M’s Set Roster, Choose Volatility over Predictability

March 28, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 18 Comments 

Today’s roster moves essentially confirm what the news of the weekend strongly implied: Dae Ho Lee will be the right-handed partner at 1B for Adam Lind, while SS/Util Luis Sardinas will take the 25th spot on the bench while Chris Taylor heads to Tacoma for some seasoning and plate appearances. Moreover, James Paxton will officially be rotation depth, and Nate Karns will start the year in the 5th spot in the starting rotation.

To be clear: these decisions shouldn’t make or break Seattle’s season. That these are some of the *last* roster decisions is indicative both of their importance (meh) and the fact that the M’s were deciding between very similar players. Jesus Montero vs. Dae Ho Lee looked like a toss-up, because they’re similarly skilled – and similarly limited – players; it looked like a toss-up, because, statistically, it was. But to me, the decisions the M’s have made increase the volatility of the roster – they have increased their ceiling, and may have dropped their floor a bit. For a team like the Mariners, chasing a good Houston club and trying to fend off the Rangers, that’s the right decision.

We’ve talked about it before, but for pretty obvious reasons, the M’s enter 2016 neither rebuilding or pushing all-in for the playoffs. Jerry Dipoto’s made a lot of moves, but they’ve been a bit more marginal than the ones in, say, Atlanta or Boston, because the M’s core is set and because they’re relatively close to contention. Selling low on Robbie Cano or selling high on Nelson Cruz wouldn’t bring back enough to justify the damage to their 2016 playoff chances, and pushing for David Price would further concentrate the M’s payroll in a handful of over-30 stars. Dipoto’s moves to shore up the catcher, first base and outfield show a GM determined to avoid the black holes that have nuked recent M’s offenses. With these last few moves, though, Jerry’s seemingly decided to amp up the risk/reward a bit. While the difference is somewhat small, we know more about Jesus Montero’s MLB ability than we do about Dae Ho Lee’s. That’s not to say Dae Ho Lee is a husky tabula rasa, but the error bars are a bit wider. Is it possible that Lee can’t adjust to good breaking stuff, or that lefties with plus velo eat him up?* Yes, that’s possible. But it’s *also* possible that Lee absolutely mashes lefties and makes the M’s offense a lefty-killing powerhouse.

The same’s true at SS. Chris Taylor, thanks to some good minor league batting lines and a strong MLB debut in 2014, has better projections than Luis Sardinas, who was just awful last year. That said, Sardinas is both younger and was seen as a big-time prospect not that long ago. So is this a case of Scott Servais picking someone he’d worked with before over the boring-but-steady Taylor? Maybe not. While you don’t want to put too much stock in spring performances, Sardinas showed more pop than he has in the past, and he’s at an age when an increase in ISO seems more reasonable and less Arizona mirage. Moreover, he’s demonstrated an ability to play more positions, like CF, than Taylor. I’ve been a fan of Taylor’s for years, and yes, last year at this time I was excoriating the M’s for carrying Willie Bloomquist over Chris Taylor. But with a clear contender in a tightly-bunched AL, the M’s had a different set of incentives. This year, the M’s aren’t the AL West favorite, and given the roster turnover (and front office turnover), what they really need more than anything is to know where they stand come July. If Lee/Sardinas/Karns help propel the team to contention, that’s great, then they can decide how to acquire more talent for the stretch run. If the newbies struggle, or if the rotation scuffles (which Jeff at Fangraphs points out is a real worry), then they can make some moves aimed more at 2017-18.

We’re used to seeing non-contenders opt for volatile line-ups of prospects and flawed-but-intriguing players – think Houston in recent years, or Atlanta now – but by concentrating that volatility in back-up spots, the back of the rotation and the middle of the bullpen, the M’s may have found a way to get some of the benefits of volatility while minimizing the 110-loss downside we normally think about with rebuilding teams. The focus of the 2016 M’s is the same as it was for the 2015 M’s, and it’ll likely be the same in 2017: The M’s are still fundamentally about Felix, Nelson, and Robinson. But for a team that’s been absolutely destroyed by its lack of depth and lack of bench production, I kind of like this strategy, even if it blows up on them.**

* This is probably nothing, but I think it’s kind of interesting that many players with NPB/KBO experience don’t have the same platoon splits you see in other players. Ichiro famously hit lefties better than righties, and Norichika Aoki’s done the same, albeit in a much smaller sample. The right-handed Jung-Ho Kang mashed *righties* but struggled against lefties last year. The sample of such players is already small, and many (like Kang) haven’t had long MLB careers, so there’s nothing definitive here, but it’s kind of interesting.

