Game 12, Mariners vs. Royals, on The King’s Day

marc w · April 8, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Felix vs. Homer Bailey, 5:15pm

A happy and fruitful Felix day to you and yours. Not just any Felix day, mind you – a *Royal* Felix day, as this is the anniversary of the King’s blessed birth. And how better to celebrate but to put a group of pretenders (with the gall to call themselves “Royals” in his presence) to the sword. Spare no one, King Felix.

I recently had cause to go back and think about Felix’s rise, and the Spring of 2005, when the teenage phenom graced Cheney Stadium. He wasn’t perfect, but he was close enough. It was cool to see him matched up against some of the best prospects in the game at the time, all of whom had several years on him. I listened intently to a road game in which Felix started against another young starter named Matt Cain, who’d been drafted out of HS and was “only” a year and half older than the young King. Ian Kinsler was in the PCL that year, along with Prince Fielder, the Angels group of Casey Kotchman, Jeff Mathis, and Dallas McPherson. Obviously, not all of them had the kind of impact we though at the time, but Felix reached the highest highs a player who’s never played a postseason game can reach.

Homer Bailey was just a touch behind that group. Picked #7 overall in 2004, the Texas HS phenom spent that 2005 season in a frustrating season in the Midwest League. He had a K/9 of 10.85 back in a season in which K/9 was a good 2/3 of pitcher evaluation for us stat-savvy bloggers AND when a starter’s K/9 of 10.85 was well-nigh unthinkable (except for Felix, you know, who had a K/9 of over 11 in the Cal League the year before, and was over 10 in AAA at 19). Unfortunately, he gave up far too many runs for someone with that kind of dominance, and though despite being a consensus top pitching prospect, it took him until 2007 to debut with Cincinnati, and it wasn’t until 2012 that he really established himself as a viable MLB pitcher. In that 2012 campaign, he finished strong, winning a 1-0 no hitter in September (a month after a certain someone spun a 1-0 perfecto for Seattle). The Reds made the playoffs and Bailey tossed 7 phenomenal innings at the Giants, giving up just 1 run and striking out 10 against a single walk. It wasn’t enough, as the Giants Ryan Vogelsong and a bunch of relievers sent the game to extras tied at 1, until the Giants won it in the 10th.

He had an even better 2013 season, but just as it looked like Bailey’d found it, he lost it again. Injuries struck in 2014, costing him a portion of that season and nearly all of 2015-16. He returned in 2017, but was a shell of his former self, posting an ERA over 6 in 18 starts. From there, he somehow got worse, going 1-14 last year, again with an ERA north of 6.

I’m not here to bury Mr. Bailey. He’s stuck it out despite years and years of struggle, and while he’s never come close to the magic of late-2012, he’s still around. He pitched perfectly acceptably in his first start this year, and it came on a day in which Corey Kluber struggled. I don’t think he’s fixed himself in KC, but I can imagine it’s nice to get out of Cincinnati and the weight of expectations built up over years. I don’t think it’d make him feel any better, but if there’s anyone in the game who can kind of relate, it’s probably Felix.

Bailey doesn’t have the velo he had at his peak, but he’s surprisingly close, with a four-seam average over 93. It has uninteresting movement, but he supplements it with three breaking/offspeed pitches: a curve, slider, and an intriguing splitter that he used a lot in his first start this year. That could help, as Bailey’s been undone by the longball in recent years, as his fastballs (he has a sinker, too) have been preyed upon voraciously by opposing hitters. The breaking stuff hasn’t been a lot better, but he needs something to keep the pressure off of his fastball. One thing that might help would be to avoid hitters’ counts, as he’s struggled with control (leading to more such counts), and with what to do once in them: batters slugged .409 off of him in all counts that ran through an 0-1 count. Not great, but not awful. But if he started 1-0, then batters slugged *.730* against him the rest of the PA. That’s… that’s a problem. The kind of problem this dinger-happy M’s line-up LOVES.

Facing a problem of how to keep Dan Vogelbach’s bat in the line-up, the M’s have decided to chase dingers against a pitcher who’s given up plenty and stick all of their 1B/DH types in the line-up at the same time. This comes at a defensive cost, as the line-up now lacks Mallex Smith in CF and presses Dylan Moore in at SS with Tim Beckham ailing. But ohhhh, the dinger potential is strong here. KC is a pitcher’s park, but that will make it all the more impressive when the Dingermen hit 3 tonight.

