I shot an arrow in the sky and thought of Heathcliff Slocumb

Fernando Rodney bobblehead

I was able to watch all 105 of James Paxton’s pitches in yesterday’s whitewash of the Boston Red Sox.  Throwing fastball after fastball the visitors could not hit locate or hit squarely, the big southpaw left the game after eight innings, with the win firmly in hand 3-0.  Nothing flashy-five hits allowed, two strikeouts and two walks allowed, and a team of bewildered Bosox.

Yet, as Paxton left the mound for the last time in the game, against a backdrop of Fernando Rodney throwing in the bullpen, with a save situation on the the line, all I could think of was “Oh my god!!  Three runs aren’t enough!!”  Sure enough, Kyle Seager heard my telepathic message and hit a two-run homer in the top of the ninth.  No save situation, Rodney sat down, and Carson Smith came in to close out the the last inning on 15 pitches.

I am tired of the Fernando Rodney Hire Wire Act and Traveling Circus.  It’s official. Make no mistake, I like the man, find him funny and charming, and clearly he is bonded to his manager and teammates.  But I find nothing funny or charming about his 5.65 ERA, his 4.90 FIP, or his 1.605 WHIP. A pitcher cannot allow that many base runners in tight games and believe it will turn out well. We’re talking 15 hits and 8 walks in 14.1 innings pitched. Recipe for disaster.

Rodney has allowed runs in five of his 15 appearances, including three of his last four.

The only pitcher who ever made me feel the same was Heathcliff Slocumb in 1997.  You remember him.  Desperate for a bullpen leader, the M’s sent premier catching prospect Jason Varitek and young pitcher Derek Lowe to Boston for Slocumb after one too many Norm Charlton and Bobby Ayala fiascoes. Perhaps the worst trade in Mariner history (though the jury is out on Michael Pineda for, ulp, Jesus Montero.) You might remember the ’97 M’s team.  264 homers as a team, set the major league record.  They scored 924 runs.  But the bullpen was a whole bunch of terrifying.  The M’s were able to load up on runs, ride their decent starters and hold on for the last three innings.  Slocumb became your esteemed closer with his 4.13 ERA, 3.74 FIP and 1.447 WHIP.  No lead was safe.

The ’97 Mariners had larger systemic issues compared to this year’s crew.  Ayala and Slocumb were the best of a horrendous crew. The 2015 Mariners are much better, though not as good as last year’s superb bullpen staff. There is nothing as demoralizing to fans or teams as watching the man chosen to lead the bullpen late in tight games melt away to nothing like Frosty the Snowman on a June day. If Rodney continues to struggle, the M’s should look at others, like Tom Wilhelmsen, who has closer experience, or even young Mr. Smith who seems to have closer stuff and instincts, that can lead the bullpen by example while Rodney fixes himself

Are the M’s making their move?

The Mariners summarily shot the Padres last night amid a hail of home runs, disposing of their crumpled bodies 11-4. Kyle Seager (4), Logan Morrison (6, ) Mike Zunino (4,5,) Justin Ruggiano (1,) and Nelson Cruz (15,) all found the seats, and sent 16,148 fans home happy.  The six homers in a single game ties the club record set in 2004.  The win is the M’s fourth in a row, the longest win streak of the season.

The Mariners seem to have turned things around at home.  After a very disappointing 4-6 road trip to Texas, Houston and Anaheim, a few things seem to be turning around.  After a series of walk-off implosions by the bullpen, the team is on a nice little win streak.

Sometimes it’s easy to get too locked into a single game, a single series, or a single week as one attempts to evaluate the success or failure of a season.  The Mariners will play their 33rd game tonight, which will nudge them just over the 20% games played mark of the season.  It’s difficult to say if the Mariners are dragging themselves up to the level of contention we expected when the season began, or if this is merely a blip in the arc of a fatally flawed team.

Yes, they swept a Texas team that is gutted by injury.  They swept an Oakland team that isn’t very good, horribly undone by a bad defense and lousy offense.  They were clobbered in four games against a blazing hot Astros club that was in the midst of a nine straight run, but now seems exceedingly mortal.

