News yesterday the Mariners would acquire Dodgers reserve catcher Carlos Ruiz for a pitcher from their 40-man roster. Later, it was announced the pitcher was left-hander Vidal Nuno.
Ruiz is 38, and had a solid career with the Philadelphia Phillies, throwing out 42% of baserunners with Phillies and Dodgers in 2016. Though he is strictly back-up material now, he should provide quality depth for Mike Zunino, after the M’s declined to pick up Chris Iannetta’s $4.5 millon option. Ruiz provided a solid .264/.365/.348 in 233 plate appearances. He has good throwing and blocking skills, but is below average in pitch framing. Ruiz will make $4.5 million in 2017, and is a free agent after this season.
This represents an upgrade over doing nothing at the catching position. Though Zunino clearly improved at the plate, he is just as obviously a work in progress. If the M’s were to rely on in-house options, they would include light-hitting Jesus Sucre or Tyler Marlette who has not played above the AA level. Adding Ruiz does fill a need, though it’s not clear this is a $4.5 million need given the Mariners budget picture.
We’ll be waving good-bye to Nuno, acquired infamously in the Wellington Castillo trade with the Diamondbacks June 3, 2015. that also brought Mark Trumbo to Seattle. Vidal held up his end of the trade with a 2016 line of 55 games, 58.2 IP, 3.53 ERA, and a well above average ERA+ of 115. His BB/9 was down 15 percent to 1.7, and his K/BB ratio was up nearly an entire strikeout to 4.64. Nuno was a useful pitcher. He ended the season the only left-hander in the Mariners bullpen, but he had a bit of a reverse platoon split, performing better against right-handed batters than lefties.
The M’s traded a away a cheap, cost controlled-reliever, who could start in an emergency. Not a guy who will make or break this bullpen, but not without value.
Not a trade likely to make a highlight reel, but good to see Trader Jerry’s juices flowing. With is his preference for trades over free agent signings, we’re likely to see plenty more. I hear the hum of the trade-o-matic in the basement of Safeco Field.
I traveled to Safeco Field to catch Felix Hernandez’s start against the Astros on September 16th. It’s tough for me to make my way from Puyallup to Safeco on a school day, but I made myself a promise to sit in the King’s Court, so the King was pitchin’, maybe for the last time at home this season and I was there.
Gah, what a mistake. Just to be clear, I’d rather handcuff myself to a carboard cut-out of Chone Figgins and try to sell season tickets in a homeless encampment than sit in the King’s Court again. I lay down my dough to see a Mariners game, watch every pitch, and see every play. That’s all I’m there for, and usually I love it. Unfortunately, the other folks in the King’s Court are there for something else, and it mostly doesn’t involve a baseball game. Major drinking, behavior that reminded me of my mostly enjoyable days teaching 10 and 11 year olds-but not so pretty in somebody 20 years older. No sense of baseball etiquette. And the inexplicable compulsion of a few lost souls to wear their Seahawks jerseys to a Mariners game in which they’ve just gotten a free yellow Felix Hernandez shirts.
Of course, making the experience even less fun was the game itself. The King, was not very King-like. In 4.1 innings, Felix allowed 6 runs, 5 earned, with only three K’s. He was aided and abetted in his ineffectiveness by Ketel Marte and Kyle Seager, who made three errors between the two of them. Unforgivable clankers, they simply weren’t paying enough attention to. Nothing to cheer for here.
Adding to all of this was the M’s relative ineffectiveness against the Houston starter, right-hander Collin McHugh. McHugh is a 6’2″, skinny right hander, who doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He’s not a death-dealing lefty who often negates a lot of the Mariners strength. On that Sept. 16th evening McHugh held the M’s to two hits, walked a pair and struck out six in seven innings of work. They looked bad, and never threatened to score in the 6-0 final.
