Wait ’til next year: Seattle Mariners
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait Till Next year series.
Current record: 72-81 (.448, 4th in the AL West)
Mathematically eliminated: September 16
What went right in 2012: The Mariners have gone 36-30 since the All-Star break, which is tied for the American League’s fifth-best record. While that record is padded by 21-3 mark against the Blue Jays, Indians, Twins and Royals, they have caused their share of headaches for the Rays (4-2), Rangers (4-5, but 30-30 in runs) and Angels (3-3) down the stretch. Of their remaining games, three come against Texas, six against Anaheim, leaving them ample opportunity to play the spoiler. Thanks to that second-half surge, they’ve already surpassed their 2010 and 2011 win totals.
While the Mariners’ overall run prevention ability owes a sizable debt to their ballpark, the team does rank third in the AL in runs allowed per game (3.98) and first in defensive efficiency (.711). Felix Hernandez has put himself into the Cy Young discussion with a 2.85 ERA and 207 strikeouts in 220 2/3 innings, not to mention a perfect game on August 15; alas, a rocky three-start stretch earlier this month added nearly half a run to his ERA, costing him the league lead in that category. Swingman Hisashi Iwakuma, a 31-year-old Japanese import, has put together a 3.41 ERA in 28 appearances including 14 starts, Tom Wilhelmsen has added a new chapter to an amazing comeback from the brink of oblivion to notch 29 saves to go with a 2.26 ERA, and even Oliver Perez has shown some worth, delivering a 1.91 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings as a lefty specialist.
Offensively, few of their hitters have done much of note, but John Jaso (.273/.392/.450, for a .328 True Average) has enjoyed a strong season as a catcher/designated hitter, Michael Saunders (.251/.309/.430 with 17 home runs, 20 steals and a .280 True Average) has emerged as a playable alternative in centerfield, and likewise for Kyle Seager (.258/.316/.416 with a team-high 18 homers and a .271 True Average) at third base.
What went wrong in 2012: Second-half surge or no, the Mariners are en route to their fourth losing season — and fourth last-place finish in the AL West — out of five, and third out of four in both categories on general manager Jack Zduriencik’s watch. They rank dead last in the league in scoring (3.75) and all three slash stats (.233/.294/.365), and while their batting stats are best interpreted through the lens of an advanced metric that adjusts for ballpark, their .249 True Average is still last in the league. Young players who were supposed to be the core of their rebuilding effort such as Justin Smoak (.209/.278/.342 and a major league worst −2.8 WARP), Dustin Ackley (.209/.278/.342, 0.2 WARP), and Jesus Montero (.261/.298/.390, −0.7 WARP) have had dreadful seasons with the stick, even if they did reach double digits in home runs. Also providing abysmal production have been seasoned veterans like Miguel Olivo (.210/.228/.366, with a 79/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio), Brendan Ryan (.193/.278/.275), Chone Figgins (.183/.261/.274 as the team’s third-highest paid player) and — before he was traded to the Yankees — Ichiro Suzuki (.261/.288/.353). Franklin Gutierrez, the team’s fourth highest-paid player, has been limited to 35 games due to a pectoral strain and a concussion.
Meanwhile, even given the team’s overall run prevention levels, no regular Seattle starter besides Hernandez and Iwakuma has compiled an ERA+ better than 100, or struck out more than 6.0 per nine. Blake Beavan’s microscopic walk rate (1.4 per nine) was offset by a matching home run rate en route to a 4.64 ERA, while Hector Noesi, who was acquired in the Montero-Michael Pineda trade, was torched for a 6.00 ERA in 18 starts and two relief appearances.
Overall outlook: After losing 196 games combined in 2010 and 2011, the Mariners have taken a small step forward this year, and with the trade of the pending free agent Ichiro, they’ve dodged a public relations bullet, which should enable them to continue focusing on the future instead of the past. Zduriencik has resisted the understandable temptation to trade King Felix, and while the team does have a trio of stud pitching prospects on the way in the form of Danny Hulzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, they need their young offensive core to reverse course and live up to expectations if they’re going to return to contending anytime soon.