** That’s not to say we should rejoice at the evident end of the Jesus Montero era here. Yes, the trade turned out awful, and yes, Montero absolutely shares some of the blame for that. But Montero’s failure was a text-book example of the M’s player development issues, and highlight the fact that the black holes at pre-Nelson Cruz DH/1B/C were not simply a product of awful pro scouting (“let’s give Miguel Olivo another starting gig!”) but of a profound inability to teach. I hope the M’s will be better at this going forward, and I also hope Montero finds an org with good teachers and has something of a career.

Cactus League: Iwakuma vs. Maeda

March 21, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Kenta Maeda, 1:05pm

Today’s game is a great pitching match-up between an NPB vet who’s made about as smooth a transition to MLB as possible, and another former NPB star who’s looking to do the same. It’s reductive and not-exactly-accurate to say they’re similar pitchers, as they’ve shown a different repertoire with differing strengths and weaknesses, but I think it’s going to be fascinating to watch and see if Maeda patterns his game more on ‘Kuma as the Spring or the 2016 season rolls along.

In NPB, Maeda was a fastball/slider/change guy, whose slider was seen as his best pitch. Iwakuma’s amazing splitter really is one of the best pitches in baseball, and it’s made up for his sub-standard fastball velocity and so-so slider. Of course, in Japan, Iwakuma was often seen as a fastball/slider guy, and it seems he’s ramped up his splitter usage in America. That’s the same pattern we saw with Masahiro Tanaka, too. The splitter is so important because batters swing at it – it’s not something you use to freeze a hitter and get a called strike, the way you might with a curve. It’s designed to be swung at, even more than sliders, and what’s important is that contact isn’t a bad thing. Iwakuma’s biggest skill, and it’s something we’ve talked about a lot around here, is that batters swing at – and make contact on – pitches below the strike zone. That boosts Kuma’s GB%, but more importantly, it’s allowed him to post a consistently-low BABIP. Remember, grounders go for hits more often than outfield fly balls, so if anything, you’d expect a low BABIP from fly-ball guys like Chris Young. But Kuma and Dallas Keuchel seem to have figured out how to induce weaker contact, and while they use different pitches to do it, the game plan is pretty clear: get hitters to swing at non-strikes and good things will happen.

Maeda’s change has some split-like movement, so it’ll be interesting to see if he starts throwing it a lot more, or if he’ll stick with the approach that worked so well for him in Japan.

1: Marte, SS
2: Sardinas, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Romero, LF
7: Clevenger, C
8: Iannetta, DH
9: O’Malley, 3B
SP: Iwakuma

Ex-Mariner Chone Figgins signed a one-day deal with Anaheim and officially retired today. I love the restraint in the last sentence of Bob Dutton’s piece about it here.

Donn Roach will throw an inning or two in this game. With some of the righties in the pen hurting, Roach still has a sliver of an opportunity to make the opening day roster. The club clearly likes Blake Parker, who’s pitched well overall, but scuffled in his last appearance. Roach had a disastrous appearance early in camp, but was throwing very well a week or so ago. Not sure if he missed time with the flu that still infecting M’s (Guti’s the latest victim) or what.

A couple of other candidates for a bullpen job were among the 5 cuts the M’s made yesterday. Ryan Divish reports Jonathan Aro, Adrian Sampson and David Rollins were, as expected, sent to minor league camp, along with Steve Baron and Ed Lucas.

Cactus League: Split-Squad Royalty

March 19, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

M’s vs. Royals, 1:05pm, Taijuan Walker vs. Matt Strahm

M’s vs. D-Backs, 7:10pm, Felix Hernandez vs. Tyler Wagner

Happy Felix Day. Hopefully, Taijuan Walker takes another step towards some sort of royal title today – not Prince, not yet, at least, but Duke, Viscount or Satrap. Walker faces the Royals, in a rematch of a game back on the 9th of March, when Walker faced off with Matt Strahm. In that game, Strahm threw four-seam fastballs on 41 of his 47 total pitches. We’ll see if he’s as predictable as that again, or if that game was about building arm strength. Walker was magnificent in that contest, using his curve ball for strikes, hitting 98 with his fastball and getting 5 whiffs on the 5 splitters he threw. Sure, Drew Butera of all people hit a HR, but that game was as good as any appearance we’ve seen this spring.

