“Considerable Concern” Regarding Gutierrez

February 29, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 48 Comments 

Eric Wedge just gave a brief health update on Franklin Gutierrez, and while there’s no official report yet, it doesn’t sound great. Gutierrez has flown back to Seattle (bad sign #1) to get examined further, and Wedge mentioned that he has “considerable concern” about Gutierrez’s status going forward. This could turn out to be as minor as a strained pectoral or as serious as something more serious. Googling for “injuries more serious than a pectoral strain” didn’t help me out much, and I never went to med school. Anyway, I’d prepare for bad news.

So, right now, Casper Wells is probably the team’s starting center fielder, and Michael Saunders might find himself back in the mix for a big league roster spot. There will be talk about Trayvon Robinson competing for that spot too, but he’s not a good defender and an outfield with him and Carp side by side could be disastrous for a pitch to contact staff. Saunders still needs to show he can put the bat on the ball and occasionally hit something on the outer half of the plate, but at least he’s got a solid glove. Still, a Wells/Saunders job-share in CF is a pretty big step down from what the team hoped to get from Gutierrez.

If it turns out to be something that Gutierrez could come back from in April or May, maybe you live with Saunders/Wells for a few weeks. If he’s going to be out much past the start of the season, though, I’d strongly suggest looking outside the organization for help. Will Venable could probably still be extracted from San Diego for the right offer. There are guys the team could get that would keep the team from having another disaster in the outfield again.

If this is going to be a long term injury, the organization shouldn’t settle for Saunders or Robinson just because they’re young and already here. They can do better.

And we have news – torn pectoral, will be off the field for four weeks, at which time he’ll “resume baseball activities” and be re-evaluated. This basically means he’ll miss all of spring training (again), and probably won’t be back on the team before the beginning of May. And that’s assuming this thing heals on its own. If it lingers, we could be looking at another lost season for Guti.

Franklin Gutierrez Health Concerns Rise Again

February 28, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 16 Comments 

We don’t really know much at this point, but reports from camp (including this one from Shannon Drayer) note that Franklin Gutierrez left camp with assistant trainer Rob Nodine this morning. Drayer adds that she was told that Gutierrez tried to make a few throws in from center field and couldn’t get anything on it, so the speculation is that the issue might have to do with his shoulder, not the IBS symptoms he had last year.

This could turn out to be nothing, but it’s not exactly good news that Guti’s hanging out with the trainers again. The team has basically no depth in the outfield, and if this turns out to be a real issue, they’ll have to consider bringing in someone from outside the organization.

Strike A Blow For Freedom, Or Something

February 28, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 13 Comments 

So, the guys over at Brock and Salk are doing their annual media bracket tournament thing, pitting local sports folks against each in head to head contests to determine the most… I don’t know, most willing to promote their show in an effort to get votes? I figured I’d get slaughtered by Brad Adam and his amazing hair in round one, so I didn’t bother to put up much of a fight, but amazingly, I somehow overcame his locks of goodness and have moved on to round two.

And now, we have a real war on our hands, because Jeff Sullivan pulled off the dramatic 16 over 1 upset, and is now my opponent in round two. Yes, Jeff and I are “friends” – err, I just realized putting that in quotes might have some connotations that I didn’t intend, so just ignore the air quotes – but he’s also part of an evil blog conglomeration that is, I’ve heard, part of the illuminati. Also, he’s from California. We must stand up to his tyranny.

Vote for me. Not Jeff, me. Vote Me!

Note: Jeff and I will be slagging each other on the air at 10:10 am. Tune in to hear good friends tell the world how awful the other is.


February 22, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 68 Comments 

(Yes, I’m back. Vacation in Colorado was awesome, thanks for asking. I’m still traveling, but I’m working while I travel rather than last week’s enjoy-the-snow trip. We’ll resume normalcy next week, at least until I head down to Arizona on March 8th, at which point I might disappear for a few days again.)

So, we’ve known something like this was coming for a while, but yesterday, Eric Wedge made it official – Ichiro is not going to begin the season as the team’s leadoff hitter. In the current iteration of the plan, in fact, he’s being moved to the #3 spot in the batting order. This move has several ramifications, so let’s deal with each of them in order.

What This Means For Ichiro

He’s going to come up to bat less often. Seriously, that’s about the only thing we can really know right now. By dropping down two spots in the batting order, Ichiro will hit about 35 fewer times than he would have if he was still leading off. If we think that Ichiro is still one of the best hitters on the team, that’s bad, because now we’re giving fewer at-bats to one of the team’s better offensive players. If we think that 2011 was the beginning of the end of Ichiro as a good hitter, though, that’s good, as the team is now going to give fewer at-bats to a guy who is headed for the end of his career and was pretty lousy last year.

But, the Mariners aren’t making this move to give Ichiro fewer at-bats. That’s a byproduct of the decision, not the motivation behind it. The M’s are doing this for a couple of reasons – some that have nothing to do with Ichiro specifically – including the need for teams to make changes when things aren’t going well. And let’s be honest, the offense hasn’t gone very well the last few years. Two years ago, it was pretty easy to say that wasn’t Ichiro’s fault, as he was just playing with awful teammates. Last year, though, Ichiro was part of the problem, and the team is hoping that moving him from first to third in the order can help bring about some change that will improve his production.

