Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore.
At least that's how he seemed after his team's 10-3 loss to the Houston Astros Wednesday night. That gave the Mariners their second series loss of the season to the Astros, and it's only April.
Houston was generally considered to be the worst team in MLB — if for no other reason than its $26 million payroll. That alone should keep the Mariners out of last place in the AL West this year. Yet right now, Seattle looks like the worse team.
Wedge was so fed up with what he saw that he held a closed-door meeting with his players following the game. Ryan Divish of the Tacoma News Tribune reported that Wedge's voice could be heard outside the clubhouse as he chewed out the team.
We're just four weeks into the 2013 season and Wedge already doesn't like what he sees from his club. While speaking with the media, he made a point to mention that several hitters were having bad at-bats, making it impossible to string together any sort of offense.
Obviously, it wasn't supposed to be like this. The Mariners were expected to be improved this year, and not just because the Astros were now in their division.
General manager Jack Zduriencik added established sluggers Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales to bring some punch to a lineup in desperate need of run production. Creaky veterans like Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay were also expected to make some contributions.
Ultimately, however, those players were meant to complement a core of young talent that has yet to emerge.
First baseman Justin Smoak, the gem prospect acquired by trading Cliff Lee, is hitting .228 with a .613 OPS. His slugging percentage is a comical .291. And that's after hitting his first home run of the season Wednesday night. Yes, Smoak hit his homer off Paul Clemens when the Mariners were behind 10-1 in the ninth inning. But any sign of encouragement will surely be taken at this point.
Second baseman Dustin Ackley — the second overall pick in 2009 behind Stephen Strasburg — has been just as ineffective, batting .230 with a .530 OPS. He's slugging .270. But Ackley's game may be coming together. He's gotten a hit in seven of his last eight games. In his past two games, he's hit 7-for-12 with two doubles.
Catcher Jesus Montero has a .208 average, .283 slugging percentage and .515 OPS. Those struggles only amplify his defensive deficiencies behind the plate. Montero has already allowed eight wild pitches and two passed balls this season. He also hasn't thrown out an opposing basestealer in eight attempts.
The lone bright spot has been Kyle Seager, who broke out with 20 home runs and 86 RBI last season. He's carried that success into this year, compiling an .844 OPS and slugging a MLB-leading 10 doubles. But Seager can't carry the Mariners' lineup by himself, nor was he expected to.
Perhaps one of the most difficult choices an MLB team faces is deciding when to give up on a promising young player.
The argument could certainly be made that Smoak and Ackley haven't had enough time to develop yet. Both are going into their third full seasons as major league starters. Montero is beginning his second full season as a regular. That really doesn't seem like enough time to definitively declare someone a bust.
Yet Smoak seems to be regressing as a hitter, especially from a power standpoint. His slugging percentage has decreased over the past two seasons and is staying on that trend this year. The power Smoak showed in college at South Carolina just hasn't carried over to the major leagues. And he's never hit above .240 at this level.
At 26 years old, Smoak should be entering his prime as a major league hitter. But whatever upside he had appears to be on a serious downslide.
Writers such as ESPN's Keith Law and U.S.S. Mariner's Dave Cameron have already advocated pulling the plug on Smoak. That would certainly allow Seattle to put a more productive bat at first base, perhaps Morse or Morales with the other playing at designated hitter.
Such a move would be easier to make once outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Michael Saunders return from the disabled list. Montero could be another candidate to move to DH if the Mariners decided to call up top prospect Mike Zunino and make him the starting catcher.
Law also proposed replacing Ackley at second base with Seattle's second-best position player prospect, infielder Nick Franklin. Franklin is hitting .325 with a .949 OPS for Triple-A Tacoma and looks as if he's ready for a promotion to the majors. But what would be done with Ackley from there? He's not a first baseman who's not hitting for power like Smoak. A demotion to the minors with a mandate to change his hitting approach, becoming more patient and using the entire field, seems the way to go.
Wedge has already tried to shake up his underperforming lineup a bit. Shortstop Brendan Ryan, who was batting .143 with a .353 OPS, was benched in favor of Robert Andino. Andino isn't hitting much better with a .176 average, but has shown some success during his major league career. The thought seems to be that he's taking better at-bats and shows potential for improvement.
Ryan's glove was the only thing keeping him in the lineup, which was justifiable because he's been an elite defender at shortstop. According to FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating, Ryan was the best at his position last year, credited with 27 defensive runs saved and preventing nearly 14 more runs than the average MLB shortstop. But he also hit only .194 in 470 plate appearances.
Three years ago, that might have been considered good enough in Seattle. Zduriencik decided to go all in with the run prevention approach, believing that they could win games with strong pitching and excellent defense in the expansive Safeco Field. But an MLB team has to score runs to win consistently and the M's weren't able to do that.
By moving the fences in at Safeco and adding some power to the lineup, the Mariners looked ready to be more competitive. But until batters actually show they can be productive hitting in Seattle, the team will continue to lose out on players like Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton and Justin Upton. Of course, the Mariners will also have to demonstrate that they can win consistently to draw top talent.
The pitching will be there. Felix Hernandez is signed through 2019. Hisashi Iwakuma has been excellent in his first five starts of the year. Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are listed among the Mariners' top five prospects and project to be ready for the major leagues later this season.
But the Mariners have to hit. They have to produce some offense to be competitive in the AL West this season. No one was expecting Seattle to win this division, and maybe fourth place is the best they could have been predicted to finish.
However, if the M's end up battling with the Astros for fifth place in the division, that will be a significant disappointment. Such a result could — and really should — ultimately result in major changes. Wedge would surely be fired. And Zduriencik will have run out of opportunities to build a winner in Seattle.
Then this whole process has to start over again. These are depressing baseball times in Seattle.