Since Edgar Martinez retired in 2004, the Mariners have searched for a cleanup hitter to give them a presence at that prestigious spot in the batting order.
PEORIA, Ariz. —
Opening Day 2015Mariners vs. Angels, Monday 1:10 p.m., Safeco Field; TV: ROOT, Radio: 710 ESPN
Looking at the recent history of Mariners cleanup hitters — dating to the early 1990s — there are two standards: Edgar Martinez and everyone else.
Sure, there have been random seasons of success from players such as John Olerud, Kendrys Morales and even Richie Sexson. But Martinez was a consistent force game after game, year after year.
Some Mariners cleanup hitters worth noting
Richie Zisk (1981-83): Won AL Comeback Player of Year honor in ’81
Ken Phelps (1984, ’86-87): Blasted 51 homers from 1986-87; famously traded for Buhner
Gorman Thomas (1985):.215 batting average and 126 strikeouts — his best years were behind him
Jeffrey Leonard (’89-90): Known for his “one flap down” home-run trot
Kevin Mitchell (’92): Failed to offer M’s power they desperately needed in his one season
Jay Buhner (93-95): Hit for the cycle in 1993, later slotted in as prototypical No. 5 hitter
Edgar Martinez (’96-2000, ’02-03): This guy should be in the Hall of Fame, right?
Raul Ibanez (2004, ’06-07): One of team’s best hitters in mid-2000s
Richie Sexson (2005): Had one strong season after signing $50 million deal with M’s
Kendrys Morales (2013-14): Switch-hitter who slumped badly last year
And since Martinez retired in 2004, the Mariners have searched for a cleanup hitter to give them a presence at that prestigious spot in the batting order. For many reasons — poor performance, lack of development, financial restraint or inability to lure a free agent — they have failed to find a consistent replacement.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Las Vegas police say Marshawn Lynch was asleep in car before arrest
- How each of the Seahawks' 2022 draft picks is doing in training camp
- Mariners might have enough pitching and pixie dust to do more than just make the playoffs
- Julio Rodriguez returns to Mariners after stint on injured list
- 'One of the best games I've ever seen': Mariners down Yankees 1-0 in 13 innings
They hope the search is over for at least the next four seasons with the offseason signing of slugger Nelson Cruz to a four-year, $57 million contract.
Trying to be a middle-of-the-order presence like Edgar Martinez? There’s no pressure there, right?
“Oh no, none,” Cruz deadpanned with a chuckle.
To be fair, no one can likely replicate Martinez’s production. He started 892 games at the No. 4 spot in the batting order and posted a .311 batting average, a .424 on-base percentage and .522 slugging percentage. He drove in 608 runs in those games and hit 226 doubles.
Martinez didn’t fit the typical profile of a No. 4 hitter. He wasn’t an all-or-nothing home-run hitter. He was a doubles and RBI machine that didn’t need to hit the ball over the fence to be effective. Still, he hit 148 homers in that spot.
“When you are hitting fourth, everybody thinks, ‘I have to hit home runs,’ ” Martinez said. “But when you have men on second or men on third with less than two outs, all you have to do is hit a ground ball or get a base hit. I was always trying to get base hits with men on base. And if it happens that I hit home runs, well great.”
He didn’t always have that approach.
Early in his career Martinez often swung for the fences. But it took a lesson from then-manager Jim Lefebvre to change his approach.
“In the early ’90s, I remember having trouble with men on base,” he said. “One day it was Lefebvre who said to me, ‘Just try to hit the ball up the middle when you have men on base and don’t try to do too much.’ The first day he told me that, I went to the plate and I hit a home run to straight center field with men on base. It stuck with me, and that’s what I needed to do. And after that, I gained some confidence in that situation, which also helps.”
That approach might have helped Mariners cleanup hitters the past few seasons. Heck, a retired Martinez might have been more productive.
Last season, the Mariners were abysmal in the cleanup spot. Nine players started in that spot and posted a .218/.295/.352 slash line with 19 homers and 75 RBI. It was the worst production in the American League.
Missing the playoffs by one game and the hope of reaching the postseason this year were enough of an impetus to sign Cruz.
“We got nothing from that spot,” manager Lloyd McClendon said.
But this wasn’t a one-time failing. From 2010 to 2012, the Mariners were last in the AL in production from their cleanup hitters. In 2008 and 2009, they were 12th out of 14 AL teams, and in 2004 they were 13th. In 2011, Seattle used an array of players led by Mike Carp (50 games), Miguel Olivo (43 games) and Jack Cust (37 games) and posted a .215/.283/.343 line.
The few seasons of respite from such ineptitude came in 2013 (.263/.316/.465 with 34 home runs and 87 RBI) led by Kendrys Morales’ line of .280/.333/.460 line with 19 homers and 60 RBI. In 2007, Raul Ibanez and Jose Guillen helped the spot post a .309/.366/.505 line with 28 homers and 126 RBI. In 2005, it was Sexson’s monster year of .262/.368/.542 with 39 homers and 120 RBI.
But the successes end there.
Martinez understands the struggles.
In his final season, the Mariners were 13th in production from the cleanup spot with Ibanez getting the bulk of the at-bats at cleanup as the process of life without him began.
“It’s hard to get hitters like that in free agency or develop them,” he said. “Now with Nelson Cruz, you have a legit No. 4 hitter, and that’s a good thing.”
Cruz, slotted to hit between Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, is supposed to be the missing piece that will make the Mariners’ offense a consistent run producer.
“I can tell you what it means to our club: It adds validity,” McClendon said. “It extends our lineup. It protects Robbie and gives Seager more opportunities. A true No. 4 makes your lineup all around.”
What does McClendon like about Cruz in that spot?
“He doesn’t give up at-bats,” McClendon said. “He doesn’t waste at-bats. He grinds at-bats out. He has a knowledge of the strike zone. He uses the entire field to hit, and he hits for power. He’s pretty good.”
Cruz blushes at such praise.
“I don’t think I’m a good hitter,” he said. “I think good hitters are like Cano, those guys that hit .300. People tell me I’m a good hitter. I try to get better. I try to improve. I’m coming every day with the same mentality … just try to get better every day and hopefully at one point I’ll be a better hitter.”
Told that his manager last year, the Baltimore Orioles’ Buck Showalter, called him a dangerous hitter, Cruz’s face lights up.
“Dangerous,” he said. “I like that. That’s a better word.”