It’s May 25th all over again!

Vintage Felix

A vintage Felix Hernandez performance beats the Brewers.  Could a return to form by the King hold the key to a Mariners playoff run?

With the thrashing of Milwaukee, 8-2 on Saturday night, the M’s moved to ten games over .500. They tied their high point of the season they last achieved on May 25th after demolishing Oakland 13-3 at Safeco. Then Minnesota blew into town for Memorial Day weekend, and the hapless Twins swept the Mariners, revealing the weakness of Seattle’s rotation and the consequent overuse of its bullpen.

Let’s just remember where the M’s have been and celebrate where we find ourselves on August 20th.

After the Twins left town, with the M’s lunch spectacularly stuffed in their luggage, the Mariners redeemed themselves in a home and home series against the Padres, taking three of four, including the amazing 16-13 comeback on June 2nd. That they won, masked the fact the team had been clobbered 14-6 the night before by a lousy San Diego team.

Injuries to Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker, the ineffectiveness of Wade Miley and Nate Karns left the team in a tailspin, with a bullpen unable to remain effective while sucking up all the extra innings. On June 23rd, less than a month after the M’s reached their zenith, they hit rock bottom with a ten inning walk-off loss to Detroit, their record stood at 36-37, 11 games off the division lead, in third place. The M’s really hung around the .500 mark until August 1st at 52-52.

In the 17 games since then, the Mariners have gone 13-4. They remain six games off the division lead, but only one game behind in the Wild Card chase. Why the late surge, and do they have enough to maintain that push into the playoffs?  Here are some key factors.

The King and his court

It is no secret that the starting rotation has been the Achilles heel for the Mariners this year. Last night’s performance by Hernandez was vintage Felix. Yes, since his return from the DL he has gone deeper into games. But in Saturday’s game Felix allowed one walk in his eight innings of work to go with his eight strikeouts, reversing a disturbing trend which saw an uptick in his BB/9 rate. Hisashi Iwakuma has pitched well since he turned the corner on his season June 28th,  and his game steadily improved throughout the summer. It’s the rest of the rotation that is the problem.

Running Wade LeBlanc out every fifth day probably won’t kill a team.  It’s the other guys in between LeBlanc and Iwakuma that are the problem. The M’s need a healthy James Paxton and an effective Taijuan Walker.  They cannot afford to keep giving out starts to the Cody Martins, Ariel Mirandas and Joe Wielands of the world twice per week.

Statistically, the M’s have regressed since the salad days of May, but not as bad as I would have thought. They are third in the AL in ERA with 3.96, fourth in OBP allowed at .313, third in fewest earned runs allowed with 483, and tied for sixth for most home runs allowed at 156. They are second in the league for most blown saves with 19.  I am not shocked.

The Offense

July 4th, with the Mariners crossing the midway point of the season I wrote they had scored 407 runs, with a chance to score 800 runs for the first time since 2002.  To date the M’s sit at 573 runs scored. Though the M’s never led the league in runs scored, today they are sixth in runs scored, third in On-Base-Percentage, and third in slugging. In the hell of June and July, most of the team struggled, the exceptions being the core guys-Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.

But today, this team seems to have a little gleam of sunshine bouncing off their batting helmets. Nori Aoki, fresh from Tacoma, and with a new two-flap helmet is the Aoki we thought we were getting. Mike Zunino adds new life to the bottom of the batting order. Adam Lind continues to do Adam Lind stuff, struggling to get on base and then when he’s about to fade from vision launching clutch 430 foot bombs. In his last 20 games Shawn O’Malley slashed .279/.333/.459, played all over the place and loved every second of it. Most encouraging, Leonys Martin finally looks healthy, runs likes he’s healthy and his home run last night was his first since July 20th (before that it was June 23rd.) Further, this team has shown against Milwaukee that it can score without home runs.

Is it enough?

Well, maybe. The bottom line is the Mariners have to keep winning. The schedule doesn’t get any easier.  The new-look Yankees come into town on Monday, and they’ve played quite well. The M’s have to figure out a way to win against the Astros and Rangers.   They currently have losing records (5-8 and 4-8, respectively) against both teams, though the Mariners are statistically somewhat better than either team from Texas. And they need a little bit of help, as the Eastern Division teams beat up on each other.  The Orioles look stunningly mortal at the moment. But watch out for the Kansas City Royal sneakin’ up the standings with their seventh straight win.

 

Just win, baby. Just win

Felix beats Angels

Just back from a cruise to Alaska.  While I enjoyed my trip immensely, the one truly frustrating aspect was my inability to keep track of the M’s as they dealt death to the Angels and Tigers during their last homestand.

But that’s old news.  As the M’s continue their Bums Tour of the AL West, they find themselves knocking on the door of the Wild Card playoff spots. Combined with Detroit’s loss to the the Royals, Seattle has leap-frogged the pack to be the last team on the doorstep.  With the Baltimore/Toronto tangle at the top, and the Red Sox holding WC #2, the Mariners find themselves two games behind the leaders.

