Loading the truck for Peoria

On Tuesday Mariners pitchers and catchers will report to Peoria for spring training with all the headaches, heartaches and expectations that entails.  The Hot Stove League is about to close and it’s time to assess what ended up being a pretty busy winter for Jackie Z and the boys in the front office. Though the M’s missed out on the big names in the free agent class like Josh Hamilton and Zach Greinke, they did make some deals to fill some important holes. The team didn’t stand pat and made some good short-term moves in anticipation of further additions from the farm system.   In this post I hope to raise some important questions about the M’s heading into spring and the regular season.

1. The Kids are Alright? Never miss the opportunity to use the title of a Who song in my writing. Last year Geoff Baker and others correctly criticized Mariners brass for leaving the first year players to figure out the game for themselves.  Without adding some veteran thunder to their lineup in 2012 kids like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak were forced to bat in roles they weren’t ready to assume.  Boos, catcalls and further shrinking of the Mariners fanbase ensued.  This year Jackie Z took a different approach and brought in Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse to provide a proven veteran presence in the middle of the lineup.  It allows one more year to see what Montero, Ackley, Smoak, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders can do.  While Morales and Morse may be one year players, at least it allows the M’s to take a look at their youngsters in more favorable circumstances and provide a more accurate evaluation of what they have. However, make no doubt about it, the young guys on this team today must show progress this year for this team to continue on its upward arc.

2.  Long live the King!  Who knows, maybe before I’m finished typing this the ink will be dry on a contract that will reportedly pay Felix Hernandez $135 million over five years.  I’d sure like a piece of that.  Just a small piece of that mind you, because we are talking about the king.  Despite some of the naysayers, I believe it’s money well spent.  Felix is still young and well taken care of, has no history of health problems and should continue being one of the top pitchers in major league baseball. Again, this appeals to the Mariner fanbase which bears a frightening resemblance to the Greenland icepack, keeping a real Mariners hero with the team in contrast to those of yesterday like Griffey, Randy and A-Rod who, in the end, left. The big question, however, isn’t about the King, who is here, but more about his knights of the round table, i.e. his rotation-mates.  Hisashi Iwakuma signed on for two years after his major league debut last summer. It’s still not quite clear what the M’s have in Iwakuma.  Is he the the guy who seemed to excel in 18 starts in the second half of the season?  Will he be better after figuring out the American League a bit, or will the league be better against him?  The M’s also signed Joe Saunders who figures to be a bit like Jason Vargas, but not as good.  If he stays healthy, Saunders does add some experience and should provide some of the innings the Mariners lost by dealing Vargas.  He’s pitched well at Safeco, but with the new cozier stadium it remains to be seen if his stuff will still play well in Seattle.  The remaining two spots are still wide open to a huge cast of competitors.

Yesterday the M’s added veteran Jon Garland to their long list of spring invitees.  He joins Jeremy Bonderman as two of the walking wounded coming off injuries and surgeries hoping to resurrect careers.  The two most obvious candidates for the two remaining rotation spots are Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan.  They join the Gang of Four young guns, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Brandon Maurer, plus maybe Andrew Carraway as outside shots to make the team.  The competition from spring training should show a lot.  Hopefully it will at least give a clue about how close the young pitchers are to the big club.  I want to know what we have.  It’s also important to see where Beavan and Ramirez are.  Lots of folks have trashed Beavan, a former first round draft pick for what he is not.  He doesn’t throw hard, doesn’t strike out a lot of guys.  He also doesn’t walk anybody, can throw a lot of innings and his numbers improved markedly in the second half of last year. He’s just 24.  I’d like to see what another year does for him, just like I want to see how Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero develop.  There’s a lot higher expectations for Erasmo Ramirez.  Certainly Ramirez pitched well as a starter and reliever before he was injured.  But he has only 59 major league innings and only eight major league starts, so I’m a little more cautious about the load that should be placed on him.

For me the question marks in the rotation-basically everyone after Felix-will determine how good or how bad this team is.

