Month: March 2016

But will the Mariners be better?

Franklin Gutierrez
Will a resurgent Franklin Gutierrez and the other many changes to the Mariners be enough to push them into the playoffs?

With four games left to play in the Cactus League and only seven days remaining until the Mariners open on the road in Texas, the team looks set. As they head into their game against the Indians at six tonight, manager Scott Servais will want to see what they really have with lots of playing time for the regulars.

They enter today’s game with a five game Cactus League win streak to improve their record to 15-12.  Robinson Cano hit four home runs in his last two games, including a monstrous blast over the batter’s eye in centerfield yesterday. They are hot . . . in a not particularly pitching dominant manner of speaking.

But forget all of it.  When the season begins in Texas on Monday, it means nothing. Servais and G.M. Jerry Dipoto know what they are looking for during the exhibition season, and chances are it’s different than what we’re seeing. All we have is the numbers.  They’re looking for process, adjustment, and results and that just doesn’t translate in a box score. After all the off-field maneuvering, assembling the pieces, adopting and implementing a different on-field philosophy, and putting the final team together, the question remains: will the Mariners be better? Can they win?

So let’s break the team down and see what we have:

Catcher

2016:  Chris Iannetta. Back-up Steve Clevenger or Rob Brantley

2015:  Mike Zunino. Back-up Jesus Sucre

Zunino and Sucre were especially bad offensively in 2015, while providing more than respectable defense.  Given a chance to the make the Mariners in 2016, the M’s wasted little time before assigning him to minor league camp, while Sucre suffered a serious injury playing winter ball. The M’s are hoping for bounce-back from the 33-year old Iannetta who also struggled to a .188/.293/.335 wRC+ of 80 in 2015. Iannetta is still a plus defender and if he gets a little closer to his career averages .231/.351/.405 it will be a big improvement. Clevenger is left handed and can also play a little 1B.  Brantley, picked up off waivers from the White Sox, has shown offensive and defensive ability.

Any way you look at, at least on paper and in spring training performances, the Mariners have upgraded at catcher.

First Base

2016: Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee in a left/right platoon.

2015: Logan Morrison and Mark Trumbo

When Morrison and Trumbo were both dealt in the off season, Dipoto made a commitment to try something better at a key offensive position. They brought in righty masher Adam Lind and committed to platooning him with a lefty masher.  Lee, Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez and Stefen Romero were all marooned on The Island together and when the dust cleared only Lee was left. Lind had a spring in line with his career statistics, while Lee we are still uncertain about.  But he’s said to make good adjustments as he learns the pitchers, and he hasn’t been over-matched. Together the Mariners should be able to count on some power, and considerably better on base skills than we saw last year from LoMo and Trumbo.

The Mariners have upgraded at first base.

Second Base

2016: Healthy Robinson Cano

2015: Sick and injured Robinson Cano.

2015 was a tale of two seasons for Robinson Cano.  He got off to the slowest start of his career.  It was an embarrassingly bad  beginning.  And then he turned it around into a much more productive second half.  The inevitable questions were asked about whether the Mariners $240 million man was already past his pull date. Would he be the Seattle version of Albert Pujols-an age related decline together with more frequent injury.  Cano is in the middle of an excellent run in Spring Training, but it will take the grind of the regular season to see if he’s back to 2014 production or better.

The Mariners have not upgraded at second base.

Third Base

2016: Kyle Seager

2015: Kyle Seager

Seager is entering his age 28 season, his fifth in the major leagues. He’s found his sweet spot.  His career slash line of .268/.328/.434 is pretty indicative of his career though his power numbers are higher the last two season. Seager is a dirt-in-the-mouth kind of player, a diamond rat who just loves the game and plays hard. He is also an above average defender But you wonder if at his age and years in the game if there isn’t another level he’s going to kick into.  The average goes up to .290, he cuts down on strikeouts and walks more, he gets mentioned in the same breath with Brooks Robinson, or even Scott Rolen. Maybe. Maybe if the press keeps bugging him about his brothers . . .

Same ol’ Kyle, and that’s not a bad thing.

