Over the last two months, I have been critically watching Mariners baseball more than I have been writing about the team’s performance. I have seen the front office largely make the changes that I prescribed in May as a way to immediately better the performance of the club. I’ve witnessed the offense grow behind the infusion of youth. Second baseman Nick Franklin, shortstop Brad Miller and catcher Mike Zunino have all progressed from the minors to the majors as impact players.
However, I have also watched as the Mariners defense has grown more inconsistent, and the pitching — behind a horrendous bullpen — fall to the bottom tier of the American League in ERA.
Clearly, the Mariners have shown an immense amount of promise since these changes have been made in June. With the promotions of Franklin, Miller and Zunino, the emergence of Justin Smoak and the continued progression of third-year star Kyle Seager, Seattle boasts arguably the best young infield in the entire major leagues. Evidence of this promise can be seen by an 8-game winning streak the team ripped off in July and in which the team is just two games under .500 since June, a 66-game span).
There are also serious flaws that are holding this team back from producing even better results, from perhaps making a run at the playoffs this fall. The final month and a half of this season should be about seeing what internal options are not only available to resolve those flaws, but whether or not they are capable of doing so. The importance of this franchise producing a playoff-contending season in 2014 cannot be overstated.
Right now those flaws can be nailed down to:
- Back end of the rotation
- Inconsistency of bullpen
- Outfield personnel/production
After Felix Hernandez (who is having another Cy Young caliber season by the way) and Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners have been unable to garner consistent performances from any of the other three starting spots in the rotation. The pitchers occupying those spots — Joe Saunders (10-12, 4.86 ERA in 25 starts), Aaron Harang (5-10, 5.77 ERA in 20 starts), Jeremy Bonderman (1-3, 4.93 ERA in seven starts) and Erasmo Ramirez (4-0, 7.06 ERA in five starts) — have been seriously underwhelming and vastly inconsistent. Bonderman has since been released, Harang and Saunders are pending free agents and Ramirez has yet to regain his 2012 form after returning from injury. It is paramount for this team to restore its pitching strength by finding consistently good performance from the 3, 4, and 5 slots in the rotation.
What are the team’s options over the last 41 games of the season? Well, for one they are strictly in-house. The team has a few starting options down in the minors at Tacoma that should be given a look, namely prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. There’s also Blake Beavan who has started some 43 games for the Mariners over the last three years and Hector Noesi. The latter two, less likely options considering their struggles this season and the Mariners perhaps feeling as if they know what they have in them. But seeing what Walker and Paxton look like as starters, getting them acclimated to the majors in the last month, should be of high importance to this team.
The second area of concern is the bullpen. The bullpen has largely been less effective and far more inconsistent than the back-end of the rotation. It’s also far harder to pinpoint the weaknesses and the solutions.
Closer Tom Wilhelmsen has been demoted to Triple A after five blown saves and a number of blown “holds”. Set-up man Stephen Pryor (7.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, .55 WHIP) has been lost for the season after two injuries (lat muscle and triceps). Meanwhile set-up contenders Carter Capps (41 IP, 5.71 ERA, 1.61 WHIP) and Oliver Perez (41.2 IP, 3.02 ERA, 1.42 WHIP) have been inconsistent at best. Manager Eric Wedge has nobody to turn to at the end of games right now. There’s simply zero trust.
The only keepers look to be rookie Yoervis Medina (50.2 IP, 2.49 ERA, 1.28 WHIP), lefty Charlie Furbush (48.1 IP, 3.17 ERA, 1.10 WHIP) and Danny Farquhar (39.1 IP, 5.03 ERA, 1.30 WHIP) who appears to be improving. But where they fit and who joins them remains to be seen. Giving more time to in-house candidates like Brandon Maurer, Bobby Lafromboise, Noesi and even prospects Brian Moran and Carson Smith should be a focus. Evaluating those players and entering the offseason with a detailed plan to build a successful bullpen is the next key.
Finally, the organization needs to focus on its starting outfield. The Mariners have run out nine different starting outfielders this season without even dipping into the ranks of their prospects — Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez, Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, Endy Chavez, Dustin Ackley, Carlos Peguero and Alex Liddi. Liddi and Bay have since been released, Peguero demoted to Tacoma with no return in sight and Chavez, Morse, Gutierrez and Ibanez are set to become free agents at the end of the season. Who forms the starting outfield moving forward? Are any of those players currently under control of the franchise? Don’t be surprised if they aren’t. Saunders has bounced back after another serious slump and Ackley looks better over his last 30 games, but neither has a guaranteed 25-man roster spot entering 2014.
Finding out who does and what the answers are to those other questions should be the focus of this team over the last 41 games.