It’s okay to stop hoping and start believing

sodo-mojo-76184011

In 2001 the greatest team in Mariners history blew out of the gate on April 2nd, beat the Oakland A’s 5-4 and never looked back.  The previous year they’d won the division series against the White Sox and lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.  They were supposed to be good, and they were on the road to the World Series until the divine intervention of 9/11 stepped in and tipped the American League Championship once again to the Yankees.

Though the 2001 team was brilliant, but not perfect, it is the 1995 team we all remember most fondly.  Edgar and Junior, Buhner and Randy.  Joey Cora crying tears of disappointment on the bench. Luis Sojo’s double down the line of the one game playoff against the Angels, leaving Mark Langston prone on the mound. They saved baseball in Seattle.  Most importantly, they won when they weren’t supposed to.  They were a bad team the previous year, at 49-63 when the strike took place and plunged baseball into darkness.  When the Mariners defeated the California Angels on August 3, 1995 they were twelve games back of the Halos and they weren’t even a .500 team at 44-46. They sputtered and coughed through most of the month of August, going 10-8, until they played the Yankees on August 24th.  Still behind the Angels 11.5 games they outlasted the Bombers 9-7 and began a run to the end of the season that saw them go 25-11. It coincided with the Angels’ epic collapse.

Today Lloyd McClendon will look at the standings and find his team 5.5 games back of the Oakland A’s and the Los Angeles Angels.  The Mariners are on a 10-2 roll.  The once invincible Athletics are having trouble pitching.  The Angels offensive juggernaut isn’t  hitting. The Mariners have 39 games left to play with six games against each of the division leaders.  With every game taking on increased importance, remembering Al Davis’ words from another sport, “Just win baby,” is probably most relevant. This team wasn’t supposed to be this good, but they are. They can pitch, they can play defense, and god help us, they’re starting to hit like they mean it. There is a look to this team like last year’s Red Sox, in which all the pieces come together and the unthinkable is now doable.

refuse to lose

It’s time for the cast of Mariners fans to come out from behind the woodshed, where you’ve been shivering,  ignored and afraid since 2005.  It’s time for the Bavasi-haters, the Chuck and Howie anti-fan club, and the 2001 “truthers” to swallow their quart of Pepto-Bismol and, like Lou Piniella, embrace this team and accept that they’re good.  It’s time for those who celebrated the underdogs of 1995, who, like me, have gone gray in our quiet loyalty and drag out those Refuse to Lose, and Sodo Mojo banners, proudly don your M Heads, stop muttering “I hope they can,” and start shouting “I know they can.”  The moment is ripe Mariners fans. In the words of the great philosopher king, Jay Buhner, “F**k the wild card, let’s win the division.”

Borrowed from the Baseball Continuum blog at http://baseballcontinuum.com/ because it's just so freakin' amazing.

Borrowed from the Baseball Continuum blog at http://baseballcontinuum.com/ because it’s just so freakin’ amazing.

Has Jack Zdurencik earned his contract extension?

Jack Zdurencik

When the Mariners finished 71-91 last year I was devastated.  Those Mariners began their year looking like they should improve on 2012’s 75-87 season, but they were bad: a poorly assembled collection of guys playing out of position, a terrible bullpen, and offense challenged.  It was a stop-gap team of aging veterans on one-year deals assembled to ease the development of the young players assembled by General Manager Jack Zdurencik.  It failed miserably. The team was lousy, it was painful to watch and it was boring. I was tired of Zdurencik and manager Eric Wedge, I wanted them both gone. When it was revealed Zdurencik received a double super secret contract extension I was disgusted and ready to leave the Mariners reservation.

Today the team stands at 65-55, a half game behind the sputtering Detroit Tigers for the second wild card spot.  They’ve vastly diminished the leads Oakland and Los Angeles hold in the division and first wild card races.  They boast first-class pitching and an offense that is inconsistently effective, but for most of the past ten days or so has been effective enough. Raul Ibanez has been replaced by Robinson Cano.  A Fernando Rodney led bullpen is the best in major league baseball. Felix Hernandez is clearly the best right-handed pitcher in the world.

If I’m going to blame Jack Zdurencik for the team’s failures, he also gets my acknowledgement for his success.  Though his tenure includes some bone-headed decisions like the Fister trade and signing Corey Hart, he’s made a number of key decisions that led to this year’s success.

Felix Hernandez Extension–If Zdurencik and the corporate big boys hadn’t come to terms with Felix last year we’d be having a different conversation this summer:  when and where will they trade Felix? Today we’re talking about the historic nature of his 2014 performance and how it measures up against Pedro, Clemens and Ron Guidry.  I like this conversation better.

Lloyd McClendon Hiring–On ESPN 710 earlier this week there was this great conversation about whether McClendon or Zdurencik was more responsible for the team’s success.  I’ve really enjoyed McClendon.  He’s molded the team to fit his personality.  He is transparent.  He is honest.  It seems clear that if a player is not up to the required task he’ll be somewhere else.  Ask Justin Soak and Erasmo Ramirez.  It seems obvious McClendon is a key component of this team’s success.  I’m glad Zdurencik had the foresight to bring him to Seattle.

