Cactus League Game 4, Mariners at Reds

marc w · February 26, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Justin Dunn vs. Sonny Gray, 12:05pm

After a brutal slugfest versus the Cubs, and then a tidy pitcher’s duel against the Brewers, the M’s head to Goodyear to take on the new-look Reds. The Reds have some new players, but the story of their off-season has been a thorough overhaul of their player development. They brought in former Vanderbilt Pitching Coach Derek Johnson last year, and he seemed to make an immediate difference. The Reds pitching staff ranked #27 in baseball by Fangraphs’ WAR in 2018, but shot up to #9 last year. Not content with that, the Reds bolstered the coaching staff around Johnson by hiring local pitching development guru Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball to work as director of pitching initiatives, and promoting an old Driveline client, Caleb Cotham, to Director of Pitching as well as assistant pitching coach.

Today’s starter, Sonny Gray, was one of the beneficiaries of Johnson’s tutelage last year. After a down year-and-a-half with the Yankees, Gray looked like the pitcher who came up with the A’s years ago, tossing 175+ IP with an ERA of 2.87 and a DRA of 2.98. His FIP wasn’t quite *that* good, but he posted his best strikeout-minus-walk ratio of his career, and actually lowered his HR rate despite moving to a small ballpark in the year of the superball baseball. The velocity and movement on his pitches haven’t really changed. He’s still got a four-seam fastball with lots of cut (hence his high spin rates), no horizontal movement, and not a ton of vertical movement. His best secondary is his curve, with lots of two-plane break. Over the years, he’s mixed in a sinker, and with the Yankees, that essentially became his primary breaking ball. That changed last year…kind of. He throws his sinker a lot to right-handed bats, taking advantage of the pitch’s natural pitch-type platoon splits. But he hardly threw it at all to lefties, giving them a mix of four-seamers, curves, and sliders. Overall, he threw fewer fastballs and more breaking balls, and he threw fewer sinkers in particular. While platoon splits have never really been Gray’s problem, he was able to dramatically reduce hits and HRs overall while maintaining essentially even splits. Now: this may be the result of a drop in BABIP, just as his struggles in NY may have resulted from the opposite problem. But I think there’s more going on here, as shown in that K rate and K-BB%.

Today marks the first of two really intriguing starters for Seattle. Today, Justin Dunn starts, while tomorrow it’s top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert. The Reds, of course, were the team Dunn faced in his…uh, less than stellar MLB debut. He’s had an off-season to put that behind him, and Dunn taking a huge step forward this year would do wonders to accelerate the M’s path to contention. On paper, the M’s rotation looks absolutely dire. Just getting to “below average” would be a real developmental win for the org, and with talent like Dunn, it’s an attainable goal.

1: Fraley, CF
2: Nola, C
3: C. Gonzalez, RF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: White, 1B
6: Wisdom, 3B
7: Juliooooo Rodriguez, LF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Haggerty, SS
SP: Dunn

Cactus League Game 2, Cubs at Mariners

marc w · February 24, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Adbert Alzolay, 12:10pm

The M’s starters were a bit listless yesterday against Texas, but Evan White made a couple of good defensive plays, and Yusei Kikuchi’s mechanical tweaks seemed to allow his velo to play up a bit, but he still had some issues closing out innings – though a 1st inning error didn’t help.

Today, the Cubs come to Peoria, with prospect Adbert Alzolay starting. Alzolay opened eyes in the Northwest League years ago, but he’s struggled a bit in the high minors. He did make his debut for Chicago last year. He’s a righty with a FB around 94, and a curve/change mix behind it. Nothing really stands out movement-wise.

It’ll be interesting to see Marco Gonzales this year. In a long conversation with Ryan Rowland-Smith, Marco decried the increasing importance of velocity, and how it’s led many to underestimate him. He doesn’t need to sit 94, but man, I keep thinking he’d be more of a legitimate #2/#1 if he got back the MPH he lost a few years ago.

1: Fraley, LF
2: Nola, C
3: Seager, 3B
4: Wisdom, 1B
5: CarGo, RF
6: Lopes, 2B
7: Filia, DH
8: D. Moore, SS
9: J. Siri, CF

Cactus League Game 1, Rangers at Mariners

marc w · February 23, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Joe Palumbo, 12:10pm

After yesterday’s rain-out, the M’s will begin their spring training slate of games today in Peoria. They feature a line-up that figures to be pretty close to the one they’ll open the regular season with, and they’ll do it behind Yusei Kikuchi, the enigmatic pitcher whose development is critical to the M’s contention in a few years.

The Rangers head to Peoria in a battle of the cellar-dwellers of the AL West. The Rangers haven’t exactly done a full rebuild – the only real prize they traded away was Yu Darvish, and he only had a half-season of club control left. Instead, the Rangers are where they are because their once vaunted pipeline of talent – particularly international free agents – started to dry up, and thus they didn’t really have in-house replacements for the likes of Darvish or Adrian Beltre. They’d be challenging the M’s for worst record in the division if they hadn’t spent a bit of money on veteran starting pitching, a move that lifted their rotation last year, and kept them from the fate of the Orioles or Tigers. This year, they’ve doubled down on that approach, picking up Corey Kluber from Cleveland, Kyle Gibson from Minnesota, and the well-traveled Jordan Lyles. Their offense doesn’t project all that well, but on paper, they should have much better starting pitching than the M’s.

So can the M’s make up for that deficit by developing their young position player prospects? I mean, sure, anything’s possible. But before they bring up Julio and Jarred, they’re going to need to figure out what the likes of Braden Bishop, Kyle Lewis, and Jake Fraley have to offer. The former two start today’s game, but I imagine we’ll see Fraley push Bishop for a starting position in the regular season. Bishop and Fraley were utterly overmatched in their first taste of the big leagues, but that’s not a death sentence or anything. Lewis started extremely well, but may have to show that he can limit Ks…unless his power can rival that of the Rangers whiff-prone Dingerman, Joey Gallo.

