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.


The thirty game check

Today the Mariners jet off to Toronto. It’s one of their two off days during the first 30 games  of the season. I feel a bit different about them than I did when they limped home, tongues dragging, from their road trip to Texas.

The M’s finished their homestand 5-2 against one lousy team, the Anaheim Angels, and one pretty good team, the Baltimore Orioles.  They head out on the road against one awful team, the Toronto Blue Jays, and one division-leader, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

While I still think it’s early to assess the quality of any team, it seems to me the M’s recent homestand provides some encouragement, and some qualities to continue looking for as the season rolls on.

The Starting Rotation-Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are solid.  They pitch well enough to win every time out.  Home or road, no differences.  Lefties and righties, doesn’t affect them.  Though they won’t always win, this usually has less to do with their performances and more to do with their teammates.  The rest of the rotation, however, will have more to do with whether the M’s record will improve over last year’s 75-87.

Joe Saunders wins at home and loses on the road. His performances home and away are like two different guys.  The one at Safeco is cool, calm, collected, the picture of a methodical soft-tossing leftie.  The one on the road is simply at war with himself-unable to locate his pitches or even throw strikes. Brandon Maurer is young.  We’ve seen him be very, very good a couple of times, and very, very bad all the rest of his starts.  I’m much more encouraged about Aaron Harang after last night’s game than after his other starts.  Harang’s fast ball was up into the mid-90’s allowing him to have more success with the high fastball he likes to throw.  Previously his high fastball was like 89 and hitters were riding the express out to the cheap seats.

The rotation still seems unsettled.  It’s unclear whether Maurer has the ability to stick at this level at this time, but there’s not a lot to replace him with in Tacoma.  Saunders, yeesh.  Has to get better on the road.  Harang, we’ll see, but he could be this year’s Kevin Millwood, and I’d take that.  But like I said in a previous post, this team will get as far as its rotation will take them.

The Big Boys: Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse

These were the two big bats the Mariners acquired in the off-season.  So far, they’ve been worth the prices paid for their services.  Though Morales isn’t yet lighting the world on fire, he is a stabilizing influence in the middle of the lineup.  His OPS+ is 119.  He’s consistently walking, with an OBP of .358, his power just hasn’t emerged yet, which is pretty much in line with his career performance, a bit of a late starter.  He’s someone the M’s can count on to start or continue rallies.

Morse got off to a hot homerun pace, but his broken pinkie really derailed his progress for a couple of weeks.  He is a force of nature with his nine homers tied for the American League lead.  However, most of those have come with the bases empty.  In addition he also has 29 strikeouts to go with his 6 walks.  Would definitely like to see the K’s go down and the BB’s increase.

You’d definitely have to rate these trades as a success, though how much of a success remains to be seen.

Promises, Promises: Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley

Ten games ago I was pulling my hair out and wondering if Smoak and Ackley, together with Jack Zdurencik, should be on Pierce Transit headed for a seat on the Rainiers bench.  I’ve begun to feel differently, however.  Smoak is getting his walks and his hits.  He currently leads the team in walks with 15, resulting in an OBP of .345.  He’s also starting to get his hits and his average is up to .240.  The last few games he has doubled-pulled line drives and hard liners to the opposite field.  I’m encouraged, and hope that soon we’ll start seeing balls leaving the ball park.  That’s kind of the way things went in Spring Training.  Still very much in a wait and see mode on Smoak, but there’s at least reason to hope.

Dustin Ackley is a mystery.  The best hitter drafted in 2009, he really augured in last year, and has struggled since arriving in Spring Training this year.  Recently he seeems to be having more success getting hits to all fields.  However, they aren’t much in the way of hits.  When Ackley came up he was a gap hitter with doubles power.  That’s simply not in his game right now.  He didn’t look very good last night with three strikeouts.  I’m less optimistic about his success than Smoak, but it’s still a bit early.  Let’s see what the next ten games produce.

The Brendan Ryan and Robert Andino Show

I love watching both these guys in the field.  There simply is not a better defensive shortstop in the game than Brendan Ryan.  Andino plays the game with a lot of grit and toughness and I like that too.  Unfortunately, a bucket of clams could hit better than the two of them, and I don’t know what the M’s can do about it.  The “Ryan is working on it”, and giving Andino a little more time excuses offered by Eric Wedge are getting old, and there is that Franklin guy down in Tacoma who is lighting up the Pacific Coast League.  It will be interesting to see how this works out.

