Cactus League Game vs. Colorado, and a Test of the M’s Rebuild: Sheffield vs. Urquidy

March 2, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Justus Sheffield vs. Jon Gray, 12:10pm

So, the M’s have another Cactus League game today, as enigmatic Rockies erstwhile ace Jon Gray faces off with Justus Sheffield and the M’s. Gray’s an intriguing story in his own right, but that’s not what I’d like to talk about today. Instead, I’d like to offer up Sheffield as a key test of the success or progress of the M’s step-back/rebuild.

As it’s become clear that the M’s aren’t going to compete in 2020, we need some other metric to gauge the progress of the M’s rebuild. We can’t use wins and losses in the near term, so we’re going to need proxies of some sort. A popular choice has been to focus on farm system rankings, and the M’s rise from #26-28 or so a few years ago to #8-12 or so now. After last year, wishing on Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic became a passion project for many who just wanted to the 2019 season to stop. But as I’ve talked about, in order for Kelenic/Rodriguez to push the M’s into contention, the rest of the roster has to be good enough to make that a realistic possibility. Thus, in a year like this one where neither OF uberprospect will start with the M’s, we need to focus on the progress of the youngsters the M’s are counting on *now*.

We could do this with just about anyone, from JP Crawford to Shed Long to Evan White to Justin Dunn, but 1) Justus Sheffield starts today, and thus I’m making a random early-march Cactus League game topical, and 2) I’d argue Sheffield is more important to the M’s in 2021-2023 than just about any Mariner. Right now, the M’s have young players around the diamond with the possible exception of 3B. Not a ton is expected of them, but that’s arguably OK; it’s conceivable that the likes of Crawford/Long/White can give them league average or better production in a few years. What’s harder to see, at least from looking at the projections, is where a MLB-quality starting rotation will come from. Marco Gonzales, sure. And Logan Gilbert is the best prospect of the bunch, but in order to be where they want to be, they need Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn to make a big leap and take hold of those starting pitcher slots. Sheffield’s got more MLB experience and was the more bally-hooed prospect, so I’d argue he’s the most likely to settle in as a long-term middle-of-the-rotation starter.

So how does that help us evaluate the rebuild? A decent test of the rebuild will be if Justus Sheffield turns in a better season than the Astros’ Jose Urquidy. It’s not fair to ask Sheffield to be better than, say, Justin Verlander or something. It’s also not fair to compare him to a player who has no realistic path to 20 starts or 120 IP or so. Urquidy is likely the Astros #4 starter, and while he had no prospect pedigree before last year, enters 2020 on the back end of Top 100 prospect lists. He’d previously been a command/control guy, but started racking up strikeouts and made his way to some key postseason starts in Houston in 2019. He had a better first go-round in MLB, but neither of them is a finished product, and both pitched only about 40 IP last year in the majors.

While Urquidy is a righty, he and Sheffield have nearly identical fastball velocities: both sit at 93+ with their four-seamers. Sheffield’s lower arm angle and freakishly low spin means his 93 bowling ball produces lower launch angles and many more ground balls. Urquidy throws his fastball higher, and while it’s not some spin-rate or spin-efficiency marvel, it has normal rise. The combination of those things means Urquidy’s FB is an extreme fly-ball pitch. Both throw sliders with comparable break off the fastball, but Sheffield’s angle means his sinks a bit more overall. But here, Sheffield allows more elevated contact, while Urquidy’s is neutral. Both throw developing change-ups, too. Urquidy has a curve that he uses even more than his slider, so he’s got a true four-pitch mix, while Sheffield only has 3 – but you can argue that Sheffield’s slider is the only out-pitch either hurler throws.

It’s easy to see why Sheffield could walk away with this: Urquidy’s flyballing ways could lead to serious HR troubles, a potential hinted at by ZiPS and other projections that show him with a FIP/ERA in the high-4s, thanks to HR rates in the 1.6 range or so (which is very high, even in the modern game). Sheffield’s GB% can help him avoid the long ball, and thus pitch around his much, much higher walk rate. From there, he just needs to be steady, and ZiPS and Steamer have him with a similar projection of a high-4s FIP. Likewise, it’s easy to see why you might favor Urquidy. Sheffield’s walk rates give him less of a margin for error, and Urquidy’s already shown he can run sub-4 FIP/ERAs, albeit over a small sample. In a game where even good pitchers give up tons of HRs, Sheffield’s walk rate makes each HR he allows much more damaging. Urquidy comes out ahead slightly by Fangraphs’s projections, but they’re in the same ballpark.

BaseballProspectus’ PECOTA projections offer a worst-case scenario for M’s fans. In this system, Urquidy’s slightly better than ZiPS/Steamer see him: he’s an above average starter with a DRA/FIP/ERA closer to 4. Meanwhile, Sheffield is a below-average arm, undone by walks AND HRs, with a DRA closer to 6 than 5. It’s a system that was down on Sheffield last year, so while it’s not a shock that it’s not impressed with his skillset, it IS shocking to see the magnitude of the divergence from ZiPS/Steamer/etc. It’s fair to say that if anything like what PECOTA sees comes true, the rebuild will be in a very bad place. If Sheffield’s replacement-level, then the forecasted improvement due to age and experience won’t have materialized, and the M’s pitching staff will likely be worse than Fangraphs’ poor projections thought. The M’s would need to regroup in 2021, and wouldn’t be close to contention.

