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.

 

World Cup fans, you don’t know what you’re missing.

I confess I am not a soccer fan.  I played in high school, even played a bit indoors in my 30′s, but those days are long gone.  Watching soccer on television doesn’t interest me in the least.  I’m regularly blown away by the number of friends who are drawn to the tube every four years, fanatical in their following of the World Cup and are shocked when I am not.  Sorry, it’s a meaningless tour of “friendlies” that prove what–the U.S. soccer program still has a long way to go to be competitive with Brazil, Spain, and Germany? And those watching?  Many don’t follow MLS, are Sounders or Timbers fans.  They don’t have a special allegiance to a team, the sport or a player.  It’s really a nationalistic venture: a little USA! USA! makes them feel good.  Folks, this will not be the dry land equivalent of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

Meanwhile, far, far away from Brazil, but in our very home town, the Seattle Mariners are a much improved team. As of this morning, they are tied for the last Wild Card spot in the American League with the Yankees and the Orioles.  Yes it’s only June 23rd, but it’s been at least half a decade since the last time things were not hopeless on this date. The M’s definitely struggle.  They are not a complete baseball team.  But what is truly amazing, there is only one truly complete team and that is Oakland, who sadly are in the western division with the M’s. Let’s take a moment to look at who these guys really are. I don’t normally spend a lot of time on statistics.  I think that’s more useful at the end of the season, but in this case I think their are some striking numbers that explain their ability to remain in the Wild Card race.

Starting Pitching

The current rotation of Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Roenis Elias, Chris Young and Erasmo Ramirez are ranked near the top in the American League by most statistical measures.  If you like traditional stats, they are second in team ERA at 3.27.   If you like BABIP, back to second with .270.  Oddly their FIP is only seventh, but I think this has more to do with improved Mariner defense. The starters are strictly middle of the pack in strikeouts, despite the King’s position as second in the league in K’s. They are a little below the mean in home runs allowed.

Last year Felix and Iwakuma shone, while the rest of the rotation, with Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Bonderman, Brandon Maurer and a host of others foundered.  There is little question this rotation is better.  Though I hate to admit it, even Ramirez gets better with each outing, enough so that he is competitive.  He still hasn’t completely found his groove, but he hung in there long enough with the Padres to leave the game after six innings with a 1-0 lead.  If Taijuan Walker and James Paxton ever do make it back to the majors, the M’s management will have some very difficult choices to make.

Bullpen

Last year, the M’s bullpen was putrid, vile, horrible.  Something you made sure not to track in on the carpet. They were next to last in ERA, trailing only Houston.  They were seventh in FIP.  The Mariners had the second highest BABIP.  They were second in walks per nine innings, and fourth in home runs allowed-two numbers that should not come into contact with one another, like matter and anti-matter.

But hey, it’s 2014 and life is different.  All is cool in the bullpen, and the M’s have one of the better relief staffs in the league.  According to FanGraphs,  they are numero uno in ERA, fifth in BABIP and third in FIP.  They are fourth in K/9 and next to last in HR/9.  They are only seventh in walks per nine innings, but improving since the beginning of the year.

At the beginning of the season I saw the bullpen as a likely weakness.  The players in the pen hadn’t changed much.  I had high hopes for closer Fernando Rodney, but his early outings were such a circus those quickly diminished.  They let Oliver Perez go to Arizona, where he’s one of the few players not stinking up the joint. But these guys pulled together and pitched well.  When a team doesn’t score a lot of runs, a really good bullpen has magnified importance, and these guys have become really good.

Defense

Last year the Mariners were one of the worst fielding teams on the face of the planet.  Perhaps in all of global history.  Hyperbole? Maybe, but they were definitely the worst in the American league by a wide margin with a UZR rating of -73, meaning 73 additional runs allowed due to poor defensive ability–either errors, or below average ranges that allowed balls to drop into play.  In my run up to the beginning of the season, I harped on poor outfield defense in particular.  Last year the M’s outfield combinations of Raul Ibanez, Michael Saunders, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, and a host of others accounted for -58 of that -73 UZR rating.

