Looking at the M’s with a critical eye

The bandwagon for the Mariners is growing more and more crowded as SI put Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano on one of its regional covers.  I’m hoping for the best as M’s steam into the closing weeks of the Cactus League schedule.

Events seem to be pointing toward a good year ahead, but it’s hard to tell how much is hype and punditry, and how much is reliable.  Lloyd McLendon predicted the team should score 700 runs.  Jim Moore on ESPN 710 suggested the M’s would hit 200 home runs. In these offense-starved times, that’s quite a prescription for famished Mariners hitters.  The M’s scored only 634 runs in 2014, and only five teams in the American League plated 700 or more scores last year, down from ten in 2013.  200 home run seasons are mostly a vestige of the steroids era and not the present pitching-dominant present. Only Baltimore in the AL hit over 200 home runs as a team in 2014, the same as in 2013.  But Kansas City went to the World Series last year with only 95 dingers, the fewest in the major leagues.

Despite the predictions, the hope, and the crowding of the upper deck on the bandwagon, I continue to have nagging concerns about this team’s ability to put it all together.  So I’ve avoided anointing the 2015 Mariners as anything more than hopefuls.  Here are the alarms that continue going off in my head:

Shortstop: When Chris Taylor went down with a broken wrist ten days ago, the shortstop job went to Brad Miller by default.  Miller is a wonderful athlete,  with a strong arm, powerful bat and speed, long on potential, but not quite able to put it all together for 2014.  The competition between Taylor and Miller pitted two players, both with potential and short of major league success in competition for the same job.  Taylor was the better defender, and an unproven hitter at the major league hitter.  Miller, capable of making the spectacular play in the field was plagued with defensive inconsistency.  With Miller installed as the de facto Mariner shortstop, the weight of expectations now falls firmly on his shoulders.  Though improved offensive production will make the Mariners better, run prevention is what got them where they were last year, and will fuel their success this year.  A shortstop who can’t make the plays makes the pitching staff worse.  Miller must be at least league average defensively for the Mariners to win.  Improved offensive production is icing on the cake.

Closer: Fernando Rodney is the Mariners closer and that is etched in stone, according to McClendon. It cannot be denied the Mariners bullpen was much improved, in no small part because the veteran Rodney was the leader who helped establish roles everyone easily could slot into. As a result, Rodney saved 48 games and blew only three saves.  But that doesn’t mean everything was rosy. The Fernando Rodney Flying Circus and High Wire Act grew wearisome as the year went on.  Rodney always seemed to be in trouble of his own making, walking guys and giving up hits instead of getting outs. Fangraphs shows Rodney with an unacceptably high walk rate of 3.8 BB/9 and a ridiculously high .330 BABIP.  David Schoenfeld at ESPN, rating all closers in the majors, rated Rodney at 24th and “Cover Your Eyes and Keep the Kids Away.”  Rodney is only three seasons removed from a historically dominant season with the Rays, so it’s likely the 38 year old still has it, but he’s got to get it done for the Mariners to succeed.  Putting men on base puts too much pressure on the defense, and every ninth inning becomes an unnecessary trip to ulcer gulch–or disaster.  The M’s were only one win away from he playoffs last year. Blown saves are part of the game, but let’s not be ridiculous.

Platoons and Parts: I like the roster flexibility the platoons give McClendon.  The Mariners will finally be able to mix and match the strengths of their roster against opposing teams.  Whenever critics carp about platoons I always remind them of Baltimore’s lefty/righty combo of John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke in the early 80’s. Together they combined for 36 homers in 1979, 45 in 1982 and 34 in 1983.  The problem in depending on platoons, as the M’s will be in both left and right field, is the team is depending on multiple parts to make one position work.  I’m not being critical of this effort to answer the needs at those positions, but it depends on two guys being successful at those positions instead of one. As long as Justin Ruggiano AND Seth Smith provide the expected production, all is well.  But if there is an injury, or if one of the two has a bad year, that’s a problem. The M’s can’t reach into the minors and reproduced Ackley and Weeks expected production.  In 1980 Lowenstein and Roenicke produced well below their career averages to hit only ten home runs.  Homers aren’t the end all be all, but if you’re depending on players for production, they need to produce.  Platoons double the chances a position won’t produce. My fingers are crossed.

The Mariners could be the big winners in the AL this year, but there are some key positions that are problematic.  My hope is that I’m needlessly worrying.  But to ignore them is simply whistling past the bandwagon graveyard.

Two weeks until Opening Day

The interest in this Mariners team is something I haven’t seen in at least a decade.  The interest, the expectations, the WAR-counting by even casual fans is intense. If the Mariners were hoping to generate a fan buzz that hasn’t been here for a long time they’ve succeeded.  Opening night is sold out, though the proof of sustained interest isn’t the ticket sales for April 6th, it’s the sales for the 7th and 8th.