Strahm isn’t fighting for a spot on the World Series champion Royals – he’s already been optioned to AA. That’s not a surprise or anything, as Strahm pitched last year in high-A. The Royals have to like what they’ve seen, though. As a 21st round pick, he racked up Ks in the minors with a sneaky, running 91mph fastball and a curve. Despite the arm-side run, there’s really nothing in the velo or movement that screams “difficult to hit” so it’s got to be encouraging to see him miss a few bats and induce a flurry of ground balls in the Cactus League.

In the nightcap, King Felix takes the hill against Tyler Wagner. Wagner was a college closer, but converted to the rotation when he was drafted by the Brewers. He came over to Arizona in the Jean Segura/Aaron Hill/Chase Anderson deal this off-season. The sinkerballer was someone I mentioned a bit in the minor league recaps last year, as he shot through the Brewers system and ended up making a couple of appearances for Milwaukee late last year. He throws 91-92 and also adds a slider and change, but he relies on a straight cut fastball and a sinking four-seamer that acts like a sinker. He got roughed up a bit in his big-league call-up, but he remains a solid prospect, albeit one who’s lack of pure stuff and bat-missing ability will always limit his hype (and ceiling).

Game 1:
1: Aoki, CF
2: Sardinas, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lee, DH
5: Smith, RF
6: Montero, 1B
7: Taylor, 2B
8: Brantly, C
9: Robertson, LF
SP: Walker

Game 2:
1: Martin, CF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Gutierrez, RF
7: Clevenger, C
8: Navarro, LF
9: Lucas, 3B
(This one’s televised on Root Sports)

The story today, as it is seemingly every day, concerns an ailing Mariner reliever. Bob Dutton reports that Charlie Furbush is progressing a bit more slowly, so it doesn’t seem like he’ll be ready to go today. This makes it more likely that the M’s may be without their best lefty reliever on opening day. That’s good news for Vidal Nuno, perhaps, but it’s not great news overall.

Stefen Romero’s out today with a bit of a strain in his back. He’s hoping to play tomorrow.

Cactus League: Nate Karns Has an Opportunity

March 18, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

M’s vs. Texas 1:05pm
Nate Karns vs. Victor Payano

It was just an administrative tweet, but it’s indicative of something. MLB Roster Resource, a website that tracks/projects the active and 40-man roster for each team flipped James Paxton and Nate Karns in the M’s projected roster. Those outsiders who are really, really focused on the details of the roster now give Karns the upper hand. Now, they, like all of us, don’t actually get to make that determination, and you can quibble with their projections at 1B or the bench, but Paxton’s poor start yesterday really does seem to give Nate Karns the upper hand. It wasn’t one of those crazy Arizona days where any fly ball has a chance to become a HR. Paxton’s control and command were off, and that’s more concerning, especially at this stage of camp. As I’ve said, Karns hasn’t done a whole lot to make this decision an easy one. He’s been steady, but the lack of whiffs is something to watch, and while there must be mitigating circumstances, he’s a strikeout pitcher, and it’d be nice to see that reflected in his results.

Bob Dutton says that the bullpen’s an option for the loser of the Karns/Paxton battle, and that Karns may be a better fit for the ‘pen, particularly now that Mike Montgomery is pitching in a relief role. That may be true, and it’s all the more reason for Karns to try and make his case for the 5th rotation spot air-tight.

His job should be a bit easier today, as the M’s face a split-squad Rangers club. His opposing starter is a youngster who just made AA last year, and got rocked by the Texas League. He threw a couple of pitches in spring training 3 years ago, so the last time we saw him, he was…well, a Jerry Dipoto-style arm, with a straight, over-the-top fastball and a big, big curve ball. This hasn’t helped him get strikeouts in the minors, mind you, but it does explain why he’s been something of a fly ball pitcher.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Cruz, RF
5: Lind, 1B
6: Gutierrez, DH
7: Iannetta, C
8: O’Malley, 2B
9: Martin, CF
SP: Karns

Speaking of roster moves, the M’s sent three players to AAA today: C Mike Zunino (that was expected), OF Boog Powell (maybe/sorta expected) and RP Cody Martin (only unexpected because so many relievers are still hurt). Charlie Furbush sounds like he’s responding to rest, and should be ready to pitch in a Cactus League game by tomorrow night.