August is a friendly month to the Mariners schedule-wise.  After the M’s finish their four game series with Halos, they come home to face the tanking-it Brewers, and Yankees, who have opted to rebuild, but are still a decent team.  Then it’s off to Chicago and three games in Texas against the division leading Rangers.

The schedule has the Mariners playing 23 of their remaining 45 games at home.  Almost all of them are against division rivals with four games against the Rangers, seven games against the Astros, six games against the Angels, and seven more against Oakland. They squeeze three games each with the Blue Jays and Twins in their West Division gotterdamerung.

The M’s have the perfect schedule remaining for a team hoping to climb the ladder into the playoffs.  Lots of games against bad teams-Angels, A’s, Brewers, and Twins.  Lots of games against potential playoff rivals-Rangers, Astros, Blue Jays. Very few games that make me shrug my shoulders.

By contrast, the Red Sox have 29 of their 45 games on the road.  Their record away from Fenway is only 27-25.  Texas has a more favorable 24 of 45 remaining games at home. The Blue Jays have only 18 games remaining at the Rogers Centre. The Orioles have a more friendly 25 games remaining in Baltimore.  The Tigers also have a favorable 26 games at Comerica Park.

It means that every game is crucial.  The only way to get into the playoffs is to win. There are 45 games remaining, and the M’s will lose their share, but winning every series is critical. The late Al Davis had it right; to get into the playoffs, the Mariners just have to win.

 

Smoke: Making over the Mariners Bullpen

When the year began the Mariners bullpen looked something like this:

Closer: RHP Steve Cishek

RHP: Joaquin Benoit

RHP: Joel Peralta

RHP: Nick Vincent

RHP: Tony Zych

LHP: Vidal Nuno

LHP: Mike Montgomery

Today, either because of injury, ineffectiveness or trade, only Nuno remains on the big club. Of these pitchers, only Zych and Montgomery threw hard-mid to high -90’s.  The rest had fast balls around 90, with a sinker or slider.

On August 6th we woke to the news the M’s traded for flamethrower Arquimedes Caminero from the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Caminero routinely throws in the high 90’s and hits triple digits. He doesn’t, however, have a terribly friendly relationship with the strike zone, which is probably why he made it through waivers.

But he joins a bullpen that has more guys like him.  Instead of sinker/slider guys, they are more dependent on the high octane fastball.

Closer: RHP Edwin Diaz

RHP: Tom Wilhelmsen

RHP: Drew Storen

RHP: Cody Martin

RHP Arquimedes Caminero (not available until Monday)

LHP Vidal Nuno

LHP Wade LeBlanc or Ariel Miranda

While I might not put the bullpen in the same category of the Royals or Yankees as they were constituted at the beginning of the season, this is a much harder throwing crew.  With Diaz and Caminero, the M’s will have two guys who can touch 100 mph or more. Wilhelmsen can pitch in the 95-98 mph category.  Storen is at about 91 right now, and if he could find those missing mph, could hang out at 95. From the left side, if he becomes a bullpen arm, Miranda is a mid 90’s guy.

In any case, my point is, the M’s have made over their ‘pen and have opted for the express option. Though each of these players, with the exception of Nuno and Diaz (and maybe LeBlanc/Miranda) have had their struggles this year, they definitely up the Mariners’ game if they can be effective and throw strikes. Storen has been good his last three appearances. In his 12 appearances with Seattle, Tommy the bartender has allowed runs in three appearances.

With Vincent and Charlie Furbush getting ready to pitch on the big club, there will be some interesting decisions to make about what the bullpen should look like and who should be in it.

 

Like the mailman, Iwakuma delivers

Iwakuma shutout

Hisashi Iwakuma threw 7.1 innings of shutout ball against the Red Sox at Safeco Field August 3rd. M’s win 3-1.

Every fifth day, Hisashi Iwakuma shows up on the mound, ready to work, arriving as scheduled like my local mail carrier  That hasn’t always been the case.  His seasons in 2014-15 were both shortened by injury.  That history is what led the Dodgers to have second thoughts about signing him in the off-season and made him available to the M’s.

That doesn’t mean every outing is perfect. Like the mail, sometimes there are flaws in his game. Sometimes my mail is mangled, sometimes it’s late.  There are games when Iwakuma doesn’t have his best stuff. He’s had some short outings, and he’s had some wretched starts, as all pitchers do.  His July 29 outing against the Cubs was Iwakuma’s shortest of the year, lasting only three innings while allowing 8 hits and 5 runs. But, in his 22 starts, ‘Kuma has averaged just over 6 innings per game.

Despite occasional glitches, Iwakuma shows up for each scheduled start, throwing his mix of breaking balls and cutters to both sides of the plate, fastballs at the top of the strike zone, making batters look as foolish as a guy throwing 88 mph can. Yes, sometimes we have to hide our eyes when he makes a mistake, and David Ortiz (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) begins calculating his air miles, as Big Papi did on a shot off ‘Kuma on June 17th in Boston. Iwakuma has allowed 20 dingers so far in 2016.

