Adam Lind’s dance partner

Lee

Dae-ho Lee crushes a pitch for the Fukuoka Soft-Bank Hawks.  Could he do the same for the Mariners in April?

As I stated before, the Mariners know who will be playing where with a few exceptions. The last rotation slot and the bullpen mix are two areas we’ll be playing close attention to. But likely the most intriguing battle will be for Adam Lind’s right handed platoon partner.

The M’s will be looking for a player who can hit left handed pitching, with an eye to someone who can fulfill the “control the zone” approach to hitting, can play first base, some DH, and if they offer some roster flexibility by playing other positions, so much the better. But let’s be clear, this player will likely face some right handed pitching as well, so someone who simply can’t hit right handers will not wash.

The four most likely candidates competing for that job are Jesus Montero, Gaby Sanchez, Stefen Romero and Dae-ho Lee.  Let’s take a look at each.

Jesus Montero

Entering spring training in February 2014, General Manager Jack Zdurencik said about Montero “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone.” There is no getting around the fact that Montero has been a tremendous disappointment since the Mariners traded for him in 2012.  Despite losing weight and performing very well in Tacoma in 2015, he’s been unable to translate that into success at the major league level.   His career numbers against left handed pitching is .292/.341/.429 with a wRC+ of 115.  He is not a very good first baseman, has no speed and can only play first base and DH. Out of minor league options, Montero is gone if the M’s don’t keep him with the big club or trade him.

Gaby Sanchez

Sanchez has a seven year major-league career split between Florida/Miami and Pittsburgh as a first baseman. Sanchez had some good years, making an All-Star appearance with the Marlins in 2011. But he stumbled in 2012, and his career never was never quite the same.  He was traded to the Pirates in 2012, watching his career averages, and especially his power numbers decline. His final year in Pittsburg was .229/.293/.385. in 2015 Sanchez played in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, where he hit .226/.329/.392.  Over his career, Sanchez has been a .291/.382/.481 against left handed pitching. Sanchez pencils out to about average at first base with a career DRS of -5 and UZR/150 of 2.5, though his defense took a nosedive after 2012. Sanchez signed a minot league contract on January 22nd.

Stefen Romero

Romero hasn’t played first base.  The former Oregon State Beaver has had a hard time latching on to the big league team.  He’s put up some good number in Tacoma, but in his 214 major league plate appearances, Romero has not been impressive–though this three run homer off Gavin Floyd in 2014 was pretty eye-catching.

Romero is one of those bat guys, without a clear position.  However he’s performed creditably at second, third and in the outfield.  More athletic than guys like Vinnie Catricala or Alex Liddi, it remains to be seen whether he can impress enough with his bat, or pick up playing first base quickly to stick with the big club.

Dae-ho Lee

Lee is the plus-sized right handed hitter who has played most of his 14 year career in the Korean Baseball Organization. But for the last four years Lee has been very good in the Japan Pacific League for Orix and Fukuoka. A big guy at 6’4″ 280-300 lbs, Lee has shown a the ability to get on base and hit with considerable power.  Last year with Fukuoka, Lee slashed .282/.368/.524 and smashed 31 home runs.  He’s a really big guy, and though he plays first base, it’s unclear how well he plays first base.  He’s really a man-mountain and makes the 6’1″ 235 lb. Sanchez look like a fence rail.  Jeff Sullivan wrote an interesting piece about Lee at FanGraphs and how his power, OBP and relatively low strikeout numbers clearly align with Jerry Dipoto’s effort to get guys on base and reduce strikeouts. Be sure to take a look at the home run videos.  To be fair, however, Lee’s strikeouts increased in his four year Japan stint from 85 in 2012 to 109 in 2015.  Compared to Nelson Cruz, not so many, but at age 34, a 20% increase in K’s is something to pay attention to.  Lee’s accomplishments in Asia mean nothing.  It’s what he can do for the M’s in the major leagues that count.  He may be the most interesting of these four players, but it is far from certain he is the one who can best do the job. Lee is signed to a minor league contract, but could make up to $4 million if he makes good and meets incentives. The Mariners had competition for his services, and it’s clear the M’s offer the best path for the big man to reach the major leagues.

So here is something to chew on.  I don’t see a clear favorite here, and all have fairly serious warts.  However, adding serious hitting depth could solidify the M’s position in what is clearly going to be a competitive AL West.

The wanderings of A.J. Schugel

A.J. Schugel

It’s got to be tough to be a minor league ballplayer.  You’re nominally the property of the team that chose you for six years.  There’s no guarantee of a major league future, or of being injury free, or that you won’t be a throw in on a deal for the big club that sends you somewhere like Bakersfield.

Yep, the life of a minor leaguer can be a bit like a pawn.  Take the case of right handed pitcher,  A.J. Schugel.  That’s Anthony Jeffry Schugel, age 26, son of longtime Angels scout Jeff Schugel.  Schugel has an interesting story.  According to a 2013 article by Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com, Schugel didn’t pitch in high school or junior college. He was an infielder who stepped up to the mound in rookie ball in 2010.