At this point, the Rangers are projected to finish with about 12 more wins than Seattle, and for that to happen, they’ll probably need to tap some of their starting pitching depth, particularly with some older and injury-prone starters (like Kluber). That’s where today’s starter, Joe Palumbo, comes in. Palumbo, Kolby Allard, and Ariel Jurado figure to back up the starters, and of that depth group, Palumbo’s the guy with the best pure stuff or bat-missing ability. A lefty, his four-seam fastball comes in at around 94-95 from a low-ish arm angle. His primary breaking ball is a curve at around 79, and while he’s got a slider and change, he uses the fastball/curve combo most often. All in all, he reminds me a bit of Justus Sheffield; Sheffield’s release point is even lower (which may just be due to his height), so he’s got similar FB movement to Palumbo. Sheff’s low spin rate means the FB gets even less vertical movement than Palumbo’s, but neither are even average in terms of vertical rise. Their sliders are similar too, I suppose; Palumbo’s only thrown four of them, so it’s hard to tell. Palumbo showed more bat-missing in the minors than Sheffield, but he too walked too many. And despite the movement similarities, Palumbo’s a fly ball pitcher, a fact that got him into trouble in his brief MLB call-up. If I worked for Texas, I might encourage him to throw that slider a bit more, even just as a change of pace. Sheffield’s able to get grounders with that pitch, and Palumbo needs *something* given the fact he’s a fly baller in Texas.

1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, RF
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Murphy, C
7: Crawford, SS
8: Smith, CF
9: Bishop, LF
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s picked up one-time Padres OF prospect Rymer Liriano today. He had a great 2011 in low A, then missed a year due to injury in 2013. Back with a vengeance in 2014, he rose to get his first MLB call-up with San Diego that year. After a so-so 2015, he again missed a year due to injury in 2016. He got a few games for a go-nowhere White Sox team in 2017, and was last seen in the Mets org last year, where he struggled. Hey, depth!

Show Me a Sign

marc w · February 21, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

Given the baseball news this winter, I should’ve titled this something different. The M’s begin their cactus league games this weekend, and despite what looks like a rough season, the M’s have some optimism about them. The primary source is, of course, the outfield tandem of Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, two of the better prospects in the game. For a number of reasons, some baseball-related, and some very much not, neither will break camp with Seattle, and likely won’t play at all until the super 2 deadline next year at the earliest. But it’s still good to see these two players, thrust into the role of franchise co-saviors, turn some heads. Logan Gilbert’s doing similar work on the mound, too. All of that means there’s reason to hope that the next wave of young Mariners might actually be the one to close the gap between the frightful current state of the club and their rivals.

Over the past few days, baseball sites have issued playoff odds and projected standings for 2020. As you’d expect, the picture is especially bleak for Seattle. ZiPS projected standings came out this morning, and foresee the darkest timeline: a 100-loss M’s club. Fangraphs’ projections have them at 66-96, right where Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA sees the M’s finishing. The ever-optimistic Clay Davenport’s got them at 68-94, pretty much exactly in line with where Caesar’s Palace set the over/under line (67.5 wins). Based on everything we know now, based on the statistics, age, growth, attrition, etc. of the roster, the M’s simply aren’t in the same class as the rest of the league.

I know the M’s said that they’d focus on contention in 2021, but that’s now really, really close. Worst-to-first teams happen, but they happen extremely rarely. A whole lot of ground work was supposed to be completed by now, and there’s not a lot of evidence for it. More than anything, that’s what 2020 needs to show us. That while players like Justus Sheffield or JP Crawford or Yusei Kikuchi showed fleeting glimpses of being legitimately good MLB Players, inconsistency and mechanical issues held them back – and that those things won’t hold them back going forward. We still don’t know what to make of players like Kyle Lewis and Evan White, between park effects in Arkansas and up-and-down power numbers over their careers. You can understand why the projections wouldn’t look kindly on the M’s, and if you squint, you can convince yourself that the projections don’t know enough to be relevant. But we need to see it on the field. Arguably, we needed to see it last year, but hey, it’s a new campaign: it’s time for many players to blow their projections out of the water. If they don’t, it’s going to sting for a while.

The reason is that the AL in general is pretty good, and there are several teams rich with developing talent that are developing into contenders right when the M’s self-identified window opens. Those teams are already better than the M’s in current-MLB talent, so if the M’s don’t improve their base talent, not even Kelenic/Rodriguez can help them being defenestrated by the White Sox/Angels/Blue Jays. As I mentioned in the last post, the past year has offered a host or reasons for optimism. Coming into last year, I worried that the gap between the M’s and Astros would continue to widen, as near-term prospects like Josh James and Forrest Whitley helped them improve (or replace talent lost to free agency/trades) faster than Seattle. I worried that the Red Sox and Yankees would create lasting dynasties that pretty much always captured two of the AL’s playoff spots, while Tampa could be a perennial 90+ win team threatening to take the other wild card. Cleveland’s lull was replaced by Minnesota arriving ahead of schedule, and the Jays had no pitching, but two of the game’s best prospects arriving and doing damage in MLB. The White Sox long-simmering rebuild finally started to bear fruit, as Yoan Moncada looked good, and Lucas Giolito became an utterly unrecognizable and effective starter.

But looking back, so much broke FOR the Mariners. The Astros’ scandal has cost them their GM, SP Gerrit Cole left, and Josh James was so-so in the bullpen. Forrest Whitley lost yet another season to mechanical issues and ineffectiveness, and despite the emergence of Yordan Alvarez, there’s hope that the pipeline of talent that’s made them the league’s best team is starting to dry up. The Red Sox are embroiled in their own scandals, and sold off/traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. They are clearly weaker in 2020 than we would’ve expected a year ago, and while the Yankees are better, they remain injury-plagued and older than the rest of these teams. The Indians looked to be building a dominant rotation on the cheap, but another injury to Mike Clevinger means they may not be ready to dominate in the early-going, and their offense won’t inspire terror in opposing teams. Minnesota was great last year, and has gotten better, but they’re split between young, streaky players (Byron Buxton) and older players (Nellie Cruz, Josh Donaldson). They could be great, but you could argue they’re built more for 2020 than 2021.

