Ouch! Some Bullpen Numbers

In all phases of the game, hitting, starting pitching and relief pitching, the Mariners have disappointed at one time or another. Unable to drive in runners from scoring position, inconsistent starts that wear out a bullpen, and all those bullpen losses and blown saves were just too much to win consistently.  It shows in the team’s inability to string together a meaningful run that would get them in the playoff discussion, let alone a run at the division title.

Of all the failings, however, perhaps none equals the complete collapse of the bullpen. The team began with a bullpen largely intact from last year.  Closer Fernando Rodney, former closer and set up guy Danny Farquhar, last year’s bullpen glue, Tom Wilhelmsen, last year’s righty phenom Dominic Leone, and lefty Charlie Furbush were joined by Rule 5 claim, David Rollins. 2014’s ‘pen was phenomenally good, and I’ll show how later. But this bullpen, with all of last year’s success, looked to be very good.

But bullpens are fragile things and this year’s bullpen, from top to bottom, beginning to end, lefties and righties was bad. Though it shows signs of righting itself, it’s much too late to do much more than exhale and mumble something about next year. Looking at individual members of the bullpen all you have to do is compare the raw numbers between 2014 and 2015.

But I’m not sure that does much good to get an idea of the big picture.  So let’s look at some simple numbers: games won in relief (WGR) games lost in relief (LGR,) saves (SV,)  blown saves (BS) save perecentage (SV%,) and League %. These are big crunchy numbers that give a big picture of overall effectiveness and doesn’t get into the whys.  They are narrative numbers and not analytic.

I chose them because the M’s have blown a lot of games in relief. For a team that has played a lot of close games, the Mariners, it’s critical they have a bullpen that keeps the games close so the offense can do its part to chip away at narrow leads, hold on to narrow leads or allow them to score deciding runs in tie games. Blowing leads, in statistical terms blowing saves is devastating and demoralizing. But all teams do it, and likely more than you think.  Something to keep in mind is that between say 1989-present the league average save percentage (SV%) is somewhere between 67-71%.  It’s nowhere close to perfect, even in the best bullpens.

But as a way of comparing, let’s take a look at three teams: 2014 Seattle Mariners, 2015 Kansas City Royals, and the 2015 Seattle Mariners.

2014 Seattle Mariners

This Mariner bullpen was easily  the best   based on these numbers. From top to bottom, left and right this team was effective, though Rodney and Medina sometimes wobbled. But they could get it done and contributed to the lowest run total allowed in Mariner history.

WGR        LGR        (SV)       (BS)      (SV %)         League %

25             20            51          12         81 %             69 %

The M’s played lots of tight games and struggled to score runs.  They only way they won 87 games was to keep the opponents’ offense down.  They did that, allowing only 554 runs in 162 games.  How good is that? Only one other Mariners team has allowed fewer than 600 runs-the 1981 team.  But they only played 109 games in the strike shortened year.  As a more immediate means of comparison, the 2013 team allowed 774 runs, 200 runs more. The 2015 team has already allowed 616 runs with 28 games left to play.  The bullpen won more games than they lost and has the highest save % in team history. They played an important role in allowing the minuscule run total.

2015 Kansas City Royals

If the M’s were the class of major league run prevention last year, this year it is the Kansas City Royals.  Combining very good pitching with great defense, the Royals are the Cadillacs of run prevention, allowing only 491 runs through 132 games. Their bullpen, featuring the triumvirate of Wade Davis, Franklin Morales and Greg Holland is the class of the American League if not all of baseball.

WGR       LGR         SV         BS           SV %         League %

26             9             47         16            75              69

This is a team that often scores a lot of runs, putting its bullpen in a position to get fewer decisions, but they don’t make mistakes.  Again, not perfect, they blow saves too, but fewer than league average

2015 Seattle Mariners

This team has struggled.  It’s most consistent performers are Mark Lowe and Charlie Furbush, and neither of them are currently with the team. The individual performances, and why they are so terrible compared to the 2014 stats are a mystery to me.  They certainly haven’t been helped by the struggles of the rotation and the number of short outings they’ve had. Again this is a narrative not an analysis.

WGR        LGR         SV         BS        SV%            League %

14             28            40          21         66               69

As you can see, the team has a SV % well below league average.  It’s also climbed 2 % in recent weeks because the bullpen has performed better. Even though the save percentage isn’t great it’s nowhere near the worst in Mariner team history.  That would belong to the 1986 team, with a 51 % SV %.  More troubling, however is that the bullpen has a .333 winning percentage in those games in which they have decisions. 42 decisions and they’ve only managed to win a third of them.

Again, this doesn’t really tell the story of the bullpen.  It merely illustrates how bad they’ve been compared to good bullpens. But there is little question in my mind they’ve been the most disappointing part of a disappointing team. .

All statistics are courtesy Baseball Reference.com

Redemption: The Return of “Closing Time.”

Tom Wilhelmsen in his natural millieu-entertaining the crowd and visiting team, not necessarily throwing a baseball.

Tom Wilhelmsen in his natural millieu-entertaining the crowd and visiting team, not necessarily throwing a baseball.

The analytics-only crowd would like us all to believe the save is over-rated, that anyone can do can close out a game.. Teams shouldn’t worry about roles in a bullpen, just work the matchups and all will be well.

My sense is that most relievers disagree.  They long for roles, to know when they should be getting mentally ready to go into a game, to visualize who they will be pitching to and what they’ll be throwing.

Major league pitchers have stuff-it’s how they got to the majors.  But I’ve come to believe that much of a closer’s stuff is mental.  They know they’re the last line of defense in a winning effort, and they have to know they are better than the hitters they are facing. The batters are outs, period, the end.

But we’ve seen this season that’s easier said than done. Ask Fernando Rodney, Chicago Cub.  Ask Carson Smith and his five blown saves. He was spotless tonight in the 8th, but Lloyd won’t use to him close to the rest of this season.

One of my very favorite Mariners is Tom Wilhelmsen.  I love his story-a guy who  preferred partying and traveling to playing baseball, and came back to the game on his own terms-I love his 97 mph fastball and 12 to 6 curve, I love that he simply likes to have fun and knows how to keep the bullpen entertained.

But it’s also clear that Tommy struggles with demons out there on the mound.  His demeanor goes from happy-go-lucky Tom the Bartender performing “Hot Corner” in the Kyle Seager video, to sweating-bullets-serious-Tom.  And sometimes he seems to lose faith in his 97 mph fastball, and his curve falls off his radar instead of just off the table. He may as well be a pitching machine throwing batting practice.

But the Bartender is back, and hopefully he can continue his success for the rest of the season.  Wilhelmsen hasn’t given up a run in his last seven appearances.  He’s a perfect five for five in save situations since he was named closer on August 23rd. Tonight he threw 11 pitches to dispatch Marwin Gonzalez, Carlos Correa, and Evan Gattis, some pretty decent hitters.

Yeah, it’s been a crummy season. So I take the little victories where I can find them. If Tom can hang in there, he’ll join Franklin Guttierez as my favorite Mariner stories of the year. “Closing Time” is a great walk-up song, and I hope to hear a lot more of it.

The Bartender as bullpen skipper and enforcer.

The Bartender as bullpen skipper and enforcer.

Mariners pack off Austin Jackson and Justin Ruggiano for something

Before the Astros game (the Mariners lost 8-3), the M’s announced they’d traded Austin Jackson to the Cubs for a player to be named later and a cash slot in the $211,000 in international slot money.  After the game the team announced they traded minor-league outfielder Justin Ruggiano to the Dodgers for a player to be named later.

With the disappointing season winding down, and Monday being the deadline for waiver-wire deals, I’m not surprised. The M’s aren’t going anywhere this year and neither of these players seem to fit into their plans.

Jackson is a free-agent and was likely to walk at the end of the year. His performance after his acquisition at the 2014 trade deadline was lousy, and it took a while for him to kick into form during the 2015 season. Still, his .272/.312/.387 slash line is a maybe a tick under league average.  It looks like infielder Brad Miller will replace him in the outfield.

Justin Ruggiano was acquired during the off-season to be a platoon partner with Seth Smith in right field.  When Nelson Cruz took up residence out in there, Ruggiano didn’t really have a role. And I think he let manager Lloyd McClendon hear about it. I believe that Lloyd, like Lou Piniella, has a dog house, and when players get in it, it’s tough to get out. Ruggiano was DFA’d, and ended up in Tacoma, where he had a decent season in the PCL.

So the Mariners parted ways with two of their scarcest resources-serviceable major league outfielders.  Though Jackson and Ruggiano are not stars, and their trades will not shift the major league landscape, they do leave a hole in the Mariners’ collection of outfielders. Particularly at center field, the M’s are truly unprepared.  I know they want to see if Miller can roam the green pastures at Safeco, especially now that Ketel Marte seems to have a hold at shortstop.  But if Miller was a centerfielder, why wasn’t he playing there his entire career?  It’s a demanding position requiring athleticism and instincts.  Though Miller may have the former, it’s not clear at all he has the latter.

Though I’m not shocked at the trades, or necessarily disappointed by the return, we don’t know what that is yet, I am worried the Mariners continued practice of putting players in the outfield where they don’t belong. Nelson Cruz should not be an every day right fielder.  He’s another athletic guy who seems to lack instincts, and that makes him a less than league average outfielder.  Mark Trumbo should be nowhere near an outfield; he’s a natural, er, DH. Miller may turn out to be okay, but the M’s are gambling a key position on a guy who is an untested CF at any level. It should not instill confidence in the fans or the pitching staff.

The Shopping List or Teardown?

When the season is over and the dust has settled, the Mariners will have ia new front office in place. The new GM will be hired with a plan, supported by President of Baseball Operations Kevin Mather.  It seems to me the plan will go in one of two directions:

Plan A: Build around the team’s current nucleus to add the pieces the Mariners clearly need. Make trades, and head out on the free market to swap for or purchase what is needed to make the team competitive for next year and beyond.

Plan B: With a new vision in mind, the new GM sells/trades off every player asset not in line with that vision, and perhaps those that are valuable enough to another team to bring in young, affordable, valuable players and prospects.  The Mariners have never done a rebuild of this kind before.