Drafted by the Angels, he started and relieved, and then was included as the player to be named later in the trade of Mark Trumbo to Arizona in 2014.

Schugel spent 2015 in AAA Reno, but was added to the 40-man roster in 2015.  Called up to the bigs for five games, the righty pitched nine innings, allowed 17 hits, 5 walks, 2 dingers and five earned runs (13 unearned.)  Unimpressed, the Diamondbacks cut him loose to free a spot on their 40 man roster for Mr. Greinke.

On December 16th, in between signing Steve Cishek and claiming Andy Wilkins, and re-signing Hisashi Iwakuma, the M’s latched on to Schugel and showed lefty Tyler Olson the door.  It seems so long ago.

Though the M’s haven’t made many major league deals the last couple of months, I’ve been impressed with the degree of minor league churn Dipoto has engaged in.  Schugel joined the Mariners coterie of bullpen hopes and dreams, while the M’s added to the mix with Ryan Cook.  But trading with the Dodgers for right-handed immortal Joe Wieland was evidently Schugel’s undoing, because on January 12th, the M’s designated him for assignment.

Less than a week later, Schugel was snapped up by the Pirates. His sojourn in the steel city ended when the Bucs signed Schugel’s mirror image, lefty Jesse Biddle, from the Phillies system.

Today A.J. Schugel is unemployed.  But it’s hard to see that he stays that way.  He’s only 26. Every major league team needs players like him who has the potential of getting outs at the major league level if they are pressed by injury or ineffectiveness in their minor or major league bullpens.

Though Schugel has not been signed by his fourth team since December 8th, it is almost a certainty he’ll be spending March in Arizona or Florida (or both the way things have been going.) But it must be a difficult road to plan for life in one place or another when in fact it is a place that is entirely different.

From the mouth of Kyle

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Of the many comments that came from players at Saturday’s FanFest, perhaps the most interesting and important came from Kyle Seager. When asked by Root Sports’ Brad Adams about whether he was excited about the season beginning, Seager’s response was unambiguous and enthusiastically positive. As long as the changes lead to winning, the Mariners third baseman counted himself all in.

But this wasn’t just about sentiment and team-boosting, Seager wondered aloud what it would mean for him and his approach at the plate. He commented on his .328 on base percentage and and how his game may have to change to embrace the “Control the Zone” campaign to cut down on strikeouts and drive up walks.

I wonder if the “core” of the Mariners-Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager-are having similar internal dialogues, and how we might see their efforts to conform to a new strategy on the field. Fewer strikeouts, longer innings, fewer solo homers?

Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs, in his article projecting major league strikeout rates, suggests the Mariners should have one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors.

“No team projects to trim its strikeout rate by more than the Mariners, who also happen to be under new management. That management has emphasized contact and controlling the zone, and the preference has been reflected in some of the moves — like, say, signing Nori Aoki, or bringing in Adam Lind. The Mariners also said goodbye to Austin Jackson, Mark Trumbo, and Brad Miller, and Mike Zunino will be working on major swing changes in Triple-A.”

Though changes will be measured by actual results, it’s clear the M’s have not only churned  their roster, but the type of baseball they play will also be different. Kyle Seager won’t be the only one who notices.

 

Spring training battles to watch

 

Today is the first official day of the presidential campaign season, as vote counting for real begins with the Iowa caucuses.  I prefer my big events annually as baseball season begins its spring auditions a scant 17 days from now when Mariners pitchers and catchers report to Peoria on February 18th.

Even though the Mariners haven’t made any big moves in more than a month, leaving us all breathless as General Manager Jerry DiPoto churned the major league roster, it’s not like the aerobic quality of the off-season moves didn’t continue.  There has been constant coming and going of fringe players on the 40-man roster, and a refreshing reconstruction of minor league (Tacoma) lineups with an eye toward actual needs rather than just piling up guys.

I’ve been impressed with all aspects of the DiPoto regime to date.  It’s time to get players on the field and see what we’ve got. There will be some interesting story lines to follow during their yearly sojourn in Arizona, and here are the ones I’m most interested in:

The Bullpen

At FanFest DiPoto identified four relievers he was counting on to have good years: closer, Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Charlie Furbush, and Evan Scribner.  Of those four only Benoit had a great year in 2015.  The others either underperformed, or, in the case of Furbush, suffered serious injury. Bob Dutton wrote at length yesterday about the Furbush injury, and that he is not yet ready to pitch. If these are the four guys DiPoto is counting on, what does that say about the pile of guys he has assembled, and from whom it must pick out another three players to put together a seven man bullpen staff? These include Jonathan Aro, Justin DeFratus, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, Danny Hultzen, Ryan Cook, Mayckol Guaipe, Casey Coleman, Cody Martin, Blake Parker, David Rollins, Joe Wieland, and Tony Zych.  A big enough cast to please D.W. Griffith.

