 61-33 the rest of the way, winning 65 percent of their games.
To put this into context on a daily basis, they'd need to win two of three games in every series from now until October.
Winning 10 in a row sooner rather than later would be the kind of kick-start needed to make this happen.
Both the Rangers and Angels Collapse
With all due respect to the Oakland A's who are ahead of the Mariners in the standings at the moment, the AL West is technically a two-horse race.
The Rangers, twice-defending AL Champions, are off to a solid start once again, sporting a 40-27 record while leading the division with "rookie" pitching sensation Yu Darvish helping lead the way.
Meanwhile the Angels, who prior to the Rangers' rise the past two years were often the division front-runners, are finally starting to get in gear after a slow start and now only trail the Rangers by four games with a 36-31 record.
For the M's to join the fray they will need to piece together an impressive second half, but also need both ball clubs to suffer serious collapses.
Once again, if we do the math, if the Rangers who currently have a .597 winning percentage we're to stumble a bit and play .500 ball the rest of the way across 95 games, they'd still win 87 or 88 games.
This would still mean the M's would need to win almost two-thirds of their games the rest of the way to steal the division, but it sure would be tight.
If either team suffers from slumps and/or injuries, the door could open a little bit wider.
Ichiro and Guti Turn Back the Clock
If the Mariners have any chance of going on a tear, Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez will need to help.
Right now the M's are a team sorely lacking in terms of veteran leadership, not to mention hitters that pitchers respect enough to actually take caution in approaching.
With Franklin Gutierrez finally returning to the lineup after his injury in spring training, there might be hope at the top of the order for the team with Guti and Ichiro serving as a one-two punch to help set the table, steal a base and actually score some runs.
It may seem like a lot to ask for, but if these two are worth the money the team is paying them, they should be up for the task.
Smoak and Montero Hit 30 Homers...Starting Now
If Ichiro and Guti can manage to get on base, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak should benefit at the heart of the order with pitchers forced to challenge them.
If they can show some patience at the plate, it should at the very least serve as a positive sign for things to come.
If they can flash some power with that patience, the M's offense by extension could become one that opponents have to respect. Adding a power surge of 30 home runs between the two from now through October could continue to make a dent in the current gap in the standings.
Seager and Saunders Continue to Give 110 Percent
How do you know your team is in last place?
When Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders are your most consistent players on a daily basis.
While I'm not sure if that statement is more of a back-handed compliment or insult, it is the truth.
Both players this year have exceeded expectations by becoming regulars in the lineup after going to spring training with only perhaps a 50/50 chance of even making the roster.
For the Mariners to make a leap forward, I'm not going to ask them to do anything more than what they've been doing since Day 1 by giving it all they've got.
Ideally though, they wouldn't have to carry the burden.
Ackley Breaks out of Sophomore Slump
Speaking of carrying the burden.
Perhaps we asked too much of Dustin Ackley too soon?
After homering on Opening Day in Tokyo, it's been all downhill for the second-year man out of UNC.
While I doubt anyone is giving up on Ackley, his recent drop in the batting order served as a harsh reality for everyone.
If the Mariners are serious about getting back in the race, Ackley's resurgence is critical.
Ackley would need to bridge the gap between the top of the order (Ichiro and Guti) and the heart of the order (Smoak and Montero), by driving in and scoring runs in bunches, while showing the batting prowess and grit that earned him so much acclaim upon his arrival last season.
Whether he can do it is hard to say. Nevertheless Ackley is the lynchpin and the potential future face of the franchise.
If he can make strides in the right direction, it would bode well for the Mariners' future.
Felix Goes Cy Young
If Dustin Ackley wants to ask anyone about expectations and pressure, he should look no further than Felix Hernandez.
Sunday's performance proved that at least for the moment, "The King is not Dead," as some may have been led to believe based on recent outings.
For the Mariners to contend, the return to form by Felix would need to be just the beginning.
Essentially, he would need to be untouchable the rest of the way and lock up the Cy Young with one dominant performance after another.
Could he do that, provided he stays healthy and gets meaningful run support?
Actually, it's probably one of the more plausible points listed thus far.
Starting Rotation Solidifies
Marching in step, but perhaps a few paces behind Felix, the rest of the Mariners starting rotation would need to finally solidify with Jason Vargas, vintage Kevin Millwood, Hector Noesi and Erasmo Ramirez making every outing count.
This rotation might not sound as amazing as what the Mariners have down on the farm, but if they can keep the M's in each game, it could give the hitters a chance to make the difference.
Bullpen Tightens Up
Right now Tom Wilhelmsen is the Mariners closer and he's done a solid job since taking over for the erratic Brandon League.
At the same time, if the Mariners are going to make the improbable leap back into the AL West race, League would need to return to his All-Star form from last season.
It's not to say that Wilhelmsen needs to step back; it's quite the contrary. Wilhelmsen would serve as a superb setup man and occasionally shut the door as the M's take on a bullpen by committee.
Throw Hisashi Iwakuma into the mix and what I'm proposing borders on scandalous.
Call me crazy, but I honestly have difficulty understanding why teams believe that one and only one reliever is capable of closing the door each and every night.
Beyond the Mariano Riveras of the world, the majority of closers burn out faster than a book of cheap matches. If the Mariners are destined for greatness this season, they will need to get creative and use every man they've got...
Dump Figgins and Ryan
...OK, perhaps not everybody.
You'd think somewhere within this mystical tale of wonder I'd find a role for these two.
Unfortunately I don't have that good of an imagination.
Honestly I'm tired of seeing both Chone Figgins and Brendan Ryan, day after day, bring little-to-nothing to the table.
On some level, I understand the foolish pride behind keeping Figgins and the refusal to eat his salary. At the same time, there reaches a point if you're general manager Jack Zduriencik that you need to admit failure and move on.
As for Ryan, I'm still not sure what the plan is at shortstop, but have made my thoughts clear. If this is going to be a dream season for the M's, then either Munenori Kawasaki or Carlos Triunfel takes over full time at shortstop.
Within a lineup firing on all cylinders, one of them simply plays every day, makes the occasional solid grab in the field or lays down an important bunt...hence whatever it takes to make a difference.
Sounds crazy, but even crazier would be expecting either Figgins or Ryan to do the same.