I want to be on the rah-rah train and scream the Mariners will win it all along with the national and local press. Unfortunately all I can think about is the 2014 Texas Rangers and their pennant hopes derailed by a carload of injuries.  Worse still, I remember being in the Kingdome for Opening Night of the 1992 season.  Newly acquired Kevin Mitchell was in left field and Randy Johnson pitched the M’s to an 8-3 lead heading into the 8th.  Closer Mike Schooler came in and gave up four of nine runs surrendered to the Rangers in the 8th, and the M’s imploded on the way to a 12-10 loss and 92 more in a season of high expectations and a horrible pitching staff.

I’m not suggesting for a minute this team is doomed, or that it shouldn’t contend.  But I’m willing to withhold judgment and allow the games to be played out. It will reduce my Zantac consumption as well as my sleepless nights. i’m not a big believer in Steamer, FANS, ZiPS, or the Magic 8-ball. Just play the damn games.

That said, it’s hard not to like the way the team is shaping up.  One of the big questions heading into Arizona was the fifth pitcher on the staff. Roenis Elias hasn’t pitched terribly, but Taijuan Walker seems to grabbed the job with good outings each time. J.A. Happ has looked good.  Today James Paxton had his first outing after an early minor injury and looked good.  Heck the whole team looked good as they pummeled the hapless Rangers 8-0, who look to be headed for the same injury train wreck of last year.

The shortstop competition was settled by default when Chris Taylor broke a bone in his wrist.  Sidelined for 4-6 weeks, the job was left wide open for Brad Miller.  Is Miller the guy? It’s hard to judge based on Spring Training numbers, but clearly there’s one less option available if Miller falters out of the gate as he did last year.  I have my fingers crossed. They were crossed for Mike Schooler too.

The bullpen situation also seems to be sorting itself out.  Though Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen have had their rough moments, again one shouldn’t make too much out of spring training.  The lefties competition seems to be playing itself out with the competition coming down to David Rollins, the Rule 5 selection from Arizona, and Tyler Olson.  Both have been superb. But with Olson having minor league options, and Rollins having to be returned to Arizona if he isn’t put on the major league options, it seems he’s the likely keeper.  Rollins looked great in today’s game. Though Joe Saunders apparently remains in the competitions for the second lefty job, he’s been incinerated in each of his outings, so it’s hard to imagine he’ll win it.

It looks like the competitions are largely over, though Lloyd McClendon is unlikely to say so.  The main challenge the M’s will have for the next couple of weeks is to keep everyone healthy, and insure the regulars get enough playing time to get sharp for Opening Night.

Just one more thing.  I can say almost unreservedly I like the way the Mariners have constructed this team, and the way they seem to be positioning themselves for future seasons.  This team still has a lot of young players.  Zunino, Miller, Ackley, Seager, Paxton, Walker, the platoons of guys in the bullpen are all still quite young.  But they’ve also brought in some veteran guys, some in starting roles like Cano and Cruz, and others who will share roles like Ruggiano, Smith and Weeks. There is just enough depth on the team to give guys a break from the M’s horrendous travel schedule and to ease minor hurts.  But, best of all, this team, unlike past Mariners teams, are beginning to stockpile talent in the minors. There is no rush to bring up Patrick Kivlehan or D.J. Peterson, or even John Hicks. Danny Hultzen can take his time getting ready because Roenis Elias is likely to be the Rainiers staff ace. With the Mariners only carrying seven in the bullpen, Carson Smith or Dominic Leone are likely to close in Tacoma.  This is different for the M’s, and I like it.

Brandon Bostick and Alex Rodriguez: two pieces worth reading

Brandon Bostick will live in Packer lore as the guy who gave away the 2014 NFC title game.  He screwed the pooch.  He fumbled the ball.  He’s the guy who misplayed the onside kick with the Packers leading 19-14 with two minutes and seven seconds left.  He’s Fred Merkle and Bill Buckner, an athlete who will always be remembered for his transformative failure, rather than his success on the field-John Pesky slow to the plate to nab Enos Slaughter in ’46, Ralph Branca’s meatball to Bobby Thompson.

Brandon Bostick will be forever remembered as the guy who muffed the onside kick in the NFC title game.  He wants us to remember he's so much more than that.

Brandon Bostick will be forever remembered as the guy who muffed the onside kick in the NFC title game. He wants us to remember he’s so much more than that.

Bostick was cut early in the offseason by Green Bay.  He shares his recurring memories of his moments, the death threats, the numbness he feels when recounting the play in a great piece on SI.MMQB.  It is well worth a read if for no other reason than to remember that those we often hate so much when they fail are simply people who desperately want to succeed, to support their teammates and win fan approval.  And when they fail, it is simply devastating. Bostick has since hooked on with Packers arch-rival, the Minnesota Vikings, so perhaps there will be some poetic justice with his new team.

