The accepted theory in baseball is that the best hitter on a team should bat third, which may help explain why the Seattle Mariners had the worst offense in the game last season, and the worst offense in the American League since the advent of the designated hitter.
Over 162 games, the Mariners used Milton Bradley, Russell Branyan, Franklin Gutierrez, Casey Kotchman, Jose Lopez and Mike Sweeney in the third spot in their lineup.
Combined, they batted .227 when hitting third.
Since the end of the 2010 season, general manager Jack Zduriencik has replaced his fill-in manager and most of the coaching staff, signed a starting catcher, brought in a designated hitter and acquired a starting shortstop.
When the 2011 season opens Friday in Oakland, the No. 3 hitter in manager Eric Wedge’s lineup will be Bradley.
“Milton is in the middle of our lineup and one of our best hitters,” Wedge said. “We need him to go out there and perform.”
Can Bradley be a productive No. 3 hitter?
In his best season, he hit 22 home runs and had 77 RBI, and that was three years ago with Texas. Last season, he played 73 games and batted .205.
Coming out of spring training, it’s hard to argue that Bradley shouldn’t hit third for Seattle, or that the Mariners’ offense won’t be improved.
“We have to be better,” pitcher Felix Hernandez joked. “If we’re worse, we don’t belong in the big leagues.”
A year ago, the Mariners scored 513 runs – 100 fewer than the next lowest total in the American League. Put another way, in the AL West the Rangers scored 787 runs, the Angels 681 and the Athletics 663.
How can the Mariners make up that kind of difference?
“By doing our jobs,” infielder Chone Figgins said. “You know Ichiro is going to get on base, and my goal in every game I play is to do something explosive to help the team win. I want opposing teams thinking about what crazy thing I might do.
“I might bunt. I might steal a base. I might go first to third on a single to left field. I know this, there won’t be many games this season where Ichiro and I aren’t in scoring position. That’s our job.”
Wedge likes the Ichiro-Figgins look atop his lineup, but wants to do more than have them in scoring position for the heart of the order. Wedge wants the bottom of his lineup – Michael Saunders, Brendan Ryan and Jack Wilson – to help set the table.
“I want to do a better job at the bottom of the order so we can have more people on base for Ichi and Figgy,” Wedge said. “They hit, and if we have runners on base ahead of them, we have the chance to score more runs.”
Can these Mariners score enough runs to turn some of their 28 one-run losses into more than 21 one-run wins?
There are obvious obstacles.
Not only have the Mariners been without a 100-RBI hitter the past two years – Franklin Gutierrez led them last season with 64 – the team doesn’t have a hitter on its roster who has ever driven in 100 runs.
The heart of the order, Bradley, Jack Cust and Justin Smoak, is at best a high-risk group.
Bradley hasn’t played as many as 130 games in a season since 2004. Cust has struck out 732 times in 1,882 big-league at-bats. Smoak has played all of 100 games in the majors, and batted .218 with 13 home runs.
Clearly, the offense remains the biggest challenge.
“I love the effort, the attitude, the approach, the work ethic,” Wedge said. “You’ll see these kids go out and compete from pitch one to the end. We’ll play it all the way through.”
The manager won’t wait for the three-run home run.
“We’ll take some risks, some chances,” Wedge said. “When you push the game, you’re going to have to take some calculated risks. It’s not going to always work. But you evaluate the risk-reward and make your decisions.”
There are some players on the team – Smoak, Adam Moore, Saunders – still learning the game, with more of their kind expected to join the team this season.
“We’ll be a smarter offensive club,” Wedge said. “You’ll see more quality at-bats. But you’ll also see some young outs, some young games offensively. We’ll learn from it. We’ll get better from it.
“Having a better understanding of what is a good at-bat, what is a good out, what we’re trying to accomplish up there, how to put an inning together. That’s what these kids are learning.
“It’s a lot deeper than just getting the runner over or in or some of these things,” Wedge said. “It’s leading off an inning or understanding who is behind you or what the pitcher is doing or what we’re doing, who is on the mound for us, what type of last half inning we’ve had.
“It takes time to have a good feel for that.”
Wedge and his coaches have been talking to players all spring about those kinds of situations. Players on the team last season are listening.
