With a day off from school today, I was browsing Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, examining the career of Brett Butler as an archetype for the M’s centerfielder needs when word came across from friend Todd Keister that Lloyd McClendon was a goner. I was sorry to hear it but definitely understand.
Though McClendon’s 2014 team club hard to get within a game of the playoffs, he was managing an imperfect team. The pitching staff, starting and relieving was incredible despite those occasional Fernando Rodney outbursts. That team’s biggest problem was offensive.
The 2015 team, despite offseason efforts to improve the offense, was undone by that same pitching staff. Most of the players were the same, but the results were very different. Injuries to starters Iwakuma and Paxton led to dependence on players not as good, and then to dependence on a bullpen whose performance by almost all its denizens were unrecognizable from the perspective of 2014.
When players fail to perform is the manager responsible. Probably not. But, the G.M. who hires you is like a medieval monarch. When the king falls, usually the king’s men lose their heads.
I like Lloyd McClendon, I really do. I’ve written about his honesty, his ability to diffuse the big picture drama, and deal with the day to day stresses of major league baseball. I’m sure this long losing season was not acceptable to him. But I feel like he hung in there, and that his players hung in with him.
I am also not surprised by this. New G.M. Jerry DiPoto is entitled to his own man. And it sounds like he has some guys in mind-Angels coach Tim Bogar, former Padres manager Bud Black, former major leaguer Alex Cora are all mentioned in news reports.
I think Joe Torre remarked that all major league managers know they will be fired someday. Connie Mack is the only man to escape this fate–because he owned the Athletics. My hope is that McClendon has the chance to manage again. He’s done nothing in Seattle to disqualify him for a future post.
I filled out my season ending awards form for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and e-mailed it Saturday. I always find this post-season awards business difficult. I take this responsibility seriously and do my research–because I really don’t follow the National League carefully–and think it’s important to make a good choice. This is how I voted:
AL MVP: 1)Josh Donaldson, 2) Mike Trout, 3) Lorenzo Cain, 4) Miguel Cabrera, 5) Dallas Keuchel, 6) Nelson Cruz, 7) Prince Fielder, 8) Manny Machado, 9) Jose Bautista, 10) Wade Davis
NL MVP: 1) Bryce Harper, 2) Paul Goldschmidt, 3) Andrew McCutcheon, 4) Joey Votto, 5) Yoenis Cespedes, 6) Anthony Rizzo, 7) Jake Arrieta, 8) Buster Posey, 9) Jason Heyward, 10) Zach Greinke
AL Cy Young Award: 1) Dallas Keuchel, 2) David Price, 3) Sonny Gray, 4) Chris Archer, 5) Chris Sale
NL Cy Young Award: 1) Zach Greinke, 2) Jake Arrieta, 3) Clayton Kerhaw, 4) Max Scherzer, 5) John Lackey
AL Rookie of the Year: 1) Carlos Correia, 2) Francisco Lindor, 3) Billy Burns
NL Rookie of the Year: 1) Kris Bryant, 2) Matt Duffy, 3) Joey Syndergaard
AL Manager of the Year 1) A.J. Hinch, 2) Paul Molitor, 3) Joe Girardi
NL Manager of the Year 1) Joe Maddon, 2) Mike Matheny, 3) Terry Collins
AL Reliever of the Year 1) Wade Davis, 2) Dellin Betances, 3) Andrew Miller
NL Reliever of the Year 1) Mark Melancon, 2) Jeurys Familia, 3) Trevor Rosenthal
Clearly some picks were more difficult than others The NL Cy Young selection was super tough because Greinke, Arrieta, and Kershaw were all so amazing. Greinke’s historically low ERA and WHIP won me over. But it could have been a coin flip. I was also puzzled when choosing a reliever. For the AL, Davis was a no-brainer, but the other two both came from the Yankees. Betances was so freaking good, he had to be on the list saves or no. In the NL the choice was tough because Melancon’s overall numbers weren’t as good as Familia and Rosenthal. But it does take something not in the numbers to save 50+ games. If you think it doesn’t I would encourage you to rethink the litany of failed closers we see every year including our own bullpen. That’s 51 saves with two blown saves or a 96%, against a league average 69%. He can be my closer.
With the season behind us, I begin the long darkness of Mariner withdrawal. I am not enough of a baseball fanatic to make myself watch all the playoff games. I cop to being a Mariner fan first, last and always. Both wild card games are pretty interesting, and if I have favorites in the playoffs it’s probably Texas and Chicago. The Rangers and Cubs both overachieved and Texas overcame a bucket of early injuries to get where they are. I love underdogs. A shout out too for the Astros who did what they’ve done a year ahead of schedule. They are so young and good, with more reinforcements on the way, they should be a power in the AL West for years to come.