Last night was no different.  Iwakuma went 7.1 innings, allowed 5 hits, 0 runs, 0 walks and struck out 7 against the visiting Red Sox. Mariner batters supported him with three solo home runs by Nelson Cruz, Mike Zunino, and Adam Lind.  M’s hitters provided only one other hit off Boston starter Rick Porcello, a single by Mike Zunino leading off the 8th inning. Iwakuma left the game after allowing a single to Anthony Benintendi, having thrown a workmanlike 97 pitches.

Iwakuma left the drama to righty reliever Drew Storen and new closer Edwin Diaz. Storen came in and quickly gave up a single to Mookie Betts. Though he got Brock Holt to hit a popup, the next batter, Xander Bogaerts hit a titanic fly ball that left fielder Nori Aoki caught on the warning track.  I thought it was out of the yard, and it was “here we go again” time.

Diaz entered the game in the ninth inning in his second game as M’s closer-designee. He looked magnificent striking out the dangerous Ortiz. But then he seemed to have a little melt-down out there. He allowed a single to Jackie Bradley, Jr., hit the next batter, Aaron Hill and wild pitched them both into scoring position with one out. Facing the tying run got Travis Shaw and Sandy Leon to ground out, allowing one run to score. M’s win 3-1.

Two quick observations. Iwakuma, without question is the Mariners best starting pitcher at this moment.  He’s made all of his starts, has been relatively consistent, and though he’s had his struggles with home runs, he’s improved as the season has progressed. He was last night’s player of the game, without question. Diaz, though he muddled through the 9th inning, did in fact muddle through it. Closing is a tough job.  We like to think a closer comes in, gets his three outs and that’s it. News for you, Mariano Rivera was a mortal and blew saves. Every year. Smyth’s Maxim: Everybody can close, until they can’t. Right now, Diaz can.

Last game of this series tonight with new pitcher Ariel Miranda on the mound for the Mariners. Better watch.  Go M’s

Song of the Day: “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The last few days have been a week. First there was the disaster at Wrigley in which Steve Cishek single-handedly lit the team bench on fire and walked over the prone bodies of his teammates with their faces frozen in a permanent “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

It was followed the next night by Cishek trying to make nice, acknowledging Sunday night’s wild pitch by throwing exactly the same ball to Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts to lead off the 8th inning at Safeco Field.  Mookie celebrated the moment by hitting the next pitch into the right field seats for the winning solo homer. Tough couple of days for Cishek, the Mariners and M’s fans everywhere.

That was after  Monday’s trading deadline passed, with M’s doing very little.  Picked up a waiver claim on minor leaguer Mike Freeman and DFA’s Patrick Kivlehan.  They missed out on a trade for Reds shortstop Zack Cozart, probably a guy who could have helped this team, but I’m assuming the price was simply too high.

Sigh, just not a lot of good news going into Tuesday night’s rematch with the Red Sox.  With Boston throwing lefty ace David Price at the M’s and the home team countering with reclamation project Wade LeBlanc, our chances just didn’t look good. The Mariners were likely to finish the night with another L, and dip below .500 for the first time since April 21st after a loss at home to the Angels left them 8-9.

And God only knows, that’s the way things started. David Ortiz doubled home Pedroia in the first inning. Hanley Ramirez hit a tremendous home run out to left-center field, and was followed by back to back doubles by Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Aaron Hill. Bosox up 3-0.

But in the good news department,  LeBlanc was able to hang in for a solid six innings, reducing the wear on a dazed and confused bullpen.  But when recent call-up Donn Roach relieved LeBlanc in the 7th, he held Boston at bay. But in the 8th that Ortiz guy drove in a fourth run to take a commanding lead 4-0.

But two really good things happened in this game. The first is that the M’s mounted a comeback. It may not match the epic 16-13 comeback destruction of San Diego on June 2nd, but for a team about to be left for dead by most of the casual fans in Seattle (remember Seahawks training camp opened last week,) it was a critical win.

Mike Zunino led off the bottom of the 8th with a missile off Price into the left field seats. Seeming somewhat more mortal, Leonys Martin and Luis Sardinas got to Price for successive singles, before Guillermo Heredia recorded his first major league hit by driving in Martin.  Price out, reliever Matt Barnes came in to get pinch-hitter Seth Smith.  Newly acquired lefty Francisco Abad came in to face lefty Robinson Cano.  Abad was greeted by a no-doubt-about-it howitzer blast. The M’s take the lead 5-4.

The second really good thing that happened is when rookie Edwin Diaz came out to close the ninth inning. It was like that moment in Jerry Maguire when Rene Zellweger said “You had me at hello.” There were no covered eyes. I wasn’t waiting for a slider two feet off the plate.  I didn’t double check for an arrow sticking out of my butt.  Diaz was dominant, and despite a one-out walk to Travis Shaw, was effective. Could the 22-year old be the best Mariners closer since J.J. Putz in 2007? Tomorrow is another day, who knows?

This has not been a good year but . . . Despite many flaws-not enough clutch hitting, too many defensive and base-running errors, injuries and ineffectiveness from starters and relievers-this team has managed to hang around .500.  With the Red Sox series, the M’s wrap up the truly terrible two months of their schedule. Yes, they are only 53-52.  But I would remind you that last year on August 3rd they were 49-58. Do I think they are going to play their way back into the Wild Card chase? Nope, I don’t.