“Eric tells you what he expects, and if you don’t do it, he’ll find someone who will,” Bradley said. “He doesn’t ask for what you can’t do, he wants you to play the game the right way. He demands that.”
Added Moore: “He wants a good at-bat. You’re going to make outs, but there are ways to help the team even with outs. Make the pitcher work hard, let your teammates see everything he throws.
“With a man at third base, less than two outs, don’t pull the ball to third base ”
Basics. Fundamentals. Nothing former manager Don Wakamatsu and his staff didn’t cover last spring, but Wedge’s approach differs significantly.
He’s carrying a stick.
“When he says everyone is accountable, he means it,” Jack Wilson said.
Given that the team Seattle has on opening day could change significantly as the season wears on, would it be fair to call the Mariners a work in progress?
“Yeah. I think with the team we’re opening with well, I think ‘work in progress’ comes off wrong,” Wedge said. “I wouldn’t want you to put that in print. We’re going to be building from day one. There’s an argument that you’re always a work in progress because you’re always looking to get better. I think people misconstrue ‘work in progress’ because it’s like, ‘Oh, geez, we’re a bad team.’
“That’s not what we’re saying. What we’re saying is we’re going to find out where we are at some point early on, and we know we’ll continue to get better from there because we’ll have more information in making decisions.”
With so much uncertainty around the team, why not start the season with all the prospects in the Seattle system and see who’s ready and who’s not?
“It’s just not that easy,” Wedge said. “One, this is not a rebuild so you’re not just going to go all young. Two, you’re looking to go out there and compete and win as many games as you can. That’s real. It is the big leagues and it’s all about winning.
“And three, if you want these young kids to develop as quickly as possible, you need that veteran presence, you need that experience around them. That shortens up that learning curve.”
Given the mix of veterans and youngsters on this staff, the Mariners have almost universally been picked to finish last in their division – and in their league.
“I don’t think about that. I haven’t read or seen anything,” Wedge said. “I haven’t seen one preseason report or one preseason magazine or newspaper. I have a pretty good idea what they think of us, but I haven’t read on it. Nor do I care.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to play out. We have to get into the season. But whatever happens, we’ll adjust and get better. You’ll see the team evolve. There’ll be points in time where it’s a step back for two steps forward. But we’re always going to continue to move forward.”
Avg: .315R: 74Hr: 6Rbi: 43 Obp: .359 Slg: .394
Age: 37Ht: 5-11Wt: 172
Because of offense’s woes, hasn’t scored 100 runs since 2008.
Avg: .259R: 62Hr: 1Rbi: 35Obp: .340Slg: .306
Age: 33Ht: 5-8Wt: 180
Career .287 hitter moves back to third for second Mariners season.
Avg: .205R: 28Hr: 8Rbi: 29Obp: .292Slg: .348
Age: 32Ht: 6-0Wt: 215
Year 2 in Seattle can’t be worse than Year 1, right?
*avg: .272R: 50Hr: 13Rbi: 52Obp: .395Slg: .438
Age: 32Ht: 6-1Wt: 235
Will draw walks, will strike out, but will power translate to Safeco?
Avg: .218R: 40Hr: 13Rbi: 48Obp: .307Slg: .371
Age: 24Ht: 6-4Wt: 230
No pressure; just make fans forget about Cliff Lee.
**avg: .269R: 55Hr: 14Rbi: 58Obp: .315Slg: .449
Age: 32Ht: 6-0Wt: 230
Just to jog your memory: Hit .176 in first Mariners go-round (2004-05).
Avg: .211R: 29Hr: 10Rbi: 33Obp: .295Slg: .367
Age: 24Ht: 6-4Wt: 225
Likely wouldn’t have made roster if not for Franklin Gutierrez’s illness.
***avg: .223R: 50Hr: 2Rbi: 36Obp: .270Slg: .294
Age: 29Ht: 6-2Wt: 195
Posted career-lows in AVG, OBP last season but is good with his glove!
Avg: .249R: 17Hr: 0Rbi: 14Obp: .282Slg: .316
Age: 33Ht: 6-0Wt: 190
Hoping move to second revives injury-prone legs and struggling bat.
All 2010 stats * – With Oakland ** – With Colorado *** – With St. Louis