3.  Be Careful of the Statuary!  The M’s have had a history of good outfield defense. Griffey, Cameron, Guti, and others could run down a ball.   Well, except in left field where things could get a bit dicey.  This year the players they’ve added to the outfield mix scare me a bit.  This year the M’s have Guti, Saunders and a mix of guys that are simply not good outfielders.  Mike Morse, love his bat, but he’s really a DH.  All of the defensive metrics show him to be a sub-par fielder.  Raul Ibanez was a bit overmatched in left when he left the Mariners in 2008.  In the case of both players, I don’t doubt their commitment or physical conditioning, they’re just not suited to play the outfield at Safeco Field.  Though the ballpark has lost some of its vast grazing areas, there’s still plenty of room to cover.  I’m also concerned about some of the outfield depth.  Jason Bay is reporting to spring training as a reclamation project.  Casper Wells will complete for a major league job.  Marcus Thames will be in camp.  If  Franklin Gutierrez is again injured, the centerfield situation will get scary in a hurry.  Wells and Thames have not proven themselves to be long term solutions.  If Bay somehow makes the team instead of Wells, the outfield bench will have all the range of the standing pillars at Stonehenge. There are no up and coming outfielders in the high minor leagues.  The M’s cannot afford any serious outfield injuries to Gutierrez or Saundesrs. It’s one of the reasons I was disappointed the M’s didn’t sign Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher or Michael Bourne.

How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm? Jack Zdurencik was hired to rebuild the Mariners farm system as well as the major league team.  This year the M’s farm system was ranked 2nd by Baseball America.  In that respect Zdurencik has been a success.  Unfortunately, there seems to be waves of talent in the minors.  We’ve seen the first wave.  Seager, Saunders, Ackley and the guys Z got in trades and other acquistions: Smoak, Montero, Carp, et. al. They’re still struggling to make good.  The next wave is coming.  Mike Zunino will likely make it to the M’s some time this summer.  The young pitchers are on their way, but their arrival time is uncertain.  Nick Franklin got his first touch of AAA last summer and it left marks. The third wave is still down in the low minors, slowly making its way north. Pressure is on the M’s to win and win now, and the temptation is always to bring the kids up and force them to make huge adjustments to the majors before they’re ready.  If Zunino is rushed to the bigs by the trading deadline, will he be ready to catch for the Mariners?  We’ll see. Will manager Eric Wedge see something so good in the pitching prospects he’ll slot one into the rotation?  My hope is the kids get a chance to develop and learn the game at the level they should be, rather than rushing them up to do things they’re not prepared for. On the other hand, Alvin Davis and Mark Langston, both rookie award winners ins 1984, were promoted directly from double-A Chattanooga Lookouts. It’s often hard to know what is right.

So what do I think?  I think the Hot Stove League never kicked into high gear for the M’s until after the first of the year.  Since that time, Zdurencik and crew have made some sensible moves to improve the team.  The moves to pick up Morales, Morse and Ibanez add some veteran leadership and real heft to the batting lineup.  The additions of Andino and Ibanez provide the M’s with some real late game depth off the bench as well as providing some defensive depth.  With the Vargas trade and Millwood’s retirement, there are some real holes in the rotation.  With none of the kids seemingly ready to take the next big step to the majors, I believe this is the M’s biggest weakness.  Finally, the M’s big moves-the additions of Morse, Morales and Ibanez are one year deals.  They are short term.  The kids must improve if the team is to take the next big step into contention.

I give Jack Z a B- for his off-season moves.  I predict the M’s will win 75-80 games.  If the pitching staff comes together they could win more, maybe as many as 85.


We’re saved, sort of: Miguel Olivo signs with Reds


I like Miguel Olivo.  He was always a guy who gave 100% and always seemed to really enjoy being a major league catcher.  He ran hard, could get the attention of his pitchers, and on the occasions when bat met ball, the ball traveled a long way.  If a player could become an All-Star for his passion and enthusiasm for the game, Miguel Olivo would be a perennial candidate for the mid-summer classic. I was glad to see he’ll get a chance to play for the Reds this summer.  Cincinnati signed him to a minor league deal where he’ll compete for a job with Ryan Hanigan and Devin Mesoraco.

Unfortunately Olivo was just not a very good catcher, at least not in Seattle. I know he came here in 2011 with a goal of showing the city his 2004 season as a young player in which he played indifferently and hit a measly .200 illustrated the struggles of a young player.  Certainly Olivo played better for the Marlins, Royals and Rockies, and the M’s, after the twin failures of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore, were looking for a veteran who could come in and at least stabilize what had become a catching revolving door.  So the M’s took their flyer, and, like so many things they’ve tried the past few years, it didn’t quite work out.

