Month: April 2015

Cruz launches, Felix labors, as M’s sweep Rangers.

The Texas Rangers entered tonight’s game with a team batting average of .212, by far the lowest in the major leagues.  They faced Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, coming off his best start of the season.  Felix seemed to fight himself most of the night, but managed to get the win as the Mariners swept the Rangers in the series finale 5-2.

The M’s featured plenty of offense, if one counts putting men on base.  With nine hits, six walks and the beneficiaries of four Rangers errors, this game probably should have been a blowout.  But timely hitting remained elusive for the Mariners as they were 3-15 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base.  Aggressive baserunning had Ricky Weeks thrown out at the plate twice on contact plays from third base. Brad Miller was thrown out at third on a subsequent play.  It seemed the bases were full of Mariners most of the night, but clutch hitting simply was not a weapon in their arsenal.

They were beneficiaries of another Nelson Cruz home run, a rocket shot that got out into the second deck of the Globe Life Stadium fast and far.  Taped by StatCast at 483 feet, it is the longest homer in the majors so far this season.  Logan Morrison’s 4-5 night ended weeks of futility and drove in two runs to keep the Rangers just out of reach, including a key single in the 9th inning to score Robinson Cano.

Hernandez seemed to struggle with the strike zone throughout his 6.2 inning outing.  It was a contrast to his efficient outing against the Twins April 24th.  Though only in serious trouble in the 2nd when the Rangers scored both their runs, the Felix threw 114 pitches in this game in contrast to the 102 pitch complete game he spun against Minnesota. If Felix didn’t have his A game, it still seemed more than enough to hold down a Texas team that is increasingly looking like last year’s injury-riddled squad. Hernandez finished April with a 4-0 record.

Tonight the M’s found their walking shoes and dancing shoes, but they’re still looking for their hitting shoes. They’ll need them as they head into Houston for a four game series against the division leader.

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M’s need to put on their hitting shoes

J.A. Happ turned in another gem in his fourth start of the season. Entering the game with a 3.9K/9 average, Happ dominated the first six innings, struck out ten and left after 6.2 innings.  Manager Lloyd McLendon ran through his bullpen Rolodex to close out the final 2.1 innings.  The Mariners hung on to beat the Texas Rangers 2-1.

The Mariners dinged the Rangers early for a couple of runs.  After a leadoff triple, Nelson Cruz scored in the fourth on a Kyle Seager out.  Rickie Weeks followed Seager with a solo home run.  That was it for Mariners scoring. The Mariners only had seven hits in the game, following a pattern in the M’s offense.  Score a little early, and then hold on tight, because there’s not likely going to be more later. Of the Mariners last ten games, since April 18th, the M’s have scored after the fifth inning only three times.

Last night was no different.  Facing the hapless Ross Detwiler, whom they pounded mercilessly April 19th in Seattle, the Mariners managed just five hits in 5.1 innings, and only two more against the Rangers bullpen.  What’s more only three Mariners had hits.  Cruz, Weeks, and Justin Ruggiano had multi-hit games. It’s hard to go fast when only a few of your cylinders are firing.

Today is Happy Felix Day.  We celebrate every fifth day.  But it would be nice to find him a little run support and get the beast firing on all cylinders.  They may be able to get by a miserable Texas team scoring two runs a game, but on Friday they sail in to Houston for a weekend series against the division leaders.   The ‘Stro’s can hit, run, and this year they can pitch too.  As Dave Niehaus used to say, the Mariners “need to put on their hitting shoes.”

Not much to cheer in Sea-Town

We’re 19 games into the season, and the Mariners are 8-11.  It could be worse.  The Nationals, pre-season favorite to win the whole damn thing, are 7-13.  The Indians, picked to beat the M’s in the ALCS, are a miserable 6-12 and 7 games behind the division leading Tigers.

Do I think it will finish this way, with M’s winning something like 70 games and the Astro’s winning the division?  Probably not.  But the Mariners are off to a disconcerting start, given the high expectations held for them.

The Good

Nelson Cruz-Reams were written about this guy, how he couldn’t hit at Safeco, how his home run numbers were inflated in Baltimore, and his terrible defense.  Yet his .308/.358/.693 slash line clearly leads the team.  His 6 walks is tied for the team lead, as are his 16 strikeouts. He leads the league in home runs and rbi’s which may not be a surprise, but what’s impressed me most has been his hustle and his effort on defense. I like him better as a DH, just for injury prevention, but he’s earned a shot in the outfield. Without Cruz, the Mariners record might be unspeakable.

