Justin Smoak's offensive struggles aren't the lone issue plaguing the Mariners' lineup this season. (Image Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Offensive Struggles Could Lead to Inevitable Roster Moves in Seattle

The chief focus of the offseason for the Seattle Mariners was the need to add some pop to an offense that ranked among the league’s worst in 2012. Mike Morse, Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, and others were all brought in over the winter with the hope that an improved lineup would help balance a strong pitching staff, resulting in a team that just might prove to be competitive. So far the results haven’t quite been what the organization – or their fanbase – were hoping for. With the continued struggles at the plate, there could be roster moves coming in an effort to shake things up.

ESPN’s Keith Law discussed some of those possible moves in his latest Insider-only column, specifically focusing on a pair of players who just might benefit from a demotion to the minor leagues – Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley.

Montero was brought in prior to the 2012 season with high expectations. Considered among the game’s top offensive prospects, there were few questions about his bat but plenty about his defense. Most scouts and analysts believed that there was no way Montero would be able to stick behind the plate long term. A move to first base, or even designated hitter, seemed inevitable.

Last season the defensive concerns were mitigated by the team’s ability to work Montero into the lineup as their DH thanks to the presence of John Jaso on the roster. Montero received 553 PA on the year, more than half of which coming as the team’s DH, and hit .260/.298/.386 with 15 HR and 20 2B. Jaso is now in Oakland – through the trade that landed Morse in Seattle – and the team brought in Kelly Shoppach to help behind the plate. Montero’s been left to take most of the at bats there, which has resulted in some noticeable struggles at the plate on the year thus far, as he’s hitting just .224/.250/.306 with a pair of extra base hits (one home run, one double). To further complicate things, he’s not playing everyday which has made it challenging for him to find a regular routine.

Law emphatically suggests that the Mariners “give up” on the idea of Montero as a full time catcher, instead shifting him into the DH role permanently. Such a move is easier said than done, however, thanks to the remaining makeup of the team’s roster and the presence of Justin Smoak. Despite his ongoing struggles – a combined .226/.304/.373 line in 1,228 plate appearances since joining the organization at the 2010 July trade deadline – there seems to be an unwillingness to take Smoak out of the everyday lineup on the part of the organization. In 82 PA this year he’s hit even worse, managing just a .208/.305/.236 mark. Last July Dave Cameron at U.S.S. Mariner concluded that among first baseman in the past 30 years to receive 1,000 PA by their 25th birthday, Smoak was hands down the worst of the bunch. So far it doesn’t appear as though he’s gotten any better.

However, with both Smoak and Morales (whose .250/.357/.403 line on the season to date isn’t exactly world-changing) on the roster the team’s essentially locked in as far as who their starters at first base and DH will be, leaving little room for Montero to be in the lineup daily. Cameron suggests that there’s little reason to continue hoping for a turnaround from Smoak, as there are just no indicators that point to an improvement coming. Jettisoning Smoak from the roster would permit the team to install Morales at first base and Montero at DH. There seems to be little other option.

As for Ackley, his struggles have been just as severe yet somewhat less publicized outside of the Seattle area.

Like Montero, he arrived in Seattle amid high expectations. The 2nd overall pick in the 2009 Draft, the highly athletic Ackley was expected to make his way to the Major Leagues quickly and that he’d be a star upon arriving. He lived up to the first part of that, cruising through the minor leagues before making his debut with the Mariners early in the 2011 season. Ackley looked like a solid piece of the Mariners’ future when he made his way into the lineup, batting .273/.348/.417 in 376 PA over the remainder of the 2011 season, good enough to finish 6th in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He’s done nothing but struggle since.

In 71 PA on the season to date he’s managed just a .197/.232/.227 line. His once superior bat speed has eluded him and he’s become impatient at the plate. Ackley appears to be regressing, rather than developing into the star everyone thought he could be. Law questions whether a stint back in the minor leagues could benefit him, potentially getting him re-focused. The team could also look to top prospect Nick Franklin as a temporary replacement. Franklin comes with his own shortcomings – lack of patience at the plate and questions about his ability to hit from the right side – but he could still offer up a temporary improvement while Ackley figures things out in a less-pressurized environment.

Simply sending Montero and/or Ackley down to the minor leagues won’t resolve all of the Mariners’ offensive woes. Brendan Ryan (.148/.217/.148) and Ibanez (.174/.224/.348) are both hitting well below an acceptable level. Morse (.214/.267/.500) has been a disappointment to date, beyond the power numbers (6 HR, 2 2B). Jason Bay (.184/.311/.289) has hit so poorly that people have stopped wondering what happened to his ability to be an offensive force. In fact, only Kyle Seager (.276/.337/.487) has played above replacement level on the season to date.

Seattle’s offensive struggles have left the team in a tough position. It’s still early enough in the season that a justification to wait things out could be made. Things might just turn around. Given the competitive AL Western division, however, an argument could be made that the time to make changes is now, before the team falls further behind in the standings. There’s hardly an easy solution to Seattle’s troubles – unless some folks in Seattle have discovered a way to clone Felix Hernandez, allowing him to pitch everyday (though even that may not be enough to overcome these offensive shortcomings). Patience, and perhaps a little creativity, could ultimately be the key towards righting this ship. Otherwise it could be a very long summer in Seattle.

Tags: Dustin Ackley Jesus Montero Justin Smoak Seattle Mariners

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