But I do think they’ll be better. Why? Here’s a few reasons:

  1. Reinforcements-it appears some of the wounded will leave the DL soon-Taijuan Walker will rejoin the bullpen. Charlie Furbush will add a much needed left hander to the bullpen. Nick Vincent will shore up the ‘pen from the right side.
  2. According to MLBTradeRumors, Jerry Dipoto expects to be busy during August.  That may be a challenge as trades for major league players must clear waivers, but certainly deals have been made in August before. Adam Lind? Zack Cozart? Seth Smith? We’ll see. (There is an interesting explanation of why the Cozart deal didn’t happen too.)
  3. Young guys will get their shot. The M’s put Guillermo Heredia in left field, with his superior defense and speed, putting Nori Aoki on the bench.  The 25 year old will have ample opportunity to see if he can hit, because he certainly is young, athletic and controllable. If Lind is moved, we may see Dan Vogelbach, obtained in the Mike Montgomery trade. Unfortunately, the highly touted 1B/DH isn’t hitting a lick,  with only a .182/.321/.341 slash since moving to the PCL. Ariel Miranda, acquired in the Wade Miley trade, will get his first major league start on Thursday. Nobody knows if any of these guys will be successful, but they are the next wave of young players Dipoto is counting on to make the Mariners better and younger.
  4. The bullpen is better and faster. Edwin Diaz, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Drew Storen are all high octane right handers to give the M’s that hot fuel bullpen the Royals and Yankees have had. Too bad they don’t have a lefty like that-oh they did but sent Montgomery to Chicago.

There is enough good stuff happening with this team to keep me interested.  Again, I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs, but they’ll benefit enough from the softer schedule and an improving roster enough so they may have a say in who makes it and who does not. They remind me of the old 60’s song, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Not the perky, resentful Diana Ross and the Supreme’s version, no the plodding, downbeat heavy metalish cover by Vanilla Fudge.

The season in microcosm

Cubs beat mariners

John Lester’s squeeze bunt beat the Mariners in the 12th inning at Wrigley Field.  It shouldn’t have ended this way.

I wasn’t able to watch either of the first two games in Chicago.  Stuff happens, I was busy, and the Cubs predilection for day games simply worked against me.  But I got all my Sunday errandy duties out of the way so I could catch a rare Mariners game on Sunday Night Baseball.  I reflected on Saturday’s miracle win over Aroldis Chapman, and remembered the King was pitching before a national audience, and decided I had to see it.  When I turned the game off in the 10th inning, game tied 6-6, I knew what was going to happen.

Waking up early this morning, I reached for my iPad and the MLB.com update that would appear in the 4:00 darkness, and sure enough there it was: Cubs beat Mariners 7-6.

This game had so much promise, just as the Mariners did in May.  The M’s should have won, but were sabotaged by so many of the same factors that have plagued the team throughout the season.

The offense does its bit . . . sort of

When Nelson Cruz hit his 26th home run in the first inning to give Felix and the M’s an early lead, I cheered.  I cheered some more when Robinson Cano homered in the second to make it 4-0.  I think I said out loud-“We got this,” when Dae-Ho Lee awakened from his slump to blast a ball out to center in the third and increase the lead to 6-0.

But the M’s offense did nothing good after the third inning and after Cub manager Joe Maddon replaced Cubs starter Brian Matusz. It’s not that the Mariners didn’t have chances. The M’s loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth inning, but lefty reliever Travis Wood masterfully handled the next three M’s batters-Shawn O’Malley, Leonys Martin, and Cano, all left-handed-and the M’s came away with nothing.

The Mariners had another opportunity in the eighth inning when Mike Zunino led off with double, but the inexperienced Edwin Diaz, trying to move Zunino to third, bunted directly to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, playing virtually on top of him, who fired to  third to nail Zunino.  O’Malley forced Diaz as second, and then was cleverly picked off to end the inning.

The 2016 Mariners are the team of homers.  Not solo homers like 2015. But when they need a base hit, or a sacrifice fly it feels increasingly hard to come by. The Mariners had plenty of chances to add on in this game, and they simply failed.

Felix holds the Cubs at bay . . . as long as he can.

The Cubs blasted the M’s and the Mariners most consistent starting pitcher, Hisashi Iwakuma,  for 12 runs on Friday.  They are one of the most potent run-scoring teams in baseball.  Felix Hernandez had his hands full.

Despite walking the first two batters, Felix struck out the next three batters to end the threat. He held the Cubs hitless until the fourth inning.  Just as obviously, the King was not going to remain in the game long, as the Cubs relentlessly ground out long at bats, driving up his pitch count. Though he struck out eight in the game, Felix also walked five, including walking in a run in a bases loaded fifth inning. Hernandez was pulled for a pinch hitter after the fifth inning with his pitch count at 103.

