News today that Howard Lincoln is retiring as CEO of the Mariners. That is huge news. Chuck Armstrong, gone. Howard Lincoln gone. How much longer can the nay-sayers complain about the Chuck and Howie show?
Nintendo has also sold its majority stake in the team to the remaining owners, while retaining a 10% minority share. Lincoln’s role will be assumed by minority owner John Stanton, a founding member of the cellular company T-Mobile and a minority shareholder in the Sonics during Howard Schultz’s tenure. Since 2000, Stanton has been a member of the baseball ownership group.
What does it all mean? Damned if I know. There was a ringing endorsement of President Kevin Mather’s actions, increasing the budget and firing Jack Zdurencik and hiring current G.M. Jerry Dipoto. Aside from the unfortunate, persistent public criticism of a NBA/NHL arena in SODO, it seems the new boss is same as the old boss. Let’s see how this all plays out.
But wait, this is all big picture stuff. YOUR SEATTLE MARINERS ARE IN FIRST PLACE IN THE AL WEST!!!!!
Yes, the same team that went 1-5 in their first homestand, have already doubled their win total in the first two games in a series against the Houston Astros. A brilliant 3-2 gem by Taijuan Walker on Monday was followed by an 11-1 Robinson Cano-led pummeling on Tuesday. Combined with Rangers and Athletics losses on Monday, the M’s slipped into the lead at 9-7. On Tuesday they slapped around Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, reliever Michael Feliz and back-up catcher/bullpen savior Erik Kratz to hold their lead in the face of convincing victories by Texas and Oakland, makes it that much easier to enjoy.
Don’t know how long the Mariners will stay in the lead. Maybe this is the beginning of the decades anticipated Mariner Juggernaut, or maybe it’s just a little tease. Might as well play it out and learn.
It’s been a while since my last post. Lots of journalism deadlines, and on the road last weekend with my students in Los Angeles adds up to little time to post.
Last night Hisashi Iwakuma filled in for Felix and held the Angels to a couple of runs on six hits on eight strong innings of work. For the second game in a row, one of the Core stepped up to put the game out of reach with a big hit, Nelson Cruz’s two run blast coming on the heels of Franklin Gutierrez’s go ahead RBI. Steve Cishek’s perfect 10th inning sealed the deal for the Mariners eighth win and his fourth save.
In the twelve days since my last post, with the A’s getting out of town after sweeping the M’s, swiping everything but their jock straps (leaving behind the ugly 1989 caps,) the Mariners have gone 6-4. They Rangers ran the good ship Mariner on the rocks, but back out on the road, the M’s took series from the Yankees and Indians and poached one from the Angels in Anaheim.
The tone of the fan-base has lightened a little, now that Seattle is looking somewhat respectable. A game and a half behind leaders Texas and Oakland, but three and half ahead of outhouse dwellers, the Astros, the M’s don’t look quite so hapless.
What does it all mean–not a damn thing. Consider these two numbers:
2014, after 16 games the Mariners were 7-9. They went on to finish 87-75
2015, after 16 games the Mariners were 7-9. They went on to finish 76-86
Both teams finished out of the playoffs. One more number to consider, and that is May 31st. That is the day the Texas Rangers reached .500 last year at 25-25, after being as many as seven games below .500 in 2015. They won the division. It’s April 23rd, give it a rest.
We’ve seen Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and now Iwakuma each turn in one of those dominant performances they are going to have to throw in order for the M’s to have a shot at a playoff spot.
Though he struggled with command in his last start against the Yankees, and seems to have contracted a bug in Anaheim, his April 10 performance against the A’s and Chris Bassitt was vintage Felix. 7.0 IP, 0 Runs, 3 H, 10 K, 2 BB in a loss was much better than his first start or his more recent start in New York. In both of those outings he’s struggled with his command and been out of games early. We need the vintage Felix.
Walker had an excellent outing against the Indians, with 6.0 IP, 1 Run, 3 H, 6 K 0 BB to beat Danny Salazar on April 20.
Last night’s win against the Angels was a reminder of vintage Iwakuma, who has gotten out of the gate slowly. Throwing only 89 pitches, Iwakuma went 8.0 IP, 2 Runs, 6 H 3 K, 1 BB and a pair of solo homers. Betcha the Dodgers are thinking twice about letting ‘Kuma go after Scott Kazmir‘s slow start.