But don’t expect to see a continued litany of posts on Chatter From the Cheat Seats as the playoffs roll on. I’m happy to comment on any real news–manager status, major changes in management, and any trades or acquisitions. While the blog won’t go dark, it will be quiet. I won’t root in the playoffs, or spread rumors. And I won’t revert to Seahawks commentary. I’m a Mariners fan, and while I am happy for whatever the ‘Hawks can do, and after four games they clearly have their hands full, but I am a baseball person, and let’s just leave it at that.
In closing, I was just thinking over the season, the times that Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz or Cruz and Robbie Cano went back to back. The shot Cruz hit off the train in at Minute Maid Park. The exploits of Ketel Marte and the promise of a new kind of Mariner he represents. And I thought about how Dave Niehaus might have called all of it. It’s hard to accept he’s been gone five years. While I really like Aaron Goldsmith and Ricky, I enjoy Shannon Drayer and think she’s a great baseball writer and blogger, and I’ve even found a way to accept Blowers and Sims, it still hurts to know our Dave, our own Hall of Famer is gone. Some day Dave, we’ll all watch the Mariners in the World Series together. Wait ’til next year.
The Mariners season is done. The lockers are cleaned out. The players have headed home. All that’s left to do is determine who is gone for the season and who will be gone for good.
Two players who won’t be gone for good are outfielder Ramon Flores and pitcher Jose Ramirez. Flores and Ramirez came to Seattle from New York in the Dustin Ackley trade. Flores severely injured an ankle on a soggy field in Tacoma. The Mariners are hoping to give him a long look in spring training–if he is healthy. The M’s got a look at the hard throwing Ramirez. He pitched in 4.2 innings for the Mariners–and gave up six walks. His lack of control is what made him available for Ackley.
Ackley is the former Tarheel and second overall pick in the 2009 draft. Though he went to the Yankees before the July trade deadline, he promptly went on the DL. When he returned, he took over the essentially vacant second base job Robinson Cano left nearly two seasons ago and flashed the same kind of prowess at the plate he showed the Mariners for a month or two at a time. In his 23 games with the Yankees Ackley slashed .288/.333/.654. Today he finds himself getting ready for the AL Wild Card game with the Houston Astros.
Further up north, in Toronto, another former Mariner, Justin Smoak relaxes for a day or two as the Blue Jays, winners of the AL East watch tomorrow’s wild card contest in anticipation of the ALDS. Smoak was never a success with the Mariners, though, like Ackley, he would show flashes of talent. Waived by the Mariners and signed by the Jays in October of 2014. Smoak had a very Smoak-like year. His .226/.299/.470 slash is kind of in line with his career numbers, but a slugging average much higher than his career .392. With only 328 plate appearances, the 28 year-old South Carolinian had 35 extra base hits, including 18 home runs.
Look, I don’t think either player was a raging success with their new teams. In Ackley’s case it’s a super small sample size and who knows what he could do over a full season. Smoak, clearly found a role with the Blue Jays as a left handed partner to right handed Chris Colabello.
What is equally clear is that neither Ackley, one of the best hitters in college baseball history and the consensus best hitter in the draft, and Smoak the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade to Texas, could prosper in Seattle. I’ve always been inclined to believe it was a mental thing. The expectations were too high, the demands were too great and they simply didn’t have the mental toughness to make it work.
It remains to be seen if Ackley can be successful in New York, but he’ll get a chance to show what he can do in a pretty amazing showcase, the AL Wild Card game. He should have a shot at the Yankees second base job in 2016. For Smoak, in going to Toronto he had nothing to lose. He was surrounded by Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Colabello and a plethora of good bats. He played in the Rogers Centre, a bandbox. Smoak didn’t have to be the man, he wasn’t the savior who fell short, as he was in Seattle, he was merely a complementary piece. His performance even pencils out to a 108 OPS+ at first base, a mark he only reached twice in his five seasons with the Mariners.
I’m not sure what it all means. Just another couple of examples of guys who couldn’t get it done in Seattle, but have found a certain amount of success on other teams.
But there is one more former Mariner I would be remiss if I didn’t mention him. Despite leaving Seattle with his quiver of arrows aflame, and the bullpen covered with third degree burns, Fernando Rodney has found a spot in the Chicago Cubs bullpen as the Cubbies head off to the National League Wild Card game. In his 14 appearances with Chicago, Rodney pitched 12 innings, struck out 15 and walked only four. He sports a 0.75 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. Perhaps his career was turned around by his former manager Joe Maddon. Perhaps it was simply sorcery. But another Mariner rose from the scrap heap to be a valuable piece.