Robinson Cano doubles home Dustin Ackley in the bottom of the first.

Robinson Cano leads the Mariners in hits, average, runs and OPS+.

Robinson Cano signing–I was not among those who criticized the signing of the Yankee slugger for a Brinks truck full of dough, and I have not been disappointed.  Though the power numbers are down, Cano has performed every bit as well as I would have hoped at bat, in the field and in the clubhouse.  Yes, Cano is performing well, but it is clear he has a leadership role on this team that makes him incredibly important. Scott Weber’s excellent analysis of Cano’s performance so far over at Lookout Landing make’s this clear.  I believe his value goes beyond the stats.

Fernando Rodney signing-Last year the Mariners bullpen was a wreck.  The most blown leads of any ‘pen in the major leagues.  No clear leader.  They threw too many balls and gave up too many homers.  When Zdurencik signed Fernando Rodney to a two year deal I was skeptical.  The 13-year veteran had a brilliant year with the Rays in 2012, and a much less successful season with them in 2013.   Despite Rodney’s tendency to dance on the high wire, he’s provided solid performance and leadership out of the bullpen.  Regardless whether you like his cap tilt or his bow and arrow act, his 35 saves is tied for 2nd in the major leagues.

Trading for Austin Jackson-When the Mariners began the season with Abraham Almonte in centerfield I held my breath.  In my view Almonte was too inexperienced at the major league to have the responsibilities of center and leadoff hitter on him.  When they shipped his shrapnel riddled major league corpse down to Tacoma in May and replaced him with the equally inexperienced James Jones my heart stopped.  Though Jones was refreshing for a few weeks, it became clear the team once again overreached for a player who wasn’t ready to be in the bigs.  The M’s simply have few major league solutions for a shortage of outfield talent.  When Jack Z. was able to trade for a quality veteran centerfielder like Austin Jackson, a playoff veteran from an annually contending team, and give up only Nick Franklin I developed a new appreciation for Zdurencik’s trading acumen.

The trade for Austin Jackson at the trade deadline gives the Mariners a legit center fielder for 2014-15

The trade for Austin Jackson at the trade deadline gives the Mariners a legit center fielder for 2014-15

Today, at this moment, this team is in an entirely different place than it was in 2013.  One need only look at attendance figures to know fans also realize this. Last year the team drew 1,761,546.  After 66 home dates the Mariners stand at 1,651, 826. With 15 home games remaining is it possible they could draw two million? The last time the M’s drew that many was 2010.  They’d need to average a tick over 23,000 per game and their current per game average is just over 25K, a number that’s likely to tick up if the team remains in the playoff chase.

The Mariners are better, the club’s fortunes are improved.  It doesn’t mean things are perfect.  I still remember August 27, 2007 when the Angels came to town, with the M’s three games behind them in the division race.  They were swept at home and lost 15 of 17 in a bitter collapse. This team is much better than that one.

Barring a monumental el foldo, Jack Zdurencik assembled some important pieces for this team going forward. It seems likely the Mariners won’t collapse; their pitching is simply too good for that.  They may not make it to the playoffs, but I have every reason to believe they can.  Regardless, Zdurencik put together a roster good enough, and intriguing enough for next year to earn a contract extension.

 

Mariners ready for run to playoffs

On August 27, 2007, the 73-55 Mariners came home after losing a tough series to the Rangers to face the Angels.  The game had a playoff atmosphere as the M’s were fighting for a playoff spot, and nearly 46,000 fans packed Safeco Field as the M’s took their best shot to catch the Halos, trailing their division rival by three games. Miguel Batista gave up six runs in six innings, John Lackey shut down the Mariners bats on seven hits in his complete game victory and the massive crowd went home disappointed.

The Mariners were swept at home in front of huge crowds, and went on to lose 15 of 17 between August 25th and September 11th effectively putting themselves out of the playoff picture.  However, they did finish 88-74, still their best record since the 93 wins of 2003. 

I share this because as well as the Mariners seem to be playing right now, bad stuff can still happen. Detroit seems to have suffered seems to have suffered devastating injuries to their pitching staff at the same time Pittsburgh’s all-everything Andrew McCutcheon has gone on the disabled list.   The M’s could once again forget how to hit, as they have many times this season.  As the schedule gets tougher they may suffer total amnesia, but I hope not.

Bad stuff happened in 2007 and could happen again to this seemingly snake-bit franchise, but I believe this team is different.  That team was led by Ichiro in one of his last seasons of unquestionable greatness.  The team scored 794 runs, no Mariners team has scored 700 runs since, but had a miserable pitching staff after a 21 year old Felix Hernandez.  A strong bullpen could not keep this team from having a run differential of -19.The 2007 team was also plagued by bad chemistry.  Manager Mike Hargrove mysteriously resigned mid-season, and in a tell-all  2008 post trade interview, closer J.J. Putz revealed there was considerable clubhouse dissension with particular ire directed at Ichiro.

