Late March M’s Roundtable with Jay and Marc
I sent 10 questions to Jay last week, and while it would’ve been timelier to get this posted before opening day, we’ve still got some spring training and 160 regular season games to go. I’d love to do these throughout the year, and if you’ve got any burning M’s-related questions, feel free to suggest some.
1: The M’s roster’s set. Which player is going to surprise us this season? Who’s going to blow their projection out of the water?
JAY: In a pick that will surprise robots and fans that don’t pay that much attention to spring training (why should they when there’s ’round the clock Peyton Manning coverage?), I’m thinking this is Saunders’ year. The new swing is doing stuff for him that we simply haven’t seen before and the anecdotal evidence from camp seems positive. I don’t expect him to be the most productive hitter on the team or anything, but he’ll get the job done often enough to where we start to wonder about where to put him when Guti comes back. I also believe that Ichiro is not quite done yet, but his positive returns will lead to the usual “contract year” jackassery.
Me: Hard to argue with that, though given the offensive projections for the M’s, we’re not exactly starved for choice. Justin Smoak’s probably the other obvious one, and I think he’ll exceed his projected wOBA easily, though I don’t think he’s ready to become the star that M’s fans want him to be just yet. Ackley’s in a similar situation, where his projections are really pretty low, and fan expectation (at least that I’ve encountered) is really high – like elite, franchise-player high. I think we’re going to have a few “good” years before we get there. I think Charlie Furbush annihilates his (crappy) FIP projection, though of course this has as much to do with him changing role as anything. That’s a whole lot of non-answers, so for an answer-answer, I’ll go with Kyle Seager, who’s got a CAIRO-projected wOBA of .291 and a ZIPS-projected wOBA of .306. If he gets consistent playing time, which may be tough to do in April/May, I think he can comfortably exceed that.
2: Who’s going to disappoint? Either by producing at a lower clip than projected, or by disappointing fan expectations?
J: I like Casper Wells as an amusing human being, but I don’t know that he’s the solution in left any more than the previous attempts at filling the position. As far as disappointing fan projections, I think that anyone expecting Montero to hit 30+ bombs out of the gate might be hoping a bit much. Carp might be regarded as an easy target (like shooting fish in a…), but he’s been a different hitter in each of the past three seasons he’s played and I’ve given up on trying to make sense of him. Brendan Ryan may hit better if he’s healthy, but he still won’t approach his 2009 levels of production.
M: Good answers. I’ve got to go with Carp, more for the fan expectation thing. As you mention, Mike Carp’s transformed himself and his approach over the past few years, and he’s much better than I thought possible at this time last year. That’s awesome, but the high BABIP and K rate seem to portend some regression. In an about-face from his pre-2011 career, he started pounding lefties in Tacoma and then kept it up in Seattle. In his small-sample MLB call-up, he was much better against lefties than righties. Of course, this is the number we’d regress heavily given the tiny sample. I think Carp’s given himself the right to a job and the opportunity to prove that he’s figured out lefties, but the risk of a sub-par season’s pretty high. [Ed.: We did this before the season started; now it just looks like I’m kicking Carp while he’s down.]
3: Which M’s prospect take a big step forward this year? Who’s the sleeper in the M’s system who’s going to break out in 2012?
J: As anything else, it depends on how you want to define breakout and the expectations that come from that. I think Stefen Romero is going to do a Catricala on the Cal League this year. He’s geared more towards putting the ball in play, but has more power than some realize. For pitchers, gosh, I really hope this is Brandon Maurer’s year, but man if that kid doesn’t have issues getting through a full season.
M: Interesting. Romero displayed some gap power in the midwest league last year, an environment that’s pretty tough on hitters. For me, this is tough because so many of the breakout guys have been hyped up this winter and spring. Erasmo Ramirez was something of an overlooked/underestimated prospect as recently as two months ago, but I think the beat writers and us internet people have written more about him this camp than we have about Felix Hernandez. I’m a big fan of Forrest Snow and his journey from 36th rounder to AAA and the Arizona Fall League, but he’s gotten mentions from Kevin Goldstein at BP, he’s been a guest on the Hot Stove League show and we’ve discussed him here. It’s actually difficult these days to have a really good minor league season and stay underrated. It helps if you’re short, of course – this could be Altuve’s Law, but The Erasmo Postulate sounds cooler. Anyway, I know Carter Capps and maybe even Carson Smith have a chance to move, but for a guy who could see the majors this year, I’ll go with Stephen Pryor.
