Month: April 2013

Avoiding Banana Peels

Got home late from a meeting at school last night and turned on the Mariners game.  It was nearly 7:30 and I figured young pitcher Brandon Maurer would be cruising after stepping in the puddle of jitters he encountered in Oakland last week.  Wrong.  Still the top of the first, M’s down 6-0 and Maurer being examined by Rick Griffin after taking a line drive off his thigh.  To the Houston Astros.  The same Astros that were shut out three times during the previous week.  I spent a great deal of the next two hours watching the first four innings of this game only to see the M’s down 16-0 before I packed it in for the night.

It’s been eight glorious games since Felix’s opening night gem.  There are achievements to celebrate and causes for concern, but tonight will be game ten.  It’s always difficult to assess where a team is going to end up until after game forty or so.  But last night is just such a black eye.  I know, it’s one game and you just have to forget it and get ready for tonight’s game.  Last night’s attendance was the lowest in Safeco history, and further performances like it will simply lead to more crappy attendance.

I hate to say it, but tonight is almost a must win game for the Mariners.  They’re 4-5, and play the deciding game against the Astros.  After that it’s Texas for four, and that won’t be fun. They’re followed by Detroit for three, hardly a party.  Blake Beavan needs to figure out how a team that’s averaged over ten strikeouts a game and up until last night averaged only 2.1 runs per game lights up a pitching staff for 16 runs.

The nine runs the M’s scored last night are unimportant.  For four innings Eric Bedard looked like Sandy Koufax and the M’s managed little offense.  Thus far, offensive prowess is very unevenly distributed on this team.  Take away Morse’s home runs and he looks like a hacker with his 11 strikeouts against one walk. .  Only Kendrys Morales,  Michael Saunders and Brendan Ryan are consistently producing.  It’s early, but Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley need to find a way to click the “on” button.  The fans are watching and they’re seeing the same things I’m seeing.

Just as disappointing, however, is the performance of Kameron Loe.  Loe gave up the walk-off homer in Chicago on Sunday, and surrendered three more dingers in his 2.1 innings. That’s six on the season over 6.1 innings. Do the math, that’s not a situation that can continue.  Though every pitcher that walked out on the mound last night seemed to have a target on his back, it is Loe’s early season performance that seems most problematic.

It’s a long season and  patience is required, but the M’s can’t afford many more performances like Wiley Coyote’s plunge from a mesa.  Followed by an Acme anvil.  Trailed by an Acme safe.  And blown up by a misguided Acme homing missile.

Felix shares the stage with Ryan

Felix Hernandez threw 109 pitches over seven and two thirds innings to beat the home Athletics 2-0.
Felix Hernandez threw 109 pitches over seven and two thirds innings to beat the home Athletics 2-0.

Last night In Oakland Fekix Hernandez dueled lefty Brett Anderson and came out the winner on opening day, 2-0. It was Felix’s fifth opening day win and the A’s ninth straight opening day loss. Hernandez went 7.2 innings, giving up three hits, with eight strikeouts, walking one.

For the most part, the A’s looked overmatched.  The King was perfect through the first three innings.  In the fourth he got in a spot of trouble when former Mariner, John Jaso doubled and advanced to third on a ground ball. Jaso on third, two outs.  Shortstop Brendan Ryan made a great play on a bouncer up the middle on the outfield grass, spun and threw out the speedy Yoenis Cespedes.  Ryan made another great play in the seventh inning, sliding to catch a foul pop off the bat of Jed Lowrie.

For most of the night it was the Felix Hernandez show, with the A’s struggling at the plate.  Hernandez pitched five 1-2-3 innings, and threw 109 pitches before he left the game with two outs in the eighth and runners on first and second.  The Mariners bullpen did make the rest of the game adventuresome.  Lefty Charlie Furbush came on in relief of Hernandez and walked Coco Crisp to load the bases.  Stephen Pryor came on in relief and got Derek Norris to ground out to Dustin Ackley to end the inning.  The ninth inning was similarly gripping as closer Tom Wilhelmson untypically struggled with his control. In his inning of work, Wilhelmson threw 18 pitches, only nine of them strikes.  With two outs he walked Jed Lowrie, who took second on indifference, and faced the tying run in Brandon Moss.  Eventually Moss flew out to right to end the game.

The only scoring in the game came in the fourth.  With one out, Ackley walked.  The next batter, Brendan Ryan blooped a single into right field.  Ackley, holding to make sure the ball wasn’t caught, sped around to third, sliding safely just ahead of a strong, accurate throw by Josh Reddick.  Both runners scored when Franklin Gutierrez bounced a single up the middle into center field.

On a night when the A’s hosted a sellout, and 15,000+ fans watched the evening’s festivities on the new big screen at Safeco Field, they saw what we’ve come to expect:  Felix dominant, helped out with some great defensive plays eking out an early season win.

