Mariners Insider Blog

Analyzing the Mariners in April: The good, the bad and the still unknown

Shortstop Jean Segura, when healthy, has been a big plus atop the Mariners’ lineup.
Shortstop Jean Segura, when healthy, has been a big plus atop the Mariners’ lineup. AP

Time to turn the page on the calendar. The Mariners, at 11-15, are ready to put a disappointing April behind them as they prepare to open May with a six-game homestand against two division opponents.

"It is still early in the season," manager Scott Servais said, "and we have scuffled through. A few injuries and guys trying to get right with the bat. But I still like our team. I really do. I believe in our guys, but it will be good to get home."

The Mariners were 6-3 on their only previous homestand, and if Safeco Field is truly an elixir, the next three weeks offer an opportunity: 13 of the next 19 games are at home.

First, though, let’s break down April and the club’s first 26 games. Three positives. Three negatives. And three questions still to be answered.

Start with the positives.

***The lineup is churning: Yes, the Mariners often struggled in April with runners on base, but the fact remains they put a lot of runners on base and rank second among American League clubs in runs scored.

Nelson Cruz is hobbling at the moment because a sore left hamstring, but he’s still hitting the tar out of the ball with five homers in his last six games while riding a 10-game hitting streak that has his average up to .315.

Shortstop Jean Segura missed 12 games because of a hamstring injury but, when healthy, has been everything the Mariners envisioned. Right fielder Mitch Haniger led all position players in WAR (wins above replacement) rating when injured.

The Mariners have problems, but it’s not the lineup.

***Is the baton passing?: Lefty James Paxton continues to emerge as the likely successor to Felix Hernandez atop the rotation. Paxton didn’t allow a run in four of his five April starts.

But it was Paxton’s lone rocky outing — April 20 in Oakland, when he allowed five runs in 4 1/3 innings — that underscored his development. He studied tapes of his performance, detected a flaw in his delivery, and corrected it in his next start.

***A rising star: Not all of the Mariners’ many off-season moves are panning out, but getting Haniger included in the big November trade with Arizona could have an impact for years to come.

General manager Jerry Dipoto insisted all along that Haniger was a key element in the deal when everyone else focused on Segura — and, as noted above, Segura has been an impact player.

Haniger revamped his swing a few years ago by using Toronto Josh Donaldson as a primary model. It’s too soon to say the Mariners have another Donaldson in Haniger after three good weeks. But Haniger’s ceiling is considerable.

Now the negatives.

***An empty plate: While Mike Zunino is a good defensive catcher, he remains an enormous disappointment at the plate. His slash line of .172/.243/.234 is simply unplayable over a sustained period.

The Mariners had hoped to reset Zunino’s career last season by sending him on an extended remedial tour to Triple-A Tacoma. Initial returns when he returned last season were promising, but it now looks likes little has changed.

It is telling that Servais admitted Sunday that veteran backup Chooch Ruiz, at 38, could see expanded playing time despite a .143 average because he has a .333 on-base percentage.

The Mariners could be approaching critical mass with Zunino, and there doesn’t appear to be a viable alternative within the farm system. That points to Dipoto’s speciality — sifting through trade possibilities.

***If at first…: The Zunino/Ruiz combo isn’t even be the biggest hole in the lineup. Take a look at first base where veteran Danny Valencia and now a mix of Dan Vogelbach, Taylor Motter and others have a combined .158/.229/.253 slash.

That, too, is simply unacceptable. The league average for production at first base is .237/.310/.396.

Club officials remain convinced Vogelbach, 24, will hit, despite his current struggles, but see him as a better eventual fit as a designated hitter. Even with continued work, his defense might never be better than slightly below average.

Acquiring Valencia, a free agent after this season, was supposed to add a reliable bat who would serve as a interim hedge against Vogelbach’s development. Except Valencia hasn’t hit.

The Mariners are far from ready to give up on Vogelbach, although he might soon end up back at Tacoma. But Valencia is a different story. If he doesn’t hit, he has little value. He’s probably in line for one more extended look, though.

***Injury issues: Many clubs are dealing with injuries. So this isn’t an excuse. But there’s no doubt that injuries to numerous key players weakened the club that the Mariners put on the field in April.

They lost lefty Drew Smyly, a key offseason addition, before the season started to an elbow injury that is expected to sideline him for another month or two. Now, Hernandez is out because of bursitis in his shoulder.

Segura missed 12 games and his right hamstring remains heavily wrapped. Haniger suffered a strained right oblique muscle that, even optimistically, will keep him on the disabled list for another three weeks.

Cruz has a sore left hamstring. Third baseman Kyle Seager is nursing a sore right hip that knocked him out of the starting lineup last week for four games. These are key guys.

A key element in the Dipoto Doctrine is building depth because injuries are inevitable. And that’s worked to a point.

Ariel Miranda has been a solid replacement for Smyly. Motter was a sensation in replacing Segura at shortstop, although he is now rapidly regressing to the mean. Ben Gamel has been solid over the last week in place of Haniger.

Injuries might have buried the Mariners in April were it not for their offseason moves to build depth. As it is, they’re hanging on. Barely, maybe, but still in position to recover.

Finally, those still-to-be answered questions.

***Return of the King: The Mariners are hopeful that Hernandez can return to the rotation by mid-May. That’s the good news. When he left an April 25 start in Detroit after two innings because of shoulder issues, it was easy to fear the worst.

But how effective will Hernandez be when he returns? He was already working to reinvent himself this season as a pitch-to-contact pitcher, with promising results, when his shoulder began barking.

Will the shoulder be a nagging injury? Is it an isolated ailment or merely the first indicator that years of stressful innings are about to demand payment? Beyond that, can Felix 2.0 be a success once the league gets a book on his new approach?

All unknown.

***Cano or can’t he?: Robinson Cano is 34 and, counting this season, still has seven years remaining on his massive 10-year deal.

That leads to this reality: Whenever he isn’t performing at peak level, speculation will surface questioning whether he is entering the declining phase of his career. The decline is inevitable. Time always wins. Is it happening now?

Cano batted .252 in April, which is significantly below his career mark of .307 through 12 years entering the season. But he also had four homers and 18 RBIs, which puts him on pace for 25 and 112.

It’s a 26-game span. How much should we read into those numbers?

These questions aren’t going away. Ever.

***Rotation concerns: Even beyond Felix, the rotation is loaded with questions — even assuming Paxton continues to evolve into a No. 1-level starter, which is no slam dunk despite his dominating April.

Can Smyly return, as hoped, at some point in June? And if so, will he be the cornerstone lefty the Mariners envisioned when they acquired him from Tampa Bay?

There are times when Hisashi Iwakuma, now 36, looks like he’s motoring on fumes. Other times, he looks like the Bear who once supplied the Mariners with a strong No. 2 guy behind Felix in the rotation. How much does he have left?

Much the same applies to veteran right-hander Yovani Gallardo, whom the Mariners obtained in January from Baltimore in the belief that his poor 2016 season was an aberration.

Gallardo, 31, is 1-3 with a 5.08 ERA and, except for one in-command start in Oakland, has been plagued by an inability to put the brakes on one bad inning per outing. He’s given away multi-run leads in two of his five starts.

The Mariners are unlikely to climb back into postseason contention unless their rotation solidifies into a reliable unit. They need at least two from the group of Smyly, Iwakuma and Gallardo to perform to career norms.

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners