Game 136, Angels at Mariners

September 4, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Matt Shoemaker, 1:10pm

The M’s allowed 5 HRs last night, and saw Taijuan Walker’s worst year as a pro reach what we all hope is the nadir, as the young righty gave up back-to-back-to-back HRs and couldn’t get out of the first inning against the Angels. I and others have said that Walker’s development would be critical to the M’s chances at contention; if Walker became a great #2 starter, the M’s would look a lot different than if he was still figuring things out as an inconsistent #4-#5 guy with loads of unrealized potential. Unfortunately for the M’s, Walker hit a wall right when the M’s needed to make a move, and while I don’t necessarily agree with their methods, I can forgive the M’s and Scott Servais’ frustration with Walker in July and August. I can see the M’s player development staff wanting to try and do a complete rebuild in 2017, the way they did with both Mike Zunino and James Paxton this year. No one expected Paxton to start the year in Tacoma, but it turned out well. Ok, EVERYONE thought Zunino should start the year in Tacoma, but I think that worked out much faster than we all anticipated. Trying something like that with Walker seems attractive, especially if they can work on that whole “throw 100mph with command” projects like they did with Paxton. That’s why it was odd that the M’s decided to burn an option year and make a point of sending Walker down for all of 2 weeks in early-mid August. I don’t think that alone constricts their ability to develop Walker, but it was an odd move that doesn’t look any better in retrospect.

Today we get another installation in the always fun “Iwakuma versus American Iwakuma-ish Pitcher” series. We’ve seen this match-up several times before, of course, the last a few weeks ago on August 18th. Shoemaker got the best of the M’s in that one, yielding just 2 solo HRs in the Angels’ 6-4 win. The righty’s season’s been a successful one, as he shook off a poor 2015 to post his highest career fWAR, and his best rate stats since his breakout 2014. One reason why is that he’s essentially doubled down on his splitter. In 2015, he threw it about 21% of the time, and while it was still his big whiff pitch, and something he’d use with 2 strikes, he also gave up 9 dingers off of it. This year, he’s throwing it 37% of the time, and his results are even better: batters are slugging .282 off of it, a year after slugging over .400.

That all sounds positive, and it is, but kind of like with Mike Zunino, the deeper you go, the less you see. In 2015, batters swung at the splitter more than in 2016, and they put it on the ground at about the same rate. Their whiff rate (whiffs per swing) is up slightly in 2016, but not by much, and while Shoemaker’s o-swing rate overall is much better this year, it’s hard to see whether that’s due to throwing more splitters or something else (he’s throwing more sinkers and sliders this year too). With Shoemaker and to a lesser extent Iwakuma, so much depends on how many well-struck fly balls leave the park, and how many settle into an outfielder’s glove. In Shoemaker’s brilliant 2014, batters had a terrible HR/FB ratio against his splitter, and Shoemaker’s overall numbers were good. They had a great HR/FB ratio in 2015, and Shoemaker looked terrible. In 2016, it’s a repeat of 2014. This isn’t to suggest pitchers themselves aren’t *doing* anything to “deserve” their numbers; Shoemaker’s true talent level has probably ebbed and flowed since he came into the league. But it’s hard to know how all of the relevant factors interact. Is Shoemaker’s increased use of the splitter somehow driving a change in HR/FB? Were batters stalking the splitter in 2015 because he’d fall into familiar pitch sequences? Who knows. Let’s just hope that whatever devil magic has turned Safeco Field into Coors Field by the sea is still operating today, and that the M’s can stop worrying about where their playoff run went and just focus on knocking Shoemaker out of the game.

1: Gamel, RF
2: Smith, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lind, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Iannetta, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Iwakuma

Chris Iannetta’s 2017 option vests if he makes 100 starts this year. This’ll be #82, and it’s looking pretty doubtful he’ll get another 18.

Drew Storen’s back in the Seattle clubhouse and will be activated off of the DL today. The M’s also added David Rollins and back-up catcher Jesus Sucre from Tacoma. Tacoma’s got a playoff run to work on, and so they’ve added Mayckol Guaipe from his rehab assignment in Peoria. Guaipe was part of the AZL M’s championship run, along with fellow 2016 Mariner Steve Clevenger.

Game 135, Angels at Mariners

September 3, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

Taijuan Walker vs. Tyler Skaggs, 6:10pm

Tyler Skaggs is making his 8th start since coming off the DL following TJ rehab, but it’s already his 3rd against the Mariners. After two brilliant games out of the gate, he’s been inconsistent and wild in the 5 games since. That’s probably to be expected, and realistically, the Angels just want to see what they have for 2017. Still, they’d be a bit more confident about next year if he can recapture the form he had in his last start against the Tigers. Against Seattle this year, he’s gone 8 2/3 IP and given up 8 runs on *15* hits and 5 walks. That hit total – and his BABIP – suggest he’s been unlucky (his FIP’s not bad), but it seems like it could also be a product of his still-wonky command. He’s walked too many, but I doubt he’s had pinpoint command within the strike zone, and the result seems to be a lot of squared-up pitches.

