The Most Disappointing Season For…The Seattle Mariners

The 2015 Seattle Mariners

Record: 76-86 (4th in AL West, 12th out of 15 in the AL)

Pythagorean Record: 74-88

Runs Scored: 656 (13th in the AL)

Runs Allowed: 726 (11th in the AL)

Prior Season Record: 87-75

Manager: Lloyd McClendon

Hype: A late surge put the Mariners close to the playoffs for the first time in a long time. With additions on offense and the continuing domination of our bullpen, look out for them in 2015.

The Gory Details:  After seemingly being stuck in neutral for many seasons, the Mariners almost made the playoffs in 2014 thanks to a late surge backed by a tremendous pitching staff and good seasons from Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano.

The stars of the staff were Felix Hernandez, who was as dominant as ever in 2014, and Hisashi Iwakuma, who had a few nagging injuries and slumped a bit in September. They also got fine work from rookie James Paxton after missing time with an injury, and the bullpen was the talk of baseball.

The bullpen staff, which had eight members at one point (they decided to go with a bullpen game on a few occasions instead of a starting pitcher – like they do in the minors), led the AL in WAR for relief pitching and was up there with Baltimore in terms of the uber-sabermetric stats like Wins Added and Runs Saved.

That pen, led by closer Fernando Rodney (who probably was the 4th or 5th best pitcher of the relief staff), featured mostly young hungry pitchers buoyed one crafty vet in Joe Beimel. Tom Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquahr, Yoervis Medina, Charlie Furbush and Dominic Leone threw hard, and threw strikes.

Offensively, the Mariners’ leaders with no doubt Seager and Cano. Seager was coming into his own, a player who moved from a good player to All-Star caliber thanks to hard work. Cano was THE free agent signing of 2014, and he rewarded the Mariners by leading the team in offensive WAR. Manager Lloyd McClendon steered the ship, and his calming presence and the leadership of Cano and Seager were given as reasons for the success.

They weren’t the only players that could be counted on to provide offense. General Manager Jack Zduriencik, who had been questioned in the past regarding his roster building prowess, landed Nelson Cruz as a free agent. The “Boomstick” hit 40 home runs for the Orioles in 2014, and it was hoped he’d hit close to that number in 2015 even though he was moving to a definite homer-unfriendly park in Safeco Field.

Returnees Logan Morrison and young catcher Mike Zunino were also on hand to provide power. Zunino was one of the stars of the farm system – an excellent defensive catcher with great power potential. He hit some moon shots in 2014, but also had problems in strike zone judgement. He was hit by more pitches in 2014 than he drew walks.

Zduriencik made some moves toward the end of 2014 that were going to pay off even more in 2015. Austin Jackson was brought over from Detroit to man center field, and thanks to other moves Brad Miller was installed as the starting shortstop full time in late 2014 and would continue in that role in 2015.

The Mariners weren’t done there. Seth Smith was brought over from San Diego to be a platoon outfielder, and JA Happ was acquired to be part of the starting rotation along with Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton and prize prospect Taijuan Walker. That left Roenis Elias was cast in the swingman mode, and could be useful in the rotation, or the bullpen.

The other good news for the Mariners was that Franklin Gutierrez was coming back after missing all of 2014 with an injury. He would be part of the outfield mix along with Smith, former second baseman Dustin Ackley, and Justin Ruggiano, brought over from the Cubs to provide Smith a platoon partner.

The Mariners also brought back utility man Willie Bloomquist to give Miller some support, and added Rickie Weeks, a curious addition with Cano being pretty much an iron man, and Miller and Bloomquist able to play second pretty well.

It was announced that Weeks would be moved to the outfield to platoon with Ackley. Sure, ok. Ackley hits like a second baseman anyway – why not pair him with another since your second baseman hits like a left fielder?

It was also said that Gutierrez would start the season in Tacoma, to make sure he was recovered fully.

There was great optimism in Seattle, and great pressure. Over the years, the state of Washington had developed an intense love affair with the NFL’s Seahawks, and only a couple of times did the Mariners enter the public consciousness.

Now, the MISL Sounders were also infringing on the Mariners, as the team drew crowds well over 40,000 regularly and competed for chatter, merchandise and print inches.

With great optimism, the Mariners dove into 2015.

Splat.

By April 26th, the team was 7-11, and the problem was pitching, not offense. Crooked numbers were found everywhere, and both the rotation and the bullpen were culprits. Optimism was restored when the Mariners swept a three game road series at Texas, and gave up just four runs in doing so, but when Seattle moved on to Houston and Anaheim they were blistered again, losing six of seven including three walk-offs.

It didn’t help that Iwakuma was on the disabled list after a slow start, but at least they had a ready backup in Elias. What was worse was a problem that plagued the Mariners in seasons past.

