Larry Stone: Embarrassing stretch against Rangers, Yankees shuts down Mariners’ good vibes

Tribune Content Agency

So, where did all those good Mariner vibes go? Even Eugenio Suarez, the king of sunshine, would have trouble locating them right now.

Remember when this season dawned full of hope, promise and affection toward a likable core of players? It was billed as the continuation of last year’s drought-breaking joy ride, with the proviso that this ballclub was poised to take it even farther this year — maybe even all the way.

Instead, at the moment, it’s nothing but doom, gloom and shattered expectations, with little promise of a successful playoff run beyond the fact that they did it last year from an even deeper hole. In other words, blind faith, which is never a sound foundation to build upon.

Even the one area upon which the Mariners could always cling to as a realistic basis of hope, their starting pitching, was wrecked by the Rangers on Saturday and Sunday in soul-crushing blowouts. Rookies Bryan Woo and Bryce Miller both emerged shellshocked from their beatdowns — Miller for the second outing in a row after a historically great five-outing start to his career.

The Mariners did provide one helpful service in the process of three increasingly humiliating losses to the Texas Rangers this weekend: They made it easy to pinpoint the low point of a season that is now more than two months old yet has never really clicked.

In fact, all this season to date has done is relocate, and then elevate, the collective angst that long welled within Mariners fans but was seemingly exorcised by last year’s success. This isn’t the worst Mariners team we’ve seen — not by a longshot — but it might be one of the most maddening, because of the sense that more could have, and should have, been done to ensure that regression didn’t occur.

It’s a strong and ever-growing reaction to the mediocrity (29-30 is the virtual definition of that word) that has prevailed this season. And for a very good reason: It’s accurate. The Mariners’ decision to essentially shun big-boy free agency as a method of elevating the team always seemed dubious, especially in light of the Forbes report in March that pinpointed the Mariners as the most profitable team in MLB.

Instead, their game plan of making incremental improvements to an offense that was clearly the weak link last year and relying heavily on the upward progression of their young core has been a big-time flop so far. Of the position players added in the offseason, Tommy LaStella was released and Cooper Hummel demoted to the minors, where he continues to struggle. Kolten Wong and A.J. Pollock have massively underachieved, and Teoscar Hernandez has yet to provide the consistent thump expected of him. Meanwhile, virtually every other player in the lineup has backslid from last year, with the exception of Jarred Kelenic (who has slowed considerably from his torrid start) and J.P. Crawford.

All one has to do is look at the Texas Rangers for a stark juxtaposition of how free agency coupled with player development can electrify a team. Emerging from a six-year stretch of losing (they averaged 98 losses the past two years), the Rangers are on pace to win 107 games this year. Anyone who watched them manhandle the Mariners by a combined 30-9 margin in the just-completed series can’t help but conclude they’re the vastly superior team (thanks, Captain Obvious). And they’ve fueled their turnaround with a heavy free-agent investment that landed them Marcus Semien (a Mariner target two years ago, an MVP candidate now) and Corey Seager (a $500-million-plus commitment just with those two) along with pitchers Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney and Jon Gray (signed last year). The result is self-evident.

The Mariners, meanwhile, have had stretches this year that raised hope a sustained surge was coming, but they’ve built those runs by cleaning up on bad teams — especially the Athletics, a legitimate candidate for worst team in MLB history, against whom the Mariners are 7-0. Against everyone else, they are eight games under .500, including a 10-20 record against teams currently with a winning record. The losses of 10-4, 10-2, 16-6 and 12-3 to the Yankees and Rangers among their last six games weren’t just noncompetitive; they were embarrassing.

Offense continues to be a huge issue, of course. The Mariners remain near the bottom of MLB in most categories, and the .150/.232/.270 slash line by their designated hitters more than a third into the season is an indictment of Seattle’s strategy of manning that position. The pitching has been a huge plus, but the stumbles by Miller and rude awakening by Woo calls into question how long that can be sustained.

This is where I’m contractually obligated to point out there is still plenty of time left, and that a 5 1/2 -game deficit in the wild card standings is hardly insurmountable. But those words are starting to ring hollower by the day, especially in a top-heavy American League in which 90 wins may well fall short of wild-card qualification.

Maybe Jerry Dipoto will be able to add an impact bat as the trade deadline approaches that shakes them from their reverie. But for now, this Mariners squad is burdened by the strong sense of an opportunity squandered. Heaven knows, social media isn’t reality, but the vitriol expressed therein toward this team is unrelenting.

In other words, the good vibes from last year have largely dissipated. The Mariners are running out of time to get it back.