So is there a realistic path to contention in 2021? No, not really. Not that I can see, anyway. The Astros, Yankees and Twins figure to be in contention for the division in 2021, with the Angels, A’s, Rays, White Sox, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Indians fighting with Seattle for the two wild cards. All of these teams were better in 2019, and all of them are projected to be better in 2020. And not by 5-6 games: in most cases, the gap is simply massive (15-20 games or more). The M’s can chip away at that gap by spending money in free agency next winter, and with players like Betts or JT Realmuto on the block, they could add a lot of talent. But they have to build up the talent level of the team in order for Betts or Realmuto to raise them to contention.

The Blue Jays and White Sox offer two glimpses at paths that rebuilding teams have taken, and are cautionary tales about a rapid rebuild. The Jays thought they’d have a team on the very edge of the second wild card last year, at least if their uber-prospects Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr. were able to have immediate success in the majors. Bichette was transcendent, and while Guerrero was more up-and-down, he put up a 105 wRC+ at age 20, which isn’t too bad. They got a near best-case version of their top prospects, the Canadian equivalents of Kelenic/Rodriguez, and they were still abysmal. They traded off Marcus Stroman, and now have a very deep array of pitching prospects, but a nearly-as-deep stable of pitching prospects couldn’t save their 2019 season. Lourdes Gourriel was as-advertised, Cavan Biggio showed flashes, but the base-level talent wasn’t good enough to lift the club to .500, let alone contention. Even with a full year of their top prospects and age-related growth/development, they don’t appear ready to challenge Tampa, let alone New York. They do seem a year ahead of the M’s pace, though, and while you could plot a course for the M’s to pass them in 2021, it seems more likely that that extra year will keep them ahead of Seattle in a future wild card race.

The White Sox had a contending team, but decided to blow it all up, selling off Chris Sale and Jose Quintana (on cheap extensions) and acquiring J2 superstars to build up their farm system. This began in 2016, and this is really the fourth year of the complete rebuild, as Sale went to Boston before the 2017 season. For much of this time, the Sox have looked stuck: Moncada, the headline return for Sale, wasn’t awful, but high Ks and meh power sapped his value. Giolito, the big return for OF Adam Eaton, was even worse. In both cases, their 2018 was worse than their 2019; they simply weren’t developing on schedule. But everyone took a step forward in 2019, with Eloy Jimenez sticking in Chicago, Moncada breaking out, and Giolito putting together a great year. This year, Luis Robert’s ready to debut. Given where both Cleveland and Minnesota are, I’m not sure they’re quite ready in 2020, but they look to be a solid wild card-contending club in 2021. The moral here is that unless the player development group is a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine, even top prospects don’t improve in a linear fashion: there are ups and downs.

What’s the moral here? The Blue Jays big prospects hit immediately, while the White Sox prospects took longer. In both cases, poor talent surrounding those prospects meant that the clubs couldn’t contend even when the prospects broke out. For both, pitching was a key problem, as was depth in the line-up. The M’s want to greatly accelerate the timeline to contention that these teams are on, AND pass them by next year. The two clubs’ histories show why that’s a tall order. If it DID happen, it would require the M’s starting rotation to be a source of strength, and not what looks like a massive, gaping hole. Justus Sheffield and Yusei Kikuchi need to be good from day one. Justin Dunn needs to make the next big step forward, and Marco Gonzales needs to recapture some velo and become a legitimately good MLB starter, not just a good Mariners starter. Shed Long and Evan White need to be solid players, and JP Crawford needs to gain some consistency. Whatever happened to Mallex Smith and Dan Vogelbach last year needs to stop, immediately, as they’re probably gone fairly quickly if they don’t adjust. One of the OF prospects like Jake Fraley or Braden Bishop needs to show that they’re capable of being a solid fill-in. That’s a lot of what-ifs, but none of them are all that unlikely on their own. The M’s need a whole bunch of them to happen at once, though. That would be a sign that the M’s oft-preached values of development and coaching are actually causing changes at the big league level. That would be a sign that the problems that have left them in a position where they’re forecasted to be a league doormat *a year before their self-identified contention window* have been solved. Show me something, M’s.

M’s Get a Few Breaks, Still Project Poorly for 2020

marc w · February 11, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

The on-again, off-again trade between the Red Sox and Dodgers for Mookie Betts was finally completed the other day. The Dodgers get much better in 2020, and the Red Sox win the financial flexibility pennant. After Twins prospect Brusdar Graterol’s medicals held things up, the Dodgers finally acquired the fireballer along with a catching prospect while the Twins continue to solidify their grip on the AL Central by picking up Kenta Maeda. The Dodgers and Twins get richer in baseball terms, while the Red Sox get richer in a more literal fashion. What’s this got to do with the Mariners? Well, the original deal had the LA Angels acquiring Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling from the Dodgers. That component didn’t survive last weekend, and thus the Angels are down a solid starting pitcher as well as a big corner OF upgrade. Combine that with the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing scandal (from the firing of their GM to draft penalties) and you can argue that this off-season went as well as it possibly could have from an M’s point of view, especially if you take it as a given that the M’s were never going to target free agent talent. The M’s stock vis a vis the leaders of the AL West improved, not through any action the M’s took, but because a trade got messed up and because the League levied punishments on the divisional colossus. Not bad.