Over the years the stories about former Mariners who left Seattle in tatters and made a career elsewhere are legion. It contributes to the view that Seattle can never win, exporting its talent to the Yankees or the Red Sox, for players who cannot help (Jesus Montero and Heathcliff Slocumb.) I’m not sure why it works out this way, but it just seems to.
Former Mariner Kendrys Morales also had a great year for the Royals, and is headed for the playoffs too, but I don’t care. I just don’t like him well enough to waste the electrons.
I’ve said this season was a disappointment enough times-over and over-I’ve made myself nauseous. But it was, and there it is. But if it was disappointing to me, it certainly must have been so to the players. They read the pre-season hype, just like the fans, and I’m sure they had expectations.
And without a doubt Lloyd McClendon had expectations too. Jack Zdurencik went out and got him Nelson Cruz for the middle of his line-up, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton were that much more experienced. Felix and Iwakuma were at the front of his rotation. The young guys-Ackley, Zunino and Miller-were another year older, another year more experienced. And that bullpen. Give me that bullpen any day. And some guys, problem performers, were gone. No more breakage worries with Michael Saunders gone. Justin Smoak was no longer a strikeout waiting to happen in the lineup. More pitching with J.A. Happ to go with a very good rotation. And Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano were a made for each other tandem in the outfield.
Except none of it worked. None of it. The rotation broke when Paxton and Iwakuma went down with injuries and Happ was traded after a month of ineffectiveness. The carefully assembled offensive lineup didn’t produce, the heroics of Nelson Cruz notwithstanding. And the bullpen seemed as though it was struck by lightning. The same guys who formed the best relief corps in Mariners history, suddenly were among the worst. And in a puzzling move, the Smith/Ruggiano tandem wasn’t allowed to function. Cruz went to right field and Ruggiano was banished to Tacoma without explanation.
The Mariners lost, out of the playoffs again. But the season was so weird. The M’s had two abysmal stretches of ineffectiveness. The first was the infamous 2-9 homestand from May 28-June 7th after fighting back to .500 on the road. And then after playing .500 ball most of the rest of the season, and sneaking back within three games of .500 in late September the M’s collapsed utterly going 2-9 over their last 11 games. It’s hard to see how McClendon was somehow responsible for this.The team really didn’t give up, though it definitely had a couple of bad patches. Even at the end, playing through serious injuries, Cano and Cruz insisted on playing. Kyle Seager didn’t miss a game this year.
So how much of this belongs in Lloyd McClendon’s lap; how much is his responsibility? On the Mariners Nation Facebook page I’ve watched fans screaming for Lloyd’s head for a variety of reasons. Players clearly underperformed, the team underperformed, should Lloyd pay the price? The fans were angriest when he regularly ran Fernando Rodney out against all sense and experience. But they didn’t know that McClendon wanted Rodney and his $7.5 million salary gone. a month before he was released. More importantly, there was nobody to replace him with. Tom Wilhelmsen, Joe Beimel, Danny Farquar, Mayckol Guaipe, David Rollins: all were B-A-D. Only Carson Smith seemed consistently decent, until he was overworked and suffered setbacks as a result.
Though he not so secretly loves the M’s, ESPN’s Sweetspot writer David Schoenfeld wrote in his preseason comments that while he was picking the Mariners to win the AL West, they were the most fragile team. If there was injury or underperformance by one of three key players, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz or Felix Hernandez, they would have a hard time winning. In another pre-season article he identified Rodney as one of the most flammable closers in the league, one that could cost the Mariners games and maybe their playoff hopes. Cano struggled the first half of the season with illness and ineffectiveness and Rodney was, well, that guy Schoenfeld wrote about. Should McClendon’s job be on the hook for this?
I don’t hold McClenon responsible for the team’s failure any more than I think he is responsible for their success on the field. Too many things went sideways for him to own this. I do think he has a bad habit, and that is just being done with a player. Lloyd McClendon, like Lou Piniella, has a dog house and when a player is in it, it’s really hard to get out of it. Erasmo Ramirez was in Lloyd’s doghouse, was shipped off to Tampa Bay and had a decent year. Ruggiano was in his dog house and never recovered, though he had a good year in Tacoma.
I wonder if McClendon had the complete power to make on-field decisions. I’d like to believe he did. But the early abandonment of the Smith/Ruggiano platoon in favor of Cruz in right field leaves me suspicious. The Mariners are as good as any team in MLB at maintaining that opaque curtain of secrecy. Cruz made no secret when he met with the Seattle media the first time that he found DH’ing boring. Did Zdurencik instruct McClendon to play Cruz in right field? Did Ruggiano react negatively to the reduced playing time, inspiring Lloyd to wash his hands of him?