Will it work? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else. Yes, the change has resulted in Ichiro adopting a new stance at the plate, in which he spreads his feet further apart and barely lifts his leg off the ground. It’s possible that he’s also going to take a new approach and attempt to drive the ball more to the outfield now, rather than relying on beating the ball into the ground as often as he has in the past. Maybe these changes will make him better. Maybe they’ll make him worse. There’s no way to know. Different doesn’t always mean better, and of course, there’s the very real possibility that Ichiro would have just performed better than he did last year even if the team sent him back out there to do the exact same thing he’s always done.

That’s the thing about baseball – the old cliche about the definition of insanity being an expectation of a different result from doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t apply. In baseball, you absolutely can do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. In fact, in many cases that’s exactly the right thing to do when you get bad results – just keep plugging away until the results change. Players regularly get themselves in trouble when they let a slump convince them that they need to tinker with the things that got them success in the first place. In baseball, randomness happens, and good processes won’t always lead to good results. The right approach is often to continue right along with the good process, knowing that the results that are out of your control will eventually change.

But, then, we dont’ know if Ichiro’s old process is still a good process. He’s older now, so it would make sense that the approach he took as a 27-year-old won’t be as effective now that he’s 38. He very may well need a new process in order to adapt to his new physical skills. If he’s not as capable of beating out grounders as he used to be, maybe he should look into hitting fewer ground balls. And maybe he will. And maybe it will work. But now we’re just down the speculative rabbit hole so far that we can’t even see facts anymore, and we’re just living in the land of guess work.

This is, for all intents and purposes, what the Mariners are doing with Ichiro. They’re guessing (and hoping) that by moving him down in the order, it will have some kind of positive impact on his results. It might, it might not. No one’s really seen Ichiro do things any differently than he’s always done them, so there’s no way to know if that Ichiro will actually be better or worse. He’ll be different, but whether that’s a positive or a negative, we’ll just have to wait and find out. For now, the Mariners are essentially just doing something because they had nothing to lose. If it doesn’t work, well, he’s a free agent at the end of the year and at least they can say they tried. If it does work, huzzah, they “fixed” Ichiro. This is why managers tinker with the line-up; you’re a genius if the results change, but it’s the player’s fault if they don’t. So, we’ll try Ichiro as the #3 hitter, at least for a while. Eric Wedge has nothing to lose by doing things this way.

What This Means For Chone Figgins

In reality, the bigger news isn’t that Ichiro is now the #3 hitter, it’s that the team was willing to proclaim Figgins the lead-off hitter – a role he can only fill if he’s playing everyday. And, really, the only spot for him to play everyday is at third base, so the de facto result of this announcement is that Chone Figgins has come to camp as the team’s starting third baseman. If he hits .150 during March, they’ll probably abandon the experiment, but right now, we should probably assume that third base belongs to Figgins, and Kyle Seager is going to head back to Triple-A to form the world’s biggest positional logjam.

This is the part of the news that you probably shouldn’t be thrilled with. The team tried to move Figgins all winter and couldn’t find any takers – not surprising, considering just how bad he’s been the last few years and that he’s still due $18 million over the next two seasons. So, rather than have him just serve as the team’s 25th man, they’re opting to give him the start of the 2012 season to try and rejuvenate himself as a leadoff hitter again, and hopefully convince a scout or two that he’s got something left in the tank so the Mariners can ship him somewhere else and save a few million dollars in the process.

Make no mistake about it – this move is more about Figgins than it is about Ichiro. He has no real chance of finishing his contract as a Mariner; the only question is whether he relocates because someone else decides they want him or the Mariners just get tired of him taking up a roster spot. By opening up the leadoff spot in the order again, the team is hoping to take advantage of the fact that people still believe that part of his struggles in Seattle are due to being moved to the #2 spot in the batting order after succeeding as a lead-off hitter in Anaheim.

Now, let’s be honest, there’s no real reason to believe this is true. Last year, Figgins led off an inning 55 times, and he hit .173/.218/.231. In 2010, he led off an inning 119 times, and he hit .233/.336/.272. Despite all the talk about different mindsets and approaches that come with hitting first rather than second, we’ve seen Figgins be the first guy to walk up to the plate in Seattle a lot, and he’s been just as terrible in those situations as in any other. The idea that just naming him the “leadoff hitter” will cause him to become good again is just wish-casting. It has no basis in fact. It’s just as likely that Figgins would benefit from rubbing Felix’s left toe in between at-bats. There’s just no real evidence that batting position has any real tangible effects on a player’s ability to hit a baseball.

But, from the Mariners perspective, that doesn’t really matter. What matters is what they can sell to other teams, and there are still enough people in decision making positions in Major League Baseball who do believe that batting position matters that the M’s can sell a good start to the season as being the result of having Figgins back at the top of the order. Actual causation here is irrelevant – if the team puts Figgins back in the first batting position and he hits better, there will be other teams who believe that A and B occurring simultaneously must mean that A caused B, and will believe that Figgins could continue to hit well for them as long as they let him hit leadoff for them too.

