Mariners halfway through season

A year ago, Seattle being excited about baseball seemed highly unlikely. However, coming up on the All Star break, the Mariners are in third place in the west but only trail the division-leading Angels by a few games. With the second place Rangers floundering without their star centerfielder Josh Hamilton, the division crown is up for grabs. However, this Mariners team, under the guidance of General Manager Jack Zduernzick, will need to make some moves before the trade deadline in order to stay in contention, especially now that third basemen Adrian Beltre will be out until at least September.

Beltre, who has been having recurring bone spurs in his non-throwing shoulder, will most likely not be recovered from surgery for over six weeks, and there is no guarantee that he’ll return to full fitness.  While his defense was as stellar as ever, he had only just started to get hot at the plate, after struggling for much of the first two months with a batting average in the 220s. Beltre had considered playing through the pain, but in the end made a decision to get the surgery, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to play at 100%.

“It was the fact I don’t think I can help the team like I wanted to every day on the field,” he said to the Seattle Times. “It got to the point it’s really painful. My contribution won’t be enough to help the team win. Hopefully I can get it fixed and come back 100 percent.”

The team is still trying to figure out exactly how they will make up for Beltre’s absence. A prominent solution circulating among fans is moving Jose Lopez over to third and out of the middle of the field, where he has been criticized for poor defensive range. Current first baseman Russell Branyan has played third base in the past, but management seems reluctant to move him while he’s hitting as well as he currently is.

“You don’t replace someone like Adrian,” said Chris Woodward in an article on the Mariners website, “He means so much to this team.”

Beltre is hardly the first injury or absence that the Mariners and Manager Don Wakamatsu have had to deal with.  Endy Chavez, the team’s starting left fielder, was taken out of a recent game on a stretcher after colliding with shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, and is done for the year, with questions as to whether he’ll be ready to play at spring training next year.  Erik Bedard, who has been dominant when healthy, is questionable to start another game before the All Star Break, and if he does it will be on a severely limited pitch count.

It hasn’t just been injuries either. Branyan, along with Jose Lopez and Rob Johnson, each left the team for a few days in June on bereavement leave after each had a close family member pass away. Lopez left for his home in Venezuela to be with his dying sister, who was gone before he made it there. For Lopez, it was the second sibling he’s lost in two years, after his brother died in a motorcycle crash in 2007.

While many Mariners fans are anxious about the current injury crisis, there has been a lot of positive talk coming from various blogs and news sources recently. Ichiro is playing well, even for him, sporting a batting average of over .370 with over 110 hits, on pace to shatter his own records.

Branyan was by far the best free agent pickup in Baseball, paid only 1.4 million dollars for the kind of production you’d expect from a 20 million dollar player.  Ken Griffey Jr. seems to have finally found his power stroke again, having hit 3 home runs over the last few weeks, and his offensive performance will be vital to whatever run the Mariners make.

Jose Lopez has similarly come out of his offensive slump and has been creating more opportunities on base while leading the team in RBIs. Perhaps most important however, is the performance of Franklin Gutierrez, both at the plate and patrolling center field. Recently a commentator for ESPN radio mentioned that Gutierrez, while not having the flair of Griffey or Mike Cameron in their heydays, is likely a better outfielder than either of them ever were.

Of course, the offensive and defensive aspects of this Mariners team have been playing second fiddle to the stellar pitching staff that the Mariners have trotted out so far this year. It starts with Felix Hernandez, who appears to have finally emerged as the top tier ace everyone has known he could be since he first took on the “King Felix” moniker in minor league ball

Thanks to him and others, The Mariners pitching as a whole has the lowest ERA in the majors, and is certainly the reason why the Mariners find themselves in contention midway through the season.

The Mariners have chosen a bad time to be hit with the injury bug, but with the right moves by the management, and with consistent play from starters, this team could be seeing its first playoff action since 2001. It will take a lot of heart and a little luck, but these Mariners have shown they have both in spades.