But this is not a laughing matter.  In my view the bullpen is this team’s greatest weakness.  All the work of what looks to be a very strong rotation, and an improved offense will go for naught if the bullpen cannot hold a lead. The lack of a proven bullpen is my biggest concern going into the season.

The Rotation Battle

The Mariners will be looking at seven pitchers with proven big-league starting experience when pitchers and catchers report: Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker,  James Paxton, Nate Karns and Mike Montgomery.  Based on their previous experience, I would think Felix, Kuma, Miley and likely Walker have this team made.  The fifth spot however will be a battle between Paxton, Karns and Montgomery.  Hopefully everyone emerges from spring training healthy, but if not, the Mariners are much better equipped to deal with it than in past years.  One would like to give the inside edge to Paxton because he’s shown flashes of brilliance.  Montgomery is out of options, so he’ll get a look as a reliever too. The M’s gave up their best trading piece in Brad Miller to get Karns, so I would hope he proves useful too. It be interesting to see how this all plays out, but it’s nice to see the M’s have enough guys with big league talent and experience rather than simply trusting to luck.

The First Base Platoon

We know Adam Lind is going to get the majority of at-bats at first base, and likely will see a few left-handers too, according to Scott Servais at FanFest.  But the guy who shares the position with him from the right side could be one of a variety of players.  I’ve already commented on Jesus Montero, and I’m sure he’ll get a long look.  The Mariners also recently signed Gaby Sanchez from the Japan League’s Rakuten Golden Swallows. With 2,271 major league at bats, Sanchez hit lefties to the tune of .291/.382/.481 and wRC+ of 112.  He is an average defender at first base.  Another potential first baseman is Stefen Romero.  With far less big league time than Montero or Sanchez, Romero has far less to show for himself.  However, he has the advantage of athleticism and position flexibility.  Of course, he’s never played first base at the big league level. So it isn’t Montero or nobody, and I’m glad to see some competition for this spot.

The Mariners don’t look set, but the starting spots are won. It’s the fringe and bullpen spots that are still mostly up for grabs.  The M’s don’t look like locks for a division title or a playoff spot, but they should be competitive and a lot more interesting than past teams.  I’m looking forward to seeing the DiPoto/Servais philosophy at work on the field.

 

 

Mariners Fan Fest Hits the Spot

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Fans “mosey around the bases” at Mariners FanFest on Saturday.

One of my New Years resolutions was to attend 2016 Mariners Fan Fest.  So I rounded up three of my dearest friends, baseball fanatics all, and we committed to attend Saturday.  Unfortunately, Tim (of the balky back) had to cancel, so snagged Dave and Dave in the Subaru and headed north for the Saturday session.

Let me just repeat myself.  There are some things the Mariners organization does extremely well-Mariners Hall of Fame Inductions, bobblehead nights, and FanFest are just some of them. The M’s are always respectful to the public which may account for a certain amount of residual fan loyalty despite the decades of losing. if only they could do better about the winning thing.

Dave S. and I attended FanFest in 2014, and something kept me from attending last year, but we knew a bit of what to expect.  For Dave D. it was all new. Compared to our earlier experience, yesterday was a revelation.  There were crowds, long lines waiting to get in at the home plate and left field entrance.  In 2014, the M’s broke records for attendance at 15,000+ for the weekend.  There were 15,000 people there yesterday.

The place was packed, mostly with families (kids admission is free,) ready to partake of all the events on the field-the zip line, whiffle ball, throwing in the Mariners bullpen, running, er, actually walking the bases. Baseball groups including men’s senior baseball and women’s baseball, lined the concourses.  And of course, the M’s had their sales people out in force, and honestly the 10 game flex plan looked pretty good and affordable. Lines were long, but moving, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

But there were a few things I had on my wish list.  First was a trip out to Edgar’s for a morning beer.  Second on my list, another item on my resolutions, was a photo with the Dave Niehaus statue in the center field concourse, and then some time listening to GM Jerry DiPoto and manager Scott Servais during the Dugout Interview series. I can say mission accomplished, managing to follow through on all three.

The three of us agreed to head out to left field to Edgar’s Cantina for a quick morning brew, and gave us a chance to survey the schedule.  We also listened to Chris Ianetta begin the Dugout series, and that prompted us to head out along the crowded outfield concourse toward the Mariners dugout where the interviews were held.

Kevin and Dave at FanFest

Kevin Smyth, professional goof, shares an Elysian Immortal with the statue of Dave Niehaus in center field.  Though Dave politely refused an IPA, it was great to hang out with my biggest Mariner hero for a minute or two.

Along the way we encountered the bronze statue of Dave Niehaus at his desk, relatively free of fans.  I persuaded Dave S. to take a picture with my phone and it came out pretty well.  I was quite happy with it.

We made it around to the first baseline and down to the Dugout series.  To give you an idea of the difference between 2014 and 2016, two years ago we were within a row or two of the speakers.  Yesterday we easily sat at least a dozen rows back.

