Outfielders’ injuries lead to hit and miss start for young team

SEATTLE — Long-suffering fans of the Seattle Mariners were doing handstands when the Mariners went 22-11 — second-best in major league baseball — with 58 home runs in spring training.

Veteran off-season acquisitions Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay promised to provide pop to a lineup that finished last in the American League in batting and on-base percentage a year ago.

It could still happen, but if early returns don’t have the Mariners sweating, they have the team’s supporters fretting.

Through Tuesday, Seattle (6-9) was 14th in the league in batting (.219) and 13th in on-base percentage (.285).

To be fair, Seattle went the final two games of its recent series with Texas without its starting outfield of Morse, Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders due to injuries.

“You don’t like to make that excuse,” says Jack Zduriencik, 62, in his fifth year as the club’s general manager and executive vice president/ baseball operations.

“The guys you put into the lineup in their place are pros, too. It’s part of the game. It’s what you have to deal with.”

The loss of Morse, who hit six home runs in the first 10 games and has now returned, has been particularly damaging to the Seattle offense.

“His presence in our lineup was exactly what we wanted,” Zduriencik says. “Michael and Morales side by side help us distribute the lineup in a way that is a positive.”

None of the outfielders’ injuries are long-term, and Zduriencik isn’t crying uncle. Timely hitting is what the Mariners need most, he says.

“The old baseball adage is, ‘it’s early,’ “ the Seattle GM says. “We’ve been hit or miss so far. We’ve had situations when we haven’t delivered. Some guys started out fast, some guys start out slow. We have to do a better job hitting with men on base, no question about it.”

Most of Seattle’s younger players have started slowly, including catcher Jesus Montero (.211), third baseman Kyle Seager (.208), first baseman Justin Smoak (.204) and second baseman Dustin Ackley (.114).

“The younger guys have had slow starts,” Zduriencik says. “Eventually it’ll come together. Once the guys get their feet wet, we’ll be a much better club.”

What success the Mariners have had in recent seasons has stemmed from solid pitching, but thus far they’re 11th in the AL in ERA at 4.49.

The starting rotation seems solid at the top end with 2011 Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, Hishashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders. Rookie Brandon Maurer was rocked in his first two starts but was much better Sunday against Texas, picking up his first victory in a 4-3 win.

“Felix is Felix, and Iwakuma and Saunders have been very good so far,” Zduriencik says. “The stuff is there with Maurer. He’s going to be a quality major-league pitcher.”

Blake Beavan — who won 11 games a year ago — already has been moved to long relief after two poor starts, replaced by veteran Aaron Harang, acquired in a trade last week with Colorado.

“Aaron was on our radar during the winter, when we knew the Dodgers had a surplus of starting pitching,” Zduriencik says. “At the time, I wasn’t willing to give what they were asking. He got traded to Colorado, and the opportunity presented itself.”

The M’s are hoping Jeremy Bonderman — who won 50 games in four seasons with Detroit in the mid-2000s but hasn’t pitched for two years due to elbow problems — will work his way back while pitching for Triple-A Tacoma. Another pitcher who appeared to win a spot in the rotation during spring training, Erasmo Ramirez, is on the disabled list with a pulled tricep.

Some fans have been critical of ownership and management, pointing to payroll slashes in recent years. The Mariners have gone from a $117 million payroll in 2008 to $98 million in 2009, to $98 million in 2010, to $86 million in 2011, to $84 million in 2012 and again this season. That ranks 20th among the 30 major-league clubs.

Besides Hernandez ($20.5 million), only Gutierrez ($7.3 million), Morse ($7 million), Iwakuma ($6.5 million) and Joe Saunders ($6 million) have what could be considered lucrative pacts.

Zduriencik wasn’t sitting on his hands during the offseason, though. He made a four-year, $100 million offer to free-agent slugger Josh Hamilton and tried to swing a deal for outfielder Justin Upton, who wound up with Atlanta.

The gate has suffered by Seattle’s slow start. After an opening-night Safeco Field crowd of 42,589, the Mariners have averaged just more than 20,000 for eight home dates entering Wednesday’s game with Detroit. The crowds for the second and third home games — 10,745 and 10,493, both against Houston — were the smallest in Safeco history.

“Could be a lot of reasons” for the poor attendance, Zdurenciek reasons. “Anticipation out of spring training was really high. (Houston) wasn’t a big attraction. If we start playing good baseball, our fans will come back.”

Seattle attendance has been dipping since 2002, when the Mariners drew more than 3.5 million fans for a major league-best average of 43,710, a near season sellout. That came on the heels of Seattle’s 116-win season in 2001.

Since 2002, attendance has dropped annually to last season’s 1.7 million and 21,275 average. The latter figure ranked 26th in the majors, ahead of only Oakland, Tampa Bay, Houston and Cleveland.

The season ticket base, once at 22,000, has dropped to about 8,000.

Winning cures everything, of course. And the Mariners, at least publicly, retain plenty of optimism this will turn out to be a prosperous season on the field.

“I’m not too worried about it right now,” closer Tom Wilhelmson says. “We’re two weeks in — those (bad) runs happen on every team. The bats will come around, and we should be where we want to be.”

Third-year manager Eric Wedge says the off-season acquisitions will pay off and, health permitting, the results should show soon enough.

“What I like about the veterans we brought in, they’re all different but all have leadership-type personalities,” he says. “It’s a great group.

“The way I envision this, it’s a combination of the veterans doing their thing but the young kids continuing to progress. They’ve been playing long enough to where that could happen. But baby steps are a big part of it. You do something right, latch onto it and keep going.”

Adding Morse, Morales, Ibanez and Bay had “everybody excited” during spring training, Ackley says.

“We’re still excited about what we’re capable of doing,” says Ackley, in his third big-league campaign. “I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface on what kind of offense we’re going to be. We had a couple of guys go down, but they’ll be back soon. Once we’re flying on all cylinders, we’ll be pretty tough.

“As an all-around team — hitting, starting pitching, bullpen — for sure this is the best team I’ve been on in Seattle. We’ll see where that takes us.”

Zduriencik pleads patience.

“We’re in pretty good shape as an organization,” he says. “We have a young club with some veteran guys who will make it interesting for us this year, and we have a very healthy minor-league system.

“You wish it were tomorrow. More than anybody, I feel that every single day. But you can’t speed the clock up. You look at what some of those kids are doing in Triple-A, we’re all going to be very excited shortly.

“I know these are promises, and fans get tired of hearing about that. I don’t blame them. But it is real. We’ll see better things than we’ve seen the first two weeks of the season as we continue to play.”

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