Game 110, Rangers at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Cole Hamels, 7:10pm
Sorry for the break there – I wandered around Oregon with my family, camping near Newberry Caldera, checking out the coast, and checking out plenty of breweries/wineries. It was a wonderful break from what’s become another difficult M’s season, though it was ill-timed in that I missed Ketel Marte’s first MLB at-bats, as well as Jesus Montero looking like a big-leaguer again. As in most seasons, the M’s are a fascinating blend of hide-your-eyes and realized potential. Nelson Cruz can’t be an MVP candidate in a league that employees Mike Trout, but he’s having an amazing season. Brad Miller’s plate discipline is helping overcome a stubbornly low BABIP, Seth Smith has been fantastic and even Franklin Gutierrez is contributing. And yet the M’s are out of it, 9 games below .500 and with their playoff odds in the very low single-digits.
This isn’t new – you know how the M’s got here. Jeff Sullivan did a great job summarizing their plight for a national audience here, but what’s interesting is how much churn there’s been in terms of where the blame lies. Hisashi Iwakuma was bad and then hurt-and-bad, but he’s returned to form and become a contributor. Robinson Cano was an anchor on the offense until he suddenly became its engine again. Fernando Rodney was terrible, and then…ok, yeah, he’s still terrible. The M’s offense has been better of late, but it’s amazing how little these mini-streaks by some component of the team matters in the win column. The starting pitching began the year in a slump thanks to Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, then turned it around. The non-Cruz offense was terrible, and then had a torrid month, but the M’s record has actually dropped over that time.
Worse, the Rangers rebuild seems to have taken much less time than we would’ve assumed. After sinking a ton of money into Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish, they’ve been able to re-tool thanks to a farm system that continues to be excellent at developing talent. Cole Hamels fetched three of Texas’ top 10 prospects, though the Rangers were able to protect 3B Joey Gallo and OF Nomar Mazara, meaning they’ve got offensive depth in the high-minors. The development of Chi Chi Gonzalez has been fairly remarkable, and CF Delino DeShields has been solid after Leonys Martin’s development stalled and then went into a nosedive. To be sure, this is still a team that’s overperforming to a degree: their pythagorean record is 50-57, and their pitching staff was among the worst in baseball prior to acquiring tonight’s starter, Cole Hamels.
They’ve relied on sequencing, and they have the best record in one-run games in the AL West. You could argue that they should’ve sold on Gallardo rather than buying on Hamels, but that’s obviously not what they decided to do. Instead, they’re positioned fairly well for 2016 – they should have a healthy Martin Perez and, at some point, Yu Darvish, meaning they won’t need Colby freaking Lewis to anchor the rotation. SS is still a problem, and it’s not clear how much money they’d have to spend after taking on Hamels contract, but the M’s came into this season looking like a team that was far superior in every way to Texas, and that’s not going to be the case next year. Of course, Oakland was supposed to be the well-positioned, slightly-above-.500 team coming into this year, and Texas’ push could backfire if they don’t figure out why none of their players can stay healthy. But while the M’s window hasn’t completely closed, it’s really hard to see out of it these days.
I take it we all know enough about Cole Hamels not to go into too much detail. You know, guy with really good change-up – 4th most innings-pitched since end of 2007. Coming up, Hamels was a four-seam/change up guy who also threw a curve. After struggling against lefties a bit in 2008 and 2009, he developed a cutter which has become a big part of his arsenal (especially to lefties) and a sinker, which may help ameliorate his HR issues. He started throwing the curve a lot in 2013, and he’s kept his HR/9 under 1 in each year since. The confounding variable here is velocity. Like a number of hurlers, Hamels is now throwing significantly harder than he was as a youngster. In 2008, Hamels four-seam was 90-91. Now, at age 31, he’s throwing 93-94.
1: Marte, SS
2: Seager, 3B
3: Cruz, RF
4: Cano, 2B
5: Montero, DH
6: Jackson, CF
7: Trumbo, LF
8: Morrison, 1B
9: Zunino, C
Soooo, Ketel Marte, underrated prospect? This may be the first time in recent memory that the national writers seem to be higher on a prospect than the team’s fans. Marte’s calling card has been his hit tool, as he’s posted sterling K% numbers despite being very young for his league at every stop in the minors. As the Chris Mitchell article linked above attests, contact is a very good sign for a prospect, and his ability to make contact from both sides of the plate adds to the high-ceiling that many people see. Personally though, I’m still quite wary. His lack of power means that his hit tool has to be great, and more importantly, it has to be great consistently. Kiley McDaniel mentioned Luis Castillo as an upside comp, but reaching that would require Marte to walk much, much more often than he’s shown a predilection for in the minors. Castillo had a .368 career OBP, and that’s probably the 99th percentile forecast for Marte. To me, the best case is something like Dee Gordon, another player overlooked because of a low ISO coupled with a non-SS, non-C position. When a player like that is hitting really well, they’re great. But unless either Marte’s gap-power or patience develops, he can’t really contribute if he isn’t hitting over .290 or so.
The PCL has seen a raft of young players who hit AAA at 20-22 and posted solid averages. Most of them were great hitters, from Kris Bryant to Wil Myers to Anthony Rizzo to Joc Pederson. Several of the middle infielders have shown more pop as well, like Wilmer Flores, Dilson Herrera and Kolten Wong. The remainder are a mix of tweener-types who hang on in the big leagues but come off the bench (Joaquin Arias, Chris Owings, Luis Sardinas). It’s too soon to tell with Hanser Alberto or Christhian Adames, and it’s still a bit early with Chris Taylor, too. But those three could play SS, and even there, as could Alcides Escobar, the top MIF comp in Mitchell’s study. If Escobar, Dee Gordon and Scooter Gennett are top comps, it highlights the fact that batting-average-reliant players can be remarkably volatile. Gennett was a .300 hitter who proved the stat-heads wrong, and then was quietly demoted weeks later. Escobar put together a very good 2012 when he hit .297 with little power, but his 2013 was disastrous, putting up a wRC+ of 50 despite playing every day. Gordon’s been great this year, but had a 58 wRC+ in 330 plate appearances in 2012. All of this isn’t a huge problem if Marte’s hit tool is categorically better than these guys, and I’m just not sure that it is. If he plays good defense, there are worse guys to have on your bench, but I still think he may have more value on another team. Prove me wrong, Ketel!
After spending some quality time out of cell-phone range, I’m actually looking forward to watching a ball game tonight. Go M’s.