So, in the grand sweep of things, there some things to be positive about.

  1. The rotation, while far from perfect, seems to be developing some consistency.  Felix and Happ continue to make consistently strong outings.  Though Paxton struggled with his command last night, each of his last three outings have gone at least six inning.  Tai Walker is still a bit of a wild card, and hasn’t gone more than five innings in his last three starts. Roenis Elias, filling in for the injured Hisashi Iwakuma, has improved in each of his three starts.  Walker better figure things out or he may find himself back in Tacoma when Iwakuma returns in June.
  2. The bullpen, with one notable exception, seems to have turned around its inconsistency. It’s clear the front office has read its own press, and they’ve acted quickly to deal with the walks, and blown leads. Yoervis Medina and Dominic Leone were banished to Tacoma after walk off losses in Anaheim.  Joe Beimel and Mark Lowe were called up and with the arrival of Tom Wilhelmsen from the DL seemed to make their presence felt in the Oakland series.  Danny Farquhar continues to struggle with location or a tendency to “nibble,” leading to baserunners and bad results.  Tough to say how long Lloyd will let that continue.
  3. Though it’s hard to say the problem is solved, the Mariners do seem to be scoring a few more runs.  More bats are coming to life and the offense seems less dependent on a barrage of solo home runs by Nelson Cruz. Logan Morrison and Robinson Cano seem to be heating up.  Seth Smith continues to be a regular contributor.  Could Mike Zunino’s pair of homers last night be sign that his early hitting woes are over? With others chipping in occasionally, the player that most concerns me is Dustin Ackley.  Of all the Mariners, he has the most to prove this year, and so far his limited contributions are simply not cutting it.
  4. Nelson Cruz continues to amaze me.  I, like most of my friends, considered him to be a big guy who could hit a bunch of home runs in a relatively small park and would strike out a lot.  I completely discounted his defense or other contributions to the club. I could not have been more wrong. The man, so far, has been a great hitter on this team.  Power from foul line to foul line, but with the sense to shorten his swing with two strikes and hit the ball up the middle. His home runs in Houston should convince anybody with eyes that the man can muscle ’em out of the freakin’ Grand Canyon. I’m impressed with his speed and his range in the outfield, though I’m not sure he has great defensive instincts. He has a great arm in right, but isn’t overly enamored of the gun, preferring to play smart and hit the cutoff man.  Together with Felix, he’s been the show thus far.
  5. The front office hasn’t sit still while the team sputters off to a slow start.  Moving Cruz largely to right, reducing Ackley’s playing time, the bullpen swaps, moving Chris Taylor to shortstop are all more than tinkering, but less than panicking. News across the web today suggested Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki could be available for the right deal.  ESPN’s David Schoenfeld immediately linked the Mariners to Tulo as a team that could have interest.  It almost certainly would  cost the M’s pitching they could not replace. But it wouldn’t shock me if Jack Z’ and Lloyd McClendon tried to upgrade either the outfield or DH with Cruz spending less time there and offensive struggles by Ackley, Rickie Weeks and Austin Jackson.

With the M’s little win streak, are the Mariners beginning to make their move for the division lead?  Still too early to tell, too small a sample size.  But if the Mariners rip off a big win streak or go 10-2 over the next couple of weeks we might be in a better place to answer the question

Paxton shines, clutch hitting fails: M’s lose to Astros in 10th

Nobody said it would easy. The Seattle Mariners cruised into Minutemaid Park fresh off a sweep of the Texas Rangers. Their opponents were the surprising., red-hot Houston Astros.

The Mariners scored two runs in the first inning when they loaded the bases against Astros starter, Scott Feldman. Nelson Cruz grounded into a double play, scoring Seth Smith. Kyle Seager followed with a single to push across Austin Jackson. Bingo, Mariners starter James Paxton had a 2-0 cushion. Unfortunately, it was all the runs the would get.