If Sheffield outpitches Urquidy, though, then it’d be a big sign that the player development overhaul is bearing fruit not just in prospect rankings, but in MLB production. It would beat the projections, and beat the Astros at their own development game. That needs to start happening at a team and organization-wide level, but it’d be great to see it in this microcosm of that org-level battle. Either Sheffield would trim his walks and become something more like a true #3, or maybe Urquidy would hit a wall and have his HR tendencies exploited to the point where he wasn’t really viable anymore. That would seem far-fetched, but then, last year wasn’t great for the Astros’ pitching development, Urquidy aside. Josh James looked ready to become a dominant force with his high-90s velo, but struggled even as a middle reliever. Forrest Whitley suffered through another lost year in the minors, and the team traded away other prospects like JB Bukauskas. Logan Gilbert leapfrogging Whitley would’ve seemed ludicrous last year; it’s not at all ludicrous now. But if the M’s are going to take advantage, they need Sheffield to make some big strides of his own, and I think the Urquidy comparison is an interesting one for both teams.

Today’s line-up:
1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: Lewis, LF
6: Gonzalez, RF
7: Fraley, CF
8: Murphy, C
9: Gordon, SS
SP: Sheffield

White’s back after a minor groin strain kept him out a day or two. Sounds like the M’s won’t start Taijuan Walker in the main Cactus League game on Wednesday, but will have him go in a B game on a back field. In more depressing injury news, RP Matt Festa was diagnosed with a ligament tear, and will undergo Tommy John surgery.

Cactus League Game 8 – Royals at Mariners

February 29, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Marco Gonzales vs. Stephen Woods 12:10pm

After yesterday’s performance by Yusei Kikuchi, it’s a bit easier to feel optimistic. He sat at 96 with his fastball, and those readings come from statcast, not a wonky radar gun. Of course, he teased at this last year, too – sitting 94 and touching 96-97 early in the year before losing a tick or two as the summer wound on. But it’s safe to say his average is up this year, and he’s also picked up speed on his slider, which is now a cutter-y 90-91. That should flatten out the movement on it, but then, Kikuchi’s slider never really had much to begin with. It could be a very effective pitch at higher velos, because it’s not slurv-y at all. Kikuchi’s problem was never stuff – it’s always been about consistency, and that’s not something we can see he’s fixed in a single spring start (or even in an entire spring). But if we’re going to look for encouraging signs, Kikuchi’s start yesterday would certainly qualify.

It’d be great for Marco Gonzales to follow Kikuchi’s sterling start with one of his own. He gets to face a Royals line-up that isn’t going to terrify anyone, as this great Patrick Dubuque piece (hilariously) details. This game’s on TV, so if you’d like to tune in and actually see what Gonzales’ approach might be, it’ll be on Root Sports. The Royals are forecasted to be essentially equal to the M’s, or perhaps even a game up (thanks to a weaker division), but how we think about the two clubs is quite different. This is the power of a great farm system, or, more cynically, this is the result of a year-plus all-out PR campaign to hype up the M’s prospects. Right now, both clubs look like cellar-dwellers, but the M’s are a *hopeful* kind of celler dweller, while the Royal sub-species has a number of young players, just young players from whom much less is expected. The Royals figure to be a lot worse than the M’s in 3-4 years, but this is the kind of thinking that’s gotten the M’s in trouble in the past.

The Royals starter, Stephen Woods Jr., was an 8th round pick of the SF Giants out of a SUNY campus back in 2016. He had a solid season in the NWL with Salem-Keizer, and then a good campaign in the Sally League that enabled him to be a part of the return for Evan Longoria. He missed all of 2018, but came back to have a solid half-year for Charlotte, the Rays affiliate in the Florida State League. But at 24 and with a decent injury history and having just hit high-A, the Rays waived him. The pitching-starved Royals picked him up in December, and he’ll likely get some high-minors seasoning this year. Not a lot of info out there, but the one thing that jumps off the page with the guy is the fact that he hasn’t given up many HRs at all. He’s given up 6 in over 230 career innings, and last year held batters to a slugging percentage under .300. That’s the FSL, though, perhaps the most pitcher-friendly circuit in affiliated ball. We’ll see how he deals with this line-up:

1: Long, Jr. DH
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Murphy, C
6: Gonzalez, RF
7: Kelenic, CF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Siri, LF
SP: Marcoooooo

Yoshihisa Hirano, Taylor Guilbeau, and others should get an inning today. For those wondering about 5th-starter-contender Taijuan Walker, he’s been brought along slowly, doing simulated games and the like, but it sounds like he could make a Cactus League start on Wednesday.

Cactus League Games 5-6: Mariner Mitosis

February 27, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Logan Gilbert vs Tyler Beede (SF) 12:10 and
Ljay Newsome vs. Ross Detwiler (CHA) 12:05pm

The M’s split up and take on the Giants and White Sox today in what looks like an interesting pitching prospect day. Ljay Newsome was something of a breakout star last year, rising from org depth to put himself on the map by striking out a ton of Cal League batters. His time at M’s gas camp gave him several more ticks on what had been an underpowered fastball, and he used his pinpoint control to run amazing K:BB ratios for most of the summer. His AA stint was a bit of a struggle, which helps account for the fact that the M’s didn’t protect in the Rule 5 draft, but he comes into 2020 on the radar. This isn’t his first big league camp, as he won a spot a year ago thanks to leading the org in controlling the zone, but it’s his first time as an actual quasi-prospect. He’ll go up against well-traveled arm Ross Detwiler, who pitched in exactly one game for the Mariners in 2018.