Fast forward to 2014 and the M’s team defense is rated much higher according to FanGraphs.  In UZR they are +17.3 and rated fourth.  In overall defense they are rated third.  Using more traditional statistics they are second.  The Dewan, defensive runs saved rating (DRS) doesn’t like them quite as much, showing them 6th, but they are nowhere rated at or near the bottom of the league.  Defensive statistics are most reliable measured over a much longer term, so it is unclear whether those I’ve cited are particularly telling, but it does suggest the defense is no longer the threat to success it once was.

Defense has a huge impact on a team like the Mariners who don’t score many runs, but have good pitching and play in a lot of tight games. It bails out the pitchers when they make mistakes, and it keeps innings to three outs.

Improved pitching, both starters and the bullpen as well as improved defense are reasons the Mariners are better this year.  What does that look like? In the month of June the Mariners have given up more than five runs in a game once, on June 12th in a 6-2 loss to the Yankees.  They gave up as many as five runs only twice. The pitching was a bit dodgier in April and May, the team is pitching and playing its best defense right now.

Offense

It’s when we discuss the offense the team becomes more familiar.  Offensively, the team ranks near the bottom in every major statistic.  According to BaseballReference.com the Mariners are 15th in on base percentage and OPS.  14th in slugging percentage and walks.  Despite this, they are 11th in runs scored, ninth in home runs and first in triples.  Last year this team scored 624 runs in its 162 games.  This year, through 76 games, they’ve scored 301 runs. They’ve failed to score eight times in their 76 games, been held to one run seven times, and scored just twice ten times.  As predicted, this team continues to have difficulty plating runners. If you can’t score it makes it a lot more difficult to win games.

But there is something gloriously gritty about this team.  They have a little more team speed than in years past so they can take an extra base.  They take advantage of other teams’ mistakes to advance runners.  They sacrifice bunt.  I know this is a dirty word today, but when a team doesn’t hit a lot, it’s an important tool to advance runners to scoring position.  Their games are fun to watch because they are rarely out of them.  They find ways to score runs late to take late leads.

So what does this mean?

Today the Mariners sit at 40-36.  They are one of seven teams in the American League that have scored more runs than they’ve allowed at +37.  They trail only Oakland and Los Angeles in the size of their run differential.  Though the M’s have had some decent if not championship years since 2001, can you name the last year the M’s finished the season with a positive run differential?  Try 2003.  What does it mean?  I don’t think it means the M’s are good enough to win anything meaningful.  But because of their improved pitching and defense I think they’ll hang around the conversation about the Wild Card all summer.  They will have losing streaks, but they should be short because their pitching and defense are so much improved.  They will have winning streaks too, again, likely short because they simply have too much trouble scoring. It is two thirds of a really good team.

Is there any hope the offense will get better?  Maybe.  Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Corey Hart are all on the D.L. Of those three, only Saunders has shown himself to be a consistent producer and a difference maker in the lineup. It doesn’t mean the others can’t or won’t, but they haven’t so far. Will the front office make investments as this team heads toward the July 31st trade deadline?  I just don’t have the feeling they will. They passed on Kendrys Morales, though it’s clear the M’s really need a productive DH, and he was available for little cash and would have cost them nothing in players.  This isn’t the 90′s. Bats will be expensive, in cash and prospects, and the ever penny-wise, pound foolish ownership group is unlikely to spend.

Regardless, this team will hang around .500, play good ball, and should remain around the Wild Card conversation.  Maybe they get better, maybe not, but I don’t see them doing a catastrophic nose dive.  When the U.S. comes home from the World Cup, pummeled by Germany, failing once more to get into the second round, there will be a pretty good baseball team to watch in Sea-town.

 

 

Not to quibble, but things could still be better

Today the M’s won their second game in the weekend wrap-around series in Tampa Bay.  Tomorrow the M’s face former Cy Young winner David Price, which presents two problems.

Though Price has had his struggles this year, as the Rays limp through the season decimated by injuries, he’s still David Price, Damned Good Pitcher. On May 13th Price pitched the Rays to a complete game 2-1 victory, allowing the M’s a mere six while striking out 12.  The M’s will send out, well I don’t know if they’ve announced who they will send out.