Shortstop

2016: Ketel Marte

2015: Brad Miller, Ketel Marte

With Brad Miller safely out of the picture, and the Friends of Brad silenced, Marte can focus on his game.  Coming in as a second baseman, Marte played 57 solid games in the major leagues, 51 of them at shortstop.  Defensively, he showed he was at least average at one of the most important positions in the game.  Offensively, Marte showed he could get on base by hook or by crook, using his speed as well as a 9.7% walk rate.  His 2015 slash was .283/.351/.402 with a wRC+ of 112.  Honestly I’m not expecting much better if Marte can maintain that production over a season.

The Mariners improve slightly having Marte for an entire season–unless there is a sophomore jinx.

Designated Hitter

2016: Nelson Cruz

2015: Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith and a cast of thousands

Two important numbers to remember: .337/.402/.670 with 31 home runs-.263/.333/.450 with 13 home runs.  The first number is Cruz’s offensive production as a right fielder.  The second is his production as a DH. It’s not easy being a DH.  It’s hard to keep your head in the game.  Clearly Cruz was a happier camper playing in the field. If he slumps will Servais be forced to play him more in the field?  Hard to say.

The Mariners did not improve with Cruz at DH.

Left Field

2016: Norichika Aoki

2015: Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez–you name ’em.

Left field was a mess last year.  Roles weren’t clear, defense was bad.  Left field was a swamp. The Mariners picked up Nori Aoki, another player hoping for a bounce back after suffering a serious beaning in 2015. In his four years in the major leagues, Aoki is remarkably consistent.  His 2015 slash .287/.353/.386 is almost exactly his career averages.  He’ll bring some speed and very little power to left field. He should offer better defense than past Mariners left fielders. Aoki will also likely lead off.

Overall, Aoki offers a defensive improvement and better on-base skills.  He’s an upgrade

Leonys martin 2
Leonys Martin could be a difference-maker for the Mariners if he can hit enough to stay in the lineup.

Center Field

2016: Leonys Martin

2015: Austin Jackson and a bunch of little people after the trade.

I’m a great believer that center field is the most important position on the team, especially one playing in Safeco’s wide open spaces. When the team parted ways with Austin Jackson, they subsequently traded for a player who could better roam Safeco’s large center field. Leonys Martin is  a superior defensive center fielder.  His bat remains the question mark. Martin will have a few things going in his favor with the Mariners.  He won’t be asked to hit leadoff, or become a power threat. Hopefully he’ll be able to hit enough to stay in the lineup every day and avoid a platoon

A vast improvement if Martin can find a way to get on base, a major complication if he can’t.

Right Field

2016: Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez platoon

2015: Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano platoon for 15 minutes, then Nelson Cruz.

Last year’s right field situation was an inexplicable mess. But in the end Cruz was the guy who was out there most of the time. Despite his considerable hitting heroics, Nellie simply didn’t play good defense, and it’s not surprising Dipoto is doing his best to corral him at DH and minimize his time in the field. A Smith/Gutierrez platoon is a smart move and takes advantage of two talented but limited players available to the M’s.  If used properly, Smith and Guti will give the right balance of on-base, power and defense.

Depending on how the players are used and Cruz gets his time in the field. Should be a slight improvement for the Mariners.

Starting Rotation

2016: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, Nate Karns

2015: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias, James Paxton, Mike Montgomery, and dozens of guys lost on the freeway northbound from Tacoma.

2015 was a living, breathing demonstration of what happens when your organization has no pitching depth.  When Iwakuma and Paxton went down with injuries, the already thin rotation trusted to luck and by July was broken. This year looks much stronger with the acquisition of Miley and Karns.  Will they be brilliant- no probably not, but they’ll definitely give the Mariners innings. This could be Tai Walker’s year to take a big step forward.

This is a significant improvement over last year.

The Bullpen

2016: Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Joel Peralta, Vidal Nuno, Mike Montgomery, a bunch of injured guys, and many more pounding on the bullpen door.

2015: Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquhar, Joe Beimel, Mark Lowe, Carson Smith, Charlie Furbush and a dozen smoldering gas cans.