The Shopping List. The Mariners shopping list will likely be extensive.  They have five whopping guaranteed contracts on the books next year: Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Seth Smith.  They also have two free agents in Hisashi Iwakuma and Austin Jackson. The rest of the crew is either arbitration eligible or still pre-arbitration in years of service.

The Mariners have lots of positions to look at

Pitching-The M’s went into the season with a thin starting rotation that only got thinner when the James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma didn’t make it out of April.  The baseball adage is “You can never have enough pitching.” There is a good crop of free agent starters in David Price, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmerman, Doug Fister and and more.  Any of them are better better than Mike Montgomery or Vidal Nuno, it just depends on the size of your wallet. Re-signing three year Mariner vet Hisashi Iwakuma to a team friendly two year deal would help, and aggressively stock-piling the injury prone or those in need of a change of scenery is a good plan. The Mariners must have a stockpile of pitching below the major league level. Not sure what happened to the bullpen.  Asteroid crash? Taken over by aliens? They’re just crappy and fooled us in 2014 by putting up the best numbers in Mariner history? The good news is there are always lots of decent bullpen arms available cheap.  A bullpen can be rebuilt for the cost of one year of Nelson Cruz.

Catcher-I don’t know if its pity, impatience or the realization that he just needs help, but the M’s sent Mike Zunino down to Tacoma to work on “some things.” Zunino will likely be back when rosters expand or the minor league season ends in September, but what he may not bring back is the team’s faith that he will be their future guy.  The M’s may choose to get a short term starter, or a more reliable back up, like, er, Wellington Castillo.

Outfield-The most puzzling outcome of the Jack Zdurencik era is how a team could go seven years and produce not one reliable major league outfielder from its minor league system.  Based on what I read, there is little likelihood Austin Jackson will return, so the M’s will have to find a center fielder. Seth Smith and a healthyish Franklin Gutierrez could be a platoon in left, and the M’s seem committed to the aging and defense-limited Nelson Cruz in right. There is a need for depth, though a Justin Ruggiano, free of Lloyd McClendon’s doghouse might fill that role.

1B/DH-The M’s roster is full of DH/1B types with Logan Morrison, Mark Trumbo and Jesus Montero (don’t forget Nelson Cruz!) But are any of them good enough?  A change in direction may mean a search for a different kind of hitter/player at those spots, as in not the slow, low OBP types. Montero is out of minor league options and Morrison and Trumbo may be costly in arbitration.  There may be another answer.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Mariners are obligated to $123.2 million in contracts this year.  Baseball Reference has the M’s obligated for $76.4 million + another 7 million in options for 2016, plus another estimated $43.2 million in arbitration costs, a total of $132.5 million.  So it’s not that the team hasn’t spent money.  With the acquisition of Root Sports and much improved attendance, there’s money to spend, it’s just a question of using their cash and player assets to make a winner.

Demolition  Trade off all the worthwhile assets for young players.  These players would be cheaper, but they would also fit the new G.M.’s vision.  Likely it would also mean several years of losing. A couple of teams that did this were the Detroit Tigers 2001-2005 and, more recently, the Houston Astros 2010-2014, endured some terrible years on the field as talent worked its way from the minors to the major league diamond.  Of course, that will also mean netting some high draft picks.  (I won’t mention the M’s have had plenty of high draft picks the last seven years.)

Plan B may be more difficult to pull off than it sounds. Felix Hernandez has a contract through 2019, and is owed $25.86 million next year and adds a million to that salary each year until he reaches free agency in 2020 (option) or 2021. Felix is also a 10/10 guy and can veto any trade. With eight years remaining on his $240 million contract, Robinson Cano may be virtually untradeable. Kyle Seager, likewise has a long and spendy contract, but has the virtue of being only 27 years old. .

Despite a pretty crappy season, the M’s will welcome 2.2-2.3 million customers through the turnstiles. Those numbers are way up from 2013 when the team drew only 1.76 million. if the M’s fare as well as the Tigers did in 2003 and lose 119 games amid their rebuild, it is hard to imagine they retain even that many fans. In addition, the veteran players, but especially Hernandez, is the face of this franchise.  The Mariners are very good at some things, and branding is one of them.  Without the veterans, what is the M’s brand about?

Finally, sometimes total rebuilds don’t work.  The Kansas City Royals rebuilt several times before the current iteration went to the World Series last year and are the runaway favorites to repeat as American League champions. The Mariners never went the complete rebuild route when the last heroes of the 1995-2001 campaigns declined and retired.  But there were many well-documented mistakes made along the way–one of the reasons we’re having this conversation. Does Mariner Nation have the patience to start all over again in the wake of the Bavasi and Zdurencik semi-rebuilds?

There will be those who want to burn the current roster to the ground and start over.  That will be a valid approach for a new GM moving forward. I still think this team has a veteran, talented core to build around, but it will cost money and some difficult decisions to answer many of the problems the team has.  I don’t believe the tear down/burn down option is needed, and I don’t believe it will work with the fans.

What Might the Next Mariners GM Look Like?

With the news the Mariners parted ways with General Manager Jack Zdurencik, it’s time to dream about the 2016 team and what a new GM might do with the current version. But most importantly, who will be the one to make the key decisions that shape the team for years to come.