The Mariners have had three extra innings wins since my last post. They beat Texas April 13th on Dae-ho Lee’s walk-off home run. Robinson Cano crushed Cody Allen with a long home run to center field on Thursday. Gutierrez laid the marker with the game winning single last night, followed by the Boomstick blast.
The Mariners were in 23 extra inning games in 2015. They lost twelve of those, but in addition, they lost 12 more late walk-off games. So far just one extra inning loss and no walk-off melt downs, though there was that late homer against the A’s on opening night.
Controlling the Zone
At the present time, the M’s have 130 strikeouts, tied with Detroit for 8th in the league. Last year the Mariners with 2nd, behind the Astros. The are 7th in the league in the walks with 50, about where they were in 2015. That’s a net minus of 80
Seattle pitchers are fifth in the AL with 140 strikeouts. They are tied for seventh in the league for fewest walks with 51. Mariners pitching are a net plus of 89.
Put it all together and you get the Scott Servais Control The Zone factor: 89-80, the M’s are a +9, so they are doing a plus job controlling the zone. We’ll see how this works out as the season progresses.
Help: More offense needed.
The M’s have scored 64 runs, which puts them at sixth in the American League. Decent number, right? Wrong. 36 of those runs were scored in just four games, for an average of 9.0 runs in those four wins. In the remaining 12 games, they’ve scored 28 runs for an average of 2.3 runs per game. The M’s have scored four or more runs only six times in their 16 games. That makes it really hard to win consistently.
The Mariners are 10th in the A.L. for OPS with a very mortal .690, despite Cano’s six home runs. Though Seth Smith is hitting a robust .303, he’s a platoon player, and Cruz is the only other starter hitting as much as .270. Definitely room for improvement.
On Friday the Mariners came back to Seattle for a little home cooking. After taking the Texas Rangers to task on the road and winning their three game series, the M’s planned to do the same to open the season at home. Unfortunately the Oakland A’s were not obliging, sweeping the home team.
In Texas, the M’s scored 21 runs over three games. At Safeco the A’s allowed only four runs over three games. It’s not as though the M’s were exactly pummeled, allowing only three runs in game one and two runs in ten innings in the Sunday finale. No, the news is that they were absolutely bewildered, flummoxed and otherwise discombobulated offensively. The M’s scraped together only 15 hits in the series. (They had 14 against the Rangers in Wednesdays’ game.) They also struck out 25 times and walked only seven times, so they lost the battle to control the zone.
Though offense was in general missing, right-handed hitters failed in those key platoon roles against left handed pitching. Entering Sunday’s game the team was hitting only .167 against southpaws, and four of the six starters they’ve faced were lefties.
Though Sunday’s starter, Chris Bassitt was not a mysterious left-handed gun-slinger, the Mariners could manage little against him either, eking out only three hits to go with five walks, and scoring only one unearned run. The M’s were 0-8 with runners in scoring position.
As aggravating as the Mariners offensive woes were in this series, the performance of the bullpen is equally disconcerting. In Texas, the bullpen allowed one hit and no runs in nine innings of work. At home the relief corps pitched ten innings, allowing five runs on seven hits. Three of the runs were on solo homers and proved to be the difference in both the Friday and Sunday games.
One always hopes that an opening home series gives us lots to cheer about, builds momentum for a successful season, and gets the fan base fired up for future games. Instead of home cooking, this felt much more like a nasty case of food poisoning. It’s only one series in a 162-game season, but as the season gets under way one can only hope that scoring runs jumps to the top of their priorities.
The best thing the M’s can do is swallow some Pepto-Bismol, and welcome those Rangers to town for a home series. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to give the A’s some payback later, but they have to settle their tummies first. Perhaps the Texans will provide the balm the Mariners need.
What does it all mean? Are the M’s just killing right handed pitching? Will they continue killing right-handed pitching? Are Rangers right-handers, especially in the bullpen, just that bad? Does this foretell anything, or is it just one series-cover your eyes and move on?
It’s so super early in the season, it’s too soon to know much about anything. I like to give any team 50 games before deciding I know what a team is about. That’s Monday, May 30 against San Diego at Safeco Field, for those keeping score.