Though he managed to hold the Cubs to two runs, this outing was emblematic of Mariners starting pitching in 2016.  Short outings that expose the bullpen for too long, that’s the story of this rotation for this season.  Felix is simply exhibit A.

The Defense-help like this, we don’t need.

The Mariners defense has, speaking charitably, been spotty this year. Sunday was no exception. Kyle Seager’s third inning error on Dexter Fowler’s groundout was not a difference maker in the game, but it did prolong the inning, allow another batter and contribute to Felix’s burgeoning pitch count.

But the biggest defensive mistake doesn’t even figure into the box score. In the seventh inning Fowler led off with a walk and stole second.  Batting with two outs, Ben Zobrist lined a single into center that centerfielder Leonys Martin took a terrible route to and misplayed into a triple.  Fowler scored, and with his speed likely would have scored on a single, but it was a needless mental mistake. Diaz relieved Wilhelmsen to stop the bleeding.

The Mariners make too many defensive mistake that prolong innings and allow extra runs, earned and unearned. This is simply too difficult a game under the best of circumstances to give away extra outs, extra bases, or extra runs. But the M’s continue to play that game.

CISHEK!!!

Manager Scott Servais ran out Drew Storen, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Edwin Diaz to preserve the Mariner lead and the King’s victory on national television.  The Cubs chipped away at the 6-0 advantage, but when the M’s ran their closer, Steve Cishek, out to apply the coup de grace, they still held a 6-3 lead.  Three run lead, three outs. Sounds easy right?

Back in 1997, when the M’s were hitting home runs and scoring at a historic pace, they had the worst bullpen ever. Paul Spoljaric, Mike Timlin, Heathcliff Slocumb, a terrible Norm Charlton, remember those guys?  Bobby Ayala actually looked good by comparison.  The Ms would be ahead by six or eight runs in the sixth or seventh inning, and I’d start counting down outs while trading off runs. I’ve taken to doing that in 2016.  Okay, they’ve got a three run lead to trade for six outs.  Still a two run lead, only need four outs . . .

Strikeout, double, single, single (Rizzo scores,) hit batsman (bases loaded,) fielders choice (run scores.) Gaaahhhhh.  But with two outs, it seemed the M’s might escape with a 6-5 win.  Facing right-hander Sczur, Cishek threw a ball at least two feet outside in the dirt which fortunately didn’t ricochet any further than it did, because it seemed to roll forever. Tying run scored.

The remaining three innings were all academic.  The M’s used up their best relievers early, while the Cubs could run out platoons of guys with good stuff. Former Mariner Mike Montgomery, Hector Strop, Pedro Rondon, and Aroldis Chapman, all guys who can match up and throw hard finished the game for Chicago.  The M’s rolled out Cody Martin, recently called up from Tacoma, who lasted 2.1 innings until the inevitable happened.

Cishek has had his moments of good, but way too many moments of oops. It is clear he is decreasingly effective against left=handed batters.  His splits for right=handers .147/.221.232 vs lefties .250/.341/.500 is breathtaking.  Five of his seven home runs allowed are against left-handed hitters. Rizzo, Zobrist, Addison Russell, and Justin Heyward all reached base in the ninth.  Only Russell is right-handed.

The bottom line is if you can’t pitch to off-handed hitters, you can’t be an effective closer in the major leagues.  Do the M’s have someone who can close? Well, they have three failed closers in Storen, Wilhemsen and Cishek.  The one untried, and unproven guy on staff with closer stuff is Diaz, and I just don’t know if they are ready to go there with a 22-year old with little major league experience.

Maddon vs. Servais

Joe Maddon is the probably the best manager in major league baseball. Scott Servais is learning on the job. Maddon ran rings around Servais in this game with a plethora of double switches, and his amazing use of lefty Travis Wood, who stymied the Mariner rally in the seventh, ran out to the outfield to make a great catch against the wall, and ran back in to pitch some more. The Cubs have a much deeper bench, and a much better bullpen. But surely there was some other answer than making Diaz try to bunt in the eighth inning.

Yes it was just one game.  Was it a difference maker, a back breaker? I dunno.  It turned a pretty tough road trip against three good teams from 5-3 to 4-4.  It left the Mariners record at 52-51 instead of 53-50.  Most important, it left them 5.0 games behind in the Wild Card race and seeming further than ever from catching a spark that will propel them up the standings.  They are a mediocre team. As I sat thinking about what to write, all I could hear was, “This is why you can’t have nice things.”

 

Mariners trade Wade Miley

Miley 3

Wade Miley is not Adam Jones or Mark Trumbo or Chris Tillman, nope he’s not as  good as other ballplayers the Mariners have traded to Baltimore for a mess of pottage.  Mostly he’s been a pretty shitty pitcher in 2016, an unreliable cog on a mostly unreliable starting rotation. So when I learned the news a few minutes ago the M’s had traded him to the Orioles, my first response was to ask, “for what?”

The return, 27-year old Cuban minor league reliever, Ariel  Miranda, left me shrugging my shoulders. He could end up in the Mariners bullpen, but maybe not, meh. The biggest benefit is saving Miley’s nearly $9 million salary for 2017, so more money to play with for next year.

