Mariners awaiting rest of bats to click with Cruz
Riding cleanup man and pitching turnaround, club confident hitting will fall into place
SEATTLE -- As the Mariners prepare to open a nine-game East Coast road swing Tuesday in Baltimore, they're looking at a familiar situation.
The pitching, long regarded as the backbone of Seattle's success, has come around impressively in the last few weeks and was critical in a just-completed 6-3 homestand that lifted the Mariners' record to 17-20. But scoring enough runs to consistently support those hurlers remains an issue, even with Nelson Cruz carrying a hot hand as the club's new cleanup man.
As Cruz heads back to Baltimore -- where he led the Majors in home runs (40) last year for the Orioles -- he again tops all of baseball with 15 homers in his first 37 games and also shares the American League lead in RBIs with 30. He's first in the AL in slugging percentage (.694) and OPS (1.089) and fourth in batting average (.340).
Yet even with Cruz providing that big right-handed bat in the middle of the order, Seattle still ranks 13th out of the AL's 15 teams in scoring. With Cruz's help, the Mariners are second in the AL in home runs (48), but just 11th in batting average (.238) and 14th in on-base percentage (.296) as the season nears the first-quarter mark.
Take Cruz's .340 out of the mix and Seattle's team average plummets to .225, well below its .244 mark last year.
Manager Lloyd McClendon believes the rest of the crew will begin chipping in soon. It took a few weeks to square away the pitching, but youngsters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have gotten on track after slow starts, Roenis Elias has filled in well for the injured Hisashi Iwakuma and the bullpen has been better with the addition of veterans Joe Beimel and Mark Lowe and return to health of Tom Wilhelmsen.
But the hitting?
"My guys still haven't hit their groove," McClendon said. "We've got a lot of guys -- just check the book -- that can hit. And we haven't started doing it yet. But I think we're real, real close. And when it happens, I think some teams are going to be in trouble."
Outside of Cruz, the Mariners don't have anyone hitting over .264, and six-time All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano is batting just .253 with one home run and 11 RBIs in his first 37 games.
Cano is 4-for-27 with one double, eight strikeouts and no walks over his last seven games. He is fourth in the AL with 12 doubles, but the rest of his numbers have dipped significantly from last season.
Though Cano didn't hit his second homer of the year until May 21 in 2014, at that point he was batting .326 with a .374 on-base percentage, .433 slugging percentage and .807 OPS. This year, his splits are .253/.294/.353 for a .647 OPS.
"Statistically, you look at the numbers and our analytical department breaks it down," McClendon said. "Robbie Cano is one of the most unlucky hitters in Major League Baseball. He's really hit a lot of balls extremely hard that have been caught. I'm not overly concerned because he's not striking out a lot. I think when he gets hot, he'll get it rolling."
Kyle Seager, the third part of Seattle's 3-4-5 trio in the lineup, also hasn't hit a hot stretch yet as he's batting .255, though he does have five homers and is second on the club with 21 RBIs.
The Mariners were hoping center fielder Austin Jackson would be a spark at the top of the batting order, but he hit .242 with a .294 on-base percentage before going on the disabled list two weeks ago. Jackson is expected to rejoin the team shortly and could be a catalyst if he returns close to his career .273/.335/.399 averages.
But to date, the Mariners have just had too many holes in their lineup as they've gotten little offensive production out of catcher Mike Zunino (.179), the left-field platoon tandem of Dustin Ackley and Rickie Weeks (.189 between them) and recently at shortstop where newly promoted Chris Taylor has hit just .129 in his first nine games.
Logan Morrison has heated up at first base, and Brad Miller -- displaced at shortstop -- is developing into a versatile option at DH, left field or shortstop. Miller, named the AL Player of the Week after hitting .429 with three doubles, four homers and five RBIs in his last six games, could be part of the solution in several places if he continues hitting.
But the Mariners need similar help from other spots as well. Cruz can't carry the load by himself, and his production would be even better if players were getting on base more ahead of him. Of Cruz's 15 home runs, 12 have come with nobody on. As a team, 37 of Seattle's 48 homers have been solo.
Getting the rest of the offense to join the party will be critical. And as the Mariners embark on a nine-game trek to hitter-friendly parks in Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay, now would be a good time for that to begin.