A trip to the Pacific Northwest is all that stands between the Cleveland Indians and a record over .500. The Tribe (4-4) is in Seattle this week for a three-game set against the Mariners (6-5).
In their home park of Safeco Field, Seattle will be a formidable foe. The Mariners seem to be doing what teams across the league generally don’t do to: that’s tailor themselves to their ballpark by emphasizing pitching and defense. Or at least they did, until they dealt Michael Pineda for the highly touted Jesus Montero this offseason. Perhaps they’ve realized anyone can be a good pitcher in that expanse of a ballpark they have and actually want to have some offense.
It’s always a great battle when the Mariners and the Tribe face off. Whether it’s the Indians coming back from 12 down to win 15-14 or Ichiro saying he’d rather punch himself in the face then go to say he likes Cleveland or the Tribe ending a dream season for the M’s back in the 90’s, there’s a pretty interesting history here. Heck, the Mariners’ manager is Eric Wedge, skipper of that almost-legendary 2007 Indians team (as well as the miserable failures that followed). Even if every game is starting at 10 p.m. EDT, it’s a series to watch.
The offense the Mariners are hoping to build has a lot of potential. The oddest thing Wedge has done this year is moving Ichiro Suzuki to third in the batting order and promoting Chone Figgins to the leadoff spot. A slap-hitter with no real power (.368 career slugging percentage), Figgins has made his living over the years by simply getting on base (.352 career on-base percentage). But he’s not the hitter he once was, and his 2011 campaign was a nightmare: In 313 plate appearances, he recorded a 39 OPS+. That is not a typo. That’s one of the worst offensive season ever. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to give him the most plate appearances on the team. Meanwhile, putting Ichiro in the No. 3 hole isn’t actually a bad idea; it’s been said before he can be a power hitter if he sacrifices his average, so perhaps we’ll see a 25-homer season out of him this year.
It’s the young guns that will make or break this most recent rebuilding effort, though. Justin Smoak, the first baseman who was the key in the Cliff Lee trade of 2010, showed some flashes of his potential early last season but tailed off. He appears to be a “three true outcomes” hitter, though not on the level that Adam Dunn is. He’s more of a Mark Reynolds type—tremendous, power but he strikes out too much (22.3 percent career strikeout rate). If he keeps walking (11.2 percent walk rate) that should pay of, because plate dicipline is the key to being the next Adam Dunn (the pre-2011 model).
The other two hopeful cornerstones of the offense are Dustin Ackley and Montero. Ackley, a second baseman, has been crushing the ball throughout the Mariners’ minor league system, all the while playing sterling defense. He got a lot of hype as a prospect—and with good reason. He’s shown the power he’ll need to hit it out of that big park he’ll be calling home, and in 370 plate appearances as a rookie last season he hit .273/.348/.417 (117 wRC+). He has a chance to be a star if Safeco doesn’t destroy his bat.
Montero is an interesting case. The Yankees refused to trade him for years, and when he finally made it to The Show last year he crushed the ball. He showed power to all fields, hitting four homers in his first 69 plate appearances. Like Smoak, he racks up plenty of both walks and strikeouts and could end up as a (very g00d) 3TO hitter. That’s a little much for one offense, especially if they’re glacial on the basepaths.
For quite some time the Mariners have built around defense and pitching. Their acquisition of Lee was coupled with signing Figgins, who was known for his glovework above all else. Indians fans will recognize Franklin “Death to Flying Things” Gutierrez, a guy who’s just amazing in the field. But Guttierez is on the 15-day DL, so now Figgins is combining with Ichiro and Michael Saunders to form perhaps the lightest-hitting outfield in the majors. They’re not at full strength, so maybe the balls that don’t drop with Franklin in the outfield will find grass and the Indians can notch some crooked numbers. You gotta hope, right?