Step back from the ledge.

It’s April 21st and the Mariners are 7-11, losers of six straight games.  They’re already six games behind division leading Oakland, winning at a blistering pace, and a game behind the third place Angels.  Things suck.  They suck a lot and not much is going right.

But take heart boys and girls, the M’s are at home, and assuming they can climb out of their travel stupor, they face a team that is worse, the Houston Astros.  The Houstons are dead last or nearly dead last in every offensive category, except, oddly, home runs and triples.  You’ll recall that this same Houston squad barely lost the season series to the M’s last year, and first pitch fastballs may travel a considerable distance in an opposite heading from their origin. As a team their pitching isn’t very good, but Scott Feldman and Brett Oberholtzer   performed well so far.

Offensively the Mariners are in the bottom third for pretty much everything.  They are 14th in batting average and OBP.  They’re 12th in slugging.  They’ve hit some home runs and triples, but they are 12th in runs scored.  Nobody is off to a great start, perhaps with the exception of Corey Hart whose .269/.333/.558 is a monument to the miracles of modern medecine, and at least as good as I hoped it would be.  Robinson Cano has a 98 OPS+.  Brad Miller has exactly two walks to go with his 21 strikeouts, and that’s six fewer K’s than leadoff wannabe Abraham Almonte.  Though Dustin Ackley, at this moment, seems to be righting his major league prospects, Justin Smoak despite being an Angel killer has little to suggest he’s taken a firm handle on first base.  Though he leads the team in walks, Kyle Seager is invisible at the plate.

The hitting is not good, but I also don’t believe it’s going to last forever.  These guys are going to be better.  How much better?  That’s the real question. It’s difficult to believe that guys with a track record like Cano and Seager won’t heat up.  The others are pretty much a crap shoot, and we had only hope going into the season, not proven performance.

The M’s pitching situation is tragic.  The rotation is devastated by injury.  Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton, three fifths of the projected starters are broken.  Erasmo Ramirez was ineffective his last three starts, not able to go more than five innings in any of them. Now injuries are cropping up in the replacement pitchers as Blake Beavan made his way to the DL.  It’s a mess. According to Shannon Drayer’s blog, Iwakuma is likely to make it back first, maybe by the end of April.  James Paxton isn’t throwing yet.  Taijuan Walker’s comeback was halted by shoulder complaints while warming up for his Tacoma start last week.  He was shut down for two weeks. Help is not necessarily on the way.

The rotation problems, producing few innings, taxes a flawed bullpen.  It’s a relief corps that strikes out a lot of batters, but they walk a lot of guys too. Virtually all the firemen allow too many baserunners, mostly walks, and with Yoervis Medina those come with homers.

It is unquestionable that this team has problems.  It may struggle with pitching issues for some time.  It’s likely the hitting will turn around some.  It’s unlikely the M’s will compete for the division championship or even a wild card, but I didn’t expect that this year.  I expected improvement.  Do we have that?  Not yet, but I never evaluate a team until they’ve played at least 40 games or a quarter of the season.  It may take even longer for this team with all its injuries.

So back away from the ledge, grab your bag of peanuts and watch.  The M’s have had more than their share of bad luck lately, and they’re due for a break.  Maybe the Astros will be just the tonic they need.

An evening with the Padres

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I’m in San Diego this weekend, attending the national student journalism conference. It’s located at the Hilton Bayfront, just across the street from Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres. They’re in town, hosting a rare appearance by the Detroit Tigers.

The straight up report is Justin Verlander beat Ian Kennedy 6-2. The Padres played a gutty game, using speed on the base paths and good defense to stay in the contest. But, they couldn’t keep up with the Tigers’ hitting. Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Austin Jackson all doubled in key at bats to start rallies or drive in runs. Jackson’s smash, a ground-rule double, came in the top of the ninth inning with the bases loaded and effectively put the game out of reach.

This story, however, isn’t about the game recap. It’s about being a stranger in a strange land and taking advantage of circumstances to catch a ball game. I’m not one of those who “collects ballparks,” meaning I don’t try to get to every city to experience the game in each MLB venue. But on the occasions when I am in San Diego or Baltimore or wherever and the home team is in town, catching a game is at the top of my to do list.

Petco is a newish, classy downtown park built in the Gaslamp section of San Diego. It’s easily accessible by light rail, which makes getting there pretty easy, but leaving can be a bit of a wait. The park is surrounded by friendly watering holes where fans can eat and liquidly prepare for games much cheaper than at the ballpark. Inside the park seems a lot like Safeco Field except the amazing use of the Western Metal Supply Building in the left field corner. This gives the ballpark a very retro feel.

We attended a 5:40 start, and I had a feeling there might be a big crowd. But we wandered down without tickets hoping to get in. We plunked down our $24 a seat for third deck seats down the right field line and caught the escalator up to catch the view. These seats were very reminiscent of Safeco’s “view level” seating with vistas of the city’s hotel district and harbor front. The Petco staff were attentive and helpful getting us to our seats.

