Month: March 2015

Looking at the M’s with a critical eye

The bandwagon for the Mariners is growing more and more crowded as SI put Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano on one of its regional covers.  I’m hoping for the best as M’s steam into the closing weeks of the Cactus League schedule.

Events seem to be pointing toward a good year ahead, but it’s hard to tell how much is hype and punditry, and how much is reliable.  Lloyd McLendon predicted the team should score 700 runs.  Jim Moore on ESPN 710 suggested the M’s would hit 200 home runs. In these offense-starved times, that’s quite a prescription for famished Mariners hitters.  The M’s scored only 634 runs in 2014, and only five teams in the American League plated 700 or more scores last year, down from ten in 2013.  200 home run seasons are mostly a vestige of the steroids era and not the present pitching-dominant present. Only Baltimore in the AL hit over 200 home runs as a team in 2014, the same as in 2013.  But Kansas City went to the World Series last year with only 95 dingers, the fewest in the major leagues.

Despite the predictions, the hope, and the crowding of the upper deck on the bandwagon, I continue to have nagging concerns about this team’s ability to put it all together.  So I’ve avoided anointing the 2015 Mariners as anything more than hopefuls.  Here are the alarms that continue going off in my head:

Shortstop: When Chris Taylor went down with a broken wrist ten days ago, the shortstop job went to Brad Miller by default.  Miller is a wonderful athlete,  with a strong arm, powerful bat and speed, long on potential, but not quite able to put it all together for 2014.  The competition between Taylor and Miller pitted two players, both with potential and short of major league success in competition for the same job.  Taylor was the better defender, and an unproven hitter at the major league hitter.  Miller, capable of making the spectacular play in the field was plagued with defensive inconsistency.  With Miller installed as the de facto Mariner shortstop, the weight of expectations now falls firmly on his shoulders.  Though improved offensive production will make the Mariners better, run prevention is what got them where they were last year, and will fuel their success this year.  A shortstop who can’t make the plays makes the pitching staff worse.  Miller must be at least league average defensively for the Mariners to win.  Improved offensive production is icing on the cake.

Closer: Fernando Rodney is the Mariners closer and that is etched in stone, according to McClendon. It cannot be denied the Mariners bullpen was much improved, in no small part because the veteran Rodney was the leader who helped establish roles everyone easily could slot into. As a result, Rodney saved 48 games and blew only three saves.  But that doesn’t mean everything was rosy. The Fernando Rodney Flying Circus and High Wire Act grew wearisome as the year went on.  Rodney always seemed to be in trouble of his own making, walking guys and giving up hits instead of getting outs. Fangraphs shows Rodney with an unacceptably high walk rate of 3.8 BB/9 and a ridiculously high .330 BABIP.  David Schoenfeld at ESPN, rating all closers in the majors, rated Rodney at 24th and “Cover Your Eyes and Keep the Kids Away.”  Rodney is only three seasons removed from a historically dominant season with the Rays, so it’s likely the 38 year old still has it, but he’s got to get it done for the Mariners to succeed.  Putting men on base puts too much pressure on the defense, and every ninth inning becomes an unnecessary trip to ulcer gulch–or disaster.  The M’s were only one win away from he playoffs last year. Blown saves are part of the game, but let’s not be ridiculous.

Platoons and Parts: I like the roster flexibility the platoons give McClendon.  The Mariners will finally be able to mix and match the strengths of their roster against opposing teams.  Whenever critics carp about platoons I always remind them of Baltimore’s lefty/righty combo of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in the early 80’s. Together they combined for 36 homers in 1979, 45 in 1982 and 34 in 1983.  The problem in depending on platoons, as the M’s will be in both left and right field, is the team is depending on multiple parts to make one position work.  I’m not being critical of this effort to answer the needs at those positions, but it depends on two guys being successful at those positions instead of one. As long as Justin Ruggiano AND Seth Smith provide the expected production, all is well.  But if there is an injury, or if one of the two has a bad year, that’s a problem. The M’s can’t reach into the minors and reproduced Ackley and Weeks expected production.  In 1980 Lowenstein and Roenicke produced well below their career averages to hit only ten home runs.  Homers aren’t the end all be all, but if you’re depending on players for production, they need to produce.  Platoons double the chances a position won’t produce. My fingers are crossed.

