John McGrath: Seattle's minor league lineup needs help

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comJune 15, 2014 

The Seattle Mariners’ lineup held to two hits Friday night, squandering another terrific performance by starting pitcher Felix Hernandez, was not major league caliber.

I don’t mean this as an insult. It’s just a fact. Seven players in the batting order — James Jones, Stefen Romero, Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, Cole Gillespie and Logan Morrison — have spent a portion of either 2013 or 2014 in the minor leagues. Of the seven, only Morrison’s stint was related to an injury rehabilitation. The others were playing in the minor leagues because they weren’t ready for the major leagues.

A turning point in the 1-0 defeat to the Texas Rangers was Miller’s failure to put down a sixth-inning bunt with nobody out and Zunino on second base. Bunting is going out of style as a strategy — the only guys who are still adept at the technique, it seems, are National League pitchers — but manager Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon made the right call.

The way Hernandez was throwing, a single run meant everything. Considering Zunino was responsible for the Mariners’ two hits, he had a much better chance of scoring from third with one out than somebody driving him home from second.

But Miller couldn’t get the bunt down, and while it’s tempting to grouse about how there’s no excuse for major league player’s inability to bunt, remember: Miller began 2013 in Double A, then played only 26 games in Tacoma before the Mariners called him up.

Although he appeared big-league ready after his promotion, especially at the plate, it’s become obvious Miller is in way over his head right now. In that regard, he’s not alone.

The Mariners must acquire two or three veteran hitters if they want to avoid a repeat of the debacle Friday night at Safeco Field. Outfielder Michael Saunders, who is on the 15-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation, figures to be one of them.

But that’s the extent of internal-organization help awaiting the Mariners. The challenge for general manager Jack Zduriencik is to swing a prospects-for-proven-commodity trade with a noncontending team, and it’s much more of a challenge than it used to be.

The problem is the revised postseason system, which has expanded the playoff field in each league from four teams to five while reducing the allure of securing a wild card. It’s a one-game, loser-out format, good for the game in general (finishing first is supposed to mean something) and good for middling teams needing to sustain an attentive fan base.

Going into Saturday, 23 teams were within 41/2 games of a wild card berth. None of those clubs will be dumping veterans any time soon. Among the “also-ran” group, only the Chicago Cubs, with a 27-38 record and a prescient realization that finishing .500 is out of the question, are in a selling mode.

Even the last-place Philadelphia Phillies have yet to formally surrender. They began Saturday 61/2 games out of the NL wild-card race, at 28-37, and while it’s logical to presume general manager Ruben Amaro will clean out at least some of the house before the July 31 interleague trading deadline, Amaro’s public posture is that his club is still in it to win it.

When teams as bad as the Phillies aren’t taking offers to sell in the middle of June, it leaves Zduriencik with a couple of choices.

He can cross his fingers and wish for a team — any team, just as long as it’s not his — to hit the skids for 10 days. That’s likely to happen, and when it does, Zduriencik will have to pursue the opportunity with the zest of a vulture swooping upon road kill. Complicating this scenario is the certainty other vultures will be swooping in as well.

About 20 of them, beginning with the New York Yankees.

Zduriencik also can pay close attention to the waiver wire. It’s not the most glamorous method of player acquisition, but then, denying King Felix a second consecutive victory because the minor league batting order on hand to support him was held to two hits is not particularly glamorous, either.

The 2010 San Francisco Giants were the beneficiaries of an inconspicuous waiver-wire transaction. On Aug. 21, they claimed outfielder Cody Ross from the Florida Marlins. San Francisco was five games behind first-place San Diego, and the motivation to obtain Ross was partially steeped in the fear the Padres would pick him up if the Giants didn’t.

Ross ended up hitting .288 in 33 games, and the Giants ended up overtaking the Padres for the division title, foreshadowing an October roll that concluded with San Francisco’s first World Series championship since the franchise’s 1958 relocation to the West Coast.

Ross proved to be a catalyst. He hit five homers during the postseason, including three against the Phillies in the league championship series. Its MVP? The guy the Giants grabbed off the waiver wire, three weeks after the interleague trading deadline.

Does another Cody Ross lurk out there?

If Zduriencik finds him, it won’t guarantee a World Series for the Mariners, and it won’t guarantee a playoff berth. All it will guarantee is the presence of a hitter joining Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager as the only established veterans in a minor league lineup.

A right-handed slugger would be ideal, but let’s not get goofy. I’ll settle for somebody who can be trusted to put down a bunt in the sixth inning of a scoreless tie.

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