Kelly Shoppach’s DFA just the most recent in a series of bewildering events.

When I last posted, the M’s were heading into Cleveland after taking two from the Yankees in Gotham.  You remember that don’t you?  The hometown team was nipping at .500 and the M’s looked like they were capable of tangling with a good Indians team: Felix and Iwakuma were each getting a start.

Well, we know what happened in the nearly a month since then.  The M’s were swept four straight by the Tribe in hard fought games decided by bullpens, crept into Anaheim and gave away two games they were completely unprepared to play, looked lifeless against Texas and New York at home, and really haven’t done much since.  They stink.

But they stink in a way that simply doesn’t engender much confidence they’ll get better any year soon. There is some Good, Bad and Ugly to talk about, so let’s take a look.

The Good

Kyle Seager continues to be consistent bright spot in the line-up, and we’d realize it more if the folks around him would be more consistent too. With the glove.  With the bat.  The kid is a baseball rat.

The rotation has had a week of solid performances.  Felix, Iwakuma, Saunders, Harang, and Bonderman have all made at least two consecutive really good performances.  The good part of this is that it brings some needed stability to the back end of the rotation.  The bad parts-and there are so many-Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan failed, and aren’t contributing.  Harang and Bonderman are not this team’s future, they are simply place holders.  They also aren’t very good and, when I watch, I find myself covering my eyes a lot.  Hopefully they’ll continue performing well until the M’s are ready to make a move with Erasmo Ramirez, Danny Hulzen or somebody else, but the good is not always an unalloyed good. That’s probably not fair.  Harang has two complete game shutouts.  Of course the rest of his games are complete and total shit.

Iwakuma.  Yeah I know I did the rotation already.  I could probably do a separate Felix entry too, but we expect him to be good-he’s making the “he better do good big bucks.”  But ‘Kuma was still a bit of an unknown headed into the season, and he’s been incredible. According to, he’s the second most valuable pitcher in the AL with a 3.9 war right behind Clay Buchholz.  He is in the top five in almost all the traditional “good” stats (except wins,) and leads the AL in WHIP.  Iwakuma is consistently a pleasure to watch.

The Bad

The offense sucks.  Have we ever said this before?  The young guys haven’t performed.  The M’s rank at or near the bottom in most offensive statistics.  The most important ones are batting average where they are dead last, and runs scored where they are next to last.  If you can’t hit, you can’t drive in runs, it’s that simple.  OBP doesn’t matter if you have to draw four walks in an inning.  Having more power is nice, but if we’re really just talking solo home runs, that doesn’t help much. Those make losses.  Everything else is window dressing.

Injuries.  The M’s have a ton of injuries.  There is no question in my mind they would be much better if there were fewer broken guys.  Here’s the purple heart list: Josh Kinney and Steven Pryor in the bullpen; Erasmo Ramirez in the starting rotation (but rapidly improving;) Jesus Sucre and Jesus Montero catcher; Justin Smoak 1B; Kendrys Morales 1B/DH (still on roster;) Michael Morse OF/1B/DH (still on roster;) Franklin Gutierrez (still keeping the Franklin Gutierrez honorary hospital bed warm.)  If some of these guys were healthy I think the M’s would be better.  Having Morales and Morse both on the semi-invalided list this week has meant the M’s are playing short handed, and their two most useful bats are on the trainer’s table. If Kinney and Pryor were healthy the bullpen would definitely be more solid.  I wrote extensively about the problems with depending on a healthy Gutierrez, which is a little like depending on a roll of seven at the craps table to pay one’s mortgage.  His injury and the early injury to Michael Saunders, combined with the Morse quad pull has forced the M’s to play Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, and Endy Chavez almost daily.  They weren’t brought on the team for that purpose.  It exposes their weaknesses, and makes the team worse.  They’re doing their jobs the best they can, but it won’t win many ball games.

Youth Movement stalls.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed about  the M’s young players, with the exception of Seager, and what they’ve accomplished.  Rather than build on last year’s foot forward in the big leagues, the guys the M’s were counting on to build on whatever success they had have augured in.  Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero both made the hour long trek to Cheney Stadium.  Brandon Maurer just wasn’t ready. Stephen Pryor and Erasmo Ramirez are hurt.  Michael Saunders has taken a massive step backward after showing how effective he could be before a shoulder injury laid him out early in the season.