Felix Hernandez-To be expected I suppose. Except for his injury-shortened April 12th start against Oakland, Felix has been very Felix-like.  Quality starts, a strike throwing machine, Felix has give up five runs in four starts, including three in his five inning Oakland game.  He’s been the rock we always imagine him to be. With a 10.9 K/9, 1.61 ERA, .79 WHIP, and a 238 ERA+, Felix is off to another superb start

J.A. Happ-I was critical of the trade for Happ.  Yet, he’s done nothing but impress in his three starts. He’s thrown three quality games, and with a little consistent run support could be 3-0.  He’s allowed two runs in each of his starts.  Though his numbers aren’t as gaudy as the King’s. Happ is dependable when 3/5’s of Mariners starts are a crap shoot leading off with snake-eyes. If Happ continues to pitch as he has while the rest of the starters try to find themselves.

The Bad

James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma-When three-fifths of your starting staff can’t consistently go five quality innings your team is in trouble.  This is the  ERA/FIP/WHIP/ERA+ for the Three Amigos:

James Paxton  6.86/4.71/1.576/56

Taijuan Walker 6.86/3.79/1.831/56

Hisashi Iwakuma  6.61/6.26/1.408/56

These are all terrible.  With Iwakuma on the DL and his replacement by Roenis Elias, and Walker’s encouraging start last night, perhaps there are signs of encouragement. Clearly things cannot continue if the Mariners hope to contend.

Mike Zunino-Zunino, picking up from last year, continues to be great on defense and bad at the plate. Despite the success of his Spring Training approach of spreading out at the plate to provide additional coverage, Zunino is striking out at a prodigious rate without offensive success.  With a .132/.203/.264 slash line, Mike needs to start coming around.

Dustin Ackley-Hi, my name is Dustin Ackley and I’ve got a great beard.  But that’s about all.  After three home runs in his first handful of games, he’s become Mr. Lost at the plate. With a .200/.245/.400 slash line, it’s clear that Lloyd McClendon is beginning to tire of his inconsistency and others are starting to get his at bats. With Patrick Kivlehan and Franklin Gutierrez putting up some numbers in Tacoma, it’s uncertain how long his leash will be, given his history of inconsistency.

The Bullpen-It’s hard to tell if the relief staff’s stumbling start is the result of bad pitching, or is simply following the opening implosion of the starting staff.  Whichever, it’s hard to imagine these seven guys are same ones who pitched so well last year and not creatures crawling out last year’s Houston Astros bullpen. Of the seven, only Carson Smith has performed, consistently.  Fernando Rodney’s Traveling Circus continues its road (and home) show, and features Danny Farquhar as an opening act.  If the starting pitching improves and fewer demands are made on the bullpen, perhaps things will turn around.  But of all the problems, the bullpen issue may be of most concern.

Scoring-Despite Nelson’s Cruz’s heroics, the Mariners rank 13th in the American League in scoring.  Yes, I buy all the arguments about slow starts and giving things time, but combined with the pitching woes, an inability to score runs means a challenge in winning games. In their 19 games they’ve scored three runs or less 11 times.

Yes, I do believe it’s too early to begin searching the sea for life rafts.  But it is just as clear that the Mariners aren’t scoring enough runs.  it’s seemed that no lead is safe and the M’s have become adept at letting games slip away late.  We see fan awareness as attendance slips with every home loss. The M’s need to begin turning things around now if they want to keep fan interest after the NFL draft.

3-4, and what have we learned?

The M’s finished their first official week of play at three wins and four losses.  After all the pre-season hype, a fan might hope the M’s were a bit closer to the unbeaten mark.  But that is the beauty of a 162 game season: we’re just getting started and there are 155 games left to play.

Have you checked the standings lately? Your Seattle Mariners, despite their struggles are a half game behind the division leading Oakland Athletics, are tied with the Angels and Astros, and remain one full game ahead of projected World Series champions, Washington Nationals.

Is there something to worry about?  Despite the boom and bust quality of this team out of the gate, I am inclined to say no. My belief is it takes a good 35-40 games to know what a team is going to be over the course of a season, and fully evaluate a team’s strengths and weaknesses. The length of the season is the beauty of this game.  It’s important not to get caught up in the moment of a single game, a single series or even a single week.

Nevertheless, it is distressing that in the last two games, Sunday’s game against the A’s and Monday’s game against the Dodgers, the M’s got off to big leads-four runs in each game-and gave them away.  That is very unlike last year’s pitching performances.  Though the Mariners ended up splitting those games, fans can only hope this is a little blip on the radar of a long season.  If this is like a sudden onset of anxiety, that’s fine. But if Paxton meltdowns, Rodney pyrotechnics, and Walker supernovas are features of a full-blown personality disorder, this team will be in a lot of trouble despite Nelson Cruz’s entertaining fireworks displays.

Plenty of time to figure this out, but keep your eyes peeled and know where the air-raid shelters are.