The game was announced a sell-out despite many empty seats. It was Little League night and the park thronged with youngsters in colorful caps and t-shirts. It was also full of Tigers fans. Those who sported blue caps with Olde English D’s seemed to match numbers with those wearing the home SD. And they were vocal. But safe, this isn’t Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. I wore my Mariners garb without comment or dirty looks. confession: I long for a Mariners Padres World Series. They share spring training facilities, why not a memorable post-season.

When it came to food, I’d have to say I was disappointed. At least where we sat the offerings were pedestrian. In all fairness I was not very early arriving at the park and didn’t get to wander much, so I didn’t see any of the specialty food stands if there are any. I did see that many local micro brews were available in separate stands, a nice touch. At the pretty mainstream food stand I got to the most interesting offerings were the nachos and the foot long Sonora Dog. Both included tasty beans and local add-ons that made them interesting. The problem was they’d run out of the beans and tasty add-ons by the third inning and so my bacon-wrapped Sonora Dog wasn’t as interesting as it could have been and the nachos, smothered in Parmesan cheese were barely edible.

San Diego is a beautiful city on the water, and that brings a certain amount o f peril with it. Some 1,300 miles south of Seattle I expected it would be warm if not hot. It wasn’t. Maybe it is a spring weather pattern, but each evening the clouds rolled in and the breeze kicked up, so watching an April evening game at Petco is only ten or so degrees warmer than watching a game at Safeco. Bring a jacket or sweatshirt.

Visiting Petco Park was an enjoyable experience, a classy, modern park. I rate superior to Safeco for location, equal for cleanliness and staff attentiveness, slightly inferior for ballpark ambiance and needs work for food.

Pictures that follow by Jim Meyerhoff

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An opener worth remembering

As a grumpy, cynical Mariners fan, I was excited for last night’s home opener, but worried that last weeks drubbing of the Angels was merely a mirage.  It didn’t help much when the World Champion Seahawks were on the field flaunting their hardware, or that starting pitcher James Paxton barfed up three runs to the Halos in the first inning. All I could tell myself was that rookie pitchers will have rookie pitcher days, ones that don’t look so good.

Even as I thought it, Paxton settled down and retired the next 13 batters, striking out four. As good as Paxton began to look, there was still the matter of the three-run hole the team found itself in.  When Brad Miller reached on a strikeout/wild pitch in the third inning, and Robinson Cano walked, I saw it as a sign.  The Justin Smoak, who looked so good in Anaheim, but was 0 for Oakland, singled home Miller.

The big news of the game, however came in the form of the man who followed Smoak, Cory Hart.  I confess I’ve been really down on Hart.  Power right handers simply don’t do that well in Safeco Field. He’s seemed so busted up with the knee and arm problems he’s had.  So when he planted Hector Santiago’s 0-2 pitch over the bullpen and into the left-field seats with a towering mortar shot, I was impressed.  When he followed it in the seventh with a line drive over the center-field wall I was doubly impressed.  Seattle hasn’t had a great right handed power hitter since the first couple years of Richie Sexson’s bloated contract. Maybe Hart can be that guy.   Sexson was a big guy at 6’6″ 205 lbs., but Hart is even bigger at the same height and 25 lbs. heavier.  It takes a big man to blast homers out to left with regularity.  Just one game, but it was encouraging to see.

Equally impressive was the performance of the bullpen.  Though Medina and Farquhar each walked one batter, there was no flirtation with disaster until Ferndando Rodney came in for the ninth inning. When he walked Pujols and Freese to start the ninth, Rodney seemed to kick it in to another gear, staying consistently in the strike zone to dispatch Stewart, Kendrick, and Ibanez.

Of course the bad news is the injury to James Paxton.  Given the severity of Steven Pryor’s lat issues, they will doubtless be conservative and give him time to mend–assuming this isn’t a tear.  With two big holes already in the rotation with Walker and Iwakuma out, it will be interesting to see what measures they have to take.  Chris Young will doubtless fill one of the starts, and it’s possible Walker will return in time to take the next.  Or we could see that Beaven guy again. Gulp.

 

My day with the Dimemond League

The Dimemond Baseball League met for their 30th draft day on April 5th.

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Gasps of incredulity filled the room as the bidding for Orioles outfielder Adam Jones reached $4.00. That was only fifty cents less than two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera. Justin Verlander went for what seemed an equally outrageous $4.10. With a budget of $26 for 24 players, a player better be pretty special to gobble up almost a sixth of a team’s budget.

I trekked north with friends to spend the day with the Dimemond League, a roto league that celebrated its 30th anniversary draft. Twelve “owners” of teams with colorful names like the Arti-chokes, Cracker Jacks, Son-Rays, and the G-men gathered in the lush conference room of attorneys offices on the 39th floor of a Seattle skyscraper with a magnificent view of the the city and Lake Washington.