But the real story tonight was the pitching of Paxton. After last year’s promising season, the tall lefty stumbled out of the gate. Fighting injury most of spring training, Paxton had a strong first start against the Angels April 7th, only to be undone in his next three games. His last two starts, April 19th against the Rangers and April 25th against Minnesota, Paxton went only 4.2 and 2.2 innings respectively. Last night manager Lloyd McClendon was looking for more.

Paxton gave his teammates seven strong innings. Showing command of his fastball and devastating 12-6 breaking pitch, Paxton allowed only five hits and struck out seven.

The Astros lead the league in home runs and Jose Altuves. Though the former were absent in Thursday’s game, the diminutive second baseman would be their undoing. After the Mariners fruitful first inning, the Astros responded with a run in their half of the first when Evan Gattis scored Altuve on a ground out. The M’s nursed a one run lead into the 6th when Gattis repeated the formula again to drive in Luis Valbuena on an infield out.

Though the Mariners had plenty of base runners, with 11 hits, they could not manage the clutch hit to score the decisive run. The Mariners had runners in scoring position in the 2nd, 4th, 8th, and 9th innings.

By the 8th inning, both teams fully deployed their bullpens, and sent the game into extras. With Mariners right-hander Dominic Leone pitching, Marwin Gonzalez doubled. Colby Rasmus followed with a walk, bringing up Altuve. He smashed the first pitch he saw into the left field corner to score the winning run. Finis.

The strong outing for James Paxton should give Mariners hope as the M’s continue to search for consistent offense in their four game series against the Astros.

Cruz launches, Felix labors, as M’s sweep Rangers.

The Texas Rangers entered tonight’s game with a team batting average of .212, by far the lowest in the major leagues.  They faced Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, coming off his best start of the season.  Felix seemed to fight himself most of the night, but managed to get the win as the Mariners swept the Rangers in the series finale 5-2.

The M’s featured plenty of offense, if one counts putting men on base.  With nine hits, six walks and the beneficiaries of four Rangers errors, this game probably should have been a blowout.  But timely hitting remained elusive for the Mariners as they were 3-15 with runners in scoring position and left 11 runners on base.  Aggressive baserunning had Ricky Weeks thrown out at the plate twice on contact plays from third base. Brad Miller was thrown out at third on a subsequent play.  It seemed the bases were full of Mariners most of the night, but clutch hitting simply was not a weapon in their arsenal.

They were beneficiaries of another Nelson Cruz home run, a rocket shot that got out into the second deck of the Globe Life Stadium fast and far.  Taped by StatCast at 483 feet, it is the longest homer in the majors so far this season.  Logan Morrison’s 4-5 night ended weeks of futility and drove in two runs to keep the Rangers just out of reach, including a key single in the 9th inning to score Robinson Cano.

Hernandez seemed to struggle with the strike zone throughout his 6.2 inning outing.  It was a contrast to his efficient outing against the Twins April 24th.  Though only in serious trouble in the 2nd when the Rangers scored both their runs, the Felix threw 114 pitches in this game in contrast to the 102 pitch complete game he spun against Minnesota. If Felix didn’t have his A game, it still seemed more than enough to hold down a Texas team that is increasingly looking like last year’s injury-riddled squad. Hernandez finished April with a 4-0 record.

Tonight the M’s found their walking shoes and dancing shoes, but they’re still looking for their hitting shoes. They’ll need them as they head into Houston for a four game series against the division leader.

M’s need to put on their hitting shoes

J.A. Happ turned in another gem in his fourth start of the season. Entering the game with a 3.9K/9 average, Happ dominated the first six innings, struck out ten and left after 6.2 innings.  Manager Lloyd McLendon ran through his bullpen Rolodex to close out the final 2.1 innings.  The Mariners hung on to beat the Texas Rangers 2-1.

The Mariners dinged the Rangers early for a couple of runs.  After a leadoff triple, Nelson Cruz scored in the fourth on a Kyle Seager out.  Rickie Weeks followed Seager with a solo home run.  That was it for Mariners scoring. The Mariners only had seven hits in the game, following a pattern in the M’s offense.  Score a little early, and then hold on tight, because there’s not likely going to be more later. Of the Mariners last ten games, since April 18th, the M’s have scored after the fifth inning only three times.