And yet, it hasn’t materially impacted the M’s predicament, one nicely summarized by the just-released PECOTA-based projected standings from Baseball Prospectus. As of this morning, the M’s project for 66-96, securely in last place, some seven wins below the Rangers, and 32 behind the still-colossal Astros. The reason is clear: PECOTA thinks the M’s do not have a capable major league starter, and the bullpen is basically CJ Edwards and a bunch of fungible AAAA guys. BP’s pitching metrics were remarkably bearish on the M’s starters – and Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi in particular – last year, but they were similarly unimpressed by the seasons turned in by Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn. An optimist can pretty easily see how to add 10-15 wins to this projection: assume a bounce-back from Kikuchi, more of the same from Marco, and some improvements from Sheffield and perhaps even Logan Gilbert, and you’ve got a rotation that won’t embarrass itself the way PECOTA thinks it will. Of course, even with all of that, they’d just barely scrape .500. It may be a very long year.

Let’s take a look at Clay Davenport’s projections instead. Davenport’s generally been the most optimistic of the projection systems, as it saw the M’s winning 83 games last year (PECOTA forecast just 72), 87 in 2018, and 86 in 2017. They’ve projected the M’s to be over .500 each year since 2014; surely, this is the place for optimism, right? Well, Davenport’s got the M’s at 68-94, with the problem again on the pitching side of the ledger. The M’s are forecast to allow more runs than all AL teams save for Baltimore and Kansas City. The offense is also a concern, though, with low batting averages/OBPs sinking the run-scoring despite solid seasons from Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager. After a dalliance with a high-average/low-power offense in 2018, the M’s will sink or swim with guys like JP Crawford and Dan Vogelbach, whose patience can partially make up for low averages. Then there’s the fact that all systems see a decline for Tom Murphy, and don’t see Evan White/Kyle Lewis as completely ready to be above-average corner IF/OF bats in 2020. PECOTA’s a bit higher on Vogelbach than most, but much lower on Mallex Smith.

It’s one thing to forecast a slash line correctly, it’s another thing to get playing time right (especially with teams that have made so many roster moves, like the M’s), and it’s yet another thing to assess what that production *means*. Mallex Smith’s line is virtually identical between PECOTA (.249/.316/.362), Davenport (.250/.321/.370), and ZiPS (.250/.319/.364). But between slightly less playing time, park adjustments, and the run value of the entire league, you get a big swing in what those numbers mean. By ZiPS, that OBP-heavy line is worth 1.6 WAR. Davenport sees him at 0.6, while PECOTA thinks it’s just about replacement level.

No one really thinks this year’s going to be exciting due to a playoff run or contention. The only that matters, I suppose, is finding out which players, and especially which pitchers, blow their projections out of the water. Of course the error bars are much wider on guys like Sheffield and Dunn (to say nothing of Gilbert or George Kirby), as they’ve got less experience to project from. But the M’s have to start hitting on prospects and turning them into star-level players. All the financial flexibility in the world won’t mean as much come next year if the M’s still need 3-4 starters and 3-4 position players to compete. The good news is that the division isn’t completely running away from them, at least not right now. But the gap remains, and other teams have young players who’ll be around to frustrate the Kelenic/Rodriguez fever dreams of M’s optimists. Sheffield and Dunn need to make the projections look foolish, and Evan White needs to hit early and often. It won’t matter much this year, but it’s the only way to get to a point where the M’s next wave could be decisive in shifting the balance of baseballing power.

Body Blows

marc w · January 24, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s have made several minor personnel moves in the days surrounding their annual media day, but the biggest news involves a setback for perhaps their most important hitter, Mitch Haniger. Haniger’s season was shut down early following a :shivers: ruptured testicle. His rehab seemed to be fairly uneventful, but he felt something during a workout recently, and now requires core surgery that will keep him from baseball activities for 6-8 weeks. At a minimum, his spring training is probably shot, and as such, he’ll miss opening day. It’s not clear how much more than that he could miss, but hopefully not too much.

The larger question, of course, is what it does to his development. 2019 was an odd one, as his BABIP dropped and his strikeouts spiked during the first half of the year. But he made up for these shortcomings with additional power, likely boosted by the juiced baseball league-wide. The missed time and continued uncertainty around the ball make it hard to know what to expect from a hitter who was freakishly consistent in 2017-18 (when healthy). It’s not a coincidence that the M’s second-half swoon really kicked into high gear once Haniger left, and his presence in the line-up could make this season minimally tolerable, so hopefully we won’t hear anything more about setbacks or timetables from Mr. Haniger. This injury likely opens the door to Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis in April. If Fraley can improve upon his rough introduction to MLB, that would certainly help the M’s sketchy depth, but on paper, it could make for something of a rough start to 2020.

The M’s addressed their *infield* depth by signing former Pirates prospect Alen Hanson to a minor league deal. I mentioned him on the blog once just to point out he was among the least-likely MLB first basemen I’d encountered since Miguel Cairo when he popped up playing 1B in Toronto last year. He hit .163/.229/.163 in a cup of coffee last year, and is a career .232/.266/.368 hitter in about 1 full season of work. It’s…it’s not a good slash line, friends. He came up as a slick-fielding shortstop, and would figure to offer a push to Dylan Moore or whomever at utility, but will likely hang out in Tacoma for at least a few months.

I’d say that the pick-up of Hanson’s a clear, consistent Dipoto move, similar to his acquisition of another ex-Giants SS, Kelby Tomlinson, last year. But if you really want an example of a move so obviously “Mariners” it almost needs to be written in northwest green writing, here you go: the M’s have acquired LHP Nick Margevicius, who’d been DFA’d by San Diego about a week ago. Margevicius is just 23, and made the Pads opening day roster last year, but struggled and was demoted after a few months of replacement-level pitching, mostly out of the rotation. Coming up through the San Diego system, he balanced a lack of real bat-missing stuff with very good control. As you might expect, that walk rate climbed in the big leagues, as hitters started knocking his fastball/slider/change/curve mix around, and forcing him towards the corners or off the plate. His straight four-seam fastball registers just 88 MPH, so Margevicius fits the template of the lefty junkballer that’s been catnip for this organization. After losing both Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, Jerry Dipoto was probably itching for a replacement, and now he’s got one.