It’s so hard to know what to write about these guys.  Spring training is rarely the pitchers’ friend, and so many guys have competed for the six or seven spots that are open, while others like Evan Scribner and Furbush aren’t even available to compete. Last year’s bullpen melt-down left me gun-shy and unable to make an honest judgment.  I don’t have the sense these guys are better, but how could they be worse? The bullpen is the one area I have recurrent nightmares about-involving fire, and arrows, and dancing.

I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t feel like the bullpen is a significant upgrade over 2015.

Overall

Yes I left out the bench.  But overall this team should be better than last year’s 76-86 team.  How much better is unclear to me, but I don’t believe it’s the 86-87 wins needed to win the wild card or the 88-90 needed to win the AL West. The M’s have taken strides in the right direction, but they’re counting on too many bounceback seasons and their path to the playoffs is too complicated.  I’m thinking 84 wins is a stretch, and 82 wins seems more likely. Health will play a big role in this team’s success because things are thin in the minor leagues.  However I do think there is a good chance we see James Paxton and Boog Powell at some point during the long season.

 

 

Position battles over, rotation set.

Lee Mariners
Dae-ho Lee wins the platoon spot at first base with Adam Lind.  Stefen Romero was assigned to AAA Tacoma

The Mariners moved three players to AAA-Tacoma today, ending much of the competition, and suspense, for remaining over the major league roster.  Though there are still 33 players in major league camp, the biggest question marks are answered.

1B-With Stefen Romero sent to minor league camp, and Jesus Montero’s release, the M’s have settled on Dae-ho Lee as the right-handed platoon to Adam Lind. I’d be surprised if we don’t see more of Romero than in past seasons.  He demonstrated his versatility in the field, hit well until slowed by a back injury, and even showed he could play a decent first base. Could be a valuable right-handed bat of the bench at some point.

Utility-There is little question Luis Sardinas is having a much better spring than Chris Taylor, so there is no surprise to see Taylor headed down I-5 to Cheney Stadium.

Starting Pitching-James Paxton simply did not put it together this spring.  He’s not the kind of guy who fits well in the bullpen.  So he’ll work on his game in Tacoma and be ready to fill in if there is an injury or somebody falters.  Not a numbers game, the big lefty just isn’t ready.

Still competition for bullpen roles and backup catcher, but the roster is nicely rounding into shape.

Karns pitches, doesn’t explode

James Paxton and Nate Karns are competing for the fifth starter spot.  Unfortunately they look a little like the early days of the American space program.  You know what I’m talking about–the endless video of American rockets failing to launch, exploding on the pad, destroying launch sites, or turning somersaults immediately after liftoff before splattering into fragments.  It did not bode well for the space program, or the lucky human candidates who would soon be riding in a capsule on top of said rockets.  Do yourself a favor and watch.

Today Karns pitched and did not explode. Karns threw six innings allowing two earned runs on five hits.  Further, he struck out five and walked nobody.  This performance was on the heels of Paxton’s disastrous outing yesterday in which he pitched four innings, allowed seven runs and struck out nobody. Just as encouraging, Joaquin Benoit, Vidal Nuno, and Joel Peralta combined for three scoreless innings to close out the game.  Nuno allowed the only hit in relief. That’s the way it’s supposed to be done.

It would seem that with one more outing for Paxton and Karns, advantage right-hander.

Montero a Blue Jay

The Mariners were unable to sneak Jesus Montero through waivers, as they tried to send the catcher/DH/first baseman to Tacoma. The Toronto Blue Jays claimed him during the 48-hour waiver period. This closes another fairly sorry trade from the Jack Zdurencik era.  Pitcher Michael Pineda will almost certainly open the season in the Yankees rotation, while Montero does, whatever . . .

I really love underdog stories, and I hoped Montero would simply prove his many critics wrong and have a super spring that showed without doubt he was the best choice for the right-handed first baseman’s job. But it just didn’t happen. Montero got his chances and simply didn’t hit, which, combined with the fact he is an indifferent fielder and slow as molasses in January, meant he just didn’t have a chance.