The real problem is that McHugh is the Astros pitcher facing Hisashi Iwakuma when the M’s take the field tonight in Minute Maid Field in what amounts to a must-win game. With seven games remaining and 2.5 games behind Baltimore for the second wild card spot, the Mariners are running out of time and very little margin for error.
It would be one thing if the September game was just one of those nights, but in four starts this year, McHugh has owned the Mariners. In 25 innings, McHugh has allowed 16 hits, 8 walks and 3 (!) earned runs, and struck out 24. That is good for 4-0 with a 1.08 ERA.
It hasn’t always been that way. For his career, McHugh had success against the M’s, but not utter dominance. Coming into the 2016 season he was 5-3, and his career ERA against Seattle is 3.96, including this year’s microscopic rating. And just by comparison, for the rest of the league, McHugh is 12-10 with a 4.61 ERA in 170 innings. Walter Johnson, he ain’t.
So the M’s better figure out what vitamins ol’ Collin has been taking, or at least manage to deal with his off speed and breaking stuff that many pitchers are using effectively against Seattle the last month of the season. Tonight is really important and they badly need a win against a stubborn Houston team.
With their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, the Mariners rolled out three home runs to overcome the pesky Twins on this final road trip of the season. The M’s won 4-3, and head off to Houston for a critical three game series. Seattle took two of three from the Twins at the Target Center, and are 82-73. They are a game behind Detroit, and 2.5 games behind Baltimore for the second wild card spot.
The M’s don’t play either of the teams ahead of them in the standings, so all they can worry about is the teams they are playing. Many writers have claimed 88 wins as the magic number required to get into the playoffs. Some have said 87. Any way you look at it, the M’s have little room for error as they play Houston at MinuteMaid Park, where they are a discouraging 2-5 this year. One loss to give, maybe two, the Mariners simply have to win.
They won today, Sunday, and they won it with the long ball. The Mariners have 209 home runs on the year, good enough for fourth in the American League, behind Tampa Bay, Toronto and Baltimore .
Nelson Cruz had two more dingers today, together with 3 RBI’s. The Boomstick is hot, and is on one of those rolls in which everything is hit hard. In Saturday night’s loss in Minneapolis, Cruz drove a ball 493 feet for the longest homer in the American League this season. Off Hector Santiago in the second inning of today’s contest, he broke his bat, and then drove the next pitch 430 feet into the left field stands. In the sixth inning he tweaked his wrist before hitting another homer to left.
In his two seasons with Mariners, Nelson Cruz has simply been Steady Eddie. Though his power may periodically go on a brief hiatus, I’ve been impressed with how well he’s done the little things, driving the ball up the middle to pick up an RBI with two outs, or hitting a sacrifice fly to pick up a run. His batting average is down a bit, but he reached the 100 RBI mark to go with his 41 homers. Cruz received MVP votes last year, but I honestly think he’s having a better year, and is, if anything, more valuable to Mariners in 2016.
As the M’s take the field for three in their MinuteMaid house of horrors, I’ll always remember this from May 1 2015. It involves bats, balls, trains and Boomsticks.
They’ll need a little more Nelson Cruz to leave the Astros in the dust in their march to the post-season.
And let’s not forget
Jesus Sucre may well be no worse than the second-best catcher on the Mariners right now. He is a rock-solid defender with a great throwing arm, and now he’s hitting a bit too. 11-32 with a homer since his call-up from Tacoma, he must figure into the team’s calculations for 2017-especially since Iannetta, Zunino, and the immortal Clevenger have not exactly grabbed it for themselves. Zunino and Sucre in 2017? Sounds good to me.
In Speaking of Clevenger
Steve Clevenger tweeted some really stupid stuff about the tragic situation in Charlotte last week. When I read it, I shook my head. But I’m also a firm believer in the first amendment and the right to free expression. I’ve tweeted my support to Colin Kaepernick and those in the NFL supporting him. While I firmly disagree with the tone and content of Clevenger’s comments, I support his right to say it-as well as the consequences for saying stupid stuff. I truly wish the Mariners could have checked one more box-the stupid public comments box-in Clevenger’s file, along with the boxes like-lousy catcher, can’t hit much, and can’t stay healthy, let him play out the season (on the DL)and drop him out the bomb bay door at season’s end. It would have cost them little, and would have given support to an important individual right.