Still, it’s hard not to be excited about the team’s offensive explosion, when for years the Mariners have underperformed. Just gotta keep it all in perspective. Just to help the too optimistic or too pessimistic, the winningest teams in baseball history, the 1906 Chicago Cubs, or if you prefer your winningest teams home-grown, the 2001 Seattle Mariners were 116-36 and 116-46 respectively. They lost more than a game or two, and the 2016 version of the Mariners are likely to be even less successful. Enjoy the ride.
The Mariners left for Seattle taking two games from Texas in Globe Life Park, after Monday’s loss. I saw lots of “same ol’ M’s” comments after Monday’s sloppy 3-2 loss. I’m hoping the doubters are a bit more willing to take the season with an open mind after today’s 9-5 comeback victory and after last night’s 10-2 pummeling against the Rangers.
Just a recap if you, like me, were forced to rely on other technological means than radio or television to catch today’s game. The M’s scored early again, with two runs in the first inning on another Robinson Cano home run. They picked up a solo run in the third off Rangers starter Colby Lewis. Wade Miley rapidly worked through the Rangers first, but gave up three quick runs in the second, and allowed a two run homer to Prince Fielder in the 6th. Rangers up 5-3. I was certainly nervous. But Robinson Cano drove in another run in the 7th with a bases loaded walk, Rangers 5-4. In the top of the 9th, the Mariners bartendered Rangers closer Shawn Tolleson, scoring five runs capped with a two run dinger from Robinson Cano. Mariners lead 9-5. Closer Steve Cishek came in and was perfect in a non-save situation. Bartendered-that’s a verb. Any word can be a verb in English.
So the Mariners come home 2-1 after their first, albeit brief, road trip. The early Mariners have a tough early schedule, lots of road games, lots of games against winning teams. Jayson Stark suggested the importance of the M’s getting off to a fast start, assuming the role of Houston last year, who blazed to an early lead in the AL West. So winning these early road games is important. Of course, winning at home has been difficult for the M’s too, so they just need to win ’em all.
The Mariners amassed 14 hits and 6 walks. Three more home runs with two by Robinson Cano and one by Leonys Martin. Kind of makes swallowing Monday’s four hit performance a little easier. Every hitter except catcher Steve Clevenger had a hit. Ketel Marte, who struggled in the first two games offensively and defensively, got on board with three hits and a run scored.
Controlling the Zone
After Cole Hamels and company had their way with the Mariners on Monday with 11 strikeouts, the M’s have responded with consecutive games of only 4 and 6 strikeouts Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. By contrast, the Mariners mirrored the K’s with 4 walks yesterday and 6 walks today.
In nine innings the bullpen has allowed exactly zero runs. We’ve seen every pitcher except Vidal Nuno, had two inning outings from Mike Montgomery and Tony Zych, and Nick Vincent appeared in back to back games. Nada. Today closer Steve Cishek appeared in a non save situation-nails, perfect, lights out. Don’t know how long it will last, but I feel like I’m dreaming and don’t want to wake up.
I don’t know how concerned I am really, but Miley pitched six innings, wasted no time about it, struck out seven and walked nobody. Unfortunately, along the way he gave up five runs very quickly. He was able to get out of innings, but it’s like he’s cruising and then wham. More than anything, I’m concerned there wasn’t a strong start by any of the three guys leading off the Mariners rotation. Hopefully it’s just first start adjustments and not something more concerning.
So the M’s come home, advantage Mariners. Gotta say I love the new blue jerseys. Might have to get me one of those.
The M’s mashed the Rangers 10-2 tonight. Almost all the things I hoped I’d see from this team I saw at bat I saw. Iwakuma’s outing seemed like a struggle, though maybe it was just the Rangers’ talent for working pitches that made it seem so hard.
For me, the highlight of the game was watching Leonys Martin drive in Seth Smith in the seventh inning for the go-ahead run. I’m sure for others, it was the dismantling of Tom Wilhemsen in the 8th inning. The Bartender’s line for the season (one outing) 0 IP, 4 hits, 5 ER, infinite ERA.