He’s a bit more under the radar than he could’ve been after missing some time early in camp, but he’s been taking part in the minor league games. He was a mess early in 2011 which hurt his prospect stock, but he was lights out down the stretch (his FIP at AA Jackson was under 2). On the other end of the spectrum, the debut I’m most interested in may be SS Cavan Cohoes, who’ll hopefully end up either in Pulaski or Everett when short-season ball gets underway.
4: The M’s will promote James Paxton to the big club on _________?
J: Trying to pin an exact date to this kind of thing makes me go “ugh”, so I would venture that Paxton will get the call July/August, not so much out of service time issues as him needing to work a few things out beforehand.
M: I’ll guess the M’s don’t bring up Paxton before rosters expand. If he just lays waste to the upper minors, he’ll force their hand and they may make a move in July/August, but Erasmo’s clearly the first alternate for a rotation spot. If Iwakuma’s velocity increases, he might get a shot as well. And if Paxton and Hultzen are both dealing in AA, then Hultzen has a leg up just because he’s on the 40-man already. In any event, this will be an interesting test case for the new Player Development group that Chris Gwynn’s heading. Last year, anyone who put up decent numbers for Tacoma got a promotion. Of course, the M’s had so many spots to fill, maybe they couldn’t afford to be too choosy, but my guess is that they’re going to want to be a bit more deliberate and work on things in the minors.
5: Will the M’s find a taker for Chone Figgins? What share of his remaining contract will the M’s eat?
J: I don’t know if this has any basis in reality, but I feel like we’ve almost traded Figgins so many times that I can no longer regard actually trading him as a real thing that could happen. I’ve gotten to the eyes-glazed-over, trudging-through-the-muck point of resignation on this one. If he hits a bit in the early goings, some team might have use for him as a super utility. Should we expect him to hit? Should we take some of the spring training fluff as meaningful? I really don’t know, but I would say that we probably have to eat a good chunk of the contract in order for anything to happen.
M: Yeah, I know how you feel. I just don’t want to talk about it anymore, which makes the fact that I asked this question all the more perplexing. Instead, here’s a poem by Tacoma’s own Richard Brautigan:
she tries to get things
out of men
that she can’t get
because she’s not
Essentially, Brautigan’s saying that the M’s will have to eat 85% of Figgins remaining salary, and that no one’s going to be clamoring for his services. They’ll find a buyer if they eat the lion’s share of the money, of course, but Figgins isn’t an attractive asset.
6: The thinking heading into the spring was that Francisco Martinez is the 3B of the future, that Figgins would play in some/much of of 2012, and that either Martinez would be ready in 2013 or they’d hold down the fort with a playing-out-of-position Kyle Seager or Vinnie Catricala. Then, Seager, Alex Liddi and Vinnie Catricala each opened some eyes in Peoria. Liddi and Seager had tweaked their swings, and Catricala’s move to LF was quickly squashed. What now? Is Martinez still the man in 2013-14? Have Seager and Liddi done enough to give them a fighting chance at the job? Whither Catricala?
