One of the beautiful things about a 162-game season is the relative insignificance of April. Sure, 25 games comprises a sizable chunk of the year, but it can hardly be depended on to chart the team's course over the remainder of the season. As Scott pointed out earlier this week, now is the time to revel in RBIs and pitcher wins and stats that are somehow even more meaningless than usual.
That said, this was not a painless start to the year. The Mariners finished April with an 11-14 record, their worst since the spring of 2006. Despite a blazing hot opening series in Anaheim, the M's found themselves skidding from second place to fourth in the American League West, just above the 9-19 Houston Astros. It wasn't pretty.
Before I begin making phone calls to Abraham Almonte's parents, however, I think we need to begin by evaluating the men responsible for hiring Willie Bloomquist and sticking Nick Franklin in right field.
Remember The Plan -- that fail-safe strategy that hinged on the health of young rookies and the talent of cheap, veteran acquisitions? It might be time for a little improvisation. Between the beginning of spring training and the end of April, Zduriencik watched five players hit the disabled list, four of them from the starting rotation. Hisashi Iwakuma was sidelined for the entire month with a sprained finger. Blake Beavan was recalled from Tacoma after James Paxton developed an oblique strain, only to join him on the DL with shoulder tendinitis. Brandon Maurer missed the first half of the month with back problems, and Taijuan Walker has yet to make a start this spring after experiencing recurring shoulder pain.
As for the players acquired over the offseason, Zduriencik has had mixed results. Corey Hart looked not-terrible at the plate and, more importantly, showed no signs of knee problems after his surgery last January. Logan Morrison collapsed halfway through the month with a sore hamstring and eventually joined the core of the rotation on the DL. Even Robinson Cano, Jack Z's most expensive investment, got off to a lukewarm start despite leading the team in hits (29), batting average (.296), and on-base percentage (.346).
The pitching staff looked only slightly better. Intended to bolster a dilapidated rotation, Chris Young earned more walks than strikeouts in his first five outings, finishing the month with an inflated FIP of 5.45 (only the sixth-worst on the team). Joe Beimel and Fernando Rodney made decent additions to the bullpen, as Rodney led the team with a 2.16 FIP and struck out 15 batters over 9 1/3 innings. Beimel picked off David Freese at first base for his first out in a Mariners uniform. And, let us never forget, Hector Noesi is now 1,738 miles from Safeco Field.
As May begins, Jack Z's biggest challenge will be finding consistency in the rotation. With Iwakuma poised to return tomorrow and Walker on track to recover within the month, things are looking up -- but far from fixed.
Only once in the last 20 years have the Mariners maintained a winning percentage of .500 in March and April and failed to sustain it by season's end. In 11 of those 20 seasons, the M's finished at or above .500. That doesn't bode well for the 2014 Mariners, who struggled to string more than two wins together after their opening series.
In spring training, McClendon established a fairly straightforward philosophy for the team. He acknowledged that failure was part of the game, supported players in the roles he felt they were suited for, and refused to take flack from competing teams. These are good things for a manager to tell his team. Unfortunately, McClendon experienced a few more setbacks than he may have expected in his first month with Seattle, and didn't always adjust to them in ways that made sense.
For starters, there was the question of Abraham Almonte's post at leadoff. Almonte struck out 39 times in April. No major league baseball player struck out more times in April than Almonte. As Scott put it on Thursday, Almonte is currently on pace to strike out 214 more times by season's end. Here's how McClendon dealt with this issue:
"The question of why McClendon continues to use Almonte at the top of the order has been asked so often. Probably over 100 times since spring training. The problem isn't that the questions are being asked, it's that people don't like McClendon's answers, which can be summed up into three basic ideas: "Because that's where I put him and I'm the manager. Because I believe in him. Because I think he will figure it out." -- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times
Then, there was the question of Nick Franklin, the newest second-baseman-turned-outfielder. During Franklin's brief call-up from Tacoma, he was sent to right field following a pinch-hit opportunity in the seventh inning. The next night, McClendon started him in right field again. When pressed for an answer, the manager told the Seattle Times' Jayson Jenks, "He's not a neophyte with the outfield. In fact, in spring training he looked real good in the outfield. [...] Listen, I was a catcher and I converted to the outfield. If I can play the outfield, anyone can play the outfield."
Thankfully, Franklin avoided the switch, though he's now back in Triple-A for the foreseeable future. Of course, McClendon's comments don't necessarily mean he'll follow through (or that Justin Smoak is a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman -- more on that later), but some of his ideas seem borne out of desperation rather than sound strategy.
We'll break down team performance by offense and defense later this weekend, but for now, it's your turn. Sound off in the comments below -- what changes do Zduriencik and McClendon need to implement going forward?