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Seattle Mariners

What Are The Mariners Thinking?

The Seattle Mariners’ offensive struggles have been well-documented. The Mariners have scored the fewest runs in baseball for each of the past two seasons and have ranked in the top half of the majors in that category just once since 2004. In 2011, Seattle put together a major-league worst .233/.292/.348 batting line as a team, somehow a step down from the .236/.298/.339 it posted in 2010. So when the Mariners shipped out pitcher Michael Pineda to acquire the New York Yankees’ top prospect in catcher Jesus Montero, their thinking of improving their offense makes sense. But by trading Pineda, Seattle is making a horrible mistake that it will regret for years to come.

Twenty-two year old pitchers who stand at six-foot-seven, can start and touch 100 miles per hour with their fastball do not come around very often. They are the ones who are almost always listed as untouchables when other teams call to make trades. Just those very characteristics make Pineda a potential superstar pitcher, one who figures to dominate the game for years to come. But in his rookie season last year, Pineda proved that he is already at that level.

Pineda possesses the arsenal of a pure power pitcher to match his size on the mound. His fastball was the fourth-quickest in all of baseball last season, averaging 94.7 mph, better than all pitchers not named Alexi Ogando (95.1), Justin Verlander (95.0) or David Price (94.9). A stomach-lurching slurve helped induce the most swings-and-misses of any pitcher in the majors at 11.8 percent of his pitches.

Those whiffs helped Pineda strike out 24.9 percent of opposing hitters, sixth-best in the majors and greater than Price, Yovani Gallardo, Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver and Chris Carpenter. Pineda wound up striking out 9.11 batters per nine innings, seventh-best in all of baseball and more than Verlander, Gio Gonzalez, C.C. Sabathia, Mat Latos, Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay.

While power pitchers sometimes struggle with control, Pineda did not have that issue even as a rookie. He struck out 3.5 batters for every walk he issued, a mark better than Matt Cain, Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Jon Lester.

Pineda’s electric fastball and plate-sweeping slurve also prevented many opposing hitters from making solid contact. Opponents hit just .209 against him in 2011, tied with Jeremy Hellickson as the fourth-best mark in baseball, behind only Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Josh Beckett. Pineda’s ability to keep opposing teams off the bases helped him earn the eighth-best WHIP (1.10) in the American League, which ranked above Hellickson, C.J. Wilson and Trevor Cahill.

Montero may end up being a great player for the Mariners. He was ranked as the third-best prospect by Baseball America before the 2011 season and has hit .308/.366/.501 in five minor league seasons. But Pineda has already proven that he can be mentioned in the same breath as some of the very best pitchers in baseball. His strikeout numbers show that he will only continue to improve as he learns how to pitch and indicate he has the stuff to dominate the major leagues. The Mariners may be improving their offense with this deal, but trading a 22-year old talent like Pineda will be a move they regret for a long time.

A Historically Bad Offense

On July 6, the Seattle Mariners woke up to find themselves with a record at .500 (43-43) and just 2.5 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West. Seattle had been one of the feel-good stories of the first half of the major league season, a team that had placed themselves in the playoff conversation with their pitching (ranked third in the AL in ERA and second in runs allowed) and defense despite one of the worst offenses in the history of baseball.

The Mariners have scored the fewest runs (323), managed the fewest hits (737) and have the lowest team batting average (.224), on-base percentage (.289) and slugging percentage (.331) in baseball this year. Seattle is on pace to have the lowest team batting average of any American League team during the designated hitter era (since 1973). The record is held by the 1981 Toronto Blue Jays, who hit .226 during a strike-shortened season. The full-season record is a .235 average by the 1976 Angels. The Mariners would have to hit roughly .255 to avoid history, but of the nine players on their roster with at least 130 at-bats this year, six of them are hitting below .230, including two (Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez) who are hitting below the Mendoza Line of .200. No one is hitting above .270.

