Month: July 2015

If There Is A Silver Lining . . .

Franklin Gutierrez homers in the 10th inning to beat the Blue Jays 6-5. It was the first walk off homer of his career.
Franklin Gutierrez homers in the 10th inning to beat the Blue Jays 6-5. It was the first walk off homer of his career.

I went to yesterday’s game with a friend.  Yes that’s right the game against the Blue Jays the Mariners managed to lose 8-6 in the ninth inning.  Two terms to remember-Fernando Rodney and bullpen fatigue.  Maybe one more sandwiched in between the two would be appropriate-two-run homer. In any case, though the game had its moments, it was a demoralizing, dispiriting game in which the M’s game back from a 3-1 hole to take a 6-3 lead that Rodney couldn’t hold in the 8th, and Carson Smith gave up the game winner in the 9th.  There’s lots of blame to go around, but honestly I’m done bitchin’ about one game.

I turned today’s game on in the car, and missed a great deal of it.  Turned it on just in time to watch Franklin Gutierrez cavorting around the bases after crushing an Aaron Loup fastball for a walkoff homerun. Game over.  M’s win the series.  All the skazillions of Blue Jays fans infesting Safeco Field can go home knowing your team is one game further behind the Yankees than when you crawled in on Friday.

There’s lots of things I missed today.  Nelson Cruz’s 25th dinger.  The amazing triple play in the 4th. The sterling performances of Mark Lowe and Joe Beimel in a too short outing by Tai Walker and ineffectual stint by David Rollins.

But what I did not miss was the sheer joy on the face of Guti as he was rounding second.  I didn’t miss the excitement on the faces on his teammates as they mobbed him at home. I didn’t miss the deft evasive maneuvers by veteran post-game reporter Jen Mueller as she dodged an entire cooler of orange Gatorade sloshed onto Guti’s back.

Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass what anybody else did in this game, because nobody, and I mean nobody believed that Franklin Gutierrez would be on this Mariners team at all this year, let alone be the catalyst for two M’s games in one week with key home runs.  He shouldn’t even be playing this game given his history of illness, injury and degenerative arthritis. The M’s went out an got Justin Ruggiano, Ricky Weeks and Mark Trumbo to be right handed bats who could platoon with Seth Smith and Dustin Ackley, and they had this guy the entire world gave up on who could play a reliable right field and hit left-handers. It’s a very small sample size but Guti has hit .267/.306/.511 with a 125 wRC+ in limited duty. He’s filled in at the corners and at DH, and he’s been as effective as any other Mariner asked to fill in those spots.

Right now there’s not a lot to celebrate for these Mariners. Yes, Cruz is having a fine season, and Felix will be in the Cy Young discussion.  But this team sports major suckage. Franklin Gutierrez is a silver lining to a shitty season. No, he may no longer be Death to Flying Things, capable of playing an electrifying center field. But, dammit the man is out there getting it done in a limited role.  His grand slam in Detroit on July 21st gave the M’s the winning margin in the 11-8 victory.  His home run in the 10th today was the game winner.

Regardless how the Mariners finish this season, I won’t forget Guti’s moments. It’s not often a player has struggled with more physical issues than him.  It’s not often after a player basically retires, they are able to come back and make a difference with their team.  Congrats to Franklin, and thanks to the M’s for giving him his shot.

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M’s take two. Is there a streak in them?

Felix dominates the Blue Jays for 12th victory. Starting pitching will key an M's push for respectability.
Felix dominates the Blue Jays for 12th victory. Starting pitching will key an M’s push for respectability.

On Thursday the M’s outlasted the Tigers in Detroit for a twelve inning 3-2 victory.  In an interview yesterday on 710 ESPN, Brad Miller told broadcaster Jim Moore that it made the four hour flight home seem half as long.  The win started and ended with good pitching.  Though starter Hisashi Iwakuma gave up both Tiger runs in the first inning, that was all they got.  Iwakuma was the Iwakuma of old.  Not only that, but each of the four bullpen guys who followed was nails. It was somehow fitting that Fernando Rodney got the win, and one of my all time favorite Mariners, Tom Wilhelmson, got the save. Closing time again in Seattle?

