James Paxton vs. Andrew Cashner, 12:05
Well, yesterday’s game was fun. Let’s do that same “Robinson Cano plays for Seattle” thing, add the same dash of spring training hype/excitement (“Justin Smoak spent a day with Cano and now he can *hit*!), and add an interesting pitching match-up. Ok, ok, Cano isn’t actually playing today, but he’s still wearing an M’s uniform – a fact that is still moderately shocking to me.
Last year at this time, James Paxton was a darkhorse candidate to make the opening day roster. He was coming off a solid season, and had finished strong after returning from knee surgery. He’d looked pretty good in the Arizona Fall League, throwing 94-95, and without the command lapses that had plagued him previously. So we were all pretty excited to watch his first few Cactus League starts. The Paxton that we saw *then*, one year ago, looked like a non-prospect. Batters had no trouble barreling him up, and his fastball velocity was down to 89-91. He looked like a different, much worse, pitcher, and thus it fell to Brandon Maurer to be the darkhorse candidate who actually grabbed an opening day roster spot.
He was better than that in AAA Tacoma in 2013, though he was still plagued by big innings. He’d look dominant through 4 innings, and then everything would fall apart in the 5th. He had middling results to go with somewhat more encouraging scouting reports, though his failure to get deeper into ballgames meant that the chorus predicting an imminent move to the bullpen grew louder and louder. Something happened, though, in the last month or two in Tacoma. Part of it looks like mechanical tweak, some may be rest and the return of some arm strength, but he was suddenly able to go 7-8 innings and maintain his velocity at 94-95 (or more), not 91-93. Very encouraging. His MLB debut was, if anything, even more encouraging.
I’m looking for velocity, movement (though Peoria’s pitch fx system is notoriously bad for inflated movement readings) and command. He’s only throwing 2 IP, so stamina’s not an issue yet. This season, Paxton’s being counted on as an opening day starting pitcher, so while he’s undoubtedly more confident, there’s a bit more pressure on him than there was last year. I’d love to know that the M’s understood what happened, and that the M’s were behind his late season surge in 2013. Today, more than most days, we could use the psychic balm of hope.
1: Chavez, CF (I’d literally forgotten he’d re-signed)
2: Franklin, SS
3: Kelly, 2B (we’re doing that weird thing where the back-up replaces the starter’s line-up spot in addition to his position, are we?)
4: Hart, DH
5: Montero, 1B
6: Saunders, RF
7: Romero, LF
8: Buck, C
9: Bloomquist, 3B
Ok, that’s…that’s a worse line-up than yesterday’s, and there’s no getting around that. But baseball is still fresh enough that you can find interest in it. Will Romero grab the last bench spot? Can Saunders finally make the leap from bad-to-mediocre-to-actually good?
It doesn’t literally exist in any tangible form, but there is a list of things we would and would not want to read about Taijuan Walker. Let’s examine the very bottom of that list:
- Elbow problems. But at least it’s not his shoulder
- Viral encephalitis. But his shoulder is ok?
- Traded 🙁 but if nothing else, hey, trade return
- Prison sentence
- Shoulder problems
Nothing more terrifying for a pitcher than undiagnosed shoulder discomfort. At least, nothing more terrifying for a fan of a pitcher. Early in Mariners camp, Taijuan Walker came down with undiagnosed shoulder discomfort. That was a problem, although the Mariners insisted it wasn’t a big deal. Walker began his recovery, and now, there’s a setback. Walker’s going to take some time off from throwing, having been given a diagnosis of inflammation. More specifically, bursa inflammation, or bursitis. Again, the Mariners insist it isn’t a big deal, and Lloyd McClendon doesn’t sound too worried. I think he means to be reassuring, but when it comes to shoulders, you can’t easily reassure.
As Danny Hultzen reminded us of. Hultzen’s shoulder problems were no big deal until they were the biggest of deals, and he’s not going to pitch this whole season. The rest of his career is up in the air, not that it wasn’t always, but now things are even more uncertain. At first, Hultzen just couldn’t get loose. He was basically day-to-day. Then he got cut open and important shoulder bits got patched up. Doctors have been optimistic, but that’s how you can damn a pitching career with faint praise.
The good news is this could really be almost nothing. Simple bursitis. You treat it with anti-inflammatories. Walker’s back to throwing in a week. Maybe he’s somehow still ready to go come Opening Day. Bursitis can be chronic, but if you want to be encouraged, you need look no further than Felix Hernandez. In June 2005, when Felix was 19 years old, he was diagnosed with bursitis. It wasn’t the first time he’d felt the symptoms. First, he was expected to miss one start. Then, he was held out of another. The Mariners, understandably, acted with caution. Felix didn’t start for something like a month, then for a brief time he worked out of the bullpen. Once he was fully back to normal, he was promoted from Tacoma and pitched like the perfect major-league pitcher. Since then he’s been Felix Hernandez. His shoulder hasn’t bothered him since. Bursitis isn’t a death sentence, if that’s all that there is. It can be no more worrisome than a moderate bruise.