And those are just the guys that spent some time in the bigs before the recent collapse.  The M’s resorted to the veteran bargain bin that brought us Saunders, Harang, and Bonderman because they were counting on the Big Three (plus however many) to start climbing into their spots in the rotation.  That doesn’t look close.  After banishing Ackley and Montero to the minors to figure things out, the M’s have called up the next wave-Nick Franklin, Jesus Sucre, and Mike Zunino.  Though each have shown inklings they can do things as advertized, why should we believe they are any better than “can’t miss” guys like Ackley, Montero, and Smoak.  Smoak!!!  So much has gone wrong, different than what was promised, it’s difficult to continue to believe Jack Zderencik picked winners in the prospect department.  Stefan Romero, the second coming of Dustin Ackley as an outfielder, Brad Miller, maybe they’re the real deal, maybe not.

Bullpen inconsistency.  Coming in to the season, I would have thought, based on last year’s performance, the bullpen would be a strength.  In many ways the bullpen failures of the last four weeks represent the Mariners’ failures over the same time.  The four game sweep in Cleveland is because the M’s bullpen couldn’t keep pace with the Cleveland bullpen.  Tom Wilhelmsen’s struggle to command his pitches have become emblematic of the the M’s struggle to first attain a lead, no matter how slim, and then hold on to it for a win. Though Oliver Perez held on to last night’s 3-2 win in Oakland, it’s unclear that he has the stuff to consistently close every night.  Though Carter Capps may eventually have the stuff to be a ninth inning warrior, his pitches visit the strike zone infrequently enough to make the point moot for now.  The loss of Pryor really hurts right now.  The others-Danny Farquar, Lucas Luetge, Charlie Furbush and Yoervis Medina simply lack the stuff or the experience to fill the closer spot.  So here we are, about the same place we were last year with Brandon League struggling and badly needed wins slipping away.

The Ugly

It’s hard to put any kind of gloss on what is going on this year.  I figured incremental improvement with progress to about .500.  Instead the season has coughed, sputtered, and now it almost seems like someone has opened a hidden trap door.  With the injuries and lack of performance, the front office has had its opportunity to look lost.  I’ve never seen so many player moves with a resulting list of guys Designated For Assignment:

Kameron Loe (who was just terrible)

Robert Andino, a playoff hero for the Orioles-gone.

Francisco Martinez came over in the Doug Fister trade.  Was a third baseman with no power and when the M’s moved him to center field they learned he couldn’t hit in any position

Vinnie Catricala was a minor league player of the year.  Except he couldn’t play a position, which meant he couldn’t really be your player of the year.

Carlos Triunfel is on the Cheney-Safeco shuttle

Brandon Bantz, up after Sucre was hurt, played one game and DFA, though sent back to obscurity in the minors

Kelly Shoppach was DFA’ed when the immortal Henry Blanco became available. Go figure.

There are a bajillion questions and and observations I have about this team right now, but it really needs another post or twelve to do that.  I’ll sum this up with a simple question:  what were you thinking?

  • This team was built around the notion Franklin Gutierrez would be healthy and play centerfield, despite all the evidence in the world he could not stay healthy.  When Saunders got hurt it was in a terrible bind.  When Morse got hurt it was even worse.  What were you thinking?  Didn’t I mention earlier the importance of having a healthy center fielder and the availability of Michael Bourn?  What were you thinking?  If centerfield is healthy then Bay and Ibanez become useful pieces instead of overused pieces.
  • This team started out with two very young pitchers, Beaven and Maurer in the four and five spots in the rotation.  They hadn’t proven anything at the major league level and mostly struggled before being sent down to the minors. They’ve been forced to turn to reclamation projects in Harang and Bonderman who have also struggled, though they’ve had some successes.  It’s unclear whether the positives will continue.  What were you thinking?  A quality pitcher like Kyle Lohse was available well into Spring Training.  I’m sure the lure of the Big Three (plus however many) was a temptation down the road, but they’re no closer to the majors today than they were in March.  The lure is a trap.  What were you thinking?