The Mariners could be the big winners in the AL this year, but there are some key positions that are problematic.  My hope is that I’m needlessly worrying.  But to ignore them is simply whistling past the bandwagon graveyard.

Two weeks until Opening Day

The interest in this Mariners team is something I haven’t seen in at least a decade.  The interest, the expectations, the WAR-counting by even casual fans is intense. If the Mariners were hoping to generate a fan buzz that hasn’t been here for a long time they’ve succeeded.  Opening night is sold out, though the proof of sustained interest isn’t the ticket sales for April 6th, it’s the sales for the 7th and 8th.

I want to be on the rah-rah train and scream the Mariners will win it all along with the national and local press. Unfortunately all I can think about is the 2014 Texas Rangers and their pennant hopes derailed by a carload of injuries.  Worse still, I remember being in the Kingdome for Opening Night of the 1992 season.  Newly acquired Kevin Mitchell was in left field and Randy Johnson pitched the M’s to an 8-3 lead heading into the 8th.  Closer Mike Schooler came in and gave up four of nine runs surrendered to the Rangers in the 8th, and the M’s imploded on the way to a 12-10 loss and 92 more in a season of high expectations and a horrible pitching staff.

I’m not suggesting for a minute this team is doomed, or that it shouldn’t contend.  But I’m willing to withhold judgment and allow the games to be played out. It will reduce my Zantac consumption as well as my sleepless nights. i’m not a big believer in Steamer, FANS, ZiPS, or the Magic 8-ball. Just play the damn games.

That said, it’s hard not to like the way the team is shaping up.  One of the big questions heading into Arizona was the fifth pitcher on the staff. Roenis Elias hasn’t pitched terribly, but Taijuan Walker seems to grabbed the job with good outings each time. J.A. Happ has looked good.  Today James Paxton had his first outing after an early minor injury and looked good.  Heck the whole team looked good as they pummeled the hapless Rangers 8-0, who look to be headed for the same injury train wreck of last year.

The shortstop competition was settled by default when Chris Taylor broke a bone in his wrist.  Sidelined for 4-6 weeks, the job was left wide open for Brad Miller.  Is Miller the guy? It’s hard to judge based on Spring Training numbers, but clearly there’s one less option available if Miller falters out of the gate as he did last year.  I have my fingers crossed. They were crossed for Mike Schooler too.

The bullpen situation also seems to be sorting itself out.  Though Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen have had their rough moments, again one shouldn’t make too much out of spring training.  The lefties competition seems to be playing itself out with the competition coming down to David Rollins, the Rule 5 selection from Arizona, and Tyler Olson.  Both have been superb. But with Olson having minor league options, and Rollins having to be returned to Arizona if he isn’t put on the major league options, it seems he’s the likely keeper.  Rollins looked great in today’s game. Though Joe Saunders apparently remains in the competitions for the second lefty job, he’s been incinerated in each of his outings, so it’s hard to imagine he’ll win it.

It looks like the competitions are largely over, though Lloyd McClendon is unlikely to say so.  The main challenge the M’s will have for the next couple of weeks is to keep everyone healthy, and insure the regulars get enough playing time to get sharp for Opening Night.

Just one more thing.  I can say almost unreservedly I like the way the Mariners have constructed this team, and the way they seem to be positioning themselves for future seasons.  This team still has a lot of young players.  Zunino, Miller, Ackley, Seager, Paxton, Walker, the platoons of guys in the bullpen are all still quite young.  But they’ve also brought in some veteran guys, some in starting roles like Cano and Cruz, and others who will share roles like Ruggiano, Smith and Weeks. There is just enough depth on the team to give guys a break from the M’s horrendous travel schedule and to ease minor hurts.  But, best of all, this team, unlike past Mariners teams, are beginning to stockpile talent in the minors. There is no rush to bring up Patrick Kivlehan or D.J. Peterson, or even John Hicks. Danny Hultzen can take his time getting ready because Roenis Elias is likely to be the Rainiers staff ace. With the Mariners only carrying seven in the bullpen, Carson Smith or Dominic Leone are likely to close in Tacoma.  This is different for the M’s, and I like it.