Olivo was a terrible hitter.  Oh, he led the 2011 team, one offensively offensive in  historical proportions, in home runs with 19.  But he was terrible.  His slash line was .224/.253/.388.  Yes you read that OBP correctly, the victim of drawing 20 walks in 507 plate appearances.  He also struck out 140 times.  Not a lot compared to Mark Reynolds, but you can do the math that’s a 1:7 BB/K ratio.  His OPS of 641 was actually less than his stinky 2004 OPS of .648. Last year in which he was to glue the young catching tandem of Jesus Montero and John Jaso together was worse.  Beginning the year on the DL, Olivo posted a .222/.239/.381 slash.  In 323 plate appearances, Olivo walked an amazing 7 times as opposed to 85 strikeouts. Not a good guy to be giving lots of at bats.

As a catcher, Olivo was also maddeningly not good.  One of the hopes was that Olivo would improve on Johnson’s and Moore’s combined total of 20 passed balls.  Yet Zdurencik brought Montero to Seattle knowing he consistently was near the top of the league in passed balls allowed.  One watched games, almost always close games, in which the M’s were scratching to score their one or two or three runs, and Felix would throw a sinker right between Olivo’s legs and the hard-earned lead and the game would be lost.  Olivo allowed borderline wild pitches that should have been passed balls, and he seemed to be poor at framing pitches to get those extra strikes when we needed them.

So the Mariners are bringing in Kelly Shoppach to team with Montero at catcher this year.  A not great hitter with power who has below average catching skills. A hitter who will strike out a lot and walk very little.  And will keep the seat warm for catcher-of-the-future Mike Zunino.

So Miguel, I wish you well sir.  Though your performance was usually not memorable, neither was your team.  You always found a way to keep your chin up in adversity, and when things were right I loved your megwatt smile.  I’ll bet Shoppach’s is not as nearly so bright.

A Year to Answer the Unanswered Questions

Last week I ranted over the M’s acquisition of Mike Morse. Though I still think Morse is a lousy outfielder and I’d prefer someone more athletic, I’ve at least come to understand the M’s moves a bit better. In my estimation the Mariners brass have positioned themselves strategically for the future again this year. They’ve acquired enough offensive talent to hold the attention of fans, while they give another year to evaluating their young talent.   Will they be better this year?  Depends on what other moves they make in the next few weeks. Because if they do nothing it will be a long summer.

Mike Morse comes over from the Nationals.  He's happy to be in Seattle. Take that Justin Upton!!!
Mike Morse comes over from the Nationals. He’s happy to be in Seattle. Take that Justin Upton!!!

They’ve definitely added some offense to the team.  There’s no denying that Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales in the lineup every day adds something to the lineup.  These are guys who have hit for power in the big leagues before and there’s no reason they shouldn’t hit in 2013.  Having Robert Andino and Raul Ibanez come off the bench takes little of the sting out of losing Jaso (but not a lot.)  The M’s big challenge is to increase their OBP as a team.  Seattle was dead last in the American League last year at .296, a full 13 points below Toronto at next to last. Their young players have got to have more discipline at the plate.  Unfortunately Morse and Morales are pretty much strangers to a walk as well, so don’t expect the new guys to lead the young guys out of the wilderness. But without having guys on base on, we’re just changing hats at the power positions-there have to be guys on base for the big boys to drive in. It’s all about ducks on the pond as Dave Niehaus used to say.

Hopefully Kendrys Morales is as successful smashing the Angels as he was beating up on the M's.
Hopefully Kendrys Morales is as successful smashing the Angels as he was beating up on the M’s.

Pitching is problematic to say the least.  Felix is back.  Good. Hisashi Iwakuma comes back for another year, and that’s good too, though he fills a two slot he probably isn’t really suited for.  The Vargas trade for Morales, while useful for the M’s and the Angels blows a big hole in the Seattle rotation.  According to the M’s press conference this week, Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, and Hector Noesi are slated to fill the remaining three slots.  If that’s the case, it won’t matter if the M’s hit like the ’97 Mariners because they can’t possibly score enough runs to break even.  That’s still a bunch of young guys who really need to be learning the game in the minors.  Bringing in Kyle Lohse and Joe Saunders doesn’t sound like a bad investment to me, even with the Big Three + One getting closer to the big leagues. Look for the M’s to bring in somebody more veteran before spring training.