Logan Gilbert’s own breakout requires fewer modifiers. He was a first-round pick who put up gaudy K numbers in college. He was supposed to move fast after being assigned to West Virginia, and he…moved really fast, overwhelming the Sally League and then the Cal League, becoming one of the minors top young arms. He could very easily see himself in a Mariners uniform this summer if he can repeat what he did in AA for another few months. A 165:33 K:BB ratio exceeded the wildest dreams of most fans, and presumably the team as well. As such, it should be fun to see how he does against a line-up sprinkled with MLB vets. He’ll be opposed by Tyler Beede, like Gilbert a first-round pick who became a top prospect in 2014-2015. But unlike Gilbert, Beede kept running into problems on his ascent. His first taste of AA went poorly, and his first TWO attempts at AAA were worse. Predictably, he wasn’t sharp in his initial foray into MLB – a couple of games in 2018 – but he managed to top 100 innings with the Giants last year, and will get plenty of opportunities this year with a rebuilding/go-nowhere club.

I’ve already made a fastball comp to Justus Sheffield, but Beede’s 94 MPH heater has some of Sheffield’s sink, and a similar release point. The real problem, though, is that Beede doesn’t have an outpitch breaking ball like Sheffield. Beede/Sheffield have had nearly identical results off the fastball, but Beede mixes a curve, cutter, and a rare slider to little effect. The curve’s probably the best of the bunch, but he doesn’t lean on it the way Sheffield leans on his slider. Maybe he should?

Line-up vs. SF:
1: Long, 2B
2: Crawford, SS
3: Seager, 3B
4: Carlos Gonzalez, DH
5: Murphy, C
6: Kelenic, RF
7: J. Marmolejos, 1B
8: Bishop, CF
9: Siri, LF
SP: Gilbert

Line-up vs. CHA:
1: Fraley, LF
2: Smith, CF
3: Lewis, RF
4: Vogelbach, 1B
5: Wisdom, 3B
6: Lopes, 2B
7: Raleigh, C
8: Cowgill, DH
9: Walton, SS
SP: Newsome

Good to see another start for Jarred Kelenic, and one for catching prospect Cal Raleigh.

Cactus League Game 4, Mariners at Reds

February 26, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 2 Comments 

Justin Dunn vs. Sonny Gray, 12:05pm

After a brutal slugfest versus the Cubs, and then a tidy pitcher’s duel against the Brewers, the M’s head to Goodyear to take on the new-look Reds. The Reds have some new players, but the story of their off-season has been a thorough overhaul of their player development. They brought in former Vanderbilt Pitching Coach Derek Johnson last year, and he seemed to make an immediate difference. The Reds pitching staff ranked #27 in baseball by Fangraphs’ WAR in 2018, but shot up to #9 last year. Not content with that, the Reds bolstered the coaching staff around Johnson by hiring local pitching development guru Kyle Boddy of Driveline Baseball to work as director of pitching initiatives, and promoting an old Driveline client, Caleb Cotham, to Director of Pitching as well as assistant pitching coach.

Today’s starter, Sonny Gray, was one of the beneficiaries of Johnson’s tutelage last year. After a down year-and-a-half with the Yankees, Gray looked like the pitcher who came up with the A’s years ago, tossing 175+ IP with an ERA of 2.87 and a DRA of 2.98. His FIP wasn’t quite *that* good, but he posted his best strikeout-minus-walk ratio of his career, and actually lowered his HR rate despite moving to a small ballpark in the year of the superball baseball. The velocity and movement on his pitches haven’t really changed. He’s still got a four-seam fastball with lots of cut (hence his high spin rates), no horizontal movement, and not a ton of vertical movement. His best secondary is his curve, with lots of two-plane break. Over the years, he’s mixed in a sinker, and with the Yankees, that essentially became his primary breaking ball. That changed last year…kind of. He throws his sinker a lot to right-handed bats, taking advantage of the pitch’s natural pitch-type platoon splits. But he hardly threw it at all to lefties, giving them a mix of four-seamers, curves, and sliders. Overall, he threw fewer fastballs and more breaking balls, and he threw fewer sinkers in particular. While platoon splits have never really been Gray’s problem, he was able to dramatically reduce hits and HRs overall while maintaining essentially even splits. Now: this may be the result of a drop in BABIP, just as his struggles in NY may have resulted from the opposite problem. But I think there’s more going on here, as shown in that K rate and K-BB%.

Today marks the first of two really intriguing starters for Seattle. Today, Justin Dunn starts, while tomorrow it’s top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert. The Reds, of course, were the team Dunn faced in his…uh, less than stellar MLB debut. He’s had an off-season to put that behind him, and Dunn taking a huge step forward this year would do wonders to accelerate the M’s path to contention. On paper, the M’s rotation looks absolutely dire. Just getting to “below average” would be a real developmental win for the org, and with talent like Dunn, it’s an attainable goal.

