2015 Seattle Mariners: Postseason or bust

Chico Salmon

Chico Salmon never played for the 1969 Seattle Pilots but was one just long enough to have his Pilot baseball card printed. Taken from Cleveland in the expansion draft, Salmon was traded by the Pilots to Baltimore before spring training ended for Gene Brabender, one of the comedic aces if not pitching aces of Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four. Salmon might have fit right in with Ball Four: after going 4-for-4 against the Pilots in August, hitting two of his three 1969 home runs and knocking six runs, Salmon and the Orioles arrived at the stadium the next night to see a line for tickets, according to Salmon’s bio at SABR.org. Said Salmon, according to the bio, “They coming out to catch my act again.” Oriole teammate Elrod Hendricks, according to sabr.org, said Salmon was one of the three funniest teammates he played with. A native of Panama, Salmon was a utility player for Cleveland (’64-68) and Baltimore (’69-72), playing every position but pitcher and catcher and never appearing in more than 126 games. Lou Piniella, also traded by the Pilots in spring training ’69, said to Salmon a year later, according to sabr.org: “I’ve been in this league only two years, but I’ve never seen you play, Chico. What do you do for a living?” Salmon hit .256 in 422 at-bats for the ’66 Indians, with seven homers and 10 steals; he hit .297 in 91 at-bats for the ’69 Orioles. In his only World Series at-bat, Salmon pinch-hit for reliever Tom Phoebus in Game 2, starting a five-run fifth-inning rally with a single that gave the Orioles a 6-5 win over the Reds. It was Salmon’s only appearance in the Series won by the Orioles in five games; Salmon’s lifetime Series average is 1.000. Career numbers: .249 average, 31 home runs, 415 hits, 46 steals,.658 games, 644 OPS, 84 OPS+, 1.0 WAR>

On deck: The Mariners like D.J. Peterson so much they drafted him twice: in the 33rd round in 2010, and as the 12th pick in 2013 after hitting 41 home runs in three seasons at the University of New Mexico. Peterson has hit 44 more in two minor-league seasons for the Mariners, including 31 in a 2014 split between High Class A and AA. Peterson has a career .299 average and .914 OPS, the latter just below his .918 fielding percentage at third base. He won’t be moving Kyle Seager anytime soon. But first base, where the Mariners have given up on Justin Smoak and might on Logan Morrison if he hits .262 and slugs .420 again at age 27, is another matter. Peterson’s control of the strike zone is a concern: he struck out 116 times last year and walked only 45. Like Seager, he’ll have to hit a bunch of home runs to make that look better.

Trivia: The 1997 Mariners had six players hit 20 home runs or more. The other three starters also reached double figures. Name them. Answer below.

What he said: Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon: “I’ve heard the critics say (Nelson Cruz) won’t hit home runs in Safeco. He didn’t have any problem hitting them last year.” What he meant: “Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales couldn’t hit home runs anywhere last year.”

Outlook: The Mariners are an easy team to like for 2015: they won 87 games last year and had a run differential (+80) better than half the playoff teams, including both finalists; they had MLB’s second-best ERA (3.17); both of their major competitors in the AL West aren’t as good; and they added Cruz, whose teams have won 90 games for five straight seasons.

Of course, Cruz’s 2013 Rangers, who won 91, missed the playoffs, in no small part because of his 50-game suspension for PEDs.

The Mariners should have made it last year, but they finished four games worse than their projected 91 wins (by baseball-reference.com’s Pythagorean formula), and who knows what could have happened had they made it.

But the Mariners had real weaknesses: they got less than 40 home runs from their outfield, DH’s Hart and Morales hit .203 and .207 respectively without power, James Jones got 312 at-bats and Austin Jackson had 223 post-trade at-bats and combined they were outhomered by Endy Chavez (2-0), Chavez got 232 at-bats, Chris Young gave up 14 earned runs in 14.2 innings in four September starts and Fernando Rodney was 1-6 as a closer.

The Mariners have tried to address most of their weaknesses: they had a .636 OPS vs. lefties, so they added Cruz, Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano; their outfield was awful so they added Seth Smith; their rotation lacked depth — they’re hoping the personal growth of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, if not the trade for J.A. Happ, will better it.

They still have Rodney, which is an unresolved issue. He led the AL with 48 saves and blew only three, despite a mediocre .646 OPS, 2.85 ERA and an increasing sense of discomfort with every step from the bullpen. Rodney in 2014 was like the co-worker who makes every simple task seem Sisyphean. His 1.34 WHIP tied for 65th among pitchers who were predominantly relievers and ranked behind Mariners starter Roenis Elias, who walked 64 in 163.2 innings; Jared Burton, who had a 4.36 ERA; Joba Chamberlain, who tested the free-agent market and could get only a $1 million contract; and Scott Baker, who just removed from two seasons lost to injuries, allowed better than a hit an inning.

Among Mariners who pitched 35 innings or more, Rodney’s WHIP was 14th; among all MLB pitchers with at least 60 innings, he ranked 186th. This late in his career at age 37, he should know there’s no shame in pitching with the bases empty. And not every save situation has to have some fictional excitement before the credits.

Three years ago, Rodney had a historically great season with the Rays: an 0.60 ERA, 74.2 innings, 43 hits, nine walks, an 0.78 WHIP, five earned runs, a .417 OPS against. The Mariners might win a hundred if Rodney could approach that.

But the Mariners have spent $300 million the past two offseasons on free agents Cruz and Robinson Cano; $275 million on extensions for Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez. Allowing that investment to be protected by the 2014 Rodney is giving the gate receipts to Bernie Madoff. Like ninth-inning leads, you may not see them again.

Trivia answer: The six Mariners to hit 20 home runs or more in 1997 were: Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. (56), right fielder Jay Buhner (40), first baseman Paul Sorrento (31), DH Edgar Martinez (28), shortstop Alex Rodriguez (23) and third baseman Russ Davis (20). Catcher Dan Wilson (15), left fielder Jose Cruz Jr. (12) and second baseman Joey Cora (11) also reached double figures.

Team song: Bob Dylan: One More Cup of Coffee

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