Though I’ve participated in lots of stats-based baseball fun, including many draft leagues for board games, I’ve never done Rotisserie, and when the opportunity came for me to observe, I snapped it up. A Rotisserie league is a stats-based baseball league in which teams acquire players who will accumulate statistics in twelve offensive and pitching categories that are measured and calculated at the end of the season. These are “traditional” statistics as opposed to sabrmetric measures. Batting average, home runs, wins, ERA and appearances are the stock in trade of the Dimemond League, and with most Rotisserie leagues. Winning the league is simple, the team accumulating the most points by their placement in the twelve categories wins.

But building a team is not simple. Players are selected through a draft. Drafting players are selected and then auctioned off to the highest bidder, and viewing this process was amazing. Everyone needs to fill out a roster with players at every position and a complete pitching staff. Owners are knowledgeable baseball fans, students of the game, prepared and organized with draft boards not unlike football GM’s on draft day. They know the players they want with a plan A, B, and C to fill needs, and generally they want the same successful players their competitors want. When the easy guys, the Cabreras, Shin Soo-Choo’s and the Dustin Pedroia’s were gone, the real creativity kicked in.

Auctions are tense, with each owner knowing what they have to spend and what they’re willing to pay. Most of the auctions started out at a dime or twenty cents, some leaping upward rapidly. Some such as Cabrera opened at a much higher rate, $3.00, and trended rapidly upward to his $4.50 sale. Others were more drawn out. Closers went for a lot of money because they count statistically for the K/BB, ERA and net saves categories. Some players went much cheaper than expected, such as the oft-injured Brett Lawrie, and the pesky Eric Aybar, often to cheers, “good one.” Some players went for more than expected, because they were a personal favorite. One owner reminded the others that he wants to win, “but it has to be fun, too.” The most fun part of the player selection was in the last few rounds when owners were down to $1.10 to buy six players. Picking up the ten centers to fill open roster spots became quite a challenge.
With an hour break for lunch the draft ran from about 10:00 to 3:30. Despite the competition for productive players and intensity of some of the bidding, there was no acrimony or snappishness (at least not as I understand acrimony and snappishness.) When the draft was over, all the owners I spoke to were confident they’d had a successful draft.

I’ve avoided fantasy sports.  I’ve been intrigued, but considered myself above such things, and after my experience today I regret it.  The twelve men (and one woman) who attended the draft knew their stuff, knew more ballplayers more deeply than I did. They love the game and this is their way of connecting to it.  In this day of evolving baseball statistics, their objectives are incredibly difficult.  Within the context of the victory conditions, their job is to assess the value of each of their players and determine how they can contribute to building a winning team, even if that team isn’t actually playing the games.  When I asked what an average player was worth from the budget the response was that there was no average price per player, it was more about what they’re worth to a team.  So if in the real world  one win (WAR) is worth about $6.5 million, well, things aren’t quite so easy to measure in the Dimemond League. No BABIP, xFIP, or dWAR will help you know for sure a player will have a great year, the same as last year and get the Son-Rays over the top.  In many respects, the league owners have some of the same difficulties with prediction all the other seamheads have, and they’ll just have to watch the games to see how it all plays out. And then there’s that budget thing.  No Yankees or Dodgers to bust the bank here.  A couple of Miguel Cabreras means the rest of your team will look like Ronnie Cedeno.  The budgeting is very much a game inside a game.

It was a very fun day.  I enjoyed meeting everyone, chatting with them and they were all quite kind to me. Though all the owners spent the day around the table trying to figure out a way to beat the guy sitting next to him, maybe the most fun part came at the end.  Some of us with smartphones and iPads had followed the Mariners-A’s game after lunch on Gameday.  Quiet updates through the last rounds of the draft alerted everyone to Felix Hernandez’s ninth inning troubles.  Nobody left the table until Fernando Rodney struck out Josh Reddick for his first save.  Then it was time for pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

Perfect season gone

On Wednesday, the Mariners left the Angels pitching staff dead on the field and motored up the coast to visit the defending division champion, Oakland Athletics.  They learned, to their chagrin that things won’t be quite so easy as they had it in Anaheim. The Athletics, nursing along their own pitching injuries, showed the depth of their staff in defeating the M’s 3-2 in twelve innings.

The Mariners started rookie left-hander Roenis Elias, and despite some first inning nerves in which he threw 26 painful-to-watch pitches, he hung in there through  five innings.  He watched his teammates scratch out two runs.

In the first inning Abraham Almonte reached on an error by first baseman Alberto Callaspo.  In a move right out of the movies, he goaded second baseman Nick Punto into making an ill-advised throw, Almonte advancing to second. The center fielder took third on Brad Miller’s sacrifice fly, and scored on Robinson Cano’s ground out.  Mariners lead 1-0.

The M’s scored their second run in the fifth inning when Logan Morrison singled to lead off.  He was followed by with a Dustin Ackley single, pushing Morrison around to third. Mike Zunino flied up, bringing up Almonte who also singled.  This scored Morrison, chased Ackley to third, and Almonte took second on the throw. In one of the weirder plays of the game and the season so far, Brad Miller grounded a ball to Punto, who threw out Miller, but an unforced Almonte was running on the play.  With two guys on third, Ackley was forced to break for home and was easily tagged out to end the inning.  Mariners lead 2-0 and a lost opportunity

That would be it for the M’s as first starter Jesse Chavez and later the A’s bullpen would hold them in check the rest of the way.

