How good are these young Mariners?
With nine games remaining in the season, is this Seattle Mariners team better than the 2011 group that finished 67-95, with an American League-worst team batting average of .233?
This year's Seattle team is 72-81 with a .233 team average that, yes, remains dead last among AL teams.
How do you quantify improvement – or even prove it's there? You ask around.
Kevin Millwood, whose Mariners career is about to end, may pitch again next season, but with his sons living in Georgia, Seattle is simply too far away for him.
What's he seen with the Mariners this year?
"I've seen a couple of guys make places for themselves on this team – Michael Saunders, Stephen Pryor, Erasmo Ramirez all cemented spots," Millwood said.
"You've got Tom Wilhelmsen, who worked long relief at times early in the season and now is one of the best closers in the game. Look at what Lucas Luetge has done against lefties.
"You've found pieces you didn't know you had, and key pieces. To come up with a hitter, a starting pitcher, a setup man and a closer in one season?
"Those are huge pieces that you don't have to go find, and because they're all young, they're inexpensive – you can spend your money on some other need," Millwood said.
First base coach Mike Brumley looks at what the Mariners began the year with in 2011, and marvels at the difference today.
"So much of what we've done the last two years has been development, and sometimes the numbers aren't as important as their development," Brumley said.
"You look at Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, we weren't certain they could play second or third base full time. Now they're now solid big-league players at their positions. They're still working on parts of their game, and that will come, too.
"You look at the last 4-5 games, we played lights out against Baltimore and Texas. We lost twice in extra innings, once by a run to the Rangers," Brumley said.
"We're not getting blown up in these matchups with teams that will be in the postseason. The kids are bringing it, every night."
Still, the record in uncomfortably similar to last year's, if slightly better.
"You look at our win-loss record and three teams have really handled us this season – San Diego, the White Sox and Orioles. Look at our record against every other team, it shows how close we are," Brumley said.
Against those three teams, the Mariners are a combined 3-21 this season. They were 1-8 against Baltimore and three of those games went extra innings and four games were decided by one or two runs.
San Diego simply blew Seattle up this season, winning five of six games.
And the White Sox went 8-1 against the Mariners, and three of their victories were by one run.
Against everyone else, Seattle was 69-60.
Bench coach Robby Thompson's evaluation?
"We're better than we were in April. Look at the won-loss record since the All-Star break (36-30), some of the offensive numbers," Thompson said.
"We're not leaving as many two-strike counts up to umpires. We're more aggressive. We have work to do with runners in scoring position, in being more consistent.
"So much of this game is mental, and these guys have always found a reason to play, every day. They play with and for pride," Thompson said. "No matter what happens one night, they've come back the next day fired up to play again."
Asked to weigh in on the conversation, manager Eric Wedge did.
"We're a tougher team, and that has to be part of winning – this is a tough game. I love their energy. Obviously, our pitching and defense has led the way," Wedge said.
"Offensively, we've had good stretches, but the numbers are what they are. Still, individually and collectively, we're better. Our offense will catch up with the rest of our game.
"The toughest thing for young hitters is consistency. If you have a good day, can you repeat it? If you have a bad day, can you fix it?" Wedge asked.
"We're moving forward, but there's no timetable on talent. You can't say we'll be a championship team on this date or that – but we will get there. I think we're closer every day."
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