Friday was more of the same.  In a crowd of 43,000 plus mostly Blue Jays fans King Felix kept ’em quiet, surrendering an unearned run in the first, and a gopher ball to Jose Bautista in the sixth.  Meanwhile the boys from Seattle scored five and drove starter back to the clubhouse after five innings.  But the story was Felix and his ability to pick and choose his moments to make various Blue Jays look silly.  A key moment was in the seventh inning, with the speedy Kevin Pillar on third and Devon Travis on first and two outs, Hernandez struck out the dangerous Jose Reyes on three pitches: executed on the order of the King. Rally over.

All week there were good signs offensively.  With three homers, Nelson Cruz showed his power hasn’t evaporated with heat, and in fact, at .307/.375/.554, Nellie exceeds my expectations for the season.  Robinson Cano continues to look like he’s turned his struggles around, with a key two-run triple last night, For the last month the $240 Million Man is hitting .321, and the last two weeks he’s shown much more power.  Kyle Seager is pretty much “Steady Eddie” with his .271 batting average and his timely home runs.  Even Mike Zunino’s black hole of strikeout death seems to be shrinking a bit. Mikie Z has a five game hit streak, with four doubles, including the game winner Thursday, and only three strikeouts.

The M’s need to continue scoring, but it all starts with pitching.  Consistent starting pitching is where it all begins.  So it was great to see the M’s get great back to back starts from ‘Kuma and Felix. It was also a reminder that as maddening as the M’s inability to put a winning streak together is, their starting pitching often has made that impossible.  Roenis Elias, J.A. Happ, Taijuan Walker, and Mike Montgomery have all had their moments, but each and every one of them have had some horrendous outings. The struggles in the bullpen haven’t helped, so it was good to see them perform well as a group on Thursday.

It’s unlikely the M’s put together a meaningful run until the rotation and bullpen consistently perform.  That’s not to say they can’t or won’t; it’s sure a lot more fun when they do.

Mariners will likely struggle to equal last year’s attendance figures

With success on the field elusive for the Seattle Mariners, it’s time to turn our attention to more mundane matters.  The quick start after the All-Star break collapsed.  The M’s are in last place and own the worst record and winning percentage in the American League.  Those are facts, and any perception of this team that is warmer than they are bad and aren’t going anywhere in the post season is self-delusion.

Despite their on-field struggles, home attendance is up considerably from last year’s numbers, which were, themselves, an improvement. Through 47 home games the M’s have drawn 1,374,761, or an average of 29,250 per game. That’s 18th best in major league baseball, and 6th best in the American League.  Not bad for perhaps the most disappointing team in baseball. Last year the Mariners drew 2,064,335 for an average of 25,485.

While nobody wishes the Mariners ill, it is difficult to see how the team sustains the kind of pace if the M’s continue to play crappy ball and remain the worst team in the league.  Let’s be clear, though M’s aren’t very good, they aren’t the Philadelphia Phillies.  The level of play in the American league is generally more mediocre than in the National League. The NL has some really good teams and some really terrible teams, while the AL has the Kansas City Royals and everybody else clustered within ten games of .500.  The National League has four teams playing worse than the M’s and it wouldn’t take much in the way of winning for the Mariners to surpass the Red Sox and the White Sox.

Somehow, to reach last year’s attendance figures, the M’s would have to continue to average 20,282 die-hards through the gate in the 34 remaining home dates. That is an achievable figure.  The M’s drew in excess of that number for each game of the most recent homestand.  The weather remains persistently, annoyingly inviting for a day at Safeco Field.

But an important date lingers on the near horizon.  July 30th is the day Seahawks training camp opens in Renton.  As the good ship Mariner sinks slowly below the playoff horizon, and even as the Sounders continue to struggle, the ‘Hawks will have the attention of media and Seattle fandom.  Let’s face, it and accept it: Seattle is a front-running town.  Win and be adored.  Lose and be ignored.  Despite losing the Super Bowl one of the most controversial calls in the game’s history, the Seahawks are the NFC champs, and are picked to repeat. They will suck 95% of the sports oxygen out of the Puget Sound area.

