One hundred sixteen wins is a mark achieved only twice in baseball history—by the 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 2001 Seattle Mariners. So the difference between last season's coast to the American League West title and this season's struggle by the Mariners even to contend is dramatic. It's an extra loss per week, all season long—the difference between winning series after series and walking out of Cleveland with a split. With the Oakland Athletics reeling off a historic winning streak and the Mariners playing some bad baseball through August, it's no wonder you're disappointed.
Last year, the Mariners enjoyed career years from unlikely players. They were lucky, they were steady, and they won and won and won. What's happened this year? Can it all be Jeff Cirillo's fault? No, it just seems that way. There are shortcomings in almost every facet of Seattle's game. The Mariners haven't been as lucky, haven't hit as well, and are giving up more runs. The offense is good, but it's nowhere near last year's attack. The 2001 offense had a full season of Edgar Martinez at ball-spanking health, and that's a couple of wins right there. Ruben Sierra started this season red-hot and since has fizzled. Bret Boone's 2001 was a fluke. Now he's having merely a good season.
What about Mike Cameron, who's been flirting with a .200 average for much of the year? Cameron has awful home-field numbers. At Safeco, he's batting .200, with a .327 on-base percentage. He's hit only five of his 21 home runs at home. But there's hope: Cameron had a vision problem early in the season, since corrected.
And Cirillo? Yeah, we thought he'd hit like his old Milwaukee days once he got away from the thin air of Colorado. So far he's hitting exactly as badly as he hit on the road when he was with Colorado. There are times when he looks like he is going to come around, but so far he hasn't.
As the offense has slumped, so has pitching. Joel Pineiro's become the team's second-best pitcher, behind Jamie Moyer. Freddy Garcia has struggled badly, giving up an extra home run per game. Last year, Aaron Sele, now with Anaheim, and Paul Abbott filled out the league-best Mariner starting rotation. This year? The M's still are in the top third—despite the James Baldwin experiment-gone-bad and the fact that Ryan Franklin and John Halama apparently are allergic to starting.
Not all has gone wrong. The Mariners still have a solid defense, despite the occasional misadventures of Charles Gipson, Sierra, and Mark McLemore in the outfield, and the bullpen has been effective all year, even with Jeff Nelson's injury.
The most overlooked weakness is the bench, possibly the league's worst. Luis Ugueto can field but can't hit, so he is used almost exclusively as a defensive sub and pinch-runner. He is chasing the dubious honor of scoring more runs (16 through Monday) than he has had at-bats (18). Gipson can't hit but can play every position. Desi Relaford can play second base or shortstop reasonably well and has been hitting well lately, but that's a career aberration. Now-injured super sub McLemore can hit and play in the corners but is noticeably bad at fielding up the middle. Having three boxes of corn flakes doesn't mean you have breakfast choices. No one off the bench can hit for power, no one can steal against the best catchers, there is no backup to rest Cameron and Ichiro who won't embarrass himself with the bat or glove. Without an effective, Edgar-led offense, the Mariners have been consistently winning only when Moyer or Pineiro start. Before, their best-in-baseball offense could pummel wins out of average starts by Sele or Abbott.
It doesn't help that the Mariners play in the toughest division in baseball. Their record is all the more impressive when you realize they're 16-12 against division-leading Anaheim and Oakland. The Mariners might not be as good as last year, and they certainly haven't played well the past few weeks, but they have the sixth-best record in baseball, and thinking of that as a disappointment instead of an accomplishment — well, I'm disappointed in you. It was almost 20 years before they fielded a team remotely as good as this one. Enjoy what you've got.