Pre-season grades and prediction time.,

Monday is the big day, the best day of the year. The Mariners open their regular season.  It’s at home in Safeco Field at the ungodly hour of 1:10, or shortly after my 5th period class begins. The M’s wrapped up the last couple of Cactus League games by whacking around the Colorado Rockies as much of the National League is likely to do this season.  Tonight they fly home with their team set and prepare for Monday’s opener with a team that is healthy, widely praised by national media and projected by many to be the American League champs.

So, as the M’s steam into the regular season I’d like to offer my grades of where the Mariners are by position as well as my predictions for the season.  There is little question this is the best Mariners team since 2003. That team won 93 games and was the last vestige of the glory years 1995-2003.  Except for Ichiro, the stars of the past were fading away and this team should be as good as that team, maybe.  Honestly I’ve been spooked over the years.  Expectations have been missed.  Teams that should have performed well have not, so I’m not going to give these guys a pass.  Let me share my scores and my reservations along the way.

Starting Rotation

If King Felix is your number one guy, followed by Hishashi Iwakuma, then all should be right with the world.  The addition of veteran lefty J.A. Happ to lefty James Paxton, and the emergence of Taijuan Walker should make a tremendous rotation.  Right? Well, yeah, but. . . Happ, Paxton, and Walker have not pitched the equivalent of 200 innings in the big leagues before.  The concern about managing everyone’s innings has led to the introduction of a six man rotation with Roenis Elias bouncing back and forth between the Rainiers and Mariners.  Though logically I understand this, I don’t think it helps either club much.

Grade: This rotation has the potential to be the best in the American League, but keeping that potential thing in mind I give the rotation a B+

Bullpen

The Mariners return their bullpen intact from the 2014 season.  The only change is rookie Tyler Olson taking the lefty spot held by Joe Beimel.  Olson had a super spring and may actually be more effective against righthanders than Beimel.  The 2014 bullpen was, top to bottom, the most effective in the major leagues.

Grade: They’ll be good, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be as good as last year.  Bullpens usually aren’t that consistent year to year, and Fernando Rodney gives me the yips.  The bullpen rates a B

Catcher

Catcher is such an important position, because defense is so important, that league average or above offense is simply gravy.  The Mariners return two very young players behind the dish, starter Mike Zunino, age 23 and back up Jesus Sucre, 26. Zunino demonstrated superior defensive skills and handled the pitching staff well.  Sucre is also a solid defensive player. However, despite showing incredible right-handed power, Zunino struggled at the plate, hitting .199 with 158 strikeouts. Those must improve.  He’s shown a new approach at the plate and had a very good spring. But as we know, spring training numbers mean nothing.

Grade: Zunino is another player long on potential who will have to produce if the M’s are going to meet the expectations set by the media.  But because he hasn’t done it yet, I rate the catchers a C+.

Infield

Let’s do this a bit differently and focus on each position individually, which seems only fair.

First Base-Logan Morrison: When the M’s acquired Morrison last year and promised to stick him in right field with Corey Hart, I thought it was a stupid idea.  He struggled with injury and ineffectiveness early, but became a prime contributor to the M’s run through August and into September.  Morrison is another player who could make this team better if he improves on 2014’s .262/.315/.420 slash line, or at least is a consistent producer across the season.  Morrison is an adequate defender, and it’s an important year as he heads into his free agent season.

Grade: C +

Second Base-Robinson Cano. I think every Mariners fan sees the signing of Cano for the 2014 season as the watershed event in returning this team to respectability.  He is fun to watch-always cool and collected in the field, making difficult plays look easy.  He achieved as much as could be expected at the plate, taking what the pitching gave him. However, it seemed his most significant role was in the clubhouse, being a positive role model and mentoring the young Mariners, and convincing Nelson Cruz to come to Seattle.  He’s a winner.

Grade: A

Third Base-Kyle Seager: Seager’s path started on an upward arc the moment he stepped on the field for the Mariners in 2011.  Last year’s .268/.334/..454 were the best of his career earning him an All-Star bid and MVP votes. His improved defense won him a Gold Glove.  Can he get better? I believe he can.  He works on his craft constantly, and is trying to hit to left so defenses play him honestly.  He is someone who could maybe hit .280, with the same power numbers.  He’s still only 27.

Grade: A-

Shortstop-Brad Miller: The battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor for the shortstop spot was to be one of the most important competitions of Spring Training. When Taylor went down with a broken wrist the job became Miller’s by default.  Shortstop is such an important defensive position, and Miller is such a gifted athlete you just want him to be successful. But his performance last year raised such doubt. Miller must consistently make all the plays and avoid the defensive breakdowns of the past.  If he hits league average across the season, without the devastating slump he suffered at the beginning of 2014 Miller will boost the team toward their run to a division crown. If Miller struggles defensively and offensively he’ll make the pitching staff work and likely will be ticketed for Tacoma on Taylor’s return to full health.