Cactus League – 5th Starter Competition in Focus

March 17, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

M’s at A’s in Mesa, 1:05pm
James Paxton vs. Kendall Graveman

James Paxton gets stretched out to 5 innings today, and he’ll have RP Tony Zych throwing behind him. Jerry Dipoto was on the broadcast yesterday, saying that he still sees the 5th starter fight between Paxton and Nate Karns as an equal one, with both pitchers landing some shots. Looking only at spring training, it really is pretty even, though maybe not what we would’ve wanted or expected. In fact, neither pitcher is at or near the top of his game. Paxton’s velo is still low, averaging 91 according to BrooksBaseball, which corrects for all of the fastballs mislabeled as cutters, and also measures velocity at 55 feet, not the 50 used by MLB Advanced Media’s gameday. I know that many/most people pooh-pooh early March velocity concerns, but this has been studies, and yes, it really does seem to matter. On the other side, while Karns’ velo is right where you’d want it, he’s just not missing many bats, and that’s kind of odd for a guy who K’d nearly a batter an inning last season. Part of it may be a slight change to his approach – he’s using his sinker a bit more this spring, maybe as a way to avoid HRs in the punishing heat/winds of Arizona (yesterday’s game was kind of funny for the number of routine fly balls that got pushed to or over the wall) – and maybe he’s just not feeling his curve just yet. But he’s pitched 9 IP thus far with just a single K, even worse than Paxton’s 4 in 9 IP. Unlike velo or what have you, this really does feel like kvetching about tiny-sample stats, but it’s a half-raised, very small red flag. Someone needs to WIN this competition, not just back their way into the rotation.

Kendall Graveman is in many ways the anti-Paxton (or anti-Karns!). While Paxton and Karns have high-spin, rising four-seamers that they can/should use up in the zone, Graveman has one of the lower spin rates you’ll find. That’s not necessarily bad, it’s just different, and it means Graveman needs a different approach to be successful. The righty came to Oakland as part of the big Josh Donaldson deal as a fairly polished, MLB-ready 4th-5th starter. Thus far, that’s pretty much what he’s looked like. The lack of spin means his FB sinks a bit more than most, and thus he’s a very good ground ball pitcher. When he elevates the ball, batters can hit it a long way – without rise, and without much velo, Graveman needs great command. His high HR rate despite being a ground ball guy and playing in Oakland can attest for his slim margin of error.

1: Powell, CF
2: Sardinas, 3B
3: Cano, 2B
4: Romero, 1B
5: Clevenger, DH
6: Navarro, LF
7: Robertson, RF
8: Marte, SS
9: Brantly,
SP: Paxton

Steve Cishek AND Tony Zych, two relievers who’ve been delayed by a forearm strain and the flu, respectively, figure to get some innings today. The M’s bullpen corps got trimmed down a bit yesterday when the club released Justin DeFratus, the ex-Phillies righty. The club wants to resign him to a minor league deal, but we’ll see what DeFratus elects to do. Today, the M’s grabbed ex-Rangers reliever Steve Johnson, another Dipoto-style arm with a rising FB that’s not super-fast and a big, high-spin curve ball. He’s on a minor league deal.

Revisiting the M’s Top Prospects of 2006

March 15, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

I mentioned it in a game thread a few days ago, but seriously, you really have to read this Sam Miller piece at BP that looks at what’s become of the Rays top 30 prospects ten years later. It’s the fourth in a series of posts Sam’s done, detailing the outcome of the top farm system in baseball ten years previously. What’s fascinating is not just that many prospects bust, but, and this should’ve been obvious, what teams DO with their prospects vary widely. The Brewers group of 2003 (a group put together largely by Jack Zduriencik) got solid production from the very top of their list – headed by Prince Fielder, JJ Hardy and Rickie Weeks – but struggled to do much with everyone else, and if that isn’t some pretty big foreshadowing of the Zduriencik era in Seattle, I don’t know what is. The Angels did a bit better *despite* the fact that their top prospects at the time – Dallas McPherson and Brandon Wood – are legendary prospect busts. But they had a deep system, and thus got plenty of production from Kendrys Morales, Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar and the like, and they made a few smaller moves with that cohort, including flipping Kendrick for today’s pre-arb starter, Andrew Heaney. The Rays article represents a very different approach. Instead of keeping their top prospects together, they were very selective about the players they kept, and after that, traded liberally with anyone who’d listen. What this means is that, even ten years later, the Rays still have a bunch of prospects and cost-controlled players they acquired in exchange for earlier prospects, who they acquired in exchange for the prospects on that original 2006 list. As a result, they’ve put up far more WAR as a result of their original list, many of their *current* prospects are in the organization as a result of the original prospects.

