How early is too late?
That question gnaws at Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik as he watches his club, a trendy preseason pick as a World Series contender, free-fall its way through the season’s opening weeks.
Zduriencik doesn’t hold to the game’s long-held protocol that a club must play 40 or 50 games in order to make any legitimate overall assessment.
“I just think it’s an ongoing evaluation,” he said. “I’ll look at 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 games. It’s always ongoing to figure out exactly where you’re at, and what your club is doing.”
And, yes, Zduriencik has concerns after watching a club he still views as having postseason-level talent lurch along at 11-17 while settling into last place in the American League West Division.
What’s gone wrong?
“I even said in the wintertime,” Zduriencik recalled, “that as high as the expectations were, it’s really all about players producing. So no matter what your history is, you have to come out and live up to your potential.”
And that’s just not happening.
It’s hard to identify anyone beyond long-time staff ace Felix Hernandez and right fielder Nelson Cruz, the club’s big off-season acquisition, playing at or above anticipated levels.
The Mariners, despite adding Cruz, rank 13th among the 15 American League clubs in scoring. A pitching staff that led the league last year with a 3.17 ERA currently ranks 10th with a 4.31 mark.
And a bullpen that last season protected slim leads with fierce tenacity is currently cratering with three walk-off losses in the last seven games.
The growing debate is this: Are the Mariners simply laboring through a tough stretch? Or are they experiencing a very mean regression to the norm after last season’s surprising success.
“We’ve proved that we can perform,” Zduriencik asserted. “A year ago, our pitching was very good. Some of those guys aren’t performing to that level.
“We’ve added to our offense (in the off-season), but some guys have started a little bit slow. All right. That’s understandable. I think you have to be patient and understand that happens.”
But that patience is fraying quickly.
The Mariners shook up their underperforming bullpen earlier in the week by demoting Yoervis Medina and Tyler Olson to Triple-A Tacoma. They also recalled Chris Taylor to replace Brad Miller as the starting shortstop.
“We made a couple of moves the other day,” Zduriencik said, “because we thought they were the right thing to do at the time. And we’ll continue to look at it.”
Trades are possible. So is a further use of the Tacoma shuttle.
“You always have to have your antennae up,” Zduriencik said, “but what I’d like for this club to do is for these players to get better, for these players to perform.”
“If you’re underperforming, you’d better figure out why. It’s a nice club. I don’t think anybody disagrees, but there have been parts of it that have let us down. It’s time to tighten the belt, and let’s get rolling.”
Make no mistake: Zduriencik is putting this on the players. Figure it out, and figure it out soon, or expect further changes.
“I still believe this is a good ballclub,” he said, “and I do think we’re going to get it turned around. But we’ve said this for a long time: Guys aren’t on scholarship. Guys have to produce.
“If you believe you’re a good ballclub, and I think these players believe they are, then you have to produce.”
PLANS FOR HULTZEN
The go-slow plan with left-hander Danny Hultzen, a former first-round pick, isn’t likely to change any time soon in his recovery from major shoulder surgery.
Hultzen worked 3 1/3 innings for Double-A Jackson on May 1 and, after skipping a cycle, is tentatively scheduled to pitch again May 11 for the Generals vs. Biloxi.
“I still want to be cautious,” Zduriencik said. “We’re not going to rush him. We’re not going to push him. He won’t go more than four innings for a little bit.
“We may even decide to have him only go three (innings) a couple of times just to get him into a routine on the mound.”
Hultzen’s outing on May 1 was his first in a real game since pitching two innings on Sept. 1, 2013 for Triple-A Tacoma. He underwent surgery a month later.
“That was a big test,” Zduriencik said. “He had to evaluate himself in a different environment from when he was throwing against instructional league kids or minor-leaguers in spring training.”
Hultzen, 25, was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft and was 14-8 with a 2.82 ERA in 32 minor-league starts prior to undergoing surgery. But he’s pitched just 39 innings since Sept. 3, 2012.
“When he feels good,” Zduriencik said, “he may be able to take it and run with it for a while. We’re not pushing it. We’re not trying to amp it up. There’s no time frame on it. What happens, happens.”
The Mariners’ goal all along has been to get Hultzen as healthy as possible for 2016 — in large part because he will be out of options. That means he can’t be sent back to the minors without clearing waivers.
It was 34 years ago Friday — May 8, 1981 — that Tom Paciorek hit the first of his walk-off homers on successive nights that powered the Mariners to victories over the New York Yankees at the Kingdome.
Paciorek’s first walk-off winner came while leading off the ninth inning against Rudy May and produced a 3-2 victory.
One night later, he hit a three-run shot with two outs against Ron Davis in a 6-5 victory in front of a crowd of 51,903 on Bat Night.
The Angels’ successive walk-off victories Tuesday and Wednesday marked the first time they accomplished that since May 29-30, 2010 — yep, against the Mariners…Only two of the Mariners’ 28 games have been decided by more than three runs. Both were losses started by Taijuan Walker…The Mariners have suffered five walk-off losses, which is tied with Pittsburgh for the most in the majors.
The Mariners open a nine-game homestand at 7:10 p.m. Friday with a tough assignment in the first of three weekend games against Oakland at Safeco Field: A’s ace Sonny Gray (4-0, 1.67).
Right-hander Taijuan Walker (1-3, 8.74) will start for the Mariners. You can see the game on Root Sports and hear it on 710 ESPN.