J: There’s not a place for all of them, that’s for certain. Liddi has been a corner infielder, Martinez has played 302 of 316 career minor league games at third, Catricala is infield corners plus LF (maybe DH?), and Seager can play short in a pinch. If you wanted to keep them all, I think Seager is super utility, Cat is in left (assuming the job isn’t taken), Martinez ends up at third, and Liddi is DH with some spots at the corners. That’s assuming far too much, though. They all possess different strengths and weaknesses. Catricala is the best bat and probably the worst glove, though I don’t think that he’s horrible. Seager is right there with Cat for on-base skills, hits doubles, hits for a good average, has some defensive versatility. I’ve been a Liddi defender for the past few years; his power is hard to deny and his defensive issues are overblown, so it’s mainly the strikeouts that concern me and whether he can make enough contact to put the power to use. Martinez, for me at least, remains an enigma, because I’ve heard a lot of people say that post-trade he played so much better and that he’s made strides in spring training, but until I see it over a long stretch of time, I’m not going to believe it as much more than tools-based hype. I’m way, way more bear-ish on him than most people though. So basically, what I’m going to say right now is that I don’t know how it’s going to shake out right now and I’m not convinced that one rises above the rest of the pack, as opposed to the end of last season when I might have been more in the Catricala camp. The competition thing that Jack is always talking about seems to be pushing these guys to be more than I initially thought that they would be, even if I don’t think that any are amazing options to have around.
M: I think it’s still F-Mart, who’s looked great in the minor league games, apparently. He homered off of Hultzen in an intra-squad game and it sounds like he’s been pounding the ball. I’ve been bearish too, as the Triunfel saga has made all of us skeptical of prospects who put up great age-relative-to-league numbers instead of great wOBA-relative-to-league numbers. I still think Liddi can be a 3B, and I’m curious to see if he looks different at the plate, but the M’s have a big choice to make in the next week or two. It sounds like Martinez will remain in AA, but Catricala and Liddi both can’t be the everyday 3B in Tacoma. Clearly, this is the most unsettled position for the M’s, and performance in 2012 is going to have to settle this. I’d guess at least one player’s traded, and that the M’s continue to give Liddi time at 1B and Catricala will resume playing some OF to try to get them the reputation for versatility. I’m still not thrilled with Liddi at 1B because it negates his strongest defensive tool (his arm), and it puts more pressure on his bat.
7: Franklin Gutierrez will miss a good chunk of 2012 recuperating from his torn pectoral muscle. He missed a lot of time last year with a strained oblique and with IBS. He was a very productive player in 2009, but didn’t hit in 2010 or 2011. Is Franklin finished as an every-day MLB regular? If not, how do your projections of his batting line change in light of his injury struggles?
J: I had such hopes. SUCH HOPES. Anyway, the way I hear it the pectoral muscle was affecting his throwing more than his swinging the bat (this is not like the oblique), so I think that his hitting will probably get the same boost from the improved health that we thought it would, he’ll just be slow out of the gate. Whether he returns to 2009 form ever, I don’t know. IBS can be a tricky thing and has a nasty way sapping a person’s energy for days at a stretch. I wouldn’t say that he’s done as an everyday player, but that he may need to be scaled back to maybe 130 games played as a high-end expectation and any team that has him around will need to have a clear back-up option lined up. This is all to say that if the Mariners start to look for other long-term center field options within the next year or so, I would not be surprised.
M: Here’s where I’m the pessimist. It just seems that we’ve been here before, with Adam Moore, Chris Snelling, maybe even Bary Bonnell. I’d love it if he was able to just jump back into his 2009 form, even as a 110-130 game player, but there just aren’t that many examples of guys who’ve been able to do that. Gutierrez has missed so much development time – he probably hasn’t missed as many games as he should have; he’s been fighting his body rather than developing his approach – that his ceiling’s lowered substantially. He’s also 29 and in the decline phase of his career. His hitting will clearly get a boost from a recovery from the IBS/oblique/pectoral issues, but I think his true talent (purely as a hitter) in 2012, is lower, and he’ll be recovering to a new “normal” level that’s probably in the .290-.310 wOBA range as opposed to the .340+ range we all thought. You may be right that the pectoral is affecting throwing more than swinging a bat, but that just hampers his ability to add value on the defensive side of the ledger. They absolutely need to be looking for other long-term CF options.
8: Can Jesus Montero catch? I would be OK with him catching X% of M’s games.