The A’s got on the board in their half of the fifth.  With two outs Punto singled and stole second.  With Sam Fuld batting, Elias had a two strike count and seemed to have him struck out on an awesome breaking pitch.  But umpire Sean Barber said no. Visibly upset, Elias tried again.  Instead Fuld hit a line drive in the gap Almonte seemed to break in on rather than cut off.  His diving try missed and the ball rolled to the wall.  Morrison retrieved it and fired it to Cano the cut off man.  Cano fired a strike home to nail Fuld at the plate.  Mariners lead 2-1.

With the Elias distracted by Barber’s uncertain strike zone, and wait to rule on the play at the plate on Fuld, the manager Lloyd McClendon elected to give Elias the hook.  His five innings included three walks, two in the first inning, and three strikeouts.  The A’s managed only two hits against the the young Cuban, and those didn’t come until things fell apart in the fifth.

After the fifth it was the Mariners bullpen holding the fort.  But it was not a good night for them.  It could be Barber’s forever changing strike zone, but the A’s  pitchers didn’t seem to have a problem with it.  The A’s scored in the bottom of the eighth to tie, and both teams held firm to send the game into extra innings. In the twelfth the M’s sent in Hector Noesi to pitch to Coco Crisp and on the first pitch Crisp homered to send the fans home happy.

  • Much has been made of Barber’s pitch calling.  It was bad, but he umpired for both teams.  He’s not the reason this game was lost.
  • Mariners pitchers walked ten batters.  The relievers walked seven.  Compares pretty similarly with the Angels relievers.  Don’t walk guys.  By comparison, the A’s walked three, their relievers only one, Barber or no Barber.
  • Last night there was an Almonte problem.  I  believe in playing aggressively  and it’s clear Abe is all about that.  But you have to play smart too.  Running up Ackley’s back in the fifth may have cost the Mariners more scores.  His play on Fuld’s ball was poor judgment.  He’s young and will make mistakes, but in a tight game those can be costly.
  • The Mariners hitters just learned what a good pitching staff looks like.  It will be interesting to see how the rest of this series goes.  Last year the M’s showed they could really trash bad pitching.  They also smacked the A’s around in the season series 11-8. But the M’s managed only one hit and a walk against the A’s bullpen last night.  Let’s see if it’s just one night or if the A’s pitching is so good the M’s can do absolutely nothing with it for the next three games.

So the perfect season came to an end.  Definitely a tough game the Mariners need to be a little better at.  The bullpen especially needs to get better at locking down the game. The great thing is they don’t have to wait a week to try it again.  Same time, same place tonight.

Interesting news out of Marinerland today.  Hector Noesi was DFA’d and Dominic Leone was called up to the big club from Tacoma.

M’s mangle Angels in finale. What does it mean?

Last night the Mariners kicked sand in the face of a helpless Angels team and boarded the plane for Oakland.

The M’s won the game that wasn’t as close as the 8-2 final score. James Paxton turned in a dominating pitching performance, allowing two hits and striking out nine in his seven innings of work. Lefty Joe Beimel looked good working a perfect eighth in his first outing of the season.  Hector Noesi reminded us that he’s still on the team in giving up a pair of runs in the ninth.

Paxton was in trouble only in the first when he gave up a lead off double to right-fielder Kole Calhoun, and followed with a walk to Mike Trout.  But Albert Pujols followed with a double-play grounder to third baseman Willie Bloomquist to end the threat, and that was as close as the Halos got to scoring before the ninth.

Mariners hitters were again on fire in this game pounding out 13 hits against starter Hector Santiago and four relievers.  They scored single runs in the 3rd and 5th innings, but as with the two previous games, blew the contest wide open with a big inning in the sixth, rolling out a four spot to take a 6-0 lead.  Robinson Cano singled after Brad Miller doubled in the third to give the $240 million man his first RBI as a Mariner. In the fifth, a Bloomquist walk combined with a Miller single and Josh Hamilton throwing error led to a second run.  But the piece de resistance was in the sixth inning when eight Mariners came to bat. First baseman Justin Smoak and DH Corey Hart led off with singles.  Right fielder Stefen Romero hit his first career double, driving in Smoak for his first career RBI.  After a Dustin Ackley ground out, catcher Mike Zunino hit a long fly over the left field fence for a three run dinger.  Mariners lead 6-0

The scoring was capped in the ninth when Smoak, batting left handed for the first time of the night pounded a home run into the right field bleachers.  He was followed by Corey Hart’s first home run of the season, his first in over a year, to left field.  Both came off Angels closer Ernesto Frieri, in the game to get some work.  Both home runs seemed like messages to remind the Angels they’d just had sand kicked in their faces by the former 90 pound weakling up the beach.

