Month: December 2015

I’m a Mariners Fan and these are my New Years Resolutions

dave-niehaus-statue

  1. Get to at least one game in the King’s Court.  I love Felix and I love going to Safeco Field. I’ve seen the King pitch, but never in the cozy confines of the King’s Court.  Everybody seems to be cheering their heart out, rooting for every pitch, and I think I need to partake of the experience.
  2. Get my picture taken with Dave.  The statue in center field always seems overgrown with fans, but dammit I loved Dave, and I owe it to myself to just get it done. Maybe an April game during a cold, cold night.
  3. Go to FanFest.  FanFest is scheduled for January 30th and 31st.  I went in 2014 and had a great time.  Grabbed a beer at Edgar’s.  Listened to Jack Zdurencik’s hallucinatory interview with Shannon Drayer and Rick Rizzs. Caught interviews with players like Brad Miller and D.J. Peterson.  Ten bucks, kids are free.  It’s a great family event, but I learned a lot about the team. Maybe the day to sit with Dave. Lunch afterwards at Henry’s.  Life is good.
  4. Have more fun. Baseball is the world’s best game.  Anyone who says differently is full of crap.  I ask you, which is better: 1) watching a mid-July game from any seat in Safeco Field  2) or deciding which is worse–traveling to Green Bay or Minnesota for your January 9th playoff game.  Exhibit B  Which is better: 1) Getting stomped by the Rams on Sunday knowing you have to wait an entire week to be stomped by the Cardinals the following Sunday, 2) or getting stomped by the Royals on Tuesday, knowing you’ve got Felix pitching on Wednesday. Baseball is a fun game, 162 games worth of fun.  Enjoy every strikeout and home run, cheer the heroes and jeer the bad guys, know if the M’s don’t win today, at least they get another shot tomorrow.
  5. Enjoy the big picture and be patient. For years I’ve been critical of the way this team was built, though I regularly hoped for positive results on the field. Today, after Jerry DiPoto’s rebuild it’s much different and tailored to the factors I thought it should be: more athletic outfield, built more to win at Safeco Field, with an eye toward run prevention-deeper rotation, and more bullpen talent.   The downside is it’s older, and honestly may need need better players to succeed. It will be interesting to see how these moves work out and if, strategically, his assumptions (which I share) work out. Don’t lose sight of that through all the day in, day out winning and losing, and the inevitable drama or story lines that happen through spring training and the long season. Does this team play better, more interesting baseball than the “DINGERZZ” model Jack Zdurencik built? Finally, going forward, what changes will the team need to make for 2017?

I truly cannot wait for Spring Training to begin and it really isn’t that far away.  This will be my last post of 2015.  Thanks following along with me

Farewell Hendu

Hendu

I spent much of my early working life in Seattle. I was young and broke, married and a dad. I lived in Tacoma and  I loved going to games at the Kingdome. I could go to a Mariners game for five bucks. That was $2.50 for a seat in the left field bleachers, a buck for a bag of peanuts from an outside vendor and another buck for a real big Diet Coke. I parked under the Alaskan Way Viaduct for free and walked a few blocks to the ballpark and watched the game in the concrete tomb with 3,000 of my closest friends.

The M’s were usually awful, and I certainly saw my fair share of awful games.  I remember a particularly terrible game I saw against a not very good Red Sox team in 1984.  I met friends there in the left field bleachers.  The M’s quickly fell behind 12-0 by the third inning, and we decided to pack it in early.  We all lived in Tacoma and headed home by the fifth inning. But by the time we got to our cars the M’s had started something of a comeback.  When  I pulled off the freeway, driving to my house the Mariners tied it, 12-12.  Of course they lost in extra innings 14-12.

I didn’t go to tons of games.  I lived far away and didn’t have much money so three or so games a year was my limit.  But I did go see the White Sox when they were in town on June 25, 1982. The Sox were pretty good, and came into Seattle with a 38-30 record.  That team had some good players, with Greg Luzinski in his prime at DH, Harold Baines (with knees) in RF, and Carlton Fisk catching with future Cy Young Award winner La Marr Hoyt pitching.  This was pretty much the same team that would win the AL West in ’83.

The Mariners weren’t terrible.  They were 37-35, led on the field by Bruce Bochte, Al Cowens and Richie Zisk.  A tall gap-toothed 22 year old was playing centerfield.  His name was Dave Henderdson. The M’s had decent pitching that year, with lefty Floyd Bannister, a young Mike Moore and the ancient Mariner Gaylord Perry, but that night the M’s were starting veteran right-hander Jim Beattie.

The game was a doozy, an old fashioned pitching duel. Sox 2nd baseman Tony Bernazard turned in a couple of great plays, and he was matched by fan favorite and resident hot dog Julio Cruz. The game remained scoreless until the sixth inning, when Henderson powered a ball over the USS Mariner in center field to give the M’s a 1-0 lead. Beattie held on to the lead through eight innings.

