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The Strike Zone

Despite offseason revamp, Seattle Mariners are off to another slow start

Robinson Cano and the Mariners' offense haven't found their stride yet. (Ted S. Warren/AP)Robinson Cano and the Mariners' offense haven't found their stride yet. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Felix Hernandez was supposed to arrest this kind of slide. An ace working at home against a 5-14 Houston club batting .192 is supposed to be money in the bank, even if your team is on a six-game losing streak. On Monday night, however, Hernandez was outpitched by Dallas Keuchel — Dallas Keuchel? — touched up for six runs, four of them unearned, and the Mariners lost 7-2. They're now 7-12, and looking as though they're bound for fourth place in the AL West yet again.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, not after they shocked the baseball world by snatching Robinson Cano away from the Yankees via a 10-year, $240 million deal, not with the additions of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison to the lineup, with full seasons of Brad Miller and Mike Zunino and an improved Justin Smoak. Not with Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma fronting a rotation featuring blue-chip prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, or Fernando Rodney taking over closer duties. Not under new manager Lloyd McClendon, who had patiently waited his turn for another chance since being fired by the Pirates in 2005.

And maybe it won't be, given that the season is just 19 games old, that the Mariners have been outscored by only six runs (75-69) and have a third-order winning percentage — their expected record based on run elements, adjusted for the quality of competition — of .491, not great but hardly dire. But since starting the year with a three-game sweep of the Angels in Anaheim, the team is just 4-12, losers of seven straight and nine out of 10. They've scored just 24 runs over those 10 games, and their last four losses have come against perennial doormats Miami and Houston; they're just 10-10 against the latter since they joined the AL West.

Indeed, the offense has been the team's big problem. Seattle's 3.63 runs per game is the league's third-worst, as is its .359 slugging percentage, while its .224 batting average and .280 on-base percentage both rank second-to-last; hooray for the Astros, who have out-uglied them in all of those categories. The M's are second-to-last in terms of both strikeout and walk rates (23.0 percent and 6.6 percent), too.

Cano (.270/.329/.351 with one homer) has yet to heat up, though his 100 OPS+ makes him one of just four regulars to manage league-average production. Hart (.268/.328/.536) has been the team's best hitter, with a 149 OPS+ and four homers — a promising showing for a player who missed all of last season due to microfracture surgery on his right knee, though he's played just three games in the field. Zunino (.281/.293/.544) has shown pop (three homers, 140 OPS+), if not plate discipline (17/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Dustin Ackley has somehow managed a 101 OPS+ on a .262/.290/.400 line, which at least counts as a big step up after his last two seasons.

More disappointing has been Smoak (.227/.288/.379), at least for anyone who believed that his 6-for-13 start with four extra-base hits in the season-opening series heralded some kind of breakout; he has a .445 OPS since then. Kyle Seager and Brad Miller are both stuck well below the Mendoza Line, while Abe Almonte and Michael Saunders aren't doing much more than converting oxygen to carbon dioxide. Morrison went 3-for-20 before hitting the disabled list with a right hamstring strain. Maybe Willie Bloomquist's big bat can save this team.

One thing that stands out from among their splits is that the team has hit just .178/.245/.317 from the seventh inning on, scoring all of 14 runs in those innings, a rate of 2.3 per nine, while allowing 28. It's probably just small-sample noise — such caveats apply to virtually every number in this article, after all — but it does suggest that their hitters having a hard time matching up with other teams' best relievers, and that McClendon, managing for the first time since 2005, may not be pushing the right buttons when he has the chance. That's probably an unfair assessment without a case-by-case analysis; it's far too early to render a verdict on the new skipper, but it bears watching.

Monday's seven runs aside, run prevention hasn't really been the Mariners' issue; their 3.95 runs per game allowed is fifth-best in the AL, as is their 109 ERA+. That said, their strikeout, walk and homer rates have been nothing to write home about, as the staff's 4.13 FIP (10th in the league) suggests. They've been bailed out by a defense whose .718 defensive efficiency is the league's best by six points, though their -7 Defensive Runs Saved as a team suggest regression is just around the corner.

To be fair, the rotation has held up well despite being bitten hard by the injury bug. Iwakuma started the year on the disabled list due to a strained tendon in his right middle finger; he's scheduled to make his first rehab start at Triple-A Tacoma on Tuesday night. Walker, ranked among the top-10 on the MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus prospect lists, is on the DL as well, still attempting to work his way back from an early March bout of shoulder inflammation; alas, he's been shut down until the end of the month due to a shoulder impingement, and unlikely to join the Mariners until mid- or late May. Paxton, who began the year with a solid two-start showing for Seattle, is on a similar timetable to return from a strained latissimus dorsi. The remainder of the starting five behind King Felix consists of 35-year-old Chris Young, who didn't pitch in the majors at all last year, and less-pedigreed youngsters Erasmo Ramirez, Roenis Elias and Brandon Maurer, who have combined for just 44 major league starts to date. Meanwhile, the bullpen has been mediocre, with a high walk rate (4.4 unintentionals per nine) and the league's third-worst strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio (1.9), not to mention the aforementioned late-inning scoring imbalance.

The good news is that, at least according to run differential, the Mariners are better than its record would suggests; they've lost a trio of 3-2 games, but have been on the right side in blowouts more often than not (4-3 in games decided by five-plus runs). The bad news is that their schedule isn't getting easier anytime soon; only 11 of their first 34 games are at home, and aside from five more games with those dastardly Astros over the next two weeks, they face the Rangers, Yankees, A's, Royals and Rays before getting a breather against the Twins to start the second quarter of the season. By then, we should have a better idea of whether this team is truly taking on water again, bound for their sixth losing season in seven despite so much optimism.

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