The 2014 is led by all-world pitching and has a run differential of +84. Felix Hernandez is in an unquestioned position to be the AL Cy Young Award winner and is supported by excellent rotation mates Hisashi Iwakuma and Chris Young.  The Mariners bullpen is the deepest in baseball. Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Austin Jackson provide veteran offensive leadership to the team, while Dustin Ackley, Mike Zunino, and Chris Taylor continue to show signs of development. This teams seems to follow the examples set by Seager and Cano and seem to fit the mold desired by manager Lloyd McClendon.  They believe they will win, and by all accounts, the Mariners are well-positioned for a playoff race.

Last night the Mariners mugged a bullpen depleted, sleep deprived Toronto Blue Jays team 11-1.  This series, that ends Wednesday, was highly touted as a battle of wild-card rivals.  Tied entering the game last night, the M’s need to beat the Jays before setting out on the road..  The three game weekend series against a battered, struggling Detroit team is taking on new significance as the Royals dropped the team from Motown into the second wild card spot, one game ahead of Seattle.  Now is a good time for the Mariners to stay hot as the season sets for terminal velocity. 

Dave and Kevin’s big Mariner adventure

Starting pitcher Chris Young plays long toss in the outfield warming up for the game.

Starting pitcher Chris Young plays long toss in the outfield warming up for the game.

When my school colleagues gave me a big Mariners summer to help me recuperate from my cancer surgery I “had to” schedule some games and decide who to share them with.  The first person who came to mind was Dave, my dearest friend. Dave and I go way back and have a lot of things in common, including a love of games and baseball.  Another thing we have in common is summers off. Dave is retired from the Pierce County courts and I am a teacher doing little but relaxing.  So I bought tickets to the Atlanta Braves game at Safeco for Wednesday afternoon. 

I’ve always wanted to do the day game thing by catching the Sounder train up to King Street, spend the morning dorking around in Seattle, have an awesome lunch at Henry’s and walk over to Safeco Field to catch the game. Yesterday we did that. 

David made his way to my house at about 6:30 AM.  He hates driving in traffic and sure enough he was able to dodge most of it. We got everything ready to go, preparing the dogs for ten hours in their crates. 

Starting pitcher Chris Young plays long toss in the outfield warming up for the game.

Starting pitcher Chris Young plays long toss in the outfield warming up for the game.

Third baseman Kyle Seager and shortstop Chris Taylor finish warm ups near the Mariners dugout.

Third baseman Kyle Seager and shortstop Chris Taylor finish warm ups near the Mariners dugout.

The first step to taking Sounder to the Mariners game from Puyallup is getting to the station. Parking is a pain and the Puyallup Fairgrounds provides space for commuters.  I parked for free at the red lot and we connected with a Pierce Transit bus to the station.  Note to self:  The price of the bus is $2.50 not a buck as your pass-toting wife suggested.  Dopey me. Buying a ticket for the train is easy cheesy.  We each bought a day pass for $8.50.  Given the cost of gas and parking, and the hassle of searching for said services, this is a great deal.  We boarded the train at about 7:42 and arrived at King Street 30 minutes later. 

After grabbing something to eat we stopped at an awesome toy store at First and Occidental before making our way to Ebbets Field Flannels. If you love all things baseball EFF is not to be missed. They make custom minor league and Negro League jerseys, jackets and caps.  The variety of colors, patterns and different teams is staggering.  Not for the faint of wallet, most items have to be special ordered.  I bought a New York Knights cap based on the mythical team from the Robert Redford movie, “The Natural.”  Goofy, yes, but I confess to always having wanted one.  At least I stayed away from the jersey and the $395 jacket.

From there it was on to Henry’s for lunch.  When we left home the skies were pretty overcast and the weather was comfortable but cool.  When we left the restaurant and crossed Edgar Martinez Way it was bright sunshine and toasty warm.  We entered the stadium and headed for our seats, one of the few in the ballpark bathed fully in bright sunshine.  We were about to get cooked. David muttered something about Jeff Renner and mostly cloudy skies. Oh well, there are worse places to spend a hot summer day.

Center fielder Austin Jackson

Center fielder Austin Jackson

Right fielder Endy Chavez waits for the pitch.

Right fielder Endy Chavez waits for the pitch.

By the way, we watched a ballgame.  An awesome ballgame; the home team won on the strength of a couple of home runs and some great relief pitching. The Mariners were playing the Atlanta Braves, a team that has led the National League East for much of the season, but suffered it’s eighth consecutive loss yesterday.  They looked like a team that is playing poorly on this long West Coast road trip.  There were missed communications that led to runs Wedenesday on top of Tuesday night’s clanked pop fly off Bobby La Stella’s glove that cost them two runs and that game and both games in the short series. 

By contrast, the Mariners looked better.  I’d seen two of the three games against the Mets, when the M’s had struggled just to get base runners, let alone score.  In this game, the Mariners scored in the first inning when Dustin Ackley singled and Robinson Cano drove him home with a double.  Starter Chris Young got in trouble in the third inning when he gave up three singles and a walk to tie the score at 1-1. The next batter, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, drove a ball deep to left between new centerfielder Austin Jackson and left fielder Ackley. They seemed to struggle with the sun and the ball landed behind them for a ground rule double. but the bleeding ended there, 3-1 Braves.

