More spring training hi-jinks for the M’s as the team heads toward opening day Monday. The first, and most concerning is the state of Drew Smyly’s arm. He was pulled from his scheduled bullpen session because his arm didn’t feel right. Manager Scott Servais characterized it as “soggy,” which wasn’t an adjective I’ve heard applied to arms. Maybe my lawn, newspapers, or cheese sandwiches, but not a pitcher’s throwing instrument.
Scratched from his final spring training start Friday, Servais explained Smyly would be examined by a doctor. However, he refused to be painted into a corner about when Drew might return to the rotation. If he’s unable to go for his first regular season start, scheduled for April 6th, the M’s will likely go to Tacoma for left-hander Ariel Miranda, optioned to the Rainiers on Saturday. Another possibility is Dillon Overton, another left-hander, who has had a solid spring and is still in major league camp.
Continuing in the same vein, the M’s have shelved right-handed reliever Shae Simmons with a strained forearm flexor. While there isn’t any structural damage, it is a setback for the hard-throwing reliever. Simmons figured to be a hard throwing piece in the Mariners bullpen to complement Edwin Diaz.
Servais suggested patience and caution were required to insure Simmons contribution to the Mariners in 2017. “It’s a flexor strain and we’ll be a little cautious. It’s not progressing as our medical people had hoped, so we’re going to slow him down a little bit,” Servais said.
Simmons came to the M’s in a trade with Atlanta on January 11. He spent all of 2015 and part of 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Rest is the prescribed treatment and no date is projected for his return.
Simmons joins Tony Zych and Steve Cishek as projected relievers who are unlikely to begin the season with the Mariners due to injury.
A couple of interesting articles on the web today. Well, Thursday actually, but who’s counting? Tony Blengino posted an interesting analysis of the AL West on Fangraphs, using his own BIP modeling, and determined the M’s were the strongest team in an AL West with teams full of flaws. However, his belief was the M’s, built out of desperation to win now, should beat the Astros, and do well in the playoffs. In the interest of transparency, Blengino was the chief statistical analyst for Jack Zdurencik in 2009, but was pretty much shuffled to the side of the road when the 2010 team imploded.
A pretty interesting and fun, if somewhat fanciful story on Lookout Landing by Isabelle Minasian and John Trupin today. They compare and contrast the 2017 and 2001 teams. Despite many disclaimers, Minasian and Trupin’s work is fun, though I don’t quite see as many comparisons they do. I must say this. If you truly love Mariners baseball LL is showcasing some of the very best writing in the many years I’ve been reading this blog. They’ve added some new faces to their team, and since Kate Preusser took over as editor, the quality of writing-always interesting-has simply gone through the roof. Still lots of stats, but as a writing-first person, I’ve never been more impressed.
Yes, lots of kind words for the Mariners, but they actually did play a game today. Yep the M’s ran out one of their starting five, and for the second day in a row was tied to a stake, lit on fire and burned alive. Yesterday it was Drew Smyly allowing an impressive three home runs in four innings to go with three other hits and four walks. Drew was “rusty.”
Today the victim was Yovani Gallardo. In 4.1 innings, Gallardo equaled Smyly, coughing up three homers, allowing a total of nine hits and two walks to create seven earned runs. But wait, as though it wasn’t enough to cremate the starting pitcher, lefty specialist Mark Rzepczynski jumped in the barbecue pit with him, doused himself with fire starter and lit a match. A mere 11 pitches later, Scrabble allowed four hits, including a home run and three earned runs. Brisket for two.
Yes friends, it is just spring training, but it’s getting late in the game. I know, I know it’s tough to pitch in Arizona. Yes, pitchers are working on stuff. But others somehow manage to do it. Especially against the backdrop of lots of movement out of the major league camp, I’d sure like some reassurance that the starting rotation is a little more stable than I fear it is.
The Tacoma shuttle sets up
A series of moves this weekend began to set up the rotation in Tacoma. Saturday, lefty Ariel Miranda was optioned to the Rainiers. Manager Scott Servais’ observation that Miranda had been “just OK” this spring, as well a desire to see him as a starter rather than a reliever, led to pulling the trigger on the move.
Sunday the M’s sent right hander Chris Heston to Tacoma, and Cody Martin, Nick Hagadone and Jean Macchi to minor league camp. None of these were a surprise though Hagadone, coming off two years of serious injury, had a pretty good camp and was a sentimental favorite to make the team.
