By Brent Stecker
The Mariners shook off a slow start to 2013 and moved into a tie for second place in the American League West this week, getting within a game of the .500 mark at one point. But even though it's been a little more feast than famine for the Mariners, the continued struggles of high-profile young players like catcher Jesus Montero (.206 batting average, .257 on-base percentage, .330 slugging percentage) and second baseman Dustin Ackley (.234/.286/.285) show that it's not all rosy in Seattle, as ESPN baseball analyst Jayson Stark explained on "Brock and Danny."
The Mariners have turned their slow start to 2013 around, but Dustin Ackley is still sporting a sub-.400 slugging percentage. (AP)
"In the big picture, it's a real concern that Montero and Ackley in particular have not taken steps forward, have not been the offensive forces we thought they'd be," Stark said. "That's a big worry."
The Mariners had won five of their last six series heading into their current set at Cleveland, but the offensive players the team is counting on to show improvement haven't had much to do the with the hot streak. Instead it's been veterans like outfielders Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse that have provided a boost for the strong pitching staff.
"If you're looking at this year, I do think that this is at least a hang-around kind of offense," Stark said. "It's hard to justify saying that when we're talking about a team that's next-to-last in the league in runs scored, but you have more threats I think up and down the lineup than the Mariners have had in a long time. That's the difference for me."
With the pressure building on general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge, Stark said the current pattern of occasional big games from veterans and little production from Ackley and Montero won't do them any favors.
"I think (player development) ultimately is the way that everybody will be judged. It's about whether Montero and Ackley and (third baseman Kyle) Seager and (outfielder Michael) Saunders ... become the building blocks for a better era. We know there's plenty of pitching in the system, but over the long haul these are the guys who have to make it happen," he said.
"Getting a big game from Raul Ibanez is a lot of fun, but that doesn't do it. If we're still sitting here in September and Montero and Ackley in particular have slugging percentages where they are now, under .350, under .400, that's trouble. I think that's big trouble. I don't know how many times we can say it or how many different ways we can say it, but somebody has to figure out how these guys make adjustments to react to how the league has adjusted to pitching to them."
Hisashi Iwakuma's emergence as one of the best No. 2 pitchers in baseball has been a big reason for the Mariners' improvement, as has solid bullpen performance. Unfortunately for the Mariners, they aren't the only American League team with a surprising pitching staff.
"If you look at the numbers now, there are a lot of teams that can pitch. What separates the good teams is that they can score off of good pitching, and I think that's one thing we still don't know about the Mariners," Stark said. "Again, a lot of it hinges on the kind of progress these guys make. There are a lot of eyes on that particular aspect of that team.
"The level of offense that people in Seattle have witnessed in the last few years is just about unprecedented. It's obvious to how the way the game is evolving. Basically we've rolled the clock back to 1992. ... Of the eight teams that were still left when we got to the (2012) division series, six of them were in the top 10 in baseball in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), so you've got to find ways to generate offense somehow. Pitching doesn't do it alone anymore."