I wouldn’t count on projecting M’s attendance until the last spin of the turnstyle.  They may make two million attendees for the second year in a row, but it won’t be easy unless Nelson Cruz gets hot and competes for the home run title, or Felix becomes unhittable and jumps in the conversation for Cy Young, or a tardy Robinson Cano lights up and chases a batting title. Despite the pre-season hype and predictions the Mariners are a major disappointment.  They’ve made their own bed.

They’re all “must-win” at this point Lloyd

The Mariners defeated the New York Yankees yesterday 4-3 in front of a nearly full Yankee stadium.  The crowd lustily booed Robinson Cano during each of his at bats, but it only seemed to inspire the Mariner second baseman as he hit a pair of two run homers and provided all the Mariner offense. The M’s and Yanks have split the opening two games of this series by identical 4-3 scores.  The rubber game of the match comes today with King Felix starting for the Mariners against CC Sabathia.

Fittingly, during Manager Lloyd McClendon’s post game interview, he called this game, the second since the All-Star break a “must win” game and expressed the importance of winning this series. With only 71 games remaining in the season, the Mariners trailing the pack in the division and the wild card race, the trading deadline a couple of weeks away, and desperately needing a sustained run of victories, nothing could be more true.

Yet, despite yesterday’s win, a lot of the bad stuff that plagued the M’s before the break have reared their ugly head in the first two games. The M’s continue to struggle to get on base and hit with runners in scoring position.  They had opportunities on Friday ,against Yankee hurler Masahiro Tanaka, to score with the bases loaded in the second inning, but were unable to get the clutch hit they needed.  Instead, all three runs came on a pair of Kyle Seager homers.  Yesterday was pretty much the same story. One guy, two homers and that’s all the scoring.  If the M’s are to win and win consistently, they have to get on base and drive in runs, sustain rallies and not depend on an occasional bolt of lightning.

On the good news front, the Mariners bullpen performed pretty much as it did last year in yesterday’s win.  In his second performance since coming off the DL, Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma pitched well through 5.2 innings, but McClendon pulled him because of the heat and the lefty dominated line-up trotted out by Yankees skipper Joe Girardi. McLendon ran out everybody to pick up a ball and take a role in holding the Yankees down on the reservation to preserve a 4-2 lead.  When closer Carson Smith came in, a series of M’s miscues-Austin Jackson’s misplayed fly ball and Mike Zunino’s subsequent goof on a pitch in the dirt-led to a third run, but Smith navigated the team’s way to victory.  It’s the kind of performance the M’s will need every day and not the mistake riddled games of the first half.

I don’t know if the first two games of the short second half are glass half-full, or half empty..  We’ll know a bit more after the King’s performance today. It’s really a must win game.

Trade deadline only 15 days away

The Mariners will have to decide if they are buyers or sellers at the trading deadline on July 31st.  I would guess at this point they’re still in a wait and see mode, as is most of the American League because nobody is really out of the Wild Card race. It’s clear the M’s will have to come out of the All-Star break on fire if they are to be big buyers by the deadline. I also suspect that because nobody is really out of it in the AL, there will be fewer teams selling and more buying. The National League is different, with the Padres, Phillies, Rockies, Brewers, Reds and Marlins officially dead and gone.

Buyers or sellers, I don’t see the Mariners making any blockbuster deals either way.  They have some big salaries in Felix, Cano, Cruz, Seager and Rodney that make it hard for them to do the Houston strip down and start over model.  So there is a veteran nucleus that like it or not they can build around. But they do have some needs they can try to answer.

The Bullpen

Bullpens are finicky.  The M’s ‘pen was bad in 2013, brilliant in 2014 and dreadful again this year. Rodney will be gone in 2016, Beimel continues to get older, Farquhar and Wilhelmsen continue to mystify me. It’s likely more effective bullpen arms can be found at the trade deadline.

