The Mariners’ latest hitting hope, first-round pick Alex Jackson, took the standard ceremonial batting practice Monday, as his family, agent Scott Boras and the team’s top brass looked on.
The Mariners finally seem to be developing some right-handed thump in the minors, where recent draft choices D.J. Peterson, Patrick Kivlehan and Austin Wilson are all putting up astronomic numbers in Class AA or below. They hope Jackson will soon add to that reservoir of a long-neglected skill.
But, alas, none of those young players will be around to help the Mariners this season as they try to cope with their annual offensive deficiencies — Monday’s anomaly of an outburst notwithstanding. The problem has a rare urgency, because this year’s ballclub has shown enough strength, and enough resiliency, to actually allow the legitimate thought of sustained contention … if only.
Yeah, same old tune: If only they can figure out a way to score enough runs on a regular basis. As the season’s halfway point nears, the Mariners are showing, fairly convincingly, that they have a playoff-caliber pitching staff (which could get even better if and when James Paxton and Taijuan Walker get healthy), and an outstanding defense.
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Run-prevention is not an issue — going into the game Monday, only the Oakland A’s had allowed fewer than Seattle’s 264 in the AL.
But, yet again, the Mariners are straining, struggling and stretching to score runs, despite racking up a cool dozen in a 12-3 shellacking of the Red Sox. This game provided a tantalizing glimpse of what life could be like with a full-functioning offense.
The fact they ranked as high as 11th among 15 AL teams in runs scored despite, once again, having the worst OPS is a testament to their clutch hitting and ability to manufacture runs.
But you have to wonder how sustainable that formula will be. When I look at some of the ragtag lineups the Mariners have thrown out there recently, and somehow managed to win with, my thought is, not very.
No, to keep this fragile success going, they will almost certainly have to figure out a way to increase their run production. Despite the addition of Robinson Cano, who has been excellent despite his lack of power, the Mariners heading into Monday’s game were on pace to score 642 runs, just 18 more than last season.
It points to the fact, of course, that they should have done more during the offseason to supplement the Cano signing, but that’s a moot point. There are just two options now: The Mariners must get more pop from the players on hand, as was the case Monday, or they must add some new players.
Speaking to reporters Monday, general manager Jack Zduriencik seemed to be leaning toward the former option — and that was before watching Logan Morrison explode for two homers in a 4-for-4 night. He pointed to injuries to players like Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Corey Hart, all rehabbing in Tacoma, and said, “The biggest thing we can ask for is to get this whole group healthy. I think that will be a big boost for us.”
Zduriencik added, “We haven’t had a real big offensive hot streak yet. Certain players have been hot but as a group we haven’t had that. We’ve been held together by a really good pitching staff and our bullpen doing such a nice job, and timely hitting.
“What I’d love to have happen, I’d love for Logan Morrison to get on track and be a really good player for us, for Corey Hart to come back and be healthy, Michael Saunders to come and be healthy, and for us to see the continued growth in our young players.”
The problem with going the trade route is that the extra wild-card has allowed virtually every team to think of itself as contenders. Heading into games Monday, 24 out of 30 teams were within five games of a playoff berth, meaning there might only be a handful of sellers as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, and a feeding frenzy of teams seeking the available talent.
Sure, there might be more separation in the month-plus before the deadline, and there definitely will be some bats available. You never know who might turn into this year’s version of Marco Scutaro, a low-key acquisition from Colorado by the Giants in 2012 who hit .362, with 44 runs batted in, in 61 games to help them win the division and World Series.
Zduriencik’s job might hinge on finding a way to give the Mariners an offensive nudge down the stretch. Though he has done some good things this year — the Fernando Rodney acquisition, in particular, has helped solidify a bullpen that leads the American League in earned-run average — his continued inability to build a formidable offense could be his undoing. Particularly as this window of great opportunity with Cano and Felix Hernandez still in their prime figures to begin closing in the coming years.
“We’re like every other club in baseball,’’ Zduriencik said. “We’re having conversations, we’re talking, but what we’re concerned about is the group we have here right now and letting them continue to compete.”
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter what route the help comes, from outside or within. Perhaps Monday’s explosion is a harbinger of that elusive hot streak to which Zduriencik alluded. But it would be a shame to see what has been a promising and fun Mariners’ season fizzle out in the end.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146
On Twitter @StoneLarry