Of course, just because the M’s love the template doesn’t mean it’s been a real winner for them. Milone started well, but tailed off, and LeBlanc’s 2019 is probably best left undiscussed here. Margevicius offers youth and team control, and might improve with some instruction in the minors, or move to a swingman role once, say, Justin Dunn or Logan Gilbert is deemed ready. It’s not a bad pick-up at all, but I hope the M’s still hope to acquire another starting pitcher. Margevicius could stick around, but they could use a bit more experience in the rotation, and, if you’d permit me an editorial comment here, more velocity.

Margevicius’ slider looks like his best pitch, and he does something pretty good with it: he induces a lot of swings. In general, if batters are swinging and putting your breaking ball in play at higher rates than your fastball, you’re doing something right. The average exit velocity and production on bendy things are lower than the corresponding averages for fastballs, and it often means hitters are expanding the zone to stay alive – all of that’s to the good (from the pitcher’s point of view). He hasn’t really been able to limit the damage on that contact, but you can see the M’s thought process here. Last year, he had bizarre reverse splits, as lefties torched him. There’s no real reason that should continue, so he could benefit from some regression. At the same time, he’s struggled from the stretch and really struggled to miss bats, and at 88 MPH, there’s no real reason that should change in the future, though pitch design could presumably help.

I know many of you are sick of the cynicism surrounding the team, but there’s no way to look at the recent news and feel too confident. This team will rise or fall based on the development of players like Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodgriguez. The problem for fans here is that it’s doubtful either will play for the Seattle Mariners in 2020. There will be plenty of development in Seattle, and watching the likes of Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and Logan Gilbert should be instructive (as well as JP Crawford and Shed Long). But the real story for the future M’s will be taking place in Arkansas. Meanwhile, the M’s rivals have restocked. Minnesota’s signing of Josh Donaldson helps build around a terrifying young core featuring one of the league’s intriguing infields. The Angels get a return to health from Shohei Ohtani and pair him with newly-acquired 3B Anthony Rendon. The Indians top three starters – Shane Bieber/Mike Clevinger/Carlos Carrasco – headline one of the best groups in baseball, with the possible exception of Tampa’s troika of Blake Snell/Tyler Glasnow/Charlie Morton. Let’s say the M’s OF teens are everything Dipoto hopes they can be. The M’s *still* need to close the gap between their current club and where their rivals are headed. Sure, the Astros will be worse than we once thought come 2021, but on paper, they’re still a lot better, and the good teams in the AL keep getting better. I believe in Julio Rodgriguez’s development, but something pretty major needs to change in order for the M’s to capitalize on it.

Felix Hernandez Plays for Atlanta Now

marc w · January 20, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners

This day was always coming. Yes, it felt jarring at first to see Jon Heyman report that Felix signed a $1 million minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves today, but I honestly think I prefer it to Felix going unsigned, and unceremoniously forgotten. The fact that he couldn’t get a big-league deal shows that possibility wasn’t *too* far away, but realistically, someone as competitive as El Cartelua was never going to slink off into retirement in 2020.

Felix butted heads with M’s coaches and that experience probably impacted his desirability to other clubs, but the Braves have some experience here. A bit over 3 years ago, in January of 2017, the M’s jettisoned prospect Luiz Gohara, who’d spent four years in the M’s system. He seemed to turn a corner in 2016, in what was, admittedly, his third go-round in Everett, but after the move east, he shot through the Braves system rapidly, making his MLB debut in 2017. This is baseball, so there are rarely true happy endings; he was off in 2018, belatedly diagnosed with a shoulder issue, and then quietly released (then signed by the Angels), so this isn’t purely a “why do they always get better” lament. But I think it helped the Braves front office get over any qualms they may have had about Felix’s health and issues responding to coaching. They’ve seen something similar before.

Is this Felix’s best pathway to MLB playing time? No, of course not. You could make a case that the M’s might offer that, but so would the Royals or Tigers. The Braves young rotation is led by MIke Soroka and Max Fried, but also includes Cole Hamels, Mike Foltynewicz, and presumably Sean Newcomb (who worked mostly in relief last year). That’s not even getting into the fact that the Braves still boast a solid assortment of pitching prospects including Touki Toussaint and Ian Anderson. Still, it’s near Felix’s new home in Florida, and he’s working with a player development group that’s managed to get quite a bit of big-league production out of their pitchers.

That said, they’ve made some high-profile missteps, as with Kevin Gausman in 2019, and the career trajectory of ex-Brave Julio Teheran looks quite Felix-like from afar. Like Felix, Teheran lost velocity each year for many years, and saw his walk rate climb higher at the same time. This shouldn’t be a surprise: there is no silver bullet in player development. For all the grief I give them, the M’s really shouldn’t be expected to put every player on an effective improvement plan that works for each player’s strengths and personality. All teams can do is maximize their “hit” rate, and a big part of that is being flexible, and listening when a player says something isn’t working. The Astros’ player development successes have been accompanied by a ton of failures, as you’d expect – not just the big JD Martinez misses, but the dozens of players who’ve washed out there and turned up later in other orgs. Felix was often seen as a haughty big-leaguer who thought he was somehow above putting in time with coaches and trainers. I’ve disagreed, but again: the biggest part of player development is really getting that initial buy-in from the athlete. The M’s seem to have struggled with this at times, though by all accounts this is changing. I’m not sure what Atlanta does differently, but it is striking that they’ve brought in pitchers and prospects from different orgs, meaning they’re dealing with a wide array of habits, previous coaching techniques, and raw abilities. They seem to make it work about as well as any other org, with the asterisked exception of the Astros.