I’ve always liked McClendon. I think he is frank with his players and with the press. He does everything he can to isolate his team from drama, and seems focused on the day to day. He doesn’t seem to be a great field tactician, although he sure seemed like a wizard with the bullpen in 2014 when he had something to work with. I think he’s deserving of that last year remaining on his contact.
But my gut tells me he’s gone. DiPoto will want his own man, one he can trust and collaborate with, who sees the game with his eyes. I can’t say I blame him after his experience with the Angels. I also think his analytics philosophy may be further along than Lloyd’s, and that may require a different guy, who is more comfortable using them on the field.
Your Seattle Mariners won the final game of the season to end a two game losing streak It ends a pretty tough ending to the 162 game campaign, as the Mariners finished 2-9. Though the M’s hovered around the fringes of playoff contention until they steamed into Kansas City on September 22nd, they were never seriously in the playoff picture the entire year. Their season was undone by injury and underperformance in all parts of the game-offense, starting pitching and relief pitching.
However the beloved Sea-town nine did have an opportunity to finish the season right. The Chicago White Sox had a one game lead over the M’s, going into the final game; the Sox had the 11th worst record (76-85) in the major leagues and the Mariners had the 10th worst (75-86.) Nevertheless, the two teams, terrible as they were, still had a prize to fight over. The ten teams with the worst records in baseball are exempt from surrendering their first round draft pick if they sign a free agent pick receiving a qualifying offer from their team, the best free agents available in the upcoming class. The Mariners gave up their first round pick in 2015 to the Baltimore Orioles after signing right fielder/designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
The Mariners started the day with a one game advantage. Unfortunately, the White Sox failed to do their part, Playing the Detroit Tigers at home starting pitcher Frankie Montas coughed up a run in the first and the visiting team never looked back. The Tigers shut out the ChiSox 6-0 to end a disappointing season for both teams. The Chicago loss left them at 76-86, tied in the loss column as the Mariners entered play for the final time in 2015.
Disappointing news sure, but the Mariners had this one in the bag from the start. They were starting swingman Vidal Nuno on the heels of a 13 inning duel to the death with the visiting Oakland A’s on Saturday. The depleted bullpen was further diminished as manager Lloyd McClendon ran out seven relievers in support of a fine effort by Roenis Elias, but to no avail as J.C. Ramirez barfed up a two run gopher ball to Marcus Semiens in the 13th and the M’s surrendered a quiet 1,2, 3 in their half of the inning.
Yes, the Mariners had every reason to steam into their season finale with their daubers down and their minds on going home. Adding to the previous night’s debacle was the news that Cruz injured his groin and would not play. The odds were stacked against them, the 10th spot seemed theirs.
And things certainly started out right. Nuno gave up two runs in the third when Oakland center fielder Craig Gentry tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by catcher Brian Anderson. First baseman Marc Canha followed with a solo homer, A’s lead 2-0. But the M’s, playing in front of 22,407 faithful on a lovely fall afternoon did not remain silent long, scoring single runs in the fourth inning and tied the game in the sixth. Nuno failed to perform his usual early inning collapsing act, got through six innings and turned it over to the relief corps. I swear I saw a guy in the stands smiling grotesquely and flicking his lighter. Immolation of the season finale was pre-ordained.
But no. Mayckol Guaipe, he of a dozen late inning meltdowns (it was just one pitch that did it,) pitched to two batters and only surrendered a walk. Logan Kensing dragged his 6.59 ERA and 1.390 WHIP, and having pitched .2 innings in the Saturday night debacle spun 1.2 perfect innings! The M’s miraculously remained tied with the A’s 2-2. In the bottom of the eighth, with the Mariners having mustered only five hits and remaining silent since they scored in the 6th, were in the process of exiting their at bat quietly when Seth Smith stepped into the batters box to face righty reliever Ryan Dull. Smith has been god-awful since I wrote my piece about him, hitting .204 in August and .216 in September. Of course the Mariners got Smith to punish right handed pitching, and Smith did just that driving a pitch 409 feet, just over the center field fence. Tom Wilhelmsen, who blew his second save in the ninth inning on Saturday night, somehow found his composure, his fastball and his curve all in one game sealed the deal. M’s win 3-2.
So the Mariners and White Sox both finish the season at 76-86. Could be worse, right? There must be some gentleman’s test of skill to settle this? Coin flip? Rock, paper, scissors? Pistols at twenty paces? No, sorry. Remember last year when the Mariners had that awesome season that left them within one Fernando Rodney blown save, one Justin Smoak called third strike with the bases loaded, one Kendrys Morales pop up with the tying run on third away from the playoffs? It was much better than Chicago’s 73-89 spanking in 2014, so the pick belongs to them.
Unfortunately it leaves General Manager Jerry DiPoto with some difficult decisions. Does he go after a top flight arm like David Price and surrender the team’s first round pick, or does he concede an impactful free agent signing in the interest of rebuilding the depleted Mariner farm system? It don’t get no easier.