The Mariners don’t need to peddle the truth here. If May rolls along and Figgins is hitting .300 and drawing walks again, they are under no obligation to try and explain to potential suitors that correlation does not equal causation, and that Figgins may very well revert back to pumpkin form at any minute. The fact that other teams might make the causation leap themselves means that a good start to the season does present the M’s with some chance to actually trade him without assuming the entirety of the remainder of his deal.

They’re never going to get anyone to take the whole contract. But, if they just ate the contract now, they’d be out roughly $17 million of the remaining $18 million on the deal (someone would sign him as a free agent for the league minimum, and then they’d be on the hook for that part of his contract). If Figgins hits well in April and May, they’ll have paid down about $2.5 million of the contract already, and might be able to convince someone that taking $5 or $6 million of the remaining $15.5 million is an okay investment for a rejuvenated leadoff hitter.

Maybe you don’t care if the team lowers their 2013 expenses by $5 million, but if it gives them the budget room to bring in a player who better fits into the future of the team, then it’s a decent reward for pushing forward with this experiment. That’s essentially the best case scenario here – Figgins plays well enough to generate a modicum of trade value and the team dumps him in the early summer for some cash savings for 2013.

There’s also a pretty good chance that he’s still pretty lousy and spends the first few weeks of the season just making a ton of outs at the top of the batting order. In that scenario, he’s probably DFA’d by May 15th, and the team can say they gave him every opportunity to succeed here. They tried him at second base and he failed at that. They tried him at third base and he failed at that. They tried him at leadoff and he failed at that. At that point, Figgins will be out of excuses, and the team will just dump him and move on to Plan B.

Either way, I don’t see Chone Figgins on this team much past June. He’ll either be good and traded or bad and cut. No matter how you look at it, Figgins-as-Mariner-leadoff-hitter is a short term thing.

What This Means For Everyone Else

We mentioned this briefly, but the biggest ramification of this announcement is that Kyle Seager is probably ticketed for Tacoma. The team probably won’t want him sitting around not playing, and if Figgins is going to be the regular third baseman, then they’d likely rather give Carlos Guillen the backup 3B/1B job and let Seager play regularly in Triple-A. Of course, that creates a problem, because the working assumption before this news was that Francisco Martinez was going to be the Rainiers third baseman, a decision that had already pushed them to move Alex Liddi to first base for this year. Sending Seager down means that Martinez could be headed back to Double-A to repeat a level. They could also have Seager play second base down in Tacoma if they want Martinez to still be able to play third, but having Seager get reps at second with Dustin Ackley entrenched at the spot in Seattle isn’t all that useful to the team. As weird as it sounds, the team doesn’t really have room for Seager back in Tacoma. Sending him down creates some problems, and even if it’s just for 6-8 weeks, the sooner they can end the Figgins-as-starting-3B experiment, the better off the guys with an actual future in this organization will be.

In terms of the line-up, Figgins at #1 and Ichiro at #3 means that Ackley is almost guaranteed to be slotted into the #2 spot in the order, followed by some mix of Smoak-Montero-Carp as the 4/5/6, and then Olivo-Gutierrez-Ryan as the 7/8/9. It also means that the line-up isn’t likely to very much from day to day, as Wedge is opting for more “set roles” than “platoon advantages”. Rather than taking advantage of left-right match-ups, the team is putting their faith in the magical power of players knowing what they’re going to hit everyday, and hoping that brings them out of their multi-year doldrums. Wedge is an old-school guy and this is old school thinking. It’s something we’ll just have to deal with as long as he’s in charge.

What happens to the line-up once Figgins is traded/dumped? It depends a bit on everyone else, but my best guess is that Ackley will get bumped up from #1 to #2, and then his spot will be filled by either Franklin Gutierrez (if he’s hitting well) or Kyle Seager (if Guti’s not). They’re the guys who most fit the mold of a typical #2 hitter besides Ackley, and neither one runs well enough to convince a traditional manager like Wedge to hit them leadoff. So, my guess is that come June, the line-up is Ackley-Guti-Ichiro or Ackley-Seager-Ichiro, whether Figgins-as-leadoff-hitter was a success or not.

And that’s why, in the end, this Big News isn’t really big news. It’s one last chance for redemption for Figgins. It’s an experiment with Ichiro. And it’s a chance for the team to try and dump some portion of the money that Figgins is still due for 2013 on someone else. Given that the cost isn’t super high – yes, Seager’s probably a better player and the team is probably making themselves a bit worse with this move, but the gap between them over 200 PA is small and the team probably isn’t contending this year anyway – it’s not that hard to see why the Mariners are going in this direction. I don’t think it will work, but it’s a move without a ton of downside and at least a little bit of upside if you squint hard enough.

So, Figgins is the leadoff guy, Ichiro is the #3 guy, and Seager is the Triple-A guy. Don’t get too used to this arrangement – it won’t last long.

Ichiro 2.0

February 21, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 37 Comments 

Today, Eric Wedge confirmed the rumors that have been swirling for the past week: Ichiro’s no longer the lead-off man. Ichiro will move down to third, with Ackley in 2nd and Figgins in the lead-off spot. In addition, Larry Stone mentions that Ichiro’s got a new batting stance to go along with a new line-up spot.