The Rays were remarkable in that they ID’d the right players to sign (Evan Longoria) and the right players to sell high on (Delmon Young), and then they kept parlaying one set of acquisitions into another, turning Delmon Young into Matt Garza into Chris Archer. The Angels weren’t quite as adept as that, but their deep system still provided the basis for 5-6 years of contention, thanks to the infield tandem of Kendrick and Aybar. So, what would the M’s look like in this kind of analysis? What would we learn, apart from the basic fact that baseball, like life, is pain, and that point-in-time errors cascade through the seasons, bringing old ghosts and new torments together in a Grand Guignol of… sorry, got a bit carried away. I’m not going to lie: doing this means reliving some of the most painful, most self-destructive moments in recent M’s history. This might hurt a bit.
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Cactus League: Occulting Miley, Checking in on Cody Martin

March 15, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

Cody Martin vs. Andrew Heaney, 1:10pm

This was supposed to be Wade Miley’s start, but as he’d already faced Anaheim, the M’s are having him play in a minor league game to avoid giving Anaheim too much scouting info on the M’s #3 starter. Of course, Miley’s a big league vet, and faced them last year as a member of the Red Sox, but hey, I get it, don’t let the Angels get too comfortable timing Miley or learning every contour of every pitch. Fine. And while Cody Martin’s not a starter, he’s actually somewhat interesting, especially in light of the rash of injuries to bullpen guys like Scribner, Cook and Furbush (and Steve Cishek had a minor bicep issue as well).

When he came to Seattle, I mentioned that Martin’s repertoire had changed markedly once he joined the Oakland A’s. Instead of pitching off a four-seam fastball, he all but abandoned it in favor of a pretty mediocre cutter and a rudimentary slider. It was a very Oakland sort of move, but Martin’s results were awful. In that post, I said he should forget the cutter and focus more on the four-seamer. Thus far with the M’s, it’s looking like he’s back to throwing more four-seamers, and he’s thrown only four cutters. That’s nice, but given the vagaries of Peoria’s pitch fx system, it’d be good to see if that was a one-two game blip, or if his arsenal really has changed. It’s looking like he’s throwing more sinkers now, too, which makes some sense for a guy who had serious HR problems last year.

Andrew Heaney came over to LAA from the Dodgers in exchange for 2B Howie Kendrick, and had a promising rookie year. A lefty who throws from a somewhat arm angle – his release point is way, way towards 1B – he’s always shown great control and the ability to really eat up left-handers. Given that angle and a sinker-heavy pitch mix, you might expect some platoon split problems, and while he’s certainly got splits, righties haven’t done as much damage as you might think. Part of the reason is his change-up, which gets nearly a foot of armside run (very Mike Montgomery-ish), and the other part may be knowing how to use spacious parks. Heaney gets left-handers to hit the ball on the ground, but he’s a fly-ball pitcher against righties, which is why his overall GB% is below 40%. All of those fly balls haven’t hurt him that much, though – his HR/FB is low, and while it’s a bit higher vs. righties, as you might expect, it was low enough that he didn’t really have a HR issue against righties. Note this isn’t the same thing as having huge home/away splits the way many of his teammates do: Heaney gave up 7 out of his 9 HRs at home, and had worse numbers overall in the HR-suppressing Angels Stadium.

1: L. Martin, CF
2: Marte, SS
3: Romero, 1B
4: Seager, 3B
5: Lee, DH
6: Zunino, C
7: Taylor, 2B
8: Powell, LF
9: Robertson, RF
SP: C. Martin

The M’s get to face former prospect Ji-Man Choi, who signed on with Anaheim after being waived by Seattle this past fall. The Angels are going with their #1 middle-of-the-order with Trout/Pujols/Calhoun in the 3-5 spots today.