Alex Rodriguez is one of my least favorite players in baseball. From the moment he signed with the Mariners in ’93, I’ve found him too cute, too disingenuous, too contrived, and utterly dishonest.  Leave aside for a moment the statistics, the incredible millions, the ridiculous contracts given him by the Rangers and the Yankees, and yes the World Series rings, I find him the walking embodiment of the worst that baseball spawned during the steroids era. Combined with Rodriguez’s own efforts to control how the public sees him, it makes him my least favorite ballplayer ever.  Worse than Pete Rose, worse than Denny McClain, worse than Bonds, worse than anybody else

ESPN gets inside Alex Rodriguez's head as he ends his year off and prepares to rejoin the Yankees.

ESPN gets inside Alex Rodriguez’s head as he ends his year off and prepares to rejoin the Yankees.

ESPN the Magazine is featuring a lengthy look inside A-Rod and what he has done in the wake of last year’s suspension.  It’s all about his efforts to shake up his own view of himself. as he prepares for his return to the Yankees.  J.R. Moehringer has done remarkable work to get inside the slugger’s life and paint a balanced, somewhat sympathetic portrait of A-Rod’s recent struggles.  I almost began to feel sorry for him.  Then I went and washed my brain out with soap.

Haven’t gotten your brain past sports radio lately? These are two great articles and they don’t cost nothin’. Get out there and read

Buzzards luck: Jurickson Profar, Michael Saunders and Josh Hamilton

On Monday we heard that James Paxton fell in an agility drill, injuring both his forearms as he caught himself in what he called “an unathletic moment.” Though everyone agrees this injury is minor, and embarrassing, there is little question the Mariner community held its collective breath as the big left-hander was held out of drills this week.  After losing the big left-hander for most of last season, the M’s want to be sure Paxton is available for the long haul, rather than focusing on the first few days of spring training. General manager Jack Zdurencik was quite  clear about this point

“He’s saying he feels good,” Zduriencik said. “But we’re not going to make him come out and throw until it’s completely quieted down. It doesn’t make sense this early.”

Last year was an incredibly tough year for injuries in major league baseball, especially for pitchers, and the Mariners are right to bend over backwards to protect Paxton, a projected key contributor to this year’s pennant chasing team.

But, so far in this early pre-season, other teams have not been quite so lucky. Last year’s Rangers team was utterly devastated by injuries, especially to their pitching staff, but most of the starting lineup was out too. Last week the Rangers announced that all-everything phenom, Jurickson Profar had an unresolved shoulder injury and will have surgery that likely costs him the 2015 season.  Profar was the number one ranked prospect in baseball in 2013. It was Profar’s emergence in 2013 that allowed the Rangers to trade Ian Kinsler to the Tigers for Prince Fielder.  Subsequently, Fielder ended up playing only a quarter of the season before ending up on the DL.  Profar, likewise hurt, ended up missing the entire 2014 season. Fielder should be back, but Profar is likely out. The Rangers, with enough talent when healthy to compete for the AL West, begin their year with a hand tied behind their back.

It was announced today that former Mariner, Michael Saunders, suffered a serious knee injury in the first days of spring training.  Unfortunately, this one is more severe than Paxton’s fall. Saunders stepped in a soft spot surrounding a sprinkler head in the Blue Jays’ Dunedin, Florida playing field, tearing the meniscus in his left knee.

My foot got jammed,” a visibly dejected Saunders told a group of reporters on Thursday. “To be honest, I don’t know exactly how it happened. It stopped me in my tracks and I heard a pop. I was scared to find out, so I just did my best to get off the field and not draw any attention until I saw the training staff.”

MRI test confirmed the results, and it is unlikely that Saunders, an off-season acquisition for Toronto will return the lineup until the All-Star break. Very tough break for The Condor, a ballplayer I’ve always liked, because he was traded largely because he couldn’t stay healthy and in the lineup.  Now the Jays have to scurry and figure out who can play left field as Saunders recovers.  Tough on the player, a problem for the team.

Josh Hamilton1

Yesterday, after announcements that Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton was injured and likely would not start the season with the team, a story rumbled on to my phone that Hamilton was summoned by Major League Baseball for disciplinary reasons. As the evening wore on, it was clear the disciplinary issue was Hamilton’s relapse into drug use.  Signed to a five year $125 million deal in 2013, Hamilton has struggled to meet the high expectations this contract carries with it. Suspended for drug use during his minor league career 2003-6, Hamilton re-emerged with the Rangers to become one of the very best players in the game. The five time All-Star, former MVP and silver slugger winner has his status with the league in jeopardy as he struggles to combat the demons every addict faces.  Recovery is a long, dark, difficult struggle that never ends.  Plenty of addiction among those I love, so he has considerable sympathy from me, but it will impact his team. Though the Angels did pick up Matt Joyce in the off-season, and are blessed with a platoon of very good outfielders beginning with Mike Trout, it will delay Hamilton’s quest to show he is worth the contract he signed two years ago.