1: Fraley, CF
2: Nola, C
3: C. Gonzalez, RF
4: Vogelbach, DH
5: White, 1B
6: Wisdom, 3B
7: Juliooooo Rodriguez, LF
8: Gordon, 2B
9: Haggerty, SS
SP: Dunn

Cactus League Game 2, Cubs at Mariners

February 24, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · Comment 

Marco Gonzales vs. Adbert Alzolay, 12:10pm

The M’s starters were a bit listless yesterday against Texas, but Evan White made a couple of good defensive plays, and Yusei Kikuchi’s mechanical tweaks seemed to allow his velo to play up a bit, but he still had some issues closing out innings – though a 1st inning error didn’t help.

Today, the Cubs come to Peoria, with prospect Adbert Alzolay starting. Alzolay opened eyes in the Northwest League years ago, but he’s struggled a bit in the high minors. He did make his debut for Chicago last year. He’s a righty with a FB around 94, and a curve/change mix behind it. Nothing really stands out movement-wise.

It’ll be interesting to see Marco Gonzales this year. In a long conversation with Ryan Rowland-Smith, Marco decried the increasing importance of velocity, and how it’s led many to underestimate him. He doesn’t need to sit 94, but man, I keep thinking he’d be more of a legitimate #2/#1 if he got back the MPH he lost a few years ago.

1: Fraley, LF
2: Nola, C
3: Seager, 3B
4: Wisdom, 1B
5: CarGo, RF
6: Lopes, 2B
7: Filia, DH
8: D. Moore, SS
9: J. Siri, CF

Cactus League Game 1, Rangers at Mariners

February 23, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 1 Comment 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Joe Palumbo, 12:10pm

After yesterday’s rain-out, the M’s will begin their spring training slate of games today in Peoria. They feature a line-up that figures to be pretty close to the one they’ll open the regular season with, and they’ll do it behind Yusei Kikuchi, the enigmatic pitcher whose development is critical to the M’s contention in a few years.

The Rangers head to Peoria in a battle of the cellar-dwellers of the AL West. The Rangers haven’t exactly done a full rebuild – the only real prize they traded away was Yu Darvish, and he only had a half-season of club control left. Instead, the Rangers are where they are because their once vaunted pipeline of talent – particularly international free agents – started to dry up, and thus they didn’t really have in-house replacements for the likes of Darvish or Adrian Beltre. They’d be challenging the M’s for worst record in the division if they hadn’t spent a bit of money on veteran starting pitching, a move that lifted their rotation last year, and kept them from the fate of the Orioles or Tigers. This year, they’ve doubled down on that approach, picking up Corey Kluber from Cleveland, Kyle Gibson from Minnesota, and the well-traveled Jordan Lyles. Their offense doesn’t project all that well, but on paper, they should have much better starting pitching than the M’s.

So can the M’s make up for that deficit by developing their young position player prospects? I mean, sure, anything’s possible. But before they bring up Julio and Jarred, they’re going to need to figure out what the likes of Braden Bishop, Kyle Lewis, and Jake Fraley have to offer. The former two start today’s game, but I imagine we’ll see Fraley push Bishop for a starting position in the regular season. Bishop and Fraley were utterly overmatched in their first taste of the big leagues, but that’s not a death sentence or anything. Lewis started extremely well, but may have to show that he can limit Ks…unless his power can rival that of the Rangers whiff-prone Dingerman, Joey Gallo.

At this point, the Rangers are projected to finish with about 12 more wins than Seattle, and for that to happen, they’ll probably need to tap some of their starting pitching depth, particularly with some older and injury-prone starters (like Kluber). That’s where today’s starter, Joe Palumbo, comes in. Palumbo, Kolby Allard, and Ariel Jurado figure to back up the starters, and of that depth group, Palumbo’s the guy with the best pure stuff or bat-missing ability. A lefty, his four-seam fastball comes in at around 94-95 from a low-ish arm angle. His primary breaking ball is a curve at around 79, and while he’s got a slider and change, he uses the fastball/curve combo most often. All in all, he reminds me a bit of Justus Sheffield; Sheffield’s release point is even lower (which may just be due to his height), so he’s got similar FB movement to Palumbo. Sheff’s low spin rate means the FB gets even less vertical movement than Palumbo’s, but neither are even average in terms of vertical rise. Their sliders are similar too, I suppose; Palumbo’s only thrown four of them, so it’s hard to tell. Palumbo showed more bat-missing in the minors than Sheffield, but he too walked too many. And despite the movement similarities, Palumbo’s a fly ball pitcher, a fact that got him into trouble in his brief MLB call-up. If I worked for Texas, I might encourage him to throw that slider a bit more, even just as a change of pace. Sheffield’s able to get grounders with that pitch, and Palumbo needs *something* given the fact he’s a fly baller in Texas.

1: Long, 2B
2: White, 1B
3: Seager, 3B
4: Lewis, RF
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Murphy, C
7: Crawford, SS
8: Smith, CF
9: Bishop, LF
SP: Kikuchi

The M’s picked up one-time Padres OF prospect Rymer Liriano today. He had a great 2011 in low A, then missed a year due to injury in 2013. Back with a vengeance in 2014, he rose to get his first MLB call-up with San Diego that year. After a so-so 2015, he again missed a year due to injury in 2016. He got a few games for a go-nowhere White Sox team in 2017, and was last seen in the Mets org last year, where he struggled. Hey, depth!