I’m trying to summon some outrage over this trade. It’s hard to do. Miley came over in a trade for Carson Smith and Roenis Elias I didn’t like when it was made. After the M’s re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma, I truly hoped Miley would solidify the rotation into a superior unit.  But it just didn’t happen. Ironically, Miley’s best starts have been his most recent, so I guess I’m surprised the M’s dealt him and got so little in return. I’ve never been a fan of the salary dump, and this definitely fits that description.

This definitely shakes up the rotation.  However it will allow Taijuan Walker to fit into the rotation if if he comes off the disabled list as expected. So the rotation should look something like Felix, Kuma, Paxton, Walker and ? LeBlanc? Karns (currently on the DL?)

Perhaps the most important perspective this trade offers is on Jerry Dipoto’s pre-season trades.  In dealing Miley, he’s given up a player he paid dearly for.  Yes Smith is injured, and Elias isn’t pitching much with the big club.  But clearly Dipoto’s plan to get a controllable pitcher who could give the Mariners 200 innings hasn’t worked.  Together with the trade for Nathan Karns seeming more like a fiasco, one has to wonder about his judgement, at least for these two trades.  Right now, only a couple of his moves are looking like winners-the fleecing of Texas for Leonys Martin, and the Dae-ho Lee signing.  The Benoit trade, the Aoki pickup, and the Trumbo deal look bad. The Lind trade and Cishek signing are questionable.  He was just counting on a lot of bounce-backs and they just didn’t happen.

Well, it’s the bottom of the 5th, with the M’s leading 6-0, but the King is in trouble with two outs and Ben Zobrist at the plate. Carry on men.  Bring us home a winner on this road trip. See ya Wade.

 

Jay Bruce: Rumors and the waiting game

I was catching the Rainiers rout of the El Paso Chihuahuas, 11-1 at Cheney stadium last night.  My friend Dave has an amazing season ticket package, kind of a flexible pass that allows him up to eight seats for any home game Monday to Thursday for $280.  As long as you use ’em you can’t go wrong.  And on a warm July night, Cheney is pretty amazing.

I was particularly interested in watching Dan Vogelbach, who the Mariners acquired from the Cubs in a trade for pitcher Mike Montgomery.  Unfortunately, the big left-handed DH went 0-4 with a walk.  Thankfully his teammates pounded out 16 hits, scoring eleven runs without the benefit of a homer.

This was my second Rainiers game with Dave in a week. I was completely enjoying myself when I heard a gasp from a guy a couple rows behind and rapid fire explanation the Mariners were trading for Jay Bruce. I was shocked, but quickly pulled out my iPhone and checked MLBTradeRumors for confirmation.  No, not so, the M’s are just in on discussions with the Reds for Bruce, along with a bunch of other teams, who will almost certainly be traded to somebody .

Ahhh rumors.  The stock in trade for all bloggers as we approach the trade deadline. Honestly, who knows what will happen by Sunday.  Yesterday I learned over my morning granola the Mariners traded struggling reliever Joaquin Benoit to Toronto for struggling reliever Drew Storen.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays

Drew Storen, freed from the friendly confines of the Rogers Centre, barfed up four runs in the M’s 10-1 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

An effective set-up man and closer for the Nationals in 2015, Storen has bombed in 2016, the final year of his contract. Ten years younger than Benoit, Storen has a chance to improve his position in his quest for a new contract. Informed of the trade, Storen took the PC rout and tweeted out his praise for Ken Griffey, Jr., and Jay Buhner.    Unfortunately in his first outing in blue and teal in Pittsburgh, he coughed up four runs in 1.1 innings.  Note to Drew: don’t include “road trip to Pittsburgh” in your resume.

But since we have no actual deals to pick apart, let’s take a look at Jay Bruce and what he could do for the Mariners. The M’s are kind of a mess in the outfield. Off season acquisition Leonys Martin is one of the deals that has worked out as planned, providing the hoped for defense in center field, and more offense than Jerry Dipoto predicted.

Right fielder Nori Aoki has been a disappointment, both at the plate and in the field, spending time in Tacoma as a result. Aoki’s misplayed fly ball in last night’s game opened the gates for the Pirates to take an early three run  lead in the third inning.

Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez  share the role of left-fielder.  Both players have provided solid offense with a 119 and 116 OPS+ respectively.  But Smith is no whiz in the field, offering a -11 Defensive Runs Saved, and a -21.5 UZR 150.  That’s not good.  Guti remains an above average fielder with 0 DRS and 7.8 UZR 150.  So they almost split the difference defensively.

Jay Bruce

Jay Bruce to the Mariners?  That’s a rumor floated in a couple of sources. Would he be the right guy for the M’s?  Hard to say.

My guess is if the M’s make a move for an outfielder it’s to replace Aoki, and Jay Bruce could be that guy. After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, Bruce has rebounded nicely with a .271/.323/.572 slash and 130 wRC+.  He’s definitely a striker outer, but his 20.9 K% is the lowest of his career.  This plays much better than Aoki’s .253/.323/.333.  Though Aoki was acquired to provide on-base skills, outfield defense, and a little speed, his performance has provided none of that, and he is well below his career averages.

