Three Strikes: Bradley, Mariners both need help

Stan McNeal analyzes three hot topics in Major League Baseball:

Ken Griffey has struggled mightily at the plate this year.
Ken Griffey has struggled mightily at the plate this year.

STRIKE 1: Mariners have been offensive
Milton Bradley needs help to deal with emotional issues. His team needs help, too. And soon.

The Mariners entered the season as a media favorite following a 24-game turnaround in 2009 and after making big move after big move in the offseason. All of those moves were made with a focus on pitching and defense. Now the Mariners find themselves in desperate need of offense. They need a slugger, or their next big turnaround will be one in the wrong direction.

Seattle isn’t interested in dealing prospects, partly because it doesn’t have many. The team’s best chance is to trade for a highly paid thumper from a team going nowhere that is looking to cut its losses.

Paul Konerko would be a great choice, though the White Sox probably think they still can get in the AL Central race. Kansas City’s Jose Guillen is another option, though his ability to maintain his early production is no certainty. Same goes for the Orioles’ Ty Wigginton, whose salary is reasonable enough ($3.5 million) that he might cost too much in terms of prospects. That likely would be the case with the Marlins’ Dan Uggla also.

Obtaining the bat is the first challenge. The next would be even more difficult: What would the Mariners do with Ken Griffey? If MVP awards were given for clubhouse presence, Junior would be a shoo-in. But as a DH, he is hurting his team as much as Bradley.

Griffey is hitting like he is every bit of 40: .212/.268/.242 with no homers. Time soon will be up on the "it’s early" excuse, and the club insists the knee problems that limited Griffey last season aren’t an issue. But he has about as much chance as hitting 19 homers — which he did last season in what was considered a mildly disappointing output — as Cliff Lee.

What can the Mariners do? Cutting the franchise’s all-time great player is out of the question. Releasing fellow clubhouse stalwart Mike Sweeney and moving Griffey into his pinch-hitter role would be difficult. Would the Mariners have the nerve to ask Griffey to step aside? Griffey most likely wouldn’t go for that. You don’t become a sure Hall of Famer without having a lot of pride.

But first things first. And the first thing the Mariners need to do is find a bat.

STRIKE  2: Rays are the new road warriors
Manager Joe Maddon spent spring training stressing the importance of a strong start for his Rays. With a majors-best 20-7 record, it seems the Rays listened to their manager. His words might not have been needed, though.

"We saw what happened last year when we got off to a slow start (9-14 in April) compared to the year before," righthander Jeff Niemann says. "It wasn’t a very good feeling to point back to that slow start in April as the reason. We wanted to come out of the gates good and get those April woes behind us."

In doing so, the Rays have overcome their other Achilles’ heel of a year ago: playing on the road. They won 14 road games after the break last season; they already have 11 road wins this season.

"I’m not sure you can really put your finger on a reason, but the comfort level is different," Niemann says. "A lot of these guys, including myself, have been around the league for a year longer and been to all the stadiums. The second and third time around to a stadium, you get a little more comfortable and that helps a lot."

STRIKE  3: It’s a pitcher’s world so far
Stats to confirm your suspicions that the first four-plus weeks definitely have favored the men on the mound:

• Through May 5, 35 starters had a sub-3.00 ERA this season. Through May 5 last season, only 16 did. In that same span, 19 starters averaged at least a strikeout per inning this season. Last season, only 12 did at this point.

• Through May 5 this season, the majors’ average batting average was .257, down six points from this point last season. On-base percentage, homers and runs also are down.

Don’t blame the weather because this season has seen much warmer temperatures across the land, and that would benefit hitters. It can’t be the ballparks because the only new one is Target Field, where the .270 batting average is higher than the MLB average.

Testing for performance-enhancing drugs must be working then, right? That is what many scouts and executives believe. But how does that take into account the fact that pitchers used performance-enhancers as much as hitters?