The M’s finished their first 3-0 series since 1995.  So what does it all mean?  It means they still have 159 games to play.  There will be plenty of losses and probably some stinky baseball among them.  But here are a few things to stoke your enthusiasm and get you to think:

  • The young guys this team needs to play well to win are off to a hot start–Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller–even guys who aren’t going to play every day like Stefen Romero and Mike Zunino have played key roles in the first three games.
  • Robinson Cano has been quietly effective, with five hits, four walks and a couple of runs scored.  He hasn’t owned the show, and the team isn’t winning because he is winning for them.  I’m not quite sure what this means, but at some point pitchers will stop pitching around him so that Justin Smoak can double off the wall or pump it over the wall.
  • The three starting pitchers-Felix Hernandez, Erasmo Ramirez, and James Paxton were all excellent in their starts.
  • The bullpen has been better than passable. Caveat: Tom Wilhelmsen visibly stumbled with his command on Tuesday and Hector Noesi was his own abominable self last night.
  • According to Baseballreference.com, the M’s are leading the league in most offensive statistics. The are also second in the league for strikeouts.  Of course it’s offset a bit because the pitchers lead the league for most strikeouts.

Tonight Roenis Elias will open the four game series with the A’s.  It will be interesting to see how Elias and Chris Young will pitch.  It will be interesting to see how the team will play against what should be better pitching.  Hopefully we’ll get a chance to see if the opening sweep was about the Mariners in their first game, or if this is about how terrible the Angels may be.

Be excited about the sweep.  Keep your fingers crossed.  Wish the boys well.  I like to measure a team after 40 games to judge a team’s progress.  The last few years 40 games have told the tale of crappy baseball, and a long, boring summer.  Maybe this year will be different.

 

 

Early Observations

Good morning to the 2-0 Seattle Mariners going for the sweep of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this evening.  Tonight James Paxton makes his first start of the season.

Yes, it’s only game two, so let’s not go nuts yet, but I am glad to see the Oaklands get to play a double-header today, better them than the M’s.  And it involves Cleveland, the land of hell, ice re-schedules and double-headers of a few years back.

Just a couple of quick observations:

  • Mariners batters are striking out a lot.  23 times in two games. Mike Zunino in his one game has four, Dustin Ackley and Abraham Almonte each have three.
  • Manager Lloyd McClendon is doing what he can to get the offense going to put pressure on their opponents.  Example: Last year the Mariners attempted 71 stolen bases. They were successful 49 times.  In two games this season the Mariners have attempted four steals and been successful twice.  Though Justin Smoak’s caught stealing was probably a busted hit and run play.
  • At least three Mariners, Dustin Ackley, Abraham Almonte, and Brad Miller have shown the bunt in the first two games.  Are we likely to see a rash of bunting for a base hit?

From the small sample size department:

  • In Mondays game the Angels swung and missed  at Felix Hernandez pitches 21 times and foul tipped three more times for a total 24 swinging strikes out of 48 swings taken.  That’s reported by U.S.S. Mariner’s Jeff Sullivan, who mentioned that is the lowest single game contact rate of Felix’s career.
  • Justin Smoak has two doubles in two games.  Last year he had 19 for the season, and is on pace to meet or exceed my goal of 30ish
  • Dustin Ackley has drive in four runs.  Last year he drove in 31 in 384 at bats.

Let the mayhem continue as long as it will.

Smoak and Ackley hitting stars in opener

It’s good to be a Mariners fan this morning.  I trotted up to Safeco Field with friends last night for the Mariners Open House and watched the game on the Jumbotron.  I didn’t see an announced attendance but it certainly seemed less than 10,000.  Those who did come to the fan-friendly event were rewarded.

Things got off to a shaky start when Mariners starter Felix Hernandez gave up a hard single to Angels leadoff hitter to Kole Calhoun followed by a booming home run to All-Everything Mike Trout.  Down two zip after an inning.  But the Mariners came back in the top of the second when Justin Smoak led off the inning with a double just inside the first base line, advanced on a Howie Kendrick error and scored on a Michale Saunders sacrifice fly.

The game got a little ugly in the third inning when Eric Aybar led off with a fielding error by third baseman Kyle Seager.  Felix retired Calhoun and Trout and seemed to be getting out of trouble when Albert Pujols blasted a double to the left field wall that Dustin Ackley seemed to misplay.  Aybar scored, and Hernandez seemed to really struggle with command of his change-up the rest of the inning, wild pitching Pujols to third, and walking Josh Hamilton before striking out David Freese to end the inning.

From the fourth to the sixth it was a pitching battle between the King and Angels starter Jered Weaver.   Things began to turn the Mariners way in the top of the sixth when Weaver walked Smoak and DH Logan Morrison.  Kyle Seager followed with a double that scored Smoak.  Morrison tried to score but was out at a play at the plate that was not close to end the inning.  Angel lead 3-2.

