Mariners Insider Blog

Analysis: Where do the Mariners go from here?

Can Jesus Montero work his way into being a reliable part of the Mariners’ future? The answer could come over the next two months.
Can Jesus Montero work his way into being a reliable part of the Mariners’ future? The answer could come over the next two months. The Associated Press

Roughly one-third of the season remains for the Mariners. Time enough, if things fall into place, to be playing meaningful games in late September.

And in theory, the Mariners should be precisely the type of club capable of mounting a late charge. Their roster is packed with veterans possessing proven track records who, for whatever reason, just haven’t jelled.

General manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon each reject the suggestion the club shifted to a development-and-evaluation mode after unloading three veterans at the trade deadline for six minor-leaguers.

“Not necessarily,” Zduriencik said. “I don’t think I view it that way. To say we’re only looking to the future…we’re fortunate to have a couple of guys (ready to promote) who we felt are going to be part of our future.”

Those guys, specifically, are infielder Ketel Marte and first baseman/designated hitter Jesus Montero, who arrived July 31 after posting impressive numbers at Triple-A Tacoma.

Both are now lineup regulars and in line for an extended look over the closing weeks.

“We just haven’t clicked,” McClendon admitted. “Sometimes that happens, and it’s hard to explain. But also, sometimes, you bring up a young guy or two and it energizes you.”

Second baseman Robinson Cano pointed to Marte as doing just that last Saturday in a 4-1 victory over the Twins in 11 innings. Marte had three hits and started the winning rally with a walk.

“You’ve got to give credit to Marte for (that victory) in Minnesota,” Cano said. “A wild pitch, he went to second. That’s how you create a rally there.”

Montero is 6-for-18 with three doubles and a homer since returning from the Rainiers, where he batted .346 with 16 homers and 75 RBIs in 93 games. This is Montero version 2.0, slimmed down by 45 pounds and turning heads.

“He looks like a different guy,” one rival scout said earlier this week in Colorado. “The Mariners have been through a lot with him, but maybe it’s going to pay off. It wasn’t that long ago that he was a can’t-miss guy.”

There are other encouraging signs — none bigger than the increasing drumbeat of production from the middle of the order: Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz and Cano.

While Cruz has been a consistent threat throughout the season, the trio are finally clicking in unison — batting a combined .338 over the last 17 games with 42 runs, 14 doubles, 15 homers and 36 RBIs.

“There were great expectations for this team,” McClendon said. “Now, those expectations aren’t there. You can just relax and play. We get a few breaks, who knows what can happen?”

For all that, the math remains grim.

The Mariners carried a 50-59 record into Thursday’s open date in the schedule. They were 10 games behind first-place Houston in the American League West and seven games back in the wild-card chase.

While they have won four of their past six, a period that coincides with Montero and Marte joining the club, they could easily be entering the weekend on a six-game winning streak.

Their two losses in the last week came when they blew ninth-inning leads, including Wednesday’s crushing collapse at Colorado when Fernando Rodney couldn’t hold a two-run edge with one out and nobody on base.

Clubs looking to make up ground can’t afford such giveaways. To borrow from Dylan: “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

The Mariners’ disappointing season is already fueling speculation regarding job security for Zduriencik and McClendon. Both are at risk, obviously. That’s the nature of the business.

A complete debacle over the closing weeks could heighten that risk, but Zduriencik signed a multi-year extension less than a year a ago. (How many years remains murky.) McClendon is signed through next year.

For what it’s worth, neither shows any outward signs of feeling heat, but regardless of whether the current administration remains in place, the Mariners are unlikely to overhaul their roster before next season.

The contracts for key players, and the age of those players, still suggest the organization’s top competitive window covers the next few years.

Cano is under contract for eight more years. His recent surge allows club officials to cling to the hope he can play at a heightened level for another three or four seasons.

Staff ace Felix Hernandez is under contract through 2019. Cruz’s deal runs through 2018. Seager’s contract extends through 2021 with a club option for 2022.

That said, the Mariners face numerous decisions heading into next season and, as the recent promotions for Montero and Marte indicate, those moves are already under way.

Here are some other things to watch for:

ROTATION

Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is a pending free agent, but both sides acknowledge interest in a new deal. Whispers are circulating that an extension is possible before the season ends.

“I know from a personal standpoint,” Zduriencik said, “he likes it here in Seattle. He probably would want to stay. Every discussion that I’ve had with him or his agent (indicates he thinks) this is a very desirable place for him.”

The trade that sent J.A. Happ to Pittsburgh created an opening in the rotation, which the Mariners filled on a temporary basis by using long reliever Vidal Nuno.

That’s a short-term solution and reflects the organization’s irritation with lefty Roenis Elias regarding his poor performances since being demoted to Tacoma.

The Mariners took the same tough-love approach last year with Taijuan Walker, whom they kept in the minors until September even though a need surfaced earlier at the big-league level.

Look for the same thing to happen with Elias.