Two more games to go, and honestly they are tough to watch. The M’s pitching woes have really caught up with them. Though I’d love to see them clobber the A’s the White Sox have also edged ahead of the M’s and dropped them into the bottom 10 allowing them to sign a class A free agent without surrendering their first round draft choice. I think it’s a good time to rest the injured Nelson Cruz and Robbie Cano.
With the season nearly flushed down the drain, it’s time to give some year end awards. I know the baseball writers have given theirs already, and I’m ready to give mine. They’ll be somewhat different, but what the heck.
Mariners MVP: Nelson Cruz
I can’t tell you how much I was torn when the M’s signed Nelson Cruz to a four year deal back on December 4th. They’d missed out on Victor Martinez, who had the better year in 2014, and Cruz sort of seemed like a consolation prize. But I’ve been impressed, truly. Cruz has been a gamer, showed up to play every day, and led the team in virtually every category. When this team was offensively offensive in the first couple months of the season, I could depend on some great performance of the Nelson Cruz show. He is the first Mariners right handed hitter since Richie Sexson to seemingly not be intimidated by Safeco Field. That said, at age 35, this is the best year of Cruz’s career. It is hard to imagine he is able to repeat this performance. His batting average of .291 with runners in scoring position doubtless leads the team, but it is not clutch. He also leads the team in strikeouts with 161, and is a defensive liability in right field.I will happily cast my vote for Nelson Cruz for M’s DH in 2016.
Honorable Mention: Robinson Cano
it’s been such a weird year for Cano. Intestinal parasites. Abdominal strains. A terrible start. Cano has been such a gamer his entire career, it was weird, disconcerting and frightening to see him struggle so much throughout April and May. But he came roaring back through the last three months of the season, amassing monster numbers in July, August, and September. The Mariners will need him to resolve his hernia issues early so he can be that same season-ending Cano in April.
Mariners Pitcher of the Year: Taijuan Walker
I know, I know, the writers gave this to the King. But I didn’t, and more about that later. Nope I gave my award to Taijuan Walker. Walker was drafted as a high school teenager, has always had lots of promise, and this year he started to show some of that promise. This was Walker’s first full big league season and his season ending numbers aren’t that impressive. ERA of 4.56, ERA+ of 83 (100 is average,) Fielding Indepdent Pitching, FIP, is 4.07 (league average is 3.88,) and is WHIP was a tish below league average at 1.196. But don’t just look at those. Take a look at his game logs. Walker was 11-9 this year. In his first nine starts he lost seven games. They were mostly a combination of horrendous and “cover your eyes Martha!” But in his 10th start on May 29th, a 2-1 victory over Cleveland, Walker began to figure it out. After May his walk numbers, which previously were terrible. began to diminish. In June he had a K/BB ratio of 12:1. His ERA in April and May was 6.86 and 5.74 respectively. His OPS+ allowed in those months was 131 and 126 well above average. He was terrible. But, Walker turned it around. June and July were very good months, and he struggled more as the season wore on. But here are some thoughts I would leave you with. 1) Walker finished the season with 169.2 innings pitched and 159 strikeouts, second on the team. 2.) In his last 20 starts, beginning with the May 29th game, he pitched at least six innings in 16 of those games. In none of those games did we see the disastrous early inning meltdown in the first or second innings we saw J.A. Happ, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, and even King Felix have at various moments this year. If Taijuan Walker is not yet fully realized as a number one or two starter, we’ve seen examples of the pitcher he could become. I watched Walker pitch in Tacoma. He had overpowering stuff he couldn’t locate consistently. Lots of balls, lots of walks; he was usually boring to watch, and he began the season that way But in June, when the Mariners rotation was combination of a hospital ward and the hopelessly lost, it was Hernandez and Walker who held down the fort.I can’t wait to see him in 2016.
Honorable Mention: Felix Hernandez.
Yes, King Felix led the staff in every way imaginable–wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, you name it. He made all his scheduled starts. But this is not the King we are accustomed to seeing. His innings are down. His ERA is its highest since 2007, and his ERA+ is lowest since 2006. His BB/9 rate is its highest in five years and his K/9 rate is its lowest in five years. Reasons to be worried? Maybe, I don’t know. I am a great believer that a pitcher has only so many bullets in their arms. Is Felix running out of bullets? In 2014 he threw 236.0 innings, which is 32 more innings than he threw in 2013, was that an impact on his performance? Is this the beginning of the King’s decline? I have no idea. Felix has assured the press he had mechanical issues all year he needs to work on. What is clear, however, is that there is no sure thing in baseball, but Felix is the closest to a sure thing the M’s have had. If they hope to compete for the playoffs next year they’ll need him to find his old self.