The Bruised Brothers: Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez.

If I stepped off a three week cruise and you’d told me Franklin Gutierrez was injured, I’d ask what else was new.  If you’d told me the entire M’s starting outfield was hurt, I’d respond “Holy shit Batman!”

Gutierrez, on the few occasions when he is physically able, makes this team so much better.  Playing him in center field, pushes Saunders’ speed out to a corner position, and improves the ability of all the outifelders to run down balls. He’s a good hitter, has some power, and adds some speed to the lineup this team sorely lacks. I hope he gets back soon, but it’s a hammie.  It’s Franklin.  Time to make do with what we have.

Saunders looked like he was taking the next step on the ladder.  His shoulder injury seemed to really impact this team.  When he homered in his first game back against the Angels, it’s sort of like he was making a statement.  He’s been a bonus in the outfield.  He’s a terror on the bases.  Saunders is still a project.  Struck out three times on Tuesday, but he makes the team better.

Kyle Seager

Though he was slow out of the gate, Seager, hitting second, built on last year’s success and, and while I wouldn’t call him a monster, he is definitely the most complete of the young hitters on this team.  Though he’s not likely to be the .400+ OBP guy Edgar Martinez was, he could be a 50 doubles, 20 home run guy, hitting around .300.  That and the fact he plays a very good third base makes him look like the cream of Jackie Z’s youth crop.

Jesus Montero

I keep pulling for this guy because we potentially gave up so much to get him.  Not only that but Kendrys Morales likely won’t stay beyond this year and he’s supposed to be our designated hitter of the future. I keep thinking something is going to jump start him.  Some of the hits he’s had have been big, but there are just so few of them. Between his lack of catching skills and his struggles at the plate, Montero hasn’t gotten off to an encouraging start.  All he has going for him is his comparative youth.

Guys without jobs: Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez

I wasn’t wild about the Bay pickup in the offseason, but he’s done a good job filling in during the Great Outfield Massacre. His defense is decent and he shows some signs at the plate he might still have a career left. I might feel more comfortable with him in a backup role, but he does have a tidy 127 OPS+.  Raul Ibanez is the opposite of Jason Bay.  Raul is one of my favorite former Mariners. He should remain a former Mariner.  He’s looked embarassingly bad in the field, and despite a couple of homers, he’s not hittin’ a lick.  His OPS+ is 44.  Raul is probably ready to go.

The Injury Bug

In seasons past, the Mariners have been bad.  They’ve played below expectations.  They’ve done stupid stuff. But for the most part they’ve avoided a plethora of injuries.  Not the case this year.  So far the M’s suffered a raft of injuries contributing to their slow start.  This is the casualty list:

Franklin Gutierrez (naturally), Michael Morse, Michael Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez, Stephen Pryor, and Josh Kinney.  Of these, only Morse hasn’t been on the DL. How much better would this team be with Ramirez in the starting rotation, Pryor in the bullpen, and Gutierrez in center field?  No question they’d be better.  Maybe not loads better, but definitely improved, and two games better makes them a .500 team.

Avoiding Banana Peels

Got home late from a meeting at school last night and turned on the Mariners game.  It was nearly 7:30 and I figured young pitcher Brandon Maurer would be cruising after stepping in the puddle of jitters he encountered in Oakland last week.  Wrong.  Still the top of the first, M’s down 6-0 and Maurer being examined by Rick Griffin after taking a line drive off his thigh.  To the Houston Astros.  The same Astros that were shut out three times during the previous week.  I spent a great deal of the next two hours watching the first four innings of this game only to see the M’s down 16-0 before I packed it in for the night.

It’s been eight glorious games since Felix’s opening night gem.  There are achievements to celebrate and causes for concern, but tonight will be game ten.  It’s always difficult to assess where a team is going to end up until after game forty or so.  But last night is just such a black eye.  I know, it’s one game and you just have to forget it and get ready for tonight’s game.  Last night’s attendance was the lowest in Safeco history, and further performances like it will simply lead to more crappy attendance.

I hate to say it, but tonight is almost a must win game for the Mariners.  They’re 4-5, and play the deciding game against the Astros.  After that it’s Texas for four, and that won’t be fun. They’re followed by Detroit for three, hardly a party.  Blake Beavan needs to figure out how a team that’s averaged over ten strikeouts a game and up until last night averaged only 2.1 runs per game lights up a pitching staff for 16 runs.