It’s been a while since we mentioned it, but I suppose due diligence demands it: the M’s playoff odds are below 6% now, which honestly feels a bit high. Detroit’s been the hottest team among the wild card hopefuls, and they’ve crawled back from that dispiriting sweep at the hands of the M’s to pull into a tie with Baltimore for the 2nd wildcard. The Astros have been red hot except for the fact that they simply can’t beat the Rangers – with Texas’ win today, the Astros fall to 2-13 against their intra-state, intra-divisional rivals.

Ben Gamel makes his second straight start in the OF and the leadoff spot. Yes, Norichika Aoki’s eligible to rejoin the M’s what with expanded rosters and all, but I can’t blame the M’s for giving more of a look to Gamel. The M’s don’t have a lot of right-handed hitting depth in the OF at the moment, but it’s good to see Gamel get the start today against a lefty in Skaggs.

Mike Zunino responded to my (ok, and everyone else’s) posts about how well he’s doing by entering his first real slump of 2016 (uh, in the majors – he actually had one in Tacoma). This’ll be interesting, as it seemed like his frustration built upon itself and made his 2015 a nightmare. I’d bet keeping tabs on Zunino’s a very, very high priority for Edgar Martinez at the moment.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Gutierrez, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Martin, CF
9: Marte, SS
SP: Taijuan Walker

The first M’s affiliate to actually start a post-season series is also the first to come up with a league championship. Congratulations to the Arizona League M’s, who beat the Angels for the AZL crown. The rookie-league team got great pitching from Dylan Thompson and Carlos Hernandez, and 1B Ryan Uhl (who played in Everett last year, and missed most of 2016 due to injury) provided the offense with a 2R HR.

Luiz Gohara’s starting for Clinton tonight, and Ryan Yarbrough makes his first start since coming off the DL for Jackson. The Rainiers have a now-meaningless series against Reno, but that at least gives them the opportunity to check in on old friend Vicente Campos. Campos starred for Everett back in 2011, before being traded to New York in the Pineda/Montero deal. After many injuries, he’s now in the Arizona system, and had a cup of coffee with the DBacks earlier. There are a couple of current Rainiers who played with Campos in Everett: C Marcus Littlewood and RP Andrew Kittredge.

LJay Newsome and Eddie Campbell round out the probables in the M’s system.

Game 134, Angels at Mariners

September 2, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 23 Comments 

Ariel Miranda vs. Brett Oberholtzer, 7:10pm

We’ve been through some lean times, haven’t we? Bleak seasons, followed by recriminations, firings, and ho-hum transactions, followed by irrational exuberance about some prospect, followed by another bleak season. It hasn’t all been bad, of course – the M’s have fielded some quality teams, and while some free agent signings have been Brad Wilkerson-level, some have brought us Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz. It’s been a mixed bag, and it’s only looking back, taking it all in, that it really feels disastrous.

And hey, that’s the past. That’s WHY the team made a change at GM (and many other positions), and when you look at the minors, you see the stirrings of a player development revolution. There’s plenty to look forward to, I think. But it’s September 2016, and today the M’s play the long-eliminated Angels, and the pitching match-up is Ariel Miranda – a recent unheralded pick-up by the M’s – against Brett Oberholtzer, a recent pick-up by the Angels off the waiver wire.

We’ve seen bad match-ups before. Hell, we’ve seen bad match-ups involving Mr. Oberholtzer, given that the majority of his big-league tenure came in Houston. He remains left-handed, unremarkable in stuff and bat-missing ability, and plagued by a surfeit of home runs. He’s allowed 3 thus far in his 9 IP with LA, and tonight in the suddenly homer-prone Safeco Field, he could give up plenty more. There’s just the matter of his left-handedness; the M’s are still scuffling against southpaws, and while the got to Cole Hamels, he’s traditionally been a reverse-split guy, thanks to his change-up. But if Hamels relies on his change, Oberholtzer is utterly dependent upon it. He throws it far more than any other pitch besides his fastball, though he’s belatedly learned a slider that he’s trying to work in more and more. The cambio’s been his best pitch, but that isn’t saying much. Oberholtzer had moved from the Astros to the Phillies as part of the Ken Giles trade, which made sense considering how bereft of talent the Phillies looked in the offseason. But with Vincent Velasquez (the headliner in that same deal) and Jerad Eickhoff (part of the Cole Hamels trade) and Aaron Nola stepping up, the Phillies didn’t actually *need* a replacement level starter. That the Angels clearly do tells you all you need to know about how 2016 has gone in Anaheim.