I suppose I’m glad he’s not pitching for an AL West rival, but I’ve got no real affinity for the Braves. I just hope this works, and that he’s got enough left in his right arm to make it up as a swing man, or that he’s first up from Gwinnett when a big league rotation member goes down with injury.

Notes on a Lost Decade

marc w · December 30, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

To be clear from the start: there was no way this decade wouldn’t seem like a let-down after the highs of the 2000s. The Seattle Mariners have felt like afterthoughts in the game for most of their existence, but for a little while there, they were among the dominant franchises in the game. It didn’t/couldn’t last, and the slide from the upper echelons back to mediocrity doesn’t hurt any less for those who loved the team when they were losers. It’s banal and obvious that the sheer length of the M’s futility starts to eat at one’s fan experience. You can only watch the same movie so many times, especially when the movie isn’t that exciting. Ultimately, though, the 2010s were defined by failed promise. We saw tantalizing signs of development, we followed tons of prospects who had near-universal acclaim, and the result was a .468 winning percentage and no playoff appearances.

I’m not sure if it’s a good or a bad sign that the MVP of the decade is so blindingly obvious. Felix was the most fun player to cheer for the team’s had, at least since Ken Griffey’s Jr. first go-round. The decade opened with Felix at the top of his powers, winning the first of what felt like 5-7 Cy Youngs in 2010. More important, though, was his stature as the team’s building block, the singular talent who had both youth and experience that the M’s could structure their rebuild around. By mid-2010, the Mariners had a top-10 prospect in all of baseball in Justin Smoak, and one of the most heralded college hitters in a generation, Dustin Ackley. Ackley was MLB’s #15 prospect in 2010, but headed into 2011 ranked #5, just behind guys named Trout and Harper. Jesus Montero ranked #9, and the M’s would add him before the 2012 season. The M’s had another pair of prospects in the top 20 in 2012, with Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, and Walker cracked the top 5 the following year. You all know what happened.

As great as Felix was, and as much as he towers over the Mariners 2010s, he can’t be the story. He was great, and the M’s were bad – we need to figure out *why* and we won’t find that out by examining the great ones, just like you can’t scrutinize Mike Trout to figure out why the Angels haven’t won a playoff game in years, either. Instead, to tell a disappointing story, we need to go where the disappointment is. The story of the M’s decade is the story of Dustin Ackley. You could pick several players for this dubious honor, from Smoak to Franklin Gutierrez to Montero (whose fight with a scout armed with an ice cream sandwich supplied the jet-black comedic moment of the decade, a bizarre and deeply sad moment in which the failures of the M’s player development group poured out their frustration with players in public). The M’s had Felix, and they had a guy in the high minors rated right around where people had Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

Ackley debuted at 23 after a dominant half-season in Tacoma. He always looked slightly off in my viewings, but he was hitting for average, drawing walks, and putting up solid gap-power numbers – things that had eluded him the year before in AA. Brian Cartwright’s pre-call-up forecast looked downright alarmist and pessimistic at the time, but Ackley essentially exceeded them in half a season with the M’s. His SLG% was a bit low, but it was more than made up for with surprisingly good defense – a bonus that bumped his production to 3 fWAR in just half a year. At this rate, even if the power never showed up, he’d be a tremendously valuable player at the keystone for a decade. But his first full season was a disaster: a slash line of .226/.294/.328 that not even great defense could overcome. I don’t know how much influence that season had in the M’s decision to move the fences in at the end of 2012, but I bet it played a pretty big part. Of course, it wasn’t just Ackley – Justin Smoak swooned in 2012, too, and Jesus Montero had a sub .300 OBP at DH. Something was going very wrong with how these should-be superstars were developing in the big leagues.

The M’s knew how critical Ackley was to their plans, so they figured the only solution to poor coaching and development was a whole lot more coaching and development. Ackley showed up in Peoria for spring training in 2013 with a bizarre new swing, and then scrapped it a few weeks into the regular season – which he started 3 for 30. Despite his solid defense, the M’s decided to move him to the outfield to accommodate prospect Nick Franklin, sticking him in CF for a good chunk of 2013, and then to LF in 2014. After coming so close in 2014, the M’s had an abysmal 2015, and shipped Ackley to the Yankees for Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez. Ackley slugged .654 in limited duty in 2015 with the Yanks that year, then was sent down after an awful start to 2016. He hasn’t made it back since.

Ackley was always supposed to hit for a higher average than his career .241 mark, but his .367 SLG% was also a big strike against him. But there’s an asterisk there: Ackley played for Seattle from 2011 to the first half of 2015, a period wholly encompassed by the little batting ice age, where a different ball mixed with reliever usage and the inexorable rise of strikeouts to suppress offense league-wide. It was even worse in Seattle from 2010-2012, as fly balls died in left field. Given those disadvantages, it’s not a shock that he accumulated 3 fWAR in half a year in 2011 despite a so-so SLG%. It may be why guys like Smoak and Ackley floundered for a bit, and why they sought so many changes and different ideas on how to “fix” their swings, when all they needed to do was play with a different baseball. Smoak actually got that chance, and became an intermittently solid starter. I wish Ackley got more than a handful of games in baseball’s new normal.

But that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? The M’s always seemed a year or two behind whatever baseball was doing. They built a team around a staff and OF that would allow fly ball contact, and watched the all-time HR record get shattered as more fly balls turned into HRs than ever before (at least until 2019 came along). They built an offense around avoiding strikeouts and hitting singles as their rivals built teams that avoided strikeouts while hitting dingers. They looked for pitchers who pitched to contact as their rivals built formidable staffs of strikeout-throwing, high-velo guys they’d developed or tweaked. None of it’s worked, at least not well enough or long enough to make a sustained run at the postseason. 2020 looks like another rebuilding year, and we’ve seen an awful lot of those recently.

