Mariners hit wall in first half


SEATTLE — Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik needed to think about it for only a moment.

In that brief period of pondering, a look of frustrated resolution came over his face.

“I really can’t think of a time where I looked at our 25-man roster and said, ‘This is the best 25 guys we can put out there,’ ” he said. “There have been times where we were close. But the injuries really changed things.”

The roster he put together this spring, the team he envisioned to start the season never quite materialized.

It started to disassemble when right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who was slotted to be a key member of the starting rotation, felt pain above his elbow with two weeks remaining in spring training and was shut down.

From there, it got worse. Six expected contributors had stints on the disabled list, including two for Franklin Gutierrez, combining for a total of 288 games missed.

Injuries, overall talent and the struggles of players expected to contribute combined for a very uneven first half of the 2013 season.

So here the Mariners sit, waiting to return to action in Houston with 67 games remaining to salvage a season. In the first 95 games, they went 43-52 (.453) to sit in fourth place in the American League West, 13 games behind first-place Oakland.

Spring training left people feeling optimistic about the season. This was a team that Zduriencik expected to be better. This was a team that manager Eric Wedge thought could — and should — have a winning record. Instead, the Mariners are nine games under .500. For that to happen, more things had to go wrong than right.

Probably the biggest issue was the injuries. Nobody feels sorry for the Mariners. Every team deals with injuries. There probably were teams with more players making DL stints than Seattle but the Mariners didn’t have the experienced talent to withstand the production that was taken away.

“It would have been nice to have the club we broke spring training with healthy,” Zduriencik said. “It would have been fun to watch and see where it took us.”

Of course, you could question Zduriencik and Wedge’s thinking to ever trust Gutierrez to be a contributor.

The center fielder often has talked about his desire to shed the perception that he is injury-prone or fragile.

Yet, he can’t do that. He simply can’t stay on the field.

Entering this year, he had played in 132 games over the past two seasons. This year, he has played in 18.

The Mariners played Gutierrez sparingly in spring training, trying to manage leg stiffness and keep him healthy for the season.

It didn’t matter.

He played in 16 games, hitting .259 with four homers and 10 RBI before suffering a hamstring strain April 22 against Houston. He missed the next 54 games.

“When he’s healthy, he helps us,” Wedge said.

But he’s rarely healthy.

Gutierrez finally came back June 22 and made it 1{ games before suffering another hamstring injury. He remains on the disabled list.

Michael Morse has been another disappointment from an injury standpoint.

In his first 10 games, Morse had 12 hits with six homers. But he was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken pinkie finger April 11. He refused to go on the disabled list and came back four games later but wasn’t the same hitter. And just about the time the finger healed, Morse suffered a quadriceps strain while running the bases May 28 against San Diego. He missed eight games but didn’t go on the disabled list immediately.

With Justin Smoak already on the DL because of a strained abdominal muscle, Morse tried to play through the pain and strain to not affect the lineup too much.

Morse has never been healthy enough to be the hitter for whom the Mariners traded in the offseason.

Stephen Pryor’s injury seemed like something the Mariners could overcome. He tore his right back muscle April 14, and while it was expected to be a lengthy recovery, the Mariners were confident in the back end of the bullpen with closer Tom Wilhelmsen and setup men Carter Capps and Oliver Perez. But only Perez pitched as expected.

After dominating the first month and a half of the season, Wilhelmsen imploded in several save situations and was demoted. Pryor would have been the replacement. Capps’ inefficiencies against left-handed hitters also were exposed.

With veteran Josh Kinney starting the season on the disabled list, the Mariners eventually turned to rookie Yoervis Medina, who started the season in Triple A, in certain save situations.

That certainly wasn’t expected.

“We really needed to be healthy to compete, and I think it took its toll,” Zduriencik said.

What made the injuries difficult to overcome was the lack of production from certain healthy players who were expected to be key contributors.

Catcher Jesus Montero and second baseman Dustin Ackley struggled so much early on that both were demoted to Triple A, and both ended up switching positions.

Before tearing his meniscus, Montero was being converted to a first baseman and designated hitter. He’s back playing, and he won’t catch again this season.

Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2009 draft, struggled at the plate. He was striking out and not hitting the ball hard.

With Nick Franklin excelling at second base in his place, Ackley was asked to move to the outfield. He’s now trying to learn to play center and left field at the big league level.

“It’s not something we anticipated,” Zduriencik said. “But it’s a growth process. We were hoping to have all of our younger kids produce. It turned out not to be that way.”

Lost in the hitting struggles and injuries was the inconsistency of the back end of the starting rotation. With Ramirez injured in spring training, the Mariners decided rookie Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan would be the Nos. 4 and 5 starters.

Both are now with Triple-A Tacoma.

Beavan, who reworked his mechanics in the offseason to get more sink on his pitches, never looked comfortable. He made two forgettable starts and was replaced with free agent Aaron Harang, who has been up and down this season. The veteran right-hander is 4-8 with a 5.38 earned-run average in 15 starts.

Maurer, who tried to make the jump from Double A to the big leagues, couldn’t find consistency with his command or emotions, going 2-7 with a 6.93 ERA in 10 starts.

He was replaced by veteran Jeremy Bonderman. The former Pasco High School standout made seven starts, going 1-3 with a 4.93 ERA before being designated for assignment and replaced by a finally healthy Ramirez.

And that’s how you get to where the Mariners are now: Have a bunch of injured key players, get a lack of production from expected and needed producers, and then have an inconsistent back end of the starting rotation.

And yet all is not lost. The Mariners have gotten expected, solid contributions from Kyle Seager, Kendrys Morales, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. They are getting more than expected from Raul Iba—ez and youthful energy from Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino.

“It’s continuing to be a process, a learning experience,” Zduriencik said. “There have been good things, and there have been things I wish were better. So, we have the second half still to play, and we’ll go at it.”