Unlike yesterday’s offensive struggle, the M’s pounded out 11 hits. In the early going it seemed the Mariners were going to have a hard time against another lefty starter, and Martin Perez only allowed two hits with four walks. But when the Texas bullpen arrived on the scene to start the 7th inning, and Servais began rotating in more left handed bats against the right-handed relief corps, things really did break loose. Yes, there were the homers, but there was some decent clutch hitting as well by Martin, Iannetta, Aoki, exactly what we hoped we’d see.
The Mariners bullpen offered up three subjects to sacrifice on the altar of the bullpen gods. They were all great. Nick Vincent, Joel Peralta, and Tony Zych pitched four innings allowing 0 runs, 1 hit, 2 BB’s and 6 K’s. Though Zych wobbled a bit in the 9th, he was never in serious trouble.
When Wilhelmsen plunked Iannetta amidst the carnage of his outing, and Iannetta protested, Texas manager Jeff Bannister was inexplicably on the top step of the dugout hollering back at the Mariner catcher. Servais was immediately out of the dugout, on to the field, pointing at Bannister and the Texas dugout. The message to Texas: Enough of your bullshit. The message to his team: It’s Game two. We play these guys 17 more times, and I’ve got your back game two and every one of those 17 games.
Yeah, no homers for Iannetta tonight. All he’s done is get on base in five of his first six at bats, drive in two runs, and throw out Elvis Andrus trying to steal. I know it’s only the second game of the season, but he looks great out there working with pitchers and at bat. I’m going to enjoy it as long as I can.
The less than good
Iwakuma was not particularly sharp tonight. He uncharacteristically walked three batters and threw 90 pitches to get through his five innings. It sure seemed like his velocity is down a tick or two on both his fastball and breaking ball. Hope that isn’t a permanent thing.
I rarely criticize umpires, but Marvin Hudson’s strike zone really seemed to jump around, making it hard for pitchers and batters. I know it’s only game two for the umpires too, but c’mon, at least be consistent.
It was good to get this win, but the Mariners play again tomorrow, another day game, followed by another day game for the home opener. This is killin’ me.
I was truly sorry when the Mariners traded Wilhelmsen to the Rangers. He was one of those Mariners I really did enjoy, and when he was good, he was very good. At least for tonight, with Martin’s double and run, and Tommy’s complete undressing, the M’s, for today, appear to have won that trade. Round 3 tomorrow: Wade Miley vs. Colby Lewis.
The M’s opened at the Ballpark in Arlington today. I wish there was good news to report. The M’s lost to the Rangers 3-2. Kind of a strange day and kind of a strange game. Back to school today, so no radio or television for me. All I could do was steal glimpses on Gameday in between discussion of the loneliest character in Of Mice and Men. Before our disagreement between the Crooks faction and those who believed it was Curley’s wife (she has no name, you can look it up,) the Mariners were leading on a pair of home runs by Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager. By the time we were done, the M’s were down 3-2, which is how it ended.
Cano and Seager both homered, both solo shots. And that’s good because there simply weren’t many hits falling from the trees for either team today. Cano laid down his marker in his first at-bat with an emphatic STFU to the baseball press who have suggested his skills at the advanced age of 33 are on the decline.
Yes, bafflement is a real word. And that’s what starter Felix Hernandez and reliever Mike Montgomery caused in the Rangers lineup. Only one hit allowed and ten strikeouts. If Mariners pitching can do that regularly we’d be talking about a lot of wins.
Montgomery pitched two innings of relief allowing a walk and no hits while striking out four. Pretty good line for a guy who went in to Spring Training trying to win a starting gig. Hopefully the start of something big for the big left-hander and some confidence-building for the bullpen.
The King allowed five walks, Montgomery one. Three came in the climactic fifth inning when the Texans scored all their runs off Felix. Extra base-runners mean too much pressure on defenders to be perfect. They extend innings. This can’t happen. Well, maybe if you’re Randy Johnson, but no.
It seemed like there were a lot of defensive lapses during Spring Training, but today there were two in one inning, with Seager and Marte both allowing extra outs and extra base runners in the fifth inning. Two errors, three walks and Prince Fielder’s base hit combined to sink the M’s for all three Texas runs.
Where’s the offense?