Seven days to go
The season begins for the Mariners a week from today in Houston. The M’s still have a lot to do. Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz are both ill with the cold that has circulated the clubhouse. Danny Valencia continues to struggle with the bat. Jarrod Dyson continues to struggle with his legs. Lots of work to do in terms of sorting out the bullpen. With Tony Zych, Shae Simmons and Steve Cishek likely not that far from being able to join the team-in April some time-do the M’s add players like right-hander Jonathan Aro or lefty Dean Kiehefer to the 40-man roster, knowing they’ll have to lose somebody for a three or four week fill in. Today the bullpen looks like this:
Edwin Diaz RHP
Evan Scribner RHP
Mark Rzepczynski LHP
Dan Altavilla RHP
Nick Vincent RHP
Casey Fien RHP
With the guys unable to go for opening day, and a desire to carry eight in the ‘pen, there’s room for two more, one a right-hander, the other a lefty. It’s looking like James Pazos will be that left-hander, but the righty is less clear. It’s quite possible, with other teams cutting down their rosters, Trader Jerry will be unable to restrain his basic instincts and the M’s will add another to the mix in the closing days of camp, as the Mariners did to acquire Nick Vincent in 2016. Though the roster is settled elsewhere, the clay still ain’t dry in the bullpen.
I never know quite what to make of spring training games and how much to take away from the end result. But this is been a tough week to follow Mariner pitching. On Sunday Dillon Overton pitched a few innings against the Rangers and gave up a couple of unearned runs. On Tuesday the Dodgers dismantled Chris Heston. On Wednesday it was Cody Martin dismembered on the mound by the Angels, with a side of Nick Vincent’s home run sauce. On Tuesday, Drew Smyly threw a B-game against minor leaguers, and followed up his superb effort against Venezuela in the WBC with a game of unpretty practice, surrendering four runs on seven hits over five innings.
Every time I see a week like this I get flashbacks to the closing days of the 2015 Cactus League. Pitchers regularly slaughtered and thinking, hey, it’s just spring training, they’ll be fine. The M’s are supposed to win it all. It’s in all the papers.
So it was nice for the Mariners to get some positive pitching news on Thursday. First, and most obvious, was a sterling outing by Felix Hernandez. against the Giants. Six innings, one hit, no walks and five strikeouts on 73 pitches. Yes, it was not complete Giants lineup, but the King worked efficiently, moved the ball around settling for weak contact over protracted battles with hitters for the strikeout.
“Good mechanics, good pitches, around the zone, trying to finish hitters. It was really good,” Hernandez said.
It was clear manager Scott Servais also appreciated Hernandez’s efficient approach, preferring effective pitches in the strike zone to induce soft contact to the King’s past preference for the strikeout
“He likes striking them out like every pitcher does, but sometimes being more efficient certainly helps out,” Servais said.
If seeing Felix as the pitcher all fans hope he will be in 2017, the M’s also got some much-needed good news on the injury front. Tony Zych appeared in his first game against Rangers minor leaguers on Thursday. He had a 1-2-3 inning. Though it still seems unlikely, according to MySportsNW reporter Shannon Drayer, that he’ll be ready for the season opener on April 3rd, his performance yesterday puts him much closer.
The M’s added on to the good news with the successful performance by Steve Cishek, pitching off a mound for the first time since his hip labrum surgery. Cishek is not likely to get into a game situation before spring training breaks, but his first time out was considered a success.
Yes, it’s all just spring training, but I’d rather see good pitching than terrible pitching.
Today the news the Mariners have optioned first baseman Dan Vogelbach to Tacoma. The M’s worked throughout the winter with Vogelbach to improve his defense. Though it was clear there was some improvement, he still had work to do.
Surprisingly, however, it was the stocky first baseman’s bat that let him down. Vogelbach has shown the ability to hit throughout his minor league career. He started well in the Cactus League, showing the ability to get on base, hitting the ball to the opposite field, though he hadn’t shown much power. However, he’d done nothing but struggle the last ten days, going 1-24 with ten strikeouts over his last 10 games.
Mariners skipper Scott Servais left the door open for Vogelbach’s return, assuring him the things he needed to work on should be done away from the day-to-day pressures of the big league club. He used catcher Mike Zunino and pitcher James Paxton as examples of players who went to Tacoma to fix things, but came back as important pieces of the team.
“We will take the appropriate time and care to make sure that when [Vogelbach] comes to the big leagues, he’s polished enough in the areas that are important.”