Here’s the problem, even if this might seem a little irrational. Is bursitis all that there is? Walker’s second opinion confirmed the diagnosis, and MRI exams revealed no structural damage. The issue is that, oftentimes, MRI exams fail to identify structural damage. The only way for a doctor to know for sure what’s going on in a shoulder is to actually get into it. Imaging can tell you a lot, but it can’t tell you everything. It feels like a whole bunch of times I’ve read that a surgeon went in for a simple clean-up and was surprised to find a disaster zone. More significant shoulder problems can hide themselves, which is the root cause of all the worry. As long as a shoulder doesn’t feel right, that’s bad. You can get a diagnosis, complete with imaging, but that occupies a level in between facts and a guess. We can be pretty certain that Taijuan Walker has an inflamed bursa. Is that all? Sure hope so.
It’s easy to get carried away with worry, but then, worry is legitimate when you have a talented pitcher whose shoulder feels off. Walker, to our knowledge, isn’t broken, and he could be throwing normally again soon, but until that’s actually happening…look, we’re a nervous bunch, but I think we’ve earned it. And I might rather be worry-prone than over-confident. It’s a feeling, at least, and all we’re really here for is to feel.
Meantime, expect even more rumors about the Mariners looking to trade Nick Franklin for a starting pitcher. Already those rumors were going to dominate the spring, but given the Mariners’ 2014 plans and given the question marks they have in the rotation, there could be an even greater sense of urgency. It’s been reported that the Mets will be watching. It’s been reported that the Rays will be watching. Others, too, will call or get called, and though Taijuan Walker isn’t the reason Franklin will presumably get dealt, this isn’t lowering the odds. This front office can’t chance a bad season, and Franklin isn’t in position to make much of a difference, directly.
Man, time flies when the Seahawks are marching towards football immortality. Hey, baseball games are back to being a nearly-daily thing we can talk about, analyze, and read too much into. I’ll be honest: I’ve missed it. The M’s have been bad, more or less, for a decade, and there’s still a glimmer of excitement about a scrimmage in Arizona. In February.
Erasmo Ramirez starts today, and he starts with renewed confidence. Confidence borne of a revelation he had in Venezuela this off-season – you don’t have to throw 95, the voice told him, just throw strikes and take it easy. For those of you who’ve followed Erasmo’s somewhat unlikely journey to the fringes of the bigs, this ‘revelation’ is somewhat ironic: for years, he was the undersized kid throwing in the 80s who just never walked anyone. By the time he hit AAA (I saw his first AAA start and was completely blown away by the velocity he’d added), that wasn’t the case. He had legitimate weapons, but he sacrificed a modicum of consistency for them.
I’m not sure if Erasmo’s injury problems in 2012 and 2013 were the result of overthrowing, mechanical issues or rotten luck, but I’d submit that staying healthy is job 1 for Erasmo this year. “Undersized righty” is a headwind Ramirez faces and has faced for years. “Injury-prone, undersized righty,” is the kind of thing that gets you sent to the pen or, worse, to the Astros.
All of that said, no one should forget that Ramirez was a very successful MLB starter down the stretch in 2012. His change-up was remarkable, and his fastball could hit
95 in a pinch; this wasn’t a guy throwing 87 and praying for mis-hits. Whether due to injury or supremely bad advice, Ramirez went away from his change in favor of fastballs and a slider last year, and the results weren’t pretty. I and others talked about the lack of separation in movement between his FB and CH, but his problems were deeper than vertical movement: Erasmo never had a feel for his pitches, and his Zone% went down, and thus walks and HRs went up.
He was at his worst with no one on. Like Iwakuma, he may be guilty of over-challenging when the stakes are low. And like Iwakuma, his success with men on gives some hope that real improvement is a relatively small change away. This is an awfully long intro for a Cactus League game in which Erasmo will pitch two innings. But Ramirez is key to the M’s pitching depth in 2014 because Ramirez IS the Mariners’ pitching depth in 2014.
Brandon Maurer was quite bad in 2013, and had his back ‘seize up’ in warm-ups two days ago. Scott Baker may need to throw significant innings this year – something he hasn’t done since before his “oops, I guess you need Tommy John surgery” er, surgery in early 2012. Danny Hultzen won’t pitch in 2014. If Baker and Erasmo can’t go, then ( today’s other scheduled pitcher) Blake Beavan stands between the M’s and the void. But Beavan looks suspiciously like the void draped in an extra-large M’s jersey, so…..*
*. Larry Stone had a funny column about not heeding the siren’s song of Cactus League optimism – about Munenori Kawasaki’s bat , Maurer’s poise, or the M’s dominant offense. I laugh because I was sort of taken in by Beavan’s mechanical tweaks last year.
Let’s cut right to the chase. Figgins is in camp with the Dodgers, trying to make a baseball team. Naturally, with Figgins around, reporters want to know what happened to him. You don’t have to drill deep to tap into Figgins’ vast reserve of excuses. Here’s the newest thing:
[Figgins] said the Mariners had competed well that season against the Angels and he thought Seattle would be good for him.
“It kind of says it all,” he said, “when you have just signed a $38-million contract [four years] and they pinch-hit for you in the fourth game.”
As several others have pointed out, Figgins was indeed pinch-hit for early, and he was pinch-hit for by Ken Griffey Jr., and Griffey delivered a crucial ninth-inning single in a game the Mariners won. I don’t remember reading anything about Figgins being upset at the time, but I was able to find this from Mike Salk:
He pouted when Ken Griffey Jr. pinch hit for him.
