Springtime Storylines: Has the Mariners’ offense improved enough to be merely awful?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The Deadball Preservation Society (a/k/a The Seattle Mariners).

The Big Question: Has the Mariners’ offense improved enough to be merely awful?

Oh, sure, this team had some overall bright spots in 2010. Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award. Cliff Lee was pretty impressive 13 starts. Mt. Rainer didn’t erupt, sending lahars and pyroclastic flows down the Duwamish estuary, destroying downtown Seattle.  Always look on the bright side of life, right?

But there’s no polishing the turd that was the Mariners offense last year. I don’t need to quote the statistics to you (note: I will now quote statistics), but the Mariners finished last in runs scored in all of baseball by a full 74 runs, were last in home runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It was the worst offensive performance since the advent of the DH and, if you listen to some folks, it’s in the conversation for worst offense of all time once you adjust for era.

Are they any better?  The offseason additions don’t seem to be needle-movers, as they say. Jack Cust has been imported to DH. If he were on the Mariners last year he would have been the team’s best hitter, but if Jack Cust is your best hitter, you’re not going anywhere. Miquel Olivo was also added. He has some power and will bring more to the table than last year’s catchers did, but Safeco Field isn’t going to be particularly friendly to him.

There are several holdovers from a year ago who could reasonably be expected to improve or to have larger roles — Chone Figgins is the former, Justin Smoak the latter — but the Mariners have also decided to make Jack Wilson and Brendan Ryan their starting middle infielders. While the defense should be pretty incredible up the middle, those two stand a damn fine chance of being worse at the plate than the Figgins/Wilson (pick your Wilson) combination from 2010, and that’s saying something.

The natural ebb and flow of life, the universe and everything will probably cause this bunch to score more than 513 runs in 2011, but not so much more that it will make a big difference.  As things stand, this looks like it will be the worst offense in baseball once again, and therein lies the reason why the Mariners have virtually no hope of escaping the cellar in the AL West.

So what else is going on?

  • In my video preview of the AL West I suggested that a good strategy for the M’s would for someone to sabotage the retractable roof at Safeco Field, thereby dramatically increasing the number of rainouts and thus the frequency of Felix Hernandez starts.  That may not be workable. And it may not be as necessary as I made it seem. Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are solid. Not special, but solid. They’d make a lot of teams’ rotations, though maybe not as the second and third starters.  I’m not the world’s biggest Luke French fan, but he lowered his walk rate in the minors a bit last season (while his strikeout rate also went down) giving him a fairly nice line at Tacoma. Maybe that’s something. The real wild card is Erik Bedard. He’s looked good this spring and, if he can stay healthy, could complement King Felix in the rotation. But never has the phrase “if he can stay healthy” been more meaningful and perhaps fanciful than it is when coupled with Bedard’s name.
  • Justin Smoak is the young guy with promise in this lineup, but Dustin Ackley could join him soon.  Ackley is a second baseman and the Mariners want him to cook a bit more in the minors, but it’s inevitable that he’ll be up sometime this year. He killed the Arizona Fall League and his transition from outfielder to infielder seems to be all but complete. I would assume that Jack Wilson and/or Brendan Ryan will be showcased for a trade to a defense-deficient contender at some point this season, thereby opening up a slot for Ackley.
  • Eric Wedge is the new manager and Chris Chambliss is the new hitting coach. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times had one of my favorite lines of the spring so far when he said that the job of Mariners hitting coach “has been roughly as secure as the drummer for Spinal Tap.”  Manager isn’t much better. I’m not much of a Wedge fan, though it’s worth noting that he always seemed to do much better in Cleveland when expectations were low than when they were high, and assuming he hasn’t changed, he should be an OK steward for the Mariners. I like Chambliss. I’m going to miss him managing/coaching third for the Charlotte Knights when they visit Columbus this year. I’ve always kind of liked him, going back to his playing days.
  • Ichiro continues to hum along. There isn’t much in baseball that one can predict with any kind of certainty, but Ichiro getting 200 hits is a fairly safe bet.  For as dreary as the Mariners season looks to be as a whole, Seattle fans can buy a ticket almost every game and be treated to a performance by one of baseball’s truly unique talents and a future Hall of Famer. People in Pittsburgh and Houston can’t say that.

So how are they going to do?