The nine runs the M’s scored last night are unimportant.  For four innings Eric Bedard looked like Sandy Koufax and the M’s managed little offense.  Thus far, offensive prowess is very unevenly distributed on this team.  Take away Morse’s home runs and he looks like a hacker with his 11 strikeouts against one walk. .  Only Kendrys Morales,  Michael Saunders and Brendan Ryan are consistently producing.  It’s early, but Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley need to find a way to click the “on” button.  The fans are watching and they’re seeing the same things I’m seeing.

Just as disappointing, however, is the performance of Kameron Loe.  Loe gave up the walk-off homer in Chicago on Sunday, and surrendered three more dingers in his 2.1 innings. That’s six on the season over 6.1 innings. Do the math, that’s not a situation that can continue.  Though every pitcher that walked out on the mound last night seemed to have a target on his back, it is Loe’s early season performance that seems most problematic.

It’s a long season and  patience is required, but the M’s can’t afford many more performances like Wiley Coyote’s plunge from a mesa.  Followed by an Acme anvil.  Trailed by an Acme safe.  And blown up by a misguided Acme homing missile.

Felix shares the stage with Ryan

Felix Hernandez threw 109 pitches over seven and two thirds innings to beat the home Athletics 2-0.
Felix Hernandez threw 109 pitches over seven and two thirds innings to beat the home Athletics 2-0.

Last night In Oakland Fekix Hernandez dueled lefty Brett Anderson and came out the winner on opening day, 2-0. It was Felix’s fifth opening day win and the A’s ninth straight opening day loss. Hernandez went 7.2 innings, giving up three hits, with eight strikeouts, walking one.

For the most part, the A’s looked overmatched.  The King was perfect through the first three innings.  In the fourth he got in a spot of trouble when former Mariner, John Jaso doubled and advanced to third on a ground ball. Jaso on third, two outs.  Shortstop Brendan Ryan made a great play on a bouncer up the middle on the outfield grass, spun and threw out the speedy Yoenis Cespedes.  Ryan made another great play in the seventh inning, sliding to catch a foul pop off the bat of Jed Lowrie.

For most of the night it was the Felix Hernandez show, with the A’s struggling at the plate.  Hernandez pitched five 1-2-3 innings, and threw 109 pitches before he left the game with two outs in the eighth and runners on first and second.  The Mariners bullpen did make the rest of the game adventuresome.  Lefty Charlie Furbush came on in relief of Hernandez and walked Coco Crisp to load the bases.  Stephen Pryor came on in relief and got Derek Norris to ground out to Dustin Ackley to end the inning.  The ninth inning was similarly gripping as closer Tom Wilhelmson untypically struggled with his control. In his inning of work, Wilhelmson threw 18 pitches, only nine of them strikes.  With two outs he walked Jed Lowrie, who took second on indifference, and faced the tying run in Brandon Moss.  Eventually Moss flew out to right to end the game.

The only scoring in the game came in the fourth.  With one out, Ackley walked.  The next batter, Brendan Ryan blooped a single into right field.  Ackley, holding to make sure the ball wasn’t caught, sped around to third, sliding safely just ahead of a strong, accurate throw by Josh Reddick.  Both runners scored when Franklin Gutierrez bounced a single up the middle into center field.

On a night when the A’s hosted a sellout, and 15,000+ fans watched the evening’s festivities on the new big screen at Safeco Field, they saw what we’ve come to expect:  Felix dominant, helped out with some great defensive plays eking out an early season win.

2013 Mariners: questions that need answers

Felix danced after his perfect game, will he feel the same about his team as the season wears on?
Felix danced after his perfect game, will he feel the same about his team as the season wears on?

I’ve said before I’m excited about this season.  The Mariners should at least be fun to watch, regardless of how many games they win or lose.  This year they’ve got guys who can hit, guys who can mash.  They won’t appear to be as interesting as watching paint dry with the occasional Brendan Ryan defensive gem or Felix change-up breaking some poor bastard’s heart to liven things up. Nope, they’ll score plenty of runs and we can probably measure some Mike Morse shots in air miles. I can’t wait to see another year of Kyle Seager, or figure out whether Brandon Maurer is the real deal.  The M’s have a real bench with Raul v.3.0, Jason Bay (the return,) Robert Andino (man of a thousand positions,) and Kelly Shoppach (Iron Man 2.) Yes, everything’s looking up, but realistically this team’s got too many questions and would have to have too many things break right to believe they will contend.  Here are some questions I have.