But in the ninth, Bernazard doubled to chase Beattie.  Lefty specialist Ed VandeBerg was summoned to dispatch Steve Kemp and left for the Mariners closer.  In 1982 that was Bill “Cuffs” Caudill, a colorful figure who threw hard and loved to have a good time with the crowd.  He typically adopted an Inspector Clouseau persona and entered to the music from “The Pink Panther.” While Clouseau was a buffoon, Caudill was not.  He struck out Luzinski looking, and dismantled first baseman and former Mariner hero Tom Paciorek, striking him out swinging. Game over, Mariners win.

The 28K plus in the Kingdome were wild. Henderson was clearly the hero of the game. It is the Mariner game I remember the most, even 30+ years down the road.

It seems incredibly unfair with news today that Henderson is gone, died apparently from kidney disease.

He was a good ballplayer on some very good teams.He remained with the M’s until 1986. When his curmudgeonly and well past his pull date manager, Dick Williams, couldn’t get the team to win, he insisted Henderson be traded because he smiled even when the team lost.  Traded to Boston with Spike Owen for immortals Rey Quinones and Mike Trujillo, his exploits helped drag the Red Sox into the playoffs.  His 11th inning game winning homer to win the ALCS and put Boston into the World Series effectively ended the season, Angels closer Donnie Moore’s career and ultimately his life.  Hendu went on to play center field for Tony LaRussa’s Bash Brothers Oakland A’s teams.  He knew what it was to play on a winner.

When he returned to Seattle to do color on Mariners television broadcasts it was like a breath of fresh air.  As a former player who knew what it was like to play on a championship team, he wasn’t afraid to offer insights that were not quite as measured as those by Dave Niehaus or Ron Fairly.  He was funny and smart and I really enjoyed listening to him.

I was truly broken-hearted to hear of his passing.

Rush to judgment: Jesus Montero

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians
The Montero critics like to remember. Fat Jesus, run over at the plate in Cleveland. May 19, 2013;   Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

This story from December 21st at Fox Sports raised a firestorm of discussion at the Seattle Mariners FaceBook page.  I would guess two thirds of posters had a negative reaction to Jesus Montero having a role on the 2016 25-man roster. Some questioned whether he was a big league hitter.  Others claimed he was terrible in the field.  Still others were clear that he had his chances and simply was never going to be good enough.

I recently wrote a post about the history of Mariners catching futility over the past decade. The decision to trade for Jesus Montero is deeply rooted in the vacuum of Mariner catching talent.   The M’s sent highly regarded right-hander Michael Pineda to New York for Montero.  Pineda had a solid rookie season and finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. Montero was widely considered the best right handed hitting prospect in the minors. In acquiring Montero, the Mariners thought they were, once again, getting their catcher-of-the-future as well as a potent bat.

Jack Zdurencik penciled him in at catcher, though even at the time of the trade the view was that Montero would not end up a catcher. But the real story was that Montero spent the 2012 season with the big club slashing an acceptable .260/.293/.386 while Pineda began two seasons of arm miseries.

We know the rest of Montero’s story. Injuries and terrible judgment that kept him from playing regularly in 2013-14. Car accident, meniscus tear, weight gain, a 50 game suspension due to PED use in the Biogenesis scandal, chucking an ice cream sandwich at a Mariners scout.  This is all off-the-field-not-prettiness.  By February of 2014, Zdurencik lost faith in Montero, stating, “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero.  Any expectations I had are gone.” That was before his suspension, before the embarrassment with the scout.

Since 2012, Montero has spent precious little time in the majors.  Banished to the minors to learn first base at the same time as Z’s lack of confidence statement, Montero has had only 313 major league at bats 2013-15. And honestly he hasn’t earned many more.

Montero 2
The other Jesus, who reported to Spring Training in 2015 in the best shape of his life.  The same Jesus who set the Tacoma record for highest batting average in its 55-year history.

But 2015 was different.  He reported to spring training in the best shape of his life. He played in 98 Pacific Coast League games including 82 games at first base. Montero’s .355 batting average was the highest in Tacoma team history, going back to 1960. But his inability to take a walk is also reflected in his .398 OBP. Montero was unable to translate his minor league success into similar achievement at the major league level. He slashed a paltry .223/.250/.411 at the major league level in 116 plate appearances spread over July, August and September.  He drew only four walks.

Today Montero is vying to be the right handed platoon-mate with lefty first baseman Adam Lind. Fans are screaming that Montero should go.  And who’s to blame them?  Montero has not produced at the major league level.  He seems like a Zdurencik-era guy–with power potential but poor on-base skills, unclear exactly what his defense is like.  He was evaluated poorly in his 26 games at first base for the Mariners, but using advanced metrics to evaluate his potential at first base in such a small sample size is a little like using a flashlight to discover the origins of the Milky Way.  Let’s just say he’s not as good as Keith Hernandez, but probably not as bad as Dick Stuart “Dr. Strangeglove.” Well, probably closer to Stuart.

