Mariners' mess, Pirates' sinking ship and the rise of the NL

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The Seattle Mariners are a mess, cramming a season's worth of fiascos (and just 13 wins) into 34 games. There was the Cliff Lee oblique (costing him a month, but not the ability to look forward to free agency), the Eric Byrnes debacle (hitting .094, pulling his bat back on a squeeze bunt and biking his way out of the clubhouse past GM Jack Zduriencek and clear out of baseball) and the Ken Griffey Jr. Napgate (what's next, a plaque in the Seattle clubhouse? "Junior Slept Here.") But what may have set back this club as much as anything was that it made the same mistake the Chicago Cubs did last year: counting on Milton Bradley to be a stable, big-time run producer in the middle of the lineup.

At 32, the next time Bradley plays 145 games or drives in 80 runs will be the first. To his credit, Bradley went to the club asking for help after personal and emotional issues became too much for him to bear.

"When you sit there and a grown man cries out for help, it's pretty humbling," Zduriencek said. "You want to help any way you can."

You have to root for a guy who has been overwhelmed trying to find emotional stability in his life and took a step back on his own. Baseball becomes secondary, but given that's what Bradley does best, the game can be a big part of his healing process. But here's the problem for the Mariners: they have no idea when Bradley is coming back and they still desperately need him to hit when he does.

"It's yet to be determined," Zduriencek said when asked about Bradley's return. "There's been progress. We're just going to be patient with this. There will be a time when we get a professional recommendation to play, and then it has to be in the player's comfort zone."

For now, Bradley is working out daily, but not under club supervision, as stipulated by the rules of the restricted list. Whenever he does get back, he immediately will be faced with the pressure of having to be a key hitter -- maybe even the most important one -- in the Seattle lineup.

"I still think he will be able to do that," Zduriencek said. "When he went down I thought he was swinging the bat well. You could see his impact on the lineup. He can hit, he takes pitches, he knows the strike zone, he's pretty advanced as far as those elements of the game, so to say we need him would be an understatement."

Bradley, aside from or because of his emotional issues, has hit nothing like an impact hitter for the past two years. In 145 games in that time, Bradley has hit .251/.368/.393 with 14 homers and 52 RBI. Then again, that makes him a veritable Babe Ruth in the Seattle lineup.

Meanwhile, the Mariners embarrassed themselves with Napgate. Sad to say, sleeping in the clubhouse is done so often it's not exactly a baseball felony. But Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu said he didn't know if Griffey was sleeping in there. Huh? (He ruled out the eighth inning, but not before.)

What Wakamatsu did say, by his game management, was that he would rather have banjo-hitting Rob Johnson bat against a right-hander than Griffey -- and that he'd rather have Griffey out of the starting lineup against two right-handers the past two games. Okay, then. And we also know that two teammates had no trouble telling a reporter about Griffey's nap. That Griffey has just two extra-base hits, that his manager doesn't trust him even against right-handers, and that his teammates chose not to protect him are all troubling signs for an icon and his franchise.

And yet whom do the Mariners blame? The reporter, of course -- the guy who was just doing his job, not sleeping on it. Lee and his teammates turned childish by saying they wouldn't speak if the reporter was at their locker. Mike Sweeney suddenly had no problem with the keep-it-in-the-clubhouse code when it came to letting know he manned up at a closed-door meeting by challenging the two mystery Mariners to a fight. No one stepped forward, though danger was hardly in the offing. Sweeney is a .189 hitter who, like a lot of Mariners, has a propensity these days to swing and miss.

You will be hard pressed to find a sorrier display of hitting than the Pirates have put on this week, and if you're lucky, you won't. Pittsburgh lost four consecutive games while scoring a total of five runs on 18 hits while batting .148. Worst of all, they went down hacking as if they wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. This might be the worst hitting Pirates team in more than half a century. In the past four games entering Friday, the Pirates:

• Became the first team in 10 years to go two straight games without a run or a walk (the 2000 Devil Rays were the last to go down so meekly).

• Saw only 457 pitches in four games, an average of 114 per game -- well below the NL average of 149.

• Saw only 192 pitches in back-to-back shutout losses to Cincinnati. They managed to get the count to three balls only three times in 56 at-bats in those two games.

Four games is a small sample, of course. But there are signs that the Pirates have systemic problems when it comes to showing significant growth in an offensive philosophy. Of the worst 35 regulars in the National League at pitches per plate appearance, five of them are Pirates: Lastings Milledge, Ryan Doumit, Andy LaRoche, Ronny Cedeno and Akinori Iwamura. Milledge's lack of development is especially concerning. At 25, he is a corner outfielder with no patience or power (zero home runs) and doesn't hit for average (.241 this year; .264 in 350 career games).

In addition, Jeff Clement has been a disaster at first base (.176) and Garrett Jones is hitting .227 with one home run since the third game of the season.

This lack of quality at-bats is nothing new in Pittsburgh. Here is where the Pirates have ranked in OBP in the league since 2004: 12, 12, 13, 12, 15, 14, 15. This year Pittsburgh's offense has been bad even by Pittsburgh standards. The Pirates are averaging 3.45 runs per game. The last Pirates team that finished a season scoring less than three and a half runs per game was the 1952 club -- an outfit that lost 112 games.

It may be time to forget everything you've thought about how the American League is so much better than the National League. NL teams -- yes, the NL, a league with no DH and the awful Houston Astros -- are averaging more runs per game than the AL, 4.54-4.44.

The AL has four teams scoring fewer than four runs per game: the Angels, Indians, Mariners and Orioles. The Royals and White Sox are dreadful. That's almost half your league right there. Night after night there are too many matchups that are just not compelling.

True, the NL has the Pirates (run differential after 34 games: minus-97) and Astros (six hits, zero home runs by anybody under age 26). But the most exciting young players in baseball -- including the very young - are mostly in or coming to the NL, signaling the cycle of AL dominance is nearing an end.

The NL has outfielder Jason Heyward, 20, of the Braves and shortstop Starlin Castro, 20, of the Cubs already in the big leagues, with outfielder Mike Stanton, 20, of the Marlins, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, 21, of the Nationals and pitcher Aroldis Chapman, 22, of the Reds right behind them.

The AL? Austin Jackson, 23, of Detroit is off to a fast start and Justin Smoak, 23, of Texas is intriguing, and catcher Carlos Santana, 24, of Cleveland could be coming soon, but the AL debut class of 2010 isn't as young or phenomenal as the NL group.

Hey, who knows? Maybe the NL will even win an All-Star Game this time. If I'm manager Charlie Manuel, I like my chances pitching Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright -- and forgetting about using any relief pitchers.