It’s not clear who the M’s might chase to right the good ship Mariner, but the News Tribune’s Bob Dutton offers some potential names based on comments made by Mariners President Kevin Mather. They include the following:

  • Kevin Towers-long time GM with San Diego and Arizona
  • Kevin Williams-former GM and current administrator for the White Sox
  • Dan O’Dowd-former Colorado GM and current commentator at the MLB Network.

But, according to Dutton and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, Mather is interested in an experienced GM who will trust and collaborate with others who can synthesize analytics, scouting, the amateur draft, international scouting, and player development. Mather suggested he’d hire someone who knows what they don’t know.

This comment may indicate that Geoff Baker’s shocking article about Jack Z. and Mariners management 15 or so months ago, indicating the GM’s office was guilty of micro-management, vacillated over trades, and knew little about, or employed few aspects of advanced analytics in the construction of his ball club.

It’s clear from Mather’s comments to the press, and during his radio interview with ESPN 710’s Shannon Drayer that a decision will likely be made sooner rather than later.  It also seems likely the next Mariner GM will be somebody with experience, but with people around him that can help him do his job, and they’ll be expected to delegate, cooperate, collaborate and act on advice, not as a lone ranger.

Based on these comments, I wouldn’t expect the M’s to hire a young Theo Epstein clone, but I also wouldn’t expect them take on an overused MLB retread.  There are plenty of guys available without resorting to the same ol’, same ol’. Mather seems to be determined to have a GM in place by the time the season ends, so there could still be some interesting Mariners news around playoff time.

A listology approach to why Jack must go.

The baseball general manager’s job is to use the resources he has to assemble a roster that will win over the course of the long 162 game season. In GM Jack Zdurencik’s seven year tenure he has had two winning seasons, and been to the playoffs exactly zero times. In fairness, there’s been times when players simply haven’t worked out.  Chone Figgins was a consensus smart signing.  Dustin Ackley was one of the best college players in history.  Neither worked out.  But in the end, that doesn’t matter and the GM has to be be held accountable, accept the blindfold and cigarette and take the fall for a team’s persistent failure. Though he has one year left on his contract, he must go.  I’ve assembled some lists that point to the reason why.  Let’s see if you can remember some of the names.

Nick Franklin, Dustin Ackley, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and Mike Zunino

As you know, each of these guys represent Mariners first round draft picks in the Jack Zdurencik regime. The list excludes those from 2013-14, and because they signed Nelson Cruz as a free agent, the flipped their 2015 pick to the Baltimore Orioles. What does this list of players have in common?  Very little major league success. Franklin and Ackley were shipped off in trades as failures in the Mariner system.  Hultzen, seen as a fast track, middle-of-the-rotation starter, will likely never see a big league pitcher’s mound due to his severe shoulder injuries. Because he didn’t have a decent back-up catcher or a suitable organizational piece in place in 2013, Zdurencik rushed Zunino to the majors before he was ready to face big league pitching. Only Walker has enjoyed a modicum of success this far in his career.  But it’s still too early for the 22-year old to declare his future as a front of the rotation starter.

High draft picks are like gold.  Clubs must choose wisely, develop players for the majors while controlling their costs or every time there is a need they must go out on the free agent market to pay top dollar to fill their needs. Zdurencik’s inability to select talent for the high draft picks the Mariners have had, or failure to properly develop them, or foresee their injury issues over seven years earns him a firing.

Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, Nelson Cruz, Austin Jackson, Mike Morse, Raul Ibanez, Cory Hart, Logan MorrisonEndy Chavez, Jason Bay, Dustin Ackley, Brad Miller, Casper Wells, Eric Thames, Carlos Peguero, Trayvon Robinson, Milton Bradley, Franklin Gutierrez.

What does this list of names have in common?  They’re all outfielders, or at least played outfield for the Seattle Mariners.  But none of them were drafted by the Mariners as outfielders. Many are guys the M’s had to give up valuable pieces to get, like Smith and Jackson. Others were free agents like Cruz.   Further, the M’s have none, zilch, zero outfielders ready to play the outfield in the major leagues. How can that be?  Zdurencik’s had seven years to have outfielders ready to play on the big club.  Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller are infielders who were converted to play outfield.  They may be good athletes, but it still takes time to develop the instincts to play Safeco’s wide open spaces, let alone the annual trip to Fenway Park. Cruz, Hart, Morrison,  Morse and Ibanez really didn’t belong in the outfield, and their skills serve only to make the Mariners shaky pitching worse. In October Austin Jackson will probably walk and leave the M’s without a center fielder.  No, James Jones is not an answer and the M’s will likely have to pay big dollars to get a league average guy..

Wellington Castillo, Doug Fister, Michael Pineda, John Jaso, Erasmo Ramirez, Cliff Lee, Mark Lowe (2), Steve Delabar.