1: Haniger, CF
2: Santana, LF
3: Bruce, RF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Vogelbach, DH
6: Healy, 3B
7: Narvaez, C
8: Moore, SS
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: FELIX

Tacoma lost 10-3 yesterday as Justus Sheffield’s org debut was…not so good. He went 4 2/3, giving up 4 earned on 5 walks and just 1 punchout. Whatever, come back next time and do better. The R’s played an early one today and lost a heartbreaker 11-10, blowing a 7-3 early lead. The R’s scored 7 in the 4th, but Ryan Garton gave up 5 runs on 3 dingers in 1 1/3 IP in relief, and RJ Alaniz gave up 2 in the 10th. Shawn Armstrong rehabbed with a single inning of really good relief, so he stood out like a sore thumb today.

Arkansas finally lost, dropping a 3-2 game to Tulsa. Today, Arkansas faces the breakaway region of Northwest Arkansas and try to preserve their union behind SP Darren McCaughan.

Modesto was down 9-0 to Lancaster following a 9-run 2nd, but chipped back and finally won it, 10-9. Luis Liberato hit his 3rd HR, and Joe Rizzo hit his 3rd double. The pen went 7 1/3 scoreless, which is far more impressive. The 4-0 Nuts head to Inland Empire tonight, with Ray Kerr on the mound.

West Virginia lost a close one, 5-4, in 10 innings, but Julio Rodriguez doubled twice, and Jarred Kelenic hit one of his own. They’re facing Lexington today, and are struggling against Royals prospect Jonathan Bowlan.

Game 11, Mariners at White Sox

marc w · April 7, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Wade LeBlanc vs. Ivan Nova, 11:10am

It may not shock anyone who’s watched more than one Mariner game this year, but Rob Arthur’s found some solid evidence that the baseball “juiced” again, meaning that the drag coefficient is lower than it was on average in 2018. It’s essentially the 2017 ball, the one that was used in the year that baseball set records for single-season HRs…by a mile.

It always felt both unfair and somehow fitting that the M’s assembled a team around fly ball defense especially in 2016 to try and wring more out of their pitching staff by targeting team-wide BABIP JUST as the ball started flying further than ever. Now that they stopped caring about defense (and seriously guys, you could try caring at least a tiny bit) and just getting older or more one-dimensional sluggers, they accidentally catch another wave of drag-less superballs and race out to a fast start. It’s just perfectly Mariners: from one point of view, it’s evidence that luck really does all even out. It was bad in one year, good in another – even steven, right? Well, no, if we apply an RE24 or WPA lens to this, it’s kind of a disaster. The years in which the M’s were focused on competing for a playoff spot, their luck spoils whatever chance they had (and let’s be clear: better BABIP luck or fewer HRs-allowed wouldn’t allow them to catch the 2017/18 Astros) and now that their luck’s turned around, it’s in a step-back season that might see several solid performers flipped for prospects.

That’s not to say any of this fast start is worthless. The M’s have been compelling to watch, even as their bullpen continues to take on water and even as their defense should come with Yakety Sax playing in the background. The newcomers have blossomed beyond even the most optimistic expectations; Jay Bruce hit 9 HRs last year in over 350 PAs. He’s at 5 now in just 45. That could help the M’s get something for him at the deadline, or hang onto him for the year and enjoy the enjoyment – either is better than the expectations that the M’s would simply be babysitting him until he was DFAd or his contract expired. But even better, it’s starting to provide some evidence that the shake-up in player development and coaching may be doing something. No, half the line-up won’t maintain ISOs over .400, no matter how low the drag coefficient gets. But if guys like Ryon Healy and Tim Beckham post career-best ISOs without sacrificing plate discipline? Well, that starts to look interesting.

Today, the M’s face ex-Yankee and Pirates righty Ivan Nova. Nova had a brief renaissance, as so many pitchers do, under the tutelage of Ray Searage in Pittsburgh, by cutting his walk rate significantly. He’s still a sinker/slider-ish curve guy who tries to get grounders instead of striking people out, but the whole skillset works much better when he keeps his walk rate at 5% or lower. He’s mixed back in some four-seam fastballs, and this year he’s throwing more of a slider that had been mothballed for several years. It’s an interesting arsenal; the sinker looks OK with solid armside run, but only comes in at 90-91. The slider has almost perfect sidespin, so it doesn’t sink compared to his sinker at all – it just has different velo and horizontal movement. The curve’s getting a bit more depth, though it had at least as much back in his Yankee days…back when he was getting destroyed by the AL.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Encarnacion, 1B
5: Narvaez, C
6: Beckham, SS
7: Vogelbach, DH
8: Healy, 3B
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: LeBlanc

The big story in the minors today is Justus Sheffield’s org debut, which’ll kick off around 1:05pm today in Sacto. Fire up MiLB.tv, M’s fans. The R’s lost last night 11-5.

