APRIL REPORT CARD: SOLID GRADES FOR MARINERS WITH POTENTIAL FOR MORE

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — It was a good weekend, a good road trip and, really, a good first month. The Mariners are 16-11 after completing a three-city trip Sunday by winning for the third time in four games at Cleveland.

   The weekend series against the Indians marked the first time this season that manager Scott Servais had his regular lineup available, and the Mariners responded by scoring 32 runs in four games at Progressive Field.

   “We’ve got a lot of potential — one through nine (in the lineup),” second baseman Robinson Cano crowed after’s Sunday 10-4 victory. “Our nine hitter (first baseman Ryon Healy) hit two homers. He was the player of the game.

   “That’s the thing. It’s not one guy. You can compare this lineup with any team right now in the league. What’s the best one? We can compete with anyone.”

   It’s no surprise that confidence is soaring. The Mariners just raked the Indians’ strong staff, which entered the series with the second-best ERA among MLB’s 30 teams, for 10 homers over the series’ final 21 innings.

   The Mariners hit four homers each in the final two games.

   The last time that happened in back-to-back road games was June 8-9, 1999 in Colorado, where general manager Jerry Dipoto was then a member of the Rockies’ bullpen. (No, he didn’t give up any of those homers.)

   If the season ended Sunday, the Mariners would be preparing for a Wild Card game against the Yankees in New York. Their playoff drought, which dates to 2001, would be over.

   Instead, they’ll settle for an open date before opening a three-game series Tuesday against Oakland at Safeco Field. The six-game homestand concludes this weekend with three games against the Los Angeles Angels.

   “I’m looking forward to what’s ahead of us,” Servais said. “It was a really good month of April and it was important for us to get off to a good start. I’m looking forward to May.”

   First, though, let’s hand out the April grades. Not surprisingly, they’re pretty good.

   ROTATION: By traditional standards, the rotation, which has a 5.62 ERA, was awful. Maintained over a full season, that would be the second-worst mark in franchise history (topped only by the 5.70 ERA in 1996).

   Further, each member of the unit had at least one dreadful outing. Felix Hernandez, at 4.96, is the only starter with a sub-5.00 ERA. So, you can stop here, if you want, and reasonably give the unit an F. 

   Not so fast.

   The Mariners subscribe to baseball’s emerging paradigm, which sets five competitive innings as the benchmark. A quality start (three or fewer earned runs over six or more innings) now generates high praise.

   So let’s recalibrate after first skipping over Erasmo Ramirez, who opened the season on the disabled list. While he’s been pummeled in two starts, he probably deserves an incomplete.

   Hernandez, James Paxton, Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales each made six starts. They combined for 10 quality starts and pitched through the fifth inning on 17 of 24 occasions.

   Low bar or not, that’s pretty much what the Mariners are looking for. GRADE: C.

   BULLPEN: A lockdown closer elevates any relief corps, and Edwin Diaz has allowed one run and two hits while striking out 27 in 14 1/3 innings over 14 outings while saving 11 games and compiling an 0.63 ERA. High-grade Sugar.

   Primary setup man Juan Nicasio had a few early wobbles but has 10 holds in bridging leads to Diaz. Nicasio also closed out the month with six straight scoreless outings.

   With those two at the back end, it’s easy to see why the Mariners are 13-0 when holding the lead after seven innings. But the rest of the bullpen is a mixed bag.

   James Pazos and Chasen Bradford have been a plus. Each has allowed two runs over 10 2/3 innings, while Dan Altavilla has been mostly good with nine clean sheets in 13 outings.

    But veterans Nick Vincent (seven earned runs and 12 hits in 10 1/3 innings), and Marc Rzepczynski (five earned runs and 10 hits in five innings) are struggling. That’s a problem because the bullpen often needs to cover nine-to-12 outs. GRADE: B.       

   CATCHER: Mike Zunino is back after opening the season on the disabled list and has three homers in nine games. But he’s either rusty or slipping back into bad habits with a .206 on-base percentage and 11 strikeouts in 33 at-bats.

   After just nine games, it’s too early to tell which. GRADE: INCOMPLETE.

   INFIELD: Cano, now 35, seems to have shucked the pull-happy tendencies he exhibited in recent years. The result, as least so far, is a return to elite status, including a .422 on-base percentage.

   Shortstop Jean Segura remains a catalyst who, somehow, tends to go underappreciated — even here in the Northwest. He’s often in the middle of everything with a .298 average, 21 runs, nine doubles and 21 RBIs. 

   Few players, typically, are happier at seeing May arrive than third baseman Kyle Seager, a notoriously slow starter. While he’s batting just .236, he has four homers and 15 RBIs. That’s a 24-homer, 90-RBI pace — and history says he’ll heat up.

   Healy is 6-for-16 with three homers in four games since returning from the disabled list. He sure looks like the 25-30 homer guy the Mariners envisioned when they acquired him last winter from Oakland. And, yes, he’s batting ninth.

   GRADE: B with a bullet because there’s potential for so much more if Seager and Healy play to expectations.   

   OUTFIELD: How good has right fielder Mitch Haniger been? Well, he’s only the second player in franchise history to reach 10 homers and 27 RBIs prior to May. Ken Griffey Jr. did it in 1997 and 1998, and there’s a statue of him at the front gate.

   Converted Gold Glove infielder Dee Gordon’s defense in center field has exceeded all expectations, but it’s no surprise that he’s provided the lineup with a effective table-setter as its leadoff hitter.

   OK, left field remains a mess. Ben Gamel is batting just .121 in 12 games since returning from the disabled list, and Ichiro Suzuki’s skills have declined to the point where club officials now tout his clubhouse presence.

   Roster issues prompted the Mariners to send Guillermo Heredia to Tacoma even though he’s the organization’s best defensive outfielder and was batting .310 with a .416 OBP in 16 games.

   Heredia figures to return soon even if it’s only to serve as the right-handed portion of a platoon. That means the Mariners must make a decision between Suzuki, a franchise icon, and Gamel, who has an option remaining.

   GRADE: A-MINUS. If the Mariners were getting anything out of left field, this would be an A-PLUS. 

   DH/BENCH: Nelson Cruz missed nine games because of an ankle injury. He still can’t run, but he can still mash. Cruz owns a .563 slugging percentage that exceeds his career average and ranks second on the club to Haniger’s Junior-esque .701.

   The catching tandem of David Freitas and Mike Marjama held the fort in Zunino’s absence, and Freitas is emerging as a capable backup now that Marjama is back at Tacoma.

   Utilityman Andrew Romine is hitless in 14 at-bats, but he’s out of options, which is one reason why Taylor Motter (4-for-15) is back at Tacoma. First baseman/DH Daniel Vogelbach, also back at Tacoma, showed flashes while Cruz and Healy recovered from injuries.

   GRADE: B. Cruz, at 37, is the best DH in the game. The only issue is whether he can stay in the lineup.

   OVERALL: The Mariners weathered a blizzard of injuries in spring training and the season’s early weeks. For that, Dipoto and his staff deserve credit for building the organizational depth that didn’t previously exist.

   The lineup, as Cano noted, is potent top to bottom. The defense seems major-league average or a tick better at all positions. If Diaz remains dominant, the bullpen will, depending on others, range from solid to superior.

   The question remains a rotation that, through April, met modest expectations. One plus in having a low bar is that sufficient depth exists at Tacoma to prevent an injury, or even two, from torpedoing the unit.

   The only real issue, at this point, is deciding what to do in left field.

   Bottom line, though, is the Mariners are 16-11, have lost only one of their nine series and enter May at five games over .500 for the first time since 2003. It’s been a good start. GRADE: B.