Obviously, Figgins wasn’t upset about the result — he was upset about feeling disrespected, about feeling doubted. If there’s one thing Chone Figgins is probably sick of, it’s being doubted, because, think about what he faced as a younger player, as a prospect. Think about how a ballplayer is perceived when he stands 5-foot-8 in a funhouse mirror. Figgins has had to fight for everything, proving doubters wrong at every turn, and in his head, he’s earned the right to not be doubted anymore. Remember when he blew up at Don Wakamatsu after he was removed for not hustling? Don Wakamatsu doubted Chone Figgins. Chone Figgins has never doubted Chone Figgins.
Every player has to be driven by something. Perhaps Figgins has been driven by his doubters. I want to point out that Figgins wasn’t blaming the pinch-hit removal for everything that happened afterward. It was just intended to be representative. But it’s the end of February, 2014. Griffey pinch-hit for Figgins in early April, 2010. Figgins still recalls the specific instance of feeling slighted, four years later. It still stings. Figgins can’t stand that he hasn’t proven his latest doubters wrong. The difference is, this time, the doubters are right. Figgins built a whole career on being better than he should’ve been. Now he’s 36, and I’m guessing when you’re 36, you still feel a lot like you did when you were 30. Figgins today isn’t too different from the good version of Chone Figgins, but he’s different enough, and the major leagues aren’t very forgiving.
This was Chone Figgins last year, when he was trying to make the Marlins:
Playing part time made it tough to shake the slump, he says.
“I’d go three weeks to a month not playing, going from getting 700 at-bats every year,” he says. “It’s tough. You sign a four-year deal, and the second year of the deal you’re sitting on the bench. That’s hard to swallow. But I stayed positive as much as I could. This is where it has taken me.”
Figgins missed one game in 2010. In 2011, he started 26 games in April, 22 games in May, and 18 games in June. He then started 11 games in July before missing the final two months with injury. He was a starter for the 2012 Mariners into early May, when the team finally decided it had had enough. Absolutely, that last year, Figgins mostly just stayed on the bench as highly-paid insurance. That was after more than a calendar year of batting under .200.
Figgins didn’t make the Marlins. The way he tells it, he was surprised — he didn’t know how he didn’t make the team after batting .308 in spring training. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Figgins highlighting his own 2013 spring statistics, as if they were in any way meaningful. He finished 8-for-26, with eight singles. In the same camp, Casey Kotchman went 18-for-45 with six extra-base hits. In the same camp, Kevin Kouzmanoff went 10-for-29 with six extra-base hits. They were regular-season non-factors. Figgins has to cling to that batting average, though, because it’s his only recent evidence that he can still play. There’s nothing from his record in Seattle. Figgins has to believe in last spring, because the alternative is being confronted by the big dark empty.
Figgins never doubted himself. Not publicly, in any case. His numbers, however, invited doubt, so Figgins has had to come up with excuse after excuse. He wasn’t batting in the right part of the order. He was forced to adopt an unfamiliar approach. He was bothered by his hip. He was bothered by organizational disrespect. He didn’t play enough. He shouldn’t have had to switch defensive positions. Figgins still wants to play, obviously, and he still believes he can play, and he’s never wavered, not once. He might be the most driven, now, because he’s the most doubted. I don’t know how much thought Figgins has given to the possibility that it might be him. Probably not very much. He was capable of everything before. Why not now? He feels like the same guy. Still runs fast.
It’s pretty apparent that Chone Figgins was unhappy in Seattle. This is his latest excuse. And I don’t doubt it for a second. Figgins, then, believes that he can get back to being himself with a change of scenery, now that he’s put that chapter behind him. For Figgins, Seattle just wasn’t a good fit, for a whole lot of reasons. Figgins has identified each of them, and they’ve contributed to his having been unhappy. The happy Chone Figgins is a successful Chone Figgins, so he just needs to get back to being happy, to get back to being his old self. It all makes sense, except for the cold truth: the biggest driver of Chone Figgins’ unhappiness was that he wasn’t playing like a good player. He felt attacked on all sides because he wasn’t performing, and as long as he isn’t performing, he can’t be happy as a player again.
So he can boost himself up in February and March. No one else is going to do it for him. In Figgins’ mind, he’s still a good player, and that can’t be proven false until he’s playing in games. Even then, struggles might not mean anything to Chone. They’d just mean something to his employer, and then Figgins would find a new excuse. It just wasn’t a good fit, he might say. There’s still a lot of ability in there, he might say. Figgins would talk about wanting the right opportunity, but the reality is that there hasn’t been the right opportunity for five years. Not a lot of perfect fits for unproductive baseball players.
Eventually, Chone Figgins is going to stop coming up with excuses. Maybe, at that point, he’ll have come to terms with the reality of his career. Or maybe he’ll just quietly seethe, seethe for many of the rest of his days, because everybody around him was a doubter, and he was still a hell of a baseball player, god dammit, and all he needed was another chance to prove it.
When I was a teenager, I started working summers in a neuroscience lab, first as an internship, then because I wanted to. At that point I wanted to become a neuroscientist, and I loved the working environment, and especially my boss. I developed a number of pretty good personal relationships, and in time it turned into one of my social circles, and I’d look for reasons to spend more time at the institute. Sometimes a group of us would get together weekend mornings for work and pancakes. Sometimes we’d hang out after hours to watch a movie in the meeting room.