These are all productive players Jack Zdurencik traded away for lollipops and magic beans.  Castillo went to Arizona, thus depriving the M’s of a productive catcher who could back up Mike Zunino, or even start if they wanted to give Z time in Tacoma to work on his game. They got Mark Trumbo, the kind of all or nothing player Jackie Z just seems to love. Fister went to Detroit 2011 for these immortals: Casper Wells, Francisco Martinez, Chance Ruffin, and Charlie Furbush. Since then Fister has gone a nice 52-33 for the Tigers and Nationals, while only Furbush has had any kind of major league career. Michael Pineda struggled through injury to emerge as a starter for the Yankees. In 32 starts for the Bombers, Pineda has gone 14-12, but that eclipses the horror that has become Jesus Montero‘s career. I truly wish Montero success, but if it doesn’t materialize, like instantly, there’s no way this trade looks non-disasterlike for the Mariners. Jaso for an injury riddled season of Mike Morse playing out of position doesn’t pencil out.  Not clear if Erasmo Ramirez for Mike Montgomery is a tragedy, but it’s not looking good so far. Cliff Lee for Justin Smoak, Josh Lueke, Matt Lawson, and Blake Beavan in 2010.  Lee and the Rangers went to the World Series, the M’s went down the shitter. Mark Lowe’s been traded twice, once with Lee in 2010, and then as the only reliable bullpen piece the M’s have for prospects in 2015.  You can thank Jack Z for the current bullpen horror show. Steve Delabar has been a contributor to the Blue Jays bullpen since the M’s traded him to Toronto for the immortal Marcus Thames.

Rickie Weeks, Mark Trumbo, Nelson Cruz, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Mike Morse, Raul Ibanez.

Jack Zdurencik is a great believer in the big bat: a guy who can hit a home run and win you a ball game.  So he picks up guys who have had big bats at one point or another in their career and sticks them in a position they are unsuited to play and lets them look foolish there, undermining their pitchers and sinking efforts at run prevention. Further, with few exceptions, this list includes guys who were good, once upon a time. Some, such as Hart and Morse were recovering from injury, and their contributions were based on rainbows, hope and unicorns. Weeks was done, lost his starting job in Milwaukee and had never played the outfield. Nelson Cruz has done so many things offensively in 2015, I hate to call him out, but he is not a good outfielder and should be filling the DH role he was signed for.  This team has taken a huge step back from 2010 when run prevention was job one and Franklin Guttierez was “Death to Flying Things.”

LF 331′, Left Center 378′, Deepest Point 405′, Straightaway Center 401′, Right Center 381′, RF 326′

Why is it that Zdurencik and Bavasi before him could not see and utilize the characteristics of Safeco Field.  It’s a large park, not easy to hit homers in, but the two of them always seemed in search of guys who could regularly muscle it out despite statistics demonstrating the difficulty of doing so.  Lefties, like Kyle Seager and Raul Ibanez have had some success as mashers.  Right handers, with the exception of Nelson Cruz and Richie Sexson, not so much. Why not build a team around pitching and defense, high on base percentage and speed–like Kansas City.  They seem to be having success in roomy Kaufman Stadium don’t they?  The Mariners have had a winning record at Safeco only in 2009 and 2014. A GM who can’t build a team to succeed in their home park lacks vision and should not keep their job.

Safeco Field

85-77, 61-101, 67-95, 75-87, 71-91, 87-95, 56-66 and counting

Jack Zdurencik is in his 7th year as general manager, and he has a contract through 2016.  During his term, the Mariners have never been in the playoffs, despite their expansion.  they’ve never finished as high as second in their division, and have finished 4th five times. Under Zdurencik the Mariners have been a bad team, and there is no sign of light at the end of the tunnel.  Seven years of losing and no prospect of winning is enough, and no GM with a similar record should keep their job.

The question should not be whether Jack Z is fired, but when and who replaces them.  They cannot be another management tool, but someone with the power to make meaningful changes to bring a winner back to Seattle. The team has money; all it needs is vision and judgement.

Reasons to Keep Watching

For the first ten years of their existence, opportunities to watch the Seattle Mariners on television were few and far between.  Today we are spoiled with the explosion of cable TV coverage of major league baseball, or any sport for that matter, and the emergence of sports talk radio, it’s all the sports all the time.

Until your team is a loser and then the coverage gets thin.

Yesterday I spent a lot of time in my car and I listened to ESPN 710.  Three different shows from 8:45-12:30 and here is what Mike Salk and Danny O’Neill, Justin Meyers and G. Scott, Dave Grosby, Bob Stelton and Tom Wassell talked up on their show:

  1. After Friday night’s pre-season opener, have the Seahawks hit the panic button on their offensive line woes?
  2. At day 19 of Kam Chancellor’s holdout, are you concerned?
  3. Who should the Seahawks get to be the back up quarterback during Tavaris Jackson’s recovery from Friday’s injury?

Oh, by the way the Mariners bullpen blew another game.

That’s it.  Three plus hours of talking about the same Seahawks issues across three shows.  The Mariners have simply faded into the wallpaper.

I’m not sure I blame them.  This team has disappointed, almost from the moment the season began.  At this point of the season, with the M’s safely out of any likely kind of contention, there are reasons to continue watching and paying attention.  They all have much more to do with next year than this year.

Ketel Marte-Ketel Marte is talented, a consistent defender at shortstop or second baseman that Brad Miller is not.  He’s also, in a small sample size, been a pretty decent hitter.  Though lacking Miller’s power potential, he is a much better judge of the strike zone, and has a .377 OBP to go with his .283 average.  Though he has no home runs, Marte hit four doubles in his 60 major league at bats.  He could be the person who solidifies the position in 2016.