Last night was no different.  Facing the hapless Ross Detwiler, whom they pounded mercilessly April 19th in Seattle, the Mariners managed just five hits in 5.1 innings, and only two more against the Rangers bullpen.  What’s more only three Mariners had hits.  Cruz, Weeks, and Justin Ruggiano had multi-hit games. It’s hard to go fast when only a few of your cylinders are firing.

Today is Happy Felix Day.  We celebrate every fifth day.  But it would be nice to find him a little run support and get the beast firing on all cylinders.  They may be able to get by a miserable Texas team scoring two runs a game, but on Friday they sail in to Houston for a weekend series against the division leaders.   The ‘Stro’s can hit, run, and this year they can pitch too.  As Dave Niehaus used to say, the Mariners “need to put on their hitting shoes.”

Not much to cheer in Sea-Town

We’re 19 games into the season, and the Mariners are 8-11.  It could be worse.  The Nationals, pre-season favorite to win the whole damn thing, are 7-13.  The Indians, picked to beat the M’s in the ALCS, are a miserable 6-12 and 7 games behind the division leading Tigers.

Do I think it will finish this way, with M’s winning something like 70 games and the Astro’s winning the division?  Probably not.  But the Mariners are off to a disconcerting start, given the high expectations held for them.

The Good

Nelson Cruz-Reams were written about this guy, how he couldn’t hit at Safeco, how his home run numbers were inflated in Baltimore, and his terrible defense.  Yet his .308/.358/.693 slash line clearly leads the team.  His 6 walks is tied for the team lead, as are his 16 strikeouts. He leads the league in home runs and rbi’s which may not be a surprise, but what’s impressed me most has been his hustle and his effort on defense. I like him better as a DH, just for injury prevention, but he’s earned a shot in the outfield. Without Cruz, the Mariners record might be unspeakable.

Felix Hernandez-To be expected I suppose. Except for his injury-shortened April 12th start against Oakland, Felix has been very Felix-like.  Quality starts, a strike throwing machine, Felix has give up five runs in four starts, including three in his five inning Oakland game.  He’s been the rock we always imagine him to be. With a 10.9 K/9, 1.61 ERA, .79 WHIP, and a 238 ERA+, Felix is off to another superb start

J.A. Happ-I was critical of the trade for Happ.  Yet, he’s done nothing but impress in his three starts. He’s thrown three quality games, and with a little consistent run support could be 3-0.  He’s allowed two runs in each of his starts.  Though his numbers aren’t as gaudy as the King’s. Happ is dependable when 3/5’s of Mariners starts are a crap shoot leading off with snake-eyes. If Happ continues to pitch as he has while the rest of the starters try to find themselves.

The Bad

James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma-When three-fifths of your starting staff can’t consistently go five quality innings your team is in trouble.  This is the  ERA/FIP/WHIP/ERA+ for the Three Amigos:

James Paxton  6.86/4.71/1.576/56

Taijuan Walker 6.86/3.79/1.831/56

Hisashi Iwakuma  6.61/6.26/1.408/56

These are all terrible.  With Iwakuma on the DL and his replacement by Roenis Elias, and Walker’s encouraging start last night, perhaps there are signs of encouragement. Clearly things cannot continue if the Mariners hope to contend.

Mike Zunino-Zunino, picking up from last year, continues to be great on defense and bad at the plate. Despite the success of his Spring Training approach of spreading out at the plate to provide additional coverage, Zunino is striking out at a prodigious rate without offensive success.  With a .132/.203/.264 slash line, Mike needs to start coming around.

Dustin Ackley-Hi, my name is Dustin Ackley and I’ve got a great beard.  But that’s about all.  After three home runs in his first handful of games, he’s become Mr. Lost at the plate. With a .200/.245/.400 slash line, it’s clear that Lloyd McClendon is beginning to tire of his inconsistency and others are starting to get his at bats. With Patrick Kivlehan and Franklin Gutierrez putting up some numbers in Tacoma, it’s uncertain how long his leash will be, given his history of inconsistency.