2013 Mariners: questions that need answers

Felix danced after his perfect game, will he feel the same about his team as the season wears on?
Felix danced after his perfect game, will he feel the same about his team as the season wears on?

I’ve said before I’m excited about this season.  The Mariners should at least be fun to watch, regardless of how many games they win or lose.  This year they’ve got guys who can hit, guys who can mash.  They won’t appear to be as interesting as watching paint dry with the occasional Brendan Ryan defensive gem or Felix change-up breaking some poor bastard’s heart to liven things up. Nope, they’ll score plenty of runs and we can probably measure some Mike Morse shots in air miles. I can’t wait to see another year of Kyle Seager, or figure out whether Brandon Maurer is the real deal.  The M’s have a real bench with Raul v.3.0, Jason Bay (the return,) Robert Andino (man of a thousand positions,) and Kelly Shoppach (Iron Man 2.) Yes, everything’s looking up, but realistically this team’s got too many questions and would have to have too many things break right to believe they will contend.  Here are some questions I have.

Can this rotation work?  This will be the biggest factor the M’s will have to get right in order for this team to contend.  Felix is one of the best in the business and the M’s rewarded him for that with a big, fat contract.  There should be enough runs scored to make him look like the ace he is.  After the King, however there is little certainty.  Hisashi Iwakuma‘s entry into the major leagues last year had all the excitement of air escaping from a volleyball.  He pitched poorly in the bullpen, but was very good in his 16 starts that began on July 2nd.  The M’s were 10-6 in games Iwakuma started.  Though he is new to the major leagues, he is an 11-year veteran in Japan’s Pacific League.  So what do we have here?  A crafty veteran with good control that misses bats and induces ground balls?  Or is he just another Japanese starter who can fool ’em for a while but eventually the hitters figure him out? And can he do it for an entire season?  Last year Iwakuma was coming off major surgery, will he stay healthy?

Joe Saunders is a guy like Jason Vargas, a lefty slow-baller that usually keeps teams in games, but will, like Vargas, periodically vomit forth gopher balls. Saunders threw 174.2 innings last year for Arizona and Baltimore and allowed 21 homers.  He doesn’t walk a lot of guys.  Very much a 3-4 kind of guy in the rotation.  We know what we’ve got with Saunders, but it’s different with Brandon Maurer.  Brandon finished as the Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012, though he never made it to Tacoma.  He had a very good spring, but not one that led anyone to think he was the second coming of, say, Michael Pineda.  He’s a young guy who throws strikes, seems to pitch smart when he really needs to, and could be good.  But we just don’t know.

Blake Beavan won the last position by default, and I don’t mean that in any sort of nasty, pejorative way.  Beavan is barely 24 and a former first round draft pick for the Texas Rangers, yet he’s spent parts of two years in the bigs.  He’s taken a load of shit from the seamheads, who have consigned him to the midden out back.  In his defense, Beavan improved considerably after a stint at Tacoma last year.  In the off-season and during the spring Beavan worked on using his 6’7″ height to get more of a downward plane on his pitches in order to induce ground balls.  At times it’s worked.  At other times he’s looked like a meatball-throwing machine.

Is this a terrible rotation? No.  But there are loads of question marks.  With the exception of Felix and Saunders, it is a staff with little major league experience, so they unknowns, nobody knows what to expect.  The reason there were nods of approval when the M’s signed Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman to minor league deals is despite their injury woes, at least they had a major league track record.  Eric Wedge and Jack Zdurencik made a gutsy call when they let Garland walk.  That left a few young guys to win spots.  Maurer won his outright and Beavan did through default: Erasmo Ramirez and Bonderman just weren’t ready.  This team will go as far as the rotation takes them.  The bullpen is solid and should help but they need starters that can consistently go at least six innings.  We just don’t know if these guys can do that.  If they don’t, this team is a 75 win team.  If they can, the M’s probably contend.  It’s that simple. The good news is if Beavan or Maurer falter, it won’t take that long for Ramirez and Bonderman to drive the 35 miles from Cheney Stadium to Safeco Field.  Believe me, Danny Hultzen has the route plotted into his GPS.

How many games can we coax out Franklin Gutierrez’s glass body? Franklin Gutierrez, outside of the rotation, is the most important person on this team.  He is a good hitter, can get on base, has some speed and power.  He’s the most likely guy to lead off against lefties.  When he is healthy Gutierrez is arguably the best center fielder in the game.  And that’s the problem.  Since 2009, he’s rarely been healthy.  Gutierrez has suffered through a stack of injuries and health problems.  Irritable bowel syndrome, torn pectoral muscle, concussion.  This spring he played little, nursing tight leg musckes.  He is written in tonight’s lineup as your starting center fielder.  If Franklin Gutierrez can stay healthy enough to play 130 games, this team is so much better.  He adds a solid bat in the top third of the order, and is without question the team’s best outfielder.  Without him the M’s will be playing outfield musical chairs with players who are better suited in different positions.  Unlike the infield and pitching, the M’s have little organizational depth in the outfield, and a healthy Guti buys time for those young guys to get a year closer to the bigs while he puts on his show in Safeco’s less spacious cow pasture.