Show Me a Sign

February 21, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 10 Comments 

Given the baseball news this winter, I should’ve titled this something different. The M’s begin their cactus league games this weekend, and despite what looks like a rough season, the M’s have some optimism about them. The primary source is, of course, the outfield tandem of Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, two of the better prospects in the game. For a number of reasons, some baseball-related, and some very much not, neither will break camp with Seattle, and likely won’t play at all until the super 2 deadline next year at the earliest. But it’s still good to see these two players, thrust into the role of franchise co-saviors, turn some heads. Logan Gilbert’s doing similar work on the mound, too. All of that means there’s reason to hope that the next wave of young Mariners might actually be the one to close the gap between the frightful current state of the club and their rivals.

Over the past few days, baseball sites have issued playoff odds and projected standings for 2020. As you’d expect, the picture is especially bleak for Seattle. ZiPS projected standings came out this morning, and foresee the darkest timeline: a 100-loss M’s club. Fangraphs’ projections have them at 66-96, right where Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA sees the M’s finishing. The ever-optimistic Clay Davenport’s got them at 68-94, pretty much exactly in line with where Caesar’s Palace set the over/under line (67.5 wins). Based on everything we know now, based on the statistics, age, growth, attrition, etc. of the roster, the M’s simply aren’t in the same class as the rest of the league.

I know the M’s said that they’d focus on contention in 2021, but that’s now really, really close. Worst-to-first teams happen, but they happen extremely rarely. A whole lot of ground work was supposed to be completed by now, and there’s not a lot of evidence for it. More than anything, that’s what 2020 needs to show us. That while players like Justus Sheffield or JP Crawford or Yusei Kikuchi showed fleeting glimpses of being legitimately good MLB Players, inconsistency and mechanical issues held them back – and that those things won’t hold them back going forward. We still don’t know what to make of players like Kyle Lewis and Evan White, between park effects in Arkansas and up-and-down power numbers over their careers. You can understand why the projections wouldn’t look kindly on the M’s, and if you squint, you can convince yourself that the projections don’t know enough to be relevant. But we need to see it on the field. Arguably, we needed to see it last year, but hey, it’s a new campaign: it’s time for many players to blow their projections out of the water. If they don’t, it’s going to sting for a while.

The reason is that the AL in general is pretty good, and there are several teams rich with developing talent that are developing into contenders right when the M’s self-identified window opens. Those teams are already better than the M’s in current-MLB talent, so if the M’s don’t improve their base talent, not even Kelenic/Rodriguez can help them being defenestrated by the White Sox/Angels/Blue Jays. As I mentioned in the last post, the past year has offered a host or reasons for optimism. Coming into last year, I worried that the gap between the M’s and Astros would continue to widen, as near-term prospects like Josh James and Forrest Whitley helped them improve (or replace talent lost to free agency/trades) faster than Seattle. I worried that the Red Sox and Yankees would create lasting dynasties that pretty much always captured two of the AL’s playoff spots, while Tampa could be a perennial 90+ win team threatening to take the other wild card. Cleveland’s lull was replaced by Minnesota arriving ahead of schedule, and the Jays had no pitching, but two of the game’s best prospects arriving and doing damage in MLB. The White Sox long-simmering rebuild finally started to bear fruit, as Yoan Moncada looked good, and Lucas Giolito became an utterly unrecognizable and effective starter.

But looking back, so much broke FOR the Mariners. The Astros’ scandal has cost them their GM, SP Gerrit Cole left, and Josh James was so-so in the bullpen. Forrest Whitley lost yet another season to mechanical issues and ineffectiveness, and despite the emergence of Yordan Alvarez, there’s hope that the pipeline of talent that’s made them the league’s best team is starting to dry up. The Red Sox are embroiled in their own scandals, and sold off/traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. They are clearly weaker in 2020 than we would’ve expected a year ago, and while the Yankees are better, they remain injury-plagued and older than the rest of these teams. The Indians looked to be building a dominant rotation on the cheap, but another injury to Mike Clevinger means they may not be ready to dominate in the early-going, and their offense won’t inspire terror in opposing teams. Minnesota was great last year, and has gotten better, but they’re split between young, streaky players (Byron Buxton) and older players (Nellie Cruz, Josh Donaldson). They could be great, but you could argue they’re built more for 2020 than 2021.

So is there a realistic path to contention in 2021? No, not really. Not that I can see, anyway. The Astros, Yankees and Twins figure to be in contention for the division in 2021, with the Angels, A’s, Rays, White Sox, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Indians fighting with Seattle for the two wild cards. All of these teams were better in 2019, and all of them are projected to be better in 2020. And not by 5-6 games: in most cases, the gap is simply massive (15-20 games or more). The M’s can chip away at that gap by spending money in free agency next winter, and with players like Betts or JT Realmuto on the block, they could add a lot of talent. But they have to build up the talent level of the team in order for Betts or Realmuto to raise them to contention.

The Blue Jays and White Sox offer two glimpses at paths that rebuilding teams have taken, and are cautionary tales about a rapid rebuild. The Jays thought they’d have a team on the very edge of the second wild card last year, at least if their uber-prospects Bo Bichette and Vlad Guerrero Jr. were able to have immediate success in the majors. Bichette was transcendent, and while Guerrero was more up-and-down, he put up a 105 wRC+ at age 20, which isn’t too bad. They got a near best-case version of their top prospects, the Canadian equivalents of Kelenic/Rodriguez, and they were still abysmal. They traded off Marcus Stroman, and now have a very deep array of pitching prospects, but a nearly-as-deep stable of pitching prospects couldn’t save their 2019 season. Lourdes Gourriel was as-advertised, Cavan Biggio showed flashes, but the base-level talent wasn’t good enough to lift the club to .500, let alone contention. Even with a full year of their top prospects and age-related growth/development, they don’t appear ready to challenge Tampa, let alone New York. They do seem a year ahead of the M’s pace, though, and while you could plot a course for the M’s to pass them in 2021, it seems more likely that that extra year will keep them ahead of Seattle in a future wild card race.