Grade: C-

Designated Hitter

Designated hitter was such a black hole in the Mariners batting order in the last ten years.  Yes, there were some good ones-Jose Vidro, Russell Branyan, and yes, even Kendrys Morales  had good years for the M’s.  But mostly Mariners DH’s were terrible.  The signing of Nelson Cruz really was another down payment on a winning season.  The best right-handed hitter available with legitimate power is in Mariner blue. Not quite ready to crown this a raging success. He won’t walk a lot and will strike out a ton, but if he hits .260 with 27-32 home runs, the M’s will have gotten their money’s worth. Cruz needs to stay healthy and show he beat the Safeco Curse on right handed power. But he will be a welcome bat hitting between Cano and Seager.  Though he is not an awful outfielder, I want to see him out in right field as little as possible.

Grade: B

Outfield

Unable to acquire effective everyday players for right field, the Mariners have acquired a collection of complementary pieces to fill in the corner outfield spots.  The acquisition of Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith to form a right field platoon was smart. Both are veteran players who have played  platoon roles before and are comfortable in those roles. Both are decent defenders and are effective hitting against opposite handed pitchers.  Smith is a grinder whose .367 OBP would have been second behind Cano in 2014. Ruggiano can also play center field. This is center fielder Austin Jackson’s walk year and he needs to play well to get a contract for 2016.  He is an average defender.  The Mariners need him to rebound offensively, just get on base and let the rest of the team drive him in. There is some question whether he will lead off regularly as Rickie Weeks has a stronger on-base percentage. The organization has clearly lost some faith in Dustin Ackley.  I would think this is his Justin Smoak year. He needs to produce consistently to have a future with this team.  Like Smoak, Ackley needs to produce consistently.  Unlike Smoak, his issues seem to be more mental than physical.  He did become an effective defender in left field, and his August performance clearly boosted the team. But the decision to platoon Ackley in left with Rickey Weeks demonstrates the M’s don’t believe he will adjust to left handed pitching.  Weeks allows the M’s to bring some balance in their line up against lefties.  A career second baseman, it’s unclear how the athletic Weeks will adjust to playing the outfield.

Grade: Unlike many teams, the outfield is not the offensive strength of this team, though General Manager Jack Zdurencik has done a great job of creating some roster flexibility in the pieces he’s acquired, and re-balancing the M’s left heavy lineup. The outfield is improved, but not the strength of the team. B-

Bench

For years the Mariners bench was filled with young prospects who hadn’t really earned their way on to the team.  This year the bench looks something like Willie Bloomquist, Weeks, Ruggiano and Sucre.  Except for Sucre, these are veteran players who have had success in the majors and play vital roles on the team.  No more Stefan Romeros and James Jones.  I wouldn’t suggest these guys are all-stars, but they provide important depth the Mariners haven’t had in decades.

Grade: B

Manager

Lloyd McClendon is a crusty, curmudgeonly veteran of past manager wars, and has coached on some winning Tigers teams.  He is direct, honest, and the players really seem to love playing for him.  He tells it like it is.  Though he hasn’t been in those on-field tactical decisions that are live and die in the World Series, he seems like he’s perfectly capable of managing the X’s and O’s and the coaches he’s surrounded himself with seem solid.

Grade: A

PREDICTIONS

There will be no cake walk to victory in the American League West, despite what the pundits say.  Though the Angels did little in the off-season, the acquisition of Matt Joyce from the Rays should take a little of the sting out of the muddled Josh Hamilton situation.  Their rotation will be adequate, but not great, and they should score lots of runs. I’m not a fan of all the A’s off-season moves.  Yes, they can do match-ups and have roster flexibility, but can they score runs.  Josh Riddick for Brandon Moss?  The oft-injured Brett Lawrie for Josh Donaldson?  They will pitch well, but can they score runs? I’m dubious. The Astros will be better.  Maybe a .500 team.  The injury train keeps rolling through Texas, collecting bodies by the side of the track.

I predict the Mariners will narrowly win the American League West in a down to the wire dogfight with the Angels.  No team will run away, because honestly this is going to be a tough division that won’t allow high win totals.

Team                                     Wins     Losses

Seattle                                  91         71

Los Angeles                         90         72

Oakland                                85          77

Houston                                81           81

Texas                                    72           90

Mariners will win the division and defeat the wild card winner, and advance to the ALCS where they will beat Cleveland. They go on to the World Series where they will defeat the surprise National League champion San Diego Padres 4-3. What do you think?