The roster balance, a thorn in the side of the Mariners for years, was tilted again. Recently, Seattle had been collecting players who could only play left field, first base or DH with any resemblance of competency leaving holes in the outfield and a logjam for at bats by their power sources. Despite their best intentions, they did it again, this time not even having competent defensive replacements for anyone.

Ackley, the converted infielder, was having trouble in left field and at the plate. Smith was never a defensive wonder, and Weeks was having trouble shifting to the outfield. Morrison wasn’t smooth at first and had failed in the outfield before and also was sub-par offensively.

Cruz was a disaster in right, and wasn’t really supposed to be in the outfield much anyway (at least that was the plan). Ruggiano was the backup center fielder but was stretched to play there.

Even in the infield, there were troubles. Miller wasn’t making anyone miss Brendan Ryan, the ace shortstop of years gone by, and Bloomquist’s versatility ended when he actually had to play short for more than a few innings. At least Miller was hitting with some regularity and had decent secondary offensive skills to boot.

Zunino, in contrast, was an ace catcher. The staff loved pitching to him. The trouble was, he entered the Houston series with a slash line of .121/.212/.241. His backup was Jesus “Sugar” Sucre, who had a sour batting line, zeroes everywhere.

Coming home after that road trip, the Mariners got some of their act together, as they swept Oakland and split a two-game series with San Diego. Boston came to town, and Seattle split with them too in a four-game series. At 17-20, the Mariners record could have been better, but the thought was that maybe those early season struggles were over.

As they went on an East Coast swing, the Mariners made a move that could definitely help them both short-and-long term. They sent Medina to the Cubs for catcher Wellington Castillo. Castillo would replace Sucre as the backup catcher, allowing McClendon some flexibility in playing Zunino, and pinch hitting for him in late innings.

The decent homestand gave Seattle some wings on the East Coast, as they won six of nine, including a sweep of Tampa Bay, and wound up at .500 for the first time. Getting to .500 seemed like the first step toward contention, and the Mariners were still gunning for a division title, or at least a playoff spot.

If they were going to contend, though, they needed to get the bullpen right. Rookie Carson Smith was pitching well, but the others were struggling to match their stellar 2014, especially Farquahr, whose fast ball lacked movement except when it was hit out of the park. Rodney, though, was a disaster.

The colorful pitcher had always lived on the edge, but he made McClendon and all Mariners fans neurotic messes. The last game of the road trip against Tampa he blew a three run lead in the ninth, and somehow wound up with the win. That put his ERA at 6.98. He had to get right.

Could a late May / early June homestand be make-or-break? Even if it wasn’t, the Mariners definitely needed to maintain their momentum. They had 11 games against Cleveland, the Yankees, and Tampa Bay. None of those teams were burning anything up, and it was imperative that Seattle continue their good play of late to advance towards the playoffs.

Splat, again.

In the first game of the homestand, Paxton left the game in the fifth inning with a tendon problem in his middle finger and was out for an extended period of time. With Iwakuma still not ready to come back, that put the Mariners in a bit of a pickle when it came to the rotation.

Rodney just became untenable as the closer. With an ERA now over 7, he was replaced by Smith, at least on a temporary basis.

But the offense, which seemed to be on an upward swing, died during the homestand. In those 11 games, they never scored MORE than three runs, and plated only 21 total. During this stretch, Zduriencik made a move which was either curious or panic stricken, depending on your viewpoint.

He bundled two minor leaguers, Leone and Castillo and shipped them to Arizona for a fringe lefty and Mark Trumbo. Basically, it was Castillo for Trumbo.

Castillo, a player they just got to solve a particular need – catcher. For Trumbo, a player whose best position was DH. Much like Cruz, the only player on the team hitting worth a damn.

Seager hadn’t taken that next step up in his development that everyone thought he would. Cano’s offense had slipped – it was merely good instead of spectacular. As for the rest, they were either strictly platoon players (Smith), disappointing (Jackson, Miller, Morrison) or awful (Zunino). Yes, they needed more offense, but Trumbo was probably the antithesis of a player who would succeed in the pitchers’ paradise that was Safeco.

Also, because they needed another catcher all of a sudden, Sucre was called up. Because they had dropped Sucre from the 40-man roster before, they needed to clear room. To do that, they jettisoned Ruggiano. He was outrighted to Tacoma, and that left the Mariners with several defensively challenged outfielders. Gutierrez was hitting over .300 in AAA, but he stayed there.

Everyone in Washington State shook their heads, and then started to make summer plans camping, hiking, or fishing, as they had for so many summers before.

That homestand broke them. A 2-9 mark left them at 25-32. That only set up the rest of the disaster June turned out to be.

In June, the Mariners were shut out five times. They averaged under three runs a game. While they solidified their closer, they were short on the rotation side until Iwakuma came back. They slipped further and further behind as the losses piled up. Changes again were made, undoing what had been done in the off-season.

