Mariners face biggest crisis of Zduriencik era

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SEATTLE — The Mariners are facing the biggest crisis of the Jack Zduriencik era. And, no, I don’t feel “crisis” is overstating matters.

This season — a season that promised to be different, one in which the Mariners were to take some serious steps forward, one in which they finally looked to have put together a respectable offense — couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. The Mariners defeated the Astros on Monday night to end a three-game losing streak, but it was just their sixth win in their last 19 games.

If the ballclub continues to plunge downward, at some point you’d have to conclude that its rebuilding blueprint, a process that dates back to 2009, is irreparably damaged. And then things get ugly. Let me amend that: They get uglier.

Has that point arrived? No, not quite yet. But you can see it from here. It’s true that many teams have righted themselves after a miserable start, and eventually you forget about the first two or three weeks. But often those are teams that already have proved track records.

You’re currently seeing that with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They got off to the worst start in franchise history at 4-10, leading to panic in the streets of Orange County.

But the Angels just completed a three-game sweep of the tough Detroit Tigers, and now have shot ahead of the Mariners, who are frantically trying to hold off the Houston Astros — predicted by some to be the worst in the history of baseball.

Some think the Astros may challenge the all-time loss record, and through the weekend were only one game worse than the Mariners (and beat the Mariners two games out of three at Safeco Field). The Mariners started a three-game series with the Astros in Houston on Monday night. If you think things are tense now, watch what happens if they lose this series, too.

That offense we were all so optimistic about — I plead guilty — has somehow managed to be worse than last year, which was pretty bad. The Mariners, heading into Monday’s game, ranked 29th in batting average, 29th in slugging percentage, 28th in on-base percentage, 29th in OPS and 28th in runs per game. Their 12-hit, three-homer effort on Monday was welcome, but must be sustained.

In most of those categories, the only team keeping them from being the worst is the Miami Marlins — a team that punted on this season by trading all their stars, much like the Astros. The M’s had been striking out at an alarming rate — 63 times in their previous five games. It’s starting to remind me of the first Mariners team I covered, in 1986. There was some optimism going into the year based on promising young players like Danny Tartabull, Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds and Ivan Calderon, and the presence of some “veteran leadership” — Steve Yeager, Gorman Thomas and Milt Wilcox. But they got off to a terrible start, with tons of strikeouts — including a record 20 against Roger Clemens on April 29 — and on May 7, mired at 9-19, manager Chuck Cottier was fired. General manager Dick Balderson wasn’t far behind.

It’s too soon to think about firings, even though there are many fans that are out for blood, and I understand the frustration. But we have to let things play out longer. It’s foolish to make any rash judgments on April 23, despite how brutal the team has looked.

What’s most alarming, however, is that the core of young players upon which so much of the rebuilding has been predicated — Dustin Ackley was drafted No. 2 overall, Justin Smoak was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade and Jesus Montero was the guy for whom the Mariners gave up a young All-Star pitcher in Michael Pineda — are simply not making the strides they need to make.

Encouragingly, they combined for six hits Monday, with a Montero homer and two doubles. But that was the first homer by any of those three, who are all still hovering around the .200 mark with just one extra-base hit apiece before Monday. They don’t have much time to show improvement before the Mariners will have to look for other options at those positions. And that would be that’s a major setback.

You can’t pin this all on them, of course. It’s been virtually a team-wide malaise, one that was supposed to have been guarded against this year by bringing in veteran leadership (Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay) and middle-of-the-lineup presence (Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales) to make up for the fact that every big-ticket item the Mariners went after this offseason (Josh Hamilton and Justin Upton, most notably) ended up elsewhere, for a variety of reasons.

But other than Kyle Seager, it’s been hard to find a Mariners hitter who is heading up rather than down. And we won’t even get into the rotation, which has been extremely shaky once you get past Felix Hernandez (before last night’s win, the Mariners were 1-9 in his previous 10 starts, dating back to last year) and Hisashi Iwakuma.

Yes, some good things are happening down in the minor leagues, with a lot of promising prospects. But right now, they are just that: prospects.

What people are waiting to see, with increasing impatience, skepticism, and, yes, scorn — is for the major-league product to make progress. And the time for that is running low.

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