At least the Mariners begin spring training without a crippling injury as some of their AL counterparts are facing. While I don’t wish these kinds of injuries on any team, enemy or not, hopefully the M’s can get through the pre-season intact and ready to rock the Angels when the season begins at Safeco Field on April 6th.

Montero comes clean; Mariners sign Joe Saunders

Jesus Montero reported to camp yesterday at 230 lbs.  Last year, coming off a PED suspension he weighed in 275. lbs.  Exiled to the PCL, the last month of the season he was suspended for an ugly incident in Boise involving a scout, an ice cream bar, and adolescent behavior by both parties. At 24, the player considered the best right-handed hitting prospect in baseball in 2011 was looking at the end of his major league baseball career.

Ryan Divish tells the story of yesterday’s press conference with Montero, The big right hander essentially apologized for all of his past failings, and pledged to reclaim his career. It must have been a humbling experience as he faced the press, took responsibility and answered questions. Check out the Divish article for some great backstory on Montero’s training regimen and level of commitment to his redemption.

The resurrection of Jesus Montero is a great story.  I’m not sure what it means, if anything, in the long run.  Somehow it would have to mean he is more than just a big right-handed bat that is equipped to be more than a designated hitter.  That position is taken by $57 million worth of Nelson Cruz. The M’s also plopped down $2 million on right handed bat Rickie Weeks, who figures to be pressed into service in lots of different positions. That might leave room for Montero as a back up first baseman, but is that enough?  I’m excited to see how this all plays out.  I love rooting for an underdog and a redemption story.

******

In speaking of redemption, the Mariners signed left-handed pitcher Joe Saunders to a minor league deal.  Apparently they are not satisfied with the left-handed options they have to join Charlie Furbush in the bullpen.  Of course you remember Joe, a fixture in the Mariners rotation in 2013.  Brought in to replace the traded Jason Vargas, made 32 starts, went 11-16, and was frequently carried off the field on his shield, pelted by 232 hits in 183 innings.  That’s a BABIP of .332. Yikes.

After being signed by Texas last year, Saunders spent most of last season in the minors searching for the magic.  He may still be looking.  The Mariners may hope that they can work the same sorcery on Saunders they did on Oliver Perez.  Doubt it. They’re different kinds of pitchers, but it didn’t cost much and it’s worth a try.

Spring Training Storylines

A slimmed down version of Jesus Montero off Ryan Divish's cell phone waits his turn to hit.  One of the interesting storylines of spring training.

A slimmed down version of Jesus Montero waits his turn to hit. Shared from Ryan Divish’s cell phone, Montero’s weight loss and readiness to play is one of the interesting storylines of spring training.

This morning as I was pondering this post (yesterday) and began counting on my fingers, I realized that extra bench spot doesn’t actually exist. (5 SP +7 RP + 1 DH + 4 OF + 4 IF + 2 C = 23 Bench = 2.) This probably accounts for my vocation as history teacher instead of engineer.

With the M’s ready to open camp for pitchers and catchers tomorrow, there is lots of excitement and high expectations for the Mariners. And honestly, it’s justifiable. They’ve  come off an 87 win season, lost little in the off-season, and addressed important areas of weakness.  The Mariners head to Peoria with a much better, more balanced team than any in the Jack Zdurencik era, and perhaps the most balanced, most talented since at least 2003. Last year I complained of rainbows, lollipops and wishful thinking.  There is much less of that on this team.  Still, there are some important story lines worth thinking about as the M’s leave the hot stove league behind and get down to business.

Starting Rotation

The Mariners, barring injury, likely have six players competing for five roster spots.  They look something like this:

  • Felix Hernandez RHP
  • Hisashi Iwakuma RHP
  • James Paxton  LHP
  • J.A. Happ LHP
  • Roenis Elias LHP or Taijuan Walker

The Fifth Starter.  This back end position is definitely there to be won.  My guess is that if Taijuan Walker shows consistent command of his pitchers in Arizona, he wins the job.  Walker was pretty much the last man left standing in the rotation in September. Iwakuma, Paxton, Young, even the King all faltered, but Walker looked good. But if he can’t consistently throw his fastball for strikes, McClendon won’t have it, and look for him to begin the year in Tacoma. My guess is Elias, who had a good year, and is a good pitcher becomes the ace of the Rainiers staff.