BULLPEN

This has been the season’s biggest disappointment and will require attention, which started last week in trades that netted lefty Rob Rasmussen (from Toronto) and right-hander Jose Ramirez (from the Yankees).

Rodney is a pending free agent who won’t return. Club officials have discussed whether to release him — the balance of his $7 million salary is sunk cost — in order to give his innings to other pitchers.

Roster space is also at a premium. The Mariners are currently carrying eight relievers (including Nuno) and will need to find room in the near future for Charlie Furbush, who appears fully recovered from biceps tendinitis.

Ramirez is a likely recall candidate in September, if not earlier, because he is out of options after this season. Club officials want to get an extended look at him in the big leagues before next spring.

Lefty Joe Beimel is also a pending free agent but has pitched well. A year ago, in a similar situation, he pushed for a multi-year contact. That backfired. The Mariners are likely to be interested in another one-year deal.

CATCHER

A pressing need remains for a reliable backup/alternative to workhorse Mike Zunino. At this point, though, barring an opportunity simply presenting itself, the Mariners figure to wait until the off-season.

INFIELD

Much depends on how Montero performs. If he proves he deserves regular duty, that effectively turns Logan Morrison into a late-inning caddie.

Morrison remains under club control for next year through arbitration, but the Mariners might choose not to allocate a roster space and the anticipated dollars for someone in that role.

Mark Trumbo rates a preferable alternative to Morrison because he provides a right-handed bat to what remains a lefty-heavy lineup. Trumbo is also under club control through next year via arbitration.

Cano and Seager are fixtures at second and third, although the Mariners want to create more DH time for Cano in coming years.

Marte will likely get a chance in coming weeks to answer questions regarding his ability to play shortstop on a daily basis. Some scouts question his arm strength, and nearly everyone agrees he is a better fit at second base.

If Marte dispels doubts regarding his skills at short — a big if — then Brad Miller could shift back to a utility role, which is where McClendon believes he fits best.

The more likely current scenario, looking toward next season, is Miller will remain the shortstop and Marte will be the regular center fielder. That could open a spot for Chris Taylor in a utility role.

Taylor struggled at the plate earlier this season in two call-ups but should get another look as a September promotion.

OUTFIELD

Center fielder Austin Jackson is a pending free agent, which is why the Mariners began shifting Marte into that role last month at Tacoma. Marte figures to get at least an occasional look in center over the closing weeks.

If Jackson departs, and Marte isn’t the center fielder, the Mariners have few in-house options beyond James Jones, who still appeared overmatched at the plate earlier this season in a brief big-league tour.

When Cruz signed last December as a free agent, he was generally viewed as a designated hitter. No longer. While he will continue to log time at DH, Cruz seems likely to enter next season as the regular right fielder.

Trumbo now projects as the primary DH, although he can play first and, when needed, in the outfield.

The Mariners control Seth Smith through next year with a club option for 2017. He projects to remain in his current role as a left-handed bat, primarily in left field, against right-handed pitchers.

Veteran Franklin Gutierrez is also a pending free agent and seems likely to return on a one-year deal.

The trade that sent Dustin Ackley to the Yankees also returned outfielder Ramon Flores, a left-handed hitter assigned to Tacoma. Flores is out of options and should be a September promotion (if he doesn’t arrive sooner).

The current projection is Cruz, Smith, Flores and (assuming he returns) Gutierrez will divide time in the corners.

Jones and Romero each have options remaining after this season.

LOOKING BACK

It was six years ago Friday — Aug. 7, 2009 — that Ken Griffey Jr. hit his 623rd career homer on a night when the Mariners staged a Ken Griffey Jr. Bobblehead doll giveaway for a crowd of 44,378 at Safeco Field.

Griffey’s homer came in the seventh inning against Tampa Bay starter Jeff Niemann. The Mariners won 7-6 on a two-out, two-run walk-off homer by Ryan Langerhans in the 11th inning.

Griffey finished his 22-year career in 2010 with 630 homers, which ranks sixth on baseball’s all-time list.

SHORT HOPS

Nelson Cruz’s 16-game hitting streak is the longest in the majors…The Mariners are batting .257 and averaging 4.3 runs in 41 games since Edgar Martinez became hitting coach. They batted .233 and averaged 3.4 runs in 68 games prior to Martinez taking over…The Mariners hold a 5-1 edge over the Rangers with 13 games remaining between the two clubs.

ON TAP

The Mariners open a six-game homestand at 7:10 p.m. Friday with the first of three weekend games against the Texas Rangers at Safeco Field.

Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (2-2, 4.47) will face Rangers lefty Cole Hamels (6-7, 3.76). Texas acquired Hamels last week from Philadelphia.

The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners

By the numbers

.242

Team batting average, tied for last in the American League

123

Home runs, fifth in the AL, but the team’s 388 RBIs are 13th in the league.

3.97

Team earned run average, 9th in the AL.

.986

Team fielding percentage, fourth best in AL.

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