Is Justin Smoak fixed? If so, can he stay fixed?   What I can identify in a batter’s swing is worth less than a deep fried cowpie. Smothered in garlic. But it was evident to anyone who could see that Justin Smoak‘s 2012 swing  was nightmarishly long.  When the M’s sent him down to Tacoma, he came back with something new in September after working with hitting coach Jeff Pentland.  He had a great last four weeks of the season.  Even though Wedge said he looked much different, it was September and nobody was buying.  This spring Smoak continued his hot hitting, sprayed doubles to the opposite field and hit some towering home runs.  His spring line was .407/.455/.797.  Yes it’s just spring, but even observers suggest there is now a huge difference in Smoak’s approach to the ball.  His swing is much shorter and he now has much more time to recognize pitches.  Everyone knows this is a big year for Justin Smoak.  If he crashes and burns again he’s done with this team.  When Zdurencik DFA’d Casper Wells yesterday, he demonstrated that at some point the kids have to perform or they are history.  Just as importantly, the Mariners need Justin Smoak to be the mashing monster they thought he’d become when they picked him up in the Cliff Lee deal.  If he becomes a 30 homer switch hitting terror for the M’s rather than some other team he will become a foundational player for this team for a decade. He does, however, still strike out too much and walk too little but that’s another post.

Can the M’s  stop hitting stupid?  In 2012 the M’s, unlike other years, were not dead last in every offensive category.  But they were dead last in two important areas, on base percentage and runs scored.  Though they did not lead the league in strikeouts, finishing some 100 behind Oakland, they were way up near the top.  Somehow they Mariners have to be betterhitters.  The recently concluded spring training shows many hitters with strikeout percentages well over 25%: Justin Smoak, Mike Morse, the recently departed Casper Wells, Michael Saunders, Kelly Shoppach, Jason Bay, Justin Smoak.  These are buckets of strikeouts for guys who are going to play important roles in a team’s offense–no wait, MY team’s offense.  Only a few players had anything approaching reasonable walk rates.  A team can carry maybe one guy with strikeout rates approaching Mark Reynolds‘ (who also walks a fair amount), but a whole team of guys?  Noooooooo.   I think not.

There’s more I could add-the fences at Safeco coming in, outfield defense, what Tom Wilhelmson thinks of Washington’s pot legalization, but maybe later.  I firmly believe no team is going to run away with this division.  The top four teams will be good, but all  have flaws.  This opening series against the A’s should give us a good idea of what both teams are made of.

The best day of the year

Tomorrow is Mariners open their season against the Oakland A’s in Oakland. It’s unquestionably the day I await most anxiously each year. More than Christmas, the first/last day of the school year or any other day. That’s likely true of most baseball fans, particularly those invested in a particular team as I am the M’s.

Saturday Dave, Tim and I went off to the Tacoma Rainiers open house at Cheney Stadium. It was fun. Though it was a little windy and chilly, it was still a beautiful day to spend a couple of hours at the ballpark and talk baseball with friends.

I confess, my baseball knowledge is pretty Mariners-centered, and by default more focused on the American League West. I promised my friends I would make my predictions for the West for this season.

The first observation I have is that this should be a more competitive race. I believe the top four teams have either added or suffered losses to their rosters that could keep the A’s Rangers, Angels and Mariners in the conversation about the division championship. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be in the race at the end, but they’re all going to be good enough to have a hand in the deciding the winner either as leader or spoiler. I do believe the West is going to be the toughest division in the American League.

1st place: Oakland A’s. Last year the A’s won the division on the strength of young players that developed much faster than anybody expected. Assembled with Billy Beane’s typical acumen, the A’s have the good young starting pitching and history on their side.  Even so, as with every other team in the division they are hardly a lock.  They’ll be trying out a  new third baseman, and trying to avoid an injury bug that seems to have plagued them considerably the last few years.  They’ll need to count on continued development by their young staff, and have to count on no sophomore slumps from their young hitters such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Riddick and Seth Smith.  Perhaps most importantly, they’ll need to win without the veteran leadership of Johnny Gomes and Brandon Inge that former A’s Brandon McCarthy suggested was a huge part of their success in 2012.  Even so, the A’s brought in some bargain, but quality players like Jed Lowrie to bolster their infield and add a veteran presence to the clubhouse, so I’m picking these guys to repeat.  Not a sexy pick I know.