Taijuan Walker-Walker has shown moments of brilliance, and often matches the expectations Mariners execs had when they drafted him in the first round in 2010.  Walker has 135 K’s in his 141.0 innings pitched this year.  At times he’s looked unhittable, and at other times he’s lost command, as the 23 home runs allowed demonstrate. Walker is the future and I’m anxious to see how he finishes the year.

Nelson Cruz-Cruz has had quite a year, probably a career best year.  It’s hard to imagine him repeating this at age 37.  But I’m excited to see how far he can take it.  On a decent team, we might be talking MVP . . . but we aren’t, are we?

The Jack Zdurencik Watch-Jack should be gone.  But I fully expect for the M’s to wait until the year is over.  Except for the newly released and recently signed Dave Dombrowski, all the execs with experience will be under contract until the end of the season.  In my view, there is nothing the man can do to save his job.  Seven seasons of losing, more bad trades than good ones, failure to develop the high draft choices this team has had, and an additional failure to build a team suited to its home park all scream “Jack must go!!!)

The Lloyd McClendon Watch-Abraham Lincoln once said about Gen. William Rosecrans that he “seemed confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head,” after his disastrous defeat at the battle of Chickamauga. I think some of that applies to Lloyd.  Going into this season, this was a team that seemed to deal with its hitting issues, had a strong rotation and a lights out bullpen. Instead the three pieces have not worked well together, and at times all of them have failed concurrently.  I’m sure I’d be banging my head against a wall at this point, but Lloyd has very much seemed incapable to deal with all the failure around him, especially because there are no answers to call on in a trade or from the minors.  Hard to imagine how McClendon is not a casualty at the end of the season.  I’ve heard lots of folks fuss at Lloyd for his continued use of Fernando Rodney, for his in-game tactics, but honestly, it’s just a lot easier when your team shows its talent and doesn’t play like shit.

There’s lots of other reasons to watch, like there’s a game almost every day, baseball is better than football any day, and this team seems to find new and different ways to lose at least once a week.  But, despite that, it’s really all about 2016 at this point, and there are some players worth watching.

Losing, Disappointment and the Myth of the Bandwagon Fan

Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz connects for a solo homer in first inning against the Baltimore Orioles, Tues., Aug., 11, 2015, at Safeco Field in Seattle.   (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz connects for a solo homer in first inning against the Baltimore Orioles, Tues., Aug., 11, 2015, at Safeco Field in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The M’s dusted the visiting Orioles last night 6-5 in extras with a walk-off single from Austin Jackson.  Yes, this game had all the 2015 Mariner trademarks.  Got behind in the first 2-0 on some shaky pitching by starter Taijuan Walker. Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo got Walker off the hook with first inning dingers, Mariners lead 4-2.  Kyle Seager drove in a fifth run in the second to take a 5-2, and that was the name of that tune.  Walker found himself and cruised through six. The offense, getting the lead thought “Did your bit Hookie,” and took a breather.

But Walker was gassed after six and the call went out to the pesthouse that is the Seattle bullpen.  The Bartender went 1.1, but left after surrendering a two run blast to Adam Jones. Joe Beimel, the lefty veteran, came in and coughed up a bolt off the bat of Chris Davis.  Game tied in the 8th, and we’re down to a battle of bullpens.  Well shit, that’s a lot like bringing a knife to a gunfight.  We’ve seen it before and we know how it ends. Some Rodney, or Smith, Rollins or Rasmussen, Farquar or Olsen, gives up the game winning homer, walks in the go-ahead run, or pushes the winning run across by cleverly bouncing the pitch between Mike Zunino’s legs. The visitors do a victory dance, the M’s walk heads down to the dugout, the deal is done.

Not this time.  Austin Jackson singled the game-winner home in the 10th, after a series of splendid gyrations by the Orioles; series tied 1-1, with the series decider this afternoon.

So this leaves the beloved Mariners pretty much where they’ve been the last couple months: eight games behind the faltering Astros, seven games behind the second wild card spot with seven teams in front of them.  Their weaknesses remain a bad bullpen, inconsistent starting pitching, and an inability to hit with runners in scoring position. I don’t see this getting better.

And it happens at a bad time. The M’s have continued to draw well for a lousy team.  Nearly 25,000 fans showed up on a Tuesday for Country Music Night. The team is 7th in the league in attendance and seem quite likely to eclipse last year’s 2.06 million attendance mark. They are kind of fun to watch, as long you don’t mind cussing out most M’s batters as they watch a 2-2 pitch float by for a strike with runners on second and third and two out, or having your heart broken by the two-timingest bullpen in the major leagues. Calculating the length of Nelson Cruz home runs (like how many Cruz home runs would it take to make a round trip to Pluto) or predicting the date of the next Mike Zunino hit always makes for an interesting game.

Despite this excitement, Friday is a watershed day.  The Seahawks, winners of a Superbowl and the reigning NFC champions, play their first exhibition game Friday night. Though the M’s will be on the road, hoping to be the latest to pummel another bad team, the Boston Red Sox, and their game will be at 4:30 PDT. The Hawks will be on the tube from Denver at 7:00 PDT, it’s inevitable that sports fans will migrate away from the disappointing loser to a demonstrated winner.

