Woe Be the Mariners’ Offense

On April 17, the Seattle Mariners played a 14-inning game that doubled as a perfect embodiment of their team.

Felix Hernandez, the team’s one true star, twirled a masterpiece, firing eight innings of one-run ball with 12 strikeouts and no walks against the potent Tigers offense. Just about everyone else was terrible. Prolific outmaker Franklin Gutierrez, leading off the game for some unknown reason, struck out four times, helping to sabotage a potential game-winning rally in the 10th inning with a truly hideous at-bat. Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak both failed miserably in big spots. Jesus Montero reminded us he can’t run. Eric Wedge reminded us he can’t manage. The Mariners finally lost when the slothlike Smoak ran into the final out of the game, nullifying Ackley’s first extra-base hit of the season. For M’s fans, this was no ordinary game. It was a baseball snuff film come to life.

That night’s loss was Seattle’s sixth in eight games. The Mariners went on to lose five of their next seven. When podcast partners/Mariners diehards Matthew Carruth and Jeff Sullivan recorded their April 25 show, they didn’t hold back. “Welcome to another fuckin’ stupid podcast about the goddamned Mariners,” the show began. “This team fucking sucks.”

After a blowout loss to the Orioles on Tuesday, the Mariners sit at 12-17, already 6½ games out of first place. Barring a miraculous frosted-tip intervention, the M’s might be headed for their fourth straight losing season. Speculation is mounting that Wedge, GM Jack Zduriencik, and others might not keep their jobs much longer. And the fate of the season, as well as everyone’s jobs, depends largely on three colossal disappointments struggling just to hit their collective weight.

To understand how Ackley, Montero, and Smoak have become the poster children for the Mariners’ failures, we need to start by looking at one of the worst trades in franchise history. In 2007, Seattle won 88 games. Emboldened by the team’s success and seeking to push the M’s back to the playoffs, then-GM Bill Bavasi acquired lefty starter Erik Bedard from the Orioles. The deal was flawed from the moment it was made, for multiple reasons: Bedard was a very good pitcher at the time of the trade, but also an injury-prone one. The Mariners weren’t nearly as good as their 88 wins the year before implied, having allowed more runs than they scored that year. But it was the price the Mariners paid that would set the franchise back multiple years. In exchange for the measly 46 starts Bedard gave Seattle, the M’s gave up promising pitching prospect Chris Tillman (now a member of the Orioles’ rotation), George Sherrill (made the All-Star team the year after going to Baltimore), two prospects who didn’t pan out … and Adam Jones, now the Orioles’ starting center fielder and franchise player.

The combination of that disastrous trade and Seattle’s 101-loss debacle in 2008 cost Bavasi his job, ushering in what fans hoped would be a new era of Mariners baseball. Zduriencik brought with him a sterling reputation as a talent evaluator, having climbed the ranks from area scout with the Mets all the way to scouting director and assistant GM in Milwaukee, presiding over the drafting and development of multiple future stars, including Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. With a new man in charge, no longer would the Mariners make ill-advised deals that sacrificed the future without enough gain for the present. Zduriencik’s mandate was to rebuild the farm system with smart draft picks and shrewd trades then, when the time was right, to craft that collection of young talent into a winning major league team.

Thanks to the Mariners’ terrible ’08 season, the team’s first draft pick under Zduriencik was a high one, no. 2 overall. With that pick, Seattle drafted Ackley. Undrafted out of high school, Ackley went to North Carolina, where he played first base and absolutely raked. He hit .412 in his three years with the Tar Heels, leading the team to three straight College World Series. He signed a lucrative big league deal with the Mariners, then made his pro debut playing center field in the Arizona Fall League. By the following spring, Ackley had shifted to second base, the M’s figuring they lacked talent at the position, that Ackley had the athleticism to handle the move, and that his bat held the key to his success anyway. He hit .280/.387/.435 in 200 minor league games, buttressing management’s belief in his offense.

Ackley made his major league debut on June 17, 2011, exactly 22 months after signing that first contract. His rookie year was a big success: Ackley hit .273/.348/.417, a line that, adjusted for Safeco Field’s hitter-punishing dimensions, meant he was creating 17 percent more runs than a league-average hitter. Things turned south in a hurry from there. Ackley’s numbers plunged to .226/.294/.328 in 2012. Part of that drop was due to a 74-point decrease in his batting average on balls in play, a stat often influenced by external factors such as opposing teams’ defense and luck as much as on a hitter’s own skill. But Ackley’s other numbers also turned south — he walked less and hit for less power, ranking as the single worst offensive second baseman in the game last year. Somehow, he’s been even worse this season, hitting just .253/.284/.286, posting a hacktastic 3.1 percent walk rate, racking up just three extra-base hits (all doubles) in 97 plate appearances, and pounding the ball into the ground at an alarming rate.

Signed by the Yankees as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in 2006, Montero developed into one of the top power-hitting prospects in the game. Better still, he brought that kind of power to the extremes of the defensive spectrum as a catcher. In 489 minor league games, Montero hit .308/.366/.501, mashing as one of the youngest players at every level and reaching Triple-A at age 20. When the Yankees made a run at Cliff Lee in the summer of 2010, Montero was the main piece dangled in discussions with Lee’s employer, the Mariners. That trade never materialized. Given a late-season audition in the Bronx in 2011, Montero hit a ton, posting a line of .328/.406/.590 in 18 games. Zduriencik jumped on a chance to acquire Montero the following offseason, flipping talented 23-year-old right-hander Michael Pineda to New York to get his man.