One Friday night we stuck around to watch a movie about Bigfoot while someone whipped up margaritas. I would’ve been 18 or 19. I didn’t get drunk, but I did drink, and shortly after the movie I got in my car to go home. It was a drive like any other, complete with casual speeding, until, blocks from my house, I saw lights go on behind me. It took a few seconds for me to realize that was about me, and I pulled over to the side, knowing I had been speeding, and worse. There could’ve still been alcohol on my breath. I knew there was a no-tolerance policy for underage drinking. My head wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but my heart was, and I felt this dreadful sense of imminent devastation. Surely, I was about to not be able to drive anymore. Surely, I was facing uncertain but certainly severe punishment. The police officer walked up to my window and it was like all of my organs chose to escape out the passenger side.
He asked for my license and registration, as you do, and I fumbled around for them in the glovebox. He asked if I knew I’d been speeding, and I nodded. He asked where I lived, and I said just two minutes away. He asked if I was in possession of any illegal drugs, and I said no, twice. I waited for the shoe to drop. Then he said he was giving me a warning, and I swear he almost smiled, and he sent me on my way. So I turned the car back on and drove home.
That’s basically how I feel about today’s Nelson Cruz news, except maybe in the end it has to be someone else getting pulled over and set free. Dread. Four solid months of dread. A couple weeks of accelerating terror. And then, abruptly, nothing. The Orioles signed Nelson Cruz. We were all prepared to hate whatever contract he was going to sign. They gave him a year and eight million. That’s…not so bad. That’s downright reasonable, considering.
All offseason long, no part of me wanted Nelson Cruz on the Mariners. Not for what it was certainly going to take. Now that he’s signed for what he signed for, there is actually a part of me that wonders, wait, should the Mariners have beat that? I didn’t think it would ever come to this, but here we are. The Mariners have Dustin Ackley in left and Logan Morrison at DH. Cruz probably would’ve made this team better. Would he have made this team at least $8 million better, plus a draft pick? I don’t know, but it’s crazy that I can even ask the question and have it not be ridiculous.
Ultimately, no, I still don’t think Cruz would’ve been worth it. But, man, he’d at least have been close. Relevantly, there are two considerations. One is that there were whispers a while ago that Cruz didn’t want to play in Seattle. Two is that, more recently, I’ve heard suggestions the Mariners’ alleged interest was overblown. That the Mariners weren’t as interested as the media said. Either or both would explain how Cruz wound up with $8 million, with reports that his own agents initiated the latest talks with Baltimore as if a market simply didn’t exist.
The Nelson Cruz inevitability didn’t materialize, and we don’t know how close it might’ve come, but given these final terms, the Mariners couldn’t have valued him too highly. Which is interesting, given what Jack Zduriencik said about Cruz the other week, but it’s possible he was just being nice. It’s also possible Zduriencik would’ve loved Cruz, for like five or six million. Zduriencik isn’t always nice, as evidenced by his recent comments about Jesus Montero, but then he’s trying to motivate Montero, who’s a member of the organization. Cruz is an unaffiliated stranger. There’s certainly no point in badmouthing a free agent.
So it’s interesting how Cruz wound up. It’s also interesting to hear the speculation about a Mariners reunion with Kendrys Morales. The Orioles looked like a great fit for Cruz or Morales, not both of them, so now Morales has lost a suitor. There’s not a lot left out there for him. There are rumors about the Pirates, but the Pirates don’t have a DH slot. There maybe should be rumors about the Rangers, but there aren’t. There are rumors about the Mariners, and the Mariners know that Morales can hit in Safeco Field.
It would be a weird fit, though. Right now, the Mariners are trying Corey Hart in right field, so the way things seem to line up is with Justin Smoak mostly at first and Logan Morrison mostly at DH. Re-sign Morales and you’ve got a roster squeeze, and then what do you do if Hart’s knees prove they can’t hold up? And the Mariners have made a somewhat big deal of trading for Morrison — just how low would they let that playing time go? He doesn’t make for an obvious platoon at first with Smoak. He’s hardly an outfielder. You could try to trade Morrison or Smoak, but there’s not much of a market, as evidenced by the Ike Davis talks, and as evidenced by the first Logan Morrison trade. If the Mariners signed Morales, he would make the team better instantly, but the roster would be confusing with another potential glut of 1B/DH types. It could all work out, but in ways that look weird given how the offseason has progressed from the start.
There are two reasons the Mariners might sign Morales: they know they can trust him, and there doesn’t seem to be a market for his services. He’d improve their odds in 2014. By how much, I don’t know. At what cost, I don’t know. Nelson Cruz cost a year and $8 million. For a while people thought he’d get eight or nine times that much. The FanGraphs community predicted 3yr/$32 million. Nelson Cruz dropped all the way to being almost a bargain. I’m going to stop trying to predict these things.
It seems like the Mariners might well be done making moves for the time being. It also seems like, the longer Morales is just sitting out there, the more the front office might try to figure out how things could work. They might even be able to connect it somehow to the Nick Franklin question that still demands an answer. Give the Mariners one thing: they keep it confusing, and confusion can be indistinguishable from deeply-felt interest.