This is the fifth spot in the rotation.  When the season began it was Erasmo Ramirez’s spot.  But he was putrid after six starts and was sent to Tacoma to defumigate.  Blake Beavan came up to take the fifth spot, but in addition to being awful, he got hurt.  Brandon Maurer, coming off the injured list, took over at number five, but he also provided seven shots of execrable before heading to the DL.  Ramirez returned to the five hole last week, and was terrible.  Today McLendon confirmed he’d be able to continue on his road to respectability again tomorrow against Price.  Nothing like a challenge.

The M’s are faced with sending out Erasmo to be slaughtered for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is because Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are injured.  There simply isn’t anybody else to write into that slot. Beavan and Maurer are hurt, and the two guys Jack Z. planned to pencil into the three and four spots in the rotation are broken.  And it doesn’t feel like they are particularly close. Paxton still isn’t pitching and Walker, surprise, looks really rusty in his rehab starts. Thankfully Roenis Elias and Chris Young are pitching surprisingly well.  Their efforts have kept the M’s near the top of the league in pitching after Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma take their turns toying with the opposition.

So here is my question.  How much better would the M’s be if they had signed one of the starters on the market as we headed into spring training? Young would probably be in the 5th spot.  Ervin Santana? Matt Garza? Chris Capuano? Ubaldo Jimenez? Ubaldo Jimenez’s grandmother could make great number threes.   Injury, especially to pitchers, is a huge part of this game.  It was foolish to pass up on established pitching because a team simply cannot have enough.  So, tomorrow the Mariners are faced with rolling out the equivalent of a black hole to face one of the best pitchers in the league.  The M’s may still win, but it might require an asteroid crashing into the Price home tonight.

Then there is the matter of finding hitters to smack Price around.  Remember that May 13th performance and the six hits the Mariners managed against him?  Would it have been different if Kendrys Morales was hitting behind Robinson Cano?  It might, but we’ll never know because Morales is now a Minnesota Twin. Yes, those Twins, presently owning a 29-31 record good enough for tied for 4th in the AL Central.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge Kendrys Morales fan.  He’s big and slow, can’t do anything but DH. He’s not somebody we’ll debate about putting into the Hall of Fame.  Edgar, Big Papi, or Harold Baines he’s not.  But he did have a remarkably consistent year for the Mariners last year.  23 home runs and 34 doubles.  No big splits in average from either side of the plate, though most of his power comes from hitting left handed.  Morales doesn’t walk a lot and does plenty of whiffing.  Did I mention that he’s big and slow? But the bottom line is that he’s much more productive than the guys currently hitting in the DH spot, Dustin Ackley and Stefen Romero.

How do the Mariners, working toward contention for a playoff spot for the first time in years, let a valuable piece like Morales get away to the Twins?  What do the Twins have the Mariners don’t have, unless we’re simply talking money and possibly years. According to MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger, Morales will receive a prorated portion of a $12 million salary, or $7.5 million for 2014. In the media there have been hints the M’s are strapped to add more payroll.  Baseball Reference.com shows the current M’s salary at $90.3 million.  I confess not to being much of an accountant, but it seems silly that in a year in which the Mariners are improved, attendance has ticked up a bit, and the team is reaping the reward of a much larger chunk of national broadcasting revenue as well as local media revenue from their local Root Sports network, the Mariners would claim poverty.

So tomorrow the M’s will wrap up their series in Tampa Bay facing a really good pitcher, knowing they’ve made some choices that makes winning much less likely.  They’ll have a bad pitcher facing a former Cy Young winner.  How bad?  Erasmo Ramirez has an ERA+ of 56 (league average is 100.)  Ramirez has a WAR of -.5.  That’s bad. They’ll also send out a lineup that has at time struggled against average pitching.  They had a chance to improve that lineup, but instead they passed.  Let the Twins have Morales. David Price’s job just got easier.

Any idea when the last time was the M’s were four games over .500 on June 8th?  It was 2007, seven seasons ago.  Though the Mariners didn’t go on to make the playoffs, it left the fans hungering for 2008.  Perhaps Mariners management should consider what it takes to make this team a winner. Didn’t Chief Financial Officer Kevin Mathers promise additional spending if it was needed to improve the team?  Where were you this week big guy?  Sphincter spelunking?