Farewell Jose Fernandez
This morning’s news that Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident in Miami was hearbreaking. At age 24, Fernandez had already demonstrated he was one of the best young pitchers in major league baseball, the future of the Marlins pitching staff, and an important cog in a Miami revival. A Cuban refugee who left that island under gunfire, only to make a harrowing sea voyage to Mexico, it is ironic that he lost his life in a foolish boating accident near his home. I wish his family and his team only the best.
Tuesday’s 8-0 Mariners win over the Angels had a little something for everyone. Pitching, homers, some sloppy play, but, most importantly the M’s showed they are a team on the move as they kept pace with the Wild Card leaders and edged closer to the Tigers and Yankees, the next two teams ahead of them in the playoff chase.
Taijuan Walker carried the heavy burden of high expectations on him all season, and mostly misfired from May through August. Last night, Walker threw his best game of the season: nine innings of shutout ball, allowing three hits, no walks and 11 K’s. For a guy who couldn’t get out of the first inning two starts ago against these same Angels, Walker has come very far, very fast. His performance solidifies an improving rotation at just the right time.
If you’re all about the dingers, Tuesday night’s game offered three for your inspection. Nelson Cruz hit his 36th off youngster Alex Meyer in the first inning to give the M’s the early lead. It was a 426 foot mortar shot into the left field stands that somehow Cruz managed to keep fair.The Mariners manufactured a run in the 2nd, when Leonys Martin led off with a single, stole second, and advanced to third on Dan Vogelbach’s first big league hit. Ketel Marte scored Martin with a sacrifice fly.Nori Aoki followed Marte with a line drive homer to right center field. As Walker cruised, setting down every Angels batter, the M’s loaded the bases in the sixth and watched Seth Smith unload them with a grand slam to right field, 8-0 M’s.
With the M’s safely ahead, and Walker seeming to pitch the best game of his career, the only question left was the unspoken words of all baseball fans-could I be witnessing history? Walker was perfect through 5 2/3’s innings, but a sloppy throw by Marte and missed scoop by first baseman Vogelbach led to an error and the Angels first baserunner, Kaleb Cowart. The next batter was out, and Walker’s march through the Angels offense continued. Kole Calhoun singled to end the no-hitter seventh, but Walker finished up the shutout on 113 pitches.
The Mariners seventh straight win leaves them only a half game behind Detroit and New York in the Wild Card chase, and 2.5 games behind Toronto and Baltimore, the current AL Wild Card leaders. Tonight they play their final game of the season against the Angels before heading home Friday to open a three game series against the Astros. Scheduled starting pitchers are Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jhoulis Chacin.
With 19 games left to play, the M’s crept ever so so slightly up the Wild Card ladder with their sweep of the Oakland A’s. They leap-frogged over the faltering Kansas City Royals, equaled the Houston Astros and tightened up the clot of teams ahead of them, climbing to within a game and half of Detroit and the Yankees. There’s still plenty of work to do, but the M’s have roughly doubled their playoff probability according to FanGraphs, from 6.7% to 12.0%
The M’s trashed a pretty awful A’s team over the weekend, getting by on solid starting performances by Hisashi Iwakuma, Felix Hernandez and James Paxton. The games featured no bullpen meltdowns. Saturday’s 14-3 demolition derby had plenty of scoring for the offense-only devotees.
Sunday’s 3-2 nail biter had just enough for those who love tight games (like me.) Dave Niehaus would have called it a barn-burner. But perhaps the best part was seeing a glimpse of what might be the outfield-of-the-future as Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel flanked veteran center fielder Leonys Martin, and looked like greyhounds compared to Mariners outfields of the recent past. Now if they can just get on base a bit.