There’s been some talk on social media about the Mariners and bandwagon fans. I’ve got some news for those folks: Seattle is a front running town.  Fans here like winners. When the M’s were very good they set records for attendance. When Ken Behring owned the Seahawks and they were terrible, he couldn’t give tickets away. I’d be interested to know Sounders attendance as they’ve stumbled through their games the past few weeks.

Listen, if folks on Mariners Nation and the Seattle Mariners Facebook pages are still posting more than “Fire Fat Jack,” or “I’ll never watch this team until they get rid of Chuck and Howie,”  or “Mariners suck!” they aren’t bandwagon fans. Generally speaking, they have a passion for baseball and an affection for their home team.  They know their players.  They know the standings.  They know the score.  And they know it’s not pretty.

This team had such high expectations, not just from local media, but nationally.  I ran across my copy of the pre-season predictions for SI yesterday, with Cano and Felix on the cover.  I sighed heavily and tucked it away.  I know it doesn’t help, but most of the season predictions were wrong. The Indians foundered every bit as badly as the M’s. The Nationals, most writers’ pre-season pick to win it all, remain 2.5 games behind the surprising Mets, and five games out of the Wild Card. The Red Sox, picked to win the East, are absolutely vile. The Astros lead their division, and so do the elderly Yankees (at least for the time being.) The Mets lead the NL East and the surprising Cubbies have 3.5 game lead over the beloved Giants for the second Wild Card. The only really good teams are the Royals and Cardinals. The prognosticators misfired too.

Note to self: don’t buy the pre-season hype.

No, if fans are critical of Lloyd, or Jack, if they’re tired of Zunino striking out, if they are frustrated that Kyle Seager can’t hit with runners in scoring position, if they are exhausted by the bullpen’s rotating Goat-For-the-Day and they are critical in pointed language, they aren’t bandwagon fans.  They are knowledgeable, they know how the game should be played and they are sharing their informed opinions.  Most are veterans of ’95 and ’01 and they’ve seen how the game should be played. This ain’t it, and based on last year’s success, it’s hard to understand what the hell happened. True fans question roster construction, situational decision-making, as well as player performance. They aren’t blind and they aren’t stupid, and real fans of the game are critical.

No the bandwagon fans left long ago. They left when the Seahawks traded for Jimmy Graham (oooooh, shiny.) They left when the M’s were 9-11 at the end of April and the NFL held their draft. They left when Robinson Cano, the $240 million man, stumbled out of the gate and team couldn’t seem to hit his way out of a paper bag. They left when Jack traded for Mark Trumbo, another in a long line of all-or-nothing players Zdurencik seems to be in love with. They left after Fernando Rodney gave up four runs to the A’s on April 12th to back into a win (while true fans gave up after Rodney blew his sixth save on August 5th.)

So enough talk about bandwagon fans. Though I’ll still watch regularly to see if Felix can dominate in his last ten or so starts, to know exactly when Cruz is the first player to hit a ball on to Royal Brougham Way in a game, to watch Seager make great plays from third, to hope Ketel Marte turns into something special. But I reserve the right to criticize, bitch, fuss, piss and moan as fans have throughout baseball history.

M’s Pummel Rockies 10-4, Win Third Straight

Rob Rasmussen pitched 1.1 perfect innings to earn the victory over the Colorado Rockies.  It was his first win since coming to the Mariners in the trade deadline deal with Toronto. Picture by Zimbio

Rob Rasmussen pitched 1.1 perfect innings to earn the victory over the Colorado Rockies. It was his first win since coming to the Mariners in the trade deadline deal with Toronto. Picture by Zimbio

I was out of town for five days and missed most of the Mariners trade deadline shenannigans and was only able to follow the M’s-Twins series by mlb.com push notices.  Even so it was great to see the M’s playing even steven with a team fighting for a Wild Card spot on the road.

They cruised in to Denver Monday night to take on the hapless Rockies.  Monday’s 8-7 win was a bit of a struggle as Felix Hernandez and the bullpen gave up 18 hits, demonstrating the Colorado crew can definitely hit the ball and score some runs. There was also a thwarted bullpen coup as Tom Wilhelmsen, Rob Rasmussen and Carson Smith conspired to allow seven hits and three runs over the final two innings to put a game that should have been over easy peasy in jeopardy.

That makes last night’s 10-4 demolition of various Rocky pitchers all that more impressive. Vidal Nuno made his first start for the Mariners.  Coors Field is a place where pitchers have to check their ego, and Tuesday was no exception.  Though Nuno seemed to have the situation in hand for his limited outing, the reliever cum starter gave up five hits and three runs over 3.2 innings. Hopefully he’ll have the chance to try again in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.

Ultimately it was the hitters, as usual, who controlled the show in Denver’s mile-high air. From Charlie Blackmon’s lead off homer in the bottom of the first to Robinson Cano’s two run single in the top of the eighth, the two teams combined for 23 hits, seven walks and a couple of Rockies errors.  Add a Nelson Cruz solo homer in the 7th inning and it was a pretty entertaining game if you like offense.