Robinson Cano doubles home Dustin Ackley in the bottom of the first.

Robinson Cano doubles home Dustin Ackley in the bottom of the first.

Chris Young fires. Young pitched well enough to win the game despite his 3rd inning stumble.

Chris Young fires. Young pitched well enough to win the game despite his 3rd inning stumble.

The M’s took control in their half of the third when Ackley led off with a homer, 3-2 Braves.  That seemed to be the extent of things, when Kyle Seager singled to left, and was followed by an infield hit by Chris Taylor.  With runners at first and second and two outs, Logan Morrison, a general disappointment among many disappointments this year, poled a 1-2 pitch into the right field bleachers for a three run dinger.  M’s lead 5-3. 

From there it was all downhill.  The Mariners tacked on two more.  Young seemed to struggle in the heat a bit and only made it through five innings.  The bullpen corps of Joe Beimel, Tom Wilhelmson, Dominic Leone and Yoervis Medina did a great job of keeping the scuffling Braves away from further scoring and bingo, win number 59 was in the books.  The Mariners were only a game behind Toronto for the final Wild Card spot, and a half game behind Kansas City, with the White Sox blowing into town for four.  The final big news of the day was that Chris Sale pitched and would miss the Seattle series.  Whoopeee!!!

Dave and I let go of the Braves ninth inning and walked to the train and managed to board the Sounder moments before it pulled out of King Street Station.  We agreed it was a super day.  The train ride, the ball game, the weather (though we were both pretty sunburned,) was perfect. We agreed that next summer we’d try to see every Mariners weekday game by taking the train.

Notes on photos: All pictures were taken from our seats in left-center field using a Nikon Coolpix P510.  Though this point and shoot “bridge” camera doesn’t allow control over the shutter speed, it’s zoom lens gave me considerable ability to get good pictures from across the stadium.

Denorfia and Jackson makes M’s better, costs little.

New centerfielder Austin Jackson fills a an important positional and organizational hole for the team.  Wikipedia Commons

New centerfielder Austin Jackson fills a an important positional and organizational hole for the team. Wikipedia Commons

As the trade deadline approached, the Mariners find it more and more difficult to score runs, and the second wild card spot slips further and further from their grasp, I was afraid Jack Zdurencik would panic and do something foolish. I was happy to see he didn’t.  Though the addition of two right handed hitting outfielders, Chris Denorfia from the San Diego Padres, and Austin Jackson from the Detroit Tigers are not likely to catapult the Mariners into the American League West race, they both answered some important needs for the M’s.

First, both players are are at least average defensively, and an upgrade over the Mariners current outfield defense.  Austin Jackson is a World Series veteran, starting everyday center fielder.  They haven’t had a quality centerfielder since 2010 when Franklin Guttierrez was still semi-healthy, and the organization hasn’t developed a talented center fielder since that Adam Jones guy they traded away.  Jackson has historically been an average center fielder or slightly above.  Denorfia is average at all three outfield positions. They will be an improvement over the inexperienced James Jones and the aging Endy Chavez.. 

Though neither player is bringing a lineup changing bat to the team, they are both right handed which evens out a team that is unbalanced toward lefties. Jackson’s slash is .272/.332/.399 with an OPS+ of 99.  He replaces James Jones with .258/.287/.313 and an OPS+ of 72. Though Jackson brings little threat of home run sock, his 25 doubles would tie for the team lead with Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano.  Denorfia is having a down year at the plate and is hitting .242/.292./319. Though Denorfia has tended to mash lefties in years past, his splits for this year doesn’t show those kind of lefty killing numbers. 

Most importantly, neither of these players cost the Mariners players who likely fit into the teams future plans.  The M’s contribution to the three way deal that brought them Jackson was Nick Franklin.  Though Franklin was a highly regarded prospect, the sheen on him was a bit tarnished.  He struggled to hit at the major league level.  His best defensive position was blocked by $240 million of Robinson Cano.  The Mariners made clear their verdict on his value when they called up Chris Taylor to replace a faltering Brad Miller at shortstop. Ouftielder Abraham Almonte and reliever Stephen Kohlscheen were the cost for Denorfia.  The Almonte experiment imploded in a mushroom cloud of strikeouts and misplays in April, and Kohlscheen is blocked from joining the M’s crowded, talented bullpen. Most notably are the players the Mariners did not give up-no Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, D.J. Peterson, no Brandon Maurer or Mike Zunino.

Just as interesting is who will lose playing time with the addition of these guys.  One would guess Jones will head back to Tacoma to work on his game.  Chavez may be gone too.  Denorfia will likely form a platoon with Michael Saunders when he returns from the DL as long as Dustin Ackley continues his hot hitting. With Paxton likely to return from the DL this weekend, we may see the end of the Corey Hart experiment as well as other players, hitting marginally better than Hart rotate through the DH spot.