Most Amazing Mariners Story: Franklin Gutierrez
I’ve written at length about Gutierrez. I’m ecstatic that he was able to come back and play an important role in the Mariners mini-resurgence at the end of the year. I’m hoping Jerry DiPoto can find a role for him on next year’s team if he is healthy enough to come back. It seems to me Guti is still a useful right-handed bat and can still play the a corner outfield spot. An off-the bencher for sure, but the great Mariners teams had great veteran benches. Gutierrez is every bit as good as the Doug Stranges and Stan Javiers of the good old days. .
If you didn’t have a chance to catch new General Manager Jerry DiPoto’s introduction to the local press I encourage you to take a look. Unfortunately it’s less than three minutes of his talk.
This follows last night’s two-hour meeting with Manager Lloyd McLendon.
What struck me, first of all, is his honesty. He is clear that he will make mistakes beginning today. Jack Zdurencik never admitted to a mistake–ever. He also explained that while he liked Lloyd McClendon personally, he likened their pairing to a long distance relationship, one that is yet to develop into one that can work long-term.
Most of all I liked things that didn’t appear in video, but rather in Greg Johns’ story.
- He likes the Mariners core of Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager
- It’s important the team have plan A, but it needs a plan B for contingencies in case of serious injury or if a key player under performs the plan.
- The Mariners must construct a roster that can succeed at Safeco Field
- To that end, the team needs to acquire and develop players that are more athletic.
- The bullpen needs an immediate rebuild.
Needless to say, these are all music to my ears. In the coming months DiPoto and his team will make decisions that are likely to make waves. But from a fan’s perspective, a fan who is willing to put his views out for the two or three people who read these musings, it was nice to think the Mariners GM shares many of my same views on what it will take to make the M’s better from a big picture. It will be interesting to see how he gets it done.
Amid a five game losing skid at the tail end of a season full of disappointment, significant news about the Mariners for the rest of 2015 is likely to occur off the field. I suppose it’s possible James Jones will hit for the cycle, or Vidal Nuno will toss a no-no, but at this point we are watching the last twitching of the 2015 Mariners cadaver.
But I am buoyed with the news today that former Angels GM Jerry DiPoto was hired to fill the vacant GM job. I’ll go into my reasons for optimism about DiPoto shortly, but I really do think Mariners management, particularly baseball operations chief Kevin Mather. are due for some recognition. When he fired former GM Jack Zdurencik, Mather shared his preference for an experienced GM, and he got one. But he did it without resorting to aging retreads like Kevin Towers, Dan O’ Dowd or Larry Beinfest.
Mather also made it clear he wanted to hire a manager who had a variety of skills, knew what he didn’t know, and was comfortable having people around him who could help. Mather’s statement today indicates that DiPoto seems to fit that bill.
During our conversations over the past few weeks, it became clear to me that he has a very solid understanding of our team and organization, both where we are and where we want to be. And he has a strategy to get us there. Few candidates bring the combination of playing the game, scouting, a solid understanding of statistical metrics and a plan for player development.
Mather also made good on his promise to make an early decision. I was surprised a decision was made with six games left to play in the regular season. But the early hire allows DiPoto the opportunity to have his staff together prior to the beginning of the off-season, ready to go with a plan when the free-agent period begins. By contrast Jack Zdurencik wasn’t hired until October 22, 2009.
Will DiPoto succeed where Bill Bavasi and Zdurencik failed? Only time will tell. But one can point to players drafted and developed under DiPoto’s leadership from 2011-2015 and draw some conclusions. They include:
Kole Calhoun age 27. Joined Angels in 2012
C.J. age 25. Joined Angels in 2014
Mike Trout age 23. Joined Angels in 2011
Garrett Richards age 27. Joined Angels in 2011
Dipoto has drafted and developed players and he’s made a passel of trades. Pedro Moura graded his moves for the Orange County Register after his July resignation. Check them out and see what you think. Some hits and some misses. But there is also little doubt in my mind that he was doomed in his job. Angels owner Arte Moreno is a meddler and forced the signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton on the Angels GM. Hamilton was a disaster, and the Pujols contract will be, sooner rather than later. When manager Mike Sciosia refused to use on-field analytics in his game planning, he received the support of the owner, leaving DiPoto to do little more than say “Later . . .” and head out the door.
My view is that DiPoto is a great middling choice. He’s see both sides of the ball-as a player, a scout, and an executive. He embraces analytics but will also employ traditional scouting methods. He’s not all one thing or another. He’s been around longer than highly though of Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler, but isn’t one the persistently recycled MLB old guard. Does that mean he’ll win immediately? No. Does that mean he’ll please the fan base with his decisions? No.