I think everyone’s got an opinion of the move and the way it’s happened. I’m actually OK with moving Ichiro to 3rd, and look forward to seeing his new approach at the plate. If this was announced to give Ichiro more time to prepare in his new role, I suppose I can’t argue with that. More to come, undoubtedly.

Draft Pools – Owners Try to Stop Themselves from Overspending on the Draft

February 20, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 22 Comments 

One of the big questions going in to the negotiations of MLB’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement was whether we’d see “hard slotting” for the draft. Essentially, that’d mean that each draft position would have a dollar value assigned to it, and the player either accepted it or returned to school/signed with an independent team. This would prohibit teams from throwing multi-million dollar signing bonuses at high school stars who wanted to play in college, which, depending on your point of view, was either another way wealthy teams could subvert the purpose of the draft (to give parity a boost by allocating the best amateurs to the worst MLB teams) or prohibiting a smart team from taking a calculated risk in order to quickly close a talent gap. Recently, we learned about the compromise the players/owners agreed to (pdf)- aggregate draft pools instead of hard slotting.

First, let’s review what teams did last year. Each year, MLB has a recommended signing bonus for each pick in the draft with the overall #1 getting the most and a long, smooth descent from there. Each year, the teams ignore the Commissioner and sign whoever they want, with some teams saving money by signing players who’ll sign for “slot” and others throwing money at players with strong commitments to College teams. Last year the Pirates spent over $16m on their top 10 draft picks, signing #1 overall pick Gerrit Cole and then springing for high school OF Josh Bell (whom almost no one thought was signable) for $5 million, energizing their rebuild by essentially getting two first-round picks. The M’s spent almost $10 million on their top 10 (almost all of which went to Danny Hultzen and Brad Miller), but then spent another few million on late round guys like Jack Marder; they went over slot for many of their picks (Carter Capps, Cavan Cahoes, Marder, etc.), but didn’t go crazy on any one pick. This allowed them to reach for some guys who might not sign, but spread the risk around. The Cubs gave out two $1 million plus signing bonuses to two guys after the 10th round.

2011 wasn’t an example of the rich getting richer – the M’s, Pirates and Cubs were all under .500 last season and need the draft to restock. Signing guys like Bell, or Marder or Shawon Dunston, Jr. may be a better option for many teams than trading away cost-controlled players. It’s not always like this, of course, as the Tigers were able to sign Andrew Miller (whom many considered the #1 player in that draft) with the 6th pick when word of his exorbitant demands spread. The next year, they picked Rick Porcello at #27 and were able to sign him by paying him more than #3 overall pick Josh Vitters received from the Cubs, and just a few picks later, the Yankees gave their pick (#30 overall Andrew Brackman) more than Vitters got as well. There were some concerns that small-market teams simply couldn’t afford to take the best available player, and that the Yankees/Red Sox/Tigers/etc would essentially get their pick of the best talent at the end of the round.

This year, the CBA calls for an aggregate amount of money that each team can spend on its first ten picks – an amount that’s calculated based on the number of picks each team will have and the “slot” for each pick. More importantly, there are now consequences for teams that overspend. If a team exceeds its draft pool by up to 5%, it pays a luxury tax of 75% of the overage amount. If it spends 5-10% over the pool, the tax is 100% of the overage and the team loses a first round pick. 10-15% overage results in a 100% tax and the loss of a first and second-round pick, and overages above 15% result in forfeiting a first round pick in the next two drafts.

Thus, while there’s nothing to prevent a team from signing the next Josh Bell in 2012, they’d better like him a whole lot, because he’s probably going to cost them TWO #1 picks. You can go overslot for someone and avoid losing a draft pick, but you’re going to want to do so when your pool’s larger (a 5% overage on a pool of $11 million’s obviously going to buy you more than a 5% overage on a $1 million pool). Trading draft picks outright is still verboten, but this system seems to allow teams to do the equivalent of moving up in the draft by forfeiting future picks; since this quasi-“trade” is with the league and not a club, so there’s no risk of hearing “no.” Will scouting college seniors who may be willing to take below-slot bonuses become the new market inefficiency?

There’s no way to talk about an optimal strategy without seeing the draft board and talking to scouts about the relative strength of one class versus the next, but I can’t way to see how this plays out. Will teams try to stick within their pool and then, if they’re going to be close to 10%, go crazy and double their bonus (taking the equivalent of two or three first rounders in one year)? For a sense of scale here, the Pirates exceeded their slot bonuses by 268% last year; if you’re going to exceed the cap and face a stiff penalty at 6%, why WOULDN’T you go to 268%? Would a team be more likely to blow through its draft pool number if it felt that it was closer to contention (meaning the forfeited draft pick would be of lower value), or because it thought the subsequent draft class was weak? Are the penalties to severe, or do they not go far enough? Some are concerned that this will hurt poorer clubs, while those who wanted hard slotting would argue it doesn’t do enough to *protect* them.