No, the Mariners did not add players who were transformational.  The team will continue to be offensive light-weights, though improved by degrees. It is a big improvement defensively, and a very modest improvement offensively.  Jackson is under contract through next year, Denorfia is just a rental.  Those expecting the Mariners to be the offensive equal of the Angels or Tigers will be disappointed, but honestly those bats were never available.  Look at the guys who were traded.  The headline players were big arms–David Price, John Lester, Jeff Samardijia.  Does this improve their playoff chances?  Probably not.  But it does make them better, and the Jackson trade fills a huge organizational hole at a minimal cost. 

First the A’s, then the Angels, now the Yanks deal: M’s must act.

Corey Hart has had a disappointing season.  The M's need an upgrade at DH.

Corey Hart has had a disappointing season. The M’s need an upgrade at DH.

I’ve already written about the A’s stunning acquisition of Jeff Samardijia and Justin Hammel.  The Angels have also bolstered their weakness, their bullpen.  July 5th they acquired Joe Thatcher and Tony Campagna from the Diamondbacks, and last week they picked up Huston Street from the Padres.  Both the teams in front of the M’s in their division improved themselves in significant ways.

Today the news came across MLB Trade Rumors the Yankees acquired Chase Headley from the Padres.  With .229/.296/.355 slash, Headley is not exactly the second coming of Mike Schmidt, but he is playing superb defense and will fill a hole for the Yankees in the field.

It’s important to be realistic as teams approach the trade deadline.  The M’s are 8 1/2 games back of the division leading A’s and 6 1/2 back of the Angels.  Both teams are playing very well right now and the Mariners are unlikely to catch them.  There is no deal currently nn the marketplace, or likely to be available that will make Seattle so much better they will be transformed into the kind of offensive club necessary to make up that kind of ground.  The Rockies aren’t trading Troy Tulowitzki, the Marlins aren’t letting go of Giancarlo Stanton, the Pirates aren’t parting with Andrew McCutcheon, and it would likely take all three to win the division.

But the Yankees move is disturbing because the Mariners hold in the second wild card slot, and the Yankees are only 2 1/2 games behind them. Toronto, Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Minnesota are all within 7 1/2 games.  It is likely that many of these same clubs will make deals to improve their position in the wild card race. The M’s may lead this race today, but it is hardly a sure thing.

The question for the Mariners and Jack Zdurencik is what to do?  Act now, trade prospects, improve the team for a one game playoff riding on Felix Hernandez’s right arm, or play the hand you have and hope for the best. It seems unlikely the M’s can win the wild card if they stand pat.  They’ve done really well at run prevention, but if we learned anything from the Angels series, it’s that we must score more, even if it’s only a little bit more. Let’s take a look at some numbers.

DH Corey Hart .213/.291/.337, OPS+ 80, -5 WAR. Yes, I know David Ortiz is not available.  But certainly a bat is available who will have more success in this role than these numbers suggest. DH should provide an offensive boost, not a hitting black hole. Remember when people complained about Jose Vidro at DH? Cadillac by comparison.

The Outfield.  Dustin Ackley is thriving-at the moment.  But we’ve seen these moments before.  I like James Jones, but he is till learning at the major league level.  Though he has scored 38 runs, third most on the team behind Cano and Seager, he has only 12 extra base hits and no home runs. Endy Chavez is a guy like Doug Strange and Stan Javier who played sparingly and made great Mariners teams better. Michael Saunders is the best of the lot at this point and he is injured.  The Mariners outfield has hit a total of 14 home runs, or the same number second year player Mike Zunino has hit. They don’t get on base enough, or have enough speed to make up for the lack of power. The Mariners need an upgrade in the outfield.

SS Brad Miller.  Miller is hitting .204/.272/.323.  I know Miller struggled out of the gate and picked himself up in June, but he’s back in a funk again.  Surely there is an upgrade out there somewhere–maybe even within the organization.

 1B.  Lots of guys have had a shot at this: Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison, Corey Hart, even Willie Bloomquist.  Nobody is prospering. Smoak was sent back to Tacoma last night in a roster move.  Despite some initial success after his recall from the DL, Morrison has struggled.  Bloomquist doesn’t belong at first.  First base is an offensive intensive position, and instead production here is just offensive.

Starting pitching. The M’s have gotten by managing Felix, Iwakuma, Chris Young, and Roenis Elias, and for the most part they’ve responded unbelievably well. But Elias will run out of innings soon and Young hasn’t thrown this well this long in years.  The fifth spot is another gigantic question mark.  Hopefully James Paxton will return soon.  It’s clear Lloyd McClendon isn’t enamored of 21-year old Taijuan Walker at this moment, and thinks even less of Erasmo Ramirez.  The help wanted sign is out.

1B/3B D.J. Peterson is the right handed power bat the M's hope will power this team in the future.

1B/3B D.J. Peterson is the right handed power bat the M’s hope will power this team in the future.

It’s clear the Mariners are fishing in a very shallow pool of talent for mid-year reinforcements, a pool that’s also being fished by many competitors.  The question is, who do you let go of in exchange for upgrades.  If I were the M’s there are some guys that are untouchable-Zunino, power hitting right hander D.J. Peterson, and James Paxton.  Walker could be had for the right deal, though it’s clear we haven’t seen the best of him. .  The M’s do have some pieces, mostly prospects, to make a clear upgrade, and let’s face it there are positions that are easily improved. They shouldn’t be afraid to deal, as long as they aren’t mortgaging their future with little return in time and talent.  In other words, don’t be trading Walker for a guy who walks at the end of the year. 