Jerry DiPoto spoke at noon, and as far as I was concerned this was must see. He said some interesting things.  DiPoto confirmed that he was a fan, and that as a fan it was important to succeed.  He didn’t promise a world series championship, but did insist the 2016 Mariners would contend for the playoffs. He went over some of the moves the team had made with interviewer Brad Adams of ROOT Sports-lengthening the rotation, deepening the bullpen, and building a more athletic outfield. Most importantly, however, was his commitment to an organizational philosophy that valued the use of statistics, athleticism, and controlling the strike zone. It was worth a listen.  Even so, the crowd didn’t let DiPoto off the hook, many of the questions came from long-time season ticket holders who had heard the promises before and expressed a degree of skepticism and cynicism. It was good stuff.
Players came and went–Charlie Furbush and Steve Clevenger, Kyle Seager and Tai Walker.  All were interesting as Furbush fielded questions about who would be the bullpen ringmaster with the departure of Tom Wilhhelmsen, Tai Walker appeared in a new hat and beard combo, and Kyle Seager took any number of questions, many, oddly about his brothers.  All were swarmed afterwards by a cloud of autograph seeking adults and children.

But I anxiously awaited the arrival of Scott Servais.  Servais impressed me as someone who is at once passionate but methodical, is a lifelong baseball man committed to “doing things the right way,” but is also deeply rooted in analytics.  He took lots of questions about players and lineups and provided a sample line up of Aoki, Seager, Cano, Cruz, Lind, Smith, Marte, Ianetta and Martin. He recognized the difference Cruz’s production as an outfielder and his diminished offensive effectiveness as a DH.  He definitely said the right things.

It was an intriguing day.  It seemed that everyone was ready for Spring Training to start, and that time should be taken now to see what the M’s have.  If there was a downside on the day, it was the weather.  Though dry, it was chilly and after noon it also became windy adding to the cold.  By 2:30 we were definitely ready to retire to Henry’s across Edgar Martinez Way, only to learn they were out of Lucille on tap.  A very good day if not perfect.

 

Hall vote disappoints again

Edgar Martinez batting coach

Seattle Mariners hitting coach Edgar Martinez watches the field before the Seattle Mariners versus the Kansas City Royals game at Safeco Field Tuesday, June 23, 2015.

Yes, I know the Hall of Fame votes will be announced tomorrow, but I know the outcome. I won’t like it. Or, I guess I’ll half like it.

Ken Griffey, Jr. will be voted in, vastly eclipsing the 75% vote needed to win election to the HOF.  That is is great, it’s as it should be.  He may even challenge Tom Seaver for the highest percentage received by any player elected to the Hall.  He could even be chosen unanimously. And we should celebrate that one of our own players will walk into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a Seattle Mariner and will make his speech on that sun drenched summer day as a Seattle Mariner.

But his teammate, Edgar Martinez, in his seventh year on the ballot, almost certainly will not be elected. Though it has been suggested that  in early balloting, Martinez had done substantially better, Shannon Drayer from MyNorthwest.com suggested that of the fifteen reporters holding votes at mlb.com, only two were voting for Edgar. You can see their votes here.

The Hall of Fame ballot is jammed, and time on the ballot reduced from fifteen years to ten. It seems like an increasing number of voters are waving the white flag and are voting to admit PED users like Bonds, Clemens, and possibly others, squeezing out candidates such as Tim Raines, Larry Walker, and, yes Edgar Martinez.  Though the Hall of Fame purged many from their voting rolls who no longer cover baseball in the hope they’d get fewer blank ballots, or more complete ballots, the mlb.com voters have several who submitted with far fewer than the ten names they were entitled to include.

Even more discouraging, is that with his announcement of his retirement at the end of the 2016 season, the case is being made for David Ortiz’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame.  Ortiz is a big man with over 500 home runs, has played on World Series winners, and plays in Boston. But he is not the hitter Edgar Martinez was.  Yes, he has the homers (503-309,) and chicks–and reporters–dig the long ball. But he has a lower career OPS .925 to .933, and far fewer WAR 50.4 to 68.3 than Martinez.    Ortiz also played far fewer games in the field than Edgar, with 272 games at first base, while Martinez had 580 games in the field, mostly at third base. If you have any doubts I encourage you to read another great article by Tony Blengino over at FanGraphs comparing Edgar’s career to others.

But by the time Ortiz is inaugurated on a Hall of Fame ballot, Edgar will be shifted to the tender mercies of the Expansion Era committee of the Veterans committee.  They’ve elected nobody within recent memory.

I’m going to commit a heresy here.   Though Griffey had the electric smile, and the most perfect swing ever to go with his 630 home runs, his slash .284/.370/.538  with wRC+ of 131 is almost as impressive as his quieter, steadier sidekick with his .312/.418/.515 with wRC+ 147.  Yes, there is a significant WAR differential 83.8 to 68.4 largely because of defense. But Edgar Martinez was a better hitter than Ken Griffey, Jr. And in an era that values plate discipline and judgment, Edgar Martinez was a disciple, a practitioner and a professor. I don’t understand why voters don’t get this.