The M’s have the 7th highest bonus, largely the result of having the #3 overall pick. The Angels have the smallest pool at $1.7 million total – the result of losing two top picks when they signed Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson. The M’s clearly have enough to sign whoever they want at #3, but a repeat of last year’s draft is probably out. Do you care? Do you hate the new rules, and why? Do you support any move that may prevent the Yankees from leveraging their wealth to buy up talent, or is Selig an idiot for taking away one of the few tools the Pirates had to try and compete with their larger rivals?

Figgins to the Lead Off Spot?

February 19, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 37 Comments 

The big story out of spring training today was the rumor that manager Eric Wedge would name Chone Figgins as the M’s lead-off man. As everyone’s sick of hearing, Figgins signed a four-year, $36 million contract in late 2009 and has produced at a replacement level rate (or below) for the past two seasons. Over 1,000 plate appearances in an M’s uniform, Figgins has produced a .236/.309/.285 batting line – that’s good for -33 batting runs by baseball-reference or -31 by Fangraphs. This isn’t a resume that cries out for more plate appearance, but the M’s may believe that he can recapture the success he had in an Angels uniform by batting in the lead-off spot.

Last year of course the idea was that Chone’s 2010 struggles were caused by the mental angst of moving from 3B to 2B, and moving back to his 2009 position would help him recover his 2009 hitting stroke. Instead, Figgins slumped to a .188/.241/.243 line in 81 games before the team called the mercy rule on his season. Will a shift in line-up position help where a shift in defensive position wouldn’t? Jeff Sullivan’s got some data to suggest that it won’t. So why WOULD the M’s not only tab Figgins as a starter (as opposed to a super-sub, which would utilize his defensive flexibility more than his now-questionable bat) but as a possible lead-off man? Is it a backdoor attempt to motivate Ichiro by replacing him in the #1 spot with someone who was, by almost any measure, the worst hitter in the league last year? Does Wedge honestly believe that this assignment would spur Figgins to improve – and if so, is Anthony Vasquez a possibility for a spot in the opening day rotation?

Whatever the reason, long-time M’s fans know that these sorts of counter-intuitive line-up moves come with the territory. The names of the players change, as do the names of those making the decisions, but it seems like there’s a perplexing you’re-so-bad-we-have-to-promote-you shake-up every few years. If you’re new to the team, here are a few of the biggest head-scratchers in Martiner history.

1: In late 2004, the M’s suddenly moved sullen and underperforming 3B Scott Spiezio to the 2nd position, a spot he began the year in but relinquished by hitting .209/.283/.350 through August. He played once in early September, then missed several games, then started again in his old line-up spot. New manager Bob Melvin never discussed his reasoning with reporters at the time, but years later he came clean in an informal chat session with reporters during spring training (while managing Arizona): “Guy just wouldn’t stop. He wouldn’t say anything, but you could tell he was pissed off. He’d call me at night and play it, he’d play the CD in my office, finally came to my house with an ’80s-style boombox. Loud as hell. Like a butt-rock John Cusack, just standing outside my house, speakers blaring that.. what was it? Sandfrog? We were out of it, and by this point I swear as long as you wrote down Ichiro’s name first and Bucky Jacobsen’s name fourth, you could’ve put your mother 2nd and no one would bat an eye.”

2: In the waning days of a lost 1988 season, M’s manager Jim Snyder (who took over from Dick Williams half-way through the year) moved SS Rey Quinones from 9th to leadoff despite erratic play and an OBP in the .280s. “Talent has never been the issue with Rey. It’s more a matter of focus. If we can get Rey to watch the opposing pitcher and not all the distractions of a big-league park, then we feel we’ve got a guy who can spark some rallies,” said Snyder in September. “He got thrown out in Comiskey park last month because the ump thought he was arguing balls and strikes. Turns out, he was screaming at the jumbo-tron about the ‘Guess Today’s Attendance’ game. That’s what we’re dealing with here. But he can’t get distracted if there’s no time for distractions, so we want a bat in his hand before they show any highlights, bloopers or any of that.” It should be mentioned that the incumbent lead-off hitter was Harold Reynolds, who wasn’t an ideal lead-off hitter himself.

3: In one of the most celebrated personnel decisions in M’s franchise history, Jim Lefebvre stuck with 3B Jim Presley over minor-league sensation Edgar Martinez for the 1989 season, and even kept Presley in the clean-up spot despite a .635 OPS (and a .280 OBP) in 1987 and a .660 OPS (.275 OBP) in 1989. Presley’s production had fallen each year since 1985 and he got the plurality of his 1988 PAs from the 8 hole, but the M’s decided that hitting clean-up would prevent him from changing his swing (or from worrying about the heralded 3B tearing up Calgary). His manager gave Presley a vote of confidence in spring training: “Jimmy hits the ball a country mile. We’re gonna let him focus on driving pitches and not let him wonder where he’s going to be. In ’86 he hit 3rd/4th and he went to the All-Star game. If he can get back to that, this team’s going to be exciting.”