I confess to being a homer, and I love stories of redemption.  So when Franklin Gutierrez had a season to remember from the ashes of a baseball career, I was all over it. The same when Tom Wilhelmsen resurrected what had been an awful year to finish strong as the team’s closer; I was thrilled. I would love it if Montero could show the skills needed to fill this spot.

Critics say we know who Montero is and if another affordable player becomes available who has on-base skills, mashes lefties and can play first base and maybe another position offering some roster flexibility, we should get him.  And I think I agree with them.

But others who are on the “Dump Montero now!!” train, I can’t join you. I would argue that while we should all be frustrated with the choices he made during the 2013-14 seasons, that he is clearly limited positionally, but as a hitter we know very little about him at the major league level. Here are some things we do know

  • Jesus Montero is 26 years old–certainly getting along in his career but younger than Edgar Martinez when he made his first major league start.
  • Like Edgar, he’s torn up minor league pitching, hitting .328 with Columbus in 2011 and .355 in Tacoma last year.
  • Since 2012, he’s played in the majors only sporadically and without a defined role.
  • Montero has a career .292 average against left handed pitching
  • But, all in all, Montero has 865 career major league plate appearances and of those, 553 came in his 2012 rookie season.
  • By contrast, when Dustin Ackley was shipped off to the Yankees for two players no longer in the Mariners organization he had 2,220 at bats with the Mariners. When the M’s washed their hands of Justin Smoak he had 2,218 major league plate appearances.
  • Montero has a career K rate of 19.9% and a career walk rate of 5.6%.
  • Montero currently holds a protected spot on the 40-man roster
  • Jesus Montero is out of minor league options. If the Mariners don’t put him on their 25-man roster, Montero is out of minor league options and will become a free agent.

My contention is we really don’t know Montero on the field very well. There is little question he has performed poorly off the field, and for the last few years he hasn’t taken the opportunities to impress us with the little time he’s had between the lines. But let’s be clear, that’s 312 plate appearances, or about half a year’s at bats spread over three seasons.  Montero should have the opportunity to show his stuff in spring training.

If something better comes along at a reasonable cost sign him, but let’s not dump an asset we don’t know very well in a fit of pique over past foolishness when today the man is giving it his best shot. But I suspect a certain amount of the bile directed at Montero has to do with with these same personal choices he made. We are all often unable to forgive those with talent we wish we had, when they seem to be pissing theirs away.  Unfortunately the game is replete with imperfect people with imperfect judgment from the crazy violence of Milton Bradley to Curt Schilling’s lack of discretion. When I see my own life at age 23 and 24, there are a thousand things I would do over-I just didn’t have quite so much at stake. For another smart (and sympathetic) view of Montero, take a look at Kate Preusser‘s story at Lookout Landing.

But it shouldn’t cloud our judgment when trying to put together a team on the field. If he can’t make the grade in practice games Montero should be gone and a better player inserted in the right-handed first base platoon/lefty masher role. But we would be foolish not see where he is in his development at age 26, especially if he can help this team.

 

 

The Curse of Dan Wilson

danwilson

It’s Christmas Day.  I hope you are having a fabulous holiday with your families.  It’s most appropriate to start with a Christmas story and it just so happens I have a Mariners story go with the season.

I’ve been married for 36 years, and for almost all of them buying something for Christmas for the missus has been something of a crapshoot.  Whether through procrastination or lack of effort, I’m simply pleased to emerge with all digits intact. Sometimes its just a matter of being a little less tone deaf and connecting the dots that can make a Christmas gift special.

During the Mariners glory years, my wife was as big a fan as I was.  We went to the Kingdome, were present for the opening day game at Safeco, watched the games on television and jeered Bobby Ayala together.  All the important stuff.

My wife’s favorite player is, to this day, catcher Dan Wilson. Lorri is a believer that Dan the Man should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame and was the best ballplayer ever. Not Ruth or Williams, not Mays or Griffey, Dan Wilson. Oddly, she’s not alone, I’ve spoken to many men with wives of a certain age who believe the same.

About the time of Dan’s retirement it was announced he would be autographing Christmas ornaments for a charity donation at University Village–a mere 50 miles from my home.  Knowing an opportunity when I saw one, I didn’t hesitate, drove to the U.District and waited in line for my turn.  I shook hands with the charming Mr. Wilson and met his lovely daughter, who must have been about twelve. Let’s just say that the gift was well received and is hanging on our tree today.

But Dan Wilson‘s greatest gift was that he is without question the best catcher in Mariners history.  Wilson never got as much attention as Ivan Rodriguez or Jorge Posada.  He was a decent hitter-in 4616 plate appearances he had a slash of .262/.309/.382 slash in an offense-dominant era. He never had I-Rod’s cannon arm, but he did throw out would be base-stealers at a higher rate than league average-32%>30%.

