May report card: Evaluating M's production

Scott Cunningham

With the Mariners at .500, how confident are you feeling about this team?

This month's report card will be a little more condensed than usual, as Draft Day is upon us and we're all on pins and needles for the Mariners' selections.

As briefly covered in management's report card earlier this week, May was a good month for the M's -- that is to say, it was a better month than April. It was a month that saw the Mariners inch over .500, a month with a roster that excluded Abraham Almonte and included a mostly healthy Hisashi Iwakuma. It was also a month that raised concerns about Nick Franklin's viability as a hitter and Fernando "Best Closer in the Game" Rodney's hair-raising methods in high-pressure situations.

Let's break down the performances by offense and defense and see where the Mariners could stand to improve as they head into June.

Offense

The good: By this point, it should be a given that the good in the Mariners emanates from the person of Kyle Seager. The 26-year-old third baseman leads the team with 1.6 fWAR, 24 extra bases, and 9 home runs during his first 56 games. He boasts 20 walks through 229 plate appearances, carrying a walk rate of 8.7% -- the highest among qualified batters on the team. He's even making waves outside of Seattle. Colin wrote a fantastic post about Seager's wRC+ ranking among qualified MLB third basemen and, no surprise here, he ranks in the top tier (as of this moment, fourth-best behind Josh Donaldson, Adrian Beltre, and Todd Frazier). Whether or not you believe in clutch hitting, Seager dominates there, too, sitting second-best in the American League with a Clutch score of 0.91.

As these numbers encompass a fraction of Seager's playing time in June, it's worth noting that the most valuable Mariner in the month of May was Michael Saunders, one of Lloyd McClendon's newly-appointed leadoff hitters. Saunders led the team with a 1.0 fWAR, the highest single-month WAR of his six-year career in the major leagues. His batting line spiked from .179/.267/.333 to .318/.357/.477, perhaps due in part to an improved contact rate of 83.6% and a deflated strikeout rate of 18.0%.

When a sore knee set Saunders back for a couple of days, James Jones arrived to assume the leadoff role. Expectations were set fairly low for Jones, and the young outfielder didn't disappoint. He batted a respectable .276/.330/.379 in 26 games, with seven extra bases, seven walks, and 17 strikeouts over 95 plate appearances. It's a decent start for a player so new to the major leagues, and McClendon's comments seem to verify the skipper's trust and caution with the 25-year-old. As Logan pointed out a week ago, Jones offers little in the way of power, but his place at the top of the lineup works well for what he brings to the table: a hitter with a decent contact rate and lower-than-average strikeout rate.

The bad: McClendon had his hands full shuffling players around this month when Logan Morrison hit the disabled list with a Grade 2 hamstring strain in April. Three weeks into May, Corey Hart succumbed to an identical hamstring strain, even worse news considering his knee injury a year ago. Although Morrison has worked his way back to a rehab stint in Tacoma, Hart's initial prognosis had him out of the lineup for at least six weeks, likely more. If you listen closely, you can hear whispers of "Sign Kendrys Morales" in the air.

The ugly: There's no positive way to spin Nick Franklin's struggles this month. He accumulated four hits in 34 plate appearances, bringing his season total to six. His batting line sags far below the Mendoza Line, a paltry .129/.176/.129 in 10 games. Before his demotion in June, he went hitless in 14 at-bats with nine strikeouts. Perhaps to compensate for the lack of production, his approach at the plate has become increasingly aggressive, and he finds himself unable to exploit the weaknesses of major league pitchers the way he could with minor league ones. It can be argued that his lack of consistent playing time has only hurt his efforts at the plate, but that in and of itself can be something of a vicious cycle -- the Mariners don't see him producing and don't want to give him more at-bats, but without more at-bats he can't work on improving.

Defense

The good: Hisashi Iwakuma's finger returned to fine form in May after a month of sitting on the sidelines. He struggled initially, giving up six hits, four earned runs, a walk, and striking out three over 6 2/3 innings for his first start. He bounced back with two eight-inning shutouts, morphing into the Cy Young contender we remember from 2013. Iwakuma's performance tailed off a bit towards the end of the month, when he surrendered nine earned runs and four home runs over 13 innings pitched. However, considering how dilapidated the M's rotation has looked of late, it was a relief to have another strong, healthy starter available.

Speaking of strong starters, Felix Hernandez is still good. I know it, you know it, your mom knows it. The King put up 1.5 fWAR in May, for a total of 3.2 fWAR on the season -- the highest among major league pitchers. Like Iwakuma, Felix put up some of his weaker performances in the beginning of the month, including a particularly wearying doubleheader that included 11 hits and four runs in 6 2/3 innings pitched. Dayn Perry of CBS Sports notes that Felix's fastball velocity has continued to decrease this year, and the King has compensated by adjusting his location and relying even more on his signature changeup. By the end of the month, it appeared to be working: in his last two starts, Felix allowed just two runs over 16 2/3 innings, striking out 18 of 59 batters faced.

The bad: While Logan Morrison and Corey Hart's absences have crippled the lineup, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker's delayed recoveries are equally disappointing. Both pitchers were expected to return to Safeco Field late in May, but an unexpected shoulder inflammation sent Paxton back to the disabled list while Walker struggled to regain his technique in Triple-A. Thankfully, the M's staff found a viable starter in Roenis Elias, but it's this next pitcher who kept the team on their toes in May.

The ugly: Brandon Maurer never quite found his groove this spring. Only once did the 23-year-old right-hander allow fewer than four earned runs in a game, which would be more impressive if he were left in for more than three or four innings at a time. When McClendon allowed him a longer leash at the beginning of the month, Maurer destroyed the outing with 14 hits, six runs, and zero strikeouts in six innings. By month's end, he had an inflated 7.77 ERA, 6.27 FIP, and another demotion to Triple-A. Unfortunately for the Mariners, the options aren't great at the moment. Erasmo Ramirez missed most of May with the M's and found little success in the minors, and Walker and Paxton are hardly locks for the rotation, either.

Your turn: How do you feel about the Mariners heading into June? Will they be able to sustain .500 for another month, or will injuries and inconsistencies boot them back to the bottom of the AL West?

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