Month: February 2016

Adam Lind’s dance partner

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Dae-ho Lee crushes a pitch for the Fukuoka Soft-Bank Hawks.  Could he do the same for the Mariners in April?

As I stated before, the Mariners know who will be playing where with a few exceptions. The last rotation slot and the bullpen mix are two areas we’ll be playing close attention to. But likely the most intriguing battle will be for Adam Lind’s right handed platoon partner.

The M’s will be looking for a player who can hit left handed pitching, with an eye to someone who can fulfill the “control the zone” approach to hitting, can play first base, some DH, and if they offer some roster flexibility by playing other positions, so much the better. But let’s be clear, this player will likely face some right handed pitching as well, so someone who simply can’t hit right handers will not wash.

The four most likely candidates competing for that job are Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez, Stefen Romero and Dae-ho Lee.  Let’s take a look at each.

Jesus Montero

Entering spring training in February 2014, General Manager Jack Zdurencik said about Montero “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone.” There is no getting around the fact that Montero has been a tremendous disappointment since the Mariners traded for him in 2012.  Despite losing weight and performing very well in Tacoma in 2015, he’s been unable to translate that into success at the major league level.   His career numbers against left handed pitching is .292/.341/.429 with a wRC+ of 115.  He is not a very good first baseman, has no speed and can only play first base and DH. Out of minor league options, Montero is gone if the M’s don’t keep him with the big club or trade him.

Gaby Sanchez

Sanchez has a seven year major-league career split between Florida/Miami and Pittsburgh as a first baseman. Sanchez had some good years, making an All-Star appearance with the Marlins in 2011. But he stumbled in 2012, and his career never was never quite the same.  He was traded to the Pirates in 2012, watching his career averages, and especially his power numbers decline. His final year in Pittsburg was .229/.293/.385. in 2015 Sanchez played in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, where he hit .226/.329/.392.  Over his career, Sanchez has been a .291/.382/.481 against left handed pitching. Sanchez pencils out to about average at first base with a career DRS of -5 and UZR/150 of 2.5, though his defense took a nosedive after 2012. Sanchez signed a minot league contract on January 22nd.

Stefen Romero

Romero hasn’t played first base.  The former Oregon State Beaver has had a hard time latching on to the big league team.  He’s put up some good number in Tacoma, but in his 214 major league plate appearances, Romero has not been impressive–though this three run homer off Gavin Floyd in 2014 was pretty eye-catching.

Romero is one of those bat guys, without a clear position.  However he’s performed creditably at second, third and in the outfield.  More athletic than guys like Vinnie Catricala or Alex Liddi, it remains to be seen whether he can impress enough with his bat, or pick up playing first base quickly to stick with the big club.

Dae-ho Lee

Lee is the plus-sized right handed hitter who has played most of his 14 year career in the Korean Baseball Organization. But for the last four years Lee has been very good in the Japan Pacific League for Orix and Fukuoka. A big guy at 6’4″ 280-300 lbs, Lee has shown a the ability to get on base and hit with considerable power.  Last year with Fukuoka, Lee slashed .282/.368/.524 and smashed 31 home runs.  He’s a really big guy, and though he plays first base, it’s unclear how well he plays first base.  He’s really a man-mountain and makes the 6’1″ 235 lb. Sanchez look like a fence rail.  Jeff Sullivan wrote an interesting piece about Lee at FanGraphs and how his power, OBP and relatively low strikeout numbers clearly align with Jerry Dipoto’s effort to get guys on base and reduce strikeouts. Be sure to take a look at the home run videos.  To be fair, however, Lee’s strikeouts increased in his four year Japan stint from 85 in 2012 to 109 in 2015.  Compared to Nelson Cruz, not so many, but at age 34, a 20% increase in K’s is something to pay attention to.  Lee’s accomplishments in Asia mean nothing.  It’s what he can do for the M’s in the major leagues that count.  He may be the most interesting of these four players, but it is far from certain he is the one who can best do the job. Lee is signed to a minor league contract, but could make up to $4 million if he makes good and meets incentives. The Mariners had competition for his services, and it’s clear the M’s offer the best path for the big man to reach the major leagues.

