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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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April 24, 2008 8:59 AM

Hitters needed

Posted by Geoff Baker

They say the first month of any baseball season is all about taking stock. Figuring out what a team needs, making adjustments and moving on from there. It's been an interesting first 3 1/2 weeks for the Mariners. Far more interesting than some of us might have imagined. With six games left in month No. 1, the Mariners are playing .500 ball at 11-11, two games out of first place behind the A's and Angels. The team's Pythagorean Expectation so far sees them as a 12-10 team, one that should win 88 games based on run differential that's substantially improved because of pitching. Considering all this team has been through with injuries, including last night's minor one that finally prevented Carlos Silva from yet another seven-inning outing, being on-pace for an 88-74 record on the sabermetric front isn't too bad.

That's the good news. The bad news? Well, it's what we've alluded to since January. This team's schedule hasn't exactly been filled with contenders. A glance over at the third-order wins and losses adjusted standings at Baseball Prospectus (third set of numbers on the right, under W3-L3) shows the M's to be more of a 9-13 team based on strength of schedule. The Angels aren't doing so hot either, but good teams worry more about themselves this time of year. Now, let's not forget, this is all subjective. If it turns out the Oakland A's are a legit contender, the M's schedule for April just got a whole lot tougher than any of us imagined. I'll also owe Derek at U.S.S. Mariner and the Diamond Mind simulation people a huge tip-of-the-cap if the A's really are that good. Having seen them in-person last week (the A's, not Derek and Diamond Mind), I can't believe that's going to last. But, as we've said, that's why they play the games.

What's screaming out at me now? Some 3 1/2 weeks into the season? The offense, naturally. It's easy to jump all over Jose Vidro and Brad Wilkerson -- and we have -- but what jolted me this morning was the number of M's with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage below .700. That won't fly. Not for a team hoping to contend.

Here are some of the names and OPS stats and it's not all what you'd think:

Kenji Johjima -- .515
Brad Wilkerson -- .546
Jose Vidro -- .564
Yuniesky Betancourt -- .670
Ichiro -- .676
Jose Lopez -- .689

These numbers are shocking. I know it's early. Some of these numbers will still be vulnearable to wild fluctutation. But it isn't that early. We're roughly a seventh of the way into the season. If you think of a .700 OPS being sort of the Mendoza Line for hitting (and I do), then two thirds of the Seattle lineup is below the Mendoza Line. If two thirds of a lineup's batting average was below .200, you would all be up and screaming. Well, this is arguably worse.

The fact that three guys are under .600 is worrisome indeed.

That seems likely to change. Just because it's tough to stay truly that bad for a prolonged period. Hardly comforting, I know. But we also know Ichiro is unlikely to remain below .700 for long. Betancourt as well, though he's got to get it going. What worries me somewhat is Lopez, who, I wrote just yesterday, was doing a fine job in the No. 2 spot. He has to a certain extent, but he can't stay below .700 in OPS for very long. Last year, when some of us were ready to run him out of town, he was at .639. So, an improvement so far, but not much of one.

For all the guff Richie Sexson takes -- and his average is back down to .205 -- his OPS is at .785 so far. The team needs him above .800, but it's a start.

In the interest of being fair, we'll weight the OPS of some of the main culprits in terms of park factors, since Seattle has played many of its games so far in "pitcher friendly'' parks, including Liberty Mutual...er, I mean, Safeco Field.

Johjima -- 43
Wilkerson -- 53
Vidro -- 56
Ichiro -- 86
Betancourt -- 83
Lopez -- 89

Yep, still ugly. Remember, an OPS+ score of 100 is the definition of league average. So, Johjima is 57 percent below league average. Lopez is only 11 percent below, but, as I mentioned, he has to step it up. Same for Betancourt. Lots of hype for those two guys, but so far, the sticks aren't measuring up. The defense hasn't been lights-out either.

Why are the numbers so bad? As many of you mentioned, the team drew a plethora of walks the first 2 1/2 weeks or so. But in the last week, that's all stopped. What happened? Anaheim is what happened. Actually, Zack Greinke happened before that. Not to mention Edwin Jackson prior. But in Anaheim, a true streak began where the M's would allow pitchers to go seven and eight innings deep while the hitters looked overwhelmed. There was Joe Saunders, then Ervin Santana, then Jeremy Guthrie, not to mention Daniel Cabrera last night. Four pitchers in five days. All with excellent "stuff'' that can overwhelm hitters. If those guys were reading the scouting reports from the Jackson and Greinke starts against Seattle, they would have seen that throwing strikes against this bunch can pay off.

Cabrera's biggest downfall has been his wildness over the years. But if you whisper in his ear that the M's won't make a pitcher pay when the balls come in over the plate, even he is capable of hitting the zone. And to my naked eye, that's what is happening. Sure, we saw Sexson make Saunders pay a few times late in Anaheim. Maybe Raul Ibanez. But how many other M's can scorch a hittable pitch? Not too many so far. That's got to change.

The only way these M's are going to beat pitchers like these is by working counts in their favor, like 1-0, or 2-1 and then hitting the next fastball down the middle. Not by fouling it straight back. Actually hitting it, the way Sexson did in Anaheim. Until that happens, my layman's eye tells me the book is out on the 2008 Mariners. Sort of the way it is on the 2008 A's so far. Throw strikes and dare them to hit the ball. More times than not, they won't.

So far, anyways. And until the M's start making pitchers pay for those strikes, the offensive numbers are going to stay ugly indeed. Not for two thirds of the lineup. Not all year. But for too many of these guys. If I'm running this team, I'm taking notes, considering my options and figuring out just who is capable of a rebound. And also exactly when -- not tomorrow, or next week, but not in mid-August either -- the day will arrive that it's time to pull the proverbial plug.

Here's a tip: one of those options won't be slugger Frank Thomas, who just signed with the A's for undisclosed terms. Local boy Travis Buck is a casualty of that arrangement.


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