Mariners' offense taking baby steps
Well, we can say this much about the Seattle Mariners: They're not last in baseball in runs scored.That is, of course, where they finished each of the past two years. In fact, their team OPS in that timeframe was .639. Felix Hernandez's OPS against in that span, for comparison's sake, was .622. So we can say the M's, in 2010-11, performed only slightly better than if they had faced a Cy Young Award winner every single night. These days, the M's OPS is up to a mean .646. They are 26th in baseball in runs per game, not 30th. Hey, it's called baby steps, people. But the thing about this Seattle team, compared to the two previous, is that it has more babies in the lineup. Projectable bats who are potentially building blocks. So the offense is not an outright black hole. It's more like a construction zone. "I feel like we've got nine or 10 young guys -- by the definition of the big leagues, 27 or younger -- who I feel like have every opportunity to be quality big league hitters," manager Eric Wedge said. "How far they take it is up to them. But I do believe it. At this time last year, it wasn't anywhere near as real as it is right now." Of course, reality can take time to develop, and that's certainly what's going on here. Jesus Montero has the talent and power to develop into a middle-of-the-order masher. But for now, his .244 average, .665 OPS and 4.2 walk percentage -- and, in general, his troubles with anything offspeed -- indicate he's still very much a work in progress. The same, naturally, goes with Montero's catching, which he's been doing much more frequently while Miguel Olivo has been recovering from a groin injury. The M's think Montero got a bad rap from those who wrote him off as a DH-only option at the time of his trade from the Yankees, and the Mariners feel Montero is making progress behind the plate. But he had a nightmare night Tuesday, letting one run score on a passed ball and another come across on his errant pickoff attempt. Wedge gave him a mental break the next day. "I have an opportunity here," Montero said. "[But] I'm a young guy, I'm a rookie. Rough days are going to happen, because it's baseball. "Some days you're going to stink, and some days you're going to be good." That might as well be the motto for these M's. After Chone Figgins flamed out in the leadoff spot vacated by Ichiro Suzuki, Wedge thrust the 24-year-old Dustin Ackley into the role because of the lack of other options. Ackley has responded well enough (.403 on-base percentage as a leadoff man) that Wedge genuinely believes it could be a long-term fit for him. "I think he's going to settle on either one, two or three [in the lineup], depending on the supporting cast," Wedge said. "But right now, I really like him in the leadoff spot. He's well-suited for it. He can get on base. He can spray the ball. He can run. He has a lot to offer." Another young guy presumably with a lot to offer -- but little to show for it thus far -- is Justin Smoak. Between injury issues and the loss of his father, 2011 was a brutal year for him. But the fresh start that was expected this season hasn't reaped results. Whether it's related to a tight hamstring suffered in April or not, Smoak is batting just .209 with a .309 slugging percentage. And with more than 1,000 plate appearances under his belt in the big leagues, one has to wonder when -- or if -- his breakout is coming. The M's have gotten some positive production from Kyle Seager, they're giving increased looks to Italian third baseman Alex Liddi, Mike Carp is back after spraining his shoulder in Japan on Opening Day, and Michael Saunders, filling in for the oft-injured Franklin Gutierrez in center field, has encouraged Wedge enough to seize the No. 2 spot of the order. But what obviously hurts the M's -- not only from a sheer competitive standpoint but also a developmental one -- is their utter lack of a dependable veteran bat on which these young kids can lean. Ichiro, currently miscast as a No. 3 hitter, is not that guy. He's always been on his own program, for one, and his .278 average is an empty one, largely devoid of extra-base hits. Brendan Ryan, meanwhile, is looking up -- way up -- at the Mendoza Line. And so the kids have to carve their own path, and Wedge and his coaches try to encourage them not to lose their confidence along the way, even as the rather unimpressive numbers pile up. "When you're up here, you've got to be 10-foot tall and bulletproof," Wedge said. "When you're going to compete with the best of the best and want to beat the best of the best, that's how you have to walk the walk ... The fine line is being able to look in the mirror and be honest with yourself [about your struggles] without losing that confidence. So you're not losing your shield, but you're still honest with yourself." Right now, an honest evaluation still reveals the Mariners to be offensive on the offensive side of the ball -- on pace, once again, to score fewer than 600 runs. Whether or not that evaluation changes over the course of the year will be determined by the baby steps made by the babies.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.