The Mariners had to rely on a left-handed dominant lineup last season, but with a half-dozen potential right-handed hitters, the options are much more diverse this season.
GOODYEAR, Ariz. — It was a glimpse of how versatile these Mariners can be. The Cleveland Indians started a left-handed pitcher Tuesday, and if this had been last season — or any season in the past half-decade of Mariners baseball — every Seattle batter would’ve melted into a pile of nothingness at home plate.
The Mariners’ left-handed dominant lineup hit .239 against lefty starters last season. They haven’t surpassed the .248 mark against lefty starters since 2009. But in this Cactus League game at Goodyear Ballpark, you saw the potential that an improved and diverse roster could have improving this weakness.
Against Bruce Chen, the Mariners were able to load up with right-handed hitters, and they showcased some of their most important offseason acquisitions. Rickie Weeks, the veteran utility man, led off the game with a home run. Later in the first inning, new cleanup hitter Nelson Cruz crushed a two-run shot to left-center field. Justin Ruggiano hit a sharp single in the first inning.
The Mariners scored four runs in their first two innings against Chen, including an RBI single from Austin Jackson, the normal leadoff hitter who slid to the No. 2 spot with Weeks starting, in the second inning.
Chen allowed four earned runs and eight hits in 41/3 innings. And though Chen is no longer a significant major-leaguer, the Mariners have struggled against lefties of all talent levels recently. It was promising to see that they have more right-handed answers now.
Will it translate to regular-season success? We’ll find out in five days. But the Mariners have options that even pessimists should consider intriguing.
“I don’t know how we’ll do, but we feel good, though,” said Weeks, who was 1 for 5 and started at first base for the first time in the Mariners’ 8-6 loss to Cleveland. “We’re a very comfortable ballclub, and I think the guys that we have coming in and the guys that were already here, we’ve got some confident guys. I don’t care who you put up there. It’s going to be a dogfight.”
Most of the time, the Mariners will start three right-handed hitters: Jackson, Cruz and catcher Mike Zunino. Against Chen, McClendon used a lineup with six right-handers, inserting Weeks, Ruggiano and Willie Bloomquist. Weeks replaced Logan Morrison at first base. Ruggiano played in left field, where Dustin Ackley normally starts, and Cruz went from designated hitter to right field. Robinson Cano was the DH, and Bloomquist started at second base.
It’s a lineup you could see in the regular season. The Mariners figure to get at least five right-handed bats in the lineup against most lefties. This isn’t some novel, earth-shattering thing. But it goes to show how unbalanced and lacking the roster has been in the past. General manager Jack Zduriencik has made considerable strides improving the Mariners’ versatility.
The hope is that there won’t be as many games like the Mariners’ 7-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox last Independence Day. In that game, McClendon was forced to play six left-handed hitters against White Sox ace Chris Sale, who had allowed only four hits to lefties in 12 starts. Sale destroyed the Mariners that day, throwing a complete game and allowing that lone run in the ninth inning.
“He confuses every lefty,” Cano said of Sale that day.
Yet the Mariners had no better option than to watch their lefties get embarrassed.
They’re more flexible now. McClendon doesn’t believe in true platoons, so he won’t always protect hitters from righty-on-righty or lefty-on-lefty matchups. If he does that, players will become too specialized, and they’ll only be able to perform in favorable situations. But in today’s game, McClendon does see the value of tinkering the lineup to get the most out of his players.
He can protect some of his role players by putting them in the best positions to succeed. He might be able to limit slumps. And he can keep the entire roster engaged and hungry.
The Mariners will have to manage against lefties better than Chen, but the 37-year-old does have a track record that includes 82 career wins, four seasons of double-digit victories and a 4.58 career ERA. He’s the kind of so-so lefty that has befuddled the Mariners and left everyone upset. It’s one thing to struggle against Sale; the entire league does. But the Mariners have to play much better against average-to-below-average pitchers. Having balance in the lineup will help.
There’s talent within that balance, too. Cruz is a three-time All-Star coming off a 40-homer season. Weeks is a 32-year-old former All-Star who can produce in a limited role. Bloomquist will do his job if his knee holds up. Ruggiano has a career .836 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefties.
If the Mariners are as good as they appear on paper, the difference between an OK and a great season might be a few victories here and there. That’s where subtle improvement could be huge for this team.
For a change, lefties shouldn’t expect to breeze through this Mariners lineup. There’s much more to prepare for, and maybe even fear.