The Mariners followed their sixth inning uprising with more scoring in the seventh.  Ackley singled with one out and Mike Zunino followed with a triple that looked much like the ball Ackley misplayed in the third.  Ackley scored, and Zunino came home when Abraham Almonte turned a shallow line drive single into a hustle double.  Mariners lead 4-3

The eighth inning ended in desultory sparring by both teams.  But the real fireworks began in the ninth inning with M’s looking for some insurance for closer Fernando Rodney.  It began innocently enough with Zunino striking out and Almonte grounding out.  Shortstop Brad Miller got to first on an infield single, followed by Robinson Cano’s double to left.  With runners on second and third, Angels reliever grooved a fastball that Smoak turned into a towering home run.  Mariners lead 7-3.  Jepsen walked the next batter, Morrison, who promptly stole second, walked Seager, and was replaced by Nick Maronde.  Maronde walked the next batter, Saunders.  Ackley followed with three run triple to end the scoring.  Mariners lead 10-3

Felix finished the sixth inning and it would be his last, striking out 11 and walking one on 103 pitches. A parade of Mariners relievers came in to hold the Angels to just the three runs for the game.  Yoervis Medina, Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmson and Danny Farquhar all shut down the Angels.  Furbush left in the bottom of the seventh when Mike Trout lined a single off his leg.  Wilhelmson was quite effective, throwing a perfect 1.1 innings before handing off the game to Farquhar for a perfect ninth.

It’s just one game.  Even so there were some positives to take away.  The Mariners hit with men in scoring position, going 4-9.  Smoak and Ackley both had great nights, and for the M’s to be successful, this will have to continue.  The bullpen shut the Angels down, while the Angels bullpen, hard throwers all melted down.  The Mariner batters drew eight walks, while M’s pitchers allowed only one walk.

Curiosity of the night: Mike Scosia used four relief pitchers against a Mariners lineup featuring six left handed batters, two switch hitters who hit left handers poorly and the right handed bat of Mike Zunino.  He never brought in a southpaw reliever.  What’s that about?

Hey it’s opening day, lighten up

Tonight the Mariners open their season in Anaheim.  Felix Hernandez takes the mound for the M’s, and at the age of 27, with most of a decade left on his contract, becomes the Seattle Mariners pitcher with the most opening day assignments.  Amazing.  My hope is the Mariners will be amazing tonight and for many of the 161 games that follow.  I know I have been grouchier than all get out about the state of the Mariners, what they could have done this off season as opposed to what they did do, but I do that because I care, I really do.

I love the Mariners, I always have, always will.  I am a baseball person, and while I wish the Seahawks, Sounders, Thunderbirds, Storm and the ghosts of the Seattle Supersonics well, on my heart is blue and teal with a big S and compass rose. My father began taking me to baseball games, the original Seattle Rainiers, when I was a very small boy.  I saw my first major league game in 1963, Giants vs. Pirates at Candlestick.  I was eight and wore the hat I bought at the ballpark to bed.  One of the worst days in memory, right there with the Kennedy assassination, MLK and RFK murders, and 9/11 was the news the Seattle Pilots would take their blue caps, scrambled eggs and all, and head for Milwaukee.  Good bye Diego Segui, Mike Hegan, Don Mincher and the rest.

I want the M’s to win tonight and every night.  I’m very excited about this year, because the M’s have some young players with great stories and some great potential.  Here are a few players I’m anxious to watch over the course of a season:

Brad Miller–he’s shown he can hit, field and run and those are things we haven’t seen together for a while.  He’s had an awesome spring, and now I want to see what he can do for this team over the course of the season.

Abraham Almonte–I saw Almonte in Tacoma a couple of times last year and I was impressed.  He’s a hustler and can make things happen when things are going right.  My fingers are crossed.

Stefen Romero–Guys who have good minor league bats,  but without a true position always frighten me.  Remember Vinnie Catricala and Mike Morse?  But Romero is athletic, right handed and willing to play wherever.  Reminds me of Mark McLemore without the speed, though Romero is no slug.

Roenis Elias–He has such a great story.  How can anybody not pull for this guy.  He’s making a pretty big jump from AA, but it sounds like the he pitched well enough, the team had a need, and here he is. Hope he sticks.

The rest of the rotation, Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker when he’s back in a few weeks and Chris Young will bear watching and more crossed fingers, but really two guys I’m very anxious to see aren’t young anymore, but as much as anyone the fortunes of the Marines may rest on their shoulders.

Justin Smoak–I’ve always wanted to believe Smoak was the next Mark Texeira, a big switch hitting monster who could carry your team.  I don’t believe that anymore, and I don’t think anybody does.  But I do think Smoak can do a lot for the M’s if he can hit with some power, raise his batting average 20 points against both righties and lefties, and draw a few more walks.  Smoak really did make progress last year, he just needs to make more.

Dustin Ackley–If Ackley is the guy we saw in August last year, he could make this team a lot more fun to watch.  He could be a .290 hitter with 40 doubles and speed on the basepaths.  When he’s right, Ackley is the kind of player Safeco was built for.

I’ve talked some friends into driving up to Safeco tonight to catch the ballgame on the Jumbotron.  We’re taking advantage of the cheap deal the M’s offer and we’re going to take our chances on the cold.  Maybe I’ll take my iPad and blog (if I can get wi-fi.)

Cheers, and go M’s!