Julio Rodriguez went 2-4 with a walk, and Jerred Kelenic walked three times in WV’s 6-5 win yesterday. Arkansas won 8-5 to take three straight from Tulsa, as Kyle Lewis went 2-3 with 2 BBs, and Jordan Cowan hit his first HR of the year. Modesto won 3-2 in 10 innings, as closer Sam Delaplane shook off a game-tying 9th inning HR to win it with 2 innings of relief in which he struck out 6.

Anthony Misievicz starts for Arkansas, Nick Wells for Modesto, and Oliver Jaskie for West Viriginia.

Game 10, Mariners at White Sox

marc w · April 6, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Mike Leake vs. Lucas Giolito, 11:10am

The M’s now have had two different players make three errors in an inning on the young season. Last year, Jerry Dipoto talked a lot about building an offense that looked more like a 1970s style low-strikeout-high-ball-in-play group and less like a three-true-outcomes modern group.With the rebuild on, their offense has now moved into the 21st century and slugs tons of dingers even if they whiff more than they did last year. All in all, the change has been a positive one, at least early on. But the offense wasn’t the only group trying to turn back the clock to the 80s or so. The pitching staff is now an extremely anachronistic group, with starters throwing slower than other clubs and, through the early going, pitching to contact like no other team in the game. They’ve got the highest percentage of balls in play in the league. That…that seems counterproductive when your defense looks like this group does. But: dingers.

Lucas Giolito was one of the best high school pitching prospects ever coming out of Harvard-Westlake HS, and by 2014-15 he was carving through the minors with high K% low walk rates and dominating with mid 90s velo and a big curve. Injuries and the high minors presented bigger challenges, and suddenly his K% kept dropping and his walk rate increased, the product of rapidly declining velocity and command. He was still an uber-prospect, so he came over from the Nats org with Reynaldo Lopez for Adam Eaton, and the rebuilding White Sox sent him into their rotation. The results have been…not good. Giolito has a career K/9 of 6.49 and a BB/9 of 4.20. That’s borderline unplayable, but the HR/9 of 1.55 just seems like insult to perhaps-undiagnosed-injury. His velocity has dropped from 98 in HS to 95-96 in the Nats org to 92 or so in the first half of last year.

He had a great high-rising over-the-top fastball, but batters got used to it and hit it hard, especially when it came in at 92. With the lower velo, his vertical rise dropped and so the Sox seem to have made a decision to work in a sinker to replace the declining four-seamer. It didn’t help too much, and I and many other observers were pretty much ready to write him off as an unfortunate story of injuries and lack of stuff getting in the way of what had been a meteoric rise. But something started happening down the stretch. Some of that velocity started to creep back, and his effective spin starting improving. He’d occasionally switch back to the four-seamer as his primary FB. These were tentative steps, and after an encouraging August, he collapsed in September, but it was *something* to look for in 2019 on a team that would probably be bad yet again.

In his first start, he didn’t throw the sinker once, going with a a rejuvenated four-seamer with over 11″ of rise. It averaged 94mph, and he touched 95-96. He struck out 8 and walked just 1 in 6 2/3 IP. It was about as encouraging as it could be, but it was just one game. This’ll be an interesting one; Giolito should still be HR-prone with a rising FB and a tiny home park. Hopefully, the M’s make him work and get into some hitters’ counts. They’ll be much more of a challenge than the Royals were, but it’ll be interesting to see if Giolito’s on his way to a rebound season.

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Bruce, 1B
5: Encarnacion, DH
6: Beckham, SS
7: Healy, 3B
8: Murphy, C
9: Moore, 2B
SP: Leake

Dee Gordon drew walks in BOTH of his PAs yesterday, but tweaked his groin diving back on a pick-off attempt. Guess he’ll get the day off to let it heal.

The Rainiers came back to beat Sacramento 6-5 on a go-ahead HR from Joey Curletta last night. Ex-White Sox prospect Tyler Danish takes the hill for Tacoma in Sacramento tonight.

Arkansas beat up on Tulsa, winning 9-4 behind LHP Ricardo Sanchez’s 5 scoreless IP with 5 Ks and no walks, and 4 HRs by the offense. Dom Thompson-Williams hit two of those. Only blemish was a disastrous 2/3 IP from Wyatt Mills, the Gonzaga product, who’s looked off after dominating in the Cal League last year. Newcomer Zac Grotz, late of the Mets org (and drafted by Houston), gets the start today.

