The Yanks square off against the Seattle Mariners tonight, one of two AL teams they've yet to see this year. Last year, the M's finished an AL worst 61-101. This year, it would appear that Seattle, with a new G.M. and new manager, has made improvements, as they currently sit at 39-36, 3.5 games out in the wide open AL West. Things aren't always as they seem.
Seattle is outplaying their pythagorean record by a whopping six games. They have a negative run differential, having scored a league low 291 runs, making them the only AL team to average under 4 per game. Amongst their regulars, they have just two batters - firstbaseman Russell Branyan (166) and rightfielder Ichiro (144) - who have an OPS+ over 100. Four of their regulars have an OPS+ below 80, with catcher Rob Johnson at 41. Outside of the 1906 "Hitless Wonders" Chicago White Sox, no team is contending with that sort of offense.
The M's saving grace has been their pitching. They lead the the AL in R/G (4.08), ERA (3.64), ERA+ (116), HR/9 (0.9), and H/9 (8.5), and place second in WHIP at 1.33. Ace "King" Felix Hernandez (166 ERA+) is amongst the top young pitchers in the game, and he's backed by a rejuvinated Jarrod Washburn (131 ERA+), a currently disabled Erik Bedard (172 ERA+), and the surprising former Met and Marlin, Jason Vargas (112 ERA+). The Seattle bullpen has also been stellar, with the second best ERA in the league at 3.16.
One pitcher who has not been part of the success of either corps is tonight's starter, Brandon Morrow. Much like his opponent tonight, Joba Chamberlain, Morrow's role has been the subject of much debate. Morrow worked exclusively in relief in his rookie season of 2007, and for the early part of 2008. He served as Seattle's closer through June and July last year, recording 10 saves in 12 opportunities. A shoulder injury put him on the shelf for most of August, and when he returned in September, he was placed in the rotation. He made five starts, the best being a victory over the Yanks on September 5th in which he tossed 7.1 innings of 1 run ball, fanning 8.
Morrow was ticketed for the rotation in spring training, but lingering arm strength issues stemming from last year's injury left him in the bullpen again. He quickly pitched his way out of the closer's role, walking nearly 7 per 9 and blowing back-to-back saves on May 13th and 14th. He was moved to the rotation on June 13th, and has been better in his new role, cutting his walks to 4.5 per 9 and posting an ERA of 4.50 as a starter. Tonight will be his fourth start, and his first without any pitch count restrictions.
For the Yankees, newly-acquired Eric Hinske may or may not make it to the park tonight. Pete Abe reports his plane is delayed in Pittsburgh. As such, no roster move announced yet, but if there is one you have to figure Ramiro Pena is on his way to Scranton. With interleague play now over, Hideki Matsui gets his first start since June 18th. Ice-cold doubleplay machine Robinson Cano stays in the five hole, while Nick Swisher, he of the fourth best OPS on the team, is relegated to eighth in the order. Brett Gardner grabs some pine despite outplaying Melky Cabrera over the past several weeks. Not good lineup construction if you ask me.
So who are the real Seattle Mariners? Contenders or pretenders? With the trade deadline now just thirty-one days away, they'll have to determine the answer to that question very soon. Some may say that given their division, they're contenders. But if you ask me or Seattle's most underappreciated band of the grunge era, those people got the M's wrong.
As of now I bet you've got me wrong.
So unsure you run from something strong.