The Red Sox signed Chris Capuano today, for a year and $2.25 million. If he hits all his incentives, he’ll make $5 million, and not a penny more, at least not from the Red Sox. In theory, Capuano will compete with Felix Doubront for a rotation slot out of camp, but the reality is that Capuano will probably at least begin the year in the bullpen. Recently, the Mariners were reported to have expressed interest in Capuano, as they’re still looking for a starting pitcher, especially with Hisashi Iwakuma hurt.
Many months ago, the Mariners signed Willie Bloomquist for two years and $5.8 million. He’s a utility guy, like he’s always been, in spirit if not in practice, and he’s got a nice and neat line as a replacement-level player. More recently, Emilio Bonifacio was dropped, and then he was snagged by a minor-league contract. Bonifacio is at least as good as Bloomquist, and most of a decade younger.
The first line of thought: the Mariners guaranteed more money to Bloomquist than the Red Sox guaranteed to Capuano. Bloomquist is a less-useful player than Capuano is. The Mariners also made a far bigger commitment to Bloomquist than the Cubs had to make to Bonifacio. Would you rather have Bonifacio and Capuano, or Bloomquist and pending? By the first line of thought, the Mariners look pretty stupid in retrospect.
The second line of thought: the Mariners might not have known how easily Bonifacio would be available. And perhaps Capuano wasn’t available to the Mariners at the same price as he was to the Red Sox. The Red Sox, you’ll recall, just won the World Series! And Capuano grew up and went to high school in Massachusetts so maybe he’s got his loyalties, even after spending the last couple years on the better coast. It might not be as simple as saying the Mariners could’ve had Capuano for a few extra dollars. By the second line of thought, the Mariners still don’t look great, but they look less stupid in retrospect.
The third line of thought: how many of you actually remembered that the Mariners signed Willie Bloomquist? I think I’m probably taken by surprise every two or three weeks. Which means every two or three weeks, there’s one extra sigh in my life, as I eyeball the upcoming roster. Then as soon as I remember about Bloomquist, I forget about him, making him the exact 2014 equivalent of 2013 Robert Andino. My experience with Andino was like an uninteresting sequel to 50 First Dates, and I remember him more now that he’s gone than I did when he was still a member of the team. I feel like Bloomquist’s going to be an unanticipated email from work — annoying to have to deal with, but sufficiently infrequent that you never include it as a scheduled part of your day. When one shows up, it’s just an extra burden, as if there wasn’t already enough.
So by the third line of thought, the Mariners have Willie Bloomquist, and don’t you forget it, until you do, which is inevitable, because it’s probably already happened five or six times.
Going back real quick, the Mariners were in on Capuano, and for whatever reason or reasons they came up short. Which means they’re probably still interested in finding a lower-tier starting pitcher, which is a pretty good idea given the unreliability of pitchers in general and the unreliability of these pitchers in particular. The free-agent market doesn’t have a whole lot left to offer. There’s the one big fish, and guys like Joe Saunders and Jon Garland. Capuano was the one somewhat interesting bargain, and the Mariners might prefer to look to the trade market.
And that’s how we circle back to Nick Franklin, who’s allegedly going to compete with Brad Miller for the starting shortstop job. I’m sure McClendon isn’t lying when he says Miller isn’t being promised anything. I’m sure the plan is to give Franklin a real look. But Miller’s the better shortstop and the organization knows it, and though there’s no obligation to trade Franklin immediately given that he won’t have a role, he’s still the best bet to be flipped for a decent player at a spot of greater need. Maybe that’s actually an outfielder, but Franklin could snag the Mariners a starter if they looked hard enough, and there are two- and three-way trade possibilities. Just because it’s almost March doesn’t mean teams will stop thinking about tweaks, and Franklin is no less expendable than he was the day the team signed Robinson Cano. He still doesn’t have a job, and if the Mariners don’t want to try him in the outfield, he’s still of greater use to somebody else. There’s not a lot left for him to do in Triple-A.
It’s uncommon for there to be trade rumors during spring training involving anything more than fringe roster guys. But then, it was an uncommon offseason, and the Mariners are in an uncommon situation with Franklin and the rest of the depth chart. I do think the Mariners still want a starting pitcher. I do think the Mariners could still use a starting pitcher. And I do think the Mariners have the available resources to get a starting pitcher. Maybe they wait to see how guys like Baker, Ramirez, Paxton, and Walker are throwing, but there are most certainly roster decisions left to make. The Mariners don’t have to win right away in 2014, but they’d sure like to.
Here’s as February a story as you’re ever going to find. Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said some things about Robinson Cano’s effort running down to first base. Lloyd McClendon subsequently issued a response. Long has since issued a response to the response, and Joe Girardi has also been asked for his own opinion. In this way, the media can create the illusion of a war of words, and out of one quote there can be written several articles. Mission accomplished, for the newspaper types, and to be fair this is a hell of a lot more interesting than learning about which player lost weight to get better, and which player gained weight to get better. If you’re holding out for substance, you won’t be doing a lot of baseball writing or reading this month.
The heart of what Long said that caused a stir:
“If somebody told me I was a dog,’’ Long said here Sunday, “I’d have to fix that. When you choose not to, you leave yourself open to taking heat, and that’s your fault. For whatever reason, Robbie chose not to.’’
