OAKLAND — They knew it, even if they didn’t want to admit it. Day in and day out last season, the Seattle Mariners simply didn’t have an offense good enough to make them competitive.
No criticism, just fact. The Mariners went into last season knowing they were going to play young players every day – good or bad – and have them learn at the big league level.
Not surprisingly, there were struggles. They didn’t hit. They didn’t score runs. They struggled at home. It was a lot to ask of young players in their first and second full seasons in the majors.
As Seattle goes into its 2013 opener tonight in Oakland (7:07 p.m., Root Sports), the Mariners hope to leave behind the 2012 legacy: Last place in the American League in batting average (.234), slugging percentage (.369), on-base percentage (.296), runs (619) and runs per game (3.82).
“It’s one thing where you are fooling yourself into believing you have a chance to win,” shortstop Brendan Ryan said last week.
And getting behind by three runs felt like a 30-run deficit and there was no hope of a rally.
“We were not a team built to come from behind,” Ryan said. “We were built to try to win those one-run games, keep opponents to a minimal run score and execute the small ball.”
The margin of error was tiny.
“If we made the slightest mistake that might have ruined the one rally we might have in a game,” Ryan said.
But it’s supposed to be different this season. The tough times should have helped young hitters improve. More importantly, the Mariners have added some productive veterans to take the pressure off the likes of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager.
Sluggers Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse arrived in offseason trades to provide a presence in the middle of the order. They will bat third and fourth daily. The team also brought in Raul Ibañez and Jason Bay to strengthen the bench and start sometimes.
“It’s what we talked about that we didn’t have last year but we do have this year,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
It will be different than last season, when the Mariners started with Ichiro Suzuki batting No. 3 and Smoak, Montero and John Jaso handling the cleanup spot.
“What I see is a legitimate big league lineup,” said Ibañez, who has played 986 of his 1,947 big league games in a Mariners uniform.
That wasn’t the case last season. The Mariners unfairly forced such players as Seager, Smoak, Montero and Saunders into the heart of the order. They have the talent to bat there, but not the experience.
“In those situations, sometimes you rarely get to see a fastball. They are going to pitch you different and they are going to pitch you tough. You really have to relax and not try to do too much,” Morse said. “It’s tougher when you are young. It’s a big role and it’s a tough role. They had to learn the hard way.”
Morales calls hitting in the middle of the order “a responsibility,” and he takes great pride in it.
“Me personally? I like it,” Morse said. “I like the pressure that comes with it. I love the responsibility that comes with it. I feel like it’s a compliment to me and I feel I can help my team win when I’m hitting there.”
There is an air of confidence with the older players. Morales and Morse never seem to be in a hurry at the plate. Ibañez, legendary for his preparation, is always locked in. Bay never shows emotion. And even if they do make an out, there is enough confidence from past success to keep panic out of the equation.
“You gotta go up there cocky in your own way,” Morse said. “You have to go up there thinking you are better than the pitcher. You are going to see his best pitches and you are going to hit him.”
Morse (nine homers) and Morales (seven homers) led a record-setting power show this spring for the Mariners, who led the majors with 58 homers. That was the most in franchise history and second most by any team in the past 20 years.
Sure, spring statistics are meaningless, but seeing power from the middle of the order — no matter the circumstances — helps confidence.
“It’s not even close,” Ryan said. “It really isn’t. The vibe is just so different, so much better.”
Said Wedge: “It’s night and day.”
But can those two guys in the middle of the order make that much difference?
“When you have that presence in the middle of lineup, it has to help,” Smoak said.
Sabermetric projections vary. They have Morales hitting anywhere from .265 to .284 with 17-23 homers and 52-78 RBI. Morse is projected to hit from .253 to .295, also with 17-23 homers and 57-80 RBI. The projections don’t reflect the possible benefits of reconfigured Safeco Field or good health for both Morales and Morse.
Players have said Morse is capable of hitting more than 30 home runs this season. The Mariners haven’t had that happen since Russell Branyan hit 31 in 2009. Meanwhile, Mariners management thinks Morales is finally healthy after his gruesome broken leg in 2010 and will be more like the player he was before the injury.
Bay and Ibañez will likely bat in the No. 5 spot when they play.
“It’s just a different presence,” Wedge said.
But for the Mariners to truly make strides in offensive performance and wins, players such as Smoak and Ackley — two foundations of the team — must improve.
Both are coming off awful seasons. Both have made significant changes to their swings.
Smoak has looked like the hitter the Mariners had hoped he could be this spring. He hit .407 (24-for-59) with eight doubles, five homers and 15 RBI. He posted a .455 on-base percentage and a .797 slugging percentage.
“I just want to carry it over to the season, keep doing what I’m doing,” Smoak said.
Ackley wasn’t quite as explosive, but his swing looks better and he seems more balanced.
Montero seemed to turn a corner this spring, showing patience and a new pitch-by-pitch focus.
“He’s really starting to figure some things out,” Wedge said.
There was an ease in the Mariners clubhouse this spring. In past years, there was anxiety, a feeling of, “What happens if we don’t hit?”
That’s been replaced by a self-confidence that says, “We will hit.”
“It’s a whole different feeling coming into the clubhouse this spring than it has been the last two years,” Ryan said.
The pressure has been reduced and divided.
“These guys had a lot of pressure on them the last couple years,” Ibañez said. “Bringing some of us older guys to take some of that pressure off them makes it easier to play to their abilities.”
Will it lead to success? The Seattle Mariners think it will.
“We’ve got veteran guys now and everybody knows it’s going to be different,” Montero said. “Nobody has been talking about us, but we’re fine with that. We’re quiet, now we have a nice team. Everything is coming together. We’ve got power, we’ve got hitting, and we’ve got pitching. It’s going to be different.”
Seattle POSITION PLAYERS
Jesus MonteroR/R6-3230232 seasons
The talent is there, but will he have everyday focus?
Kelly ShoppachR/R6-0220328 seasons
A veteran the Mariners can rely on to give them good innings.
Dustin AckleyL/R6-1195252 seasons
Coming off the worst season of his career, he changed his stance.
Robert AndinoR/R6-0195288 seasons
Unlike last season, Mariners’ utility guy is a hitter, not a sideshow.
Kendrys MoralesS/R6-1225296 seasons
Switch-hitter with pop, he is middle of order hitter Mariners need.
Brendan RyanR/R6-2195316 seasons
One of the best fielding shortstops around, but can he hit just .220?
Kyle SeagerL/R6-0215252 seasons
Had breakout season in 2012, but can he continue to add to it?
Justin SmoakS/L6-4220263 seasons
Big first baseman seems to have fixed swing, will there be results?
Jason BayR/R6-22103410 seasons
Can he return to 2009 form? No. But he can still contribute.
Franklin GutierrezR/R6-2195308 seasons
No question about his talent, and every question about durability.
Raul IbañezL/R6-22254017 seasons
Veteran is a great clubhouse leader, but can he help on the field?
Michael MorseR/R6-5245318 seasons
First true home run threat Mariners have had since Richie Sexson.
Michael SaundersL/R6-4225264 seasons
Made a leap last season, but plans on more strides this email@example.com 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish firstname.lastname@example.org