Cactus League: Happy First Felix Day of 2016

March 14, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Baseball mitosis once again, as the M’s split into two to take on the Rockies and Diamondbacks simultaneously.
vs. Colorado:
King Felix vs. Tyler Chatwood, 1:10pm (Televised on Root Sports and MLB.tv)

vs. Arizona:
Taijuan Walker vs. Zack Greinke, 1:10pm (mlb.tv)

Happy Felix Day. By this point in spring, the thrill of seeing recognizable players making recognizable baseball actions starts to wear off, and while there’s still some excitement about Opening Day, there’s also a realization that there are still weeks worth of practice games to slog through. That’s why it’s always nice the way Felix parachutes into the fray a good 2-3 weeks later than the non-royal Mariners, providing a nice jolt of energy (and sunshine, lollipops and rainbows) to the proceedings. He’s done this pretty much every year, so it’s not injury-related. It’s just his royal prerogative, kind of like the weird, Guy Frieri-influenced hair he’s sporting.

He’ll face off against Tyler Chatwood, the sinkerballer who hasn’t pitched in a big league game since April of 2014. Chatwood was an Angels prospect many years ago, back in the days when the Angels thought to have prospects, and after a weird, not-so-great debut season in which he mixed a lot of walks with very few strikeouts, he was shipped to Colorado in exchange for new Mariner, Chris Iannetta. The Rockies saw a very young, hard-throwing arm who could get ground balls, which even Colorado hasn’t figured out how to turn into home runs. His initial run for the Rockies wasn’t great, as his BABIP and walks produced plenty of baserunners. In 2013, though, he produced a very solid year, with a GB rate approaching 60%, not even a high BABIP could spoil his ERA, and the lack of dingers made up for his still-ugly K:BB ratio. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. Very early in 2014, he blew out his elbow, just as he had as a high-schooler in Southern California. Repeat-TJ surgeries have a longer rehab time, and the assumption that he’d miss all of 2015 proved correct (he technically got in 4 innings in the California League). He’s back now trying to re-take his rotation spot, and given the state of the Rockies, he’s probably got a good shot to do so. He throws a sinker (and four-seamer) around 94 (er, he used to, at least), along with a so-so change and curve, and the slider he refined after moving to the Rockies org. The slider’s actually capable of missing bats, but Chatwood’s never going to be a big strikeout guy. If he lacks the wide platoon splits you might expect from a sinker/slider pitcher, it’s only because he hasn’t been particularly good against either side.

In the other game, Tai Walker tries to build on his eye-popping performance the other day by facing off against the D-Backs and Greinke, the biggest FA acquisition of the off-season. Greinke seemed to turn a corner with the Dodgers, posting career-low walk rates in both 2014 and 2015 while maintaining an elite strand rate. The K:BB ratio remains impressive, but the Dodgers may have been scared off a bit by his absurdly low BABIP in 2015 and a very low HR/FB ratio. In his career, Greinke’s never been someone with an extremely low BABIP, but he has shown some signs of being able to limit HRs. That’ll be put to the test as he moves from a HR-suppressing park in LA to a great hitting environment in Arizona. Still, that strand rate’s pretty interesting, and if he’s able to keep that up, he could again allow fewer runs than his FIP might predict. The D-Backs are such an interesting team. The sabermetric crowd pilloried them for the Shelby Miller trade (rightly so, in my opinion), but that’s just a symptom of a broader disagreement with the club. The D-Backs believe they’re entering their window to contend, and the moves for Greinke and Miller show that they may have actually yanked it forward by a year or so. Their core of Goldschmidt, Pollock, Greinke and now Miller is as good as any in the league, but many in the analytic crowd still feel that their depth, the supporting cast around that core, isn’t good enough to win a tough NL West. Trading for Jean Segura or hoping for growth from Yasmani Tomas make perfect sense to Arizona, while the likes of Dave Cameron scoff that they’re actually hurting their chances to contend in 2017-18. We’ll soon see if Arizona can actually compete with LA or San Francisco, let alone Chicago and Pittsburgh.

Vs. Colorado:
1: Martin, CF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Gutierrez, RF
7: Iannetta, C
8: Taylor, 3B
9: Powell, CF

Vs. Arizona
1: Aoki, CF
2: Sardinas, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Smith, RF
5: Lee, 1B
6: Zunino, C
7: Robertson, LF
8: O’Malley
9/SP: Walker

Cactus League’s Relentless March, M’s host Reds

March 13, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Nate Karns vs. Anthony DeSclafini, 1:10pm (Daylight Savings adjustment means we’re back to “normal” start times in AZ.)