But we leave Oakland behind for the moment and head down to Anaheim and the Angels, who likewise are putrid. The M’s feature Ariel Miranda Monday night. I’ve taken an increasing liking to the Cuban lefty, and he continues to show improvement as the season progresses. On Tuesday we’ll see the re-tooling Taijuan Walker, before heading home after Wednesday’s season finale against Los Angeles.
The triumvirate of Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols have led the Angels to an 8-8 record vs the Mariners. The M’s must do better than that to have a shot at the playoffs. With 19 games remaining, the Mariners likely can’t lose more than five. The M’s will need to solve the riddles posed by their rivals to the South to have a meaningful chance going forward.
This was quite the sport weekend. With Dawgs trampling the undermanned Vandals on Saturday, and WSU tripping at the least minute in Boise, it set the stage for Sunday’s heroics. Yes, the Seahawks won in the last 30 seconds on Russell Wilson’s gimpy ankle. But I didn’t see it. See I was tuned into Ketel Marte’s clutch single after Mike Zunino’s leadoff double in the ninth. Edwin Diaz’s complete domination of the A’s to wrap up the game and insure the sweep was all the excitement I needed, or could handle.
If last year was a constant, repetitive nightmare for this Mariners fan, 2016 is a season bordering on severe bi-polar symptoms. I ranged from weeks of ecstatic flights of post-season fantasy, to valleys of hopeless gloom resembling 2010. Blech, got to purge that from my mind. No this is not commentary on my own emotional and psychological condition, it is the 2016 Mariners season. The exhilaration of May, to the stone, cruel reality of June, the early August comeback, and late August crash.
The 2016 Mariners campaign is the story of The Tease. The M’s have shown the ability to solve their problems for a couple of weeks at a time, and then absolutely fallen off a cliff. Six wins followed by a collapse. Not six wins then .500 ball for ten days. Six wins followed by an absolute nosedive.
And here we are. It’s September 10th. At 73-68, twenty one games left to play, 3.5 games out of the second wild card with four teams in front of them. Do the M’s have a shot at the playoffs? Probably not. But they’ve won three straight, play five more games against the A’s and Angels. Of course they can if they go 15-6, 16-5 the rest of they way. Maybe. Sure. And the teams in front of them obligingly lose. Doable. Maybe.
Here are a few factors that may contribute to their fate:
The Rotation Cannot be a Circus
If I had to point to one decisive factor in the Mariners season it is the instability in the Mariners rotation. The M’s started the season in a seemingly good position with Felix, Iwakuma, Miley, Walker and Karns and Paxton in the minors. All are guys with some success at the major league level. It seemed to me they were set. Five months later, only Iwakuma is close to making 30 starts. Due to injury and ineffectiveness, only Felix (20) and Walker (21) have made twenty starts. Okay, Miley made 19 starts before being shipped off to Baltimore for target practice and his replacement, Ariel Miranda has made six starts.
But the injuries to the King and Walker, Paxton, and Karns, and ineffective innings by virtually everyone in the rotation has led to fifteen starts given to various Wade LeBlancs, Vidal Nunos, Mike Montgomerys, Cody Martins, Joe Wielands and Adrian Sampsons. It has also led to the M’s bullpen taking on 447.2 innings. That’s 8th in AL, so not the worst, but the teams ahead of them either have terrible rotations like Baltimore or the Angels, or they are built around great bullpens like the Royals. The Mariners relief staff continues to struggle, though it has changed personnel since April, at least partly through overuse.
The Mariner rotation has a big job to do if the M’s are to keep even their remote hopes alive for the playoffs. 1) They must stay healthy. No more busted fingernails for James Paxton. 2) They have to pitch better. Four or five inning stinkers are not going to cut it. Seems obvious, but since the first game of the White Sox series in Chicago (August 27th) everybody in the current rotation has had at least one of them. Some more than one (yeah Paxton, I’m pointing at you.) Even if Tai Walker is trying to re-make himself, somehow he’ll have to go more than the five he threw against the Rangers Thursday. Finally, there’s no help. Watcha see is watcha got. Somehow these guys have to get it done.