It’s true that there are glimmers of hope on the horizon, but the same was true in 2010. The only thing that will change the outcome is if the M’s aren’t just good, but better than other teams at turning prospects into really good MLB contributors. This is essentially the same conclusion to every post of mine for the past few years, and I really want to thank those of you who’ve hung around listening to me repeat myself while going slightly crazy. The failure of either the Ackley/Smoak/Montero troika or the Walker/Paxton/Hultzen three-headed-monster to lift the M’s was the defining story of the decade. It was a failure that spanned multiple front offices, even as both touted the ways they were revolutionizing development. There were enough success stories (Kyle Seager!) that you couldn’t chalk it up to total incompetence. Whatever it is, it seems deeper, more insidious than a few bad coaches. It’s gotten to the point where it’s almost a defining trait, as depressing as that sounds. I sincerely hope they can get it turned around, if only because it’d make 2020 a much different experience for M’s fans. It would put meaningful baseball back in play for 2022 or so, and it would end this pervasive ennui that at least I feel towards the team I support. I’m ready for that.

There have been real, honest, joyful moments this decade. Felix’s perfecto, of course, but some of the highlights in their chase in 2014, or Taijuan Walker’s debut in Houston, or Paxton’s first great game against Kansas City. The weird team no-hitter, or Hisashi Iwakuma’s brilliant no-no after the team decided against trading him. There’ve been reasons to watch, but the sum total is still kind of dispiriting. A few years ago, I mused that it must be almost impossible to be an A’s fan, with the team trading away any budding superstars and seemingly trying to hang out near .500. Since then, the A’s have two 97-win seasons, and have developed some superstars. I’m going to refrain from any further “at least we’re not like X fans!” takes for the foreseeable future.

M’s Take Astros RHP in Rule 5 Draft

marc w · December 12, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

The Rule 5 draft kicked off this morning in San Diego, with the M’s telegraphing their move early. Last night, Greg Johns and others reported that the M’s had their sights set on two pitchers, and if they were off the board by the time the M’s picked at #6, they wouldn’t pick anyone. Apparently, at least one of them was still around, as the M’s selected righty Yohan Ramirez, who’d been in the Astros org.

Ramirez is your classic live arm with poor control. He’d opened some eyes in 2018, touching the high-90s with his fastball, and getting the occasional mention for his curve and change-up (he’s also worked on a slider). That *should* be good enough to carve up the low minors, and it mostly was, even as he had to work around a concerning walk rate. Those walks hurt him more when he’d get bumped up a level, but to his credit, even after struggling at a level, he’d often solve it the following season.

This year was fascinating: both his strengths and weaknesses were cranked all the way up, as he racked up an impressive 158 strikeouts in 106 innings (a career high). But he also walked 74, including 52 in 62 1/3 IP in AA. This is the classic case of a team betting on their coaches to “fix” a power pitcher who struggles throwing strikes. As a rebuilding team, the M’s could conceivably take their time with Ramirez, using him in mop-up duty this year and continuing to work on his mechanics for the future. But just because they *could* doesn’t necessarily mean they should. The M’s need to figure out what Ramirez’s ceiling might realistically be, and if the progress isn’t there, to move along. Ramirez will turn 25 early next year, so he’s not an Elvis Luciano from last year (picked by Toronto at age 19) or some of the former international free agent prospects available in today’s draft at 20-21. You can’t fault the M’s for shooting their shot, though. Here’s a guy who put up ridiculous strikeout numbers working both from the rotation and bullpen, and who has at least the makings of a starter’s arsenal with 3-4 pitches.

The M’s had the room, and bet on upside. They’re focused, as you tend to be in the Rule 5 draft, on what Ramirez does well and not his easy-to-spot flaws. That’s what player development should be about, and without mucking up a perfectly optimistic post with criticism, it’s the opposite of what we saw in the hasty trade of Omar Narvaez. I believe that Narvaez’s defensive struggles could impact pitchers, and I also believe the M’s when they say that Tom Murphy should be the starter. But that entire situation was borne of the M’s laser-focus on Narvaez’s flaws, and letting those drive their overall valuation of him down. It’s possible, even likely, that Ramirez doesn’t throw a pitch for the M’s, but I hope they’re able to rein in his “high effort” delivery and help him find the plate. I hope they’re able to get the most out of the many flawed players on the roster, because it’s going to be a long year, and some real, meaningful, hope would be nice.

M’s Rid Themselves of League Average MLB Player

marc w · December 5, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

The fact that Omar Narvaez was traded today is perhaps not the biggest surprise of the off-season. With the emergence of Tom Murphy, with Cal Raleigh on his way, and with Austin Nola hitting better than expected, the M’s had signaled that Omar Narvaez was available if a deal could be struck. Today, the M’s consummated a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, sending Narvaez east in exchange for a low-level sort-of-prospect and a competitive balance pick in next year’s draft, likely around pick 71 or so. I find this troubling, but many in M’s land seem pretty chuffed about it, and I thought I’d try to lay out where I’m coming from , because reading the reaction to the deal, I feel I may be sort of crazy. You perhaps have known about my infirmities for a while, but allow me to make my case.

Here goes: the M’s say they’re trying to compete in 2021, and today they shipped out a catcher who hit .278/.353/.460 last year and everyone who likes the deal is raving not about the actual ballplayer they got back, but about the 70-odd pick in next year’s draft. That seems crazy. The huge, unmissable caveat here is that Narvaez’s defense laid waste to so much of that offensive and positional value. That’s absolutely true, and we should account for it, as WAR does. Fangraphs had him as just under 2 WAR in a bit less than full-time duty. At BaseballProspectus, he was slightly over 2, but both absolutely hated his defense – BP just liked the bat a bit more. I want to stress: both sites thought he was abysmal defensively, and that is *included* in his 2-ish WAR numbers, which were similar to his numbers in 2018, his final year with the White Sox (adjusted for playing time). How would you value a roughly averagish, maybe lower, maybe higher depending on your view on how teachable C defense is?

