Rays versus Mariners: Six Pack

After gaining some momentum against the heavyweights of the AL East, the Rays look to keep things going when they take on the Seattle Mariners this weekend at Tropicana Field.  For some reason the Rays have struggled with the AL West this year, but they’ll be facing a Seattle team that has been dismal on the road.

The Mariners, like the Rays, recently took two out of three against the Red Sox and have played better of late.  To give us some perspective on the fresh faced M’s, I hooked up with SodoMojo writer Keith Myers and asked him six questions about this young and improving team.  His answers to those questions are found here and my answers to his questions about the Rays can be found at the Mariners’ Fansided site, SodoMojo.

1. Ichiro Suzuki is having a very un-Ichiro like season. How is this season being viewed by Seattle? He has been a fixture in the outfield for 11 seasons, but what is his future with the Mariners?

Early in the season, I think all Mariner fans were simply waiting for him to “break out” and go on a hot streak and get his stats back up where they belong. We’re way past that now. I think it’s finally safe to say that age has caught up to him. He’s just not as quick to first and can’t get the infield hits he used to. He also isn’t driving the ball into the gaps. It seems like almost every time he makes contact he’s popping up weakly to the outfield.

The biggest sign that this is the beginning of the end for Ichiro has been his defense. He simply can’t get to balls that he used to. He seems really slow getting to some balls hit into the corner. The defensive metrics aren’t always reliable over a partial season, but in this case they match what we’ve been seeing. His UZR is currently sitting at -6.7. That’s really sad for a 10 time gold glove winner.

2. The Mariners seem to have done a really good job of bringing in or developing young talent the last few years. Of their young position players, who has stood out as the most effective and most likely to be a consistent big league contributor?

That’s an easy one! Clearly, it’s Dustin Ackley.  It took all of one week before Wedge stuck him in the three hole in the lineup for good. He’s been the team’s best hitter since the moment he got called up (though Mike Carp is trying to best him for that title recently). He’s been a very steady bat, who can work a count better than most veteran players, and has shown more power than was expected of him.

Defensively, he’s been equally as good, which is actually a bit of a surprise. Ackley was primarily an outfielder in college, though he did play first base his last year because of an elbow injury. The Mariners converted him to second because they thought he had the athleticism to handle it.  They also thought having his bat in a position where finding good hitters is difficult would make for a very important cog in the Mariner Machine. Reports early in the year from the minors were that he was still a work in progress and might never be all that good. Turns out that was all talk, and that he was only being kept down in AAA because of the so called “super 2″ arbitration status. He’s been outstanding defensively and already has a 2.1 UZR in just 50 games.

The rookie second baseman’s critics have had very little to say about his performances. In fact, he’s been incredibly Rays-ish.

3. Eric Wedge has had a tough first year but he had similar problems at the start of his tenure in Cleveland. Are Mariners fans confident he can he do what he did there and make the Mariners a contender in the AL West?

That is a more difficult question to answer than you probably thought when you wrote it. You see, Seattle fans are really hard on managers. For many of them, any manager not named Lou Piniella is automatically incompetent. It is really tough to tell how much of the hand ringing about Wedge is just this irrational group, and how much is legitimate frustration.

Wedge has made his mistakes, and it was tough to see the M’s get off to that really slow start and not think about all the really poor Aprils the Indians had when he was with that club. He’s also been willing to try unorthodox ideas if it will help the team win.  He’s given the rookies a chance to learn on the job and has been a good stabilizing presence in a very up and down season.

The true test will be next season. If the Mariners get off to a decent start and stay in the mix for most of the season, then I think the majority of Mariners fans will buy in to Eric Wedge. If it’s another slow start and another year spent “rebuilding,” I bet the cries for yet another manager to get fired will start to get louder.

4. What kind of buzz has the signing of first round pick Danny Hultzen generated? I was at two of his starts late in the season and he definitely has electric stuff. Will he see the majors this year?

Danny Hultzen hasn’t generated as much buzz in Seattle as you might think. Back in June, there was a bit of disappointment that the team didn’t select an offensive minded position player like Anthony Rendon. “The Mariners already have tremendous pitching
depth, so why pick another pitcher?” was the prevailing comment around here. There were others who looked at Hultzen and saw a #2 pitcher, and not a true staff ace, and thought that the M’s could have done better with the second pick. Because of these two groups of fairly vocal fans, the buzz about getting Hultzen on board has been a bit muted.

I agree with you that he has electric stuff. I watched his college world series starts and came away impressed. I think it won’t take long for him to reach big leagues. That said, I don’t believe that we will see Hultzen this year. The Mariners have said that they intend for him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, so they won’t push his arm by having him pitch any meaningful innings this season. If I had to guess, I’d wager that the earliest we see him in Seattle is mid-season 2012.

5. What is up with the Mariners offense this month? Is this just a hot streak or have the M’s started to put it together?

It’s a little of both.  For starters, the Mariners offense has a lot of different pieces it didn’t have earlier in the year. The heart of the order is now made up of three rookies that weren’t with the team until recently, and those three have really been getting it done. I talked about Ackley already. Mike Carp has a 17 game hitting streak and has hit for considerable power. Throw in Casper Wells and his recent “HR in four straight games” trick, and you suddenly get a decent offense.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this is sustainable. Carp and Wells are playing above their perceived talent levels.  Both have shown they can hit ML pitching, but neither consistently had this level of success in the minors, so it is safe to think they will slow down.  Then again, Franklin Gutierrez is starting to finally heat up now coming back after all those stomach problems, and Justin Smoak is due to come off the DL soon. Perhaps those 2 can make up any loss in production when the 2 rookies finally come back down to Earth. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

6. What are Mariners fans looking for the rest of this season, heading into next year?

The rest of 2011 is simply about playing the kids and seeing what they can do. The Mariners now have 12 rookies on the roster, and all of them play regularly. I think we’d love to try and see if Carp is the real deal and can be the long term answer at DH. We’d also love to find out if Wells is the right fielder of the future, or if he’s going to be more of a fourth outfielder type.

We’d also love to see “Guti” show that his strength is back after his stomach problems caused him to lose 25 pounds before he got them under control. He looks like he’s really starting to turn things around, and a really hot September to go along with his good August would really make M’s fans feel good going into a very important offseason.

At the same time, the team isn’t looking to lose. They definitely are trying to win. Fans up here in Seattle aren’t going to take another 100 loss season sitting down. Keeping the loss total down around 90 would go a long way to showing the fans how much improvement this team has made, as would passing the A’s in the standings.

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