Can this rotation work?  This will be the biggest factor the M’s will have to get right in order for this team to contend.  Felix is one of the best in the business and the M’s rewarded him for that with a big, fat contract.  There should be enough runs scored to make him look like the ace he is.  After the King, however there is little certainty.  Hisashi Iwakuma‘s entry into the major leagues last year had all the excitement of air escaping from a volleyball.  He pitched poorly in the bullpen, but was very good in his 16 starts that began on July 2nd.  The M’s were 10-6 in games Iwakuma started.  Though he is new to the major leagues, he is an 11-year veteran in Japan’s Pacific League.  So what do we have here?  A crafty veteran with good control that misses bats and induces ground balls?  Or is he just another Japanese starter who can fool ’em for a while but eventually the hitters figure him out? And can he do it for an entire season?  Last year Iwakuma was coming off major surgery, will he stay healthy?

Joe Saunders is a guy like Jason Vargas, a lefty slow-baller that usually keeps teams in games, but will, like Vargas, periodically vomit forth gopher balls. Saunders threw 174.2 innings last year for Arizona and Baltimore and allowed 21 homers.  He doesn’t walk a lot of guys.  Very much a 3-4 kind of guy in the rotation.  We know what we’ve got with Saunders, but it’s different with Brandon Maurer.  Brandon finished as the Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012, though he never made it to Tacoma.  He had a very good spring, but not one that led anyone to think he was the second coming of, say, Michael Pineda.  He’s a young guy who throws strikes, seems to pitch smart when he really needs to, and could be good.  But we just don’t know.

Blake Beavan won the last position by default, and I don’t mean that in any sort of nasty, pejorative way.  Beavan is barely 24 and a former first round draft pick for the Texas Rangers, yet he’s spent parts of two years in the bigs.  He’s taken a load of shit from the seamheads, who have consigned him to the midden out back.  In his defense, Beavan improved considerably after a stint at Tacoma last year.  In the off-season and during the spring Beavan worked on using his 6’7″ height to get more of a downward plane on his pitches in order to induce ground balls.  At times it’s worked.  At other times he’s looked like a meatball-throwing machine.

Is this a terrible rotation? No.  But there are loads of question marks.  With the exception of Felix and Saunders, it is a staff with little major league experience, so they unknowns, nobody knows what to expect.  The reason there were nods of approval when the M’s signed Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman to minor league deals is despite their injury woes, at least they had a major league track record.  Eric Wedge and Jack Zdurencik made a gutsy call when they let Garland walk.  That left a few young guys to win spots.  Maurer won his outright and Beavan did through default: Erasmo Ramirez and Bonderman just weren’t ready.  This team will go as far as the rotation takes them.  The bullpen is solid and should help but they need starters that can consistently go at least six innings.  We just don’t know if these guys can do that.  If they don’t, this team is a 75 win team.  If they can, the M’s probably contend.  It’s that simple. The good news is if Beavan or Maurer falter, it won’t take that long for Ramirez and Bonderman to drive the 35 miles from Cheney Stadium to Safeco Field.  Believe me, Danny Hultzen has the route plotted into his GPS.

How many games can we coax out Franklin Gutierrez’s glass body? Franklin Gutierrez, outside of the rotation, is the most important person on this team.  He is a good hitter, can get on base, has some speed and power.  He’s the most likely guy to lead off against lefties.  When he is healthy Gutierrez is arguably the best center fielder in the game.  And that’s the problem.  Since 2009, he’s rarely been healthy.  Gutierrez has suffered through a stack of injuries and health problems.  Irritable bowel syndrome, torn pectoral muscle, concussion.  This spring he played little, nursing tight leg musckes.  He is written in tonight’s lineup as your starting center fielder.  If Franklin Gutierrez can stay healthy enough to play 130 games, this team is so much better.  He adds a solid bat in the top third of the order, and is without question the team’s best outfielder.  Without him the M’s will be playing outfield musical chairs with players who are better suited in different positions.  Unlike the infield and pitching, the M’s have little organizational depth in the outfield, and a healthy Guti buys time for those young guys to get a year closer to the bigs while he puts on his show in Safeco’s less spacious cow pasture.