 

Mariners on the hot seat

It’s difficult to discern whether this will be a big year or not for the Mariners.  They’ll be better than last year’s 71 wins in their first year of Robinson Cano’s 240 million dollar contract, but so many players are new and unproven it’s difficult to know whether it’s just a few games better, or whether they can leap into contention.  I’m not prepared to be too exacting in my prediction, but I would guess the ceiling is about .500 or 81 wins. And they could be much worse. They are depending on a lot of young guys, the rotation, even with the return of Iwakuma and the addition of Chris Young is pretty unproven and depth everywhere is a concern if there is a significant injury. It is extremely unlikely the Mariners will be able to contend with the Oakland A’s or Texas Rangers, despite their injury woes and what is predicted to be a weak division race this year.  If that is the case heads should roll.  Who are the ones on the Howard Lincoln self-described “hot seat?”

General Manager Jack Zdurencik

This is year six of Jack Zdurencik’s rebuild.  In year one the Mariners won 85 games using pitching and defense to catch the baseball world by surprise.  Last year they won 71 games using solo homers and bad defense and lost in ways     easily predictable.  Zdurencik  had six years to return this team to respectability, yet it seems no closer to winning than it did at any point under Bill Bavasi.  He had some success with a flurry of trades in his first season, netting Mike Carp, Jason Vargas and Franklin Gutierrez.  Unfortunately none of them play here anymore, though we could use any and all of them.  He’s had some major clunkers, notably the Doug Fister for a bag of magic beans deal, and the Michael Pineda for fat farm inmate Jesus Montero. Free agent signings have been more about quantity than quality, relying on dustbin bargains, rather than signing proven players who can help now.  This year it was Scott Baker, Randy Wolf and Chris Young to fill out the rotation for Felix Hernadez and the various babes in the woods who will begin play next week instead of Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana or Matt Garza.  What is most maddening about Zdurencik is his inability to articulate a vision of what a team looks like beyond a wall of component parts–a right handed bat here, a switch hitter there, a middle of the order bat somewhere in the back room.  He’s failed to take advantage of Safeco field by building a team around pitching, defense and speed, and has instead focused on power hitters-a view at odds with Safeco’s most obvious challenges-its dimensions and power dampening climate. Finally, Zdurencik came to Seattle as a proven scout and talent evaluator promising to rebuild the team around a collection of talented youngsters that would remind  those Mariners teams of the 90′s with emerging stars like Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez.  Yet all of the young players, except Kyle Seager, he brought up have failed to live up to expectations.  This is the last year for him to show he can assemble an improving roster, with a cast of developing youngsters offering a glimpse of a bright future instead of a seemingly unbreakable cycle of losing, boring, inept baseball.

Kevin Mathers President and Chief Operating Officer

On January 31 Kevin Mathers replaced Chuck Armstrong as President and Chief Operating Officer.  At about the same time, the media began counting the Mariners pennies, learned the team would receive considerably more money from its national television deal and it’s decision to invest in Roots Sports.  When he spoke to the public January 23rd Mathers promised things would be different, that money would be available for players the team needed to be a winner.

Liar! Liar!

Robinson Cano and Corey Hart signed with the M’s in December.  The same day Hart signed the M’s made the trade for Logan Morrison.  Since December the Mariners have done remarkably little.  Despite committing two rotation spots to rookies, whether they are James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, Roenis Elias or some lefty yet unborn, this team needed a number three starter.  Though proven, healthy players were available who make this team better, and the markets for their services virtually collapsed, they went cheap for reclamation projects Scott Baker and Randy Wolf.  Baker pitched pitifully and was released and in a bout of needless penny pinching Wolf was not included on the Opening Day roster. It is only by dumb luck that Chris Young, coming off thoracic outlet surgery, was available, but his signing was a panic move not the planful acquisition for a team that wants to win. The Mariners needed a right handed bat, yet didn’t acquire one through trade or free agency.  While I  was never a fan of a Nelson Cruz pick-up, the team is now depending on rookie, make that cheap rookie, Stefan Romero, to become the fourth right handed hitter on the team after Hart, Mike Zunino, and John Buck.

The Mariners had one of the most explosive bullpens in the major leagues last year.  Bolstering that bullpen was critical.  They did sign closer Fernando Rodney to a two year deal for a great of money.  But they let effective lefty Oliver Perez get away to the Diamondbacks for a two year $4 million deal, pennies on a major league roster and about one third Rodney’s salary.  It is not bolstering to add with one hand while taking away with the other. The bullpen remains composed of last year’s Gas Can Gang, with the volatile Rodney as its ringleader.

The M’s backed up the Brinks truck for Cano, did well by Hart and Rodney, but if a signing is to be more than show, more than bread and circuses, the stars have to have a supporting cast. It is possible all the kids who will take the field will shock us all and be the 2013 Red Sox.  But we’ve done kids and it hasn’t turned out very well.

Rumors abounded in January, February and March the Mariners were tapped out and couldn’t add the pieces they need despite the new revenue.  Which is it a new day, or the same ol’ same ol.  Kevin Mathers, Pete Towshend wrote: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.  Won’t get fooled again.” Now we know you.