The White Sox had a contending team, but decided to blow it all up, selling off Chris Sale and Jose Quintana (on cheap extensions) and acquiring J2 superstars to build up their farm system. This began in 2016, and this is really the fourth year of the complete rebuild, as Sale went to Boston before the 2017 season. For much of this time, the Sox have looked stuck: Moncada, the headline return for Sale, wasn’t awful, but high Ks and meh power sapped his value. Giolito, the big return for OF Adam Eaton, was even worse. In both cases, their 2018 was worse than their 2019; they simply weren’t developing on schedule. But everyone took a step forward in 2019, with Eloy Jimenez sticking in Chicago, Moncada breaking out, and Giolito putting together a great year. This year, Luis Robert’s ready to debut. Given where both Cleveland and Minnesota are, I’m not sure they’re quite ready in 2020, but they look to be a solid wild card-contending club in 2021. The moral here is that unless the player development group is a fine-tuned, well-oiled machine, even top prospects don’t improve in a linear fashion: there are ups and downs.

What’s the moral here? The Blue Jays big prospects hit immediately, while the White Sox prospects took longer. In both cases, poor talent surrounding those prospects meant that the clubs couldn’t contend even when the prospects broke out. For both, pitching was a key problem, as was depth in the line-up. The M’s want to greatly accelerate the timeline to contention that these teams are on, AND pass them by next year. The two clubs’ histories show why that’s a tall order. If it DID happen, it would require the M’s starting rotation to be a source of strength, and not what looks like a massive, gaping hole. Justus Sheffield and Yusei Kikuchi need to be good from day one. Justin Dunn needs to make the next big step forward, and Marco Gonzales needs to recapture some velo and become a legitimately good MLB starter, not just a good Mariners starter. Shed Long and Evan White need to be solid players, and JP Crawford needs to gain some consistency. Whatever happened to Mallex Smith and Dan Vogelbach last year needs to stop, immediately, as they’re probably gone fairly quickly if they don’t adjust. One of the OF prospects like Jake Fraley or Braden Bishop needs to show that they’re capable of being a solid fill-in. That’s a lot of what-ifs, but none of them are all that unlikely on their own. The M’s need a whole bunch of them to happen at once, though. That would be a sign that the M’s oft-preached values of development and coaching are actually causing changes at the big league level. That would be a sign that the problems that have left them in a position where they’re forecasted to be a league doormat *a year before their self-identified contention window* have been solved. Show me something, M’s.

M’s Get a Few Breaks, Still Project Poorly for 2020

February 11, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 5 Comments 

The on-again, off-again trade between the Red Sox and Dodgers for Mookie Betts was finally completed the other day. The Dodgers get much better in 2020, and the Red Sox win the financial flexibility pennant. After Twins prospect Brusdar Graterol’s medicals held things up, the Dodgers finally acquired the fireballer along with a catching prospect while the Twins continue to solidify their grip on the AL Central by picking up Kenta Maeda. The Dodgers and Twins get richer in baseball terms, while the Red Sox get richer in a more literal fashion. What’s this got to do with the Mariners? Well, the original deal had the LA Angels acquiring Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling from the Dodgers. That component didn’t survive last weekend, and thus the Angels are down a solid starting pitcher as well as a big corner OF upgrade. Combine that with the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing scandal (from the firing of their GM to draft penalties) and you can argue that this off-season went as well as it possibly could have from an M’s point of view, especially if you take it as a given that the M’s were never going to target free agent talent. The M’s stock vis a vis the leaders of the AL West improved, not through any action the M’s took, but because a trade got messed up and because the League levied punishments on the divisional colossus. Not bad.

And yet, it hasn’t materially impacted the M’s predicament, one nicely summarized by the just-released PECOTA-based projected standings from Baseball Prospectus. As of this morning, the M’s project for 66-96, securely in last place, some seven wins below the Rangers, and 32 behind the still-colossal Astros. The reason is clear: PECOTA thinks the M’s do not have a capable major league starter, and the bullpen is basically CJ Edwards and a bunch of fungible AAAA guys. BP’s pitching metrics were remarkably bearish on the M’s starters – and Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi in particular – last year, but they were similarly unimpressed by the seasons turned in by Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn. An optimist can pretty easily see how to add 10-15 wins to this projection: assume a bounce-back from Kikuchi, more of the same from Marco, and some improvements from Sheffield and perhaps even Logan Gilbert, and you’ve got a rotation that won’t embarrass itself the way PECOTA thinks it will. Of course, even with all of that, they’d just barely scrape .500. It may be a very long year.

