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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 30, 2008 9:20 AM

In support of pitchers

Posted by Geoff Baker

Just coming off of this morning's Talkin' Baseball gig on the Mitch in the Morning Show on KJR 950 AM. Scanning the stats pages, I see the Mariners at No. 2 behind Oakland among AL starting rotations when it comes to ERA, at 3.48. I see them at No. 2 behind the Angels in innings pitched at 161 1/3 -- and that's in both leagues. They are No. 4 in strikeouts among AL starters, at 107, trailing only Boston, Toronto and Oakland. That's important, because we keep hearing about how defense is hurting this team, so the ability of pitchers to notch outs independent of fielders helps that problem.

These stats are everything and more along the lines of what this team hoped for. Here's the problem. Those other teams I've mentioned in the above paragraphs, with the exception of Toronto, have records of 17-11 (A's), 17-11 (Angels) and 16-12 (Red Sox). Then, you have Seattle put-putting along at 13-14. Yes, the Mariners should have a better record. Would have one if the bullpen hadn't been rocked so hard by injury early on. Might even be in first place. But the M's aren't and the offense is why.

How bad is it? The M's are 12th in on-base percentage and 11th in batting average. So, they aren't getting on-base and they aren't driving guys in with hits the few times they do get on. They are also only ninth in slugging percentage, which means the few hits they are getting with runners on base are likely only driving in a run at a time. The M's sit an impressive sixth in runs scored overall, but don't let that number fool you because it's largely the result of what we saw last night. One big outing covering up for an otherwise dismal performance. Seattle has had seven games where it has scored seven runs or more to inflate the offensive numbers.

But in the vast majority of games, the offensive output has been dismal.

The M's have actually scored four runs or less in 16 of their 27 games. That's a recipe for losing, since AL teams are averaging 4.5 runs per contest. In fact, Seattle is only 4-12 over that stretch. In seven of those games, the M's have actually scored three runs or less. That Seattle actually won four of those games and hasn't plunged off the proverbial cliff as of yet is a testament to the starting rotation. But you can see where the problem lies.

What do the M's need? Guys who can hit. More importantly, hit for some power. I'm talking about on-base-plus slugging percentage here. Let's face it, this team is never going the win the AL walks title. So, it will have to up its on-base percentage via hitting. And the second component of that, driving in multiple runs via extra-base hits, will come from slugging.

The M's currently have five players who are above league average in terms of OPS. Here are their park-weighted, OPS+ scores, with 100 being league average and anything higher a percentage above average (166 being 66 percent above average):

Adrian Beltre 166
Raul Ibanez 131
Yuniesky Betancourt 109
Jose Lopez 104
Richie Sexson 104

Yes, Sexson made the list, which is why I'm not as down on him as some of you. No, he still is not producing what the team needs, but he does have needed power. On a team as short on power as this one, you can't jettison Sexson. He is supplying some extra-base production. So are the two middle infielders, better than they were a week ago.

Here is the biggest problem:

Jose Vidro 67
Brad Wilkerson 84

So, when we media keep singling these guys out, it's not because we don't like their faces. I actually like both guys. They are pros and believe me, they both know what's going on. It's just that you can't have such below average power from two power positions. There are batting averages on this team that are above or right near the slugging percentages of Seattle's designated hitter and right fielder and we're a month into the season. And remember, Vidro generates a lot of his OPS, traditionally, through on-base numbers and not slugging. If his OPS has dipped this low, alarm bells should be ringing throughout Mariners HQ. Even with lower than average DH power last year, Vidro still had an above average OPS. Not anymore.

So, these are the two problem areas that have to be addressed. Kenji Johjima has been brutal, but he's a catcher, so it's not as devastating. He will have to get his numbers up, or else it will be akin to Rene Rivera playing 130 games, but that can wait a bit.

The other two areas can't. Not when the two minor leaguers about to be called up, Jeff Clement and Wlad Balentien, will see the bulk of their playing time in the two spots killing Seattle's offense. Yes, I said killing. These two spots are killing this team. Clement and Balentien have above average OPS numbers in AAA. Even if that only translates to league average OPS stats in the majors (a score of around 100, something like Lopez has put up), the offense will be better for it.

No, you don't hand them jobs for life. Make them work for it. Get the most out of them. And out of Vidro, Wilkerson and whoever else is left. Juggle them all around if you have to. But do something. The status quo isn't working. The M's have their top three starters lined up for Yankee Stadium this weekend against a New York team that will be missing Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada due to injury. Seattle is 10-5 this year when holding other teams to four runs or fewer. That means, Seattle wins only two thirds of those games, but loses three quarters of the time (remember that 4-12 stat?) when it's the team scoring four or less. Not a good exchange rate. It would be a shame for the M's if they throw three potential quality starts away this weekend by losing a bunch of 2-1 or 3-2 games.

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