After splitting their split-squad games yesterday, the M’s take a slightly smaller roster back to their home park to face Cincinnati. Reds prospect Cody Reed was dominant yesterday, and today they’ll face off against another young hurler who figures to have a rotation spot sewn up. Thankfully for the M’s, DeSclafini isn’t a lefty throwing a plus fastball and a plus breaking ball – he came up initially with the Marlins as more of a command guy, albeit with enough velo and movement to get some strikeouts. The problem was that his excellent control came at a cost: he got a lot of the plate, and thus gave up a lot of hard contact, leading to very high BABIPs. Home runs weren’t a particular problem, which is interesting given his fly-ball tendencies, but batters in the minors and majors have consistently posted higher-than-average BABIPs. A move to Cincinnati and a home park that tough on fly-ballers who get a lot of the plate forced DeSclafini to make some adjustments: last year, he walked more batters, but kept his HR rate in check by giving up more ground balls.

As it turns out, DeSclafini changed his pitch mix fairly substantially in the second half of last season. Instead of a textbook average four-seam, he shifted to his sinker, which he’ll throw at 92-93. He ditched his change-up and started throwing a lot more curve balls. This all had salutary effects on his K:BB ratio, but it didn’t quite solve the “lots of dudes are squaring up his pitches” problem. We’ll see if further adjustments can help with that, or if DeSclafini is in the Ryan Franklin family of pitchers who admirably won’t be scared out of the zone, and are forced to take some punishment as a result.

Nate Karns’ route to the 5th starter job got a tiny bit easier today when the M’s announced that they’d be shifting Mike Montgomery to the bullpen. Montgomery was excellent yesterday, tossing three shutout innings in what looks like his final start, and if you read yesterday’s post, you know that I’m not sure this is the best role for him. That said, as M’s relievers continue to fall with injuries (today, the M’s announced Charlie Furbush may not be ready for opening day, and he still hasn’t appeared in a spring game), his odds of making the team and not spinning the waiver wheel are better. Karns’ primary opposition for the #5 spot, James Paxton, also pitched yesterday, and looked fairly good, but again, his velocity simply isn’t where you’d expect it to be. Pitch FX again classified most of his fastballs as cutters, which makes the average velocity for either pitch kind of useless. That it’s confusing the two at all is a bad sign, as is the fact that Paxton’s touching 93 only very, very rarely.

Thus far, Karns has been a bit different than we would’ve expected. After spending his first full season as a high-strikeout, high-homer, high-fly-ball guy, he’s been a ground-balling pitch-to-contact guy in Peoria. This is one of the many reasons why it’s so hard to get a handle on spring training stats. Sometimes guys really are just working on things, or trying a new pitch. Still, in a tough competition for a key role on the club, Karns should probably start missing a few more bats.

1: Aoki, LF
2: Powell, CF
3: Smith, DH
4: Cruz, RF
5: Iannetta, C
6: Sardinas, SS
7: Montero, 1B
8: Taylor, 2B
9: Lucas, 3B
SP: Karns

Cactus League Games 11-12: Two in Prime Time

March 12, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Mike Montgomery vs. Cody Reed, 6:05pm, and James Paxton vs. Brandon Beachy, Alex Wood, Carlos Frias 6:40

Mike Montgomery’s probably not a prospect anymore, but he certainly was at one point – about 5-6 years ago in the Royals org. Kansas City drafted Cody Reed as well, a lefty from a Mississippi junior college who had a velocity spike that carried him from unknown to second round pick. Reed did well in his first pro season, then problems with his delivery torpedoed his 2014 – his K rate dropped and batters started barreling up his still-plenty-fast-fastball. The K rate dropped again in his first taste of AA, but after he was included as a high-risk, high-reward piece in the Royals deadline deal for Johnny Cueto, something seemed to click. In the Reds org, his K% jumped to nearly 30% (it was nearly half that in the Texas league, when he was still with the Royals org). Whatever mechanical change the Reds made, it’s turned Reed from toolsy thrower into one of the better pitching prospects around, and a serious candidate to make the Reds opening day rotation. Of course, the go-nowhere Reds traded away half of their rotation last year, and while they have plenty of young arms in camp, Reed (and Robert Stephenson) have more pure talent than many of the vets ahead of them. Given that the Reds figure to be one of the worst teams in baseball, the Reds may opt to keep Reed down for a month to get an extra year of club control.