But Wilson’s real genius was the relationship he had with pitchers, coaxing  trust and great seasons out of guys as idiosyncratic and polar opposite in their stuff as Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer. That and blocking balls at the plate.  The former Golden Gopher hockey goalie allowed only 42 passed balls in 1,270 career games as a catcher. Just as a basis for comparison, Rodriguez, who will likely go into the Hall of Fame, caught twice as many games as Wilson, but still surrendered 127 passed balls. Wilson allowed passed balls at a lower rate than Mike Piazza, Gary Carter and Johnny Bench.

When Dan Wilson retired in 2005, the Mariners opened a revolving door in search of a replacement for this man of solid if unspectacular catching ability. They are still lookin’, but let’s recap the past ten years, because that’s always fun and very humbling.

2002-2004 Ben Davis. Recognizing Wilson was in decline, General Manager Pat Gillick traded the woefully underachieving Jeff Cirillo to San Diego for catcher Ben Davis. Davis was a physical specimen. But he was never able to fully assume Wilson’s role.  His offense wasn’t good enough to match the fact that he couldn’t work effectively with pitchers. Others have been much less complimentary in their evaluation. Davis was traded with Freddy Garcia and brought back our next catching candidate.

2004-2005 Miguel Olivo v.1.0. The 25 year old Olivo joined Wilson as a catching team.  He played 50 games in 2004 and 54 in 2005 before being traded to San Diego.  He was known for a lousy work ethic and was an offensive black hole. He was replaced by a combination of the 41-year old Pat Borders and 42 fairly promising games by Yorvit Torrealba, who fled to the Rockies through free agency.

A Jeff Clement Interlude: In 2005 Bill Bavasi used his considerable scouting acumen to draft Jeff Clement out USC with the third pick in the first round. Clement was a left-handed hitting catcher and considered the best bat in the draft. Clement was to be the catcher-of-the-future, but mostly turned into a big fat nothing. Derailed by ineffectiveness and injury in the minors, Clement played exactly 36 of his 152 big league game career as a catcher. Clement was gone from the majors in 2012, arthritic and not good at major league baseball.

2006-2009 Kenji Johjima was signed from Japan to catch for the Mariners. Johjima brought a modicum of stability to the position. His 2006 slash line of .291/.332/.451 was so impressive that at age 30 he was fourth in Rookie of the Year balloting. His 2006 season he was a 2.8 WAR season, and 2.3 in 2007. The wheels came off in 2008, with 0 WAR, but Bill Bavasi extended him for one more season.  By the time he left for Japan after the 2009 season, Johjima was no longer popular with the fans or Mariners pitchers who seemed to have difficulty working with the former Japan League star.

2009-2010 Rob Johnson came up through the Mariners system and was very good in Tacoma. When the M’s brought him up to share time with Johjima, the M’s thought they’d be preparing their catcher-of-the-future. Pay attention to this term, you’ll be hearing it a lot. Johnson was never able to hit major league pitching with the Mariners (or anybody else.) Not only that, in 141 games with Seattle, he was a passed-ball machine, allowing 18.

2010  This was the year Adam Moore, another Mariner catching phenom and catcher-of-the-future joined Johnson to become the dueling passed ball duo.  Moore added his seven to go with Johnson’s seven to equal more than a third of all those allowed in Dan Wislon’s 14 year career. Moore couldn’t hit a lick.  The less said, the better.

2011-2012  Miguel Olivo was a 0.1 WAR catcher between his full time duties in 2011 and 2012 when he split his season with rookie Jesus Montero. The version 2.0 Olivo was definitely an improvement over 2005.  He actually led the team in home runs in 2011 with 20, which ain’t saying much about that team.

In 2012 Jesus Montero was obtained in a heralded trade that sent Michael Pineda to the Yanks for Montero, widely considered the best right-handed hitting prospect in baseball. Montero was a lousy catcher, though his rookie season he showed he was a decent hitter. His career came off the rails after the season ended.  Much more in a future blog post.

2013-2015 These years ushered in the Mike Zunino era, the latest edition of the Mariners-catcher-of-the-future. Zunino, a 2012 first round draft pick was rushed to the majors in 2013 after fewer than 300 minor league at bats. Due to circumstances beyond his control, the Montero PED suspension and Kelly Shoppach’s untimely release, Zunino was forced to be “the guy.” Zunino demonstrated good defense, considerable pitch framing skills and the ability to work effectively with pitchers, but was an offensive black hole.  As a rookie he showed tremendous power, but his 32.1 % K rate is appalling. The M’s hope to get something back when Zunino figures things out at AAA.  He will only be 25 when the season starts. While Chris Ianetta and Steve Clevenger will cover for Zunino while he hopefully charts a path back to the big club, they are strictly placeholders.