These two of a plethora of issues beg to know the answer to this question:  Who the heck is in charge.  Is it Zdurencik?  If it is he’s supplying answers based on an awful lot of hope and not on reality and a further slide should cost him his job.  If it’s not Zdurencik making these baseball decisions, then I am at last ready to buy into all the cynicism surrounding this ownership group.  It is hard to be a fan of the Seattle Mariners, but here I am.


Who are these Mariners?

Tom Wilhelmson and Jesus Montero celebrate after the final out of last night's Mariners game
Tom Wilhelmson and Jesus Montero celebrate after the final out of last night’s Mariners game

I was able to watch the last three innings of last night’s game in New York. It was gritty, nail-biting baseball at its best.  After Tuesday night’s debacle, I couldn’t even watch the Wednesday demolition Phil Hughes.  I figured if Iwakuma stepped on the mound he’d fall into a pit of hidden punji stakes and the Yankees would win by default.  Instead, it was New York’s turn to suffer a little bit of bad luck as their starter didn’t make it out of the first inning.

Last night, however, was a different kettle of fish.  With projected starter Aaron Harang out with a stiff back, insert Hector Noesi-plan for doom.  But Noesi pitched well, give him credit. When I turned on the game the Mariners led 3-1.  Though they gave up another run, somehow Oliver Perez, Carter Capps, Lucas Luetge, and Tom Wilhelmson managed, to cough, snort, wheeze and belch through the remaining innings but avoid the full body chokefest of Tuesday night, hanging on to the win and the series victory.

This team feels a bit different Somehow I don’t see this team as the same Zdurencik/Wedge teams of the last few years.  In the past, after a dissappointing loss this team would go straight into the can, with a long stretch of losing baseball ahead.  This feels different.  Maybe it’s the veterans on the team.  Maybe it’s the winning.  Maybe it’s the kids getting hungry.

But tell me you weren’t cheering when Kendrys Morales corraled Brendan Ryan’s errant throw to keep Ichiro at third.  Tell me you weren’t watching through your fingers, rubbing your rabbit’s foot when Wilhelmson got Robinson Cano to ground out to end the game despite his early wildness.  Doesn’t this feel different?

The life and times of Justin Smoak

Justin Smoak entered the season as the Mariner with the most to prove.  He was the highly touted hitter received in the Cliff Lee trade that was going to be the M’s first baseman for decade.  He was a switch hitter with power from both sides of the plate that would be a 30 home run guy.  He’s failed to live up to that billing and his name is regularly trolled through the internet as a symbol for the failure of the Mariners’ rebuilding efforts.  He’s often Exhibit A for why Jack Zdurencik should go.

Smoak hits lefty Smoak hits righty

I continue to hope Smoak can turn it around.  I keep thinking he’s the kind of guy who is going to figure it out with somebody and be the 30 homer monster he was supposed to be.  I may be whistling past the graveyard.  But maybe not.

Smoak continues to struggle.  Justin’s slash line thus far is .237/.357/.314. This is a definite conundrum.  In the first 38 games of the season, he’s drawn 21 walks.  In 2012 Smoak drew 49 walks in 535 plate appearances. In 2011 he drew 55 walks in 489 plate appearances.  He’s getting on base at a rate about 37 points above league average.  Smoak got off to a slow start and is slowly pulling his batting average out of the mire, but it’s not likely he’ll be a .280 hitter this year (which is 25 points above league average.)  The most disturbing numbers to me are his power numbers and his runs scored.

Justin Smoak’s power shows up as being virtually non-existent.  He has six doubles and one home run, well, well below his historical numbers. Due to this, and that he’s not hitting for much of an average, Smoak’s slugging percentage is ridiculously bad.  Smoak has never had a particularly high slugging because he hits for a lousy average with too few extra-base hits .  His slugging for the last three years (2010-12) is .371, .396, .364.  However, though he has zero career triples and not a lot of doubles, he’s been in double figures for homers in each of those years. What’s happened this year?  With six doubles on the year so far, he’s probably on a pace to break his career best of 24, but only one home run? Really?