While I’m glad the M’s   had real competition for the first base job, and Dae-ho Lee and Stefen Romero clearly outperformed Montero, there is still a certain sadness he is gone. After throwing away the first couple years of his time with Seattle, he clearly took made every effort to be in his best physical condition, worked hard.  But in the end, there just wasn’t enough there. Montero joins former Mariner disappointment. Justin Smoak, in search of a job.with Toronto.

 

 

Cano mashes while Paxton Crashes

Robinson Cano
Seattle Mariners’ Robinson Cano singles in a run against the Los Angeles Angels in the first inning of a baseball game Monday, May 26, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Yesterday the Mariners beat the Chicago Cubs 12-9 in  Cactus League play on the Cubbies’ Mesa home field.  Robinson Cano hit three home runs in a four hit/one walk day to drive in seven of the Mariners runs.  Designated hitter Adam Lind and shortstop Ketel Marte each chipped in a couple of hits on the day.

Cano is having a fabulous spring.  Following a year in which he struggled between the lines and with injuries, he’s slashed .370/.408/.848 with six home runs. It’s spring training and the Cactus League, but in an off season in which pundits have suggested his decline period has begun, and former coach Andy Van Slyke melted down on radio and questioned his clubhouse influence, his desire, and his ability to continue playing the game, no Mariner player has more to prove than Cano.  Ryan Divish and Bob Condotta have a great article about the Mariners second baseman in this morning’s Seattle Times

On a day that saw Cubs pitchers chased out of their bullpen and into the Mariners’ by a swarm of angry bees, Mariners starter James Paxton was likewise stung by Cubs hitters.  In only four innings, Paxton allowed nine hits and seven runs.  More telling, Paxton also allowed three walks and struck out nobody.  Paxton is in competition with right-hander Nate Karns for the fifth starter spot. In his last two major league starts, sandwiched around a minor league start, Paxton has allowed 14 runs on 15 hits in only six innings. In those games he’s struck out only two.

The battle for the fifth starter spot was to be one of the key competitions of Mariner spring training.  That Karns has likewise struggled at times has not made manager Scott Servais’ and general manager Jerry Dipoto’s jobs any easier.  Karns pitches today and then each will have one more start before the regular season begins. Hopefully the M’s won’t have to throw their hands in the air and count “eenie, meenie, miney moe . . .”

Roster Moves

Though Chris Taylor remains in camp, it seems pretty clear that Luis Sardinas has won the utility job as the Mariners sent Shawn O’Malley to minor league camp.  Citing O’Malley’s excellent hitting and base running, Servais also shared the Mariners need for shortstop depth.

“That’s the one position he’s probably not quite at the same level as some of the other guys at this time, we feel,” said Servais.

Sardinas leads the team in at bats with 54 and has slashed a surprising .333/.379/.556.

It appears the battle for the right-handed platoon is shaking out as well.  Rumors yesterday had Jesus Montero cleaning out his locker and spending time with family, while Dae-ho Lee was added to the 40 man roster.  Sunday was the opt-out day for Lee if the Mariners didn’t make this move. Montero, out of minor league options, has struggled this spring, hitting .237/.259/.289.  Lee, the big Korean signed from the Japan League, has at times struggled with major league pitching, but not been overpowered.  He’s also shown that despite his size he is nimble around first base and is a good base runner. Though Lee is still competing with Stefen Romero, the latter has been slowed by a back injury after getting off to a hot start. Both players have minor league options. News Tribune’s Bob Dutton suggests this morning the Mariners may begin the season with an 11-man pitching staff, allowing them to carry Romero as an extra right handed hitter.

Finally, the M’s continue to shrink the pile of pitchers in camp.  They signed veteran Joel Peralta to the 40-man roster. This was not a surprise as they cope with a plethora of bullpen injuries.  Joe Wieland was sent to the minor league camp to work on becoming a starter.  Wieland is on the 40-man roster. Relievers Justin DeFratus and Casey Coleman were outrighted to minor league camp. Dutton reports the M’s have interest in one of three Padres right handed bullpen hands.

