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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking Mariners with Lookout Landing

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We spoke with Meg Rowley of Lookout Landing to find out what is going on with the Mariners before the Tigers head to Seattle for three games.

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The Seattle Mariners began the season with plenty of hype. Many chose them to win the American League after missing the playoffs by one game in 2014. Things have since taken a dark turn for the Mariners, and their anemic offense has been tough to overcome. They are dead last in on-base percentage and batting average, 25th in slugging percentage and 29th in runs scored, ahead of only the Chicago White Sox. General manager Jack Zduriencik recently declared that there is no help on the way, so they will have to make do with the personnel on their roster.

Still, there are reasons to believe the Mariners will be better. Their rotation is a strength with a blossoming Taijuan Walker, a surprising Mike Montgomery, and Felix Hernandez proving that it is indeed good to be King. If James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma can come back healthy and perform like their usual selves, we may see why so many people (myself included) were so high on the Mariners in the offseason.

To get more familiar with the Mariners, we spoke to Meg Rowley, a writer at Lookout Landing, SB Nation’s home for all things Mariners. In addition to being a big Mariners fan, Meg is a real life person whom I know -- crazy! You can find my answers to her questions on their site.

1. How has the season been overall so far? Depressing? Encouraging? What have been the biggest rays of light and the most concerning trends?

It has been…something. Look, I want to go on record as saying that I thought we would, barring terrible injury or terrible bad luck, almost certainly make the playoffs. I was not one of those maniacs who definitely penciled us in for the World Series (although when Jesus Montero arrived at Spring Training looking a genuinely athletic person, I had a moment). I did not say we had the best 3-4-5 in all of baseball, although that 3-4-5 produced mightily in Spring Training (more on Cano in a minute). And despite my insane, perhaps (definitely) misplaced devotion to Mike Zunino, I did not think that his keeping pace with Kris Bryant in Spring Training home runs meant he would match those pretty blues in production (spoiler: he hasn’t).

But the pitching staff seemed solid, we were addressing the right-handed bat issue (oddly, Nelson Cruz, newly minted All-Star, was one of the guys I was most skeptical of), we had Sweet Kyle and casually great Cano, and a bunch of promising pieces. It felt like we just needed one of the Logan Morrison-Dustin Ackley-Brad Miller crew to have a good year, and we’d be right in it. And we’re struggling. We’ve been hurt and unlucky and sometimes just not good at baseball. So here we sit, 38-44, sometimes magnificent, sometimes driving the Lookout staff and associated Mariners fans to drink grown-up people drinks.

But there have been some really great storylines to come out of the season so far. This is baseball after all. Probably the best story so far has been the emergence of Taijuan Walker. Tai had a very rough beginning to the year, but his starts are practically appointment viewing now. In his last seven starts, he’s sporting a 1.68 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP. More important for Tai, he’s issued three walks over that stretch. He hears the obvious ‘Walker’ pun and says: "Nah." He’s relying on a fastball-changeup combo that is wrecking people, and his command is much improved. Brendan Gawlowski wrote about Tai’s development at length on LL but it’s been a very bright spot. He’s matured a lot, and has been able to settle in and work out of jams instead of falling apart. MyTai, he’s our GuyTai (sorry).

Mike Montgomery has also been a great find. Player swaps don’t normally pan out, and anything received in trade for 2014 Erasmo Ramirez seemed suspect, but Mike threw two back-to-back shutouts, and did very nice work against the Athletics in his most recent start. For a guy who was just supposed to avoid being terrible with Kuma and Paxton on the DL, he’s far outperformed. Kyle has been Kyle (read: yay Kyle). Nelson "Nelly" Cruz has been fantastic. Seth Smith has been a solid addition, and Brad Miller has emerged as a sneaky good shortstop, second in the AL only to your own precious Iggy in wRC+ and third in shortstop WAR. That they are both having better years than Alcides Escobar is a thing. SO HOW ARE WE NOT BETTER? Oh, you asked about the darkness? I think we're about to get to that.

2. Much panic in Mariners land has been around Robinson Cano and his lack of production. One thing that I find odd is that no one mentions his offseason injury in which he broke his toe playing in Japan. Do you think Cano has been playing injured and what exactly has been his problem at the plate this year?

Robbie is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a zillion dollar contract. The toe doesn’t get talked about much, although the whole Japan stint is an argument for MLB players, or at least Mariners, not participating. Some news came out recently that Robbie has been battling a weird stomach bug that has made it really hard to keep food down. He’s also been a bit unlucky; he’s hitting the ball hard, but not putting it in play much. His BABIP is running higher than is typical for him. Dan Farnsworth wrote a great piece on some of the subtle changes in his swing that might account for his decreased production.

Still, it’s been a pretty precipitous drop off for a guy who posted a 5 WAR season last year. And some of the worst bits have been mental mistakes. He’s been weirdly TOOTBLAN prone. But there are signs that it will come around. If we take the arbitrary start date of June 20th, when Edgar Martinez was named Mariners hitting coach, he’s got a wOBA of .356 with three home runs and a wRC+ of 132. It’s not Historically Good Robbie, but it’s a marked improvement over what we got at the beginning of the year. If we’re gonna make a run, a lot of it is going to depend on Robbie getting right. And if he does, this is a much better offense, and a pretty powerful 3-4-5.