Modesto moved to 2-0 with another classic Cal League game, winning 11-8 in 11 innings in Lancaster. Luis Liberato hit his 2nd HR in as many nights. 2017 draft pick Austin Hutchison starts for the Nuts today.

West Virginia dropped a pitcher’s duel, 3-2, last night. Kelenic and Rodriguez each had a single, and Brent Honeyman hit a 2R HR for the Power, but the Greenville drive leveled things up and then walked it off in the 9th. Today, Ryne Inman gets the start. The 2015 draft pick had an up and down year for Clinton last year; we’ll see how he takes to the Sally league.

Game 9, Mariners vs. White Sox – On the Road

marc w · April 5, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Reynaldo Lopez, 11:10am

The M’s play their first road game of the year, and it coincides with the White Sox’ home opener.

Yusei Kikuchi’s been solid over two starts, yielding just a single walk in nearly 11 IP. Compared to his projections (which, admittedly, didn’t have a lot to go on), he’s pitching to contact a lot more – they’ve been low on the strikeouts, and really high on walk rate. Of course, Kikuchi has company in that regard: the M’s as a team are among MLB’s laggards in strikeouts. Only the Angels trail the M’s K/9, and only the Angels and Rangers trail in K% (what’s up with the AL West?). The M’s have the lowest average sinker and cutter velocities, and are below average in most of the other pitch types, but Kikuchi’s doing what he can do bring the average fastball velo up.

Reynaldo Lopez was one of the big prospects coming to the south side from the Nats in the big Adam Eaton deal a few years ago. By fWAR, he was the best player on the White Sox last year, though that’s clearly a low bar. He pairs well above average velocity with a low BABIP thanks to a sky-high fly ball rate, but while he posted a sub-4 ERA, there are red flags throughout the profile. For one, his control isn’t great; his walk rate of 9.4% was too high to balance a merely average K rate, and he’s gotten off to a slow start this year with 4 walks and a plunked batsman in 4 IP. Second, batters seem to get a good look at his pitches, because he posts way, way below average rates on out-of-zone swings and thus on contact rates. He’s thus something of the inverse of Freddy Peralta where average stuff plays up due to some deception. Lopez is perhaps the least deceptive starter out there, and I for one applaud his values of honesty and forthrightness.

The M’s still boast baseball’s best offense by Fangraphs’ wRC+, though it’s harder to see why. Their slash line of .264/.359/.520 is amazing, good for a .377 wOBA, but it’s pretty far from the Dodgers line of .289/.388/.557. But the M’s get a 162 wRC+ while the Dodgers make do with a 146. You see this up and down the list. My favorite example is that the Astros (.235/.304/.363) and Padres (.237/.299/.384) have identical wOBAs of .298, but this works out to a wRC+ of 103 for Houston, but just 82 for San Diego. What’s going on here? I thought park factors were wreaking havoc with the numbers, but I don’t think that’s it. Instead, it looks like the league averages are messing things up (wRC+ compares a team’s wOBA to league average). At the moment, the AL’s average wOBA is a 2014-esque .301, while the NL’s is at .324, where it was in 2009 or 2005. This is all small-sample noise, and the NL will cool down and the AL will heat up, but for now, the slow starts in Houston/Cleveland/Minnesota/Anaheim are pulling the average down and thus messing with the based-on-league-average stats like wRC+.

Line-up!

1: Smith, CF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Santana, LF
4: Bruce, 1B
5: Beckham, SS
6: Narvaez, C
7: Healy, 3B
8: Vogelbach, DH
9: Gordon, 2B
SP: Kikuchi

For the first time this year, we’ve got minor league box scores to explore. Yesterday’s opening day for the full-season minors was a good one for the Mariners, as they boasted several solid pitching performances and a number of wins.

The West Viriginia Power (A-ball, Sally League) won their first game as an M’s affiliate 1-0 in 10 innings. As you might imagine, the pitchers were the stars, with Logan Gilbert going 4 scoreless with 5 Ks, and Devin Sweet getting the win by pitching the last 3 IP with 3Ks. Jarred Kelenic batted 2nd and went 0-3 but with 2 walks, while Julio Rodriguez went 2-4 with a 2B. I’m still just stunned that the M’s don’t have an affiliate in the Midwest League, where they’ve had their single-A affiliate since at least the early 90s. Prospects from A-Rod to David Ortiz to Felix to Kyle Seager to Braden Bishop all came up through the pitcher-friendly league. Today, 2017 draft pick Clay Chandler gets the start for West Virginia; the righty was solid in the Clinton rotation last year.