It would be only fitting that Junior would enter the Hall with his Edgar at his side. We all remember that magical night in October 1995, when Griffey was waived in to score the go ahead run in game 5 of the ALDS.  We remember the made-for-the-morning papers grin on Junior’s face emerging from the bottom of the pile at home plate.  Don’t forget it was Edgar’s double that drove him in.

I’m a Mariners Fan and these are my New Years Resolutions

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  1. Get to at least one game in the King’s Court.  I love Felix and I love going to Safeco Field. I’ve seen the King pitch, but never in the cozy confines of the King’s Court.  Everybody seems to be cheering their heart out, rooting for every pitch, and I think I need to partake of the experience.
  2. Get my picture taken with Dave.  The statue in center field always seems overgrown with fans, but dammit I loved Dave, and I owe it to myself to just get it done. Maybe an April game during a cold, cold night.
  3. Go to FanFest.  FanFest is scheduled for January 30th and 31st.  I went in 2014 and had a great time.  Grabbed a beer at Edgar’s.  Listened to Jack Zdurencik’s hallucinatory interview with Shannon Drayer and Rick Rizzs. Caught interviews with players like Brad Miller and D.J. Peterson.  Ten bucks, kids are free.  It’s a great family event, but I learned a lot about the team. Maybe the day to sit with Dave. Lunch afterwards at Henry’s.  Life is good.
  4. Have more fun. Baseball is the world’s best game.  Anyone who says differently is full of crap.  I ask you, which is better: 1) watching a mid-July game from any seat in Safeco Field  2) or deciding which is worse–traveling to Green Bay or Minnesota for your January 9th playoff game.  Exhibit B  Which is better: 1) Getting stomped by the Rams on Sunday knowing you have to wait an entire week to be stomped by the Cardinals the following Sunday, 2) or getting stomped by the Royals on Tuesday, knowing you’ve got Felix pitching on Wednesday. Baseball is a fun game, 162 games worth of fun.  Enjoy every strikeout and home run, cheer the heroes and jeer the bad guys, know if the M’s don’t win today, at least they get another shot tomorrow.
  5. Enjoy the big picture and be patient. For years I’ve been critical of the way this team was built, though I regularly hoped for positive results on the field. Today, after Jerry DiPoto’s rebuild it’s much different and tailored to the factors I thought it should be: more athletic outfield, built more to win at Safeco Field, with an eye toward run prevention-deeper rotation, and more bullpen talent.   The downside is it’s older, and honestly may need need better players to succeed. It will be interesting to see how these moves work out and if, strategically, his assumptions (which I share) work out. Don’t lose sight of that through all the day in, day out winning and losing, and the inevitable drama or story lines that happen through spring training and the long season. Does this team play better, more interesting baseball than the “DINGERZZ” model Jack Zdurencik built? Finally, going forward, what changes will the team need to make for 2017?

I truly cannot wait for Spring Training to begin and it really isn’t that far away.  This will be my last post of 2015.  Thanks following along with me

Farewell Hendu

Hendu

I spent much of my early working life in Seattle. I was young and broke, married and a dad. I lived in Tacoma and  I loved going to games at the Kingdome. I could go to a Mariners game for five bucks. That was $2.50 for a seat in the left field bleachers, a buck for a bag of peanuts from an outside vendor and another buck for a real big Diet Coke. I parked under the Alaskan Way Viaduct for free and walked a few blocks to the ballpark and watched the game in the concrete tomb with 3,000 of my closest friends.

The M’s were usually awful, and I certainly saw my fair share of awful games.  I remember a particularly terrible game I saw against a not very good Red Sox team in 1984.  I met friends there in the left field bleachers.  The M’s quickly fell behind 12-0 by the third inning, and we decided to pack it in early.  We all lived in Tacoma and headed home by the fifth inning. But by the time we got to our cars the M’s had started something of a comeback.  When  I pulled off the freeway, driving to my house the Mariners tied it, 12-12.  Of course they lost in extra innings 14-12.

I didn’t go to tons of games.  I lived far away and didn’t have much money so three or so games a year was my limit.  But I did go see the White Sox when they were in town on June 25, 1982. The Sox were pretty good, and came into Seattle with a 38-30 record.  That team had some good players, with Greg Luzinski in his prime at DH, Harold Baines (with knees) in RF, and Carlton Fisk catching with future Cy Young Award winner La Marr Hoyt pitching.  This was pretty much the same team that would win the AL West in ’83.

The Mariners weren’t terrible.  They were 37-35, led on the field by Bruce Bochte, Al Cowens and Richie Zisk.  A tall gap-toothed 22 year old was playing centerfield.  His name was Dave Henderdson. The M’s had decent pitching that year, with lefty Floyd Bannister, a young Mike Moore and the ancient Mariner Gaylord Perry, but that night the M’s were starting veteran right-hander Jim Beattie.

The game was a doozy, an old fashioned pitching duel. Sox 2nd baseman Tony Bernazard turned in a couple of great plays, and he was matched by fan favorite and resident hot dog Julio Cruz. The game remained scoreless until the sixth inning, when Henderson powered a ball over the USS Mariner in center field to give the M’s a 1-0 lead. Beattie held on to the lead through eight innings.