I was disappointed the Mariners only scored on a pair of solo home runs. Cole Hamels is a good pitcher, I get that. But only four hits paired with 11 strike outs by Ranger pitching, didn’t allow much of a margin for pitching or fielding mistakes. Unfortunately there were too many of those. Hopefully we’ll see more guys work their way on base, and see some of that speed on the basepaths. It felt a little like JackieZball today.
Let’s do it again tomorrow. Later start time so I’ll get to see on the tube.
Baseball has always been my favorite sport. My friends, wedded to the Sounders or the Seahawks don’t understand how I can give my time to a game that to them seems so slow, so boring, especially when the home team can’t seem to find a way to win while looking so foolish in the process. They don’t understand the beauty of the game that proceeds at its own pace, unhurried by the clock proceeding eventually through nine innings and 54 outs whether we like the results or not. They have forgotten that not so long ago the Mariners were a marvel of major league baseball.
I grew up in Seattle in the 50’s and 60’s. My dad took me to games early. Once upon a time I had a certificate for a free Seattle Rainiers game signed by Fred Hutchinson. We went to Rainiers and Angels games at Sicks Stadium. My first heroes were ballplayers. I was a huge fan of the San Francisco Giants and Willie Mays. My first major league game was in 1963 while visiting my grandparents in San Francisco. My father took me to Candlestick Park. I watched the Giants beat the visiting Pirates 3-1. Six Hall of Famers played in that game-Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski, and Willie Stargell played in the field, while Gaylord Perry started for the Giants. Last year I paged through the 1963 Giants season on BaseballReference.com and found the box score, and it was like I was there once again, with the Giants cap my father bought me that I wore to bed the night of the game.
When the Pilots came to Seattle in 1969, I was in the stands. I saw three games with fightin’ Ray Oyler, Don Mincher, Marty Pattin, Tommy Davis and all the rest. 1969 was Reggie Jackson’s breakout year and while I didn’t see him hit a home run, I did watch him steal a base while A’s coach Joe DiMaggio looked on from the dugout. The Pilots were awful in 1969, but that was okay because they were my team. But they absolutely broke my heart in 1970 when they moved to Milwaukee.
And though I moved to the Bay Area for my high school years in the early ’70’s and found a way to root for the Giants and some very good Oakland A’s teams, it wasn’t until the Mariners came back to Seattle in 1977, that I fell deeply in love with baseball all over again. And the M’s have owned me ever since. Ruppert Jones, Bruce Bochte, Alvin Davis, Mark Langston, Ken Griffey, Jr., Jamie Moyer, Ichiro Suzuki, Felix Hernandez, Ketel Marte, I’ve loved them all.
I was in the stands on Opening Night in 1986 when Jim Presley homered twice, including a grand slam in the 10th inning to beat Ken Forsch and the California Angels . I still have the ticket stubs to Junior’s first home game in 1989 when he hit his first home run. I went to my only playoff game in 2000 during the ALCS, bought my M-Head, and watched Roger Clemens knock down Alex Rodriguez in the first inning and go on to pitch a one-hitter against the M’s. I went to Dave Niehaus’ memorial service at Safeco Field the week he died. I watched Fernando Rodney melt down on September 13, 2014 walking four batters in the tenth inning to lose a key game against the A’s that cost the Mariners a tie for the second wild card spot–and I will never forget it or forgive him. Despite all their tradition of turning rays of sunshine into drought and Dust Bowl, the Mariners are in my soul and I anxiously anticipate Opening Day with all the excitement this 61-year old kid awaits Christmas Day and my birthday. In 2014 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and it was a summer of games of Safeco Field that made recovery bearable. There is NEVER a bad day at the ballpark.
Despite the good and the bad, there is always the knowledge that baseball is like life, it always goes on. There is always a game tomorrow. We’ll get ’em next year. Cano will make adjustments for the next at bat. Felix will strike him out next time around. Cruz will straighten the next pitch out and it will go in the seats. On the day before Opening Day there is always the belief that the home team, my beloved Mariners can go 162-0, that they can win their division, that they can win the pennant and go to the World Series and win it all. If reality is different nine innings later, so be it.