I don’t expect a blockbuster makeover, but there are some of those mid-level guys that are or will become available in the coming days who can strengthen this team.  As we head into August and the importance of every win and every loss is magnified, what is or isn’t done at that trade deadline will take on added scrutiny.

 

M’s make rosters moves, but A’s make trades

Yesterday, in a run up to the trading deadline, the M’s made some important roster moves.  They called up DH/OF Corey Hart to Seattle, and DFA’ed outfielder Cole Gillespie. In a second move, the Mariners optioned first baseman Justin Smoak to Tacoma.  Hart and Smoak were both rehabbing injuries in Tacoma. The deadline for decisions on their situation was July 7th.

Hart, hitting .204/.288/.345 after last night’s game in Chicago was signed as a free agent.  His production at the plate, as a power hitting right=hander is disappointing, but it’s important the M’s see what they have before they make moves prior to the trade deadline, if they make any.  Smoak’s demotion follows five seasons of waiting for the big switch-hitting South Carolinian to blossom into a consistent hitter.  During Smoak’s time on the DL Logan Morrison has filled in well at first base.

If the Mariners are looking in-house for answers to their offensive woes first, the A’s took the bull by the horns and made a gutsy trade with the Chicago Cubs.  They picked up pitchers Jeff Samardzjia and Jason Hammel to bolster their struggling rotation, sending highly rated prospects, shortstop Addison Russell, pitcher Billy McKinney, pitcher Dan Strailly and a player to be named later to Chicago. Russell was a 2012 first round draft choice, and McKinney was a 2013 first round draft choice.

The trade, for two of the more highly regarded pitchers believed to be available this summer, adds depth to the A’s rotation. Samardzjia, (2=7, 2.83 ERA) and Hammel (7-5, 2.98 ERA) were both having solid seasons for Chicago. Though Oakland continues to lead the American League in ERA, they now trail Seattle in runs allowed.  The dominant performances by their starters early in the season have come less frequently. 

In other news, the Mariners were left for road kill after being sliced and diced by White Sox starter Chris Sale, 7-1.  Sale gave up six hits, struck out 12, walked nobody and generally baffled Mariners hitters for the complete game victory.  Mariners starter Roenis Elias surrendered home runs to Davan Viciedo and Jose Abreu, while pitching five innings and allowing five runs.  Charlie Furbush continued the Mariner tradition of coughing up big home runs to Paul Konerko, surrendering a two run blast in the eighth inning. 

What is the Robinson Cano effect?

Robinson Cano is fourth in batting average in the AL, hitting .323. He is tied for sixth in OBP with .383. He is in the top twenty in hits and runs scored. He is unquestionably the Seattle Mariners’ offensive leader, though his power numbers are down from his career statistics across the board.

When Cano signed his incredibly rich contract last November there was considerable criticism of the deal. $24 million a year was too much. Ten years was too long. The Mariners would never receive returned value on such a deal In truth, measured by WAR, Cano with his 2.8 WAR ranked 17th by ESPN, is well behind some of his less well-paid colleagues.

But the Seattle Mariners are playing winning baseball. Their current record is 47-38. The Mariners haven’t been nine games over .500 since the end of the 2007 season. They are currently holding on to the second AL Wild Card spot and trail the Oakland Athletics for the division lead by only five games. There is talk about this team I haven’t heard for years. They are the subject of local talk radio, that before June was the organ for Seahawks football 24/7. There are surprising stories about the Mariners on ESPN.mlb and SI.com. But the real measure of a change in attitude about a team is about the number of butts in seats. Today, the Mariners are ranked ninth in attendance with an average of nearly 24,000 fans per game. Last year the M’s finished 11th in attendance with an average of 21,747. No it’s not the stuff of 2002 with over 43,700 per game, but it’s better.

Increasingly there is talk of Robinson Cano and how this turnaround is due to his veteran leadership. During the Houston series, broadcasters Dave Sims and Mike Blowers referred to advice offered to centerfielder James Jones from Manager Lloyd McClendon. Follow Robinson Cano around like a puppy was suggested to rookie Jones. In his article Wednesday for USA Today, baseball writer Bob Nightengale followed the Mariners in Houston and noted the effect Cano was having on the team.  He quoted starting pitcher Chris Young:

All I know is these guys are as good a  group of guys I’ve ever played with, and Robinson Cano has had a huge influence on everyone in here.

Robinson Cano, Logan Morrison, James Jones, John Buck, Willie Bloomquist.  These are the new position players on this team. Aside from the former Yankee, the rest are role players, though each have contributed to the team’s success.  The rest are guys who have been here-Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Mike Zunino, Kyle Seager, Endy Chavez presided over last year’s flop.  Together with Lloyd McClendon, Cano has convinced these guys they can go out every day and win.  The statheads don’t like to talk about chemistry because they can’t see it in the box scores; they can’t measure the affect of high fives, handshakes and salutes to the bullpen  with BABIP, xFIP, or wRC+. .But Cano has them playing hard each day, winning for each other, and that’s the real Robinson Cano effect, not the hits, the power shortage, or the $240 million.

