The Seattle Mariners are in that frustrating purgatory of baseball existence: Not good enough to contend, not bad enough to formulate a rebuilding strategy that makes sense.
Where are they? What is the master plan? Is there life after Felix?
There wasn't Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, when Felix Hernandez dueled CC Sabathia in a battle of aces. Hernandez outpitched Sabathia, but a collision at first base in the fifth inning might have shaken him up a bit. He labored through the sixth, allowing his only run and leaving after 97 pitches with a 3-1 lead.
The Mariners bullpen, stellar for most of the season, couldn't hold the lead; the Yankees received some good luck from the baseball gods and then Mariano Rivera closed out the 4-3 victory. The Mariners can cry about the 3-2 pitch to Brett Gardner in the seventh that looked like strike three, or moan about Justin Smoak's liner in the eighth with two on that doubled Dustin Ackley off second base. But they also failed to capitalize on 10 hits off Sabathia, and Michael Saunders couldn't get a bunt down in the eighth. These are the games that good teams pull out and mediocre teams don't pull out often enough.
The Mariners aren't a terrible team -- they're 18-21, they have a terrific 1-2 pitching combo in Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, they have some good arms in the bullpen and the offense, while still bad, is at least not historically bad anymore.
But ... where are they? That's harder to peg. They're not the Astros or Cubs. They're kind of in that Pirates/Royals territory of maybe if everything breaks right, except those two clubs are playing better right now. Their offseason moves -- signing veterans Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay and trading for Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales -- suggested a "win now" strategy. Those guys are short-term investments, with Ibanez and Bay simply one-year placeholders and part-time players, and Morse and Morales both free agents after the season.
Essentially, those guys were just roster filler anyway, and for all the angst among Mariners fans over Ibanez or Bay stealing a job from Casper Wells, the Mariners' present and future didn't rest in the bat of Casper Wells. No, it rested in the continued improvement of Kyle Seager and Saunders, plus the hopeful development of one-time top prospects Ackley, Smoak and Jesus Montero.
That takes us to mid-May, and it's time for Mariners management to make some difficult decisions. Seager and Saunders, building upon last season's success, have been fine; they're good players, guys who can be key components of a playoff team. But it's the other three -- all once rated as top-20 prospects in the game -- that have again disappointed.
Ackley is hitting .231/.273/.281, and as Jeff Sullivan of the U.S.S. Mariner blog pointed out, his walk rate has plummeted to Miguel Olivo levels. That's not good, in case you're wondering. Smoak is drawing walks but not doing much of anything else, hitting .235/.355/.311 with one home run. Montero is hitting .200/.250/.341 and the catching experiment is working out as well as anything labeled "experiment" usually does.
As I said, it's only mid-May, and you never want to jump to snap conclusions. But smart organizations do make conclusions. Back in the day, a manager like Whitey Herzog might look at a player for two weeks and determine if he's a major league player. Maybe he wasn't always right, but he believed in his convictions.
Do the Mariners still believe in these three? Ackley is now 25 years old and getting worse, much worse than he was as a rookie in 2011. Smoak is 26 and has a career .225 average. Montero is only 23 but is looking like a bat-only player who doesn't have enough of a bat.
Manager Eric Wedge hasn't exactly proven himself to be a great judge of talent -- not playing John Jaso and Iwakuma early on last season, for example -- but he certainly made his convictions clear with Tuesday's lineup: Ackley, Smoak and Montero all started the game on the bench. In their places were Robert Andino, Ibanez and Kelly Shoppach. Ackley, the can't-miss second pick in the draft, is now being benched against left-handers for a guy hitting .169. Smoak sat for a guy who has hit .207 against left-handers since 2011. Montero sat because he isn't good.
Smart organizations properly evaluate their own talent. They know when not to re-sign Josh Hamilton, know which prospects to hold and know when to walk away. It's time for general manager Jack Zduriencik to make some calls. If the Mariners think Ackley can play then play him, even against Sabathia, and certainly don't bench him for Robert Freakin' Andino. If Smoak can play, then play him. If Montero can't catch, then send him down to Triple-A to see if he can actually develop an idea of how to approach an at-bat.
Because even if those guys play a little better the rest of the season, what have you learned? You'd be back in the same position next year, counting on them simply because they were once highly-rated minor leaguers.
I think the Mariners are close to knowing some answers. They're not contenders. Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino are down in Triple-A, perhaps ready to replace Ackley and Montero, the new new things to get excited about.
It's time to Whitey Herzog it and man up. It's judgment day in Seattle.