The Seattle Mariners rank ahead of only the San Francisco Giants in runs scored per game this season, and to move into third from last before the season ends is probably too tall a task. Dustin Ackley would need a .900 OPS. Justin Smoak would need to notch a 1.000ish figure.
As dire as the situation appears, though, things are getting better in Seattle. Ackley's strong rookie showing has been a pleasant surprise. Kyle Seager has been well above average since being called up, as has Casper Wells since the trade that brought him over from Detroit. Trayvon Robinson, who the team inexplicably extracted from the Dodgers in a three-way trade at the end of July, has been roughly average since and shows real promise.
The Mariners are averaging roughly 3.75 runs per game on the season, but since ending their 17-game losing streak on July 27, that number has risen to 4.25. Wells was acquired July 26. Robinson arrived on July 31. Seager came up for good on August 2. Since then, the Mariners' .736 team OPS ranks 19th in baseball.
A disclaimer: That middle-of-the-pack figure came largely courtesy of a .338 team average on balls in play, easily the highest in the league over that span. But then again, this is a BAbIP lineup. They are athletic, and most have some speed. At a scrawny 6'2", Wells is the biggest man in the bunch. These guys succeed if, and only if, they can consistently make contact, and then make trouble for opponents with their athletic gifts.
Robinson, Ackley and Seager are not a bad crop of rookies. Ichiro Suzuki and Smoak still haven't even hit this season, yet things are getting better. Smoak has been hurt, in fact, and though Mike Carp hit well in his absence, one has to figure that Smoak will be back and better than any replacement Seattle could readily muster.
Another prospect general manager Jack Zduriencik seemingly conjured from air, Francisco Martinez (actually acquired in an apparently lopsided trade with Detroit), should be a part of the equation by the end of 2012 as well.
Nor has Zduriencik abandoned his commitment to defense in rehabilitating the lineup. The new guys are all adequate defenders. Wells is above-average in the corner outfield spots. Seager has been solid at third base, and surprisingly adequate at both middle infield spots in brief auditions. Robinson's arm and sheer athleticism make him a high-ceiling defender.
Meanwhile, Seattle has retained A-plus defenders at two crucial positions in shortstop Brendan Ryan and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez. Both men are miserable hitters, but the same goes with the rest of Seattle's lineup. Now that the others seem to be picking up some slack, it's much easier to justify Ryan and Gutierrez as run-prevention stars.
It's a long day living in the AL West these days, with the Texas Rangers already light years ahead and loaded in the farm system. The Angels may be hamstrung by some awful fiscal decisions, but Seattle could be stalled for a while if they try too hard to build the way they have this season. It may be time, then, to revisit the notion of trading Felix Hernandez.
There is no rush on that. In fact, the deal unequivocally ought not to happen in 2012. Once top draft pick Danny Hultzen establishes himself alongside Hernandez and Michael Pineda in the Seattle rotation, though, Zduriencik ought to at least explore a swap.
Hernandez is a stud, but the Mariners have ridden his young arm way harder than is advisable, and anyway, he's just one piece. If Seattle could extract two pieces equaling his value, one being a top-hitting prospect and one being a future mid-rotation starter, they would be wise to do so.
Building a winner in Seattle will be difficult, but the front office has taken major positive steps this year. If there is a market inefficiency in modern baseball, it is the industry-wide obsession with the next market inefficiency. Zduriencik wrestled that demon and lost, but he now has the chance to prove that run-prevention teams can win in pitchers' parks. He just needs another slugger or two.