“Last time I checked, I didn’t know that Kevin Long was the spokesman for the New York Yankees,” McClendon told ESPN.com. “That was a little surprising. I was a little pissed off, and I’m sure Joe [Girardi] feels the same way. He’s concerned with his team and what they’re doing, not what the Seattle Mariners players are doing.
“I’m a little surprised that Kevin Long is the spokesman for the New York Yankees. I wonder if he had any problems with Robbie when he wrote that book [“Cage Rat”] proclaiming himself as the guru of hitting.”
So here’s what’s going on here. Spring training just started, and Robinson Cano just showed up in Peoria, and McClendon is a new manager who’s trying to defend his new superstar. Probably, McClendon was sought out for comment, and probably, McClendon heard about Long’s criticisms while paying less attention to the context. McClendon is trying to defend his own team and get off on the right foot with Cano so that the two can have a deep and positive relationship. There was realistically no other way he could have responded. McClendon, of course, has no issues with Cano because he hasn’t managed him yet. As far as he’s concerned, Cano’s starting over in a new place. McClendon’s supposed to be the leader of this team, and here there was a chance to stick up for a guy and speak forcefully about it. This is Lloyd McClendon, Mariners manager, managing.
And Long? Long, probably, was sought out for comment. Jogging down the line has long been a criticism of Cano’s, and you hear about it now more than ever, and Long acknowledged that much. But one should also pay attention to the rest of his words. Long and Cano formed a very strong relationship, and Long talked about how hard Cano worked to improve in all the other areas of his game. To go with one critique, there were a lot of compliments, and Long noted that last year Cano started to become more of a leader. It frustrated Long and the Yankees that Cano still jogged sometimes, and that led to a worse perception, but it’s important to understand that Long didn’t call Cano a dog. He said that he dogged it sometimes, which I don’t think anyone disagrees with. Even Cano would probably say, yeah, sometimes he doesn’t bust his ass. He’s 31 now and that’s just part of his game.
Long said a critical thing, among complimentary things. McClendon stood up for his player against the critical thing. Long, later, noted that there were a lot of complimentary things, too. Today is February 18th.
We can try, I guess, to evaluate the impact of Cano not always running so hard. Maybe it’s cost him a few groundball singles. Maybe it’s cost him a few reached-on-errors, or advances after a dropped pop. Alternatively, maybe it’s helped Cano stay so healthy, as he’s played at least 159 games seven years in a row. Any effect you’re going to find is going to be super small, and it also isn’t really the point.
The concern isn’t about a player busting it to first. The concern is about what that tendency, or lack thereof, says about the player. If a player jogs to first on a grounder, it probably doesn’t make a difference on that grounder, but it makes you think the player might be lazy. Maybe the player doesn’t care. Maybe the player isn’t committed. Maybe the player doesn’t put in the extra hours. Maybe the player is just coasting on his own talent. Jogging can suggest a total lack of drive.
And none of these assumptions would be true about Cano. Long’s own words:
“He overcame so much while he was here,’’ Long said. “As a young kid there were holes everywhere. There were holes in his swing, in his makeup, in his body composition. This kid grew and grew and grew.
“All the other stuff … he’d take plays off in the field, he’d give away at-bats in RBI situations. He made a lot of personal decisions to get over the hump in those areas. People don’t know how hard he worked, how many times he was the one asking me to do extra work in the cage.’’
Cano reached the majors as a non-prospect. At least, he was never considered elite. He made improvements everywhere and turned himself into one of the best and most reliable all-around players in the world. There’s no indication that Cano was ever content to rest on what he already had. It takes work to become that good and stay that good, and no one has ever said Cano isn’t a hard worker, at least since he was a younger player. All that gets said is that Cano jogs to first base sometimes, when he figures he’s hit into an out. The positive spin would be that Cano cares so much that he’s beside himself when he makes an easy out and is too upset to sprint.
If you see Cano jog to first, there is no deeper significance. It’s not that he isn’t a hard worker. It’s that, at that instant, he isn’t working hard. Probably because he worked hard through the at-bat, and now it’s effectively over.
In a way this is a variation on the Ichiro/diving-for-fly-balls theme. People couldn’t stand that Ichiro wouldn’t lay out. Ichiro didn’t want to chance it, and for a decade he was an absolutely fabulous player. Cano’s fabulous, too, and Ichiro had some other weird quirks and didn’t have the leadership potential that Cano does. I can at least understand why Ichiro might’ve been hard for some people to like. Cano seems to have one issue, and it almost couldn’t be more insignificant.
If Cano jogs, and the Mariners are losing, people will grumble, because that’s what dumb fans do. Teams can’t please all the dumb fans, and teams shouldn’t strive to please all the dumb fans, and it’s mostly all better when the team is better, and Cano will make this team a lot better. It doesn’t matter how Cano is perceived by the fans, and the people with the team will see a lot more than Cano taking the occasional grounder off. They’ll see the other work he does, for himself and with his teammates, and they’ll see a professional role model, solitary quirk be damned. Yeah, okay, I guess I wish Cano would go at 100% literally all of the time. I’d like to not even be talking about this. I also wish Justin Smoak would slug four-friggin-fifty.