But in the ninth, Bernazard doubled to chase Beattie.  Lefty specialist Ed VandeBerg was summoned to dispatch Steve Kemp and left for the Mariners closer.  In 1982 that was Bill “Cuffs” Caudill, a colorful figure who threw hard and loved to have a good time with the crowd.  He typically adopted an Inspector Clouseau persona and entered to the music from “The Pink Panther.” While Clouseau was a buffoon, Caudill was not.  He struck out Luzinski looking, and dismantled first baseman and former Mariner hero Tom Paciorek, striking him out swinging. Game over, Mariners win.

The 28K plus in the Kingdome were wild. Henderson was clearly the hero of the game. It is the Mariner game I remember the most, even 30+ years down the road.

It seems incredibly unfair with news today that Henderson is gone, died apparently from kidney disease.

He was a good ballplayer on some very good teams.He remained with the M’s until 1986. When his curmudgeonly and well past his pull date manager, Dick Williams, couldn’t get the team to win, he insisted Henderson be traded because he smiled even when the team lost.  Traded to Boston with Spike Owen for immortals Rey Quinones and Mike Trujillo, his exploits helped drag the Red Sox into the playoffs.  His 11th inning game winning homer to win the ALCS and put Boston into the World Series effectively ended the season, Angels closer Donnie Moore’s career and ultimately his life.  Hendu went on to play center field for Tony LaRussa’s Bash Brothers Oakland A’s teams.  He knew what it was to play on a winner.

When he returned to Seattle to do color on Mariners television broadcasts it was like a breath of fresh air.  As a former player who knew what it was like to play on a championship team, he wasn’t afraid to offer insights that were not quite as measured as those by Dave Niehaus or Ron Fairly.  He was funny and smart and I really enjoyed listening to him.

I was truly broken-hearted to hear of his passing.

Rush to judgment: Jesus Montero

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians

The Montero critics like to remember. Fat Jesus, run over at the plate in Cleveland. May 19, 2013;   Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

This story from December 21st at Fox Sports raised a firestorm of discussion at the Seattle Mariners FaceBook page.  I would guess two thirds of posters had a negative reaction to Jesus Montero having a role on the 2016 25-man roster. Some questioned whether he was a big league hitter.  Others claimed he was terrible in the field.  Still others were clear that he had his chances and simply was never going to be good enough.

I recently wrote a post about the history of Mariners catching futility over the past decade. The decision to trade for Jesus Montero is deeply rooted in the vacuum of Mariner catching talent.   The M’s sent highly regarded right-hander Michael Pineda to New York for Montero.  Pineda had a solid rookie season and finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. Montero was widely considered the best right handed hitting prospect in the minors. In acquiring Montero, the Mariners thought they were, once again, getting their catcher-of-the-future as well as a potent bat.

Jack Zdurencik penciled him in at catcher, though even at the time of the trade the view was that Montero would not end up a catcher. But the real story was that Montero spent the 2012 season with the big club slashing an acceptable .260/.293/.386 while Pineda began two seasons of arm miseries.

We know the rest of Montero’s story. Injuries and terrible judgment that kept him from playing regularly in 2013-14. Car accident, meniscus tear, weight gain, a 50 game suspension due to PED use in the Biogenesis scandal, chucking an ice cream sandwich at a Mariners scout.  This is all off-the-field-not-prettiness.  By February of 2014, Zdurencik lost faith in Montero, stating, “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero.  Any expectations I had are gone.” That was before his suspension, before the embarrassment with the scout.

Since 2012, Montero has spent precious little time in the majors.  Banished to the minors to learn first base at the same time as Z’s lack of confidence statement, Montero has had only 313 major league at bats 2013-15. And honestly he hasn’t earned many more.

Montero 2

The other Jesus, who reported to Spring Training in 2015 in the best shape of his life.  The same Jesus who set the Tacoma record for highest batting average in its 55-year history.

But 2015 was different.  He reported to spring training in the best shape of his life. He played in 98 Pacific Coast League games including 82 games at first base. Montero’s .355 batting average was the highest in Tacoma team history, going back to 1960. But his inability to take a walk is also reflected in his .398 OBP. Montero was unable to translate his minor league success into similar achievement at the major league level. He slashed a paltry .223/.250/.411 at the major league level in 116 plate appearances spread over July, August and September.  He drew only four walks.

Today Montero is vying to be the right handed platoon-mate with lefty first baseman Adam Lind. Fans are screaming that Montero should go.  And who’s to blame them?  Montero has not produced at the major league level.  He seems like a Zdurencik-era guy–with power potential but poor on-base skills, unclear exactly what his defense is like.  He was evaluated poorly in his 26 games at first base for the Mariners, but using advanced metrics to evaluate his potential at first base in such a small sample size is a little like using a flashlight to discover the origins of the Milky Way.  Let’s just say he’s not as good as Keith Hernandez, but probably not as bad as Dick Stuart “Dr. Strangeglove.” Well, probably closer to Stuart.