Danny Hultzen. Everybody is anxious to see where Danny Hultzen is with his recovery from major shoulder surgery.  There is no chance Hultzen breaks camp with the M’s, but he could be one of those future Mariners as we eye the seasons of age 30+ starters Iwakuma and Happ, both on the last year of their contracts.  If he’s healthy and effective, maybe we see Danny in September.

Pitching Depth

So many teams were hit hard by severe pitching injuries last year.  It’s more critical than ever to have guys down on the farm who can be called up to the big leagues. A key to the Mariners sustained success will be to plug the holes with guys who can win games if one of the starters go down. It’s hard to know how much is enough.  You can never have too much pitching.

Relief Pitching

The Kansas City Royals may have had the best trio of pitchers to close out games, but your Seattle Mariners had the best relief staff top to bottom.

  • Fernando Rodney  RHP  closer
  • Danny Farquhar RHP
  • Tom Wilhelmsen RHP
  • Yoervis Medina RHP
  • Dominic Leone RHP
  • Charlie Furbush RHP
  • Carson Smith RHP
  • Lucas Luetge LHP
  • David Rollins LHP
  • Mark Lowe RHP  non-roster invitee
  • Rafael Perez LHP non-roster invitee
  • Erasmo Ramirez RHP

The M’s lost Brandon Maurer in the Seth Smith trade to the Padres.  Lefty Joe Beimel looks like he is out.  The big question is how many relievers will McClendon carry?  Last year he made extensive use of an eight man bullpen. This year, based on statements by Zdurencik, it seems unlikely the Mariners will carry more than seven.  On this list, all the relievers except Rodney and Ramirez have minor league options.

Erasmo Ramirez is only 24 years old.  He has two seasons pitching at the big league level, and hasn’t distinguished himself enough to break into the Mariners rotation.  The M’s will  have a tough decision to make–whether to add Ramirez to the bullpen as a long man, or to try to get him through waivers to Tacoma as insurance.  He will be claimed; the Mariners will lose him.  My prediction is he becomes a long man out of the ‘pen because all the other guys-except Rodney-have options.

Catcher

Mike Zunino, barring a terrible accident or a case of ebola, is the Mariners starting catcher. Establishing himself as a first rank defensive catcher in 2014, this year all eyes will turn to the improvements he must make at the plate to make himself an All-Star.  Cutting down on strikeouts, getting on base more, while retaining his prodigious right-handed power gives the M’s an important at-bat near the bottom of the order.

The story, and honestly it’s not much of one, is who backs up Zunino 30-40 times per year. Jesus Sucre is a solid major league level defender, without much offensive potential.  The Mariners signed lefty hitter John Baker to a minor league deal as a possible platoon for Zunino.  Though a seven year major league veteran, Baker’s 2014 slash line .192/.273/.231 slash isn’t likely to scare anyone.  It will be an interesting spring training battle to see who wins the backup catcher spot.

Infield

The Mariners infield is the strength of this team.  With the exception of shortstop, it’s perfectly clear who the leading characters will be on this infield.

  • 1B Logan Morrison
  • 2B Robinson Cano
  • 3B Kyle Seager
  • SS Brad Miller or Chris Taylor

Concerns about Morrison’s ability to stay on field an entire season aside, one of the biggest concerns of the spring is Miller vs. Taylor. My impression, from all I’ve read, is that the job is Miller’s to win.  The Mariners like his upside-speed, power, natural athleticism-but he simply has to prove he can do it consistently without being a defensive liability at a key position. Though he had a solid September debut, showing some skill with the bat and making all the plays in the field, the onus will be on Taylor to show the job should be his.  Don’t let a big spring training performance influence your thinking.  Miller had a brilliant spring in 2014, emerged from Peoria winning the job and fell flat on his face.  The Mariners brain trust will be looking for more than a good batting average or some homers.when they make their decision.

Ouftield

The Mariners, unable to find an everyday player after trading away Michael Saunders, cobbled together two nice pieces in Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith to make, what should be, a solid platoon in right field.

  • Dustin Ackley
  • Austin Jackson
  • Seth Smith
  • Justin Ruggiano
  • James Jones

Austin Jackson is the main story here.  After being traded to the Mariners mid-season, Jackson’s performance at the plate plummeted.  While Jackson has said all the right things this offseason, about the disruption of the move and his plan to return to form, it simply has to happen for him to contribute to the M’s success.  He’s the starting center fielder-there is nobody else in the M’s system at this time who can play the position well.  He’s the leadoff hitter, a spot in the order where he’s prospered. He’s one of McClendon’s boys from Detroit, and I’m sure he’ll be given every chance to succeed.