Is Justin Smoak fixed? If so, can he stay fixed?   What I can identify in a batter’s swing is worth less than a deep fried cowpie. Smothered in garlic. But it was evident to anyone who could see that Justin Smoak‘s 2012 swing  was nightmarishly long.  When the M’s sent him down to Tacoma, he came back with something new in September after working with hitting coach Jeff Pentland.  He had a great last four weeks of the season.  Even though Wedge said he looked much different, it was September and nobody was buying.  This spring Smoak continued his hot hitting, sprayed doubles to the opposite field and hit some towering home runs.  His spring line was .407/.455/.797.  Yes it’s just spring, but even observers suggest there is now a huge difference in Smoak’s approach to the ball.  His swing is much shorter and he now has much more time to recognize pitches.  Everyone knows this is a big year for Justin Smoak.  If he crashes and burns again he’s done with this team.  When Zdurencik DFA’d Casper Wells yesterday, he demonstrated that at some point the kids have to perform or they are history.  Just as importantly, the Mariners need Justin Smoak to be the mashing monster they thought he’d become when they picked him up in the Cliff Lee deal.  If he becomes a 30 homer switch hitting terror for the M’s rather than some other team he will become a foundational player for this team for a decade. He does, however, still strike out too much and walk too little but that’s another post.

Can the M’s  stop hitting stupid?  In 2012 the M’s, unlike other years, were not dead last in every offensive category.  But they were dead last in two important areas, on base percentage and runs scored.  Though they did not lead the league in strikeouts, finishing some 100 behind Oakland, they were way up near the top.  Somehow they Mariners have to be betterhitters.  The recently concluded spring training shows many hitters with strikeout percentages well over 25%: Justin Smoak, Mike Morse, the recently departed Casper Wells, Michael Saunders, Kelly Shoppach, Jason Bay, Justin Smoak.  These are buckets of strikeouts for guys who are going to play important roles in a team’s offense–no wait, MY team’s offense.  Only a few players had anything approaching reasonable walk rates.  A team can carry maybe one guy with strikeout rates approaching Mark Reynolds‘ (who also walks a fair amount), but a whole team of guys?  Noooooooo.   I think not.

There’s more I could add-the fences at Safeco coming in, outfield defense, what Tom Wilhelmson thinks of Washington’s pot legalization, but maybe later.  I firmly believe no team is going to run away with this division.  The top four teams will be good, but all  have flaws.  This opening series against the A’s should give us a good idea of what both teams are made of.

The best day of the year

Tomorrow is Mariners open their season against the Oakland A’s in Oakland. It’s unquestionably the day I await most anxiously each year. More than Christmas, the first/last day of the school year or any other day. That’s likely true of most baseball fans, particularly those invested in a particular team as I am the M’s.

Saturday Dave, Tim and I went off to the Tacoma Rainiers open house at Cheney Stadium. It was fun. Though it was a little windy and chilly, it was still a beautiful day to spend a couple of hours at the ballpark and talk baseball with friends.

I confess, my baseball knowledge is pretty Mariners-centered, and by default more focused on the American League West. I promised my friends I would make my predictions for the West for this season.

The first observation I have is that this should be a more competitive race. I believe the top four teams have either added or suffered losses to their rosters that could keep the A’s Rangers, Angels and Mariners in the conversation about the division championship. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be in the race at the end, but they’re all going to be good enough to have a hand in the deciding the winner either as leader or spoiler. I do believe the West is going to be the toughest division in the American League.

1st place: Oakland A’s. Last year the A’s won the division on the strength of young players that developed much faster than anybody expected. Assembled with Billy Beane’s typical acumen, the A’s have the good young starting pitching and history on their side.  Even so, as with every other team in the division they are hardly a lock.  They’ll be trying out a  new third baseman, and trying to avoid an injury bug that seems to have plagued them considerably the last few years.  They’ll need to count on continued development by their young staff, and have to count on no sophomore slumps from their young hitters such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Riddick and Seth Smith.  Perhaps most importantly, they’ll need to win without the veteran leadership of Johnny Gomes and Brandon Inge that former A’s Brandon McCarthy suggested was a huge part of their success in 2012.  Even so, the A’s brought in some bargain, but quality players like Jed Lowrie to bolster their infield and add a veteran presence to the clubhouse, so I’m picking these guys to repeat.  Not a sexy pick I know.

