SEATTLE — The problem is so old now, so frustratingly persistent, that it’s beginning to feel permanent.
The Mariners can’t hit. Couldn’t in 2010, couldn’t in 2012, can’t now.
Not well enough to get them where they want to go, anyway. Once again, their offensive futility is proving oppressive, and is now threatening to undermine what had been a hopeful, overachieving season.
That’s what these next three days before the trade deadline have turned into: One last chance for Jack Zduriencik to fix it.
The Mariners’ needs are deceptively humble. Just an average offense would suffice. When they score at least three runs — that’s not asking too much, is it? — the M’s are an astounding 49-17, a .742 winning percentage.
Ah, but here’s the rub. The Mariners have reached that modest benchmark in a mere 63 percent of their games. In the 39 games in which they’ve scored two runs or fewer, the Mariners are 5-34. And it’s painfully obvious which way their offense is trending.
For all the talk about adding David Price or another elite arm — which sounded so much better before the Mariners landed in their current funk — the run-production issue must be addressed for any playoff hope to remain.
And yes, there is still hope, despite the 11 losses in 16 games, and despite the stretch of 20 games in which the Mariners are averaging just 2.2 runs. The second wild-card berth, instituted in 2012, has provided a backdoor playoff entrance for flawed teams — and MLB is filled with them right now.
The Mariners have the benefit of brilliant pitching. Their 3.07 earned-run average is lowest in the American League, and tied with Washington for the best overall. Their 2.39 bullpen ERA is the lowest of any team, by a healthy margin. No team in either league has allowed fewer runs.
But a lineup with just two legitimate threats — Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager — is insufficient over the long haul, no matter how stout the pitching. The Mariners managed to cover up their deficiencies for much of the season through exceptional clutch hitting, but that proved to be unsustainable.
Now the same old familiar feelings of dread are coming back — the sense that all deficits are insurmountable.
This is seven seasons now — the entire breadth of the Zduriencik era — in which the Mariners have been offensively challenged to a near-crippling extent.
Free agency hasn’t changed it. The Mariners signed Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract over the winter, and yet are on pace to score 622 runs in 2014 — two fewer than last season. That’s not an indictment of Cano, who has been outstanding. It is, however, a commentary on the cast that surrounds him.
Trades haven’t changed it. The Mariners, in recent years, have brought in a steady succession of would-be bats at the major- and minor-league level, and only a precious few have broken out.
The draft hasn’t changed it, though there is legitimate hope that recent selections D.J. Peterson, Alex Jackson and Patrick Kivlehan can eventually change that story line. Seager has been a huge plus, and I’m certainly not ready to write off struggling young players like Mike Zunino, Brad Miller and James Jones. But they are part of a lineup in which no one besides Cano and Seager has an OPS higher than Zunino’s .677.
Michael Saunders (.761) did, but he’s on the disabled list for a second time this season, which has been a major blow. Kendrys Morales, acquired from the Twins last week, has a track record, but he has struggled since coming back from his half-season hiatus. Dustin Ackley is charging in the right direction, but we’ve seen these streaks from him before.
No, the Mariners still need outside help, desperately. They could have used it earlier, while a 2 1/2-game playoff lead was being transformed into their current two-game deficit. But now the clock is ticking down to the final deadline for nonwaiver trades, and they can wait no longer. Unless the plan is to rely on across-the-board improvement from the players at hand, which is a risky way to go.
Morales was a decent start. We all know the other names being thrown around — Ben Zobrist, Alex Rios, Drew Stubbs, Marlon Byrd, Josh Willingham. Better add some first basemen to the list, maybe Justin Morneau, about to come off the DL from a strained neck.
If you want to get ambitious, there’s Matt Kemp, though that’s a complicated proposition. I still think Troy Tulowitzki is a pipe dream, but if you want to dream big, you could make a play for his Colorado teammate, Carlos Gonzalez. Maybe there are some available players we don’t know are available, or become so at the last minute. There always are.
Out of those names mentioned, only Willingham is a rent-a-player (Rios has a 2015 option). Think of it this way: The Mariners, as usual, are going to need to address the offense in the offseason. They might as well get a head start, while 2014 is still salvageable.