And just one more point. Be ready for more changes. There will be moves made in the front office and on the field from Safeco Field to Everett Memorial Stadium. It is unusual for a new GM to keep the old field manger around. While views of Lloyd McClendon’s acumen are mixed at best, it’s unlikely he survives this new hiring. Given his relationship with Sciosia, I can’t imagine DiPoto won’t insist on his own guy loyal to him. Another casualty, a little closer to home, however, is likely to be Edgar Martinez. By all accounts Edgar has helped players like Robinson Canoe and Mark Trumbo turn their seasons around. However, a new field manager is likely to insist on their own choice for a hitting coach . A new guy, wanting collaborators he knows and trusts, is likely to pass on the greatest hitter in Mariner history. It’s just business. But that’s the price for failure.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s press conference.
As the M’s chances of a respectable finish to the 2015 season begin slip, sliding away, it’s time to look at what they might think about for next season. When my team is out of it, why not offer some prescriptions and see if my medicine as the same the new GM will offer.
Let’s start with the outfield, but it offers the most complex challenges. The Mariners currently have an outfield that looks something like this: Seth Smith against right handed pitching in LF or RF, Franklin Gutierrez in LF playing fairly regularly, Mark Trumbo is getting at bats in a corner outfield position, Nelson Cruz in RF, but not at the present time due his quad injury. Brad Miller and Shawn O’Malley are sharing time in center field. That’s a lot of guys sharing three spots, but to be expected this time of year because of the increased roster size and the team wants to get a look at who might help them in the future. Here is my view:
End the Cruz era in right field
One of the wise things Jack Zdurencik did in 2015 finale was identify and sign the best right handed hitter available in Nelson Cruz. And Cruz has paid off. While not perfect, the man is still a strikeout machine, he has some of the best offensive numbers in the league, and exceeded my wildest expectations, and just as importantly, the complaints of critics of his signing. But he was signed to be the DH. Yet within a week of the regular season’s start he was the Mariners starting right fielder. For all of his offensive accomplishments, Nelson Cruz is not a good right fielder, and this is historical not just in 2015. In his time with the Brewers and Rangers from 2005-2010, his defensive numbers, as they appear on FanGraphs were above average. From 2011-2015 they are below average, with the exception of 2014 when he played in somewhat smaller Camden Yards. His UZR/150 for 2015 are a career worst -11.8. That’s nearly an additional 12 runs per season allowed above an average right fielder. There is a tradeoff to consider. According to his season splits, Cruz definitely was a better hitter as a right fielder. He played 80 games in the outfield and his slash is .337/.402/.670, while in his 65 games as a DH he was .272/.348/.468. However, Nelson Cruz is also 35 years old. His performance as an outfielder is likely to continue its decline. Another consideration in this, is he has been remarkably injury free with the exception of his quad condition late in the season. That has not always been his history. I’m not saying this is an easy choice to make, but I believe if Cruz can find more comfort as a DH it will help the team.
Adopt a run prevention model for the outfield.
Of all the guys I mentioned who are coming back to the outfield, the only sure bet is Seth Smith. He has a contract through next year with a team option. There are no other players, whose primary position is outfield. This allows the new GM to be as creative as he can afford to be. It makes sense to bring back Franklin Gutierrez to share time with Smith and fill in at the other corner. But that still leaves the team without a center fielder and they’ll need at least one more outfielder. In my world I would look for the best defensive outfielders I can find. The bulk of the Mariners thump is on the infield-Seager, Cano, Marte (in his own way,) Trumbo/Morrison, Cruz at DH. The Mariners don’t have to have big, slow slugging outfielders. In fact they should be looking in the opposite direction. The outfielder needs a total makeover, composed of athletic talented defenders who can also get on base for the sluggers who follow them, and support the pitching staff with their gloves. This is more likely to be a winning combination for playing half a season at Safeco Field. Here are some free agent players available who may fit the bill:
Denard Span (32)– .301/.362/.431 wRC+ 120. Span was injured most of this year and had a poor year defensively with a -10.3 UZR/150. At 32, his age may be working against him.
Dexter Fowler (30)– .249/.345/.418 wRC+ 110. Fowler has never been a great fielder, but was average with the Cubs this year. Low batting average, strikes out a ton, but also has some speed, some power, and takes his walks.
Colby Rasmus (29)-.232/.302/.430 wRC+ 99. Rasmus has the virtue of being able to play all three outfield positions pretty well, though his best is center field. He’s had trouble sticking with one team due to an inconsistent bat. But with his combination of defense, thump and affordability he could be intriguing
Jason Heyward (26)– .288/.353/.423 wRC+ 116. Heyward is likely to be the most spendy player in the off season–certainly at least among position players. But there is also little question he is the best offensive and defensive outfielder available. Win now Mariners?