1: Gamel, RF
2: Heredia, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Lee, 1B
7: Martin, CF
8: Zunino, C
9: Marte, SS
SP: Miranda

Welcome, Ben Gamel! Starting/batting lead off in his first Mariner appearance.

And welcome BACK to Nelson Cruz, who’s been missed as he recovered from a minor injury.

The Rainiers completed the organizational sweep last night, beating Fresno 2-1 in 14 innings on a Ryan Strausborger walk-off single. Mind you, they’d actually made the playoffs a few hours before, when Reno lost their game 3-1. The Rainiers announced to their fans (and the teams) that the Rainiers were division champs, but credit to the R’s for going out and actually winning the game, though it took them far longer than it should’ve – they left the bases loaded a few times in the late innings, and the game ended up taking about 5 hours despite the low score. But: all seven affiliates of the M’s have qualified for their league’s postseason tournament.

I mentioned it on Twitter, but the team with the biggest year-over-year turnaround has been Clinton, the M’s Midwest League team. Thanks to a biblical-plague-level 2nd half of 2015, Clinton lost over 90 games in a 144 game schedule, winning just 46 and posting an abysmal winning percentage. This year, they’re sitting on 83 wins, and have a shot at improving their win total by 40 games. In a year. In a short, 144-game season. This is mind-blowing to me; the biggest year-on-year turnaround at the big league level that I can find (and remember, that’s in 162 games) is 35, by the 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks. That club brought in some lanky left-handed pitcher named Randy Johnson as part of a big influx of talent and ended up winning 100 games. And Clinton’s already surpassed that with a few more games to play, and, sad to say, without any Randy Johnson-level talents in sight.

Speaking of Clinton, the players to be named later in the M’s acquisition of Arquimedes Caminero were announced: Jake Brentz and Pedro Vasquez. I’ll admit – that was a bit steeper a price than I’d expected, as Vasquez has shined for Clinton. He’s not a big strikeout guy, so it’s not a huge loss, but he showed very good command. Brentz is a lefty wild card; he’d looked like a diamond in the rough last year when he was picked up from Toronto in the Mark Lowe deal, but regressed a bit this year. Still, a lefty with a big fastball is a nice second piece in exchange for a faltering (if talented) bullpen arm.

M’s Add Ben Gamel, M’s Affiliates Dominate, AFL Rosters Released

September 1, 2016 · Filed Under Mariners · 4 Comments 

Three quick items to talk about today, and none of them involve depressing post-mortems of a gruesome 1-8 road trip. The M’s made a minor trade yesterday, saw yet another affiliate punch their ticket to the postseason, and released the most exciting list of Arizona Fall League assignments in years.

1: One of things that’s made the Dipoto regime somewhat distinct is the flurry of small moves both during the off-season and throughout the summer. Some may quibble that by skirting the big questions like rebuild or add current wins, the M’s are essentially re-arranging deck chairs. Others may argue that these minor moves are common – a key part of operating several minor league affiliates as well as trying to cover for a rash of injuries. I think it’s fair to say that this latest move, like most, doesn’t fundamentally alter the M’s future, but it does illustrate Dipoto’s desire both for depth in the upper-minors as well as at positions of need.

The M’s acquired Ben Gamel from the Yankees yesterday in exchange for two rookie-level pitching prospects, Jio Orozco and Jorge DePaula. Of the two, Orozco’s the headliner, a 14th rounder out of an Arizona high school who opened some eyes in the Arizona League last year and again this year. He’s got a bit more upside than you’d think from a later-round draft pick, as his very solid K rates indicate. Fangraphs had him as the M’s #19 prospect coming into this year, but he’d be higher than that at the time of the trade.

Gamel caught my eye when the M’s were working out a deal with New York last year, the one that sent Dustin Ackley east in exchange for Gamel’s one-time teammate, Ramon Flores. Gamel didn’t quite have Flores’ batting eye, but everything else about him was perhaps a notch above. Gamel’s hit for a touch more pop over his minor league career, and is a better (though not a really good) fit for CF than the corner-OF-only Flores. While he didn’t have Flores’ nearly 1:1 K:BB ratio, Gamel’s consistently hit for a higher average, and kept his K rate under 20% in the high minors. It’s these characteristics that have him ranked in the top 100 prospects by Fangraphs’ KATOH system, a stats-only way of looking at minor league talent.

Scouts would take the under on that KATOH forecast, as Gamel’s a bit undersized and has the classic “tweener” profile without any one standout tool. They’re different players, but I kind of see Gamel as the replacement for another undersized, great-MiLB-OBP infielder that Dipoto acquired earlier: Boog Powell. Powell’s actually younger than Gamel, but he essentially lost his 2016 after his 2nd PED violation. Powell’s probably more of a CF, though neither are going to win gold gloves at the next level.