Though the M’s have made some investments in offense, they’ve really only planned for this year.  Though they could have put the big coin out for some long-term help in the outfield, which in my view they need, they’ve simply set themselves into a wait and see mode for 2014.  Morales is a one year player.  At this week’s presser, manager Eric Wedge indicated his support for Justin Smoak at first base.  That means Morales is your DH, and likely a guy who won’t come back next year if he isn’t flipped for prospects in July.  Morse is also a one year guy, though if he is good, I could see the M’s making an effort to re-sign him.  Simply put, unless Casper Wells makes this team and has a great year in his reduced role, the M’s don’t really have a blossoming outfielder-in-the-making in the high minors. That’s one of the reasons I was really surprised they didn’t pick up one of the big outfielders available in Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher or Josh Hamilton. There’s nothing to suggest Jason Bay will make this team out of Spring Training.  It’s his last hurrah.  Ibanez is a one year guy.

Which brings us back to everybody else.  Jesus Montero, Smoak, Michael Saunders, Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan and Franklin Gutierrez all figure to return in starting roles.  Because Jack Zdurencik didn’t invest in longer term players we get to re-start the clock from spring training 2012.  You remember that time almost a year ago when we all agreed the M’s needed to see what they had in their young guys?  Unfortunately, at the end of the season we all sat (okay a few of us sat) scratching our heads and muttered a collective “Hunhhh??!!” After we ran out of things to throw at the television.

It was clear at the end of 2012 the M’s didn’t have enough power.  It was clear at the end of 2012 management needed to give the kids a bit more time to determine what they had before they started looking around for more permanent answers.  It’s also clear these young guys need to get better if they expect to have long careers in the major leagues. Some of that will come with experience, but for some guys like Justin Smoak it’s produce or you’re done. By adding a year’s of offense from guys like Morales, Morse and Ibanez, Zdurencik’s hopefully given the fans a summer of scoring that will make the games a bit more watchable while still providing an opportunity for the core of kids to continue maturing while he separates the wheat from the chaff.

While all that’s going on, the up and comers in the minors get a little more time.  How soon will the four headed monster of Danny Hultzen/James Paxton/Taijuan Walker/Brandon Maurer be ready to pitch at Safeco?  I dunno, but my concern is if they don’t do something serious with the big league rotation the temptation will be to press one or more of them into service before they’re ready and then we’ll be questioning their future just like we did last year about guys like Montero and Noesi.  Assuming the M’s add another serviceable catcher, Zunino will have time to grow in the minors, though all the signs from this week’s press conference point to a mid season call-up (which I also think is a mistake.  For god’s sake catcher is the most demanding position on the field, let him learn it in the minors first!!) It also gives them time to figure out what position Stefan Romero can play.  If it is the outfield, the M’s may have some help.

Lots more questions, but I still think the M’s have used the offseason to buy themselves some time with a little offense, while they still sort out this painful process of rebuilding.

Good Bye to The Man

Stan Musial was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969 on the first ballot.
Stan Musial was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969 on the first ballot.

Baseball is a great game filled with amazing moments and great characters.  Some of them are remembered for their flaws and are tragic figures like Shoeless Joe Jackson or Pete Rose.  Others are remembered for their greatness and their magic on the field like Willie Mays.  Stan Musial is remembered for his consistent excellence that allowed him to amass over 3,600 hits and 475 home runs over a 22 year career for the St. Louis Cardinals.  He played on some great teams and some not great teams, ending his career as young Cardinals like Bob Gibson, Curt Flood and Lou Brock were beginning theirs.

Musial was the ideal ballplayer.  He loved the game.  Was a stalwart supporter of the Cardinals during his career and after.  He never had the adversary relationship with the press his contemporary, Ted Williams, helped create.  He wasn’t remote from the press, the fans, or his teammates as DiMaggio did.  Musial was simply a great player and a great person.  He was three time MVP, a seven time batting champion.  He is so admired in St. Louis, there are two statues of him outside the new Busch Stadium.  One of my most cherished pieces of baseball memorabilia is a signed Stan Musial Perez-Steele card.

This statue in St. Louis is not widely admired because it doesn't accurate depict Musial's unique batting stance.
This statue in St. Louis is not widely admired because it doesn’t accurate depict Musial’s unique batting stance.

My nausea is getting worse

Today the Mariners traded away left handed hitting catcher John Jaso for right-handed outfielder Mike Morse.  Over on USS Mariner Dave Cameron is trashing the trade based on value.  Cameron is right to trash the trade but one doesn’t have to crunch the numbers to wonder what the hell Jack Zdurencik is thinking.