James Jones is a minor story here.  I’d love to see the Mariners have a guy like Jones on their team, who can steal a base in the late going and go in as a defensive replacement. But despite looking great his first week in the majors, Jones simply could not get on base enough to merit a roster spot.  Maybe he’ll show improvement this spring, but he looks like he’s ticketed for Tacoma.

Designated Hitter

You can write it in permanent marker

  • Nelson Cruz

It seems like a decade or more the M’s have had to pencil in a black hole in this spot.  Cruz will continue his transition away from the outfield and into this role.  There will doubtless be times when Cruz and his questionable glove will make their way into left or right, and the challenge will be limiting those occasions.

The Bench.

For the first time in ages the M’s look poised to have a meaningful bench.  The question is, how big? If the M’s go with a seven man bullpen there will be two spots plus one for reserve catcher.

  • Willie Bloomquist
  • Rickie Weeks

Bloomquist and Weeks means the bench spots won’t be held for a marginal prospect.  But there is at least one complication.

Bloomquist’s health-Willie had major season-ending knee surgery in August.  Will he be ready to go when the season begins? Because he backs up so many spots-1st, 3rd, SS, the outfield-if Willie can’t go, it may mean the M’s will keep the loser of the Miller/Taylor battle on the major league roster.

But the question mark is the most intriguing of the spring training stories. This could be the spot they plug in James Jones or someone else.  But the most dramatic story of the spring might be the potential redemption of Jesus Montero. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times wrote yesterday of Montero’s weight loss and the impact it seemed to have on his game.

The difference is pretty amazing. Watching him take ground balls, it’s obvious that he moves better. I’m not going to say it’s turned him into a gold glove first baseman, but his footwork has improved and he’s more agile for obvious reasons. As for at the plate, his swing looks much better. It isn’t quite as forced.

There is no guarantee Montero becomes the long dreamt of right-handed thumper. But with the re-emergence of an injury-free Michael Pineda as an important member of the Yankees starting rotation, the pressure may be on management to show they got something in return from that trade.  Though Montero isn’t an every day player, can he show enough to be a useful bat off the bench, a back up first baseman, an emergency catcher?  It all remains to be seen in the magic that is spring training.

Mariners acquire Rickie Weeks

Ricky Weeks may have been a second baseman with the Brewers.  But be prepared to think of him this way--right-handed bat.

Ricky Weeks may have been a second baseman with the Brewers. But be prepared to think of him this way–right-handed bat.

When the news popped up on my iPad this morning that the Mariners signed Rickie Weeks to a one-year $2 million deal, I was shocked. First, I thought the M’s were pretty much done dealin’, but didn’t see another second baseman as a pressing need. Still wishing and hoping for a right handed alternative at first base, or a little more pitching depth, but the Weeks deal, was completely unforeseen.

For those not in the know, Weeks was a second baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers 2005-14.  In the past couple of years Weeks struggled with injuries, leaving his production down.  He’s a right handed hitter, with some thump and a little speed. His slash line in an injury shortened year was .274/.357/.452.  He had a wRC+ of 127. Weeks has good thump against left handed pitching with a .506 slugging pct. in 2014.  Weeks is not a good defensive second baseman, with a career -8.9 UZR.

So the big question is, what do the Mariners do with him?  They have that Cano fellow inked in at second next year and many subsequent years.  They also have a plethora of young, cheap, relatively undeveloped middle infielders with Brad Miller, Chris Taylor and down on the farm Ketel Marte.

What does this suggest about Willie Bloomquist, in his last year as Mariners Swiss Army Knife?  Is he recovered from his serious knee injury?  Weeks certainly isn’t here as insurance, because he’s signed to a major league contract and will take a spot on the 25-man roster. It also raises issues around the size of the bullpen.  Much less likely to be eight men under Edgar’s Cantina today than yesterday.  It may call into question whether the M’s can keep both Miller and Taylor with the big club.

But just checking the record, Weeks hasn’t played a bunch of positions.  He’s a second baseman.  Apparently when the Brewers brought up their new future second baseman, Scooter Gennett, and suggested Weeks learn to play the outfield, he was less than enthusiastic.

But that will likely not wash if Weeks is indeed coming to Seattle. Baseball is nothing if not a game of life lessons.  Last year Ricky learned how to sit, when a younger, more talented player took his spot.  The Mariners signed Weeks as a bat, not to play a specific position.  That’s his new role, right-handed role player.  Expect to see him take turns at first base and in left field against tough lefties to give Dustin Ackley and Logan Morrison a break.

Despite all the complications, and that this move seemed to come out of nowhere, I think I like it.  This adds strength to a bench that has been laughably thin for a decade.  Weeks is another right handed bat that reduces the M’s recent lefty imbalance.  It seems like a good move.