So here is something to chew on.  I don’t see a clear favorite here, and all have fairly serious warts.  However, adding serious hitting depth could solidify the M’s position in what is clearly going to be a competitive AL West.

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The wanderings of A.J. Schugel

A.J. Schugel

It’s got to be tough to be a minor league ballplayer.  You’re nominally the property of the team that chose you for six years.  There’s no guarantee of a major league future, or of being injury free, or that you won’t be a throw in on a deal for the big club that sends you somewhere like Bakersfield.

Yep, the life of a minor leaguer can be a bit like a pawn.  Take the case of right handed pitcher,  A.J. Schugel.  That’s Anthony Jeffry Schugel, age 26, son of longtime Angels scout Jeff Schugel.  Schugel has an interesting story.  According to a 2013 article by Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com, Schugel didn’t pitch in high school or junior college. He was an infielder who stepped up to the mound in rookie ball in 2010.

Drafted by the Angels, he started and relieved, and then was included as the player to be named later in the trade of Mark Trumbo to Arizona in 2014.

Schugel spent 2015 in AAA Reno, but was added to the 40-man roster in 2015.  Called up to the bigs for five games, the righty pitched nine innings, allowed 17 hits, 5 walks, 2 dingers and five earned runs (13 unearned.)  Unimpressed, the Diamondbacks cut him loose to free a spot on their 40 man roster for Mr. Greinke.

On December 16th, in between signing Steve Cishek and claiming Andy Wilkins, and re-signing Hisashi Iwakuma, the M’s latched on to Schugel and showed lefty Tyler Olson the door.  It seems so long ago.

Though the M’s haven’t made many major league deals the last couple of months, I’ve been impressed with the degree of minor league churn Dipoto has engaged in.  Schugel joined the Mariners coterie of bullpen hopes and dreams, while the M’s added to the mix with Ryan Cook.  But trading with the Dodgers for right-handed immortal Joe Wieland was evidently Schugel’s undoing, because on January 12th, the M’s designated him for assignment.

Less than a week later, Schugel was snapped up by the Pirates. His sojourn in the steel city ended when the Bucs signed Schugel’s mirror image, lefty Jesse Biddle, from the Phillies system.

Today A.J. Schugel is unemployed.  But it’s hard to see that he stays that way.  He’s only 26. Every major league team needs players like him who has the potential of getting outs at the major league level if they are pressed by injury or ineffectiveness in their minor or major league bullpens.

Though Schugel has not been signed by his fourth team since December 8th, it is almost a certainty he’ll be spending March in Arizona or Florida (or both the way things have been going.) But it must be a difficult road to plan for life in one place or another when in fact it is a place that is entirely different.

From the mouth of Kyle

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Of the many comments that came from players at Saturday’s FanFest, perhaps the most interesting and important came from Kyle Seager. When asked by Root Sports’ Brad Adams about whether he was excited about the season beginning, Seager’s response was unambiguous and enthusiastically positive. As long as the changes lead to winning, the Mariners third baseman counted himself all in.

But this wasn’t just about sentiment and team-boosting, Seager wondered aloud what it would mean for him and his approach at the plate. He commented on his .328 on base percentage and and how his game may have to change to embrace the “Control the Zone” campaign to cut down on strikeouts and drive up walks.

I wonder if the “core” of the Mariners-Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager-are having similar internal dialogues, and how we might see their efforts to conform to a new strategy on the field. Fewer strikeouts, longer innings, fewer solo homers?

Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs, in his article projecting major league strikeout rates, suggests the Mariners should have one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors.

“No team projects to trim its strikeout rate by more than the Mariners, who also happen to be under new management. That management has emphasized contact and controlling the zone, and the preference has been reflected in some of the moves — like, say, signing Nori Aoki, or bringing in Adam Lind. The Mariners also said goodbye to Austin Jackson, Mark Trumbo, and Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino will be working on major swing changes in Triple-A.”

Though changes will be measured by actual results, it’s clear the M’s have not only churned  their roster, but the type of baseball they play will also be different. Kyle Seager won’t be the only one who notices.

 

Spring training battles to watch

 

Today is the first official day of the presidential campaign season, as vote counting for real begins with the Iowa caucuses.  I prefer my big events annually as baseball season begins its spring auditions a scant 17 days from now when Mariners pitchers and catchers report to Peoria on February 18th.