The Cano, Cruz, Seager Train Keeps Rolling
Last night the Mariners scored their 665th run, passing their 2015 total with 21 games left to play. By comparison that number is fifth in the American League, and the most by any Mariner team since 2008 (671), but they probably won’t reach the mark of 794 scored by the 2007 team. That team won 88 games with pitching every bit as questionable as the 2016 team, with a -19 run differential.
One of the reasons for this team’s success is the steady and consistent performance by the guys earning big money in the middle of the lineup. I could post slash lines for Cano, Cruz and Seager, but try this on for size instead. Kyle Seager is 9th in the AL in OPS with .900. Nelson Cruz is 11th with .885. Robinson Cano is 12th with .883. Only Boston can boast as many or more players in the top 20. Geez, I hate those guys.
I could talk endlessly about how these factors fit with career numbers, but the most important thing to think about is that the Mariners could have three guys who finish the year with over 30 home runs, hitting .285 or more and around 100 RBI’s. It’s really only possible to produce those numbers if a player is pretty consistent for the year. While the rest of the team has had some bright moments and hot spots in the season, nobody else has contributed offensively like these three guys have. They’ll need to continue producing while Martin, Lind, Lee, Marte, Gutierrez, Smith and Zunino and the others chip in where they can.
Catch it and Throw it
Nothing has frustrated me more than the defensive problems the M’s have seemed to have this year.From a strictly traditional standpoint, the M’s are smack in the middle of the American League with 78 errors made. But those errors have led to 53 unearned runs, have prolonged innings, and put extra burdens on starters and relievers alike. Only the hapless Twins have allowed more.
And of course, before you can make an error, fielders actually have to get to the ball. ranging stats, measured by Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) or Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are equally accusing when it comes to Mariner defense. The Mariners rank 11th in DRS, and 13th in UZR, both with big negative numbers.
The point is, it’s tough when a pitching staff is scuffling to stay healthy and get outs,and much harder when fielders are giving away outs and runs. We may remember Leonys Martin’s play at the wall, and Seager’s game saving grab and throw on August 18th to beat the Angels, but the Mariners are a bad defensive team. Getting to balls is why we’re seeing an increasing number of games with Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia in the outfield, sacrificing some offensive prowess for defensive range. Expect to see an oufield makeover in the off-season.
Work the Schedule
Though the M’s remain in the hunt for the Wild Card, and let’s face it both wild card teams are in play with Baltimore and Blue Jays struggling, there are opportunities and obstacles for the Mariners given their schedule. First, they have six games with the Astros, a team ahead of them in the standings. The bad news is their record against Houston is only 5-8, so somehow those two series, at home and on the road, will have to turn the tables a bit. They also have three games at home against the Blue Jays, a team they handled at the Rogers Centre, and again a team ahead of them in the playoff chase.
Their remaining games, 12 of them are all against bad teams: the Twins, Athletics and Angels. But there is also no room for error. It’s not good enough just to win series anymore. With seven series remaining, and maybe six losses to give, there have to be sweeps. The schedule seems to be favorable, but in the end, the M’s will have to execute.
Somehow the Mariners will likely have to get to 88 wins to sneak in the Wild Card back door. It’s not an impossible task, but for the last 21 games, the M’s will have to play their best, most consistent ball of the season.
It’s been a while since my last post. Lots of journalism deadlines, and on the road last weekend with my students in Los Angeles adds up to little time to post.
Last night Hisashi Iwakuma filled in for Felix and held the Angels to a couple of runs on six hits on eight strong innings of work. For the second game in a row, one of the Core stepped up to put the game out of reach with a big hit, Nelson Cruz’s two run blast coming on the heels of Franklin Gutierrez’s go ahead RBI. Steve Cishek’s perfect 10th inning sealed the deal for the Mariners eighth win and his fourth save.