Alex Gordon (32)-.280/.380/.435 wRC+ 117. Alex Gordon is as fine a left fielder defensively and offensively as there is in the game. It is hard to imagine he won’t exercise his option for 2016 with the Royals. But if he’s looking further afield, there aren’t many better players for a revamped Mariners outfield.
Austin Jackson (29) .265/.307/.378 wRC+ 92 Ah, an old friend. Despite utterances to the contrary, Jackson had a better year offensively and defensively than 2014. Of the names above, he is the weakest offensive player, but someone whose skills were never suited to his role as a lead-off hitter. He had an above average year defensively and he knows Safeco and Seattle.
The Brad Miller Experiment
We finished the season with lots of opportunities to see Brad Miller roaming center field. The result? Small sample size so it’s way too early to tell. But the early defensive numbers are terrible–too awful to repeat here, they will frighten small children. But you can look. See those big negative numbers; those are bad. I don’t know if Miller can be transformed into a regular outfielder. I don’t like the idea, but there are certainly plenty of cases in which moving a player from the outfield has worked. You can start with Dustin Ackley who became a pretty decent left fielder. Alex Gordon is another player who failed as a third baseman, but became a really good left fielder. You’ll notice they were corner outfielders. Miller could become one of those–probably an at least average one. I don’t like the idea of Miller in center field. I don’t believe you give a guy who has never played the position the responsibility of positioning other players, requiring the best reads off the bat and the best instincts, determining the best routes to the ball–that’s just a lot. Miller may become a good outfielder; he may even become a good centerfielder–Robin Yount did it. But Robin Yount is a Hall of Famer, and, dream as we might, Brad Miller is not. No, you don’t give a new 16 year old driver the keys to a Lamorghini. Miller could fill a corner outfield spot as he continues to work on his game. My own personal view is that Miller may be most valuable as a trading chip, one of the few the Mariners have, but maybe he could mature into a nice corner outfielder.
I know, you always take the best player available. But look, the Mariners are in a very tough spot. This team has not developed a major league level outfielder in the entire time Jack Zdurencik was here. There are some marginal guys like James Jones, there are some guys who became outfielders like Stefen Romero and Patrick Kivlehan in Tacoma, even first rounder Alex Jackson from 2014, but they are athletes and bat first guys, not players who were drafted as outfielders. I have repeatedly stated my objections to taking a hitter, sticking a glove on their hand, waving a magic wand and stating “You are now an outfielder,” and hoping for the best. Corey Hart, Michael Morse, Logan Morrison, Mark Trumbo. These are all players who came to the Mariners in the hopes they could play a position requiring considerably more athletic ability than they had. Not their fault, the numbers were all right there for the Z-man to see. Perhaps if he thought they were important he’d still have a job. No, this team must give attention to the outfield position in the draft. Ken Griffey, Jr. and Adam Jones, the two best outfielders ever developed by the Mariners, were both No. 1 picks.
Wednesday night the M’s managed to stake Roenis Elias to 3-1 lead by the time he left in the 6th inning. But the bullpen, as it has most of the season, was unable to to hold it. Closer Tom Wilhelmsen, after five days of inactivity wasn’t sharp, gave up the tying run in the ninth, and inevitably a variety of Rollins’, Zychs and whoever else was handy made short work of things in the 10th.
Last night’s game was strictly ant-climax as an early injury to starter James Paxton led to a string of relievers who helped the Royals to one of those all-too familiar double digit romps, 10-4 over the visiting boys from Seattle. The Royals clinched their first division title in 30 years, while the Mariners clinched a final road series to LA before returning to Seattle to play out the string.
For those of you counting the ways the M’s can sneak into the division title or find the secret entrance into the wild card race, you’re running out of games and fingers. The division leading Rangers are red-hot and have a 9.5 game lead and the M’s have nine games left to play. The M’s are six games out of the wild card race with six teams in front of them for the final spot.
Even my modest goals of finishing at .500 and catching the hated Angels seem unlikely after these two losses. The M’s are 4.5 games behind the demons from Orange County. They would have to go 8-1 over their final games to reach .500. With Taijuan Walker being held out to limit his innings, and James Paxton possibly injured, the M’s would have to cobble together four pretty amazing starts from the likes of Vidal Nuno and some combination of bullpen swill in order to have a shot at that.
The one possibility at satisfaction is for the Mariners to breeze into the Big A tonight and take three from the Angels. Knocking those red shirted, haloed, buggers out of the wild card race would be good enough.
The M’s have played some pretty good ball over the past few weeks, but they didn’t leave any margin for error. The team just waited a little too long for to play up to their talent level. The little tease is over.