Lloyd McClendon, the playfully irascible Mariners manager, was at his sarcastic best again Wednesday afternoon. Looking for insight into how he has made chaos seem normal, even beneficial, I asked if he enjoys the challenge of thriving despite constant lineup shuffling.
McClendon gave his trademark — and somewhat intimidating — grin.
“No, I don’t,” he said. “I asked Griffey, Edgar and Buhner to come out of retirement, and they said no. I don’t know if that answers your question.”
And then there was that grin again.
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The little joke was an abundant answer, actually.
In the first half of McClendon’s first season with the Mariners, he has been managing against his preferences, navigating outside of his comfort zone, but he has still been able to make an encouraging first impression.
The Mariners have had one fixture in their lineup — second baseman Robinson Cano in the No. 3 spot. Every other place in the batting order is open to adjustment, re-evaluation, or complete makeover. And yet, the Mariners are above .500 and possess a knack for timely hitting through the entire uncertain lineup.
Is it sustainable? No. You’ve seen a glimpse of why in the past two losses to the New York Yankees, including $155 million rookie pitcher Masahiro Tanaka’s evisceration of the Mariners on Wednesday. If the Mariners want to compete for a playoff spot, they will need better health and more consistency from more players.
But it has been impressive to watch the manager show he can push the right buttons, dismiss the criticism whenever he is accused of making a wrong move and use every available resource to spur the Mariners’ competitiveness.
McClendon’s flexible leadership has resulted in a squad that plays unselfishly and with purpose despite the limitations of a .238 team batting average.
No, these aren’t the Mariners of Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner. But they’re also not the dysfunctional, fragile Mariners we’ve seen the past four seasons. They’re utilizing their 25-man roster as well as any team in baseball right now. Heck, they’re utilizing a good chunk of their organizational depth to combat injuries and the struggles of some young players.
And while it seems impossible they can win this way for a whole season, the Mariners have charmed some naysayers with their all-for-one success.
“A lot of people think that, if we’re not playing today, we’re going to get down and be of no use to the team,” outfielder Dustin Ackley said. “Everybody wants to play every day, but everybody has been great about it. We’re feeding off each other. We’re competing for spots, but supporting each other. And when your name is in the lineup, you just keep it simple and give the best at-bats you can.”
McClendon might not like the uncertainty, but he is good at managing it. The Mariners have used 59 lineups in 65 games. Outside of Cano, who has hit third in all 61 of his games, the Mariners haven’t had a player hit in the same spot in the order for even half of their games.
Baseball teams mix and match much more than they used to, but you can’t even bring up the word “platoon” to McClendon. That’s not how he wants to do things. But the Mariners need to use all 13 of their non-pitchers to put together competent lineups. They need to protect some hitters from bad pitching matchups, and they need to exploit any matchup advantage they can uncover.
“I get it,” McClendon said. “I’ve heard it for the last 12 years. The fact is, players don’t play every day anymore, and you have to have different players in there and you have matchups and some guys hit left-handers better than they do right-handers. That’s just the way it is.
“But it gives you guys a lot to talk about, so it makes it very interesting.”
McClendon managed the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the National League, for five seasons. He has leaned on that experience at times in his new American League gig. It has been easy to criticize some of his pinch-hitting decisions, and he has gotten testy a few times when scrutinized by the media after games, but the majority of the manager’s moves have worked.
The players say that they’ve been successful because McClendon has used the bench frequently. Players are engaged. Reserves such as utility man Willie Bloomquist and catcher John Buck have leadership roles, and the coaching staff does its best to prepare all the players for their ever-changing roles.
“The communication is good,” outfielder Endy Chavez said. “Everybody is pretty clear on what their job is, and when it changes, we know. We’re happy right now. We’re comfortable. We’re just focused on doing good for the team.”
For more finicky teams, the inconsistency could be a major issue. But regardless of what wonky lineup McClendon produces, his team is competitive.
Though the Mariners need stability soon, they might have expedited their growth by handling the instability.