 

Mariners cruise into season’s second half

The M’s shocked me by blazing into the second half of the season eight games over .500.  I truly didn’t think they’d be here.  I’ve pointed out why I think they are there-improved starting and relief pitching and better defense.  But there are a few more things that have worked in their favor

1.  Schedule

The first two months of the season, the M’s suffered through a scheduling nightmare. Through May 21st they played a ridiculous number of road games, with lots of silly travel back and forth across the country.  They also played tons of games against division rivals.  By May 29th they’d played 18 games against the Athletics and Angels, both ahead of them in the AL West standings, and at this point, the two best teams in the A.L, well, okay, throw the Tigers in there too.  Since May 22nd the schedule has tipped in their favor.  There are more home games.  The road trips are shorter.  The strength of schedule is more advantageous, with games against the Red Sox, Cleveland, the Yankees, the Astros, and the White Sox.  Careful, things won’t stay that cozy, with series against the Athletics and Angels sandwiched around the All-Star Break.  Even so, July and August look like winnable months and the M’s will need some credits in the bank as they roll into a hellacious September. 

2. The Robbie and Kyle show

When the M’s signed Robinson Cano to a $240 million deal I was thrilled. They’d have a legit middle-of-the-order bat who could lead this team.  No retread recapturing the past. No prospect who might someday be good.  Cano’s signing was the real deal, a sign the fans were waiting for.  Of course, in their infinite penny-pinching ways, the Mariners management surrounded Cano with retreads (Corey Hart,) and prospects (Justin Smoak, and I use the term prospect loosely,) and said have at it. What has Cano done?  Let’s just say the words–he hasn’t hit for a lot of power, only six home runs and 17 doubles to date. Yet, he leads the team with 98 hits, runs scored with 43, and OBP with .378.  He is slightly behind Kyle Seager with an .818 OPS. That brings us to the second part of our story and that is Seager.  Seager is imperfect.  He has massive home/road splits. For example, of his 34 extra base hits, 19 of them are at home, including 11 of his 12 home runs. Yet somehow, when the M’s are at home, Seager finds a way to be the man.  When the M’s can’t score at Safeco, he is the one who gets it done. When the Mariners are offensively constipated, more often than not, Kyle is the Ex-Lax. May he continue to loosen their bowels on the current road trip.

3. Mike Zunino

It has been so long since the Mariners had a catcher worthy of the title, it is a pleasure to watch Mike Zunino behind the plate night in and night out. He does almost all those catcher things well.  He blocks balls in the dirt.  He calls a great game.  He is very good at framing pitches. According to Baseballreference.com, his defense rates in the top five of all major league catchers. That Zunino is also tied with Seager for the team lead in home runs is also nice.  At age 23, with little service in the high minor leagues, Zunino missed out on those developmental games that would have made him a better hitter.  Hence, he hits only .225, rarely walks, and has whiffed an amazing 86 times in 259 plate appearances.  Still there is something incredible to watch as he works with Felix on the mound, finding a way to get those changeups called strikes at the bottom of the strike zone.  That he often, in the same game, hits balls with majestic parabolas into the left field seats, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Richie Sexson, makes forgetting his offensive shortcomings easier.

4. James Jones

Jones is still young and still learning, but today he sits atop the second spot in the line up with a .295 average.  He leads the team with 17 steals and always seems a threat to run or score from wherever he is on base.  Yesterday’s triple was his fourth in only 212 plate appearances, and he seemed to jog for the the three-bagger.  The Mariners haven’t had a player like him since 2001 when Ichiro Suzuki signed with the team.  Though not as defensively polished as Ichiro, he should improve as a hitter and an outfielder.  His game would definitely improve with a higher walk rate.

LOOKING AHEAD

A. Trade or no trade

I think the M’s will need some help to get into the playoffs as a wild card.  There is next to no possibility they catch the A’s; they’re just too well constructed. However, I see little reason to trade for pitching.  Taijuan Walker took Erasmo Ramirez’s place.  While his first start was not a thing of beauty, it did all work out.  It’s said Roenis Elias will have his innings capped at 170; he currently has 104.2.  It’s likely James Paxton will return before Elias reaches his limit.  I know the M’s have been linked to David Price and Jeff Samardzia, but the cost to obtain someone of that quality will likely be considerably more than they can afford to pay. We’ve seen what Paxton can do.  It’s likely Walker will be better in the five spot than Maurer or Ramirez.  I’d let it ride.

But would I trade Walker for a bat?  Yes I would, as long as we’re talking a consistent performer with a proven track record, AND will be around for a few years. No Doug Fister or Cliff Lee deals.  The Mariners have offensive needs in the outfield, first base and/or DH.  I do believe Michael Saunders will give a M’s a bit of a bump, but not enough of one to carry the team. I don’t have faith Dustin Ackley will magically become what he is not. I think it is highly unlikely Corey Hart or Justin Smoak will come back to the M’s and provide a significant offensive boost. There are guys out there: Alex Rios of the Rangers, Seth Smith of the Padres and others that would improve the M’s where further production is needed.  There is no way Endy Chavez should be DHing, and Ackley needs another trip to Tacoma to find his missing swing. But don’t overpay.  Rios and Smith are both rentals, so deal accordingly.

