Rainiers Opening Day (and notes)
You’ve had a chance to read Jay’s team preview below, so you know who’s who. If you’ve got tickets, you’re probably checking the weather reports every few minutes like I am. If you don’t, you can always tune in to 850AM (or on-line here) and catch Mike Curto’s call.
Without rehashing what Jay’s written, I wanted to highlight a few things to keep an eye on as the season progresses. The team has some question marks, but with a lot of experience on the mound and a mix of vets, prospects, and the singular Greg Halman, they’re easily worth the drive to Tacoma.
1) The development of Ezequiel Carrera. While it was the pitching prospects (especially Michael Pineda) who really opened eyes this spring, Zeke Carrera impressed as well. The CF/lead-off man led the Southern League in OBP last year, but many wondered if his approach would be as successful at higher levels.
Carrera hit reasonably well with the M’s early in March, and capped his Spring with a homer off of Felix Hernandez in a minor league game. No one’s expecting power from him (unlike Tyson Gillies, another speedy lead-off prospect that the M’s dealt to Phildelphia in the Cliff Lee trade), but Rainiers hitting coach Alonso Powell thinks there’s more in him than the 2 HR, .079 ISO that he tallied last year. The spring samples are tiny, but they need to be combined with Carrera’s improvement from 2008 to 2009.
If Powell’s right, and if Carrera’s able to maintain his eye ratio in AAA (while playing a decent CF), then he’ll be an intriguing prospect. Most have his ceiling as a good 4th OF, like Endy Chavez, but this year will go a long way towards setting a ceiling and floor for Carrera. Powell’s description of Carrera as ‘the consummate pest’ reminds me of Chone Figgins.
Have I mentioned recently how amazing the Putz trade was? No? REALLY amazing.
2) What do we have in Matt Mangini? Mangini was drafted in the supplemental round in 2007 out of Oklahoma State. He’d impressed everyone in the Cape Cod league in 2006, then had a relatively ho-hum senior season (a classic Fontaine draft profile).
As a pro, Mangini’s struggled with strike-outs and power, and isn’t going to be appearing on any prospect lists. But if he’s able to build on last season’s improvement (K% dropping under 20%), Matt’s still got a shot. Powell worked with Mangini after the ’07 draft, as he was the M’s minor league hitting coordinator; maybe the familiarity will help.
There’s absolutely nothing in Mangini’s statistical record that gives one a lot of hope (the improvement from ’08 to ’09 in AA was nice, but it doesn’t take a lot to improve on a wOBA of .223), but scouts raved about his bat before, and his 2008 line was similar to Matt Tuiasosopo’s trial by fire in AA in 2006 (.226 wOBA). We’ve loved the flyers this org’s taken on ex-prospects, and in Mangini, they’ve got one. While it may seem like damning with faint praise, the fact that he’s a better defender at 3B than Chris Shelton should help a pitching staff that features a lot of ground ballers, too.
3) Managing the journeyman staff seems like it might be easy – none of the starters (David Pauley, Yusmeiro Petit, Chris Seddon, Steven Shell, Luke French) are new to AAA, and only opening day starter David Pauley hasn’t yet played in both AAA leagues. All of them have major league experience, and in fact only 2 of the 12 pitchers on the roster haven’t yet made the majors (Steve Bray and Andy Baldwin, both of whom have plenty of AAA service time). So while it seems easier for new pitching coach Jaime Navarro – especially in comparison to the job Alonso Powell has with Halman – the experience of the staff is a mixed blessing.
Take Steven Shell, whom the M’s picked up after he was DFAd by the Nationals early last year. In 2008, he put up a very solid season in the Nats bullpen, with a Sean White-like 2+ ERA, backed up by so-so peripherals. Still, he found himself out of a job 5 innings into the 2009 season, when the Nationals let him go (Nats GM Mike Rizzo trashed him in the press as well). The M’s quickly shifted him back to the rotation, but he was getting hammered before a line-drive to the face ended his season prematurely.
He had some motivation to try something new when he came to spring training this year, but it’s got to be tough for a pitching coach to get an MLB veteran to buy into changes to his mechanics or routine. I asked Shell, who admitted that it was tougher for him to make changes now, after getting good results in the majors at age 26. But he believes a mechanical adjustment that Rick Adair will help his consistency, and he’s worked with Jaime Navarro before – this winter, Navarro was Shell’s pitching coach with the Lara Cardinales in Venezuela.
So what’s the point? Does anyone care if Shell (or Seddon, or Petit) improve? SP depth is critical in any situation, but it’s especially important when Erik Bedard’s coming off of shoulder surgery, Cliff Lee’s starting the year on the DL, Ian Snell is Ian Snell, and Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are in the opening day starting rotation. None of these guys are bad, and there’s a ton of upside there, but unless the M’s want to bring up one of the WT ‘spects early, they may need to tap one of the AAA starters (though none of them are on the 40 man).