In the twelve days since my last post, with the A’s getting out of town after sweeping the M’s, swiping everything but their jock straps (leaving behind the ugly 1989 caps,) the Mariners have gone 6-4. They Rangers ran the good ship Mariner on the rocks, but back out on the road, the M’s took series from the Yankees and Indians and poached one from the Angels in Anaheim.
The tone of the fan-base has lightened a little, now that Seattle is looking somewhat respectable. A game and a half behind leaders Texas and Oakland, but three and half ahead of outhouse dwellers, the Astros, the M’s don’t look quite so hapless.
What does it all mean–not a damn thing. Consider these two numbers:
2014, after 16 games the Mariners were 7-9. They went on to finish 87-75
2015, after 16 games the Mariners were 7-9. They went on to finish 76-86
Both teams finished out of the playoffs. One more number to consider, and that is May 31st. That is the day the Texas Rangers reached .500 last year at 25-25, after being as many as seven games below .500 in 2015. They won the division. It’s April 23rd, give it a rest.
We’ve seen Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and now Iwakuma each turn in one of those dominant performances they are going to have to throw in order for the M’s to have a shot at a playoff spot.
Though he struggled with command in his last start against the Yankees, and seems to have contracted a bug in Anaheim, his April 10 performance against the A’s and Chris Bassitt was vintage Felix. 7.0 IP, 0 Runs, 3 H, 10 K, 2 BB in a loss was much better than his first start or his more recent start in New York. In both of those outings he’s struggled with his command and been out of games early. We need the vintage Felix.
Walker had an excellent outing against the Indians, with 6.0 IP, 1 Run, 3 H, 6 K 0 BB to beat Danny Salazar on April 20.
Last night’s win against the Angels was a reminder of vintage Iwakuma, who has gotten out of the gate slowly. Throwing only 89 pitches, Iwakuma went 8.0 IP, 2 Runs, 6 H 3 K, 1 BB and a pair of solo homers. Betcha the Dodgers are thinking twice about letting ‘Kuma go after Scott Kazmir‘s slow start.
The Mariners have had three extra innings wins since my last post. They beat Texas April 13th on Dae-ho Lee’s walk-off home run. Robinson Cano crushed Cody Allen with a long home run to center field on Thursday. Gutierrez laid the marker with the game winning single last night, followed by the Boomstick blast.
The Mariners were in 23 extra inning games in 2015. They lost twelve of those, but in addition, they lost 12 more late walk-off games. So far just one extra inning loss and no walk-off melt downs, though there was that late homer against the A’s on opening night.
Controlling the Zone
At the present time, the M’s have 130 strikeouts, tied with Detroit for 8th in the league. Last year the Mariners with 2nd, behind the Astros. The are 7th in the league in the walks with 50, about where they were in 2015. That’s a net minus of 80
Seattle pitchers are fifth in the AL with 140 strikeouts. They are tied for seventh in the league for fewest walks with 51. Mariners pitching are a net plus of 89.
Put it all together and you get the Scott Servais Control The Zone factor: 89-80, the M’s are a +9, so they are doing a plus job controlling the zone. We’ll see how this works out as the season progresses.
Help: More offense needed.
The M’s have scored 64 runs, which puts them at sixth in the American League. Decent number, right? Wrong. 36 of those runs were scored in just four games, for an average of 9.0 runs in those four wins. In the remaining 12 games, they’ve scored 28 runs for an average of 2.3 runs per game. The M’s have scored four or more runs only six times in their 16 games. That makes it really hard to win consistently.
The Mariners are 10th in the A.L. for OPS with a very mortal .690, despite Cano’s six home runs. Though Seth Smith is hitting a robust .303, he’s a platoon player, and Cruz is the only other starter hitting as much as .270. Definitely room for improvement.