2nd place: Los Angels of Anaheim.  These guys are the sexy pick to win because let’s face it, they’ve signed the big guns the last couple of years in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and have all-universe outfielder Mike Trout.  This team has so many offensive strengths it’s hard not to see them as the sexy choice.  They’ll play great outfield defense with Trout, Hamilton and Peter Bourjos.  Mark Trumbo emerged as a great young bat last year.  Howie Kendricks is arguably the best second baseman in the league not named Cano.  The question is their starting rotation.  Jered Weaver struggled at the end of the year (much like Felix Hernandez I might add) and then dealt away or lost many pieces of their rotation.  The Halos’ pitching simply doesn’t look as formidable as in years past.  Though they did pick up Jason Vargas from the M’s in the Kendrys Morales trade, (one of my favorite pitchers,) this team is going to score a lot of runs and they’re going to give up a bunch too.  Losing out on the Zach Greinke sweepstakes hurt. Last, but not least, this team heads into 2013 with an age factor for some of their best players.  While not as geriatric as the Yankees, they’re counting on Pujols (33) and Hamilton (32) to provide production and leadership for years to come, and they can’t do that from the DL.  While there are many exciting young players on this team, many are 29 and 30 and will reach the dark side of 30 soon.

3rd place: Texas Rangers. The Rangers are a team I’ve loved to hate over the years because they are just so damn good, and they’ve built their team the right way.  But it looks like their reign as the big, mean kid on the block is over.  They watched Josh Hamilton walk across the street to L.A., they didn’t sign Zack Greinke, they didn’t fill Hamilton’s empty spot, they didn’t make much of an off season splash.  This team, which used to be a marvel because of the wealth of it’s superb farm system is now old.  Nelson Cruz is 33, Adrian Beltre is 34, Ian Kinsler is 31.  The two guys they brought in to contribute to the team, catcher A.J. Pierzynski and DH Lance Berkman at 36 and 37 respectively, are well past their pull dates .  The future of this team, the exciting, young Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt didn’t make the team out of Spring Training as expected.  Though there are still plenty of fine players on the Rangers, and they have playoff experience, it’s unclear how the loss of Hamilton and Rangers’ hits leader Michael Young will affect them.  Finally, it is unclear how this winter’s news that Nelson Cruz is tied to the Biogenesis PED’s story will affect his or the team’s season.  Maybe not at all, maybe a lot.  This team has enough pieces that they should hang in there throughout the season, but the manner in which they lost the division to Oakland on the last day of the season as well as the exit of key players from the team, and the news of division between Nolan Ryan and others in the front office suggest trouble to me.

4th place: Seattle Mariners.  I’m really excited about the M’s for 2013, and I may make time to follow up with my concerns and predictions for the team.  But let me just say, I don’t think this team will contend.  They may hang around the leaders until mid-summer, but they just aren’t quite there yet.  The M’s showed everyone in Spring Training they have stepped up and improved their offense by adding some veteran players in the middle of their order.  They pitched well enough in ST to have a very good Cactus League record.  Usually, though, this means nothing.  The Mariners will definitely score more runs than years past.  Pitchers will have more to think about with this roster. Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales give them a veteran presence in the middle of the order.  The kids will be hitting in spots better suited to their development and experience.  The M’s have added some bench depth with Robert Andino, Raul Ibanez, and Jason Bay.  But, in order for the Mariners to contend and awful lot of things would have to break right. The M’s are also a team that could be subject to the injury bug.  They added tons of veteran old guys to this team like Ibanez, Bay and Saunders.  Morales and Morse are both coming off seasons of recovery from significant injury, and that leaves the perpetually broken Franklin Gutierrez out of the equation.  Finally, in order to win it all the M’s would have to see continued improvement from the young guys.  If Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero turn into monsters, and if Dustin Ackley finds his stroke again it could be a very interesting summer. While Felix Hernandez is a proven commodity worthy of his really big contract, the others down the rotation are either unproven i.e.; Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan, semi-proven in the case of Hisashi Iwakuma, or mediocre in the case of Joe Saunders.  My belief is this team is as good as its rotation.  Given the improved hitting and questionable starting staff, I think they’re about a .500 team.

5th place: Houston Astros.  They’re a bad team today, but some day they’ll be good.  Remember when the Detroit Tigers were neck and neck with the 1962 Mets for most losses in a season?  The Astros, having lost over 100 games in each of the last two years, and traded away all of their name players in the off season will continue to struggle for the next few years.  They’re rebuilding and they’re doing it the  right way, which is painful.  But it’s the path Bill Bavasi should have taken to avoid the “lost decade” the M’s find themselves trying to climb out of. Remember, these teams still have to play the games and Houston thumped Texas in the first game of the season 8-2 last night. It doesn’t matter what the buffoons at PECOTA or ZIPS have to say-play the games and win baby.