 

This is why I love baseball

In case you didn’t get to watch the game, the Mariners beat the Rays today 5-0.  A first rate pummeling, right?  Another awesome King Felix Day, right?  A little payback for Erik Bedard’s shutout on Friday night, right? You didn’t watch the game did you?

These are the kinds of games I love.  A classic pitcher’s duel between two pitchers, Felix and Chris Archer matching each other inning for inning.  The M’s had a great scoring opportunity in the 5th when they loaded the bases with one out, but James Jones struck out and Robinson Cano lined a ball to the left field wall where Matt Joyce hauled it in.  The Rays had their chance in the 7th against a tiring Felix.  With one out Ben Zobrist singled, stole second and Felix wild pitched him to third. With catcher Mike Zunino blocking at least three balls in the dirt, any of which would have scored Zobrist  if they’d gone through.  Felix struck out Joyce and Yunel Escobar to set a career high of fifteen in seven innings.

With both lineups unable to do much, it was left to the bullpens.  In the eighth it was Joel Peralta for Tampa Bay, while Lloyd McLendon sent out Yoervis Medina.  While neither was flawless, both walked off the field at the end of the inning with zeroes on the scoreboard.

In the ninth manager Joe Maddon trotted out closer Grant Balfour and he was amazing, quickly striking out Dustin Ackley and Cole Gillespie.  But something happened between Gillespie dragging the wood back to the dugout and the flailing Brad Miller stepping into the batter’s box.  With Miller down 0-2, he bounced a ball over first baseman James Loney’s head into the right field corner for a triple. Willie Bloomquist walked.  Endy freakin’ Chavez lined a pitch out of the strike zone just beyond the glove of a diving Escobar for a single to drive in Miller for the go ahead run.  M’s in a position to win, right? You know the final score.  James Jones lined a ball over right fielder Kevin Kiermaier’s outstretched glove to pick up Bloomquist and Chavez, and ended with a triple of his own. Robinson Cano walked and Kyle Seager followed with a two run double.  All with two outs.  Miller, Chavez, and Jones each got their hits with two strikes.

When Miller stepped into the batter’s box the Mariners were doomed to a battle of bullpens with the Rays.  When Charlie Furbush walked off the field in the bottom of the ninth after retiring the home team in order, the M’s could leave the field grinning like devils who just sent their foes to hell, like pirates that just savaged a treasure ship and killed the crew, like a team of losers that suddenly found themselves four games over .500 with a 1.5 game lead over their closest competitor in the Wild Card race.

But the best thing about baseball?  They get to do it again tomorrow.

They haven’t lost in June

Though I could only glimpse bits of the 2-0 Mariners win over the Braves on Gameday while trying to guide our future leaders to enlightenment, Hisahi Iwakuma pitched our fearless lads to their fourth straight win against no losses in June.  On June 4th, 2014 it is written that the Seattle Mariners are a sweet 31-28, .525 winning percentage, and at this moment are virtually tied for second place in the AL West with Anaheim. Though they remain sixish games behind a highly talented Oakland A’s club for the division lead, they find themselves at the top of the Wild Card standings-with most of the rest of the American League snapping at their heels.

Yes, it’s just June 4th, but let’s see what that that really means. This is the Mariners record in prior June 4ths

In 2013 the M’s were an awful 26-33 and ten games behind the Oakland A’s

In 2012 the M’s were 25-32 and eight games behind the division leading Rangers

In 2011 your Seattle Mariners were a surprising 30-28, 2.5 games behind the Rangers.  But because they were the Mariners they couldn’t foresee that a scant month away they would embark on a 17 game losing streak.

In 2010 the Mariners were 22-32 and seven games behind Texas.

In 2009, the last time the Mariners offered many signs of competitiveness, they were 26-28, six games off the pace behind the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Yes, it’s only June 4th, and we can’t become giddy with three games over .500 until August 4th, or better yet September 4th.  Even so, the Mariners pitching situation has kept games close enough for their sub-par offense to battle.  The team won 2-0 today, but they also came back to win 7-5 last night in Atlanta.  They even pounded the Yankees in their home park 10-2.  Does it prove anything?  It might show that many of the long-dormant elements in the Mariners line-up are beginning to awaken with the warmer weather.  Elements not named Smoak. It’s been different hitting stars each night–Kyle Seager on Sunday, Stefen Romero and John Buck, last night, Cole Freakin’ Gillespie today.