2nd place: Los Angels of Anaheim.  These guys are the sexy pick to win because let’s face it, they’ve signed the big guns the last couple of years in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and have all-universe outfielder Mike Trout.  This team has so many offensive strengths it’s hard not to see them as the sexy choice.  They’ll play great outfield defense with Trout, Hamilton and Peter Bourjos.  Mark Trumbo emerged as a great young bat last year.  Howie Kendricks is arguably the best second baseman in the league not named Cano.  The question is their starting rotation.  Jered Weaver struggled at the end of the year (much like Felix Hernandez I might add) and then dealt away or lost many pieces of their rotation.  The Halos’ pitching simply doesn’t look as formidable as in years past.  Though they did pick up Jason Vargas from the M’s in the Kendrys Morales trade, (one of my favorite pitchers,) this team is going to score a lot of runs and they’re going to give up a bunch too.  Losing out on the Zach Greinke sweepstakes hurt. Last, but not least, this team heads into 2013 with an age factor for some of their best players.  While not as geriatric as the Yankees, they’re counting on Pujols (33) and Hamilton (32) to provide production and leadership for years to come, and they can’t do that from the DL.  While there are many exciting young players on this team, many are 29 and 30 and will reach the dark side of 30 soon.

3rd place: Texas Rangers. The Rangers are a team I’ve loved to hate over the years because they are just so damn good, and they’ve built their team the right way.  But it looks like their reign as the big, mean kid on the block is over.  They watched Josh Hamilton walk across the street to L.A., they didn’t sign Zack Greinke, they didn’t fill Hamilton’s empty spot, they didn’t make much of an off season splash.  This team, which used to be a marvel because of the wealth of it’s superb farm system is now old.  Nelson Cruz is 33, Adrian Beltre is 34, Ian Kinsler is 31.  The two guys they brought in to contribute to the team, catcher A.J. Pierzynski and DH Lance Berkman at 36 and 37 respectively, are well past their pull dates .  The future of this team, the exciting, young Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt didn’t make the team out of Spring Training as expected.  Though there are still plenty of fine players on the Rangers, and they have playoff experience, it’s unclear how the loss of Hamilton and Rangers’ hits leader Michael Young will affect them.  Finally, it is unclear how this winter’s news that Nelson Cruz is tied to the Biogenesis PED’s story will affect his or the team’s season.  Maybe not at all, maybe a lot.  This team has enough pieces that they should hang in there throughout the season, but the manner in which they lost the division to Oakland on the last day of the season as well as the exit of key players from the team, and the news of division between Nolan Ryan and others in the front office suggest trouble to me.

4th place: Seattle Mariners.  I’m really excited about the M’s for 2013, and I may make time to follow up with my concerns and predictions for the team.  But let me just say, I don’t think this team will contend.  They may hang around the leaders until mid-summer, but they just aren’t quite there yet.  The M’s showed everyone in Spring Training they have stepped up and improved their offense by adding some veteran players in the middle of their order.  They pitched well enough in ST to have a very good Cactus League record.  Usually, though, this means nothing.  The Mariners will definitely score more runs than years past.  Pitchers will have more to think about with this roster. Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales give them a veteran presence in the middle of the order.  The kids will be hitting in spots better suited to their development and experience.  The M’s have added some bench depth with Robert Andino, Raul Ibanez, and Jason Bay.  But, in order for the Mariners to contend and awful lot of things would have to break right. The M’s are also a team that could be subject to the injury bug.  They added tons of veteran old guys to this team like Ibanez, Bay and Saunders.  Morales and Morse are both coming off seasons of recovery from significant injury, and that leaves the perpetually broken Franklin Gutierrez out of the equation.  Finally, in order to win it all the M’s would have to see continued improvement from the young guys.  If Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero turn into monsters, and if Dustin Ackley finds his stroke again it could be a very interesting summer. While Felix Hernandez is a proven commodity worthy of his really big contract, the others down the rotation are either unproven i.e.; Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan, semi-proven in the case of Hisashi Iwakuma, or mediocre in the case of Joe Saunders.  My belief is this team is as good as its rotation.  Given the improved hitting and questionable starting staff, I think they’re about a .500 team.