4: Shockingly, the Presley-to-Clean-Up move wasn’t the biggest surprise of the 1989 spring. Instead, it was Lefebvre’s tinkering with the starting rotation. Mark Langston was clearly the team’s ace, and they had decent youngsters behind him in Scott Bankhead (recently acquired from Kansas City) and Erik Hanson. But while Langston was quite good, Levebvre wondered if he couldn’t squeeze a win or two by moving his 5th starter to #1 and moving the rest of the starters back a day – the idea being that moving from a 40-45% chance of a win on opening day to a 15% chance was worth it if it meant increasing the odds for the next 3-4 days by 10% each. That meant Steve Trout, who’d the team picked up half-way through 1988 and who put up -2 WAR in one of the worst statistical seasons by an M’s starter, would get the opening day nod against Dave Stewart in Oakland. The M’s pitching coach, Mike Paul, wasn’t sold on the idea, and the team itself hated “punting” the first game of the year, so it ultimately didn’t happen. There were rumors that this perceived slight was the last straw for Langston, who informed the team that he’d never re-sign with them. By late May, Langston was traded to Montreal, though Trout (somehow) lasted until June 12th.

5: In strike-shortened 1981, the M’s were off to a horrible 6-17 start and Maury Wills decided to shake things up by naming himself the lead-off hitter. In a rambling, often profane, press conference, Wills listed the team’s ills and singled out Julio Cruz (hitting under .180 at the time) for abuse. Pacing the room, rubbing his nose and occasionally breaking into a mocking impression of M’s CF Joe Simpson, Wills decided that, “Since none of these $#@%ers can get on base, I’ll do it myself.” Wills was only 48, so it wasn’t as outlandish as it sounds, and he attempted to prove he still had his famous speed by sprinting through the assembled reporters. He gave Cruz one more chance on May 5th and the M’s fired him that evening – before he could put his bizarre plan into action.

What do these line-up moves/purported moves tell us? First, that the M’s have fielded some bad teams over the years. Second, that moving a player around rarely accomplishes much; hitting clean-up didn’t save Jim Presley, and Scott Spiezio/Rey Quinones were so far beyond help that moving the batting order around seems, at least in retrospect, to miss the point completely. Does this necessarily mean that moving Figgins to lead-off is a bad idea? No, the plural of anecdote isn’t “data” and if Figgins truly believes that he can’t get comfortable batting second, he may actually hit better somewhere else. From a statistical point of view, it seems crazy to give more plate appearances to a man with a PECOTA-projected .645 OPS (below Ichiro, Ackley, Seager, etc.). Clearly, that’s not the only perspective available to the team, and if Wedge and the M’s want to use psychology to build the line-up, that’s their right. I could imagine that any benefit this move would have in restoring Figgins’ confidence might be counterbalanced by the sense that the team is handing out benefits to players who haven’t yet earned them. We’ll see.


February 17, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 14 Comments 

1) As many of you know, Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter passed away yesterday at the age of 57. Carter was coaching college baseball in Florida when he was diagnosed with brain cancer last year. He was able to make a final trip to see his team’s first game two weeks ago.

As an M’s fan in the early 80s, National League stars existed as stories, rumors, and highlight packages on This Week in Baseball. Maybe it was the state of the AL West at the time (with the M’s having recently acquired Bob Kearney from the A’s, Jim Sundberg’s end-of-career struggles and Bob Boone’s late-career batting ineptitude), but Mel Allen kept showing me a catcher blasting home runs and flirting with a .300 average. It seemed a bit bizarre, and the fact that he played in Canada, in a French-speaking city, just magnified my confusion.

The biggest catching star in the AL was probably Lance Parrish, and as an AL partisan, I initially suspected that Parrish was better because he played against better competition (like the Mariners!) in games using English rules (not whatever the Montrealers were doing, what with Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Jeff Reardon, Steve Rogers all putting up video-game stats). But then Carter moved to the Mets and was a cog on one of the best, most memorable teams of the 1980s, and I had to admit that not even Parrish’s appearance on Diff’rent Strokes could close the gap. Carter was the best catcher of his generation, and I didn’t really have a sense of him until he was in his 30s. It was only really in the past few years that I’ve learned just how good he was defensively. He routinely threw out 40% of would-be base-stealers, leading the league twice with 47% marks.

2) Tim Wakefield announced his retirement today after a 19 year MLB career. He pitched for the Red Sox from 1995 through 2011. Drafted as an IF, he switched to pitching as a 22-year old in the New York-Penn League and steadily rose through the ranks before making his MLB debut with the Pirates on July 31st, 1992. That day, against the Cardinals, the rookie earned a win with a complete-game, 10K performance. He won his next start (pitching 8 innings) and by the end of the year, Wakefield was 8-1 and a key member of the Pirates rotation in the NLCS against the Braves. He went 2-0 in the NLCS, tossing complete games in the 3rd and 6th games.

The Pirates won the NL East that year somewhat comfortably, but they were tied with Montreal on July 30th, the day before Wakefield’s debut. His dominance down the stretch (and his two post-season wins) make for one of the more important late-season call-ups in recent (I guess calling it ‘recent’ is a stretch) memory. And then, like so many Shane Spencers and Kevin Stockers, he lost it. In 1993, Wakefield had an ERA and FIP in the mid 5’s, and walked 75 (with 9 HBPs!) with only 59 Ks. The Pirates finished 5th that year and haven’t had a winning season since. Wakefield toiled in the minors in 1994 and was, improbably, even worse than he was in 1993. Again he gave up more free passes than Ks, and his ERA climbed to nearly 6 en route to a 5-15 year with Buffalo. Given the disruption due to the MLB strike, it actually took the Pirates until April of 1995 to release him.

