Last week, the Mariners received the Green Glove Award from MLB for their sustainability efforts, by virtue of having the highest amount of waste diverted from landfill for recycling.
That’s only fitting, because the biggest early question regarding the Mariners is how successful will their sustainability efforts be regarding their surprisingly fast start.
That swings both ways. The Mariners, 13-11 after Tuesday’s meek 2-0 loss to Houston, most definitely want to sustain the juice at the top of the order, where Mitch Haniger, Ty France and Kyle Seager have been as productive as almost any trio in the majors. And they want to keep up the unexpected brilliance of their bullpen, which has ranked among the top three relief units in baseball.
But what they don’t want to sustain is a starting rotation that, even after a strong effort by Marco Gonzales on Tuesday, ranked 26th in earned-run average at 5.04 (14th out of 15 starting units in the American League, ahead of only the Angels) and has already seen two members head to the injured list. James Paxton, expected to be one of their aces, is out for the season, and now his replacement, Nick Margevicius, has landed on the IL, ominously, with “shoulder inflammation.”
And the Mariners especially want to find a way to turn around what has been, outside of those already-mentioned top three hitters, a tepid, if not downright weak, offense throughout the rest of the order.
Overall, the Mariners entering Tuesday were hitting .215. They left the game batting .210 after managing just two Kyle Seager hits. The lowest average in club history for a full season was last year’s .226, albeit in just 60 games. Before that it was .233 in 2011, when the Mariners were about as pitiful an offensive team as you’ll ever find (unless you looked at the 2010 Mariners).
This year, through Tuesday, they ranked 29th in batting average, 26th in on-base percentage (.291), 27th in slugging percentage (.363) and 29th in OPS (on-base plus slugging) at .654.
Now, it’s still April. We’re talking about a mere 15% of the season. The story of the 2021 season is in the introductory phase. It’s sort of a reverse of the 2019 season, when the Mariners jumped to a 13-2 start largely on the strength of an offensive explosion that clearly wasn’t sustainable. It predictably waned, and so did the Mariners, playing .374 ball the rest of the way en route to losing 94 games. Without that aberration of a start, the Mariners were a 100-plus loss team.
Similarly, a course correction should come eventually on this year’s struggling players (and new players will come, too; more on that later). It’s a big list. The Mariners left Tuesday with seven of their 12 position players lugging an average under .200. That includes Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis (.136), still trying to find his timing after a long absence to heal a knee injury. But it also includes Dylan Moore at .111, Taylor Trammell at .156, Evan White at .175, Jose Marmolejos at .167, and the catching duo of Luis Torrens and Tom Murphy at a combined .146.
Offense typically heats up as the weather does. And production is waning throughout the major leagues, continuing an ongoing trend. As broadcaster Jon Sciambi tweeted Monday, the MLB slash line through this past weekend was .232/.310/.390, which would mark the lowest batting average in MLB history if it holds.
So, in other words, a lot of teams are struggling at the plate, not just Seattle. But if the Mariners want to contend for 162 games, they need more consistency from their rotation, and they desperately need their offense not to be so top-heavy.
What has mitigated the low average is a strong showing in clutch situations. The Mariners through Monday ranked third in the majors in hitting with runners in scoring position (.279/.352/.517 for a .869 OPS), and fourth with the bases loaded (.385/.412/538, .950). Seager has been particularly lethal, with a .526 average with runners in scoring position.
It helps explain why the Mariners ranked 15th in runs scored per game (4.3, but down to 4.1 after being blanked by the Astros), a middle-of-the-pack showing despite lagging near the bottom in numerous offensive categories. Yet that sort of production with runners in scoring position is almost certainly not sustainable. They will need to get much stronger overall to keep winning. Not just to get more balance in the order but to get them through the inevitable time when Haniger, France and Seager (who is third in the majors in runs batted in) come down to earth.
There’s no doubt that new blood will come from within the farm system. At some point soon — and I have no idea exactly when, to anticipate your next question — outfielder Jarred Kelenic will be called up. Kelenic could energize the Mariners’ offense by himself, based on pure talent. And catcher Cal Raleigh, a switch-hitter who had 22 homers in the minors in 2019, the last time minor-league ball was played, will be up at some point, too, and could provide a jolt.
General manager Jerry Dipoto will no doubt continue to scour the waiver wires and other teams’ rosters in pursuit of offensive help. On Tuesday, he acquired infielder Jack Mayfield off waivers from the Angels. Shed Long, who stood to push Moore at second base until his shin injury lingered, was moved to the 60-day injured list.
One key factor that will likely impact the trajectory of the Mariners’ offense is the scheduled start of the minor-league season May 4 (Class AAA Tacoma is set to debut May 6). Consider that White has played his entire (admittedly still brief) major-league career with no minor leagues in operation. He is one of many on the current roster who could benefit by an opportunity to tinker with mechanics against real competition away from the pressure of the majors. And getting AAA experience could well be the final step for top prospects such as Kelenic and Raleigh. Same goes for pitcher Logan Gilbert, who is being slow-played by the Mariners because he had no innings last year except for a minimal number at the alternate site. Gilbert will be in their rotation at some point this year.
Meanwhile, the Mariners’ fast start, which finds them (for now) sitting in unexpected playoff position, is highly encouraging — but also highly worrisome.