Since Dan Wilson retired in 2005, the M’s have had a multitude of “talents” most of whom couldn’t carry his glove. After all the the glory years of guys the fans could count on-Wilson, Griffey, Edgar, Buhner, even pitchers like Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer, the Mariners have boasted little stability at any position-perhaps Felix and Ichiro are the exceptions-catcher is simply among the most egregious

 

My IBWAA Hall of Fame Ballot

Lots of things in life give me a great deal of pleasure.  I have a wonderful wife, who generally puts up with me amid all my foibles. My sons are grown and haven’t seen fit to supply me with a new generation of Mariners fans, so I’ve replaced them with three amazing Australian Shepherds.  Can’t say they are good at following pitch counts or checking Nelson’ Cruz’s exit velocity at StatCast, but they are good company. I have an awesome job, and tremendous friends who share my love of baseball.

But one of my secret pleasures is writing this column.  Yes, I’m just a fan blogger.  I have no access to secret sources.  Though I do regularly consult FanGraphs and BaseballReference.com, as well as other news sources such as ESPN, SI, and Baseball Prospectus, what you get is what I believe based on the stats and based on my gut.  I try not to make wild predictions, but I am often critical.  I love to make comparisons and try to explain.  I’m a history teacher, thus an explainer-in-chief, it’s how I’m drawn.

But at bottom I’m a baseball fan, specifically a Mariners fan. Five or so years ago I began writing blog posts about baseball, and specifically the Mariners.  Three years ago I began this blog, and I now have 173 posts, plus dozens of drafts I’ve abandoned.

I suffer from the same problem most bloggers do, and that is getting my stuff read.  I think every writer has to be satisfied writing for themselves. That means being smart, accurate, and having something original to say.  I try, and often succeed-sometimes not, and that’s okay too. The hope is someone will read, perhaps comment, or offer their thoughts.

I’m not offended by those who disagree with me.  I’m a great believer that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and generally I’m put off by those who know “the truth,” whether they are religious fanatics, sabermetricians or Donald Trump. And civility, I’m big on civility.  It’s fine to disagree with me.  Make your points or state your reason, but don’t be jerk about it. Old stats, new stats, logical reasoning, they all work with me. We may disagree at the end of the day, but I’m still happy to shake hands and call it good, as long as you aren’t a name calling, judgmental, internet trolling dirtbag.

When I began writing this blog, I learned about the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America,  IBWAA.  It’s an organization of bloggers and writers for the web.  Some of them are quite well known and you’d know their names-Jim Caple, Jerry Crasnick, and David Schoenfield from ESPN, Eno Sarris from FanGraphs, Jason Churchill and Luke Arkins from Prospect Insider-many others are equally accomplished. But lots of the 400 members are men and women just like me; they have a passion for baseball and especially their home town team.  Two years ago I paid my $35 for a lifetime membership and I am honored to see my name in the directory.

What are the benefits of membership?  There’s a bit of cachet to have one’s name associated with the organization.  There’s also an off-chance that someone will see my name in the directory and read my stuff.

But the IBWAA mirrors the BBWAA, the traditional print writers, and holds post season award voting for members.  And this time of year, of course, is Hall of Fame voting.  The IBWAA holds its own Hall of Fame vote, and this morning I submitted mine.

Just to be clear, there are 475 writers who have binding HoF votes, and mine is not one of them. But, if you follow baseball, you know the level of controversy and public scrutiny and dissatisfaction with the annual outcome of this vote. IBWAA is full of typically younger voters, tied to new statistics and typically votes for more players, is less conservative and is more interesting than the BBWAA traditionalist.  This also makes for interesting votes.  IBWAA has a Hall of Fame that is sort of in a parallel universe.  My ballot doesn’t include Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, or Tim Raines, because our membership, in its considerable wisdom , voted them into the Hall last year.

Our voting rules are also different.  In the crowded ballot facing the BBWAA voters, they are allowed to only select 10 players.  IBWAA allows 15 selections.  This year I voted for ten players I believe are Hall-worthy.

A couple of quick things.

  1. I believe in a big Hall. It hurts nobody to select players who were really good and celebrate their accomplishments.  A player should not have to be Babe Ruth to get into the Hall of Fame.
  2. I will not vote for players who we know used steroids.  I’ve written my feelings about this here, and I simply don’t think any further explanation is necessary.
  3. So how did I decide on who I was voting for?  I used Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system to compare players to past inductees to the Hall.  But I also used some common sense and logical reasoning.