With every passing game since, the flaws in Montero’s game have become increasingly, painfully obvious. For starters, he’s no catcher. Whether you go by scouting reports, estimates on his pitch-framing skills, or other measures, the consensus belief is that Montero’s a full-time DH waiting to happen. That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker if Montero were on track to become the next Edgar Martinez. He isn’t. After that massive debut with the Yankees, Montero slumped to .260/.298/.386 in his first full season last year, striking out three and a half times more often than he walked and generally showing a terrible approach at the plate. He’s off to an even worse start this year, hitting a brutal .206/.250/.317. Good luck finding redemption in other parts of his game, too: Montero was the worst base runner in all of baseball last year.

Smoak was the biggest piece in the six-player trade that did finally persuade Zduriencik to part with former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. There were reasons to believe that Smoak would make that trade a big win for the M’s. The Rangers’ first-round pick (no. 11 overall) in the 2008 draft, Smoak hit .279/.400/.449 in the minors, showing a great batting eye and emerging pop from both sides of the plate as a switch-hitter. Though his big league career started slowly, Smoak did bang out eight homers and 10 doubles in 70 games with the Rangers before the trade. He whacked 15 home runs and 24 doubles in 123 games in 2011, a promising gauge of power given his relocation from Arlington’s hitter’s haven to Safeco. Though his results remained erratic, you’d see glimpses of greatness, such as a 14-game stretch from late May to early June last year in which he hit .321/.419/.679 and a power-hitting barrage this spring in the Cactus League. But after more than 1,500 major league plate appearances, Smoak’s hitting just .224/.308/.372 , terrible numbers for a first baseman.

Just three years ago, Ackley, Montero, and Smoak were three of the top 13 prospects in the game, according to Baseball America. Now the prevailing question isn’t when they’ll become stars — it’s if they can hack in the big leagues at all, and if the organization’s current leaders are capable of producing elite major league talent.

Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton, who wrote a seminal piece about the point in a season in which we can start to trust a player’s various stats, has also written about the point in a player’s career in which patience should no longer apply and major skepticism should start to set in. You definitely should read the piece, which attacks the issue with some eye-opening math. But if you want to skip to the punch line, here it is: “It looks like a critical period for player development ends around 26,” Carleton wrote. “So, if your favorite player hasn’t figured it out by then, chances are that he won’t.”

Smoak turned 26 on December 5 and has more big league reps than Ackley or Montero. Even last summer, his performance and career comps to that point suggested a player who could become a competent everyday player, but almost certainly not anything close to a star. We haven’t even seen competent yet, and you could do worse than betting against Smoak to be the Mariners’ Opening Day first baseman in 2014.

Ackley turned 25 on February 26. Though his overall numbers have fallen since his rookie year, he’s developed into one of the better contact hitters in the league, while running and fielding his position well. If he can develop any kind of power, he’d project as an average player, maybe a tick above.

Montero turned 23 on November 28. He can show incredible power when his swing’s right, including this monster shot in Houston that made him the first player this year to hit a ball out in dead center at Minute Maid Park. But everything from his defense to his shaky batting eye to whispers about his work ethic make you wonder if his overall upside might be limited, even if he does become a 25–home run hitter in the majors.

Meanwhile, the organization’s lack of ability to generate quality major leaguers through the farm system or even via trades or free agency has left the Mariners with the likes of Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Endy Chavez, and Aaron Harang getting real playing time. The team’s decision to start Robert Andino over Brendan Ryan points to a lack of understanding that run prevention — not long ago a universally stated goal for those in the clubhouse and in the front office — is a vital part of building a winning team.

The news isn’t all bad. Kyle Seager’s progressed from a presumptive utility man to the team’s best hitter. Nick Franklin’s hitting a torrid .410/.538/.623 at Triple-A, while Mike Zunino’s hitting .222, but with a .333 OBP and a .542 slugging average. The Mariners’ top two hitting prospects could take over at shortstop and catcher in Seattle at some point in the next few weeks, thus addressing two of the team’s biggest needs. Double-A shortstop Brad Miller could also claim the job at some point, thus potentially moving Franklin to his more comfortable position of second base should the M’s decide to go a different route with Ackley. Seattle’s highly touted trio of pitching prospects continues to toil in the minors, with Taijuan Walker posting huge strikeout rates but also walking everyone in sight so far this year, Danny Hultzen dealing with a rotator cuff strain, and James Paxton’s performance regressing this April. Other pitching hopefuls are starting to emerge on the farm, but no one really knows who’s going to slot in behind King Felix (and maybe Hisashi Iwakuma and/or Brandon Maurer) in the big league rotation and when they’re going to do it.

For the purposes of this team and those in charge, good things need to start happening as soon as possible, and the quickest way to get those results might be having Ackley, Montero, and Smoak finally take big steps forward. If they don’t, another regime change — and more years of painful waiting — could lie ahead.

Filed Under: MLB, Seattle Mariners

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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