The Seattle Mariners were up in April, then way down in May, and eventually evened out in June before stumbling into the All-Star break.
That historic 13-2 start out of the chute that offered a glimmer of hope that seems like a distant, almost unreal memory. The step-back is now in full swing, with the Mariners showing a 39-55 record through the first half. They’re 20 games out of first place in the American League West in July, 14 games out of the second AL Wild Card spot, and staring down the possibility of 100 losses for the first time since 2010.
It’s been another frustrating stretch for an organization that will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the 18th consecutive season, but here are some things we’ve learned with two-plus months left to play in 2019.
SETTING USAGE RECORDS
Recently-acquired from the Padres, right-hander Matt Wisler tossed an inning of relief against the A’s on Sunday to become the 35th pitcher the Mariners have used this season.
That’s a major league record for the first half of the season, as is the 53 total players Seattle used before the break.
There was going to be turnover in a rebuilding season, but maybe this was even more than expected. Only about half of the players on the Opening Day roster are on Seattle’s active roster right now. Veteran offseason acquisitions Anthony Swarzak (now with the Braves), Jay Bruce (Phillies) and Edwin Encarnacion (Yankees) have already been traded away, the starting rotation has switched up some, and the batting order combinations have rarely looked the same day-to-day because of untimely injuries.
But, no group has had more turnover than the bullpen, which is nearly unrecognizable from what it was in March.
Seattle has used 30 different pitchers in relief this season — including normal starters Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, who often follow an opener, and position players Tom Murphy and Dylan Moore in a few blowout losses — trying to find a core that sticks, but is still searching for the right combination.
Many of the relievers the Mariners have acquired have battled injuries, been designated for assignment, or shipped to the minors. Only a few have taken hold.
Left-hander Roenis Elias (3.98 ERA in 36 games) has impressed in spots while getting a more extended look with Seattle than in the past, and has a team-leading 11 saves. And, recent acquisition Austin Adams (3.47 ERA in 21 games) has nine holds since arriving from the Nationals in May before he was placed on the 10-day injured list with a Grade 1 lat strain last week.
“You’re giving some of these guys a second chance coming from different organizations where they really weren’t getting to pitch that much, certainly in leverage spots, and somebody who takes it and runs with it like that is absolutely what we were looking for,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Hopefully it doesn’t set him back too long.”
The Mariners haven’t quite figured out both sides of this opener strategy yet. The bulk pitchers have arguably pitched better than when they’ve started games, but getting past the first inning without allowing a run has been a challenge.
Seattle started implementing openers the first week of June, and the five relievers they’ve used in that first-inning role — Cory Gearrin, Adams, Gerson Bautista, Tayler Scott and most recently Matt Carasiti — have combined for a 15.68 ERA in 10 1/3 innings across 12 games.
The Mariners have a 5-7 record in games they use an opener, have allowed at least one earned run in that opening frame in seven tries, and have only overcome a first-inning deficit twice.
Carasiti has had the most success, tossing scoreless frames in three of his five chances, but allowed four earned runs in 1/3 of an inning in the loss to Oakland ahead of the All-Star break.
“It’s nice when you go out there and throw up a zero early,” Servais said. “We’ve had struggles doing that. It has helped the bulk guys. There’s no question it’s helped them. I think their numbers dictate that as well. ... It’s something that we’ll continue to look at as we go into the second half of the season.”
For their part, LeBlanc and Milone have been steady appearing as bulk pitchers.
LeBlanc is 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA, 27 strikeouts and nine walks in seven games behind an opener, compared to 2-2 with a 6.99 ERA, 23 strikeouts and eight walks in six games as the traditional starter.
Milone is 0-1 with a 3.21 ERA, 19 strikeouts and three walks in five games following an opener, and 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA, 25 strikeouts and seven walks in four games started.
After spending most of the past three seasons with Triple-A Tacoma, designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach has proved that Seattle’s minor league system can yield MLB talent.
At last given the opportunity for a full season in the majors, during which he was projected this spring to get at least 350-400 at-bats, Vogelbach showed he has the patience and power at the plate to be an everyday player.
He appeared in 85 of Seattle’s first 94 games, slashing at .238/.375/.505 with a team-leading 21 home runs, 11 doubles and 51 RBIs to earn an All-Star nod in his first full season with the big league club. He went 0-for-1 as a pinch-hitter on Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
“He doesn’t swing a ton until he gets his pitch,” Servais said. “It’s been very effective. It’s working for him. ... How he goes through an at-bat, how he studies the pitching, how they’re going to pitch him. He makes the people around him better as well.”
As reliable as Mike Zunino was for Seattle behind the plate, the club hasn’t had a catcher who could consistently hit in years. This season, the Mariners have two in Omar Narvaez and Murphy.
Both pieces of this tandem rank among the top catchers in the AL in several offensive categories (among catchers with at least 100 plate appearances).
Narvaez is slashing at .294/.366/.486 with 14 homers and 36 RBIs in 76 games, and is fourth in the AL in average, third in on-base percentage and eighth in slugging.
Murphy is slashing at .269/.296/.538 with nine homers and 19 RBIs in 36 games, and is sixth in the AL in average, and third in slugging.
UP THE MIDDLE
Some of the trades the Mariners made last offseason are starting to take shape, and they seem to have found a pair of players up the middle who could fit well long term — and they happen to work well together at the top of the lineup, too.
Seattle’s shortstop of the future, J.P. Crawford, who was acquired from the Phillies, has reached base safely in 34 of 39 games since his promotion from Triple-A Tacoma in May, and hit safely in 26 of 39.
He’s hitting .277/.347/.466 with 12 doubles, two triples, four homers and 25 RBIs, and has performed consistently in a role the Mariners needed to fill.
And, after a stint with the Rainiers to iron out some struggles at the plate, center fielder Mallex Smith, who came from Tampa Bay, has rallied to post a .238/.304/.362 line with 13 doubles, four triples, five homers and 23 RBIs in 73 games in the first half. His 23 steals rank second in the majors.