Catcher

John Paul Morosi linked the Mariners to a catching trade yesterday.  He subsequently backtracked by the end of the day.  I love Mike Zunino; he is a great catcher.  But at the plate the man is a black hole. With a .166/..223/.292 slash, and OPS+ of 46 and a wRC+ of 45 maybe they’ve seen enough and will send Zunino back to Tacoma for an extended stay to work on his hitting.  Yes, I know this never helped Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley, but if they can pick up a guy who can give them some quality at bats and is decent behind the dish, it might be worth it to save the career of a guy who was rushed to the majors way too soon.

There are definitely some guys I could see going.  That doesn’t mean there is really anybody who wants them, but the M’s could pull the trigger if the offer is right.

Dustin Ackley

I don’t think the Ack Attack is Back.  He’s only gotten 34 plate appearances the last 28 days, but over that time he’s hit .387.  I’m sure there is a team out there who likes his athleticism, that he can play outfield and second base, and believes they can “fix” the former number two pick.  With the former Tarheel All-American arbitration eligible in 2016, the M’s might have decided enough is enough and be willing to part with him.

Logan Morrison

I know everybody likes Logan Morrison.  He’s a good interview and plays hard, but he’s just not that good.  With a .229/.300/.385 slash, a 95 OPS+ and a 92 wRC+, Morrison is a below average first baseman, with a pretty major platoon split.  He’s also in his walk year.  Though I don’t like Morrison in the outfield, other teams may see him as useful left handed bat. Mark Trumbo or Jesus Montero could take his at bats and reduce the DH logjam in the outfield.

Pitching

I’m not sure I really see the Mariners trading pitching, but it’s possible as Iwakuma returns to action and effectiveness.  Iwakuma is in his walk year, and for the right deal could be dealt.  J.A. Happ is not the same pitcher he was in April, and the M’s could part with him.  I can’t imagine they would deal Walker, Elias, Montgomery or the still-injured Paxton, but Zdurencik never fails to surprise me.

Jack and Lloyd

Jack Zdurencik is in his seventh year and in that time the Mariners have never made the playoffs. Not a division title and not in the enhanced wild card. He’s gone from building a team around run prevention to one that seems to be based on the long-ball and an all-or-nothing offense.  In 2015 he had money to spend, he acquired players like nobody’s business and the team has failed on the field. High draft choices-Ackley, Zunino, et. al have failed to develop.  Many of his trades, notably the Cliff Lee deal that netted Justin Smoak and a handful of magic beans were disappointing. I wouldn’t toss Jack out the door at mid-season, but I could see it happening.  He definitely has had his opportunity and fresh vision should be sought for the coming year.  I’m not sure after 1+ years whether Lloyd McClendon is part of the problem, but it is telling that in a recent ESPN survey of writers comments McClendon was not highly thought of by the media except in dealing with the media.  If the GM goes, the manager usually follows.

Moves or no, the next 15 day will be important to this franchise.

At 41-48, what’s to like?

King to Nellie: We were supposed to win it all Nellie! What went wrong? Nellie to King: Don't worry Felix.  We'll get 'em next year.
King to Nellie: We were supposed to win it all Nellie! What went wrong?
Nellie to King: Don’t worry Felix. We’ll get ’em next year.

I’ve been a consistent and supportive fan since the beginning.  No the beginning was not 1995, it was 1977.  I cheered for whatever in the prolonged expansion years.  I cheered when times were good.  I cheered through the long post-Lou drought.  I was not uncritical in the good times, and I’m certainly not uncritical now.  And I am certainly disappointed, maybe more than I ever have been with the Seattle Mariners.

This was supposed to be the year.  General Manager Jack Zdurencik seemed to pull the right strings and make the right moves.  He brought aboard home run champ Nelson Cruz.  He picked up role players like Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, and Ricky Weeks.  The team was returning one of the best bullpens in the majors.  The rotation had Felix and Iwakuma, and was returning promising rookies James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, with fifth slot filled by J.A. Happ, picked up for forever injured Michael Saunders and/or Roenis Elias. The M’s were annointed frontrunners for the AL West Division championship and likely competitors for the AL crown.  What the hell happened?