John Jaso was arguably the M’s best hitter last year.  Maybe not in terms of cumulative stats, but in his 361 plate appearances he had a slash line of .276/.394/.456 and led the team in OPS.  His OPS+ was 144, also team leading and last year had a WAR of 3.3.  Jaso played catcher, a real position, DH’ed, and provided plenty of late inning heroics with clutch pinch hitting.  More than any other Mariner, he took a mature approach at the plate, worked the strike zone, took walks when they were there, and was willing to take what the pitcher gave him. Jaso wasn’t much of a catcher, but he also wasn’t terrible.  Jaso was a valuable player, relatively young and still under team control. He wasn’t a guy that was going to make the team a winner, but he was a useful piece.

When last we saw Mike Morse, he was being helped from the field after tearing the labrum in his left shoulder diving for a ball on April 22, 2008 against the Angels.  The Mariners tried to move him from the infield to the outfield with disastrous results.  Eventually he was traded to the Nationals for the immortal Ryan Langerhans, and in Washington he made a career for himself. In 2010 he hit .282/.359/.519 with 15 homers in 293 plate appearances.  2011 was an even bigger year with .303/.360/.550 with 31 home runs in a full season.  During those seasons he played mostly first base with stints in the outfield and DHed in interleague games.  Last year, not so good.  Fighting through a back injury, Morse chiefly played in left and right field hitting .291/.321/.470 and 18 dingers in 430 plate appearances. Morse is not a good outfielder. Age 31, never blessed with an excess of defensive acumen, he is often mistaken for a statue in the outfield corners (though he does move too quickly for birds to nest in his hair.) With the Nats’ signing of 1B Adam LaRoche, Morse became expendable.

The Mariners, obviously frustrated by the failure of.the Justin Upton trade have become desperate for a bat, any bat. This team is now loaded with wannabe sluggers, former sluggers, aging sluggers they hope will kindle some offensive spark under this boring, low scoring team.  However, in constructing this roster, Jack has catered to the lowest strata of the blog forum denizens-those who forget that baseball is not the same as Home Run Derby.  It is an athletic contest played by athletes who must do more than try to swat a baseball 400 feet.

The Mariners entered the off season with clear needs: upgrade offensively at any position possible, find another corner outfielder, add at least one starting pitcher, they needed an effective utility player that didn’t just give away at-bats. Let’s see the scorecard:

  1. Added Robert Andino-can play 2B, SS, and 3B, hits enough to be valuable; check off utility player.
  2. Added Jason Bay-recently released from his massive contract with the Mets, Bay hasn’t played well the past few injury-riddled years. Hoping to catch some lightning in a bottle with the M’s.  Needless to say, my breath is not held.  The corner outfielder is one of those low risk/high reward guys Zdurencik loves.
  3. Added Kendrys Morales-Adds power to the lineup; can play 1B/DH, but not much else; power upgrade-check.
  4. Subtract Jason Vargas-puts 200 inning hole in the starting rotation.  Reliable starters reduced from four to three. Uh-oh.
  5. Added Raul Ibanez-can play either corner outfield spot, badly, on his 40 year old never terribly swift legs. Or can DH or play 1B  Adds some power, leadership and experience.  What should I check?
  6. Added Mike Morse-Not much of an outfielder, can play 1B/DH.  Adds offense, though we’ll need to see if he recovers from a down 2012 season.  Power upgrade, but at what is now a crowded 1B/DH and scary corner outfield situation, what do I check?
  7. Subtract John Jaso-part of the catching platoon. Jaso was the M’s best hitter last year in limited at bats.  Hits lefties poorly.  Opens the spot for another catcher, maybe Zunino later in the summer, but we don’t have another catcher right now. Oops, new need, catching partner for Jesus Montero.

Look, I know it’s important to have a lineup that puts some fear into one’s opponents.  But I also think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that.  In adding power to this team, Zdurencik has merely created a cluster-fuck of bats at a few positions and overlooked the need for players that can actually play a position.  Despite moving in the fences in left, the outfield at Safeco Field is still roomy and outfielders must be able to go get a ball.  Morse, Ibanez, and Moales are all DH/1B material and none should grace a major league outfield.  Especially Safeco’s expanisve cow pasture. This is merely an effort to show the blog commenters the M’s are doing something-even if it doesn’t make the team better. And that doesn’t even begin to answer questions about what happens for Justin Smoak or Casper Wells.  This seems almost Bavasi-like (shuddering as he typed the words.)

Next a look at the M’s outfield defense and what it might mean for Mariners pitching.