Five days ago, Felix Hernandez walked off the mound at Minute Maid Field in Houston with his eyes fixed on his feet. He was lifted after one third of an inning, having yielded eight runs to the opponent in the worst start of his career. The game was the first of three against the division-leading Astros, a team the Mariners trailed by 6.5 games. With two other teams between them and a 1-6 record against the Astros entering, the series was as critical as one you can find in the middle of June.
And yet here the Mariners were, behind 8-0 after one inning and their ace in the dugout, done for the night. It has been that type of season for the Mariners. One in which the few moments of good are suddenly washed away by one extra moment of bad. Whether it be the offensive struggles of their best hitter, Robinson Cano (now hitting .236/.600 ops), defensive malaise or the queer managerial decisions by skipper Lloyd McClendon, Seattle (29-36) sits in fourth place in the AL West, 8.5 games back of Houston, unable to get out of its own way.
Hernandez was doomed from the moment McClendon announced the Mariners lineup. With the team set to face left-handed pitcher Brett Oberholtzer, McClendon turned to his right-handed platoon bats off the bench. It meant Rickie Weeks got the start over Seth Smith but even more unfortunately, it meant 38-year-old Willie Bloomquist took the place of Brad Miller at shortstop. With Hernandez being primarily a ground-ball pitcher, and Bloomquist having the range of a sloth in a one-way tunnel, McClendon set up his best starting pitcher for failure simply for the allure of some small advantage in one of Bloomquist’s three potential at-bats against Oberholtzer. Never mind that Bloomquist is hitting a paltry .212 versus left-handers in 2015 with a .500 OPS in 33 at-bats and Miller’s defense is far superior.
It took one batter to expose the fatal flaw in McClendon’s myopic vision of his lineup. The speedy infielder Jose Altuve hit a routine ground ball to Bloomquist at short only to record an infield single when the shortstop was unable to throw him out. Bloomquist made an error when he decided to sit back and wait for the ball to come to him and compounded it by making a lazy throw to first base. The disaster unfolded from there.
Seattle simply cannot afford mistakes like this going forward. It must put its best foot forward in every game and play to its true capabilities if it desires to end a 13-year playoff drought. The Astros are a flawed team currently holding the AL West lead at 38-28. The Rangers and Angels, two more flawed teams, trail in second and third place 2.5 and 4.5 games back respectively. It may require 88 wins to capture the division title and automatic playoff berth that comes with it. For Seattle, that means playing .607 baseball for the remaining 97 games.
Following are five moves that will unable the Mariners to do that, thereby reaching their first postseason in 14 years:
- Fire McClendon (as well as bench coach Trent Jewett and third-base coach Rich Donnelly). Replace McClendon with Class AAA manager Pat Listach on an interim basis. Bring in two new coaches to fill the other vacant roles. McClendon is a fish out of water right now. His decision to start Bloomquist at shortstop, obviously completely ignoring the defensive component, was just another in a long line of inept decisions.
- DFA Bloomquist, purchase contract of INF Shawn O’Malley. O’Malley immediately takes over the utility role of Bloomquist, serving exclusively as a reserve middle infielder, capable of filling in during late-game or extra-inning situations. He does not enter the starting lineup as Miller, Seager and Cano start at their respective positions every game. If an injury occurs, another move is made.
- Send C Mike Zunino down to Class AAA. The 24-year-old Zunino is hitting .163/.546 OPS through the first third of the season. Those numbers are down from the .199/.658 he posted in ’14. Zunino has a bright future as a potential All-Star catcher, but running him out there every day at the major league level is only killing his progress as a professional hitter. He needs further development before he slips into bad habits that irrevocably harm him. For a replacement, see if a backup catcher of the A.J. Pierzynski’s ilk is available for a modest, Forrest Snow-like return, on the trade market. If not, see if there is a suitable option in the free-agent pool. Otherwise, go with current reserve Jesus Sucre as the starter for 10-14 days while Steve Baron (subsequently recalled from Class AAA) gets up to speed on catching the staff. A former first-round pick in 2009, Baron will be the best defensive catcher the M’s have seen in the last decade, if not longer. He is exceptionally defensively, with an elite arm. While is hit tool is currently below average, you’re not making this move to get better offensive production in the present. This is a long-term move, orchestrated to better the future of your No. 3 overall selection in the ’12 draft, and hopefully, of your club. Zunino should remain in Tacoma through the end of the Pacific Coast League season, then begin ’16 with Tacoma before his progress dictates his recall. The team should wait until it sees a .290/.840 line for a 3+ week period; an ability to stay on the breaking ball; use the whole field; and to post one smart at-bat after another. Only then do you recall Zunino to the ML club.
- Skip the No. 5 spot in the rotation whenever possible. While starters Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton work their way back from injuries, it will behoove the M’s to skip JA Happ and Roenis Elias in the rotation whenever an off day presents the opportunity. This will potentially give Hernandez an extra start or two. Those 1-2 games could mean the difference between sitting at home and reaching the postseason. Hernandez has just 82.2 innings through 13 starts this season. The team has so far passed on several opportunities to do so. Now is the time.
- Get Cano going. It can be said that even if the first four moves are made and Cano doesn’t soon revert to his ’13 or ’14 form, it will all be for naught. And that may be true. So much of the Mariners offense revolves around what their well-paid 3-4-5 hitters do and right now Cano at .236/.600 is simply not getting it done. Not even close. Do whatever it takes to get your best hitter going. It may require a temporary drop in the lineup.