Star-crossed Mariners lost at sea
ATLANTA -- At this point in a season already hopelessly lost, it's just plain poor form to knock the Mariners. They fired their hitting coach last week, they canned their general manager early this week, they followed that by booting their suffering manager on Thursday and, if you listen to all the murmuring and the talk shows, they might not be done yet. Everybody knows the Mariners stink. Even the motley Mariners have finally realized that.
The challenge now for the most disappointing team in baseball -- now there's a slogan to build an ad campaign around -- is figuring out where to go from here. And it's not so much where, really. After all, when you're facedown in the mud, up is easy to find. The challenge now is how the Mariners get un-buried, how they take this mess of a roster, this ridiculous situation that they find themselves in, and make something out of it that everyone can feel moderately good about. Or something, at the very least, they can feel less nauseous about.
"There's no immediate fix," admits Lee Pelekoudas, the longtime Seattle front-office man who took over as general manager when Bill Bavasi was fired earlier this week. "We're looking for long-term solutions."
This is what it has come to in Seattle. A team built to win this year, at a payroll of more than $117 million, a team that many picked to challenge the Angels in the American League West, is already looking toward 2009. Twenty-one games under .500, in last place in the West (where the Mariners stood after new manager Jim Riggleman won his debut here Friday night), will get people to talking like that. "Right now, the Angels are not an attainable goal," Riggleman, who replaces John McLaren, said before Friday's interleague game against the Braves. "Let's just creep up on some people."
Right now, moving up in the standings at all seems an impossible reach for this underachieving, under-talented group of players. The depth of the Mariners' woes is astounding, especially so because of the height of expectations they carried into the season. The Mariners limped into the weekend with the lowest-scoring lineup in the league. And only one AL team (the Rangers) is giving up more runs per game.
Virtually every regular in the Seattle lineup, with the possible exception of outfielder Raul Ibanez, is underperforming. The same is true of the rotation, outside of 22-year-old ace Felix Hernandez. The bullpen has been reduced to non-factor status. The defense is discouragingly sloppy.
This is what Riggleman and Pelekoudas have to work with for the rest of this year. From this, they have to concoct chicken salad.
"It's well-documented. We're all trying hard. We're all working hard," says the bedraggled first baseman, Richie Sexson. "It's just not meshing."
No one represents the disappointment and disillusionment of this Seattle team more than Sexson. When he came to the Mariners as a free agent before the 2005 season, he was hailed as a missing piece, and he had the best year of his career that season, blasting 39 home runs and 36 doubles while driving in 121 runs. But then the 6-foot-8 Sexson began a depressing downward spiral. He hit .205 last year, with a miserable .295 on-base percentage. He's hitting .216 this year, with a .293 OBP.
He is booed when he breathes in Safeco Field these days and now is the player most likely to be benched, traded or released, despite a contract that calls for $14 million this season. "It's a tough environment for me when you have 30-40,000 people that would just as soon see me in the electric chair [rather] than playing first base," he says.
If it were up to the vocal Mariners' fans, they'd have Sexson hold hands with a dozen other players as the switch is thrown. Designated hitter Jose Vidro is batting .219. Newly re-signed catcher Kenji Johjima has disappointed behind the plate, in the clubhouse and at-bat, where he's hitting just .223. Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre is hitting just .240. Even Ichiro, the unquestioned face of the franchise, is in a funk. Ichiro, whose move back to his preferred spot in right field also has been questioned, is hitting a mere .291, 40 points below his career average.
Carlos Silva, signed as a free agent last winter, has a 5.79 ERA. And that's better than both Jarrod Washburn (5.83) and former starter Miguel Batista (6.09). Erik Bedard (4-4, 3.97 ERA), the ex-Orioles' ace who was the centerpiece of what was thought of, at the time, as a blockbuster winter trade, has been a severe letdown. Critics question his heart and his health, and deride him as an ace that refuses to pitch deep into games. He hasn't made it past the sixth inning in any of his last four starts. On Friday against the Braves, he was pulled with back spasms after just three innings and 36 pitches. It's unclear as to when he will make his next start.
All the dysfunction on the field has led to some grumbling in the clubhouse, too, according to McLaren. But those around the Mariners insist that any behind-the-scenes problems are a direct result of the woes that everybody can see. Specifically, the losing.
Riggleman and Pelekoudas, despite all their talk of changing the thinking around the team, have only so much they can do. Giving up on Sexson is a distinct possibility, though some (including Sexson) are encouraged by a new stance he's adopted. Vidro may be replaced, too. He's in the last year of his contract, which pays him $8.5 million.
The Mariners can, and probably will, push the kids to see what they can do. Jeff Clement will see more time behind the plate, despite the three-year extension given to Johjima (one of the more damning pieces of work by former GM Bavasi). Outfielder Wladimir Balentien will undoubtedly get some more starts. Right-hander Brandon Morrow will probably stay in the bullpen for this year, but he's ticketed for the team's rotation eventually.
On Friday, the Mariners took out a lost season's worth of anger and embarrassment in a 10-2 thumping of the Braves at Turner Field. It was a good win, with more runs than they had scored in more than a month. The Mariners got solid contributions from players up and down the lineup and from the bullpen. It was almost easy to overlook the short start by Bedard and another hitless night from Sexson.
But those nights, despite the upheaval of the last week, will continue to be rare. The Mariners have recognized what they are, which is good, and they have made some necessary changes, which might end up being good.
But all the hirings and firings, all the demotions and promotions, all the shaking up in the world won't make the Mariners give up the title of the most disappointing team in baseball. Not this year, anyway.