Truly, this has been such a challenging year to write about this team.  And, in fact, I haven’t. The 2-9 homestand in June sucked the life out of me.  And their inability to play consistent ball since then has me cursing at the television set.

Don’t get me wrong, there were little victories to cheer on the way to 41-48.  Mike Montgomery, Roenis Elias, and Taijuan Walker each had those awesome 10 strikeout, no walk performances.  But they’re offset by three double digit losses to Houston (May 2nd, June 12th, June 14th,) a 12-0 mashing by the A’s on April 10, and the recent crushing by the Tigers 12-5, and the first half ender by the Angels 10-3.The bottom line is, in a time of dominant pitching, and on a team that in recent years has found a way to win with pitching, the Mariners have, at best, mediocre pitching. The M’s are a tick below league average in ERA.  But they are below league average in ERA+, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP,) and Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP.)  They don’t give up too many home runs, or walks, they just allow too many hits.

And I guess that’s to be expected when you lose two of your top starters to injuries as the M’s have with Iwakuma and Paxton.  Each of their replacements, Elias and Montgomery have had their moments, but honestly all of the pitchers have had times when they’ve just flat been lit up.  Even Felix, whom I admire as much as any Mariner ever, has seemed a bit unfocused at times in ways he hasn’t in the past.  His 11 wins are nice, but it’s frankly not about the wins it’s about determination and commitment to winning in ways that can’t be measured and I haven’t felt it as much this year from the King and many other players.

Moving on to the bullpen, aside from Carson Smith and Mark Lowe, if you really needed to get a guy out and you had to choose from A) Fernando Rodney; B) Tom Wilhelmsen, C) Joe Beimel; D) David Rollins, E) Vidal Nuno, or F) Brandon Maurer, who would you choose?  I would, of course, choose Brandon Maurer, but unfortunately he no longer pitches for the Seattle Mariners.  Last year. the bullpen was lights out death to offense in later innings.  This year, potential rallies turn into big innings and games in which the M’s are behind heading into the 6th-9th innings into routs.

When your pitching staff is, to be charitable, mediocre, the offense really has to step it up to be competitive.  But the M’s don’t have that kind of offense. Nelson Cruz has had a surprising first half, demonstrating that he’s a much better hitter than I ever remembered.  When is the last time the M’s had a hitter in the top ten in all three triple crown categories?  But in a year in which  manager Lloyd McClendon predicted the M’s would score 700 runs, the M’s scored 312 in 89 games, good enough for 14th in the American League and 83% of league average. Not surprising when the team is dead last in batting average and 14th in on base percentage. For those who like their stats a bit more updated, the Mariners are 14th in weighted Runs Created (wRC+).

There are folks I’ve heard interviewed who have suggested the M’s are going to turn it around in the second half and really make a run, at something. The Mariners are 7.5 games behind the Angels for the division lead, The Angels are hot right now, and the M’s are sort of dog paddling to stay afloat.  In a year of relative American League mediocrity or parity depending on your perspective and two wild card spots to play for, you might think the M’s are still in the hunt for a playoff spot.  Well, they aren’t out, but they are 14th in the league in winning percentage.  That means they have to climb over eight teams ahead of them to cash in on the wild card. They are presently 7 games out.

This is not 1995.  Ken Griffey, Jr. is not coming back to help this team. in August.  The Mariners have not had a win streak longer than four games all season, and they haven’t won back to back games in nearly a month. In every phase of the game the M’s are, at best league average, and at worst god-awful.  Winning isn’t a light switch you suddenly turn on.  Some of it is talent, and honestly I feel like this team has some of that, but so much of winning consistently in a long season is chemistry, talent, desire and grit.  Last year’s team was desperate to score, and they found a way to keep the opponents down and eke out close wins.  This year’s team, with many of the same guys, simply aren’t able to do it.  I could be wrong, but the 2015 Mariners seem to lack the inner fire to win consistently.  Oh, they may put together enough of a push to win 80 games, but no way to they make the playoffs.