And then, just as suddenly, he was back. His first game was May 27th, a 7 IP, 1R gem against a very good Angels line-up. He took the hill again 3 days later (?) and blanked the A’s over 7 1/3 IP. His 3rd start came against the Mariners, and Wakefield went 10IP to get a 2-1 win (after Bobby Ayala gave up a walk-off HR in the 10th). He ended up going 16-8 on his way to 186 wins in a Red Sox uniform.

3) On a happier note, today’s the opening day for Division 1 college baseball. Baseball America’s weekend preview looks at some of the big match-ups, including #10 Vanderbilt traveling to Palo Alto to take on #2 Stanford. The UW Huskies are in San Diego to take on San Diego State, whose manager, Tony Gwynn, underwent surgery this week to have a tumor removed from his cheek (can I pause here to say F#$! you, cancer). The surgery apparently went about as well as it could have – for a 14 hour procedure which involved removing nerves in Gwynn’s face and replacing them with nerves from his shoulder), and Gwynn hopes to be back in the dugout this season.

UW’s a young team with a number of JC transfers, but they’ve also got sophomore Austin Voth, who returns after impressing scouts in the Cape Cod league this summer. Northwest JC Player of the Year McKenzie ‘Mac’ Acker is an undersized lefty with very good velo, and could also get some time in the OF.

WSU begins its season with three games at Mississippi State. The Cougars are led by slugging 1B Taylor Ard, who led the Pac 10 in HRs last season with 10. OF Jason Monda’s another player to watch. Their top three starters from a year ago are gone, so they’re going to need some freshmen to step up. The Pac-12 coaches picked WSU to finish 9th, one spot ahead of UW.

Seattle University kicked things off with a series against Utah Valley University. Due to the forecasted winter storm, the Redhawks were scheduled to kick their first game off today at 11am. Don’t know if they were able to beat the rain or not. Starters Seafth Howe and Brandon Kizer return from last year’s team, as does 2011 OBP leader Trent Oleszczuk. If the weather clears at all this weekend and you’re eager to watch some baseball, check out the Redhawks.

4) Larry LaRue’s got an encouraging blog post up on Franklin Gutierrez, who weighed in at 201 lbs. So he’s now gained closer to 20 lbs since last season. I’m encouraged that his IBS symptoms haven’t returned and that he’s been healthy enough to put on weight, but it’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to playing at a new weight. Obviously, this is a much easier adjustment than the ones he tried to make last year, but this strikes me as something that could take a few months to work out. The M’s carried two black holes in CF last year, with both Gutierrez and Mike Saunders struggling through their worst seasons as professionals. A healthy Gutierrez would go a very long way towards getting the M’s offense back on track, while his defense might make the back of the M’s rotation look OK.

Friday Lunch Prospect Links

February 17, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues · 10 Comments 

Did you know that there is baseball going on right now? It isn’t important baseball, but it’s setting the stage for more important baseball in the future. One of the things that I enjoy about this kind of baseball is that, where the end of the Cactus League season is mostly about players who will definitely contribute to the team’s success or lack thereof, the beginning is usually spent on fringe contributors and prospects. PROSPECTS! Here are some articles I’ve read over the past few days. It’s not as exhaustive as it could be because my time with news media is somewhat diminished these days.

* The Times had a joint article on Michael Saunders and Steve Delabar. The gist of it is that Delabar is continuing to do the weird thing from before that gave him all that velocity (or Velocity, technically) and that Saunders is trying to tighten up his swing with the aid of rubber bands. No really. At this point, I’m willing to entertain whatever might work.

* There was also a piece on Vinnie Catricala, and his attempts to find balance between his offensive and defensive games. He says he was known for his glove in high school and then got lazy about it in college as he focused more on his hitting. Recent and distant sports history tells me that if he reconciles the two and ends up being good, there will be much talk of Vin-sanity. We are so clever. So clever.

* Baker is wondering if James Paxton is this year’s Pineda, which is rooted in the notion that both were basically two-pitch guys with the ghost of a third entering spring training. I like Paxton plenty, and it’s neat that we were able to snag him, but I suppose I wonder more about his endurance, since he suffered from an assortment of injuries well into his college career and he had very few opportunities to pitch two years ago. Caution might push him back a bit.

* Trayvon Robinson is wearing glasses now. Because he has astigmatism. This isn’t quite Jose Lopez getting braces, but at least it has the chance of being relevant to his performance in games.

* Danny Hultzen talked to the TNT about how to throw a curveball, then talked to them at length about his stuff and his process. His process is pretty neat, you guys.

* Also at the TNT, a Taijuan Walker piece that discussed learning the curveball, taking advice from Rich Dorman, and assorted personal details. Walker seems to be one of those special types with talent, drive, and a knack for figuring things out.

* This just in: Erasmo Ramirez throws strikes. An abnormal number of them. To such a degree that his pitching coach forced him to throw balls in the bullpen late last year so that he could try to convince hitters to chase pitches out of the zone. He’s not in the same tier as the other three, but heck, I just really like Erasmo.