The Bullpen-It’s hard to tell if the relief staff’s stumbling start is the result of bad pitching, or is simply following the opening implosion of the starting staff.  Whichever, it’s hard to imagine these seven guys are same ones who pitched so well last year and not creatures crawling out last year’s Houston Astros bullpen. Of the seven, only Carson Smith has performed, consistently.  Fernando Rodney’s Traveling Circus continues its road (and home) show, and features Danny Farquhar as an opening act.  If the starting pitching improves and fewer demands are made on the bullpen, perhaps things will turn around.  But of all the problems, the bullpen issue may be of most concern.

Scoring-Despite Nelson’s Cruz’s heroics, the Mariners rank 13th in the American League in scoring.  Yes, I buy all the arguments about slow starts and giving things time, but combined with the pitching woes, an inability to score runs means a challenge in winning games. In their 19 games they’ve scored three runs or less 11 times.

Yes, I do believe it’s too early to begin searching the sea for life rafts.  But it is just as clear that the Mariners aren’t scoring enough runs.  it’s seemed that no lead is safe and the M’s have become adept at letting games slip away late.  We see fan awareness as attendance slips with every home loss. The M’s need to begin turning things around now if they want to keep fan interest after the NFL draft.

3-4, and what have we learned?

The M’s finished their first official week of play at three wins and four losses.  After all the pre-season hype, a fan might hope the M’s were a bit closer to the unbeaten mark.  But that is the beauty of a 162 game season: we’re just getting started and there are 155 games left to play.

Have you checked the standings lately? Your Seattle Mariners, despite their struggles are a half game behind the division leading Oakland Athletics, are tied with the Angels and Astros, and remain one full game ahead of projected World Series champions, Washington Nationals.

Is there something to worry about?  Despite the boom and bust quality of this team out of the gate, I am inclined to say no. My belief is it takes a good 35-40 games to know what a team is going to be over the course of a season, and fully evaluate a team’s strengths and weaknesses. The length of the season is the beauty of this game.  It’s important not to get caught up in the moment of a single game, a single series or even a single week.

Nevertheless, it is distressing that in the last two games, Sunday’s game against the A’s and Monday’s game against the Dodgers, the M’s got off to big leads-four runs in each game-and gave them away.  That is very unlike last year’s pitching performances.  Though the Mariners ended up splitting those games, fans can only hope this is a little blip on the radar of a long season.  If this is like a sudden onset of anxiety, that’s fine. But if Paxton meltdowns, Rodney pyrotechnics, and Walker supernovas are features of a full-blown personality disorder, this team will be in a lot of trouble despite Nelson Cruz’s entertaining fireworks displays.

Plenty of time to figure this out, but keep your eyes peeled and know where the air-raid shelters are.

Pre-season grades and prediction time.,

Monday is the big day, the best day of the year. The Mariners open their regular season.  It’s at home in Safeco Field at the ungodly hour of 1:10, or shortly after my 5th period class begins. The M’s wrapped up the last couple of Cactus League games by whacking around the Colorado Rockies as much of the National League is likely to do this season.  Tonight they fly home with their team set and prepare for Monday’s opener with a team that is healthy, widely praised by national media and projected by many to be the American League champs.

So, as the M’s steam into the regular season I’d like to offer my grades of where the Mariners are by position as well as my predictions for the season.  There is little question this is the best Mariners team since 2003. That team won 93 games and was the last vestige of the glory years 1995-2003.  Except for Ichiro, the stars of the past were fading away and this team should be as good as that team, maybe.  Honestly I’ve been spooked over the years.  Expectations have been missed.  Teams that should have performed well have not, so I’m not going to give these guys a pass.  Let me share my scores and my reservations along the way.

Starting Rotation

If King Felix is your number one guy, followed by Hishashi Iwakuma, then all should be right with the world.  The addition of veteran lefty J.A. Happ to lefty James Paxton, and the emergence of Taijuan Walker should make a tremendous rotation.  Right? Well, yeah, but. . . Happ, Paxton, and Walker have not pitched the equivalent of 200 innings in the big leagues before.  The concern about managing everyone’s innings has led to the introduction of a six man rotation with Roenis Elias bouncing back and forth between the Rainiers and Mariners.  Though logically I understand this, I don’t think it helps either club much.