I confess to being a homer, and I love stories of redemption.  So when Franklin Gutierrez had a season to remember from the ashes of a baseball career, I was all over it. The same when Tom Wilhelmsen resurrected what had been an awful year to finish strong as the team’s closer; I was thrilled. I would love it if Montero could show the skills needed to fill this spot.

Critics say we know who Montero is and if another affordable player becomes available who has on-base skills, mashes lefties and can play first base and maybe another position offering some roster flexibility, we should get him.  And I think I agree with them.

But others who are on the “Dump Montero now!!” train, I can’t join you. I would argue that while we should all be frustrated with the choices he made during the 2013-14 seasons, that he is clearly limited positionally, but as a hitter we know very little about him at the major league level. Here are some things we do know

  • Jesus Montero is 26 years old–certainly getting along in his career but younger than Edgar Martinez when he made his first major league start.
  • Like Edgar, he’s torn up minor league pitching, hitting .328 with Columbus in 2011 and .355 in Tacoma last year.
  • Since 2012, he’s played in the majors only sporadically and without a defined role.
  • Montero has a career .292 average against left handed pitching
  • But, all in all, Montero has 865 career major league plate appearances and of those, 553 came in his 2012 rookie season.
  • By contrast, when Dustin Ackley was shipped off to the Yankees for two players no longer in the Mariners organization he had 2,220 at bats with the Mariners. When the M’s washed their hands of Justin Smoak he had 2,218 major league plate appearances.
  • Montero has a career K rate of 19.9% and a career walk rate of 5.6%.
  • Montero currently holds a protected spot on the 40-man roster
  • Jesus Montero is out of minor league options. If the Mariners don’t put him on their 25-man roster, Montero is out of minor league options and will become a free agent.

My contention is we really don’t know Montero on the field very well. There is little question he has performed poorly off the field, and for the last few years he hasn’t taken the opportunities to impress us with the little time he’s had between the lines. But let’s be clear, that’s 312 plate appearances, or about half a year’s at bats spread over three seasons.  Montero should have the opportunity to show his stuff in spring training.

If something better comes along at a reasonable cost sign him, but let’s not dump an asset we don’t know very well in a fit of pique over past foolishness when today the man is giving it his best shot. But I suspect a certain amount of the bile directed at Montero has to do with with these same personal choices he made. We are all often unable to forgive those with talent we wish we had, when they seem to be pissing theirs away.  Unfortunately the game is replete with imperfect people with imperfect judgment from the crazy violence of Milton Bradley to Curt Schilling’s lack of discretion. When I see my own life at age 23 and 24, there are a thousand things I would do over-I just didn’t have quite so much at stake. For another smart (and sympathetic) view of Montero, take a look at Kate Preusser‘s story at Lookout Landing.

But it shouldn’t cloud our judgment when trying to put together a team on the field. If he can’t make the grade in practice games Montero should be gone and a better player inserted in the right-handed first base platoon/lefty masher role. But we would be foolish not see where he is in his development at age 26, especially if he can help this team.

 

 

The Curse of Dan Wilson

danwilson

It’s Christmas Day.  I hope you are having a fabulous holiday with your families.  It’s most appropriate to start with a Christmas story and it just so happens I have a Mariners story go with the season.

I’ve been married for 36 years, and for almost all of them buying something for Christmas for the missus has been something of a crapshoot.  Whether through procrastination or lack of effort, I’m simply pleased to emerge with all digits intact. Sometimes its just a matter of being a little less tone deaf and connecting the dots that can make a Christmas gift special.

During the Mariners glory years, my wife was as big a fan as I was.  We went to the Kingdome, were present for the opening day game at Safeco, watched the games on television and jeered Bobby Ayala together.  All the important stuff.

My wife’s favorite player is, to this day, catcher Dan Wilson. Lorri is a believer that Dan the Man should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame and was the best ballplayer ever. Not Ruth or Williams, not Mays or Griffey, Dan Wilson. Oddly, she’s not alone, I’ve spoken to many men with wives of a certain age who believe the same.

About the time of Dan’s retirement it was announced he would be autographing Christmas ornaments for a charity donation at University Village–a mere 50 miles from my home.  Knowing an opportunity when I saw one, I didn’t hesitate, drove to the U.District and waited in line for my turn.  I shook hands with the charming Mr. Wilson and met his lovely daughter, who must have been about twelve. Let’s just say that the gift was well received and is hanging on our tree today.

But Dan Wilson‘s greatest gift was that he is without question the best catcher in Mariners history.  Wilson never got as much attention as Ivan Rodriguez or Jorge Posada.  He was a decent hitter-in 4616 plate appearances he had a slash of .262/.309/.382 slash in an offense-dominant era. He never had I-Rod’s cannon arm, but he did throw out would be base-stealers at a higher rate than league average-32%>30%.