B. Just win baby

I confess to being a scoreboard watcher, even in June.  It’s been a very long time since watching the Mariners standings was very interesting or relevant, so this is a pleasant surprise.  That said, there are still plenty of games to play, and teams that are close in the Wild Card standings.  Though the M’s are hot, they’ve still managed to lose a half game to the equally incendiary Angels.  The M’s are a game and a half ahead of the Orioles, and while other teams, like the Yankees and Royals have faded a bit, the Birds continue to win and remain on their heels.  The only solution to that problem is to keep winning.  After the final game against the Astros today, the M’s fly to Chicago for a weekend series against the White Sox.  They are a bad team, and Seattle has to find a way to overcome their past run of poor performances in the South Side if they want the fun to continue.  The Mariners have their destiny in their own hands, and while they can’t win them all, they must avoid lengthy losing streaks.

C. The offensive surge

The last couple of weeks witnessed burgeoning offensive performances by the M’s.  June 23rd, the Mariners beat the visiting Red Sox 12-3.  Since then the M’s have won some tight games and lost some tight games. In the games from June 23rd to the last night’s destruction of Houston, the Mariners hits totals were 14, 10, 8, 11, 1, 10, 11, 18.  The two games against the Astros were laughers.  The team batting numbers in every category of importance-runs scored, hits, slugging percentage, home runs-continue to rise.  The Mariners remain last int he league in the critical on-base percentage, but as batting averages have increased, so has OBP.  Team batting is now at .245, up from .232.  Even OBP, once stagnant in the .290’s is at .303.  The M’s need to take more walks and strikeout less, but as Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, and role players like Endy Chavez continue to improve, the team numbers will get better too.  The help wanted sign should still be out there, but this team no longer has the smell of desperation around it.  We should remember the M’s are clubbing some pretty terrible pitching staffs right now, but in the past, that knowledge didn’t seem to help much.  Always kick a bad team when they’re down, and McClendon and batting coach Howard Johnson seem to have the boys in blue doing just that.

 

The Lloyd McClendon Show

Lloyd MClendon

If there is anything I’ve found incredibly refreshing about the Seattle Mariners this year, it’s Lloyd McClendon.  It’s clear he’s been around this game a long time. He managed the Pittsburgh Pirates through years of futility.  He also had great success as a coach in Detroit with very good Tigers teams. But in listening to him hold press conferences after games, what is really clear is this guy is about winning. He’s not afraid to hold players responsible for their performance individually or as a team.  Unlike his predecessors, there is nothing opaque about Mac or what he is thinking.

Last night is a perfect example.  The M’s had one of their rare offensive explosions and buried the hapless Red Sox 12-3 in what was supposed to be a pretty good pitching matchup between Felix Hernandez and John Lackey.  Felix did not look sharp early and Lackey did.  Tied 2-2 going into the fourth, Lackey sort of melted away, a bit like a profanity spewing Frosty the Snowman in the June sun.  Six runs later, all that was left on the mound was a half eaten carrot. The M’s went tacked on four more off reliever Chris Capuano.  The King left the game after the seventh for mop-up by Dominic Leone and Tom Wilhelmson.

I hung on after the game was over, even though I was really tired, to hear McClendon’s post-game interview.  The question came up, wasn’t it nice the M’s scored so many runs when Felix was pitching, after so few were scored in his previous three gems? McLendon’s response was all you need to know about Lloyd McClendon.

It’s not a tough loss for Felix, it’s a tough loss for the Seattle Mariners.  We’ve got to stop thinking that way.  Felix is no different than any other pitcher on this team, except he’s great. But when we lose a game, we lose a game. When we lose, we lose together.  It’s not a tough loss for Felix. We do everything we can to score runs for him. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

McClendon identified the the catalyst of the rout, not as the King’s performance on the mound, or Logan Morrison’s two home runs, but Dustin Ackley’s 13 pitch groundout in the 4th that scored a run, and his hustle down the line that kept the inning alive. After that, Lackey clearly, profanely, melted down to such a degree he couldn’t be bothered to hustle to first base to turn the double play.

McClendon understands the essence of this game is about winning.   To win he has to have the people to do the job, but he’ll mix and match to try to put the right folks in a spot where they can succeed.  He’s faced injuries to his rotation, injuries to Saunders, Smoak, and Hart.  He’s gotten the best he can out of guys like Endy Chavez, Willie Bloomquist and Cole Gillespie.  He won’t smooth the egos of the young and ineffective.  If you can’t perform, you won’t play.  Ask Stefen Romero.

McClendon makes a difference with this team.  He wants to win.  I suggest Jack Z. and the ownership buffoons get on the train too, and find a way to make this team better so we can all enjoy a ride to the playoffs.

 

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