Let’s take a look at Clay Davenport’s projections instead. Davenport’s generally been the most optimistic of the projection systems, as it saw the M’s winning 83 games last year (PECOTA forecast just 72), 87 in 2018, and 86 in 2017. They’ve projected the M’s to be over .500 each year since 2014; surely, this is the place for optimism, right? Well, Davenport’s got the M’s at 68-94, with the problem again on the pitching side of the ledger. The M’s are forecast to allow more runs than all AL teams save for Baltimore and Kansas City. The offense is also a concern, though, with low batting averages/OBPs sinking the run-scoring despite solid seasons from Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager. After a dalliance with a high-average/low-power offense in 2018, the M’s will sink or swim with guys like JP Crawford and Dan Vogelbach, whose patience can partially make up for low averages. Then there’s the fact that all systems see a decline for Tom Murphy, and don’t see Evan White/Kyle Lewis as completely ready to be above-average corner IF/OF bats in 2020. PECOTA’s a bit higher on Vogelbach than most, but much lower on Mallex Smith.

It’s one thing to forecast a slash line correctly, it’s another thing to get playing time right (especially with teams that have made so many roster moves, like the M’s), and it’s yet another thing to assess what that production *means*. Mallex Smith’s line is virtually identical between PECOTA (.249/.316/.362), Davenport (.250/.321/.370), and ZiPS (.250/.319/.364). But between slightly less playing time, park adjustments, and the run value of the entire league, you get a big swing in what those numbers mean. By ZiPS, that OBP-heavy line is worth 1.6 WAR. Davenport sees him at 0.6, while PECOTA thinks it’s just about replacement level.

No one really thinks this year’s going to be exciting due to a playoff run or contention. The only that matters, I suppose, is finding out which players, and especially which pitchers, blow their projections out of the water. Of course the error bars are much wider on guys like Sheffield and Dunn (to say nothing of Gilbert or George Kirby), as they’ve got less experience to project from. But the M’s have to start hitting on prospects and turning them into star-level players. All the financial flexibility in the world won’t mean as much come next year if the M’s still need 3-4 starters and 3-4 position players to compete. The good news is that the division isn’t completely running away from them, at least not right now. But the gap remains, and other teams have young players who’ll be around to frustrate the Kelenic/Rodriguez fever dreams of M’s optimists. Sheffield and Dunn need to make the projections look foolish, and Evan White needs to hit early and often. It won’t matter much this year, but it’s the only way to get to a point where the M’s next wave could be decisive in shifting the balance of baseballing power.

Body Blows

January 24, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 9 Comments 

The M’s have made several minor personnel moves in the days surrounding their annual media day, but the biggest news involves a setback for perhaps their most important hitter, Mitch Haniger. Haniger’s season was shut down early following a :shivers: ruptured testicle. His rehab seemed to be fairly uneventful, but he felt something during a workout recently, and now requires core surgery that will keep him from baseball activities for 6-8 weeks. At a minimum, his spring training is probably shot, and as such, he’ll miss opening day. It’s not clear how much more than that he could miss, but hopefully not too much.

The larger question, of course, is what it does to his development. 2019 was an odd one, as his BABIP dropped and his strikeouts spiked during the first half of the year. But he made up for these shortcomings with additional power, likely boosted by the juiced baseball league-wide. The missed time and continued uncertainty around the ball make it hard to know what to expect from a hitter who was freakishly consistent in 2017-18 (when healthy). It’s not a coincidence that the M’s second-half swoon really kicked into high gear once Haniger left, and his presence in the line-up could make this season minimally tolerable, so hopefully we won’t hear anything more about setbacks or timetables from Mr. Haniger. This injury likely opens the door to Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis in April. If Fraley can improve upon his rough introduction to MLB, that would certainly help the M’s sketchy depth, but on paper, it could make for something of a rough start to 2020.

The M’s addressed their *infield* depth by signing former Pirates prospect Alen Hanson to a minor league deal. I mentioned him on the blog once just to point out he was among the least-likely MLB first basemen I’d encountered since Miguel Cairo when he popped up playing 1B in Toronto last year. He hit .163/.229/.163 in a cup of coffee last year, and is a career .232/.266/.368 hitter in about 1 full season of work. It’s…it’s not a good slash line, friends. He came up as a slick-fielding shortstop, and would figure to offer a push to Dylan Moore or whomever at utility, but will likely hang out in Tacoma for at least a few months.

I’d say that the pick-up of Hanson’s a clear, consistent Dipoto move, similar to his acquisition of another ex-Giants SS, Kelby Tomlinson, last year. But if you really want an example of a move so obviously “Mariners” it almost needs to be written in northwest green writing, here you go: the M’s have acquired LHP Nick Margevicius, who’d been DFA’d by San Diego about a week ago. Margevicius is just 23, and made the Pads opening day roster last year, but struggled and was demoted after a few months of replacement-level pitching, mostly out of the rotation. Coming up through the San Diego system, he balanced a lack of real bat-missing stuff with very good control. As you might expect, that walk rate climbed in the big leagues, as hitters started knocking his fastball/slider/change/curve mix around, and forcing him towards the corners or off the plate. His straight four-seam fastball registers just 88 MPH, so Margevicius fits the template of the lefty junkballer that’s been catnip for this organization. After losing both Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone, Jerry Dipoto was probably itching for a replacement, and now he’s got one.

Of course, just because the M’s love the template doesn’t mean it’s been a real winner for them. Milone started well, but tailed off, and LeBlanc’s 2019 is probably best left undiscussed here. Margevicius offers youth and team control, and might improve with some instruction in the minors, or move to a swingman role once, say, Justin Dunn or Logan Gilbert is deemed ready. It’s not a bad pick-up at all, but I hope the M’s still hope to acquire another starting pitcher. Margevicius could stick around, but they could use a bit more experience in the rotation, and, if you’d permit me an editorial comment here, more velocity.