Even though the Mariners haven’t made any big moves in more than a month, leaving us all breathless as General Manager Jerry DiPoto churned the major league roster, it’s not like the aerobic quality of the off-season moves didn’t continue.  There has been constant coming and going of fringe players on the 40-man roster, and a refreshing reconstruction of minor league (Tacoma) lineups with an eye toward actual needs rather than just piling up guys.

I’ve been impressed with all aspects of the DiPoto regime to date.  It’s time to get players on the field and see what we’ve got. There will be some interesting story lines to follow during their yearly sojourn in Arizona, and here are the ones I’m most interested in:

The Bullpen

At FanFest DiPoto identified four relievers he was counting on to have good years: closer, Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Charlie Furbush, and Evan Scribner.  Of those four only Benoit had a great year in 2015.  The others either underperformed, or, in the case of Furbush, suffered serious injury. Bob Dutton wrote at length yesterday about the Furbush injury, and that he is not yet ready to pitch. If these are the four guys DiPoto is counting on, what does that say about the pile of guys he has assembled, and from whom it must pick out another three players to put together a seven man bullpen staff? These include Jonathan Aro, Justin DeFratus, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, Danny Hultzen, Ryan Cook, Mayckol Guaipe, Casey Coleman, Cody Martin, Blake Parker, David Rollins, Joe Wieland, and Tony Zych.  A big enough cast to please D.W. Griffith.

But this is not a laughing matter.  In my view the bullpen is this team’s greatest weakness.  All the work of what looks to be a very strong rotation, and an improved offense will go for naught if the bullpen cannot hold a lead. The lack of a proven bullpen is my biggest concern going into the season.

The Rotation Battle

The Mariners will be looking at seven pitchers with proven big-league starting experience when pitchers and catchers report: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker,  James Paxton, Nate Karns and Mike Montgomery.  Based on their previous experience, I would think Felix, Kuma, Miley and likely Walker have this team made.  The fifth spot however will be a battle between Paxton, Karns and Montgomery.  Hopefully everyone emerges from spring training healthy, but if not, the Mariners are much better equipped to deal with it than in past years.  One would like to give the inside edge to Paxton because he’s shown flashes of brilliance.  Montgomery is out of options, so he’ll get a look as a reliever too. The M’s gave up their best trading piece in Brad Miller to get Karns, so I would hope he proves useful too. It be interesting to see how this all plays out, but it’s nice to see the M’s have enough guys with big league talent and experience rather than simply trusting to luck.

The First Base Platoon

We know Adam Lind is going to get the majority of at-bats at first base, and likely will see a few left-handers too, according to Scott Servais at FanFest.  But the guy who shares the position with him from the right side could be one of a variety of players.  I’ve already commented on Jesus Montero, and I’m sure he’ll get a long look.  The Mariners also recently signed Gaby Sanchez from the Japan League’s Rakuten Golden Swallows. With 2,271 major league at bats, Sanchez hit lefties to the tune of .291/.382/.481 and wRC+ of 112.  He is an average defender at first base.  Another potential first baseman is Stefen Romero.  With far less big league time than Montero or Sanchez, Romero has far less to show for himself.  However, he has the advantage of athleticism and position flexibility.  Of course, he’s never played first base at the big league level. So it isn’t Montero or nobody, and I’m glad to see some competition for this spot.

The Mariners don’t look set, but the starting spots are won. It’s the fringe and bullpen spots that are still mostly up for grabs.  The M’s don’t look like locks for a division title or a playoff spot, but they should be competitive and a lot more interesting than past teams.  I’m looking forward to seeing the DiPoto/Servais philosophy at work on the field.

 

 

Mariners Fan Fest Hits the Spot

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Fans “mosey around the bases” at Mariners FanFest on Saturday.

One of my New Years resolutions was to attend 2016 Mariners Fan Fest.  So I rounded up three of my dearest friends, baseball fanatics all, and we committed to attend Saturday.  Unfortunately, Tim (of the balky back) had to cancel, so snagged Dave and Dave in the Subaru and headed north for the Saturday session.