That said here is my ballot:

  1. Ken Griffey, Jr.-Together with Willie Mays, Ken Griffey is the best player I ever saw.  I made lots of treks to the Kingdome to watch him with my wife, my sons, and my friends.  I still have and cherish the ticket stubs to his first home game in 1989 where he hit his first home run. That was a good day.  First ballot Hall of Famer for sure, everyone is holding their breath to see how high the vote percentage goes.
  2. Edgar Martinez-An even better day would be a day when Junior and Edgar went in the Hall together. Edgar is probably the most complete hitter I ever saw. Hits, doubles, his fair share of homers, and walks, walks, walks. I am convinced Edgar would be a great hitter in any era. Five years from now we’ll be having another conversation about  designated hitters and David Ortiz. But when the collection of victims that call themselves Red Sox Nation begins to whine because their guy isn’t in the Hall, I’ll ask where they were when Edgar, a vastly superior hitter to Ortiz, was when his years on the ballot expired.
  3. Mike Mussina-Moose mostly pitched on teams I didn’t like, but he was a helluva player. He pitched through the heart of the steroids era and still managed to win 270 games. Ranked #29 all time on the JAWS scale, Mussina is just ahead of Tom Glavine in WAR with 83.0 and just behind Pedro Martinez with 84.0, and had an ERA+ of 123. He was a winner.
  4. Curt Schilling-Sometimes you just have to hold your nose and read the numbers.  Schilling was a tough competitor, and played on some awful Phillies teams before he went to Arizona only to play in the shadow of Randy Johnson, arguably the best left-handed pitcher ever, pitching the best baseball of his career. Schilling is ranked 27th all time in JAWS.  With 79.9 WAR and a 127 ERA+, Schilling is deserving of election to the Hall of Fame.  Though others have withdrawn their support for Schilling because he says such ridiculously stupid stuff on social media, I’ve stayed the course and continue to vote for him.  My advice, stick that bloody sock in your mouth when you feel an attack of “honesty” coming on.
  5. and 6. Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner-They were among the dominant relievers of their era, with Hoffman holding the saves record until passed by Mariano Rivera.  Hoffman’s and Wagner’s numbers are so similar it is hard to separate them so I’ll discuss them together.  Look this really comes down to the sabermetric argument that anybody can close, that saves are overrated, that teams shouldn’t even designate a closer. My response is: right, you don’t need a closer until you have someone who can’t close.  Leading a game into the last inning and losing is the most demoralizing thing that can happen to a team, and can derail a season  Let me count the ways:

    A. In 1992 the Mariners traded starting pitcher Bill Swift, and relievers Mike Jackson and Dave Burba to San Francisco for disinterested and out of shape slugger Kevin Mitchell. Amid considerable opening night fanfare the Mariners blew a five run lead in the 8th inning when closer Mike Schooler gave up five consecutive hits, needing only one out to end what became a nine run rally.  The Mariners lost 12-10, the first of 98 losses. Schooler saved 13 games, blew five saves and the team had a save percentage of 59%. Pitiful.

    B. In 1997 the Mariners were in the hunt for a playoff spot, but their relief pitching was so terrible they traded away budding catcher Jason Varitek and young right-hander Derek Lowe to Boston for wretched Red Sox closer Heathcliffe Slocumb.  Varitek and Lowe went on to star for the Bosox (and others), while Slocumb saved ten games for the M’s in ’97 and three games the following year (losing his job to Mike Timlin). Though the M’s scored 925 runs in ’97 and 859 in ’98, they just couldn’t get far with a closer who allowed a WHIP of 1.45 and 1.71 respectively.

C. On Saturday September 13th I was in the sellout crowd at Safeco Field when Mariners closer Fernando Rodney walked four  batters in the 10th inning to give up the lead to Oakland in the top of the 10th inning. Mariners lose 3-2.  Mariners lost a playoff spot by one game.

My view is that a dependable closer is indispensable and Hoffman and Wagner were among the best and had the most longevity of their era. Knocks on them is that they didn’t pitch enough innings even for good relievers.  I would argue that for the past twenty years, that is how closers were used, an inning or less, shut down the bad guys and end the game. Context matters, and they get my votes.

7. Alan Trammell is in his final year of eligibility.  He was a fine shortstop and a key component of the Tiger dynasty of the middle 80’s. A big man with power who could play good defense, Trammell is ranked number 11 according to JAWS, ahead of Barry Larkin, Lou Boudreau and Joe Cronin, all very good and all in the Hall of Fame. He’s not Cal Ripken or Alex Rodriguez, but he was good enough for Cooperstown.

8. Larry Walker was an oft-injured outfielder who amassed wonderful numbers in Colorado.  Though short in traditional counting numbers-only 2,160 hits and 383 home runs, his career .965 OPs, 141 OPS + and performance in the oufield rates him 10th in right field for JAWS, behind Reggie Jackson and Harry Heilmann, but ahead of Paul Waner, and Dave Winfield. A fringe candidate to be sure, but most definitely Hall-worthy.