Defensively neither Aoki or Bruce are strong defenders. Aoki has provided a -5 DRS and -7.9 UZR 150.  Bruce is a -12 DRS and -20.6 UZR 150.  August Fagerstrom took a look at Bruce’s defensive metrics at FanGraphs, and determined that Bruce especially struggles going back on balls over his head.  That is not a deficiency that will play well at Safeco.

There is little question  Bruce will contribute even more to an improved offense. He has the balance of $12.5 million remaining on this contract year.  He also has a team option year for 2017 for $13 million and a team buyout for $1 million. So Bruce is not quite a rental, and if he continues to perform, he could be a fairly priced option for the M’s next year  The question is, what would it cost to get him? My guess is the Reds will be looking for young, controllable players as the Reds strip down and build around Joey Votto.

I am a believer the M’s will improve when their pitching and outfield defense improve. Bruce at the plate would be a nice add, and if the package was relatively harmless or from the low minors I could be in. Walt Jocketty, Reds G.M. suggested it would be a mid-level prospect, whatever that means.   But Bruce is not a pitcher and does not play good outfield defense. Honestly, I’d prefer the Mariners save that outfield spot and take a look at Guillermo Heredia when he recovers from his injury.  He’s put up some  solid minor league numbers, played center field, would be a very good corner outfielder. Heredia would already be with the big club if he hadn’t jammed his shoulder.

When it comes right down to it, this is all just rumors-a-go-go.  By Sunday our heads will be spinning and checking MLBTradeRumors on the hour won’t be frequently enough.  Oooh look, talks about Tai Walker, James Paxton and Wade Miley.  Right. . .

 

The Felix we have

Nelson Liriano

Pitcher Nelson Liriano homers off Felix Hernandez in the second inning of Tuesday’s 7-4 win over the Pirates in Pittsburgh.

Yesterday the M’s went on to win their 51st game against a dangerous Pirates team, on the road in beautiful PNC Park, by a score of 7-4. The M’s are now 3-1 on what is a difficult road trip that takes them through Toronto, Pittsburgh and Chicago, each against playoff contenders.

The M’s won on the strength of their bats and solid bullpen performance.  Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez struggled for six innings, but managed to get the win to improve his record to 7-4.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Felix threw this team on his back and carried them kicking and screaming, to the finish line. The Mariners might win 1-0, or tragically fall short by the same score. Surrounded by ineffective banjo hitters, and past their prime run producers, The King managed to bob and weave his way to a Cy Young award in 2010, two second place finishes in 2009 and 2014, and six All-Star performances.

But in 2016, things don’t look so royally rosy. Though Felix struggled in 2015, suffering some epic meltdowns (helloooooo Red Sox,) we were all primed with fingers and toes crossed for a resurgent King in 2016.  It hasn’t happened. There is the calf injury, causing him to miss two months-two months the starting rotation has been a mess. But even when Felix has pitched, he hasn’t been the Felix we’ve known.

Teams are striking early against Felix, putting the King and the team in a hole.  Remember yesterday’s game against the Bucs? Three runs in the first inning and solo homer to Francicso Liriano (??!!!) in the second put the Mariners down 4-0.  Hernandez has allowed 17 of his 29 earned runs in the first three innings.

It is equally evident that just looking at some important 2016 numbers that Felix is simply struggling to get outs.  Compare these to his career numbers (in parentheses.)

  • BB/9: 3.4 (2.5)
  • Hits/9 8.3 (8.0)
  • HR/9  1.1 (.7)
  • K/9  6.9 (8.5)
  • K/BB 2.00 (3.34)

So Felix is allowing more baserunners and dingers-a deadly combination.  He’s also striking out fewer batters, making it much more difficult to get out of jams. This is reflected in important combination stats:

  • WHIP: 1.308 (1.175)
  • FIP: 4.54 (3.24)

His 2016 FIP is by far the highest of his career.

One other important difference between yesterday’s Felix and Felix in his prime is innings per start.  In 2015, not a great year, Felix made 31 starts.  Note: A start counts for only one category. Example a complete game counts only for complete games, not for 7.0 or 8.0 inning starts,

  • Felix threw two 9.0 inning complete games.
  • Felix completed  8.0 innings four times.
  • Felix completed 7.0 innings 11 times
  • Felix pitched into the 7th inning 4 times.

In 2016, Felix has struggled to get deep into games.  Felix has made 12 starts:

  • Felix has zero 9.0 inning complete games
  • Felix has not completed 8.0 innings
  • Felix pitched into the 8th inning two times.
  • Felix completed 7.0 innings three times
  • Felix pitched into the 7th inning once.

What does all this say, what does it all mean?  Short term, it means that Felix is just another guy on a  struggling rotation trying to find himself every fifth day. Maybe he’s fighting through minor or major physical issues, maybe he’s in decline and this is the Felix we have. I have no doubt Felix remains a clubhouse leader and an important rallying symbol for this team.  I also have no doubt that Felix works hard every day, and it is a testament to his mental toughness and his knowledge of how to pitch that he gets knocked around and remains somewhat successful even if he isn’t dominant.