The Superbowl Blues

i don’t claim to be everything there is to know about football, the Seahawks or the Super Bowl, but before everybody in the Northwest unloads on Pete Carroll for the final pass on the goal line that was intercepted by Pats rookie Malcolm Butler, here are a few things to consider:

In the third quarter defensive lineman Cliff Averill left the field for concussion testing.

In the fourth quarter the Seahawks were simply unable to mount a successful pass rush on Tom Brady.  Several times he stepped in the pocket  and made big passes that ate up Seattle defenders.

The Seahawks were unable to defend against the New England short passing game in the fourth quarter.

Though the Hawks seemed to have chosen poorly when it came to the fatal interception, both Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevel were reacting to the insertion of the goal-line defense called to defend against the run.  Was it Wilson’s throw? Was it Lockett’s failure to reel in the ball?  Was it just a brilliant play by a young rookie?

It doesn’t matter, because it’s over.  But the ‘Hawks 28-24 loss in Super Bowl XLIX isn’t a simple matter, with easy villains.

But there’s always Super Bowl L.

With Pitchers and Catchers Ready to Report, What Have We Got?

For all intents and purposes, it looks like the M’s are done dealing heading into Spring Training.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t important moves to make, but I don’t think anybody believes the M’s are going to cough up big bucks to sign James Shields or make a deal that brings Doug Fister back to Seattle.

Even so, Seattle made several small moves that shores up some team depth in areas of potential concern. On Tuesday the Mariners announced the signing of old friends, outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez.  Chavez is the guy all statheads love to hate because he’s gotten too old to be a great defender and doesn’t walk enough or have enough power to be an offensive hero.  Maybe, but he’s filled in well for the Mariners when others have gone down and nobody else was available. We’re on the third or fourth act of “Waiting for Guti,” who has fought half a decade of injury and irritable bowel syndrome. At age 32, don’t expect him to be 2009’s “Death to Flying Things.” Signed to minor league contracts, both guys will contribute to depth at the outfield position. I’d expect one or neither to make the team out of spring training.

The M’s also signed catcher John Baker to a minor league deal.  It was looking a lot like they were going to take Mike Zunino and Jesus Sucre to Peoria as the major league catching tandem with only John Hicks as a minor league option in Tacoma. Hicks is a defense first guy who played well in AA Jackson last year, but has no AAA experience. Sucre is a good defender and offensive black hole. Zunino can hit fastballs a mile, but is also a strikeout machine. Baker, a veteran of seven major league seasons, offers the Mariners experience and options.

So, at this point, the Mariners have filled in some areas where there were legitimate depth questions in case of injury or flame-out by young players. It’s not like they’ve got Willie Mays ready to step in for Austin Jackson if he gets hurt, but at least there is someone with experience.

Despite these moves there are still areas of concern for the Mariners:

1. Can Logan Morrison stay healthy and productive enough to be the every day first baseman? In his five big league seasons, LoMo has played more than 100 games once, in his very productive 2011 season with Florida.  Last year he managed 99 games and really struggled with the bat until an explosive August and September. The M’s have done little to address the Morrison question, though there are potential solutions with Jesus Montero and untested first baseman in waiting D.J. Peterson. By all accounts, Montero is in good physical condition, but was a terrible first baseman in Tacoma last year. I’m sure the Mariners would like to keep Peterson in the minors this year unless his production shows them they simply cannot.

2. How many relievers will the Mariners carry on their roster? Last year, manager Lloyd McClendon was not shy about populating his ‘pen with as many as eight relievers.  For the most part that strategy paid off as the M’s had one of the most stubborn relief staffs in baseball.  Today, with Brandon Maurer traded and Joe Beimel unsigned, the M’s are set to return with that same staff largely intact.  While the Mariners and Tom Wilhelmson seem ready to swap figures and say nasty things about each other in arbitration, there is little reason to believe this staff will perform as effectively as last year’s crew.  Unless, of course, they don’t and become the flammable 2013 bunch. There is talk that McClendon may not keep quite as many guys on the big league roster, which may allow another spot for one more bat on the bench.  Four spots vs. three is a big difference and might allow them to keep a Franklin Gutierrez and/or James Jones available.

3.  Pete Carroll’s right, competition is a good thing.  For the first time in recent memory, the Mariners will have a lot of competition for roles on this roster.  Brad Miller and Chris Taylor will duke it out for the starting shortstop role.  And they’ll be able to look over their shoulders and see a highly considered Ketel Marte in the rearview mirror. The entire outfield will be under the microscope as Dustin Ackley, Austin Jackson, Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith vie for playing time.  Yes there does seem to be a logical order to this, but DH/OF Nelson Cruz will also likely insist on some time roaming Safeco’s green pastures, and Gutierrez/Chavez/Jones will be looking through the window. How many at bats will Mike Zunino get if he continues to strike out in a third of his appearances?  Will Baker, a lefty batter (not to be mistaken for Lou Gehrig or even Miguel Olivo with his 52 OPS+ average over the last five seasons) take some of those at bats? You can write Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager in thick black Sharpie on your scorecard, but there are some legit question marks for the remaining position players.  In the rotation, same thing-Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and J.A. Happ are shoo-ins, but there will be a dogfight between Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Roenis Elias for the last two rotation spots.  Barring injury, that’s a really good place to be.