5th place: Houston Astros.  They’re a bad team today, but some day they’ll be good.  Remember when the Detroit Tigers were neck and neck with the 1962 Mets for most losses in a season?  The Astros, having lost over 100 games in each of the last two years, and traded away all of their name players in the off season will continue to struggle for the next few years.  They’re rebuilding and they’re doing it the  right way, which is painful.  But it’s the path Bill Bavasi should have taken to avoid the “lost decade” the M’s find themselves trying to climb out of. Remember, these teams still have to play the games and Houston thumped Texas in the first game of the season 8-2 last night. It doesn’t matter what the buffoons at PECOTA or ZIPS have to say-play the games and win baby.

Spring Training and the big questions

We’re still nearly two weeks out from the start of the regular season and spring training seems to be boiling down to two major issues: the last two spots in the rotation and who will be the fifth outfielder.

Wednesday night’s  game was on ROOTSSports and it sure was fun to watch six innings before I dragged myself off to bed.  At that time the M’s had just tied the Giants 3-3 and it was pretty exciting stuff.  The M’s have had a great spring, have a good record and have thwacked the ball pretty well.  Mike Morse leads the Cactus League in homers and Kendrys Morales had another dinger last night.  I know it’s only spring training, but that is what they got those guys for, so it’s good to see them serving that purpose.  The most fun I had watching the game, however, was checking out Brad Miller and Nick Franklin.  They both played hard, gritty baseball with good defense, stealing bases, and driving in runs. I hope they both end up in Tacoma because I’m convinced they could be the M’s double play combo of the near future.

Watched Brandon Maurer pitch pretty well last night, and Tom Wilhelmson explode like a compressed gas can.  Maurer’s been good and is in the running for the fifth spot in the Mariners’s rotation.  Geoff Baker made an interesting observation about Maurer yesterday that he has been good this spring, but not so good that he couldn’t be sent to Tacoma to start the year.  He considered the case of Michael Pineda in 2011 when he was clearly pitching better than anyone but Felix and he literally couldn’t be kept off the team less there be a player mutiny.  Maurer has been good but not that good.

Which brings us to the remaining candidate for those rotation spots.  They likely will be veteran Jon Garland, and youngsters Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan. In my view, unless he is just ghastly his last couple of starts, Garland makes the team.  He struggled in his last performance, but he’s throwing hard and generally doing what Jon Garland does, providing quality innings that may be a bridge to a younger pitcher later in the summer.  Maybe Ramirez or Beavan, maybe one of the Fantastic Four, as they’ve taken to calling themselves.

Choosing between Ramirez and Beavan is a tough one.  All the SABR guys like Ramirez best.  I’m not sure I have a strong view based on metrics or otherwise.  What I will say is that it’s difficult to get stuck on last year’s statistics for a young pitcher who is 22 or 23 years old.  1) neither has sprung fully formed onto the scene, guns blazing, like Doc Gooden, 2) neither have much major league experience, 3) it’s silly to think they aren’t working on their game and aren’t going to be different, hopefully better than last year. Either Ramirez or Beavan will make decent number five guys, and the other will provide organizational depth when the rotation suffers inevitable injuries.

Honestly, I think the outfield situation is a more pressing one. The Mariners have to decide whether their fifth outfielder will be Jason Bay or Casper Wells. Wells has admittedly been a disappointment. He hasn’t shown the kind of hitting necessary to move him into a starting role.  Even so the M’s are looking at beginning the season with Franklin Gutierrez starting in center.  Look I’m a huge believe in his ability, but Gutierrez is the man of glass, an injury waiting to happen.  Not only is Gutierrez injury-prone, but his recoveries the last three seasons have been long.  If Guti can’t play that means Michael Saunders is your center fielder.  Saunders can definitely play, but if his sojourn in center is lengthy, who spells him?  Who plays center if Saunders is hurt?  Tonight Jason Bay is getting a look in center field.  I shudder to think what this may look like, but clearly it indicates the M’s are seriously considering Bay over Wells who can play all the outfield positions.  The Mariners will carry five outfielders.  Four will certainly be Gutierrez, Saunders, Michael Morse and Raul Ibanez.  Bay and Wells are vying for the final spot.  What do the Mariners do?  Bay has had very good spring, hitting the ball hard and playing  better than expected defense.  If the M’s roll the dice on Bay, how much of a chance are they taking without a handy centerfielder.

Jason Bay future centerfielder?  He's playing there tonight.
Jason Bay future centerfielder? He’s playing there tonight.

I told ’em.  They should have signed Michael Bourn.