Seattle’s offense is also on pace to break another record that no team wants. The Mariners had a .298 team OBP last season. With their .288 team OBP this year, the Mariners would become the first AL team to have back-to-back seasons of OBPs below .300 since the 1966-’67-’68 Chicago White Sox, Washington Senators and Cleveland Indians. The White Sox, Senators and Indians each did for three seasons in a row, but then the mound was lowered after the ’68 season to give pitchers less of an advantage over batters. This year’s team might have a hard time not breaking this record, considering that of the nine Mariners on the roster with at least 130 at-bats, five of them have OBPs below .260. Only Jack Cust has an OBP of at least .325.

After July 6, things have gone from bad to worse for the Seattle offense. The Mariners have lost 13 consecutive games, falling 13.5 games behind Texas, who has gone 11-2 in the same stretch. Seattle’s offense has scored a total of 31 runs during its 13-game losing streak, averaging a paltry 2.4 runs per game. The Mariners offense has been so bad during the losing streak that they scored more than four runs in a game just three times. They have also put together a stretch where they managed to cross the plate only four times in five games. Over the past 13 games, Seattle has been shutout three times and limited to one run in a game on three other occasions. While the Mariners’ offense is having a particularly bad season historically, they have reached a new low during this 13-game losing streak.

Even with a good pitching staff and solid defense around the diamond, the Seattle Mariners’ Cinderella run this year has finished because of an offense that is among the worst of all-time. The offensive funk has even spread to Ichiro Suzuki, who in his first 10 years with the team, hit .331/.376/.430 while AVERAGING 224 hits per season. This year, Ichiro is hitting .267/.313/.318 and is on pace for only 178 hits. Seattle has called up top prospect Dustin Ackley (.277/.333/.485 with four home runs and 14 runs batted in in 28 games) in an effort to get more offense, but unless this team suddenly gets hot at the plate, the Mariners are on pace to break a couple of records that no team wants, even with Ackley in the lineup. In a season that has suddenly gone down the drain, an offense that is possibly the worst-ever is the Seattle Mariners’ downfall.

Why Baseball Is Great

We are officially at, or just past (depending on the team), the midway point in the Major League Baseball season. In the sport with the fewest playoff spots, there are so many teams competing for the right to play in October. The lack of playoff spots is one of the many things that makes this sport so special. Just eight of the 30 MLB teams will make the postseason, compared to the 16 playoff teams in both the NBA and NHL and the 12 NFL teams that vie for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Having such few teams make the playoffs creates a strong emphasis on succeeding in the regular season, and as long as baseball’s regular season is, we have the potential to see some very compelling races in August and September. Twenty teams either lead a division or are within seven games of a playoff spot. There is no division separated by more than a four game lead.

A number of surprise teams remain in the mix for a playoff spot. Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit at 41-39, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The Arizona Diamondbacks are two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card race with a record of 44-38. The New York Mets and Washington Nationals are 5.5 and 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card race, respectively.

In the American League, few thought that the Cleveland Indians would spend 80 days during the first half of the year leading the Central. The Indians have stumbled slightly, but are 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers right now. Rookie sensation Michael Pineda has helped the Seattle Mariners come within 3.5 games of the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in the West, even though the Mariners have been outscored by 13 runs this season and have a record below .500, at 39-42. After losing Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency and various trades, the Tampa Bay Rays sit just four games behind the New York Yankees in the East and 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. The Rays are 45-36 despite having star third baseman Evan Longoria play in only 53 games during the first half of the season.

The first half of the Major League Baseball season featured many storylines, but none may be more compelling than the playoff races that will determine the fate of the 20 teams who have their eyes on the postseason. There will be teams who falter down the stretch during the second half of the season. However, with so many teams fighting year in and year out for one of the precious few trips to the postseason, baseball’s emphasis on a strong regular season is unrivaled by any sport. With 20 teams in competition for just eight playoff spots, the next three months of the season will feature postseason races that come down to the wire and show just why baseball is so special.