Sending out Vogelbach out with ten days until the start of the regular season gives right-hander Danny Valencia regular time at first base to prepare for the start of the season. Valencia has also struggled at the plate in Cactus League play with a .196/.288/.326 slash in 46 at-bats. However, he does have the advantage of 2,258 largely successful major league at-bats.
Taylor Motter becomes the back up at first base, having won the utility job by dint of Shawn O’Malley’s untimely adventures with appendicitis. This insures that Guillermo Heredia will also win the fourth outfield job.
With the WBC heading into the championship round, our missing Mariners should begin flocking back to Mariners camp in Peoria any day now. With the Dominican Republic and Venezuela eliminated, and Drew Smyly having served his one game start for team USA, only closer Edwin Diaz, closing for surprising team Puerto Rico should be left AWOL from the M’s.
Monday is an off-day, so the M’s should be playing more starters, now that they’re all in camp. And the M’s have some serious decisions to make.
We know one guy who’s going to start in the bullpen-Diaz, when the WBC is settled. We know a couple of guys who aren’t. Steve Cishek and Shae Simmons likely won’t be sufficiently recovered from injuries to join the team in Houston on April 3rd. It’s also hard to imagine Tony Zych can be ready by the opener.
The M’s are making noises about an eight man bullpen to open the season, so the question is who, besides Diaz, are those eight guys? The M’s don’t have a pile of household names as relief candidates, but here are the likely suspects.
The M’s laid out a pile of cash for Mark Rzepczynski to be their lefty go-to guy, so Scrabble is a sure bet.
Right-hander Evan Scribner spent almost all of last season on the DL, and he’s had a respectable spring. The Mariners like that he throws strikes and believe his penchant for allowing home runs will benefit from the Safeco Cure.
Though he has had his moments of struggle, Nick Vincent will certainly be among those who break camp with the big league club . . . unless he isn’t
After these guys it’s sort of Katie bar the door. Dan Altavilla, Casey Fien, Micah Owings are right-handers that could be in the pile. The battle for a second lefty-or more lefties given the right handed injury list-could include Ariel Miranda, James Pazos, Dean Kiekhefer and Nick Hagadone.
Finally, there is the whole question of bullpen roles. Will they be the traditional ones we’ve come to see with a closer, set-up guys, and middle innings pitchers? Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais made noises months ago that they were comfortable in moving Diaz around in high leverage situations as the Indians used Andrew Miller. Is that still a plan? Or is the bullpen picture too muddled with injuries to make that work effectively? It will be interesting to find out.
The outfield and utility situation
Utility man Taylor Motter played left field for part of yesterday’s game. Weird, eh? Maybe, maybe not. The Mariners will very shortly be faced with the conundrum of whether to carry four outfielders or two utility players. Dipoto and Servais have both championed a roster that exudes flexibility, so the more positions a guy can play, the better. We’ve seen Ryan O’Malley play the outfield before, so if Motter can effectively patrol Safeco’s pastures then good for him. The starting outfield seems set with Jarrod Dyson in left, Leonys Martin in center, and Mitch Haniger in right. Keeping two utility players and an eight man bullpen would seem to make it impossible to carry a fourth outfielder, sending Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel to Tacoma. Still some time left to sort this out and make a final decision, but it is certainly one of the few left to make.
As the long spring camp enters its terminal phase, the roster jells and regulars play much more, there are still some still some important decisions to be made. It should be interesting
Don’t get me wrong, having Mariner baseball on the radio or television is always a blessing. But it’s hard to know how excited to be when the team wins or how much disappointment to feel when they lose. Ultimately it’s spring training. The won loss records matter little, and the statistics likely matter less. If you don’t believe me riddle me this:
The Oakland A’s are 9-4 and the Los Angeles Angels are 9-5 in the Cactus League. Does anyone think they’ll approach those numbers in April? I’m thinking it’s not likely. On the other hand the Texas Rangers are 3-11 and the Houston Astros are 5-7. Something inside me says they’re both going to be a little better than this.
It’s all complicated too by the players lost to the WBC.. I don’t begrudge any player the opportunity honor to play for their home country in a meaningful international tournament. But for a team like the Mariners, with significant questions about their starting pitching, and a big change in their offensive philosophy, it’s tough to see three fifths of their rotation gone, and big pieces loaned out to other teams.