But today, the Boomstick is my candidate for home run king. King Felix will win the Cy Young Award. Robbie Cano will be the AL MVP. Steve Cishek will be Fireman of the Year. Kyle Seager and Leonys Martin will win gold gloves. Franklin Gutierrez will find a way to kill flying things once more. The pundits will talk more about Ketel Marte than Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor. Nori Aoki will be the most pursued sports interview in Seattle since Marshawn Lynch retired. Jerry DiPoto and Scott Servais will be viewed with the same sense of awe and genius as Pete Carroll and John Schneider. Today my Mariners are the best team in major league baseball, the best team in Seattle sports. It’s the day before the season opener, and nothing is impossible.
It is prediction season, one of my favorite times of year in which we all get to display our prescience or our ignorance of what is about to happen in the coming season. Predictions for the Mariners are pretty interesting. I put myself out there at a low of 82 wins and a ceiling of 84 wins, which is kind of where the conventional wisdom puts them. I’ve seen lows of 79 wins, so everybody has the Mariners improving, but nobody is crowning them as AL West champions. Not saying the M’s couldn’t win more, but an awful lot of bounce-backs and question marks would have to break their way. Maybe, but I’m not betting on it. The Mariners have four players that I have a concern for who have considerable influence over the direction the team takes across six months of baseball. They are Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz and Steve Cishek.
Robinson Cano is getting a lot of attention as the M’s head toward the starting gate. And that’s as it should be. Cano is entering his age 33 season, usually considered the twilight of a player’s prime. In 2014, his first year in Seattle, Cano put up this slash: 314/.382/.454 with 14 home runs and wRC+ of 137. That was in-line with his career numbers though the home runs tied his lowest career numbers of 2005 and 2008. Last year Cano was injured, impacting his offensive and defensive contributions to the team, with a ghastly first half of the year followed by spectacular second half, he managed to reach .287/.334/.446 with wRC+ of 118. Projection systems Steamer and ZIPS do not look kindly on a Cano comeback, predicting a year like 2015. The Fans(44) system shows a stronger bounce-back, but not back to 2014 and Yankees production.
Cano, is, in my mind, the most important Mariner player. Felix is the leader of the pitching staff, and the symbol of Mariners Nation, but Cano plays every day. He’s had a very good spring. In interviews he is quick to speak out about his return to health and how that is affecting his game. Because he is counted on to get on base, get key hits, play good defense in a critical position, his bounce-back is critical
However, in an interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, Cano also shared the reliance rookie manager Scott Servais has put on him and veterans like Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez as well as the improved clubhouse climate. Cano seems to have responded positively to the new regime and his role. But Cano must be healthy and successful on the field in order to keep the clubhouse together off the field.
No player has more Mariners institutional memory than Felix Hernandez. He’s pitched on decent but not good enough teams, and he’s pitched on 100 loss teams. He is the enduring symbol of what it means to be a Mariner and a Mariners fan-pride, loyalty, and perseverance.
In that time he’s won a Cy Young Award, and been a very close second twice. He is an ace, no matter how you define it. But, I am a great believer that regardless of how great a pitcher you are, God only gives you a limited number of bullets. Felix has thrown 2,262.1 innings, at least 200 per year since 2008. He is number 315 on the all time list for innings pitched. In his next game he will pass Freddy Garcia. This year he’ll surpass Sandy Koufax. Only four active players have more career innings: John Lackey, Bronson Arroyo, CC Sabathia, and Bartolo Colon.
Throw away the 18 wins, last year was not a good one for The King. Walks were up. His HR/9 skyrocketed: 1.03 to career .73. K/9, though in line with his career numbers, were down compared to 2013-14. Felix threw three games in which he utterly melted down. Houston June 12th, Arizona July 29th, and Boston August 15th. Pundits note his declining velocity every year, but somehow Felix simply manages to get outs.
Was this an anomaly? Is it much ado about nothing? We can only hope so, because Felix Hernandez is the pitching anchor of this team. Without him at his best, even with an improved rotation, the Mariners will struggle, and nobody has the ability or the stature in the clubhouse to replace him.
Before the 2015 season ended, Felix confessed that he didn’t look at video enough and he would have to begin preparing differently. Let’s hope it isn’t the beginning of a physical decline. He’s the Mariners hoss. But he’s been rode hard. Hopefully with a new season, and perhaps some different preparation he’ll be the same ol’ King. We need him.