But the Mariners bullpen put in one of those rare moments of yeoman service.  Rassmussen, picked up Friday in the Mark Lowe trade with Toronto, redeemed his Monday struggles, throwing 1.1 perfect innings to pick up his first major league win.  He was followed by Mayckol Guaipe, Joe Beimel and a resurgent Fernando Rodney to close things out.  Only Guaipe struggled to allow four hits and a run in his 1.1 innings of work.

This makes three wins in a row for the Mariners for the first time since May 25-27th.  Are the M’s streaking toward contention? Hardly, they’re still eight games below .500.  They are only six games back in the Wild Card race, but there are still seven teams ahead of them in the pile for the last playoff spot, and they are virtually tied with Cleveland.

Does Nelson Cruz see Griffey in his headlights?

Nelson Cruz demonstrated his ability to get hot early in the season and virtually carry a team.  He’s riding a 15-game hit streak and is batting .323 with 31 home runs.  He’s also homered in his last five consecutive games.  With Ken Griffey, Jr.’s major league record eight consecutive games in 1993 (Junior shares this record with Yankees slugger Don Mattingly, and Pirates first baseman Dale Long.) Is Nelson Cruz thinking about it?  Who knows.  Is he capable of breaking it?  When the man gets hot . . .

Fernando Rodney’s return to closer?

I have personally witnessed several of Fernando Rodney’s meltdowns and don’t find them at all amusing.  Still it’s hard to argue with results.  Since Toronto left a note on the front desk simply stating “Rodney’s tipping his pitches” on the front desk when they left Seattle on July 26th, the reliever has tinkered with his delivery and is nearly perfect in his last five appearances. Rodney allowed 0 hits and one walk over 5.1 innings and struck out seven.  With Carson Smith struggling, allowing six runs in his last five appearances, it may be time for the Fernando Rodney Traveling Circus and Archery Fest to take another turn in the closer’s role.

If There Is A Silver Lining . . .

Franklin Gutierrez homers in the 10th inning to beat the Blue Jays 6-5. It was the first walk off homer of his career.

Franklin Gutierrez homers in the 10th inning to beat the Blue Jays 6-5. It was the first walk off homer of his career.

I went to yesterday’s game with a friend.  Yes that’s right the game against the Blue Jays the Mariners managed to lose 8-6 in the ninth inning.  Two terms to remember-Fernando Rodney and bullpen fatigue.  Maybe one more sandwiched in between the two would be appropriate-two-run homer. In any case, though the game had its moments, it was a demoralizing, dispiriting game in which the M’s game back from a 3-1 hole to take a 6-3 lead that Rodney couldn’t hold in the 8th, and Carson Smith gave up the game winner in the 9th.  There’s lots of blame to go around, but honestly I’m done bitchin’ about one game.

I turned today’s game on in the car, and missed a great deal of it.  Turned it on just in time to watch Franklin Gutierrez cavorting around the bases after crushing an Aaron Loup fastball for a walkoff homerun. Game over.  M’s win the series.  All the skazillions of Blue Jays fans infesting Safeco Field can go home knowing your team is one game further behind the Yankees than when you crawled in on Friday.

There’s lots of things I missed today.  Nelson Cruz’s 25th dinger.  The amazing triple play in the 4th. The sterling performances of Mark Lowe and Joe Beimel in a too short outing by Tai Walker and ineffectual stint by David Rollins.

But what I did not miss was the sheer joy on the face of Guti as he was rounding second.  I didn’t miss the excitement on the faces on his teammates as they mobbed him at home. I didn’t miss the deft evasive maneuvers by veteran post-game reporter Jen Mueller as she dodged an entire cooler of orange Gatorade sloshed onto Guti’s back.

Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass what anybody else did in this game, because nobody, and I mean nobody believed that Franklin Gutierrez would be on this Mariners team at all this year, let alone be the catalyst for two M’s games in one week with key home runs.  He shouldn’t even be playing this game given his history of illness, injury and degenerative arthritis. The M’s went out an got Justin Ruggiano, Ricky Weeks and Mark Trumbo to be right handed bats who could platoon with Seth Smith and Dustin Ackley, and they had this guy the entire world gave up on who could play a reliable right field and hit left-handers. It’s a very small sample size but Guti has hit .267/.306/.511 with a 125 wRC+ in limited duty. He’s filled in at the corners and at DH, and he’s been as effective as any other Mariner asked to fill in those spots.

Right now there’s not a lot to celebrate for these Mariners. Yes, Cruz is having a fine season, and Felix will be in the Cy Young discussion.  But this team sports major suckage. Franklin Gutierrez is a silver lining to a shitty season. No, he may no longer be Death to Flying Things, capable of playing an electrifying center field. But, dammit the man is out there getting it done in a limited role.  His grand slam in Detroit on July 21st gave the M’s the winning margin in the 11-8 victory.  His home run in the 10th today was the game winner.

Regardless how the Mariners finish this season, I won’t forget Guti’s moments. It’s not often a player has struggled with more physical issues than him.  It’s not often after a player basically retires, they are able to come back and make a difference with their team.  Congrats to Franklin, and thanks to the M’s for giving him his shot.


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