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Out of Right Field: Placing the blame on another playoff-less Seattle Mariners season

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton  walks with catcher Mike Zunino at the start of the fifth inning  against the New York Yankees on  Sept. 7  in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton walks with catcher Mike Zunino at the start of the fifth inning against the New York Yankees on Sept. 7 in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

We come not to praise the Mariners, but to bury them.

Again.

Seventeen seasons of ambition, 17 seasons of honor, buried in an avalanche of losses from July on.

It is over, if not numerically, than in practicality, this season that began with so much hope.

But it is buried, as dead as Caesar. And where does the fault lie?

In the M’s stars?

Does it lie with Robinson Cano and his 80-game sojourner? Or it the fault of James Paxton, or as he’s known in these parts, the oft-injured James Paxton?

Felix? Nelson Cruz? The bullpen?

All of the above and none. It was a group effort, from Jerry Dipoto and his inability to bolster the starting staff when it needed it most to the sainted Edgar Martinez and his inability to wring more out of a lineup that, on paper, seemed deep enough to challenge in the American League West, pitching be darned.

But laying blame, while fun, is a waste of energy. What matters is the future, especially the near future.

Most will focus on a couple of key decisions. The first is Cruz, who is 38 years old and is looking for a contract more than likely in the same range as the one about to expire.

The second is what to do with Felix Hernandez and, by extension, the starting pitching.

We can let others speak about those, though we will point out Cruz suffered some serious dropoff in the second half this season, with every key offensive statistic worse after the All-Star break than before. And the analytic folks will tell you players peak at 28, so Cruz, even with his production the past four years, is an aberration that has to revert to the mean at some point.

As for Felix, he’s guaranteed $27.86 million next season, so there’s that.

But we want to get away from those two conundrums for the moment and delve into a couple of homegrown position players that supply their own riddles.

They are, in fact, the only two homegrown, play-just-about-every-day position players in the lineup. We are speaking, of course, of Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino.

If there is a player who proves the analytic folks and their 28-is-the-peak-year theory, Seager is it.

For the first six seasons in the bigs, his offensive numbers were on an unbroken upward trajectory. In 2016, at age 28, he peaked, hitting .278, with an OPS of .859. He belted 30 home runs – the sixth consecutive year he had improved in that category – and drove in 99. Then last season his numbers stagnated, dropping off in every category except maybe strikeouts.

This year has been worse. His OPS is .675, the worst of his career. He has more strikeouts (130) than hits (123). Worse, he’s owed $57.5 million over the next three seasons.

No, that’s not the worst part. The worst part is his stubborn belief that he’s a left-handed power hitter who has to pull everything to be successful. And won’t listen to anyone, not even Martinez, when discussing changes.

He’s a fly ball hitter – at least he believes he is – whose career average when hitting fly balls is .167.

Then there is Zunino, the other homegrown player the M’s hoped to build their future around.

There is nothing in Zunino’s career that would tell you he’s going to be an offensive threat other than the occasional home run. He’s about to hit below the Mendoza Line for the third time in six major league seasons. It may be renamed the Zunino Line soon.

But the M’s could live with even those depressing offensive statistics if Zunino brought his defensive prowess to the field every day. Instead, he has a tendency to let his latest strikeout – or three – carry out on the field.

This inability to separate the two aspects of the game led the M’s to send him to the minors in the past and each time he returned he seemed to be better. Not this season. He wasn’t sent down and he didn’t get better.

Zunino’s mechanics behind the plate have slipped in the second half, contributing to a Mariners defense that slowly disintegrated as the season wore on.

The sad part of this story is simple. Neither Seager nor Zunino will be replaced, one due to a contract out of whack to his talents, the other because the farm system hasn’t developed a replacement yet.

Both will be back in an M’s uniform next spring. And everyone, from Dipoto to Martinez, will tell us how much hard work they put in over the offseason and how it will pay off as the Mariners make another playoff push.

The postseason. It is Seattle’s only ambition. For it to happen, their two homegrown position players will need to be made of sterner stuff.

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