J: So long as we’re not expecting him to be a hockey goalie back there, I don’t see why not. The throwing needs to be tweaked a bit if he’s going to catch runners out there, but from what it sounds like in spring training with the Brandon Phillips CS, it seems like they’re working on it. Footwork is going to be the next step. I’d be okay with him catching 40% of the games out of the gate, but with Jaso and Olivo around, I think it will probably be more like 10-20% with a lot of work on the side.
M: The Jeff Passan article, the positive quotes from Eric Wedge and Jeff Datz, the legacy of ineptitude the M’s have had back there… I think he’ll have every opportunity to catch, and I’d be fine with him catching 40-50%. He won’t, at least not this year, but that’s a decent target for next year. As I mentioned when he arrived, the M’s might need him to catch so that they can use the DH spot to add additional value.
9: The M’s bullpen is going to be: a strength/about average/a weakness in 2012? Is Tom Wilhelmsen legit, or do you think he benefitted from a lack of scouting reports?
J: I’d think of it in similar terms to the way people are describing the offense now: there were a lot of rookies last year, they struggled, and this year they have a better understanding of what they’re doing and what needs to be done going forward. I’d expect the same for the bullpen, since they’re relying a lot on younger players. There will be bad stretches where individual pitchers start to get away from what made them good, and sometimes it will give people fits, but in the overall scheme of things, it will position us to have a better bullpen next season. And I do think Wilhelmsen is legit between the velocity and the curveball. The time starting last season seems to have helped him get some things straightened out.
M: I’m going to take the cop-out and say that they’ll be neither a strength or a weakness. Despite some of the struggles last year, the bullpen was fine. The M’s ‘pen had a FIP under 4 and put up 2 WAR; they were as valuable as the Rangers’ ‘pen and more valuable than the Angels’ group. A healthy Shawn Kelley would help, and I’m really hoping that Wilhelmsen takes a step forward this year and gets enough consistency with his curve to be an honest two-pitch pitcher, instead of a 1.5 pitch pitcher. I’ve mentioned Stephen Pryor already, but Forrest Snow could help out in a pinch. Hisashi Iwakuma’s something of a wildcard here. Here’s hoping this method of developing/building his arm strength works, and that he’s not just throwing slop for a month or two. The results in the exhibition against Yomiuri weren’t especially encouraging.
10: Casper Wells came over from Detroit and hit 7 HRs in 31 games, but he also struck out in 36% of his PAs, more than Peguero’s 34% rate. That’s far higher than his previous career average, but his minor league K rate was quite high too. With the attention paid to Trayvon Robinson’s contact issues, has Wells gotten a pass? Or did his balance/vision problems with a bit of bad luck make him look more Peguero-esque than he actually is? Does he have a future with the M’s?
J: I mentioned Wells above as a guy I was somewhat suspicious of. Maybe that’s because he’s new-ish and unfamiliar. But then I also consider that he’s never had an average above .270 in a full minor league season (.252 average down there), and that his strikeout issues are well known… He’s got a decent ability to draw a walk and has hit for power at a few stops, I just don’t know how much of that power translates to the big league level with the contact struggles. From the looks of it, he’s developed some splits over the past couple of years where right-handers are getting him to ground out or pop up a lot, which is diminishing his power when he’s facing them. I’m not totally ruling him out, but it seems to me like the solution to our ongoing left field issues is likely someone that we haven’t seen yet. [Ed.: His path to consistent PAs got a little bit easier with Carp’s injury, of course.]
M: Like you, I’m a bit worried, but he figures to get some at-bats against lefties and, like Smoak, he’s got a reasonable explanation for why his numbers tumbled at the end of last season. I think it’s going to be tough, though, as the M’s may want to keep Carp in the line-up against lefties. That forces him to CF where Saunders figures to get a look against righties. Then, he’s going to have Vinnie Catricala breathing down his neck (presumably) in AAA.
This is important because in order to really improve his batting eye, he needs lots of plate appearances. That’s going to be tough at the MLB level, but it’s not clear what he can do about it in AAA. Sending him to AAA would also mean going without a back-up to Michael Saunders, which is just about unthinkable. I think he’s got a good MLB season in him, but I’m doubtful that it’ll happen in an M’s uniform.