Margevicius’ slider looks like his best pitch, and he does something pretty good with it: he induces a lot of swings. In general, if batters are swinging and putting your breaking ball in play at higher rates than your fastball, you’re doing something right. The average exit velocity and production on bendy things are lower than the corresponding averages for fastballs, and it often means hitters are expanding the zone to stay alive – all of that’s to the good (from the pitcher’s point of view). He hasn’t really been able to limit the damage on that contact, but you can see the M’s thought process here. Last year, he had bizarre reverse splits, as lefties torched him. There’s no real reason that should continue, so he could benefit from some regression. At the same time, he’s struggled from the stretch and really struggled to miss bats, and at 88 MPH, there’s no real reason that should change in the future, though pitch design could presumably help.

I know many of you are sick of the cynicism surrounding the team, but there’s no way to look at the recent news and feel too confident. This team will rise or fall based on the development of players like Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodgriguez. The problem for fans here is that it’s doubtful either will play for the Seattle Mariners in 2020. There will be plenty of development in Seattle, and watching the likes of Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and Logan Gilbert should be instructive (as well as JP Crawford and Shed Long). But the real story for the future M’s will be taking place in Arkansas. Meanwhile, the M’s rivals have restocked. Minnesota’s signing of Josh Donaldson helps build around a terrifying young core featuring one of the league’s intriguing infields. The Angels get a return to health from Shohei Ohtani and pair him with newly-acquired 3B Anthony Rendon. The Indians top three starters – Shane Bieber/Mike Clevinger/Carlos Carrasco – headline one of the best groups in baseball, with the possible exception of Tampa’s troika of Blake Snell/Tyler Glasnow/Charlie Morton. Let’s say the M’s OF teens are everything Dipoto hopes they can be. The M’s *still* need to close the gap between their current club and where their rivals are headed. Sure, the Astros will be worse than we once thought come 2021, but on paper, they’re still a lot better, and the good teams in the AL keep getting better. I believe in Julio Rodgriguez’s development, but something pretty major needs to change in order for the M’s to capitalize on it.

Felix Hernandez Plays for Atlanta Now

January 20, 2020 · Filed Under Mariners · 3 Comments 

This day was always coming. Yes, it felt jarring at first to see Jon Heyman report that Felix signed a $1 million minor league deal with the Atlanta Braves today, but I honestly think I prefer it to Felix going unsigned, and unceremoniously forgotten. The fact that he couldn’t get a big-league deal shows that possibility wasn’t *too* far away, but realistically, someone as competitive as El Cartelua was never going to slink off into retirement in 2020.

Felix butted heads with M’s coaches and that experience probably impacted his desirability to other clubs, but the Braves have some experience here. A bit over 3 years ago, in January of 2017, the M’s jettisoned prospect Luiz Gohara, who’d spent four years in the M’s system. He seemed to turn a corner in 2016, in what was, admittedly, his third go-round in Everett, but after the move east, he shot through the Braves system rapidly, making his MLB debut in 2017. This is baseball, so there are rarely true happy endings; he was off in 2018, belatedly diagnosed with a shoulder issue, and then quietly released (then signed by the Angels), so this isn’t purely a “why do they always get better” lament. But I think it helped the Braves front office get over any qualms they may have had about Felix’s health and issues responding to coaching. They’ve seen something similar before.

Is this Felix’s best pathway to MLB playing time? No, of course not. You could make a case that the M’s might offer that, but so would the Royals or Tigers. The Braves young rotation is led by MIke Soroka and Max Fried, but also includes Cole Hamels, Mike Foltynewicz, and presumably Sean Newcomb (who worked mostly in relief last year). That’s not even getting into the fact that the Braves still boast a solid assortment of pitching prospects including Touki Toussaint and Ian Anderson. Still, it’s near Felix’s new home in Florida, and he’s working with a player development group that’s managed to get quite a bit of big-league production out of their pitchers.

That said, they’ve made some high-profile missteps, as with Kevin Gausman in 2019, and the career trajectory of ex-Brave Julio Teheran looks quite Felix-like from afar. Like Felix, Teheran lost velocity each year for many years, and saw his walk rate climb higher at the same time. This shouldn’t be a surprise: there is no silver bullet in player development. For all the grief I give them, the M’s really shouldn’t be expected to put every player on an effective improvement plan that works for each player’s strengths and personality. All teams can do is maximize their “hit” rate, and a big part of that is being flexible, and listening when a player says something isn’t working. The Astros’ player development successes have been accompanied by a ton of failures, as you’d expect – not just the big JD Martinez misses, but the dozens of players who’ve washed out there and turned up later in other orgs. Felix was often seen as a haughty big-leaguer who thought he was somehow above putting in time with coaches and trainers. I’ve disagreed, but again: the biggest part of player development is really getting that initial buy-in from the athlete. The M’s seem to have struggled with this at times, though by all accounts this is changing. I’m not sure what Atlanta does differently, but it is striking that they’ve brought in pitchers and prospects from different orgs, meaning they’re dealing with a wide array of habits, previous coaching techniques, and raw abilities. They seem to make it work about as well as any other org, with the asterisked exception of the Astros.

I suppose I’m glad he’s not pitching for an AL West rival, but I’ve got no real affinity for the Braves. I just hope this works, and that he’s got enough left in his right arm to make it up as a swing man, or that he’s first up from Gwinnett when a big league rotation member goes down with injury.

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