Lousy, but you knew that already. They didn’t improve the offense all that much and beyond King Felix the pitching is kinda ho-hum and uncertain.  The best you can say about the team is that they didn’t panic after last season’s debacle by signing a bunch of middle age mediocrities to multi-year deals and that they did what they could to turn lemons into lemonade with the Cliff Lee trade.  There may not be many teams with bleaker immediate prospects, but there are several with bleaker futures.  The Mariners are a mortal lock for last place in the AL West, but there is enough interesting going on to make them worth watching.

Scott Boras: Astros players don’t need to apologize

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Ken Rosenthal spoke to Scott Boras about the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Boras’ take: the Astros need not apologize for what they did. They were mere babes in the woods who were ignorant of everything. I wish I was making this up. Scotty Baby:

“I’m doing what my organization is telling me to do,” Boras said on Wednesday, describing the hypothetical mindset of a player. “You installed this. You put this in front of us. Coaches and managers encourage you to use the information. It is not coming from the player individually. It is coming from the team. In my stadium. Installed. With authority.”

The analogy Boras used was the speed limit.

A man driving 55 mph in a 35-mph zone only believes he is speeding if the limit is clearly posted. Likewise, Boras said Astros’ players who committed infractions only should apologize if they were properly informed of their boundaries.

It’s worth noting two things at this juncture: (1) Scott Boras represents José Altuve and Lance McCullers; and (2) He’s 100% full of crap here. Indeed, the contortions Astros players and their surrogates are putting themselves through to avoid accountability is embarrassing.

The players knew what they were doing.  Please do not insult me by saying they didn’t. Boras is doing what he thinks he needs to do to protect his guys. I get it, that’s his job. His client Altuve in particular stepped on it last weekend when he and other Astros players tried to play the “we’re going to overcome this adversity/no one believed in us” card which played terribly, and the super agent is trying to clean up the mess as best he can. Hat tip to him for his hustle, which he has never not shown. Guy’s a pro.

But he can only do so much because this all remains on the Astros’ players. Yes, the formal punishment is on the manager, the general manager and the club, and I agree that it had to be given all of the complications of the situation, but now that that’s over, it’s time for some honest accountability. And we’re getting zero of it.

Which is insane because the players were given immunity. They’re 100% in the clear. That they cheated has angered a lot of people, but it does not make them irredeemable. As I have noted here many times, lots of others did too. But their lack of accountability over the past couple of weeks speaks very, very poorly of them.

“We crossed a line. No question. We’re sorry. We don’t think it caused us to win anything we didn’t earn, but we see how we created that perception ourselves through our own actions. We shouldn’t have done that. Going forward we’re going to be better. Again, we’re sorry.”

That’s about all it’d take and it’d be done. It’d be pretty easy to say, if for no other reason than because that’s probably what’s gone through their minds anyway. They’re not bad people.

But they’re also observers of America in 2020 and, I suspect, everything they’ve seen, consciously or unconsciously, has counseled against them saying those very simple words or something like them.

Everything that’s going on in America right now — politics especially — tells people that the path to success is to cheat, steal and lie in order to benefit themselves and themselves only. It’s also telling them that, if they get caught, they should lie and deny too. It works. The media, for the most part, will not call anyone of status out on a lie, even if the lie is ridiculous. At most it will repeat the denial like a stenographer reading back from a transcript fearing that to do any more would be to — gasp! — reveal an opinion. “Shlabotnik says that he was cloned by Tralfamadorians and it was his clone, not him, who stole the signs.” Heaven forbid someone add the word “falsely” in there. They won’t because if they do they’re going to be accused of being “biased” or “political” or whatever.

If you see that — and we all see it — why wouldn’t you be predisposed to avoid apologizing for anything? Why wouldn’t you try to offer some canned, facially neutral talking points and hope that everyone is satisfied that you’ve spoken? Why wouldn’t you, having done that for a few weeks, begin to believe that, actually, you’re right not do say anything more. And  that, maybe, you were never in the wrong at all? That’s were we are as a country now, that’s for sure. And given that sports reflects society, it should not be at all surprising that that attitude has infected sports as well.

Astros owner Jim Crane tells Rosenthal that there could be an apology in spring training. “Quite frankly, we’ll apologize for what happened, ask forgiveness and move forward,” Crane said.

One thing I’ve learned in life is that when someone says “quite frankly,” what follows is going to be insincere most of the time. Another thing I’ve learned is that, in comments such as Crane’s, the emphasis is strongly on the “move forward” part of things. He wants an apology to put an end to a bad news cycle. When it comes, it will be P.R.-vetted and couched in the most sterile and corporate language imaginable. It will be anything but sincere.

In the meantime, the rest of the Astros don’t seem to want to offer an apology at all. Why should they? What’s making them?