More and more I hear stories about the Mariners locker room.  That this team has more team chemistry, is more like their feisty manager, Lloyd McClendon, that they fight for each other.  That can only be a good thing, one of those intangibles that SABRheads don’t like to talk about.

Another area where the M’s show improvement is in the outfield.  Though FanGraphs doesn’t seem to much care for James Jones, the outfield that was a hideous -58 runs allowed last year, seems to be better.  Saunders is a plus outfielder in right, Gillespie and Endy Chavez are plus outfielders and Dustin Ackley is a slight minus.  Romero is rated poorly in right and Jones has a UZR 150 of -10.1.  They’re small sample sizes, so it will be interesting to see how things turn out.  But there is a correlation to an improved outfield difference, with athletic players in their proper roles, and the improved performance of the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen.

Yes, it’s only June 4th, but the M’s are three games over .500.  They’re tied for a wild card spot, and they are one of the few teams in the American League with a positive run differential.  There are many reasons to be positive.  But for now, just hold on tight and pray there aren’t any 17 game losing streaks hiding in the weeds.

At the 50 Game Pole

The Mariners played their 50th game last night.  They enter tonight’s game against the Angels 25-25.  There are definitely things to be encouraged about as well as some deep disappointments. 

Pitching

When spring training closed and the M’s were without a significant pick-up in the offseason to off-set the loss of the Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma, and James Paxton hit the DL after his second start I foresaw troubles immeasurable. Instead the pitching has been surprisingly resilient. Though he suffered through a three game drought after he was hit with the flu, Felix has been Felix-like.  Youngster, Roenis Elias would be the surprise of the season if last minute replacement Chris Young wasn’t an even bigger surprise coming off thoracic outlet surgery.  Despite his last start, which surrendered two home runs to Houston in a 4-1 loss, Hisashi Iwakuma continues his brilliance from the 2013 season, Brandon Maurer, pressed into service as a fifth starter after the raft of injuries seems to guarantee a loss every fifth day, but seems to also be making a case he could be an effective 2-3 inning guy, if he doesn’t have to face anybody more than once.  There is hope here as Paxton and Walker inch close to return.

The bullpen has had a harder time making the case they are also of high quality, but by and large they have been resilient.  Pressed into overuse during the eight game losing streak, the ‘pen has by and large done what they need to do.  Though they’ve blown a couple of tight games, and Fernando Rodney seems to have a need to make things interesting whenever he takes the mound, there is not a pattern of disaster.  However, it is plain as day that Tom Wilhelmsen, Yoervis Medina, and Rodney walk too many guys, and set this team up for failure in falure-an error here or a good piece of hitting there-to continue throughout the season.

After 50 games the pitching staff remains second in the league in runs allowed, third in hits allowed, and in the top five in most important categories.  When I said the Mariners would regret not picking up one of the free agent pitchers available I was clearly long.  This staff is already quite good, and is likely only to get better as the wounded return to the battlefront.

Offense

The offense is, in a word, bad. There are a few players who are interesting, but many more who are not.  If this team is to have a shot at a post season berth, the real change improvement will have to come from the offense. At the present time, the Mariners rank at or near the bottom for most important offensive statistics including batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage.  Oddly, they are 11th in runs scored. 

Robinson Cano

I’m not sure what I hoped when the Mariners signed Robinson Cano.  He is on pace for 36 doubles and 6 home runs.  Not a lot of pop for the $240 million man.  But he gets on base, walking and hitting, leads the team in runs scored, RBI’s, and OPS. Teams don’t let Robinson beat them. Has he made the team better? Yes, absolutely, but it’s clear the man needs help.

Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders, and Dustin Ackley

These were three players I suggested would have to improve this year if the Mariners were to get better, and if they were to secure their spots on this team.  Of these, Smoak is the clear disappointment.  Despite a hot start, Smoak has hit .204 over his last 28 games, and much less than that in his last 14 games.  He’s demonstrated a big split in his righty/lefty numbers, hitting only .208 as a left handed hitter.  This is the opposite of last year’s numbers when he was clearly stronger as a left handed hitter. His walks are way down, and his strikeouts remain high.  Justin Smoak is a mess. I hear the galloping footsteps of DJ Peterson in the distance.

