The arrival of hitters who are both young and productive has caused a flutter of something akin to hope among Mariners fans.
The optimism is justified. But all it takes is a complete home-series shutdown (four runs in a three-game sweep by the Chicago White Sox, including 9-2 Sunday) to recall that pessimism is just a glance away at the standings.
With about a month to go, this is a 56-76, last-place team that arrived in this wretched state through self-mutilation. Not that were saying anythings wrong with the franchises choice of hobbies, but it gives one pause when recent discussions have suggested the club will have a surplus of talent to trade this off-season.
The recent trip to Cleveland revealed that three hitters atop the lineup for a couple of games against the Indians were ex-Mariners for whom nothing is left to show in Seattle from the deals.
Right fielder Shin-soo Choo (traded for Ben Broussard in 2006), shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (Eduardo Perez in 2006) and centerfielder Ezequiel Carrera (Russell Branyan in 2010), are all performing well for the Indians, who are contending in the American League Central.
In addition, Casey Kotchman, abysmal in Seattle last year, is tearing up the American League in Tampa, while Washingtons Mike Morse (traded in 2009 for Ryan Langerhans) is similarly ripping apart the National League.
The litany of ex-Mariners achieving elsewhere, as time-worn Seattle fans know, is as close to tradition as this franchise has, and can go on for days. But the point again becomes relevant as another September approaches without meaning in the standings, but loaded with portent for 2012 and beyond.
The point: Know your players.
The Mariners now have have five rookies regularly in the lineup infielders Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Mike Carp, and outfielders Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson that have shown major league promise.
Entering the game Sunday, the five have combined to hit .290 with 35 doubles, six triples, 21 home runs and 84 RBI. In the recent seven-game road trip, the group hit .328 with 14 RBI.
The group doesnt include first baseman Justin Smoak, who was last years prized acquisition who lately has been injured and earlier was tailing off badly. The six youngsters constitute the near- and mid-term offensive future for the Mariners. Nothing should get in the way of their development, including any records and statistical achievements by Ichiro.
The Mariners can’t afford any more squandering of talent through a failure to know their own. Every team makes trading mistakes, but only one American League team has never made the World Series, and it hasn’t been just bad luck.
“We’ve been trying to (play them a lot), with the exception of a couple of guys,” said manager Eric Wedge after Sunday’s dubious setback. “It’s a fine line . . . a push and pull sending them out every day.”
The couple of guys to which Wedge referred are Ichiro and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez. Both are hitting better lately; Ichiro has an 11-game hitting streak, and Gutierrez has four multi-hit games in the last five. But that isn’t the point. It’s less about winning games now than finding out about the skills of the kids under pressure. And the guy who knows that best is Wedge.
“This is why it’s important to have these guys up before (the September call-ups),” he said. “You’re playing teams who are in (the race), and they’re coming after you.”
Once the rosters expand, the temptation is strong to give lots of young guys a few at-bats instead of nurturing the keepers/trade bait. With so many outfielders vying for the presumed single opening, the Mariners should be eager to rest the two guys they know enough about, Ichiro and Gutierrez.
Instead, Wedge has already told reporters that Ichiro will be in the lineup nearly every day, a decision undoubtedly handed down from ownership. After getting two hits Sunday, Ichiro is batting .274 and needs 49 hits in the remaining 30 games to reach the 200-hit plateau that has marked each of his first 10 seasons. He’s hit 50 in a month five times, so reaching the mark is possible.
So what? Are fans and baseball gods going to look askance at Ichiro if he ends up with 190 hits in 2011? Of course not. Ichiro prides himself on consistency, at least that which can be measured with numbers. But there are times when team needs are paramount. Getting Wells, Robinson and others some time in right field is more important.
Besides Ichiro, the Mariners have two other over-30 vets not pulling their contract weight: Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo. All three are signed at least through next year. Figgins has been benched. Olivo’s increasing shortcomings behind the plate must be tolerated because the club has no reliable alternative, and he leads with 16 homers. Ichiro needs to make way.
For themselves as well as the franchise, the young guys need every at-bat possible, to see who can play where, hit best in which spot in the lineup, and who can overcome major league setbacks.
Wedge talked about the the scouting/video data now compiled on every player. The difference between his playing days and now “is night and day,” he said. “Once you have 30-50 at-bats, there’s a book on you. And if you have success, the book gets bigger.”
Which might account for Ackley striking out three times Sunday, and the three other rookies in the lineup combining with him to go 2 for 16.
Seager, the rookie third baseman, explained his biggest lesson learned on his fast track to The Show.
“The higher you get, the less mistakes you’ll see (from pitchers),” he said. “If you get your one (good) pitch, don’t miss it.”
Even though GM Jack Zduriencik and his scouting team deserve to have a contract extension, they need every resource to know their player assets. The franchise over its history has dealt away at least one full All-Star team, maybe two.
It may be the club’s one enduring tradition, and it has to stop.