Montgomery seems like a AAAA guy, an out-of-options lefty who simply doesn’t profile as a LOOGY or situational reliever because his great change means he’s not a real lefty-killer; he may be better against righties. I love his change, though after a fast start, the league seemed to figure him out. Coming into camp, I gave him long odds to stick with the org through the month: he wasn’t going to be in the rotation, he just doesn’t fit in the bullpen, and they can’t send him to the minors. But new pitching coach Mel Stottlemeyer, jr. seemed to see something intriguing in him, and he just seems like the kind of guy a good pitching coach could really help. His odds are better than I initially thought now, but his slow start due to injury means he’s going to have to show a lot in a short time. If everything goes well, he could stick around as the long man in the bullpen, though the M’s are going to need to figure out what role the loser in the Paxton/Karns battle will take as well. Anyway, immediate transformations due to a mechanical tweak don’t happen often, but Cody Reed shows what can happen when they do. Yes, yes, Reed is much, much more talented and has a good 6mph edge in velo, but to me, there’s no reason a guy with as much run/sink on a change thrown with good arm action should get knocked around consistently in both MLB and AAA. Montgomery is *better* than he’s shown, but he’s running out of chances to prove it.

M’s Versus Reds in Goodyear
1: Martin, CF
2: Sardinas, 2B
3: Smith, RF
4: Romero, 1B
5: Navarro, LF
6: Montero, DH
7: Zunino, C
8: Taylor, SS
9: O’Malley, 3B
SP: Montgomery

Back in Peoria, the M’s face some fraction of the LA Dodgers. In large part, that’s due to the fact that LA too is split-squadding, sending half of their club to face the Cubs, but it’s also due to a rash of injuries that have hit today. The biggest name to head to the trainer is SS and by some accounts the #1 prospect in baseball, Corey Seager, who’s having an MRI on his knee after hurting it running the bases yesterday. Then, today’s starting pitcher, Alex Wood, was scratched with forearm tightness (never a good sign), so the M’s will face hard-throwing sinkerballer Carlos Frias instead. OF Alex Guerrero was penciled into today’s line-up, but he’s been scratched with a knee issue of his own – he’d been held out for a few days along with 2B Howie Kendrick. Rough week in Dodger camp.

Frias throws 94-96, and has a four-seam and sinker with similar velo. He’s got a change-up, but his outpitch is a hard cutter, thrown around 90mph. It’s a huge whiff pitch and also gets ground ball contact, which is handy, because he’s been remarkably ineffective at getting hitters to whiff on his fastballs. It’s just odd to see a guy who missed some bats in the minors, and then in a brief trial in 2014, post a K/9 under 5 last year in a dozen or so starts. Did I mention he sits in the mid-90s? Of course, with a hard sinker and a cutter that gets GBs, he’s excellent at inducing grounders, but those grounders tended to find holes last year. He pitched around that mediocre BABIP fairly well, but some added strikeouts would help his cause.

M’s Versus Dodgers in Peoria
1: Aoki, LF
2: Marte, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Lind, 1B
6: Seager, 3B
7: Gutierrez, RF
8: Clevenger, C
9: Powell, CF
SP: Paxton

Paxton figures to get 4 IP today, so we’ll be able to check in on how his velocity’s progressing. Always find it interesting one one split-squad gets 90% of the 1st string talent, and that’s what it looks like today with the Peoria contest. Smith/Romero/Navarro is a very different middle-of-the-order from Cano/Cruz/Lind.

The M’s made a minor transaction today, grabbing out-of-options back-up catcher Rob Brantly off of waivers from the White Sox org. To make room on the 40-man, the M’s moved RP Ryan Cook to the 60-day DL; that strained lat is looking more and more like a very serious problem. Brantly’s a rare left-handed hitting catcher, a fact that seems kind of useful until you remember that Steve Clevenger is also a left-handed hitting catcher. As Larry Stone mentioned, this seems like an insurance policy in case Clevenger or Iannetta get hurt before camp closes. As Brantly’s out of options, he could be back on waivers in a month, the cruel fate of playing for 5 clubs in 2 years that often befall those who’ve burned their option years. Brantly isn’t much of a hitter, and hasn’t rated too well in BP’s framing and pitch-blocking metrics, but hey, catching depth is catching depth, and they didn’t give up any talent to get him.

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