Cactus League Game 3, Mariners vs. Cubs

marc w · March 3, 2021 at 11:53 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Ljay Newsome vs. Zach Davies, 12:10pm

Scott Servais was on local sports radio yesterday, telling Danny and Gallant that he thought the M’s could surprise people thanks to their pitching. Now of course the M’s posted an ERA over 5 with a similarly-ugly FIP last year, but Servais mentioned how much better the team looked in the second half of the abbreviated season, and obliquely referenced the team’s bullpen improvements over the off-season.

The M’s *starters* really were a strength last year. Once you strip out the bad bullpen, the M’s run-prevention looks a lot better, and the M’s added to that group in the off-season by picking up Chris Flexen, who’s coming off a great season in Korea. The six-man rotation will make more use of their depth, and could help get the most out of Yusei Kikuchi and James Paxton, two of the guys they really need to have big years.

While it’s easy to see why Servais is optimistic, it’s worth exploring why the M’s projections see a below-average group, and how to bridge the gap between these two evaluations. Marco Gonzales’ massive leap forward last year and track record make me much less concerned about him than I have been in the past. He needed to answer questions about how he would miss bats and avoid dingers at a lower velocity, and his 2020 campaign was a pretty loud response to those question. Yusei Kikuchi looked like a different pitcher in 2020, and pitched like one, too – it just didn’t add up to consistent production. Kikuchi is clearly the enigma, and a step forward in results to match his step forward in velocity and stuff would go a long way to making the M’s a good team. For a guy who’s struggled in two years and in very different ways, his projections are remarkably similar between the various systems. They’re not exactly excellent, but an ERA in the mid-4s would be a noticeable and very welcome improvement. Justus Sheffield’s results were great, driven by a promising decrease in walk rate and an almost freakish lack of HRs-allowed. While the projections for Sheffield aren’t great – a mediocre K:BB and HR regression don’t produce eye-popping numbers – he and Kikuchi might be helped by the slightly deadened baseball.

But for all of the variance in potential outcomes for Kikuchi/Sheffield, they’re not the guys the projections disagree on. The biggest mystery, and thus potentially the key to the M’s blowing their poor runs-allowed projections out of the water, is Chris Flexen. Clay Davenport translates his KBO stats and sees an excellent starter, and someone who functions as the real #2 behind James Paxton. ZiPS and PECOTA are hesitant to put too much stock in his 2020, and thus weigh his (brief) MLB stats more heavily, and those MLB stats are *ugly*. Flexen would not be the first pitcher to come back from the KBO with a renewed approach, and if he comes anywhere near the kind of performance he had in 2020, the M’s rotation starts to look quite different.

The other guy the systems can’t quite figure out is today’s starter, Ljay Newsome. I think from the M’s point of view, if Newsome logs plenty of innings in 2021, something’s gone pretty wrong. He’s not among the first six starters on the M’s depth chart, and you have to figure that Logan Gilbert will have magically corrected whatever flaws the M’s point to right around the time he loses a full year of service time (or the super two deadline. Both dates are truly remarkable teaching/player development tools). ZiPS, Steamer, Clay Davenport all see Newsome as generic and replacement-level. PECOTA sees someone who’s a decent bet to out-pitch Kikuchi and Sheffield, presumably due to his microscopic walk rate.

The M’s are going to *need* pitching depth. We’re coming off of a bizarre, pandemic-shortened season, and it may be tough for guys to log anywhere close to “normal” innings for a big league starter. Another key member of the rotation is James Paxton, and I think all of us know not to expect 200 IP from him. Depth absolutely destroyed the M’s bullpen last year, as a couple of injuries showed just how unprepared the M’s were. I’m not putting a ton of stock in Newsome’s (or anyone’s) projections, but a solid year from Flexen and a good start to Gilbert’s career really would change the look of this team’s outlook.

Today’s line-up:
1: Dylan Moore, 2B
2: Kyle Lewis, CF
3: Ty France, 3B
4: Jose Marmolejos, 1B
5: Cal Raleigh, C
6: Jarred Kelenic, DH
7: Jake Fraley, RF
8: Taylor Trammell, LF
9: Donovan Walton, SS
SP: Ljay Newsome

The game’s on ESPN, by the way.

The AAA season’s been delayed by a month, and Tacoma will again host a revised “alternate site” training complex. With the vaccine roll-out speeding up, I’m pretty hopeful that the Rainiers can get into their season in early May, which is when AA was scheduled to start.


One Response to “Cactus League Game 3, Mariners vs. Cubs”

  1. Stevemotivateir on March 3rd, 2021 4:50 pm

    It would be fun to see how fans react if Taylor Trammell makes the opening day roster in favor of Kelenic (and Fraley, Marmolejos, etc.).

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.