While Steamer and other projections give the Mariners high marks heading into the 2015 season, honestly I just don’t buy it.  Those same projections saw the Mariners as a barely .500 team last year.  Of course i did too, which makes the projections for 2015 all that much more suspicious.  This team definitely has some strengths.  The starting pitching is good and deep.  The bullpen was outstanding last year.  The defense was at least average.  The offense wasn’t very good.  It seems to me the M’s have addressed some important areas-Cruz at DH is a huge upgrade, and the platoon in right should work.  But it’s a team that’s thin.  Anything like the train wreck that was Texas last year and Mariners will have a tough season.  It’s hard to see how this team beats the Angels, but as some of the Halos’ best guys age, anything can happen.

Pitchers and catchers report to Peoria in less than three weeks.  Then we’ll get to see the sausage made.

Do you believe in miracles? Yes we do.

Russell Wilson crying in the wake of the strangest football game of all time.  Wilson gave credit to God and his teammates.  If I was a Patriots fan, I'd be worried about divine intervention

Russell Wilson crying in the wake of the strangest football game of all time. Wilson gave credit to God and his teammates. If I was a Patriots fan, I’d be worried about divine intervention

I depart from my usual Seattle Mariners blather to express my amazement the Seattle Seahawks won the NFC Conference championship and are heading to Phoenix for the Super Duper Bowl. I catch almost all Seahawks games on the tube, and I have to admit I don’t remember seeing such a dreadful Seahawks performance for 57 minutes on the field- maybe ever.

Down 19-7, with the only points coming on a marvelous touchdown throw off a fake field goal, the Seahawks looked like they were dead and buried.  The Packers struck early and often.  Though able to manage some strong, desultory running by Marshawn Lynch, the Russell Wilson passing game was all but invisible. The Seahawks were dead with 3:02 left in the game.  But they managed to summon up a series of miracles to win this game and make it the most memorable game in all of Seattle sports history.

Miracle One: Russell Wilson finally wakens his right arm after wandering about for nearly 57 minutes impersonating a JUGS gun tossing interceptions to the enemy team.  Hits Marshawn Lynch for 26 yards

Miracle Two: Wilson runs 1 yard for a touchdown off the option. The entire Packers team runs in from the sideline to tackle Lynch, who unfortunately doesn’t have the ball, but carries everyone into the end zone anyway. 2:13 left to play.

Miracle Three. Marshawn Lynch runs for 24 yards, making doubly sure his junk is intact as he crosses the goal line.  Seahawks lead by a point.

Miracle Four: Seahawks elect to go for two. Wilson rolls to his right, can’t find his man, and tosses a mortar shot back across the field, over all the defenders, and to the waiting arms of tight end Luke Willson who ambles across the goal line for a three point lead. No catch, the Packers kick their field goal to win the game.

Miracle Five: Green Bay kicker Mason Crosby, perhaps the only player who didn’t look foolish in the game, kicked the tying field goal to send the game to overtime.  But, the ‘Hawks responded with their secret weapon.  Backup quarterback Tavaris Jackson wandered out to the field as starting coin toss caller and correctly called the flip, giving Seattle the ball first. Unfortunately he doesn’t say, “We’ll take the ball, and we’re gonna score.”

Miracle Six: The final miracle is when Packers coach Mike McCarthy called a cover zero on consecutive plays and Wilson made two beautiful throws to win the game.  Cover zero means no safety in the center of the field.  However the miracles weren’t quite over as Wilson chucked the touchdown pass to Jermaine Cursed, he of two clanks turned into interceptions, and two misses.  How can this kind of redemption not be some kind of miracle?

So the Seahawks are in Super Bowl XLIX to face the New England Patriots.  If I was a Patriots fan, I’d be concerned. It’s clear some omniscient being is rooting for the Seahawks.  Beware of a tunnel collapse at University of Phoenix Stadium.  Beware freak sandstorms along the New England bench. Coach Belichick should beware of a short in the compressors used to inflate, or deflate footballs.  Darrelle Revis, beware of designed plays of Wilson clanking off the hands of Kearse, clonking you in the noggin and knocking you cold. I’m telling you, the Seahawks are anointed by fate and I wouldn’t like the finger of the almighty pointed at me.

SoDo Mojo

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