3. The Mariners made a medium-sized splash with an early trade, acquiring Mark Trumbo. This was odd because Trumbo has a career .294 on-base percentage and a big problem with the Mariners this year is getting on base -- as a team they currently get on base at a .291 clip. Was this the most Mariners move of all time epitomizing the downfalls of Jack Zduriencik or is there some secret logic to the move?

Next question.

Meg, please answer.

(Meg makes sad trombone sound)

Meg.

Look, he’s just not good at baseball right now. I don’t know if he’s injured, if he was headed for a decline or what but it is bad. A few days ago, someone on M’s twitter noted that he went from a .259/.299/.509 slash line with a 116 wRC+ with Arizona to a .131/.171/.190 line since being traded. It has ticked up slightly since, but just barely. There is no secret logic here. There is just Jack logic here. Trumbo can hit to all fields when he’s going, but he’s not, and we need people to get the heck on base. And right now, he’s hitting worse than Mike Zunino, with Mark Trumbo-like defense. The best part of the San Diego series was scoring a bunch of runs and winning, but the second-best part was Mark Trumbo sitting in the dugout the whole time.

4. Austin Jackson was sent to the Mariners last year as part of what we in Tigers land call "The David Price Deal." He had a rough start to his Mariners career but has been better lately. What have you seen from Austin Jackson? Please tell me that you are taking care of him.

Action Jackson! Honestly, any quasi-competent outfielder is beloved in Seattle because Mariners. Coming into the year, Jackson was a point of concern. The offensive production last year was… bad. So the story of Austin Jackson, Seattle Mariner is a lot like what I imagine the story of Austin Jackson, Detroit Tiger was: inconsistency, punctuated by moments of HEY COOL. He’s been an obvious defensive upgrade in center over James Jones (woof), but lately his bat has been picking up and it’s been great to watch. He did some time on the disabled list this year (I’m sure he got great care), but since coming back, he’s (mostly) been flames. In June, he has a 130 wRC+, with a .304/.354/.457 slash. He’s making more hard contact than last year, and he’s pulling the ball more. That smile could light up all of Seattle and Detroit. The one thing that hasn’t been great? His baserunning. They keep giving him a green light to steal and he keeps getting caught. It’s annoying. Stop getting caught out, Austin. We like you a lot.

5. The Mariners bullpen lead the league in ERA in 2014, but has taken a step back this year (they are 18th in ERA, 22nd in WAR and 19th in FIP). The face of these struggles is clearly Fernando Rodney and his lonely stack of quivered arrows, but the problem appears to go deeper. You were cruel enough to ask me about our bullpen, so I will ask you -- what’s up with that bullpen? Who is closing these days and why is it Rodney?

First, the closer business. I was at the game that probably lost Rodney his job. He blew a save and we lost to the Yankees in extras, and I sat on the curb outside of Safeco, cradling my Kyle Seager promotional bobblehead, and cried (not really) (kinda). I was also there the day Carson Smith trotted back out from the bullpen to throw the ninth against the Rays. I’ve never seen a ballpark more excited for a reliever to come out. He’s been so solid when given the opportunity. He’s efficient, he works out of jams, and good god does he own Mike Trout. But he’s young, and from everything Lloyd has said, they aren’t going to rush him into full time service.

The difference is that now when Lloyd uses him in the eighth, it seems to genuinely be because it is a higher leverage situation. Rodney has actually been better since his time off. There are still moments when we engage in the Fernando Rodney Experience, but he hasn’t blown it. So it’s Carson being spelled by Rodney. The rest of the bullpen? It’s mostly inconsistency at the worst times. Danny Farquar is doing a semester at sea (actually Tacoma) after being a legit dumpster fire (worst reliever ERA in the AL), and Tom Wilhelmsen just got sent down after a hellish couple of games. Mark Lowe has been a pleasant surprise, Charlie Furbush has been mostly good, despite obviously skipping leg day. It’s stabilized a lot since the beginning of the year. But it is far from the world beater it was last year. Which is a bummer for me.

6. Finally, one more question about a former Tiger. How has Lloyd McClendon been over in Seattle? Are you and the rest of Mariners land happy with Legendary Lloyd or has he lost his sparkle? Would it be safe to say that Carli Lloyd represents an upgrade at this point?

Carli Lloyd represents an upgrade over all Lloyds, Carlis, Carlys, and most other names at this point. USA USA USA. Lloyd (McClendon) actually won’t be managing the Detroit series; his sister passed away, and he is attending her funeral. It’s a real shame, and we’re all sending good thoughts to him and his family (as I’m sure the readers of BYB are). Lloyd sometimes over-manages (see: most all managers) and there have been times when he’s been too slow on the hook with starters and relievers (see: most all managers), but I think the feeling with him is generally positive, or as positive as it can be with an underperforming team. The guys in the clubhouse seem to respond to him, I think he’s a great presence for the younger players on the team. He defends his guys. He’ll get tossed when he needs to. And his answers to local media are sensational.

He might well be on the hot seat at the end of the season because we’ve so dramatically underperformed vs. expectations. To my mind, there are a lot of other folks also to blame for that, including the players themselves. But if we need a firing to assuage the baseball gods, I can think of another guy who’s been around a lot longer, and his last name doesn’t start with "M."

★★★

Thank you again to Meg and the rest of the Lookout Landing staff for answering our questions. You can find my answers to her questions on their site and be sure to check out Lookout Landing for Mariners news and analysis all season long.