COMMENTARY | It's another lost season for the Seattle Mariners, at least in terms of playoff contention, but the club has made things more interesting over the past couple of weeks by playing its best baseball of the season against good competition.
A largely young roster that could soon be in flux has multiple intriguing storylines to follow the rest of the season.
Here are five questions that will be resolved for the Mariners following the All-Star break:
1. Can Justin Smoak continue playing well?
This is the single most important question facing the franchise for the rest of 2013. No matter how they perform the rest of the year, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino are firmly entrenched in the Mariners' future plans. Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders are less so, but probably still have some time left with organization.
Approaching 1,700 career plate appearances, Smoak has to prove something over the second half by keeping up the recent hot streak he's been on. Since coming off the DL June 18, Smoak has raised his average 30 points and OPS 90 points.
Smoak's plate approach does genuinely look to be better. He is walking a bit more than the past, with a rate of 12.8%. The key has been a career-high 23.8% line-drive rate, which is considerably higher than in his 2011 and 2012 seasons. If that rate can stay about the same, Smoak's stats will only keep improving.
2. How will the prospects preform?
Even if Zunino, Miller and Franklin are going to be around in Seattle for a while, it will still be interesting and important to watch them play every day to gain a better idea of what kind of players they are, both offensively and defensively. Their performance will also play a significant role in determining the Mariners' record the second half.
It's a very small sample size, but the potential is there. Miller has shown great speed and decent plate discipline, while Franklin has displayed some unexpected pop with 10 doubles and six home runs. Zunino, who has struggled after most felt as though he was called up far too early, has picked it up ever so slightly the past week with seven hits in six games. If the three prospects can play as well as they have been or better, the Mariners should be able to get in the 75-80 win range.
3. Is Hisashi Iwakuma in a brief slump, or something more?
Overall, Iwakuma has been very good in the first half, and numbers like a 3.03 ERA and 1.31 BB/9 make him worthy of his All-Star selection. However, he has hit a noticeable rough patch over the past few weeks. Iwakuma surrendered at least four runs in all five of his starts between June 16 and July 9.
More concerning has been the amount of home runs he has given up. In those five games, he gave up 10 homers. Granted, one of those starts was at Texas and one was against a tough Boston Red Sox lineup, but Iwakuma's season total now stands at a whopping 21.
Iwakuma is a far better pitcher than those five starts indicate, and he bounced back to a degree in a July 14 win over the Angels, despite giving up another home run to Mark Trumbo. Still, it is a major concern at this point as Iwakuma has a career HR/FB rate of 15.9%. The pitching-starved Mariners can't afford to have Iwakuma struggle following the break.
4. How much will the current roster change?
The Mariners will more than likely make a move or two at the trade deadline, with Oliver Perez, Joe Saunders and Kendrys Morales being candidates to depart. Of course, all of those players would leave a hole in the Mariners' roster that would likely be filled by young players. The bullpen is going to continuously change, but the more interesting thing to watch will be if any more position players are called up.
Stefen Romero seems like the most likely candidate. Romero isn't a top-tier prospect like those already called up, and has been good, not great at AAA Tacoma with a .797 OPS. But one more injury could force Romero into action, and it would be more beneficial to give those at-bats to him over someone like Jason Bay.
5. Can Raul Ibanez make history?
OK, so maybe the Mariners don't need this question answered, but it will still be an entertaining one. With 24 home runs, Ibanez only stands two behind Barry Bonds and five behind Ted Williams for most homers ever by a 41-year-old in a season.
Ibanez is obviously way past the pace to break that record, but nothing can be guaranteed with a player in his 40s. With a lot of negativity about the signing before the season, Seattle fans would have welcomed any production from Ibanez, let alone a season that has him mentioned in the same sentence as Ted Williams. There's really no explaining how, but it's been one of the most fun story lines so far in Seattle.
Nathaniel Reeves is a lifelong Seattle sports follower who is studying journalism at the University of Washington. He currently covers sports for The UW Daily.
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- Justin Smoak