Nelson Cruz had the best year of any Mariner in 2015. Bar none. Period, The end. He really was a thrill to watch. Bouncing a home run off the train in Minutemaid Park may have been my highlight of the year. By any measure-traditional stats, WAR, wRC+, 2015 was the best year of Cruz’s career at age 35. Though he is not a talented outfielder, it is not through lack of effort, and he hustles on the basepaths-I was incredibly impressed. The Mariners scored 656 runs in 2015. Cruz scored 90 and drove in 93. Cruz was involved in scoring 27.9% of their runs.
Cruz, like Cano and Hernandez, is one of the core pieces of this team. Is it realistic to expect him to repeat those kinds of numbers in his age 36 year? He hit the most home runs of his career, and had only his second year hitting higher than .300. Despite a late season injury, he also stayed relatively healthy while playing 80 games in right field. One more question to deal with is the time he plays in the field. Nelson Cruz is not a good defensive player. He was -8 Defensive Runs Saved, and he has an UZR/150 of -11.1. However, as I’ve explained before, he is a much better hitter when he plays in the field than when he is a DH.
It is not realistic to expect Cruz to repeat his 2015 numbers. As if to underscore that point, he nursed a nagging injury through spring training and has struggled to get on track. But if he is subject to regression, how much are we looking at? How much Nellie is enough to make this team a winner? None of the projections like Cruz in 2016. He was a 4.8 WAR player last year. None of them sees him higher than 3.2 for 2016, and Steamer has him at .252/.318/.469 for 1.4 WAR.Is that the way it will be? Hope not.
Like Cano, however, Servais has leaned on Cruz to provide veteran leadership in the clubhouse to work with new guys like Chris Iannetta and young guys like Ketel Marte. It is difficult to lead amid personal struggles. If the Mariners are to succeed between the lines and in the locker room, Nelson Cruz has to succeed too.
I love it when I hear SABRmetricians say saves are overrated, that anyone can close, just run your best six or seven guys out to the bullpen and close by committee. Ask Lloyd McClendon how that worked for him last year. How many questions did he have to field about Fernando Rodney last year? Here’s a sample
Q: What about Rodney, he sure had a tough night again tonight?
Lloyd: Ahh, he’s a veteran, he’s got how many career saves? He’s a veteran, he’s done it before, they just beat him tonight.
Q: Yeah but that’s three times this week, what about Smith or Wilhelmsen, do you think about using them?
Lloyd: Nah, he’s our closer. He’ll be fine next time. That’s all for tonight boys
Lloyd thought bubble: Are you kidding? I want to shoot that goddamn arrow through both his eyeballs and send him straight down to Everett. Fernando Rodney!!!! What does Fat Jack think I’m supposed to with this guy?!!!!!
You don’t need a closer until you don’t have one. I can only imagine that when a closer or bullpen closing by committee, blows games on a regular basis, it simply tears a team apart. Clubhouse chemistry, gone. Team confidence, history. You’re just playing for stats.
That’s why Steve Cishek’s success is so important to this team. If they are to succeed, if they have a shot at the playoffs, Cishek has to be a dominant closer. Fernando Rodney saved a lot of games in 2014, not so much in 2015, but he always danced the knife’s edge and it was always freakin’ scary. The difference between making the playoffs and not in 2014 was one Rodney blown save.
The M’s invested $10 million in Cishek for two years, in what was not a particularly fertile free agent class of closers. They probably could have spent more and traded up-in football parlance, but they didn’t. They have nobody else. Maybe Benoit, but he’s made it clear he prefers set-up to closing. Carson Smith is gone. Tony Zych may be a closer in the making but he’s not there now. It’s all on Cishek and he has to be the man, and he has to be more than Rodney, more than Carson Smith, and more than Tom Wilhelmsen. He can make or break this team.
The M’s have invested heavily in the core of this team-Felix, Robbie, and Nellie (and Kyle, but not quite as much.) It’s squeezed funds for other things, like a dominant bullpen. Together with Cishek, the core has to do its job for this team to have a chance to win, to make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. And yes, the M’s have added some pieces in Aoki, Lind, Miley, Martin and others who need to succeed to make the team better, but if the core players don’t have big years, the kind we expect them to, this team is doomed. Don’t take this for granted. I begin the year hopeful, but skeptical, as all good fans should be.