I’ll say this: I’m glad this offseason has provided so many opportunities to discuss 2014 and beyond. I know “being more interesting than the 2013 M’s season” is damning with faint praise, but from the Cano debates to the various (thankfully minor) injuries to Iwakuma’s finger and Montero’s dignity, it’s been legitimately interesting. That said, I did want to close the book on 2013 by looking at the various flavors of pain it doled out. If the “Best 5 Games” post was about looking for the exceptions and the exceptional, this is going to be about seeing the forest for the withered, diseased trees. Stroll with me through a really terrible forest…
This is a bad article. Maybe that’s too mean. That is an article I don’t particularly care for. You can read it, if you like — the link’s right there. But you’re probably not going to learn anything, and you’re probably not going to think about anything in a different way from how you did before. In a lot of ways it’s substance-free commentary.
It’s about Robinson Cano and the Mariners and how the Mariners have been bad and how Robinson Cano can change that. The idea is that Cano ought to become the Mariners’ Derek Jeter. A reliable, high-level contributor who also serves as clubhouse leader and face of the team. Those other responsibilities come along with a contract the size of the one Cano recently signed. I’m not going to argue the fact that Cano will be expected to be a little more than an ordinary player. As an established veteran, he’s going to be looked up to by other guys in the same clubhouse. I don’t even like writing media criticism so I’m going to try to make this about more than just the one throwaway article.
But Felix Hernandez isn’t mentioned. Not even once. Not as Felix, not as Hernandez, not as the King, not as anything else. I didn’t find him upon the first read-through, so I attempted a second read-through. Then I searched the article for his name, specifically. Nothing. It’s as if Felix doesn’t exist; it’s as if Felix isn’t a superstar and an icon. It’s as if Felix isn’t the face of the Mariners, as he has been since Ichiro began his decline.
The Mariners already have their guy. Robinson Cano is another guy, but he isn’t the same, and he can’t be. Know why? Let’s stick with the Derek Jeter parallels. Jeter’s retiring this year, as a Yankee. He was drafted in 1992, by the Yankees. He’s spent his whole career in New York, loyally representing the organization and the city. Felix is entering his tenth(!) year in the major leagues. He was signed by the Mariners in 2002. He’s spent his whole career in Seattle, loyally representing the organization and the city, and he’s under contract forever. Robinson Cano was a free agent who crossed the country after his 31st birthday and took the offer that blew the other offer away.
Cano can fall in love with Seattle, and Seattle can fall in love with Cano. Just because the origin story is all about money doesn’t mean things can’t work out as a warm and mutual relationship. But Felix is already here, and he’s already bent over backwards for a team that has simply refused to surround him with enough good players to build a team worth watching. Felix’s unconditional loyalty is downright mystifying, and it was this way from the very beginning, when he signed with the Mariners as a teenager despite having a bigger offer on the table. Felix is already in love. Has been. And Felix is already loved. Has been.
The guy has his own god-damned rooting section, and it’s the best such section in baseball, with no competition from the rip-offs. Felix is the guy you’d pay to see even if it meant you were also paying to see the rest of the Mariners, and there’s never been any questioning his drive or commitment or desire to pitch this team, this very team, into the World Series. Every game, he’s visibly passionate, and he moved his family to Seattle, and he’s come to Safeco in the middle of winter for FanFest, and he’s volunteered himself to perform area services. He’s great and he’s vocal and he’s never in trouble. Felix doesn’t get bad press. Back in the day, he used to let little mistakes get in his head, but that’s because even from a young age he just wanted to win so badly. That feeling hasn’t waned, and every year Felix talks about how he can’t wait to see October, no matter what the rest of the team might look like, and no matter how the previous season played out.
The problem with the Mariners hasn’t been a lack of leadership. It hasn’t been a lack of a winning spirit. It’s been a lack of winning, due mostly to a lack of enough good players. Sure, there were some years that the clubhouse was in better shape than others, but the problem guys are gone and it’s hard to achieve clubhouse stability when the team’s losing since losing teams are sadder teams and teams vulnerable to roster shake-ups. The team’s had plenty of potential leaders, but at some point you just can’t lead a loser. You can lead a winner, which means a winner has to come first, which means good players have to come first. That, more than anything else, is going to be Cano’s main responsibility.
Cano needs to help the Mariners win, just like how Joey Votto helps the Reds win. Votto’s never going to be the vocal, fiery sort, but he can lead by example and he routinely fills up his line in the box score. The Reds paid Votto because Votto’s really good. The Mariners paid Cano because Cano’s really good. They wouldn’t mind if Cano stepped up to be a leader in the clubhouse, but there hasn’t been a void. The Mariners haven’t been faceless, on the inside or from the outside. The Mariners have Felix Hernandez, and Hernandez is literally everything you could want in a star player. Cano is just another star player, beside him.
Players can’t just become Derek Jeter, no matter how much you pay them. Say what you will about Jeter, but his status is undeniable, and New York has been undeniably blessed to have him on their side for two full decades. Jeter has been among the rarest of breeds. A lot like the King. Seattle’s also been blessed, in this particular regard, and we’ve been blessed for more than a handful of months. Cano isn’t Felix, not here, and he never can be.