But we’d be fooling ourselves to think that Felix is an ace, a guy the Mariners can walk out, face another team’s ace, whether it is Dallas Keuchel or Chris Sale, and know it will be an equal fight. He’s not the guy the Mariners can count on for seven or more tough innings every fifth day. Perhaps we’re seeing the end of Felix Hernandez as a star.  Perhaps we’re seeing Felix in a pitching no-man’s land as his repertoire and approach to pitching begins to change with his aging curve and the wear and tear on his arm. Perhaps he becomes a different kind of pitcher.

I don’t know where all this leads.  But this I do know; Felix Hernandez is signed through 2019 for nearly $80 million.  My money is on the Mariners and Felix to figure it out with a plan to make him as effective as possible, perhaps in a different way. But it’s not likely that a major intervention, whether surgical or mechanical, will take place until after the current campaign is over.

So the Felix we have is the Felix we’ve got.  Here’s hoping he’s able to knock some rust off his game, and continue pitching with guile and toughness. And here’s hoping his teammates carry him as he carried this team for the better part of a decade.

 

 

What does the Mike Montgomery trade mean?

Dan Vogelbach

Managed to catch a goodly chunk of the Felix return on the radio during my interminable drive home from Bellingham.  It was another nice comeback and a really important win for the M’s.  Heard the ding of a text message from my friend Todd as I was driving, reporting Mike Montgomery’s trade.to the Cubs.  Todd was excited about the deal-and I became desperate to learn what we’d acquired.

Let me be clear-I believe Montgomery has been the most consistent pitcher for the M’s this year.  Though he’s had a couple of rough games out of the bullpen (compared to the rest of the guys, a couple is like microscopic,) but he’s pitched short, middle and long relief. He’s started a couple of games and been okay.  He also has the virtue of being young, cheap and controllable, fitting G.M. Jerry DiPoto’s criteria of young, athletic and controllable.

It’s also really tough to see the Mariners give up pitching, especially good pitching. The M’s remain within striking distance of the second AL Wild Card, but that can only happen if the M’s either acquire more pitching, or wave a magic wand over the the guys they have. So tossing AAA pitcher Jordan Priess into a deal that brings no major league ready pitching back is a bit of a head scratcher. Unless, of course, management is throwing in the towel and is reassessing this team, positioning it for next year. Of course, they would never say that.

This was a trade, so the M’s actually did get something back in return.  The headliner is AAA slugger Dan Vogelbach. The big left-hander is hitting .318/..425/..548.  Yes, he is hitting the shit out of the ball at Iowa City.  Why isn’t he a Cubbie?  Well, dude is 6’0″ and weighs 250 lbs, and can only play 1b and DH.  His route to the majors is blocked by Anthony Rizzo. at 1b, and, uh, there is no DH in the National League.  The Cubs also included AA RHP Paul Blackburn, a starter, in the deal. Blackburn was selected 56th overall by the Cubs in the 2012 draft. At AA Tennessee he’s started 18 games, thrown 102.1 innings, and struck out 72.  He’s 6-4 with a 3.17 ERA and 1.192 WHIP.  Not bad.

I know I’m tired from a week at journalism camp, but this deal doesn’t do it for me.  Look, Vogelbach has demonstrated that he is a helluva minor league hitter. He’s shown he has power and on-base ability everywhere he’s gone. But he’s also a really big guy.  In 2014 MLB.com carried an article about Vogelbach’s efforts to lose weight. Clearly his size is an issue. He is likely a candidate to play DH.  I feel like an awful person for even raising this, but didn’t we just try this with Jesus Montero? How does this fill the goal of becoming more athletic by the M’s?  Why do I feel like this guys is Jack Zdurencik’s wet dream?

If Vogelbach’s route to the majors is blocked  with the Cubs, what about the M’s?  The Mariners have a platoon at first base with Adam Lind and Dae-ho Lee. Yes, they are each ten years older Vogelbach. And Lind has trouble getting on base.  But the M’s also owe him the balance of an $8 million dollar contract. And who tied the game today with an opposite field home run?  Who has a pair of walk-off dingers?  Yes, Adam Lind in all of his .261 OBP glory has had some pretty big hits for this team. At DH, that Cruz fellow, with cameo performances by Lee, seems to have the inside track on the vast majority of at bats, especially with the return of Nori Aoki, to fill Cruz’s  role in the outfield. And what does this mean for minor league first baseman D.J. Peterson, an M’s first round draft pick, having a terrific year in the minors after struggling the past couple of seasons?

I dunno, maybe there is another shoe that’s gonna drop and in a few days there will be another deal set up by this one. But it’s hard to see the team’s most consistent pitcher traded when it’s clear this team needs more pitching, not less, if it has any hope of making the playoffs. Maybe if they got back someone filling a clear position of need for now or in the immediate future I’d feel better about it. I know Dipoto went on the radio and talked it up,  but right at this moment I’m feeling the best get in this deal is Blackburn.

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