9. Jim Edmonds epitomizes the term fringe.  Another guy who lost lots of games to injury, mostly because of how hard and how well he played, the Angels and Cardinals centerfielder is ranked 14th by JAWS, behind Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Richie Ashburn, but ahead of Max Carey and Earl Averill. Edmond was a highlight reel centerfielder, who spent way too much on the training table due to his excessive exuberance. With a .903 OPS, and a 132 OPS +, he banged 393 home runs.  If the guy could walk, he could play. I don’t expect him to remain on the ballot after this year, but he was definitely worth a look.

10. My last player is Fred McGriff.  The Crime Dog was so good for so long that we kind of lost sight of him.  McGriff is in his last year of eligibility.  Six homers short of the 500 that would make him a shoe-in for the Hall. Even if McGriff had picked up those homers in the strike shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons, it’s hard to say he would be elected with certainty.  McGriff ranks as the 29th best first baseman according to JAWS, ahead of Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, but behind non hall players John Olerud and Will Clark. I think his heroics and consistent play that got Toronto and Atlanta in to the playoffs are worthy of Hall consideration.

So there you go.  Those are my choices and my reasoning. Have at it.

 

 

This changes everything

 

Before I headed off to bed on Thursday night I was thinking about my next blog entry. It seemed we were heading into the holiday week quiet period, that Jerry DiPoto exhausted the budget, had really shaped the roster to the extent his assets-cash and tradeable surplus allowed. It seemed like topics for discussion would be my IBWAA Hall of Fame vote, or maybe some links to other great stories.  Jeff Sullivan’s super article about Tony Zych as a secret weapon, or Tony Blengino‘s assessment of DiPoto’s turnover of the Mariner roster.

Of course, there was also the business floated about Hisashi Iwakuma  failing his physical with the Dodgers and renegotiating the terms of their deal.  I was confident the Dodgers would get this done, because Clayton Kershaw simply can’t pitch all 162 games.

Iwakuma addresses the media
Hisashi Iwakuma addresses the media on Friday about his return to the Seattle Mariners.  His one year deal is for $10 million plus a $1 million signing bonus, plus reachable vesting options for 2017 and 2018.

I had this niggling hope deep in the back of mind, or maybe way deep in my soul that the M’s might do the right thing and try to lure ‘Kuma back into the fold, but I was also realistic that the budget was likely expended and that was the name of that tune.

I trotted off to bed at about 9:15 (because I usually wake up at about 4:15) and that I, thought was that.

But when I woke up super early and opened my iPad there it was for me to see.  Mariner sign Iwakuma to one year deal with vesting options for 2017 and 2018.  I was shocked, in a very pleasant way.  I quickly walked the three dogs in the dark and the rain, thinking all the time about what it meant.  Later in the day, Iwakuma’s press conference coincided with my lunch period and I managed to listen.  I followed MLBTR all day hoping for details.  I wanted to devour everything Iwakuma.

This changes everything. It was like receiving my first, totally unexpected, Christmas gift of the year.  And something I really, really wanted but never even hoped I would receive. That coupled with winter break-whew, what more could I ask for.

In my view, the Mariners go from having an incredibly thin starting rotation to having maybe the strongest in their division.  If the M’s can avoid major injury, this is a team that could compete for a playoff spot if things break right.  Still a lot of unknowns on this team, still a lot of bounce-backs required.  But the pitching goes from Felix, Miley and three question marks to Felix, Miley, Iwakuma and only two sets of fingers crossed.  And we’ve seen glimpses of at least very good from Tai Walker, and that puts the M’s in a much better place.

Nathan Bishop at Lookout Landing has a nice look at the statistical  impact of  the signing. And he’s right there are no guarantees, things will have to go their way-players will have to produce, avoid injury and not slump out of the gate for the M’s to win big. But that is what the off-season is about, isn’t it? If bringing back ‘Kuma is his last play, together with additional minor league deals, Jerry DiPoto has done a remarkable job turning over the roster with the resources he’s been given, and he deserves credit for fostering a sense of optimism.  And kudos too to Kevin Mather and the ownership team for recognizing the clock is ticking on the expiration date for this team, and ponying up a bit more cash to make this deal happen.

I think it’s safe to buckle our seat belts and let the ride begin.

Stars and Scrubs it is

Steve Cishek
Reliever Steve Cishek’s signing likely wraps up serious spending for the Mariners 2016 season.  He is likely the last piece in the M’s stars and scrubs approach.

The Mariners big league roster is all but set. We know who the positions players will be, with minor exception.  The rotation is ready to go.  The vast and growing assembled multitudes in the bullpen have yet to be sorted out, but even that is taking shape with the signing of closer-in-waiting Steve Cishek.

So Cot’s Baseball Contracts estimate Mariners payroll obligations at $116.5 million in contracts for 13 players on the 40-man roster. It ranges from Felix Hernandez’s $25.8 million to Justin De Fratus at $750K. In addition, and not included in this number are four arbitration-eligible players: CF Leonys Martin, and relief pitchers Charlie Furbush, Anthony Bass and Evan Scribner.  Based on their seasons last year, you can tack another eight million on that $116.5 M figure.  Everybody else on a major league contract will make the major league minimum or $507K a head. That’s another four million.  That pencils out to about $128 M or about five million more than the Mariners paid out in opening day salaries in 2015.