King Felix

I love Felix Hernandez.  He is a great pitcher.  ESPN.mlb named him the the number one right-hander in the majors in their review of the top 100 players in the game.  When he is on his game, he is the best.  And he needs to be, especially to start the season.  The M’s rotation will be something like Felix, Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, and Chris Young.  That’s the former Cy Young Award winner, three rookies, and a guy coming off a serious surgery who didn’t throw many innings in spring training.  Until reinforcements arrive in the form of Hisashi Iwakuma and rookie ace-in-waiting Taijuan Walker return from injury, Felix will need to win virtually every time out or it could be a very long, unpleasant April.  I’m not saying the kids can’t do it, but when they stumble it will eat up a fragile bullpen causing further problems down the road. Most of the April games are also against division rivals so if the M’s want to keep their fan base interested, they’ll need to win and the King is a key part of that. It would be nice to see him win in August and September too.

Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley

Outfielder Michael Saunder is 27 years old, has played parts of five seasons with the Mariners and has 1656 plate appearances.  “The Condor” is big, fast and athletic; he is touted as a toolsy kind of players.  He was a Bavasi holdover and the Mariners have had high hopes for him.  Yet Saunders has a career slash line of .224/.295/.374, and a career OPS+ of 89.  His fortunes ticked up in 2012 with improvements he made at the plate, but an injury plagued 2013, set him back.  This is a make or break year for Michael Saunders.  In this, his first year of arbitration eligibility Saunders is making $2.3 million, not chump change. Fangraphs shows him worth 1.1 WAR in 2013.  Steamer and Oliver projection systems show him as being somewhat improved this year to 1.7 and 3.2 WAR respectively.  I’m not a big believer in projections; I like to count the numbers I see.  If Saunders can stay healthy and improve at the plate, and if the Mariners are able to keep him in right field rather than center, Saunders can be a useful outfielder, if not he’s  bench material.

Justin Smoak was a number one draft pick for the Texas Rangers in 2008 and was the centerpiece of a 2010 trade deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers, and the Rangers to the World Series. Smoak is 27, has 1,942 major league plate appearances and a career slash line of .227/.314/.386, a career OPS+ of 97.  In major league baseball much is expected of first basemen.  They need to hit for average, produce with power, and play a little defense.  Much was expected of Justin Smoak and honestly the big switch-hitter hasn’t come through.  We get snippets, glimpses of the player we want him to be but there’s been no consistency.  For many fans, Justin Smoak is the poster boy for what is wrong with the Mariners–trading a star for a future star who flames out.  Smoak showed signs last season.  His OBP went up 40 points, batting average up 20 points, he hit 20 home runs for the first time, his OPS+ went up to 113.  But it’s clear there are holes in his game.  He doesn’t hit lefties, he’s slow, and while he catches what he can get to, and can turn the double play, he doesn’t have much range. Going into spring training, manager Lloyd McClendon ratcheted down expectations for Smoak and advised him not to try to be the 35 homer masher we all hoped he would be, to concentrate on being a good hitter, and hope for a higher doubles rate than the measly 19 he produced last year.  I want to believe, I really do, but if Smoak can’t finish the year with something like a .260/.350/.450 slash line with 20ish home runs and 30ish doubles, rapidly advancing 2013 first round draft pick D.J. Peterson may be breathing down his neck next year and the Smoak era will end.  The stats don’t like Smoak much.  He is credited with .4 WAR in 2013, and projected for .4 and 1.0 by Steamer and Oliver respectively.  Sigh.

Dustin Ackley was the second player taken in the 2009 draft, was and still is regarded as the best hitter available in that draft. After an impressive debut in 2011, Ackley seemed to lose confidence in his hitting ability and has really struggled. Ackley is the youngest, at 26, of the three players on the hot seat, has the fewest major league plate appearances with 1,471.  After a promising 2011 debut, Ackley disappointed in 2012 and seemed so lost at the plate, he was sent to AAA and moved from 2B where he was a Gold Glove candidate, to the outfield. On his return Ackley was a completely different hitter.  His first half slash line was .205/.267/.255 but when he returned from Tacoma he was .304/.374/.435, though his outfield defense could charitably be called shaky. By all accounts he’s had a very good spring, hitting the ball hard with a .394/.420/.621 slash,  and appearing more confident with the glove. Ackley offers doubles power and speed to a thin outfield mix. So which is it, the struggling clueless player or the new improved version. His play must improve if the Mariners are to improve.

These three players are now veterans.  Despite their shortcomings, the M’s lost offensive production by Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales, and Michael Morse.  These guys will have to provide offensive leadership by taking the next step forward in their development and providing some support around Cano and Hart.  If they fail to do so I can see some or all of them gone.

This is an important year for the Mariners.  Their investment in a ten year deal for Robinso Cano is hopefully a down-payment on a better future.  However the playoffs are an unlikely outcome for 2014 as it seems this is another year to examine and evaluate the talent we have.

 

 

 

 

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