Of the three, Michael Saunders may be in the best shape.  Hitting behind rookie James Jones in the number two spot, Saunders has prospered. In the 28 games since Abraham Almonte was demoted and Saunders became a regular player, he’s hit a .321/.353/.449 slash.  He’s scored some runs, stolen some bases and played good defense in right field since James Jones was called up to play center field. With Jones’ success, and hitting ahead of Cano, Saunders has given the M’s an effective top third of the order.

Dustin Ackley is still a work in progress.  Currently hitting .253 for the season, he has an OPS+ of 104, or slightly above league average.  He’s been struggling his last 14 games with a .216/.237/.314 slash.  At times he’s been brilliant at the plate and other times he seems to swing through everything.  He doesn’t walk a lot and strikes out in 21% of his at bats.  His defense has improved.  But somehow I think the M’s thought they were getting more when they drafted him second in 2009.

Newcomers: Corey Hart and Logan Morrison

These guys almost certainly deserve incomplete grades due to their injuries.  However, we’ve gotten a glimpse of Hart.  He seems  incapable of playing in the field, and his hammy came while trying to steal a base.  Almost all of his at bats have come at DH, which is fine by me.  Hart isn’t hitting a lot.  His six homers are tied for the team lead, but so what?  .209/.295/.353 will not attract suitors for the big payday after the season is over.

The Babies: Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, and Stefen Romero

After last year, Brad Miller was the odds-on-favorite to have a big year.  If anything, he is the biggest disappointment on this team.  He’s crashed and burned at the plate with .153/.223/.250.  He’s taken his offensive struggles into the field and his confidence is shattered.  He should be in trouble working out his troubles.  Nick Franklin was called up after Hart’s injury, but has done little to establish himself as an alternative to Miller after tearing up the PCL. Is this the M’s pushing guys to the majors too fast?  I don’t know, but under no circumstances should they rush Chris Taylor to Seattle.

Mike Zunino is a good defensive catcher.  I haven’t seen a guy in a Mariners block pitches in the dirt and frame pitchers this well since Dan Wilson.  He’s also a right handed batter pitchers can’t make a mistake with or he’ll deposit it well into the left field bleachers.  Still learning at the plate and struggling a bit at present, he’s the best of the babies.

Stefen Romero has played decent in the outfield, but probably is in the lineup a little too often.  Penciled in as DH since Hart’s injury and Miller’s implosion because he’s right handed in a left-hand dominated lineup, he’s probably being relied on a little too much.

The New Guy: James Jones the Almonte experiment

The Mariners hasn’t had a true center fielder since Franklin Gutierrez was last healthy in 2010.  Determined to improve the last year’s outfield defense, Manager Lloyd McLendon all but anointed Abraham Almonte as heir to Ken Griffey, Jr., Mike Cameron, and Gutierrez, despite a lackluster training camp.  Almonte showed he wasn’t ready through 27 games, striking 40 times in 106 forgettable at bats, and appearing erratic in the field. Reaching deep for the 25 year old left-hander, Jones  has shown he can get on base, that he has some speed on base and on the field, and that he can go get a ball. Can he keep up his .286 average? Maybe not, but let’s see how he adjusts.

Kendrys Morales rumors

The M’s have been kicked around a lot recently for not signing Kendrys Morales to a deal with Corey Hart injured, potentially for quite a while. There is little question Morales was the M’s most consistent hitter last year.  A switch hitter with power, knowledgeable of the American League he could be an asset.  There remain two unanswered questions, however.  What is his price?  Does he want to be here?  If the cost of signing him is more than a one year deal, I’m uninterested.  The M’s offered Morales, slow, and virtually unable to play the field a three year $30 million deal.  He’s currently unemployed, so the rest of the league isn’t blowing down his door.  If the deal is right bring him in, but he isn’t Edgar Martinez, don’t over pay.

Assessment

This team is probably over its head at .500.  It’s getting by with great pitching, improved defense, and some Robinson Cano.  For the M’s to stay at .500 they’ll have to improve their offense. 

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