Gamel’s hit for a solid OBP in AAA for two straight years, but picked a bad time for a power outage this year. While he enjoyed a cup of coffee with the Yankees earlier, he’s been passed by Aaron Judge, a corner OF with much more power and a better prospect pedigree, and by Rob Refsnyder, another ex-teammate who saw time in the Yankees OF after moving from 2B. The Yankees are rebuilding, but still don’t really have a spot for him with Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury still around. That’s why it’s easy to like this move from the M’s point of view, especially given the level at which Orozco’s currently pitching. Gamel has more value to the M’s than the Yankees, and thus this swap seems fair all around. It clearly fills a need for the M’s, so it’s hard to complain.

2: Bakersfield made it official the other night, beating San Jose to clinch the Cal League 2nd half title. Jackson’s had a playoff berth sewn up for months, courtesy of their 1st half title in the Southern League, and Clinton clinched a spot in the Midwest League playoffs weeks ago too. Everett shook off an average 1st half to run away with the Northwest League’s 2nd half title. As I mentioned the other night, the Arizona League M’s made it into the playoffs as well, and they clobbered the AZL Reds to advance to the semi-finals against the Angels. We don’t talk about them much, but even the M’s Dominican Summer League team got in on the action, running away with the DSL South division.

That leaves one team that’s yet to clinch a spot in the postseason, the Tacoma Rainiers. That could change tonight, as the Rainiers magic number over Reno is down to 1. A Tacoma win or Reno loss would make it a clean sweep, 7 of 7 affiliates making the postseason. To say that this is a turnaround from last year is a massive understatement, and it’s come seemingly out of nowhere. This organization’s affiliates were in shambles last year, with every affiliate except Everett under .500, and Clinton suffering through one of the worst years in recent memory. That many of these same players are driving these playoff runs is both a testament to some remarkable player development work over very short timelines, and perhaps to the wisdom of some of those minor moves I mentioned above. While Dipoto brought in his fair share of minor league vets and minor trade guys, the vast majority of the improvement has come from the holdovers. If anything, Dipoto’s bullpen trades before the year *subtracted* from the overall talent level in the system, thanks to losing guys like Enyel de los Santos, Erick Mejia, Daniel Missaki, Trey Cochran-Gill, and eventually Chris Taylor. It didn’t matter, thanks to huge years from Tyler O’Neill (as expected, he was named the Southern League’s MVP yesterday), Stefen Romero, Nick Neidert, Art Wells, and Zack Littell.

It’s easy to get carried away with this; great minor league records does not mean that the M’s have the most minor league talent. What it DOES mean is that the M’s are getting more production out of what they had than in prior years. The M’s system isn’t some sort of league-destroying behemoth now, but it’s also evidently not as bereft of talent as it appeared a year ago. Development was a key, in my mind THE key, reason the M’s slipped behind their AL West rivals in recent years, and if these changes persist, the M’s will be in much better position to challenge for the division in a few years. That’s critical, given the gap in young big league talent the M’s need to make up vis a vis the Rangers and Astros.

3: The Arizona Fall League rosters came out, and the M’s contingent is one of their best ever. Tyler O’Neill will head back to the desert (he played a bit in 2015), and he’ll be joined by Luiz Gohara, the M’s #1 pitching prospect. I can’t remember a time in which both the M’s #1 position player and #1 pitcher both appeared in the AFL, but here we are. In addition, they’ll send some intriguing slow-moving prospects in catcher Tyler Marlette (a guy who I can’t quit, even as he’s repeated the Cal League for what feels like the 8th time) and South African command and control pitcher Dylan Unsworth.

The M’s will also send two guys currently on the big league roster: reliever Dan Altavilla, who’s opened some eyes of late with good command and 95mph velocity, and Guillermo Heredia, the speedy OF. Without an instructional league team, the M’s said they wanted to use the winter leagues more this year, and I think it’s great to get Heredia as many games as possible following the long layoff after he defected from Cuba. With Altavilla’s shift to the ‘pen, his workload isn’t as big of a concern, and they can work on things with him in a lower-pressure environment. Filling out the M’s contingent are RP Emilio Pagan, who could be the Dan Altavilla of 2017, and SS Drew Jackson, who had something of a disappointing 2016, but is still a top-10 prospect in the M’s system.

Yoan Moncada headlined the assignments, though it’s not clear that he’ll go, as he was called up by the Red Sox today. Screwballing Rays prospect Brent Honeywell’s probably the best overall pitching prospect on Peoria, but Red Sox fireballer Michael Kopech has the better upside thanks to 100mph velocity. Isan Diaz, a Brewers SS, will be there, along with OFs Eloy Jimenez and Bradley Zimmer, the Indians #1 prospect. The league kicks off on October 11th.

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