Weeks was jettisoned in mid-June after his conversion to the outfield was deemed a failure. Gutierrez was called up, finally. Walker, Elias and Happ were inconsistent, so Mike Montgomery was called up from AAA to see if he could patch a hole and give them some consistent innings. The only reliever doing consistent good work was Smith, as the set-up men, who did so well in 2014, turned into problematic pumpkins. Only scrap heap pickup Mark Lowe was pulling his weight there.

Entering July, the Mariners were 35-42. They couldn’t score runs, their bullpen was shaky and they only had one starting pitcher they could count on. Houston was blazing away in the division, and Texas was rebounding after a poor start.

It seemed the organization was resigned to another losing season – you could sense that the management and field staff had basically shrugged their shoulders. They didn’t know what to do except just kept trotting out the same players. Trumbo hardly missed a game, though in his first 45 games as a Mariner he hit three home runs total and had a .277 OBP – really no better than Ackley.

The unraveling began.

First, Willie Bloomquist was released, much to the delight of sabermetric fans everywhere. Bloomquist was a destitute man’s David Eckstein, and appealed to those who liked scrappy guys and not baseball players. He wouldn’t be missed.

Then, Ackley was traded to the Yankees. The erstwhile second baseman never got comfortable in the outfield and was quite inconsistent at the plate over his career.

Then the Mariners dealt Happ to Pittsburgh, and Lowe, who they got for pennies earlier, to Toronto.

Finally, in late August, Rodney was shown the door, and sent to Chicago, becoming the Cubs’ problems. Jackson went to the Cubs four days later.

Smith, who had run into a rough patch as the closer, was moved back to set-up and Wilhelmsen re-assumed the closer role that he had before Rodney’s signing. Wilhelmsen was horrible at allowing inherited runners to score (18 of 29), but with no one on he was nails.

Zunino, who had lasted the entire year despite hitting between heinous and egregious, was sent down in late August and didn’t return, not even when the rosters expanded. That left catching in the hands of Sucre and John Hicks. Mariners’ catchers slashed .159/.205/.259 on the year, worse than a lot of NL pitchers.

Now, all of this shuffling would have been great if the Mariners gave some hopefuls playing time, or got some hot prospects. But they didn’t (except for young shortstop Ketel Marte, which forced Miller to become a Bloomquist-esque vagabond) and because of that, and other roster sins, Mariners management let Zduriencik go after he made the Rodney deal. Many thought that was about two years too late.

By this time, Mariners fans were fed up. Attendance was slipping, except for the days Hernandez pitched. The media didn’t kick dirt on Zduriencik, but they didn’t mourn his loss, either. His mark was still all over the Mariners, especially in 2015, especially when Jesus Montero was called up and outslugged Morrison and nearly outslugged Trumbo.

Acquiring Montero was one of the worst blunders the Mariners administration ever made, as he looked overweight, could not play defense anywhere, and seemed to not care. But somehow he was hitting better than other big-name acquisitions.

As soon as the Mariners’ season ended at 76-86, speculation ran rampant as to what the Mariners would do next. They did plenty. McClendon was gone. Jerry DiPoto was brought in to run the team and Scott Servais was named manager. DiPoto unwound many of the moves recently made, and seemed to want to build a franchise that was younger and more suited to Safeco Field.

The story of the 2015 Mariners? The same story for the Mariners for so many years. Building a roster means you focus on all aspects of the game, and if your park rewards defense and pitching, don’t stock up on first basemen / DH types. Also, don’t stay the course, and then make moves out of panic.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Cruz smacked 44 home runs, and led the team in WAR by almost a run even though he had negative defensive value.

Honorable Mention Team: When a team wins 116 games, the next season is bound to be a little bit of a bummer even if you finish in first place. However, the 2002 Mariners followed that 116-46 season from 2001 with a 93-69 mark that was only good for third in the AL West. Within two years, they were in last place and nearing 100 losses.

Bad Blast from the Past: One of the best clubs before baseball became ‘organized’ was the Atlantics of Brooklyn. They were the recognized champions of baseball from 1859 through 1861, and had a 36-game winning streak in 1866 and 1867.

They were the first team to beat the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in 1870. But when the National Association was formed in 1871, they did not claim a spot, and their best players jumped to other NA teams. Finally, they did, but couldn’t regain their past glory, though they improved to 22-33 by 1874.

In 1875, though, let’s just say things happened. Bad things. They gave up over 10 runs a game, and committed almost 10 errors a game. They were outscored by 300 runs on the season, and this was in just 44 championship contests.

They beat New Haven twice, and lost every other game. Every. Other. Game. Usually by scores of 15-1, 23-3 or 13-0. A 2-42 record resulted, and widespread suspicion of gambling and ‘hippodroming’ came down upon the club. They were not invited to join the NL in 1876.

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