Grade: This rotation has the potential to be the best in the American League, but keeping that potential thing in mind I give the rotation a B+

Bullpen

The Mariners return their bullpen intact from the 2014 season.  The only change is rookie Tyler Olson taking the lefty spot held by Joe Beimel.  Olson had a super spring and may actually be more effective against righthanders than Beimel.  The 2014 bullpen was, top to bottom, the most effective in the major leagues.

Grade: They’ll be good, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be as good as last year.  Bullpens usually aren’t that consistent year to year, and Fernando Rodney gives me the yips.  The bullpen rates a B

Catcher

Catcher is such an important position, because defense is so important, that league average or above offense is simply gravy.  The Mariners return two very young players behind the dish, starter Mike Zunino, age 23 and back up Jesus Sucre, 26. Zunino demonstrated superior defensive skills and handled the pitching staff well.  Sucre is also a solid defensive player. However, despite showing incredible right-handed power, Zunino struggled at the plate, hitting .199 with 158 strikeouts. Those must improve.  He’s shown a new approach at the plate and had a very good spring. But as we know, spring training numbers mean nothing.

Grade: Zunino is another player long on potential who will have to produce if the M’s are going to meet the expectations set by the media.  But because he hasn’t done it yet, I rate the catchers a C+.

Infield

Let’s do this a bit differently and focus on each position individually, which seems only fair.

First Base-Logan Morrison: When the M’s acquired Morrison last year and promised to stick him in right field with Corey Hart, I thought it was a stupid idea.  He struggled with injury and ineffectiveness early, but became a prime contributor to the M’s run through August and into September.  Morrison is another player who could make this team better if he improves on 2014’s .262/.315/.420 slash line, or at least is a consistent producer across the season.  Morrison is an adequate defender, and it’s an important year as he heads into his free agent season.

Grade: C +

Second Base-Robinson Cano. I think every Mariners fan sees the signing of Cano for the 2014 season as the watershed event in returning this team to respectability.  He is fun to watch-always cool and collected in the field, making difficult plays look easy.  He achieved as much as could be expected at the plate, taking what the pitching gave him. However, it seemed his most significant role was in the clubhouse, being a positive role model and mentoring the young Mariners, and convincing Nelson Cruz to come to Seattle.  He’s a winner.

Grade: A

Third Base-Kyle Seager: Seager’s path started on an upward arc the moment he stepped on the field for the Mariners in 2011.  Last year’s .268/.334/..454 were the best of his career earning him an All-Star bid and MVP votes. His improved defense won him a Gold Glove.  Can he get better? I believe he can.  He works on his craft constantly, and is trying to hit to left so defenses play him honestly.  He is someone who could maybe hit .280, with the same power numbers.  He’s still only 27.

Grade: A-

Shortstop-Brad Miller: The battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor for the shortstop spot was to be one of the most important competitions of Spring Training. When Taylor went down with a broken wrist the job became Miller’s by default.  Shortstop is such an important defensive position, and Miller is such a gifted athlete you just want him to be successful. But his performance last year raised such doubt. Miller must consistently make all the plays and avoid the defensive breakdowns of the past.  If he hits league average across the season, without the devastating slump he suffered at the beginning of 2014 Miller will boost the team toward their run to a division crown. If Miller struggles defensively and offensively he’ll make the pitching staff work and likely will be ticketed for Tacoma on Taylor’s return to full health.

Grade: C-

Designated Hitter

Designated hitter was such a black hole in the Mariners batting order in the last ten years.  Yes, there were some good ones-Jose Vidro, Russell Branyan, and yes, even Kendrys Morales  had good years for the M’s.  But mostly Mariners DH’s were terrible.  The signing of Nelson Cruz really was another down payment on a winning season.  The best right-handed hitter available with legitimate power is in Mariner blue. Not quite ready to crown this a raging success. He won’t walk a lot and will strike out a ton, but if he hits .260 with 27-32 home runs, the M’s will have gotten their money’s worth. Cruz needs to stay healthy and show he beat the Safeco Curse on right handed power. But he will be a welcome bat hitting between Cano and Seager.  Though he is not an awful outfielder, I want to see him out in right field as little as possible.