Another oddity in Smoak’s numbers is his runs scored.  He’s scored exactly ten runs this season.  Yeah, he’s hitting lousy, but he leads the Mariners in walks with his 21 and his OBA is well above league average.  Yet, his ten runs is fewer than Jason Bay’s eleven, and Bay has far fewer plate appearances.  It is also fewer than Dustin Ackley’s 14 runs scored. Ackley has the same number of hits (28) as Smoak, but only four extra-base hits and has drawn only five walks for an OBA of only .268.  Just to extend this a bit further, Smoak has been on base 50 times (hits + BB+HBP) more times than any other Mariner except for Kyle Seager (55) and Kendrys Morales (52.)  What accounts for his inability to pass the pay station? There is the matter of the guys hitting behind him.  Smoak usually hits fifth or sixth.  The guys hitting behind him are Jesus Montero .200/.250/.341; Dustin Ackley .231/.268/.281; and the twin black holes Brendan Ryan .122/.198/.122 (!!!!), or; Robert Andino .159/.206/.221.  Why would anybody give Smoak a pitch worth hitting ever?  How could anyone expect to score in front of these guys?  Smoak is slow and is a station to station guy, but the guys behind him hit rarely and with very little pop.  The bottom third of the Mariners’ lineup is Death Valley.

I’m not sure I have any answers here.  At least no more than anyone else.  Dave Cameron pronounced Justin Smoak an irredeemable failure over on USS Mariner on April 21st. Cameron suggested Smoak was not strong enough to be a mashing first baseman, he’s simply Casey Kotchman without the contact or defensive skills. Logan Davis on Lookout Landing suggested this might not be the case, rather that Smoak was likely to never be the big hitter we want and need in Seattle with it’s cool weather and big park.  But, if he went somplace like Texas . . . who knows. I’m reluctant to accept any of these explanations, but either could be correct.  Certainly Smoak, in his 1,500+ plate appearances has produced disappointing results.  It’s equally as clear to me that he’s doing something different.  He hits to the opposite field better as a leftie.  He’s walking a lot more than in the past and not whiffing on those pitches inside he had so much trouble with last year. One more thing.  On April 21, as the M’s wrapped up their Texas road trip of death, Smoak was hitting .188.  Today he’s hitting nearly 50 points higher.  Something is going on. If Mike Zunino or Nick Franklin played first base I might be really antsy, but there isn’t anyone ready to step in and take his place. There is little question the clock is ticking on Justin Smoak, but I need to see the end of the story before I’m satisfied that it’s finished.

The road ahead

The M’s head off on the road having greased the skids for the A’s continued slide out of contention for the AL West.  It was great to see Iwakuma do what he does best.  It’s nice to see Brandon Maurer stay in a game.  It was good to see Safeco Joe Saunders be, well, Safeco Joe Saunders. The A’s are struggling right now, and it’s important to kick those teams when they’re down, especially if they’re ahead in the division.

Kendrys Morales' three run homer helped beat the Oakland A's yesterday, 6-3
Kendrys Morales’ three run homer helped beat the Oakland A’s yesterday, 6-3.  Photo: Elaine Thompson

The teams the M’s will face on this road trip are not struggling.  The Yankees and Indians are both division leaders and they’re both red hot.  The Yanks are 7-3 in their last ten games, having swept the improved Kansas City Royals.  The Indians are 8-2 over their last ten, trashing the Twins, A’s and Tigers, moving past Detroit to the top spot in the A.L. Central. They finish the trip with two games against the Angels.  The Halos are 4-6 over their last ten, but did take a series from the Astros, something Seattle has yet to manage.

This will not be an easy road trip.  The Yankees’ pitching staff is ranked in the AL’s  top five, which always poses a problem to the Mariners’ improving, but still incomplete offense.  If there is any good news at all, it is that the M’s will run out both Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma to face the Bronx Bombers.  So, all the hitters should struggle. Though the Yankees are short the Alex Rodriguezs , Derek Jeters, and Mark Texeiras of yesteryear, they still have an otherworldly Robinson Cano, and the reinvigorated Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner to do plenty of damage.

