Cactus League Game 7, Royals at Mariners

marc w · March 1, 2018 at 12:00 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

Mike Leake vs. Burch Smith, 12:10pm

The M’s lost to Cleveland yesterday, dropping their Cactus League record to 2-4, which is about as meaningless a thing as you’re liable to run across today. The M’s starting pitching – a disastrous start by Andrew Moore aside – has been excellent, and Mike Leake looks to continue that today. The rebuilding Royals are undefeated thus far, which just reinforces the fact that wins/losses in Arizona don’t really matter – this is where Munenori Kawasaki was a batting star, where Mike Zunino couldn’t make an out if he tried right before one of the worst seasons in Mariners history. Some things, some stats, some indicators matter. Wins and losses are not among those indicators.

Opposing Leake today is the fascinating ex-Ray/ex-Padre righty Burch Smith. Smith was utterly dominant in the Pads system in 2013, rising from AA to the majors thanks to solid control of a plus fastball and change. He throws from a low 3/4 slot, making him especially tough on right-handed bats. That said, his 10-game cup of coffee with San Diego was a frustrating one, as he hemorrhaged runs and while his K rate was nice, it didn’t make up for newfound control woes and a complete inability to deal with lefties. As Carson Cistulli (an early fan) noted at Fangraphs many years ago, one of the big issues he had was maintaining his good velocity. He averaged 93 on his four-seam fastball, but that average was the result of a much wider range than most starters. Early in the game, Smith would touch 98, and Brooks has him throwing at least one pitch at 99 in May of 2013. For a starter, that’s pretty remarkable. The problem was that by the end of his outing, he’d be at 91.

Something to work on for Smith, then, and at just 23 years old in 2013, he had plenty of time. Unfortunately, injuries got in the way. Just after he was traded to Tampa in the huge Wil Myers/Steven Souza/Trea Turner 3-way swap (what I call the Rene Rivera deal for short), he started feeling arm pain, which limited him to a handful of minor league innings in 2014. After all that rest, he was ready to make a run at the Rays rotation in 2015, but his elbow gave out and he underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2015. After a setback with he rehab in 2016, he didn’t throw a pitch in 2015 or 2016, and had thrown all of 5+ innings in three full years. He made it back on the field for the Rays system in 2017, tossing less than 60 IP across three levels. He’s still racking up strikeouts, but you can tell he’s been Rays-ified: his fly ball rate spiked after being something of a ground ball guy in the Pads system. The Royals – desperate for pitching – swooped in and made a deal to acquire him in the Rule 5 draft this year.

It’ll be interesting to see if he’s gone full Tampa and raised his arm slot, or if he’s back in his old low, low 3/4 slot. While he won’t pitch enough to see if he’s learned to maintain his velocity, I’m kind of curious if he’s capable of touching the mid-upper-90s anymore, or if that premium velo was left on the operating table back in 2015.

1: Gordon, CF
2: Segura, SS
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Zunino, C
7: Nieuwenhuis, RF
8: Hague, 1B
9: Miller, LF
SP: Leake

Matt Hague’s getting some good looks at 1B with the injury to Ryon Healy. Mike Ford – the lefty-swinging 1B the M’s got in the Rule 5 draft – has had a slow start, but he’s really competing with Vogelbach anyway. Hague still has a steep uphill climb to make the opening day roster (assuming Healy’s ready), but if Healy has a setback, you never know. The M’s wouldn’t want to just send Ford back to NY, but they presumably wouldn’t want two LHH 1Bs, either.

Felix sounds like he’ll only miss one start, which would be about the best possible outcome following his (terrifying) run-in with a line drive. To really beat their projections, the M’s need a return to form of the King.

I mentioned Seth Elledge the other day, but he didn’t make it into a game. He’s in the bullpen today, so we’ll see if he gets a look. Also available is ex-Gonzaga reliever Wyatt Mills, the underslot 3rd rounder who tore through the low-minors with his funky sidearm delivery and good command. Jack Anderson, the submariner who got touched up a bit in the Cubs game, is also in the pen.


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