Grade: B

Outfield

Unable to acquire effective everyday players for right field, the Mariners have acquired a collection of complementary pieces to fill in the corner outfield spots.  The acquisition of Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith to form a right field platoon was smart. Both are veteran players who have played  platoon roles before and are comfortable in those roles. Both are decent defenders and are effective hitting against opposite handed pitchers.  Smith is a grinder whose .367 OBP would have been second behind Cano in 2014. Ruggiano can also play center field. This is center fielder Austin Jackson’s walk year and he needs to play well to get a contract for 2016.  He is an average defender.  The Mariners need him to rebound offensively, just get on base and let the rest of the team drive him in. There is some question whether he will lead off regularly as Rickie Weeks has a stronger on-base percentage. The organization has clearly lost some faith in Dustin Ackley.  I would think this is his Justin Smoak year. He needs to produce consistently to have a future with this team.  Like Smoak, Ackley needs to produce consistently.  Unlike Smoak, his issues seem to be more mental than physical.  He did become an effective defender in left field, and his August performance clearly boosted the team. But the decision to platoon Ackley in left with Rickey Weeks demonstrates the M’s don’t believe he will adjust to left handed pitching.  Weeks allows the M’s to bring some balance in their line up against lefties.  A career second baseman, it’s unclear how the athletic Weeks will adjust to playing the outfield.

Grade: Unlike many teams, the outfield is not the offensive strength of this team, though General Manager Jack Zdurencik has done a great job of creating some roster flexibility in the pieces he’s acquired, and re-balancing the M’s left heavy lineup. The outfield is improved, but not the strength of the team. B-

Bench

For years the Mariners bench was filled with young prospects who hadn’t really earned their way on to the team.  This year the bench looks something like Willie Bloomquist, Weeks, Ruggiano and Sucre.  Except for Sucre, these are veteran players who have had success in the majors and play vital roles on the team.  No more Stefan Romeros and James Jones.  I wouldn’t suggest these guys are all-stars, but they provide important depth the Mariners haven’t had in decades.

Grade: B

Manager

Lloyd McClendon is a crusty, curmudgeonly veteran of past manager wars, and has coached on some winning Tigers teams.  He is direct, honest, and the players really seem to love playing for him.  He tells it like it is.  Though he hasn’t been in those on-field tactical decisions that are live and die in the World Series, he seems like he’s perfectly capable of managing the X’s and O’s and the coaches he’s surrounded himself with seem solid.

Grade: A

PREDICTIONS

There will be no cake walk to victory in the American League West, despite what the pundits say.  Though the Angels did little in the off-season, the acquisition of Matt Joyce from the Rays should take a little of the sting out of the muddled Josh Hamilton situation.  Their rotation will be adequate, but not great, and they should score lots of runs. I’m not a fan of all the A’s off-season moves.  Yes, they can do match-ups and have roster flexibility, but can they score runs.  Josh Riddick for Brandon Moss?  The oft-injured Brett Lawrie for Josh Donaldson?  They will pitch well, but can they score runs? I’m dubious. The Astros will be better.  Maybe a .500 team.  The injury train keeps rolling through Texas, collecting bodies by the side of the track.

I predict the Mariners will narrowly win the American League West in a down to the wire dogfight with the Angels.  No team will run away, because honestly this is going to be a tough division that won’t allow high win totals.

Team                                     Wins     Losses

Seattle                                  91         71

Los Angeles                         90         72

Oakland                                85          77

Houston                                81           81

Texas                                    72           90

Mariners will win the division and defeat the wild card winner, and advance to the ALCS where they will beat Cleveland. They go on to the World Series where they will defeat the surprise National League champion San Diego Padres 4-3. What do you think?

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.

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