They might not be the 1997 Mariners — who hit 264 home runs — but the Mariners should be considerably better offensively than the most recent editions.
The Mariners’ legacy is one of historic slugging — a record 264 home runs by the 1997 ballclub, which turned the cozy Kingdome into their own personal video game.
Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 bombs. Jay Buhner hit 40. Paul Sorrento muscled up 31 times. Edgar Martinez batted .330. Even cuddly Joey Cora — Little Joey — had a .441 slugging percentage that year, which would have ranked second on the 2012 Mariners.
But the memory of those vintage Seattle sluggers is dimming by the season. A new stereotype took hold long ago. If you play word association with a casual baseball fan and say “Mariners,” chances are the response would be something like, “Can’t hit.” And if it was an ardent fan, a few expletives would be thrown in.
Their absence of offense has become a pitiful calling card, an identity the Mariners are desperate to shed. In fact, the organization threw itself at that task this winter with a vengeance. Just about every significant move the Mariners made, or tried to make — from the free agents they wooed to the trades they pursued to the fences they moved in — was motivated by a desire to bring more oomph to the lineup.
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Have they succeeded in ruining a perfectly good meme? It sure looks like it. At the risk of overvaluing Cactus League statistics, and of getting seduced by the hyper-optimism of spring, I’m going to just say it: The Mariners will no longer be power-challenged in 2013.
That’s not to say they will be the ’27 Yankees, or the ’97 Mariners. But they won’t be the team that brought the phrase “historically bad offense” into prominence in 2010. Not with proven major-league power hitters like Michael Morse (31 homers in 2011) and Kendrys Morales (34 homers in 2009) seemingly healthy and newly placed in the middle of the Seattle order. Not with those daunting, confidence-sapping, slump-inducing fences moved in from the right-field power alley to the left-field line. Not with the natural growth by their young core of hitters.
“We’ll be considerably better this year offensively, because the young people continue to impress and learn from their experiences, and from bringing in the veteran guys,” said manager Eric Wedge. “People talk about the hitting, but it’s just because we started in such a bad spot before I got here. We still improved 40-plus runs the first year, and 60-plus runs last year. One-hundred-plus runs in two years is pretty significant. When you start from where we started from, it doesn’t have quite as much impact.”
It has been a slow, steady and highly depressing decline from the early years at Safeco, when the pop was successfully transferred to the new digs — a temporary circumstance, it turned out.
The Mariners finished in the top 11 among MLB teams in runs scored in each of their first four seasons at The Safe (and ranked No. 1 in 2001 with 927, before anyone told them that Safeco was a hitter’s worst nightmare).
It was in 2004 that the era of feeble batting began to settle into Safeco. For the past 10 years, they have finished in the bottom third in scoring in every season but one, the aberrational campaign of 2007 (followed closely by the unmitigated disaster of 2008).
But it is the past four seasons that the Mariners have bottomed out in terms of scoring, finishing 28th, 30th, 30th and 27th in the majors. Their 513 runs in 2010 were not only fewer than any American League team in the designated hitter era; but fewer than any National League team in the DH era.
It would be jarring to the senses to watch a Mariners team that can bash. No offense, but this team has had no offense for so long a certain resignation has taken over. When the Mariners fall behind 2-1, especially at home, it has been hard to muster up much hope they will mount a comeback.
But one could detect a paradigm shift this spring, as balls dented the berms all around the Cactus League.
No one has been adversely affected more by the Mariners’ inability to score than Felix Hernandez, but he’s on board the fun-wagon, too.
“It’s been crazy,” he said in the middle of spring training. “I’ve been talking to these guys — ‘save some for the season.’ But they’re not going to stop. They’re going to continue. They’re going to continue to be hot. If everyone stays healthy, we’ll surprise a lot of people.”
Hernandez was speaking in terms of the Mariners’ win-loss record. We’ve got six months to see how that plays out. But if the Mariners actually manage to bop the ball around like a bona fide major-league baseball team, that would be a major development in its own right.
It might even make Little Joey Cora cry tears of pride.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.