However, the vast majority of those dollars are going to fewer than half the players:

Felix Hernandez  $25.8 million

Robinson Cano   $24.0 million

Nelson Cruz  $14.25 million

Adam Lind  $8.0 million

Kyle Seager  $8.0 million

Joaquin Benoit  $7.5 million

Seth Smith  $6.75 million

Wade Miley  $6.2 million

Nori Aoki  $5.5 million

Chris Ianetta $ 4.25 million

Steve Cishek $4.0 million

So that’s 11 players, consuming $114.25 million of Mariners salaries or nearly 90% of all salaries for 25 players.  Sure, DiPoto may have a slush fund for players at the Break or a little bit more to work with.  The M’s budget looks to be somewhere in the $130-140 million range.  That’s a number that has steadily grown each year since 2013.

It’s the distribution that is troubling.  Next year the distribution gets worse, as Lind, Smith, Gutierrez and Benoit come off the books.  Today, the M’s are on the hook for seven players with contracts totaling $91.7 million, Iannetta has an option, and twelve players on today’s 40-man roster qualify for arbitration.

This is why DiPoto didn’t opt for a big free agent-no Chris Davis, no pitcher, even a mid tier guy like Iwakuma or Scott Kazmir, whose salaries will likely range in the $15-20 million range for 3-5 year. The Mariners signed their big guys-Cano and Cruz-and extended their own-Hernandez and Seager-and now they’re starting to choke a bit on the residual effects. A case of back-loaded contract reflux.

The Mariners are like many teams.  They are a stars and scrubs team, with a lot of money going to a handful players with superior talent, or at least consistently above average production at a major league level, that suck up a huge proportion of the budget, while the rest of the roster spots have to be filled with affordable players.  Often that means young affordable guys the farm system has developed like Ketel Marte or Tai Walker.  Or maybe they are chancy guys who have regressed or suffered an injury like Steve Cishek or Leonys Martin.

This works well if a team’s farm system is productive, if players are young, athletic and controllable and are major league ready.  That keeps salaries lower and allows a team like the Cubs to sign John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Justin Heyward and still stay within budget. But, as you know, the M’s have not had a particularly productive farm system.  Let me count the ways-Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Philippe Aumont, Matt Mangini, Dustin Ackley,  Nick Franklin, Steve Baron, Danny Hultzen and Mike Zunino are all first round draft choices taken since 2005.  None has done much at the major league level.  An effective minor leagues system is what keeps an organization young, cheap, and fresh.

When a farm system isn’t productive, it has two effects. It means a team has fewer cheap options, and it deprives a team of trading chips.  a number of Mariners fans commented that they were glad to see the M’s didn’t trade D.J. Peterson, the M’s first round draft choice from 2013.  Honestly he’s probably not very desirable.  He sucked last year in AA, and as a lousy fielding first baseman, he probably isn’t in high demand.

DiPoto is between a rock and a hard place. The budget most assuredly went up-maybe as much as 10%-but the long term deals to the four stars-Seager, Cruz, Cano and Felix-suck up a tremendous amount of those dollars.  He committed to a win now strategy, and had to make over to a team that he thinks suits the ballpark and his philosophy.

But honestly he just didn’t have a lot to work with.  He traded the fungible pieces of the 2015 team he could get a return for. So Carson Smith, Brad Miller, Tom Wilhelmsen, Logan Morrison, Roenis Elias, a host of A-ball pitchers all gone, mostly for players still under team control-Miley, Lind, Karns, Aro, Scribner, Powell.

But he avoided the trap of another big contract.  These will, as time goes on, strangle the Mariners budget flexibility and the return on them will likely wane as Cano and Cruz move into their late 30’s. Imagine if DiPoto had done what I wanted and coughed up the $15 million for Iwakuma and its effect on the budget. Would he have been able to snag Lind? Or Cishek?

An alternative is to simply spend more and buy what you need at market rates. That works for a few teams-Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees.  But usually the M’s have to pay above market rates and let’s face it, with the luxury tax, the dollars can’t be endless. And how well has it worked for them? The Yankees are slowly winding down their obligations and avoiding new ones as their team ages. The Dodgers really haven’t had that much success despite astronomical salaries.  It’s not my money, but it’s likely if the Mariners really want additional big-time talent, they’ll have to pay for it, and the budget will have to increase or the stars will have to be traded-likely for pennies on the dollar.

Nope, stars and scrubs it is.  That is the choice this team has made and that’s what DiPoto has willingly nherited.  He’s done a remarkable job of turning over the 40-man roster.  Now his challenge will be to remake the minor leagues into a productive factory of major league players.  But that is a longer term goal.