Let me just repeat myself.  There are some things the Mariners organization does extremely well-Mariners Hall of Fame Inductions, bobblehead nights, and FanFest are just some of them. The M’s are always respectful to the public which may account for a certain amount of residual fan loyalty despite the decades of losing. if only they could do better about the winning thing.

Dave S. and I attended FanFest in 2014, and something kept me from attending last year, but we knew a bit of what to expect.  For Dave D. it was all new. Compared to our earlier experience, yesterday was a revelation.  There were crowds, long lines waiting to get in at the home plate and left field entrance.  In 2014, the M’s broke records for attendance at 15,000+ for the weekend.  There were 15,000 people there yesterday.

The place was packed, mostly with families (kids admission is free,) ready to partake of all the events on the field-the zip line, whiffle ball, throwing in the Mariners bullpen, running, er, actually walking the bases. Baseball groups including men’s senior baseball and women’s baseball, lined the concourses.  And of course, the M’s had their sales people out in force, and honestly the 10 game flex plan looked pretty good and affordable. Lines were long, but moving, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

But there were a few things I had on my wish list.  First was a trip out to Edgar’s for a morning beer.  Second on my list, another item on my resolutions, was a photo with the Dave Niehaus statue in the center field concourse, and then some time listening to GM Jerry DiPoto and manager Scott Servais during the Dugout Interview series. I can say mission accomplished, managing to follow through on all three.

The three of us agreed to head out to left field to Edgar’s Cantina for a quick morning brew, and gave us a chance to survey the schedule.  We also listened to Chris Ianetta begin the Dugout series, and that prompted us to head out along the crowded outfield concourse toward the Mariners dugout where the interviews were held.

Kevin and Dave at FanFest
Kevin Smyth, professional goof, shares an Elysian Immortal with the statue of Dave Niehaus in center field.  Though Dave politely refused an IPA, it was great to hang out with my biggest Mariner hero for a minute or two.

Along the way we encountered the bronze statue of Dave Niehaus at his desk, relatively free of fans.  I persuaded Dave S. to take a picture with my phone and it came out pretty well.  I was quite happy with it.

We made it around to the first baseline and down to the Dugout series.  To give you an idea of the difference between 2014 and 2016, two years ago we were within a row or two of the speakers.  Yesterday we easily sat at least a dozen rows back.

Jerry DiPoto spoke at noon, and as far as I was concerned this was must see. He said some interesting things.  DiPoto confirmed that he was a fan, and that as a fan it was important to succeed.  He didn’t promise a world series championship, but did insist the 2016 Mariners would contend for the playoffs. He went over some of the moves the team had made with interviewer Brad Adams of ROOT Sports-lengthening the rotation, deepening the bullpen, and building a more athletic outfield. Most importantly, however, was his commitment to an organizational philosophy that valued the use of statistics, athleticism, and controlling the strike zone. It was worth a listen.  Even so, the crowd didn’t let DiPoto off the hook, many of the questions came from long-time season ticket holders who had heard the promises before and expressed a degree of skepticism and cynicism. It was good stuff.
Players came and went–Charlie Furbush and Steve Clevenger, Kyle Seager and Tai Walker.  All were interesting as Furbush fielded questions about who would be the bullpen ringmaster with the departure of Tom Wilhhelmsen, Tai Walker appeared in a new hat and beard combo, and Kyle Seager took any number of questions, many, oddly about his brothers.  All were swarmed afterwards by a cloud of autograph seeking adults and children.

But I anxiously awaited the arrival of Scott Servais.  Servais impressed me as someone who is at once passionate but methodical, is a lifelong baseball man committed to “doing things the right way,” but is also deeply rooted in analytics.  He took lots of questions about players and lineups and provided a sample line up of Aoki, Seager, Cano, Cruz, Lind, Smith, Marte, Ianetta and Martin. He recognized the difference Cruz’s production as an outfielder and his diminished offensive effectiveness as a DH.  He definitely said the right things.

It was an intriguing day.  It seemed that everyone was ready for Spring Training to start, and that time should be taken now to see what the M’s have.  If there was a downside on the day, it was the weather.  Though dry, it was chilly and after noon it also became windy adding to the cold.  By 2:30 we were definitely ready to retire to Henry’s across Edgar Martinez Way, only to learn they were out of Lucille on tap.  A very good day if not perfect.