My take: Drug testing has improved defenses. The one-dimensional slugger types have been replaced by more athletic baseball players. The better the defense, of course, the better the pitching.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Stan McNeal analyzes three hot topics in Major League Baseball:

Ken Griffey has struggled mightily at the plate this year.
Ken Griffey has struggled mightily at the plate this year.

STRIKE 1: Mariners have been offensive
Milton Bradley needs help to deal with emotional issues. His team needs help, too. And soon.

The Mariners entered the season as a media favorite following a 24-game turnaround in 2009 and after making big move after big move in the offseason. All of those moves were made with a focus on pitching and defense. Now the Mariners find themselves in desperate need of offense. They need a slugger, or their next big turnaround will be one in the wrong direction.

Seattle isn’t interested in dealing prospects, partly because it doesn’t have many. The team’s best chance is to trade for a highly paid thumper from a team going nowhere that is looking to cut its losses.

Paul Konerko would be a great choice, though the White Sox probably think they still can get in the AL Central race. Kansas City’s Jose Guillen is another option, though his ability to maintain his early production is no certainty. Same goes for the Orioles’ Ty Wigginton, whose salary is reasonable enough ($3.5 million) that he might cost too much in terms of prospects. That likely would be the case with the Marlins’ Dan Uggla also.

Obtaining the bat is the first challenge. The next would be even more difficult: What would the Mariners do with Ken Griffey? If MVP awards were given for clubhouse presence, Junior would be a shoo-in. But as a DH, he is hurting his team as much as Bradley.

Griffey is hitting like he is every bit of 40: .212/.268/.242 with no homers. Time soon will be up on the "it’s early" excuse, and the club insists the knee problems that limited Griffey last season aren’t an issue. But he has about as much chance as hitting 19 homers — which he did last season in what was considered a mildly disappointing output — as Cliff Lee.

What can the Mariners do? Cutting the franchise’s all-time great player is out of the question. Releasing fellow clubhouse stalwart Mike Sweeney and moving Griffey into his pinch-hitter role would be difficult. Would the Mariners have the nerve to ask Griffey to step aside? Griffey most likely wouldn’t go for that. You don’t become a sure Hall of Famer without having a lot of pride.

But first things first. And the first thing the Mariners need to do is find a bat.

STRIKE  2: Rays are the new road warriors
Manager Joe Maddon spent spring training stressing the importance of a strong start for his Rays. With a majors-best 20-7 record, it seems the Rays listened to their manager. His words might not have been needed, though.

"We saw what happened last year when we got off to a slow start (9-14 in April) compared to the year before," righthander Jeff Niemann says. "It wasn’t a very good feeling to point back to that slow start in April as the reason. We wanted to come out of the gates good and get those April woes behind us."

In doing so, the Rays have overcome their other Achilles’ heel of a year ago: playing on the road. They won 14 road games after the break last season; they already have 11 road wins this season.

"I’m not sure you can really put your finger on a reason, but the comfort level is different," Niemann says. "A lot of these guys, including myself, have been around the league for a year longer and been to all the stadiums. The second and third time around to a stadium, you get a little more comfortable and that helps a lot."

STRIKE  3: It’s a pitcher’s world so far
Stats to confirm your suspicions that the first four-plus weeks definitely have favored the men on the mound:

• Through May 5, 35 starters had a sub-3.00 ERA this season. Through May 5 last season, only 16 did. In that same span, 19 starters averaged at least a strikeout per inning this season. Last season, only 12 did at this point.

• Through May 5 this season, the majors’ average batting average was .257, down six points from this point last season. On-base percentage, homers and runs also are down.

Don’t blame the weather because this season has seen much warmer temperatures across the land, and that would benefit hitters. It can’t be the ballparks because the only new one is Target Field, where the .270 batting average is higher than the MLB average.

Testing for performance-enhancing drugs must be working then, right? That is what many scouts and executives believe. But how does that take into account the fact that pitchers used performance-enhancers as much as hitters?

My take: Drug testing has improved defenses. The one-dimensional slugger types have been replaced by more athletic baseball players. The better the defense, of course, the better the pitching.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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