So long Joe

Garagiola 2

I was excited to see the M’s play on television tonight.  Unfortunately, it was a tough night for pitchers and I retired to bed after the third inning with the M’s down 9-7.  Nate Karns and Jesse Hahn will both have better nights, I’m sure.  Or at least they better if they plan to fit in their teams’ rotation. The fielding was sloppy, and it seemed like hitters were on all the many mistakes.

On the other hand, it was just one spring training game, and tough to make too much out of it.

Sorry to hear the passing of Joe Garagiola today.  Joe was a classy guy.  I remember him with Curt Gowdey and Tony Kubek on Baseball’s Game of the Week back when I was pretty young.  When he moved on to host the Today Show with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, I always felt he was one of us, showing off the best side of baseball to a non-baseball world.

He continued broadcasting with Vin Sculley, and became a part time color man and analyst with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Garagiola retired at the age of 87.  He died today at 90.

I enjoyed his commentary, his honesty and his sense of humor.   A better broadcaster than a ballplayer, and an even better person, Joe Garagiola will be missed.

180px-Joe_Garagiola_1953

Mariners win, White Sox losing

Karns

The M’s stepped up today for a good outing against the Rangers, smushing the Texans 7-1.  It was a good pitching day with starter Nate Karns going 4.2 innings, allowing three hits, three walks and one earned run, while striking out seven.  Pay attention to the Karns outings vs. the Paxton outings.  They will matter.

But even better news coming from the bullpen is the quality performances by young right-handers Tony Zych and Jonathan Aro. Zych allowed a hit and struck out two over his inning of work.  Aro was even better striking out all three batters he faced.

Punctuating everything was an appearance by the Boomstick.  Nelson Cruz pounded a home run in the second inning for his first dinger in what has been a lackluster spring to date.

A nice win, even if it is the dog days of spring training .  Anxious to see what things look like as we near the final week of the Cactus League season.  Still, positive action by Karns and the bullpen is encouraging.

M’s re-sign Justin DeFratus

Baseball TradeRumors announced Justin DeFratus was re-signed to a minor league deal.  Released yesterday, DeFratus continues his work with the M’s without taking up a spot on the 40 man roster.

Ken Williams vs. Adam LaRoche

Drake LaRoche
Drake LaRoche in less contentious times at the ballpark.

I’m not sure what to make of this or how big a deal it may be. But, Adam LaRoche, due $13 million in 2016 retired suddenly when vice president Ken Williams let the veteran DH know that his son 14-year old Drake LaRoche would need to minimize his presence in the clubhouse. Shortly thereafter, LaRoche announced his retirement. The younger LaRoche is widely admired for his common sense, maturity, and work ethic around the ballyard, attracting the notice of former teammate Bryce Harper.

While clearly this matter is clearly between White Sox management and LaRoche, the players and even manager of Robin Ventura are not on the same page as Williams.  Left-handed pitching star Chris Sale laced into Williams with a profanity filled tirade.  The players were on the verge of a boycott of Wednesday’s spring training game until Ventura convinced them otherwise.

It is clear the majority of White Sox players feel this is a breach of faith with LaRoche.  Further, the feeling that this comes from the front office, over the head of manager Ventura and General Manager Rick Hahn, would be like a similar decision made by Kevin Mather or Howard Lincoln. What is clear is that with all the off-season moves made by Hahn to challenge for the AL Central, this is a a helluva way to begin the season. There are several different stories worth reading to gain some perspective on this issue.

First, Sale shares his view with Bob Nightengale of USA Today on the betrayal he feels by Williams.  It isn’t pretty. Jim Caple of ESPN offers a balanced view of former major leaguers inhabiting clubhouses while their fathers played, including thoughts by Aaron Boone (Bob) and Eduardo Perez (Tony) and that teams set policies that players have to follow. Jay Jaffe at SI.com probed the situation a little more deeply among White Sox players and the front office. Finally, LaRoche offered his version of events, explaining clearly his views on the White Sox promises to him and his own values vis a vis commitments to his family and baseball.

Bullpen issues are bad, but mutinies are worse.