But Wilson’s real genius was the relationship he had with pitchers, coaxing  trust and great seasons out of guys as idiosyncratic and polar opposite in their stuff as Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer. That and blocking balls at the plate.  The former Golden Gopher hockey goalie allowed only 42 passed balls in 1,270 career games as a catcher. Just as a basis for comparison, Rodriguez, who will likely go into the Hall of Fame, caught twice as many games as Wilson, but still surrendered 127 passed balls. Wilson allowed passed balls at a lower rate than Mike Piazza, Gary Carter and Johnny Bench.

When Dan Wilson retired in 2005, the Mariners opened a revolving door in search of a replacement for this man of solid if unspectacular catching ability. They are still lookin’, but let’s recap the past ten years, because that’s always fun and very humbling.

2002-2004 Ben Davis. Recognizing Wilson was in decline, General Manager Pat Gillick traded the woefully underachieving Jeff Cirillo to San Diego for catcher Ben Davis. Davis was a physical specimen. But he was never able to fully assume Wilson’s role.  His offense wasn’t good enough to match the fact that he couldn’t work effectively with pitchers. Others have been much less complimentary in their evaluation. Davis was traded with Freddy Garcia and brought back our next catching candidate.

2004-2005 Miguel Olivo v.1.0. The 25 year old Olivo joined Wilson as a catching team.  He played 50 games in 2004 and 54 in 2005 before being traded to San Diego.  He was known for a lousy work ethic and was an offensive black hole. He was replaced by a combination of the 41-year old Pat Borders and 42 fairly promising games by Yorvit Torrealba, who fled to the Rockies through free agency.

A Jeff Clement Interlude: In 2005 Bill Bavasi used his considerable scouting acumen to draft Jeff Clement out USC with the third pick in the first round. Clement was a left-handed hitting catcher and considered the best bat in the draft. Clement was to be the catcher-of-the-future, but mostly turned into a big fat nothing. Derailed by ineffectiveness and injury in the minors, Clement played exactly 36 of his 152 big league game career as a catcher. Clement was gone from the majors in 2012, arthritic and not good at major league baseball.

2006-2009 Kenji Johjima was signed from Japan to catch for the Mariners. Johjima brought a modicum of stability to the position. His 2006 slash line of .291/.332/.451 was so impressive that at age 30 he was fourth in Rookie of the Year balloting. His 2006 season he was a 2.8 WAR season, and 2.3 in 2007. The wheels came off in 2008, with 0 WAR, but Bill Bavasi extended him for one more season.  By the time he left for Japan after the 2009 season, Johjima was no longer popular with the fans or Mariners pitchers who seemed to have difficulty working with the former Japan League star.

2009-2010 Rob Johnson came up through the Mariners system and was very good in Tacoma. When the M’s brought him up to share time with Johjima, the M’s thought they’d be preparing their catcher-of-the-future. Pay attention to this term, you’ll be hearing it a lot. Johnson was never able to hit major league pitching with the Mariners (or anybody else.) Not only that, in 141 games with Seattle, he was a passed-ball machine, allowing 18.

2010  This was the year Adam Moore, another Mariner catching phenom and catcher-of-the-future joined Johnson to become the dueling passed ball duo.  Moore added his seven to go with Johnson’s seven to equal more than a third of all those allowed in Dan Wislon’s 14 year career. Moore couldn’t hit a lick.  The less said, the better.

2011-2012  Miguel Olivo was a 0.1 WAR catcher between his full time duties in 2011 and 2012 when he split his season with rookie Jesus Montero. The version 2.0 Olivo was definitely an improvement over 2005.  He actually led the team in home runs in 2011 with 20, which ain’t saying much about that team.

In 2012 Jesus Montero was obtained in a heralded trade that sent Michael Pineda to the Yanks for Montero, widely considered the best right-handed hitting prospect in baseball. Montero was a lousy catcher, though his rookie season he showed he was a decent hitter. His career came off the rails after the season ended.  Much more in a future blog post.

2013-2015 These years ushered in the Mike Zunino era, the latest edition of the Mariners-catcher-of-the-future. Zunino, a 2012 first round draft pick was rushed to the majors in 2013 after fewer than 300 minor league at bats. Due to circumstances beyond his control, the Montero PED suspension and Kelly Shoppach’s untimely release, Zunino was forced to be “the guy.” Zunino demonstrated good defense, considerable pitch framing skills and the ability to work effectively with pitchers, but was an offensive black hole.  As a rookie he showed tremendous power, but his 32.1 % K rate is appalling. The M’s hope to get something back when Zunino figures things out at AAA.  He will only be 25 when the season starts. While Chris Ianetta and Steve Clevenger will cover for Zunino while he hopefully charts a path back to the big club, they are strictly placeholders.

Since Dan Wilson retired in 2005, the M’s have had a multitude of “talents” most of whom couldn’t carry his glove. After all the the glory years of guys the fans could count on-Wilson, Griffey, Edgar, Buhner, even pitchers like Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer, the Mariners have boasted little stability at any position-perhaps Felix and Ichiro are the exceptions-catcher is simply among the most egregious

 

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