The Indians are different.  Cleveland’s pitching staff is middle of the pack with an ERA+ of 100, league average.  But their offense ranks in the top third of the league.  It is first in slugging, led by catcher Carlos Quintana and Mark Reynolds at first base. Their team OPS+ is 122.

The Angels are a disappointment.  Their pitching is bad.  With their best pitcher, Jered Weaver, on the DL and an ERA+ of 85, this team, formerly built on pitching, has struggled. As you would expect, Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos, and Mike Trout are lighting it up, but Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have yet to get their games going.  Their offense is a league average OPS+ of 101.

Seattle heads out on this road trip 6-4 over their last ten games. With the exception of the Saunders meltdown 10-2 at Rogers Centre last Sunday, they’ve played good ball and been in every game. They take an OPS+ of 95 and and ERA+ of 96 with them.  They have two of the hottest starters in the league in Hernandez and Iwakuma. Felix and Kuma will each get two starts. So will Aaron Harang.  They have a bit of momentum, but New York and Cleveland are not pushovers, and they are not currently struggling.  To keep things interesting, they’ll need to find a way to win five games to make this a successful trip, or four games to at least save face. The M’s cannot afford a 1-8 meltdown if they hope to stay relevant in the American League West, or, more importantly, in the minds of their slowly evaporating fan base.

A year later: some OBP improvement


Michael Saunders walked three times and scored against Pittsburgh in the M's 2-1 win on Wednesday.  Saunders leads the team in OBP with .362
Michael Saunders walked three times and scored against Pittsburgh in the M’s 2-1 win on Wednesday. Saunders leads the team in OBP with .362

The M’s were terrible at scoring runs again in 2012.  Their  619 runs scored was dead last in the American League. Again. One of the chief reasons why is nobody could get on base.  Seattle’s OBP was a league low .292.  One of my keys to some offensive improvement was to increase on-base-percentage.

So far Seattle has managed some improvement.  As a team, the M’s increased their OBP to .304, good enough for next to last in the American League. That’s a load ahead of the White Sox’s .279, and one point behind Houston’s .305 and two points behind Toronto’s .306.  The league average for on base percentage is .321.

While an increase in 12 points isn’t a lot to cheer about, there are some individual averages that are encouraging.  In 2012, the team leader in OBP was John Jaso, with an excellent .394.  Of the remaining regulars, only Kyle Seager (.316) and Michael Saunders (.306) had a percentage over over .300.  The rest were terrible. League average in 2012 was.320. Though it is a small sample size, some players this year are actually doing quite well.  Michael Saunders leads the team with .362. Kendrys Morales is at .342.  Kyle Seager has shown progress from last year and is at .336.  For all intents and purposes Jason Bay is a starter and is at .357.  Kelly Shoppach is taking the majority of catching reps, and is at .362.  Justin Smoak leads the team in higher expectations and walks and is a respectable .344.

Then there is the magical shortstop duo of Brendan Ryan at .220 and Robert Andino at .222.  Jesus Montero is .250. Dustin Ackley is .277.  Michael Morse is .286.  The M’s rank next to last in runs scored with 120, or 3.4 runs per game. Some of the guys who are struggling are really struggling.  Morse is near his historical averages, but Ryan and Andino continue to demonstrate their days in the majors may be near an end.

Though there is progress, a great deal more needs to be done if the M’s are going to significantly increase the number of runs scored.  Hitting solo homers doesn’t make one a winner.  A player can hit his way on base, or walk his way on base, but without baserunners, it’s pretty tough to score.

Don’t get too excited yet: the Mariners and the numbers

With their recent success between the lines, there’s a lot of excitement about Mariners.  When I say excitement, it means people remember there is still a team in Seattle and folks are talking about them-the first step on the long road to excitement.  Not to be the turd in the punch bowl here, I would simply draw attention to some of the teams they’ve been beating.  They are teams with bad pitching.