I think reasonable people – and reasonable teams – can differ on that question. But I’ve been absolutely floored to see M’s fans thinking that a 70-ish draft pick is decent compensation for an above-average MLB hitter and average-ish ballplayer all around. What are the odds that the #70 draft pick, or a team’s 15th or 12th or 18th or whatever rated prospects becomes a league-average MLB player? The answer is substantially lower than 1/2, probably less than 1/4, right? But beyond that, the M’s, as opposed to other teams, have clearly set their sites on contention in 2021. So, to be blunt, how on earth does trading away a productive major league player right now, today, in exchange for a draft pick in the 2020 draft help further that goal?

Corey Brock at the Athletic has an answer: it’s addition by subtraction. To be very clear here, I love Corey’s work and remember following him way back from his News Tribune days. I don’t dislike his article, I just dislike the reasoning the M’s are evidently giving for it. There are a couple of related points Brock works through, but I encourage you to read it in full ($). First, the M’s evidently prioritize defense at the catcher spot. Second, the M’s need for defense has never been more pressing with the wave of young pitching prospects coming to Seattle.

On the first claim, let’s remember that we’re a bit under 13 months from the M’s willingly trading Mike Zunino for Mallex Smith, and then trading Alex Colome for Narvaez. The M’s had great defense and some question-marks on offense, and decided to fling the ol’ pendulum all the way over to “fuck it” and picked up a catcher who was an outright bad defender, but seemed to break out at the plate. Now, we’re told that the organization’s focus is on catcher defense? If the org really values stealing strikes, they…they had that, and a bit over a year ago decided they wanted its opposite. I don’t completely hate the reasoning here, but I have to point out that what “the organization values from its catchers” seems kinda variable.

The second claim – that the prospects coming up need help from favorable catchers – seems reasonable as well. I would point out that the presence of Narvaez didn’t stop the M’s from bringing up Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and a cavalcade of RP prospects, waiver-claims, and anyone else the M’s could find. If Narvaez can’t be on the same field as an M’s pitching prospect, this seems to be a new-found conviction. It’s clearly felt, though – as Brock writes in that Athletic piece: “Seattle couldn’t take the chance on keeping Narváez, not because some feel his bat will regress moving forward, but because of a real fear he couldn’t help — but could actually hinder — the development of these young pitchers who have arrived or will arrive soon in the big leagues.”

Everything about this deal lines up with that statement. The M’s made up their mind that they were going to trade Narvaez because his framing cooties could actually hurt the M’s pitching prospects. This is not an encouraging statement about either the pitchers’ resilience or the coaching at either the C or P position, but let’s look past that. The argument is that the M’s will be better for having Tom Murphy as the everyday catcher. For what it’s worth, I agree with that. The problem is that the M’s don’t seem to have thought about what to do as a result. Right now, their DH is Dan Vogelbach, a talented hitter coming off an awful second half. He’s projected to outhit Narvaez next year, but Narvaez’s has two straight years of about a 120 wRC+, and Vogelbach hasn’t reached that plateau yet. Even if you were determined not to let Narvaez catch a minority of 2020 or 2021 games, he could *still* have MLB value that a 2020 draft pick will not. I completely understand shopping Narvaez, but if no one offers a reasonable return, you just hang on to him. The M’s seemed bound and determined to move Narvaez, even if the return was a box of baseballs. This is curious.

What we know for sure is that the M’s had one of the most productive catching duos in the league. Their production from the C spot ranked 4th in the majors last year, and again, that includes the massive debits that Narvaez’s catching accrued. The bulk of the positives came from Murphy, it’s true, and he figures to provide more of them going forward (though his profile is frought with risk, just as Zunino’s was, and MUCH more offensive risk than Narvaez’s). We know for sure that Narvaez has 2+ years of service and three more years of club control. What we know for sure is that Narvaez won’t be paid the league minimum anymore. I’d gone into my view of the trade thinking that it hinged on an outsize view of the impact his defense makes. Again, multiple credible views of the impact of his defense are *already* baked into his value. No one is ignoring it, though we can quibble with how it’s actually calculated. My worry now is that all of this is a fig leaf for the fact that Narvaez has 3 years of MLB service time, and Murphy just 2 (and Nola less than 1). We’ve seen for a few years now that bat-first, corner IFs seem absurdly undervalued, with CJ Cron freely available for the second straight year after hitting 30 and 25 HRs in consecutive seasons. Cron’s not really a prospect now, and was paid just $4.9 M for his contributions to the playoff team in Minnesota. Given his patience, I think Narvaez is a decent bet to outhit Cron next year, just as he did in 2019. And no one seems to want either one.

Ultimately, it may be true that the M’s traded Narvaez for the absolute best package on offer. I still find that really sad, not just because Narvaez will be far more useful for a team trying to win in the near-medium term than the return here (a low-level Brewere RHP named Adam Hill, who’s likely a reliever, and had control issues this year plus the vaunted draft pick). Rather, because if this is the best deal on offer, then the distortions in baseball’s economy have been laid bare: if you’d rather get a draft pick than pay a bat-first catcher a few million in his *first* season in arbitration, then that work stoppage people talk about in 2021 is all but a certainty. We’ve been hearing for a while about the problems in the middle-tier of free agency, or perhaps the tier below that. I’ve written a bit about how the league and players have agreed to further suppress pre-arb salaries in the hope that the savings would be spent on non-star free agents. But if teams aren’t willing to spend it on the already-suppressed arbitration-eligible players, and we’ve seen a ton of interesting players non-tendered this year, then the game’s up. That money isn’t going to arb players OR to low-level free agents. The Zach Wheelers of the world (like the Patrick Corbins and Bryce Harpers) are fine – the problem is that arb eligible, contributing players have a value equivalent to that of a random, low-level flyer, or a literally unknown future draft pick. That simply does not map to actual, on-field, in-the-majors baseball value, and the further these player valuations get from on-field value, the higher the risk of a work-stoppage gets.

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