The New Arena

February 16, 2012 · Filed Under Mariners · 32 Comments 

Reclusive hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen went public today with a proposal to build a new arena housing an NHL and NBA team in south Seattle. In a letter to King County Executiye Dow Constantine and mayor Mike McGinn, Hansen states that the public investment would be limited to revenue-backed bonds, that all cost overruns and operating deficits would be covered by the private investor group that Hansen will lead. The facility would be built in SoDo, on a parcel already owned by Hansen. Nothing can move forward, however, without a tenant and a binding 30-year non-relocation clause.

The proposal would appear to meet the tests imposed by Initiative 91 , which prevents the city of Seattle from providing funding to any sports franchise unless the investment would return a profit. That measure passed in the midst of the furor over Clay Bennett’s purchase of the Seattle Supersonics and his “efforts” to get the state to build a new arena in Seattle (or Renton).

So, a bit over three years since the last new team moved into Sodo, the M’s may have some new neighbors. Does this help or hurt? First of all, let’s be clear that nothing’s finalized and that the city and county have to review the proposal while Hansen searches for some tenants. But say Hansen’s successful and the M’s get two new top-level sports franchises moving in on their doorstep – is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Three years ago, USS Mariner readers were open to the idea of the Sounders, a team whose season overlapped with baseball’s. The Sounders were an instant hit, drawing over 30,000 per game in 2009, and have reliably drawn over 36,000 since (their 2011 average of 38,000 in 2011 includes Kasey Keller’s last game which drew over 60,000). Meanwhile, the M’s dropped from 2.3 million fans in 2008 to 1.9 million fans in 2011. Obviously, the drop in M’s attendance has much more to do with the M’s posting a 101-loss team in 2010 and a 95-loss team in 2011 than any poaching by their neighbors. There’s no clear evidence that the Sounders success has hurt the M’s, despite the overlap. While two winter-sports franchises might seem to be even less likely to take fans away from the M’s in a zero-sum competition for a finite supply of sports dollars in the city.

On the other hand, it’s not really about casual fans attending a game or two more/less per year – it’s about businesses ponying up for luxury boxes and well-heeled fans paying for season tickets. It makes sense that some businesses may choose to purchase suites/boxes at the new arena in lieu of springing for Mariners tickets, though of course the M’s best attendance years occurred while the Sonics played a few miles north at Key Arena. From what we can tell, the state of the team matters a lot more than the existence of sporting substitutes in the NBA or NHL.

In fact, new teams in these leagues could end up helping the M’s. A package of an NBA, NHL and MLB team would exert a lot of leverage when negotiating a TV deal with ROOT sports or with Comcast. The option to create a local, team-owned sports network would interest the M’s (and the other teams) and would have to play in to any bid to renegotiate the current contract with ROOT. The existence of the Rockets must’ve helped the Houston Astros launch a new network that will carry the team’s games in 2013; it’s obviously got nothing to do with the success of the team. The YES Network (the most successful of the team-owned operations) broadcasts the NJ Nets as well as the Yankees, and Comcast’s SportsNet Bay Area broadcasts both the Giants and the Golden State Warriors games.

So now we wait; Sonics fans whose heart was ripped out by David Stern and Clay Bennett (just saying these names in certain company can provoke highly un-Seattle-like rage and spittle-inflected diatribes against everyone from Starbucks and Howard Schultz to certain sports radio personalities to the viability of the NBA itself) now take interested looks at the rosters of certain vulnerable franchises. People who wouldn’t know the offsides rule in hockey even with an Ed Hochuli-level explanation now opine on the inevitability of the Phoenix Coyotes moving north. Patrick Dubuque captures the tension of recently-aggrieved Seattle dans aggressively looking for weak franchises in a great post here. Anyone who’s railed against the NBA, its unsustainable business model and David Stern’s vampiric nature while simultaneously feeling nostalgic about Gary Payton/Shawn Kemp (hell, his son’s playing for UW)/Detlef Schempf knows what a weird 24-48 hours it’s been.

This could ultimately come to nothing, especially if Sacramento’s new stadium proposal is adopted, or if the city/county balks at committing its credit to a bond sale for pro sports. Nothing’s set in stone. But we know enough to say first that this deal makes the M’s deal with the state/stadium district look like highway robbery. Sure, that deal’s looked suspect for a while, but it’s nice to see some early evidence for those who’ve argued that stadium deals should be able to work for private firms/investors without massive, uncapped public subsidies. Second, the facility would be publicly owned, and the city/county would charge the tenants rent to repay bonds issued to construct the facility. Though the dollar amounts are obviously far different, this is basically the approach the City of Tacoma took when they issued bonds to renovate Cheney Stadium.

So what do you think? Would new tenants help the M’s or hurt corporate ticket sales? Are you excited about a “new” NBA team, or will you make good on your pledge never to watch the NBA again? Are you ecstatic about the possibility of an NHL franchise to get you through the baseball-less doldrums of winter, or do you associate hockey with lawlessness, cheap-shots and Strange Brew? Is Chris Hansen a civic savior, or is this not the right time to celebrate the titans of private equity, whatever they choose to spend their money on?

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