Meanwhile the team has chugged on with the pieces available to them and it’s been fun to see or hear them tough it out and come back to win some games. Here are some of the guys I’m watching.
I know I’ve said some unkind things about the M’s left-handed first baseman, but it is rewarding to see how he’s improved in the field. Thursday night’s televised game against the Indians showed him make some difficult plays on hard shots. He still doesn’t have a lot of range and isn’t tall enough to snag high throws, but he does catch well. But, he won’t be mistaken for Jesus Montero 2.0. He’s also hit well and taken his walks, though we haven’t seen much power yet. It seems to me that has to make an appearance at some point.
I was all in on Miranda at the end of 2016. He seemed to get better with each start and I pretty much assumed he’d be the 5th guy in the Mariner rotation. With the arrival of Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly, however, the issue was decided. The question became Miranda in Tacoma as a starter or on the big club as a swing man. Miranda has looked good in all of his outings. With Rzepcynski in the ‘pen as a lefty specialist, them M’s will likely keep one more lefty, and it looks like Miranda can fill that role.
Seth Smith, Raul Ibanez, Corey Hart, Franklin Guttierez, Nori Aoki, Nelson Cruz, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, James Jones, Abraham Almonte, Austin Jackson, Michael Saunders, Ichiro, Trayvon Robinson, Marcus Thames, Casper Wells. Recognize these names? They’ve populated the Seattle Mariners outfield since 2012. Some of them were better than others. Some retired. Some were traded. Some went to Japan. Few have big league jobs today.
Welcome to the new Mariners outfield. Yes, it’s still Leonys Martin in centerfield, but everyone else is new and trying to make this team. Jarrod Dyson has left field nailed down, and it’s pretty clear Mitch Haniger is the number one choice in right. All are athletic and can cover a lot of ground. Dyson wants to get 600 plate appearances, but it’s not clear he hits well enough to avoid sitting against tough lefties. Haniger shows he can hit with power-hard to know how well given it’s spring.
With Haniger, Dyson and Martin all performing reasonably well at the plate, the real news is the battle between Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel for the fourth outfield spot. Heredia blazed out of the gate, but has fallen back a bit while Gamel has heated up after a slower start. Surprisingly, they’ve been joined by a forgotten Mariner, Boog Powell who is having a tremendous spring, but still has time to serve on an 80 game PED-related suspension.
I don’t give a damn about what Carlos Ruiz does at the plate. I am completely enamored, however, with what he does behind the plate defensively and working with pitchers. Everyone who speaks of him does so with a sense of awe and admiration. I think that’s amazing, given the Mariners struggles at catcher over the past 12 years or so.
Walkin’ and runnin/
I know, it’s spring and it doesn’t mean a thing, but the Mariners lead all teams in OBP at .397. Part of that is their .319 team batting average, but they are also third in the league in walks. Certainly they’ve faced some terrible pitching, but it seems like every at bat is a dog fight with a long progression of balls and strikes. Leading the parade on the well-worn path to first base is Mike Zunino (?!) with six. Vogelbach leads the team in strikeouts with eight.
Once on the bag, the M’s aren’t waitin’ around for something to happen. They’ve swiped 21 bases which is good for second in spring training behind the Angels. Just to be clear, the M’s had 56 steals all of 2016. While I don’t expect pitchers to ignore baserunners as they seem to be during spring games, it is refreshing to see the willingness of players and coaches to put the game in motion with much greater certainty of success. Dyson and utilitymen Shawn O’Malley and Taylor Motter have three steals apiece.
Scott Servais has gotten a lot of attention for the clubhouse culture he is building. It’s clearly one that allows players to be themselves at the same time it demands they commit themselves to the team. It’s remarkable the M’s have sent players to the WBC from the Dominican Republic, Venzuela, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. This leaves out Hisashi Iwakuma who chose not to participate in the international tournament. The M’s have a team as diverse as any in major league baseball. But everyone who comments on environment is effusive in their praise of team chemistry. That should mean a lot given how poisonous it seemed six or seven seasons ago.
If you have time to read just one article I highly recommend Marly Rivera’s tremendous interview with Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz on ESPN Beisbol. It gives some solid insight into our favorite ne’er-do-wells, the challenges of being latino, specifically Dominican players in America, and the balancing act they do as proud major leaguers and proud products of the Dominican Republic. If you can find a few minutes more, read Isabelle Minasian’s thoughtful analysis of Rivera’s story over at Lookout Landing.