This little roll the M’s are on began with the Anaheim Angels We usually don’t think of the Angels as being a poor pitching team, but this year they are.  If we consult  the Angels’ page, we can see how bad they are.  As a team they’re in the bottom third of the league in most important measures.  They are 13th in ERA, 14th in hits allowed, 15th in walks allowed, and 12th in strikeouts.  Combine these impressive numbers with 13th in home runs allowed with all those baserunners, and you’re looking at a disastrous season in the making. The team has an ERA+ of 82.  An average team has a rating of 100.   I don’t care how many Josh Hamiltons, Mike Trouts and Albert Pujols a team has, they can’t score enough runs fast enough to match the number of enemy runners circling the bases.  Jered Weaver’s injury, the inability of the Angels to sign Zach Greinke and the subsequent reliance on a staff of lesser lights will make it much more difficult for the Angels to remain in the division race.

The Orioles’s staff ranks in the middle of the pack in the American League.  If the O’s make a return to the playoffs it will because they are young and athletic, with an excellent bullpen.  It will be in spite of their mediocre starting rotation not because of them.  By the numbers, they rank 7th in ERA, 8th in hits allowed, 11th in walks allowed, and 9th in home runs.  Not terrible numbers.  Baltimore’s ERA+ is 110, so a bit above league average.  The Orioles have some decent starters, not including Zach Britton, who the M’s tortured, burned alive and tore into tiny pieces before his early exit.  But even Wei-Yin Chen (ERA+ 144) became fodder for the resurgent Mariners. The Orioles lack an ace, though their starters are certainly serviceable.

Today the M’s had their last game against the Blue Jays today. Joe Saunders did his magic road disappearing act, as in his stuff disappeared.  Brandon Morrow pitched like the guy we know he can be instead of the guy he’s been all year.   The Jays seemed so smart in the off-season.  They seemed to make all the right moves.  They made the trade with the Marlins for Jose Reyes, and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.  They traded with Mets for Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.  They were poised to build on last year’s success, and were the sexy pick to win the American League East.  Ha! (Cue thunder, lighting, plagues of grasshoppers) Nothing has turned out the way they hope.  Their moves are making the trade of the entire Mariners farm system for Eric Bedard in 2008 only terrible instead of disastrous.  The hitters ain’t hittin’ and the pitching is bad. By the numbers, Toronto is 14th in ERA, 12th in hits allowed, 13th in walks allowed, and 14th in home runs allowed.  Not surprisingly, given the numbers of home runs combined with baserunners, they are also 14th in runs allowed.  Their OPS+ is a deceiving 91.  Deceiving because their bullpen is pretty good.  In their rotation only the J.A. Happ has an ERA+ of 107, or slightly better than league average.  The rest: Dickey 79; Morrow 81; Buehrle 66; Johnson 98.  Those are phenomenally bad numbers for guys who are supposed to carry two thirds of the pitching load.

I share this information simply as a cautionary note. The Mariners are winning games against teams that lack good pitching.  That’s important in a positive way because in past years the boys from Sea-town have had difficulty scoring against any pitching, as in if a pitcher showed up for the other team, the M’s were in trouble. You laugh?  You think I jest?  Philip Humber is my case in point.  It’s important the M’s beat teams they should beat, and they should have their way with poor pitching teams.

This month the M’s will face some really good pitching teams, like the Yankees and Rangers, and some pretty horrible ones like the San Diego Padres.  It will be interesting to see if the M’s can continue to beat up on the teams they should, and if they will continue to struggle mightily with the good teams.  Probably the greatest tragedy of the year so far is the Mariners inability to dominate the Houston Astros in their six games with them.  Everybody else has.

Blue Jays: the other white meat

It’s cruel to kick a team when it’s down, it makes me feel a little ashamed of myself to make fun of Toronto.  I suppose I should feel guilty and appeal to the better angels of my nature and hope the Jays find their way and live up to pre-season expectations, that they get over their injury issues, that R.A. Dickey remembers how to throw his knuckleball without the expectation that it will disappear like a Saturn V rocket headed for the moon, and Jose Bautiste will once again be the home run hitter he was rather than the fellow standing at the plate trying to corral a change-up with a butterfly net.  I should be a better person and wish only the best for the Jays in the final game of the series–naahhhhh!!!!!

Kick ’em when they’re down and get out of town as quickly as possible.  Joe Saunders isn’t quite King Felix or the amazing Iwakuma, but here’s to hoping he suddenly remembers how to pitch on the road.