The Mariners already have to live with being last year’s disappointment. Analysts and commentators worked up over general manager Jack Zduriencik’s aggressive embrace of statistical analysis were sure the Mariners were going to deliver on the promise they’d generated after an 85-win season in 2009. Instead, the Mariners delivered their second 101-loss season in three years in 2010.
Nevertheless, this year folks were yet again willing to discount performance, drink Z-brand Kool-Aid and get carried away with Seattle after a 37-35 start had them a half-game out of first place. The M’s had just taken two of three from the Phillies, after all. Surely now the Mariners would be genuinely relevant, and meet the expectations that their brand of genius would deliver something more noteworthy than a third-place finish in the AL West’s short stack.
That was a month ago, and the Mariners are 6-19 since after Wednesday night’s blowout loss at the hands of the Blue Jays in Toronto. They haven’t been facing the league’s best clubs in that time -- although swept by the Braves, they were also swept by the Nationals. Their current 11-game losing streak is the product of getting swept in consecutive four-games series by the Angels before the break and then the Rangers after. They’ve been shut out five times, and limited to one run in five more. Obviously, the offense is coming up short, but it wasn’t like this was that much of a surprise.
Overall, the Mariners have hit just .202/.255/.279 in their past 24 games (not counting Wednesday’s action). With no power -- an .077 ISO comes in only one flavor, awful -- and a walk rate just more than 6 percent, there’s not much to make runs out of with the Mariners’ lineup. Even with a pitching staff giving up just 3.7 RA/9, they’ve been outscored 91-60 in the past 25 games, and outhomered 24-12. Via equivalent average, the Mariners have had Major League Baseball’s worst offense this year (at .232) and last year (at .237). They didn’t have very far to fall from 2009, when they were at .248 -- 28th “best” in baseball.
Picking villains in this tale of woe isn’t very hard. Chone Figgins has long since driven off a cliff as a first-order free agency disaster, but that was May’s story -- Figgins has started just nine of the Mariners’ past 25 games. Instead, blame should be placed on the hitters usually considered the building blocks of whatever offense the Mariners are supposed to get: Ichiro Suzuki has a .488 OPS during this tailspin, Franklin Gutierrez .422 and Justin Smoak .394. Designated hitter Jack Cust lost his job for a .670 OPS on the season, but now that would look pretty good. Choosing Adam Kennedy as an offensive savior is the easy symptom with which to identify a team with offensive issues.
It’s worth remembering how much of this predicament is a matter of design. The Mariners picked up light-hitting Brendan Ryan to add his slick fielding up the middle in their infield, figuring that they could afford the bat that had already cost him his job with the Cardinals -- and they were wrong. If any lineup can’t afford Ryan, it’s the Mariners, not when they’re not getting offense from anywhere in the lineup.
Singling out Ichiro, a player who has given fans so much joy on both sides of the Pacific, is far from a happy task. But it’s worth pointing out that he’s older than Derek Jeter. After 3,626 hits between the Japanese leagues and the majors he's an obvious immortal as far as history is concerned, just much less so as far as the 2011 baseball season and beyond.
This doesn’t have all that much to do with Safeco’s run-suppressing virtues as a ballpark. The Mariners are equally pathetic at the plate at home (.607 OPS) as they are on the road (.623 OPS). Neither works against major league foes, and the Mariners have not been facing the cream of the league in the past month.
Quite simply, the Mariners simply don’t have the offensive firepower to play with basic major league opponents, let alone running up against the AL East’s monsters, or even the power division’s second-rank maulers such as the Blue Jays. This isn’t a matter of trying to punch above their weight class -- "Mariners offense" is an oxymoron because of the choices for who would be in their lineup.
For better and worse, there’s really only one man to blame for this -- the buck has to stop with Jack Zduriencik, for making so many concessions to defense. Winding up with a defensive unit that rates fourth in the American League this year via BIS defensive runs saved, and third in the majors in Baseball Prospectus’ park-adjusted defensive efficiency is nice, but far from dominating, and it hardly makes up for the offensive hits taken in the meantime.
That doesn’t make Zduriencik dumb, far from it. Unfortunately, the multiple risks taken to try to shore up the offense, whether trading for Milton Bradley or believing in Figgins or signing Cust when his power was already flagging … none of these gambits worked, wasting another year of Felix Hernandez's career. You can hope things will get better with Dustin Ackley up, but a lineup that isn’t getting offense from any of the four corners or the DH is going to have a hard time generating any kind of a lead. Until the Mariners embark on a serious offensive overhaul, their problems will stick with them, even after Gutierrez busts out and if Ichiro rebounds.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.