Jesus Montero is kind of fat. Taijuan Walker’s shoulder doesn’t feel 100%. Hisashi Iwakuma hurt his finger pretty bad. Franklin Gutierrez is opting to sit out the entire 2014 season with a recurrence of his gastrointestinal symptoms. Pitchers and catchers reported to camp yesterday, and there will be optimistic feelings in the future, but there are no optimistic feelings now, only other feelings, and a desire to not have to feel them. The organization has had better weeks, and they haven’t even overpaid Nelson Cruz yet.
Incidentally, there’s construction going on outside. As a consequence, my whole entire building is shaking, ever so subtly but ever so noticeably. What I’m feeling is a fraction of what Franklin Gutierrez might be feeling every day, and this feeling’s unpleasant. The heart weeps for Guti, who’s alive and young and rich and unable to do the only thing he’s done since he was a child.
If you’ll allow me a moment to write pragmatically, unemotionally, the latest news isn’t so bad for the Mariners on the field. From an on-paper standpoint, Gutierrez had some upside, but now that job could be given to Abe Almonte, and there’s a lot to like about his skillset now that he’s no longer an active alcoholic. In Almonte, I see a good fourth outfielder who might make for a fringey starter, and if he ends up getting more time with Gutierrez out — Almonte, and not Endy Chavez — the Mariners should be about as all right as they were. Almonte doesn’t have Gutierrez’s strengths, but Gutierrez doesn’t have those same strengths to the same extent anymore, and Almonte is good at some other things. The short of it: I’m kind of fond of Abe Almonte, and I wouldn’t mind him playing.
But this isn’t about Almonte. This isn’t about Montero, who’s a non-factor. This isn’t about Walker, who believes that he’s fine. This isn’t about Iwakuma, who should hopefully miss only a few turns. This is about the latest chapter in the book about Franklin Gutierrez that only the most heartless of people would want to read. My sense is that, while we have a new chapter, the book’s almost finished. The baseball part, anyway. Gutierrez is 31 in a week. He’d be 32 if he played in 2015, and if he played in 2015, he’d have to get over the problems that have plagued him for more years than I’d like to remember.
Franklin Gutierrez might have to retire. Not today, not anytime soon. For now, he’s just going to focus on his own health. But it’s something he’s going to end up thinking about, and something he’s going to end up discussing with his family. Right now, Gutierrez is out at least until he’s feeling consistently better. There’s no timetable for when that might happen, since this is a recurrence of something he’s struggled with before. We might have seen the last of Franklin Gutierrez in the major leagues, and if we have, his last game saw him go 1-for-4 with a dinger. It was a shot to left off Bartolo Colon, Guti’s third homer in six starts, and that stretch was a promising sign that Gutierrez might be back to being a helpful all-around player again.
My hope is that Guti returns, even if it’s somewhere else. I’ve always been an obstinate Guti believer. My guess is that he’s finished. Maybe he signs another low-risk contract or two, but my guess is that his career totals today will match his career totals in a decade. It’s been a heartbreaking career, but from where I sit, I think at least there are twin consolations. Consolations that might help Gutierrez feel better in some time.
He did get to play to his peak. In 2009, over a full season, Franklin Gutierrez about maxed out his skillset, and his team won a surprising 85 games. One site paints him as about a seven-win player. Another site paints him as about a six-win player. He played like an elite-level center fielder, and he had a better peak season than the majority of players can manage. He turned himself into an area star. Mariners fans loved him and the team put him in a commercial. At least for six months, Gutierrez found out what he could be at his best. Because of that year, he was able to sign a $20-million contract, which can support a person and a family for an awful long time. Franklin Gutierrez made it, he really made it, once.
And it’s not like he had control over what happened. When something beautiful reaches its end, often, one is left wondering what could’ve been done to keep it going longer. Maybe there could’ve been this action. Maybe there could’ve been this behavior. Often, there are regrets, potential mistakes acknowledged in hindsight, and emotionally the reflection process can be interminably devastating, but for Gutierrez, this is a disease. Everything’s been out of his hands — there’s nothing he realistically could’ve done to avoid this. It’s not like he can look back and think he should’ve hit more. It’s not like he can look back and think he should’ve stretched more. He got sick, and it got bad, and there were some other freak accidents too, and as much as that makes Gutierrez terribly unlucky, it can be easier to cope with bad luck. Gutierrez isn’t staring ahead at a lifetime of blaming himself for a career that didn’t burn as bright as it could’ve.
You come to terms with bad breaks. Eventually, you come to terms with bad breaks, and if this proves to be it for Franklin Gutierrez, he shouldn’t leave behind many regrets. He played well when he was healthy. He continued to try to play when he wasn’t, and for stretches, he still resembled a high achiever. And he did make his money, which is one of the primary things that makes a professional baseball career so appealing — he hasn’t won a championship, and there was the potential to make many more millions, but he still made millions and in that sense he’s one of the fortunate ones. He’ll be able to support himself and other people and he’ll be able to afford care for his health. Ultimately that’s the point.
Franklin Gutierrez hasn’t retired, and the next time he might feel up to trying to give it a go, I’ll be right back there in my familiar spot, selling him as a high-upside roll of the dice. I’ll always want to believe in him because of what I’ve seen him be. He’ll never be that again, he’ll presumably never be close, but he was an everyday spectacle. Bad luck can rob him of his present and it can rob him of his future, but down the road Franklin Gutierrez might well be able to tell the story of his career with a comfortable smile on his face.