Game 52, Angels at Mariners
King Felix vs. CJ Wilson, 7:10pm
Ah, April 1st, 2014. The M’s were riding high off of Felix’s opening day masterpiece, and they faced CJ Wilson in game 2 of the season – a familiar divisional rival who’d been extremely tough on them in 2013. That success, of course, came against the OLD Mariners. You know – the hitless wonders who paraded a series of failing DHs, Oylerian glove-first, declining shortstops and prospects that failed to develop. These were the NEW Mariners – with dynamic lead-off man Abe Almonte, with elite SS Brad Miller, and with enviable pitching depth.
On that day, the M’s battered Wilson for six runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. Brad Miller took Wilson, a lefty, deep, and then he hit another one out off of righty Michael Kohn. Almonte doubled to set the table for Cano and Smoak, and Dustin Ackley hadn’t looked this good since 2011. Meanwhile, Erasmo Ramirez was brilliant – giving up only two runs (on a mistake pitch that Raul hit out) over seven innings and striking out NINE without a walk. The M’s were firing on all cylinders while the Angels still appeared to have holes. Pujols wasn’t hitting. WIlson’s dominance of lefties seemed to be faltering, and the Halos bullpen was *clearly* crappy. We’d said at the start of the year that the M’s needed to hang around .500 until Iwakuma and Walker got healthy, and then their offense could carry them to contention. At least on April 1st, that looked like a foregone conclusion – they could take charge of the division BEFORE Walker threw a pitch.
Last night, I had a twitter conversation with Colin from Lookout Landing about the year so far. The M’s ARE hanging around .500, and have been all year, despite missing Iwakuma for a month and Walker entirely. So why don’t we feel good about the team? What is it about a loss like last night’s, or the losses to Price and Odorizzi in the Tampa series, that feels so deflating? If the M’s had the exact same record, but LOOKED like the team that played on April 1st, would we feel the same way?
I think the answer’s no, and it’s not just because bloggers are hypercritical, soul-sucking, joy-denying losers. The promise of the season rested on two assumptions. First, that the division was incredibly tight, with no great teams, and only one terrible outlier. Second, that the M’s offense was going to be significantly better, and that the second wave of prospects could cover both pitching injuries and the holes left by failures/stagnation of the first wave of prospects. Tons of parity and growth from future starts like Miller, plus contributions from solid players like Kyle Seager and Erasmo, meant that the M’s could hang around and peak during the final months. Neither assumption appears correct at this point. The Oakland A’s are good. Again. This is the third straight year they’ve looked so-so (or worse) on paper, but the third straight year they’re actually good on the field. Pujols’ health, Garrett Richards emergence and CJ Wilson’s refining of his junkball arsenal have helped the Angels take a step forward as well. They’re now forecast for 88 wins – 8 more than the M’s. Meanwhile, the M’s rank last in the AL in OBP, and second-to-last in wRC+. It’s all so familiar.
The problem clearly isn’t their record, which is fine. It’s not that there’s been nothing to cheer about; Roenis Elias is a great story, and if he’s not been as untouchable as he was in Yankee Stadium, he’s still done far more than I’d have ever believed. Chris Young’s been solid. The back of the rotation has simply not been the problem we all thought it was, and thus, the M’s pitching’s been solid. The problem that it still seems like the aging curve for position players just doesn’t work in Seattle. Dustin Ackley was great when he came up, then struggled. Jesus Montero was great for the Yankees, then OK, but encouraging in Seattle, and then simply atrocious. On April 1st, I would’ve picked Brad Miller as an all-star, and a candidate for a big extension in the off-season. To his credit, Ackley’s actually improved, but that says more about how bad he was in 2013 than anything. A left-fielder with a just-below-league average bat is a platoon player, and that’s what Ackley’s become. Smoak’s Smoak. Nick Franklin has plenty of promise, but after his first month in the big leagues, he was hitting .302/.368/.500. I haven’t looked, but I think his line since then is a bit worse.
These are, theoretically, independent events. Montero has no bearing on Zunino, and Ackley’s arc isn’t predictive of Franklin’s. But a team with such a poor track record of player development needed to show that it had figured something out, whether that “something” was internal processes/coaching, or player selection. The M’s have shown a freakish ability to develop minor league infielders. I have no earthly idea why that doesn’t translate into MLB production. Not superstar production, just production. The M’s are right around .500 – basically right where I hoped they’d be. But their problems seem more systemic than they did in March, and that’s a problem.
They could erase a lot of these doubts with a big winning streak, of course. So let’s do that, M’s. I miss April 1st because that first week was one of the very few since I’ve been doing this that I didn’t feel dispassionate and clinical. I felt like a fan. I’m still a fan, and I always will be, but I recognize I’m a very different kind of fan. I don’t mind that, and of course there’s no right or wrong way to BE a fan, but April 1st felt pretty good. Hopefully someday soon we can feel like that again, whatever the M’s record is.
1: Jones, CF
2: Romero, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Smoak, 1B
5: Seager, 3B
6: Buck, “DH”
7: Ackley, LF
8: Zunino, C
9: Franklin, SS
SP: KING FELIX
The M’s have injury problems, and a manager has to choose from among the players available, but John Buck is a questionable DH pick. I get it – the other options are Bloomquist and Cole Gillespie (CJ Wilson has large platoon splits over his career, so you really want a righty at DH). But if you’re not going to use Gillespie, go get someone you’re OK playing. My guess is that this has to do with Buck’s “career success” against Wilson – he’s 3 for 5 against him, with a double and a homer (which came in 2007 and 2008, respectively). I know, I know: this team had Brendan Ryan at DH last year. Twice. Endy Chavez DH’d three times. There’s a precedent for necessity to invent some of the worst line-ups imaginable. I just wish we were past this point a bit. In my mind, I’ll just transpose Buck and Zunino’s positions.
Ok, so that preview was a bit glum. You want good news? Taijuan Walker makes his 2014 debut today for Tacoma. Go watch it at Cheney tonight. He’ll throw around 75 pitches or so, and then Erasmo Ramirez may get some work in (April 1st feels like yeaaarrrrs ago).
Victor Sanchez starts for Jackson; the Nimitz-class righty’s struggled following his DL trip. Here’s hoping he snaps out of it against Mobile. Tyler Pike blah blah blah K:BB ratio, blah blah disappointing. I don’t want to pick on either of these two, both of whom came into the year far, far, far more highly regarded than Roenis Elias. I just want to see some signs of improvement.