In the High-A California League (and I’d be lost if the M’s moved their affiliation to the Carolina League like many want them to), Modesto held off the Lancaster Jet Hawks 7-4. Ljay Newsome K’d 9 in 5 innings with 3 R (2 earned) allowed thanks to two dingers. Reliever Sam Delaplane used a funky delivery/deception to strike out 100 in 59 2/3 IP in the Midwest league last year, and he started where he left off last year by striking out 3 in 2 scoreless IP. C Cal Raleigh homered and went 2-5, and Luis Liberato went 2-3 with a walk and a dinger of his own. OF Anthony Jimenez went 3-5 with a 3B. Lefty Ian McKinney, recently released by the Cardinals org, and a guy with some AA experience, starts for the Nuts in today’s game.

Arkansas rallied late to beat the Tulsa Drillers 6-4, scoring 2 in the 8th and another 2 in the 9th. Dodger pitching prospect Dustin May started and befuddled the Travelers for 5 IP, yielding just 2 hits, no runs, 1 walk, and striking out 9. The bullpen was more pliant, though, and the Travs took advantage. Evan White went 2-4 with a walk, and Kyle Lewis was 1-4 with a double. Jake Fraley went 2-5 with a triple. Justin Dunn was effective in his first start in the org, going 5 IP and giving up 1 R on 5H and 1BB, with 7 Ks. Delightfully-named minor league free agent Parker Markel ended up pitching the last inning with 2 Ks. The former Rays farmhand pitched in AAA quite a bit over the years, but headed off to Independent League ball last year after not pitching in 2017. Former Braves farmhand Ricardo Sanchez was DFA’d by Atlanta last fall, and he’s now in Arkansas’ rotation. The 5’11” lefty is on the M’s 40-man roster.

Tacoma had the Sacramento RiverCats beat, but a late rally tied the game and the Cats walked it off in the 11th. Starter Erik Swanson was very good, holding the RiverCats scoreless over 5 IP on 6 H, no walks and *8* Ks. The 9th-inning rally came off of Nick Rumbelow, but the big 2-run 2B that tied it was a fly ball that frankly should’ve been caught by new LF Eric Young Jr. Young began the game by losing a pop fly in the lights that went for another 2B, so it was something of a rough first game for him, though he went 1-3 with 2 BBs (Joey Curletta had the same line). Shed Long and Braden Bishop both went 2-5, and David Freitas was 2-3 with a BB. JP Crawford was 0-4. Tommy Milone will start tonight’s game against Giants prospect Tyler Beede.

PCL Preview and Opening Day for the 2019 Tacoma Rainiers

marc w · April 4, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

It’s opening day in the Minor Leagues today, so fire up MiLB.tv and watch what we hope is the next generation of M’s stars. JY’s previews for each of the affiliates are so, so good that I don’t have to do as much for a minor league preview, but as I usually say: I love each M’s affiliate, and sure, West Virginia and Arkansas will get the bulk of the prospect-hound eyeballs, but I love the Rainiers most of all. I’m from Tacoma, and loved going to games when I lived there, and it’s an affiliate that marries both a handy location for many M’s fans in the northwest with high-level/close-to-the-majors baseball. As such, I write a post like this that’s both a look at the R’s season and also a guide to which games you may want to come down and catch if you’re interested in both M’s and other teams’ big prospects.

Last year’s post was kind of angry, as it’d been years since Tacoma had seen real, honest-to-goodness prospects, especially if you don’t count Mike Zunino being sent down repeatedly to work on his swing. Instead, 2018 was the apotheosis in the M’s annoying-but-possibly-necessary process of managing the roster nearly entirely through minor league free agents. The system had been so hollowed out by some bad drafts and a raft of trades that the M’s really didn’t have enough players, and that meant that the team cycled through org players at an astounding rate. 2017 set records for pitcher usage, and while it was a bit better last year, the bulk of the roster’s no longer in the org.

Happily, things are quite a bit different in 2019. While the players are new, this isn’t a new crop of MiLB veterans and independent league performers who’ll be gone in months. Instead, it’s an intriguing club built of actual, honest to goodness prospects, the return for the M’s busy offseason step-back. We haven’t seen a team like this in Tacoma since 2013 or so, and it’s great for the Rainiers and M’s fans. The group is headlined by the main trade return in two of the M’s hot stove blockbusters, Justus Sheffield (acquired for James Paxton) and JP Crawford (acquired for Jean Segura). Shed Long, Erik Swanson, and Joey Curletta round out the key players of interest, and it’ll be fun seeing how some of these players – who have experience in the International League – adjust to the PCL. Last year, there were exactly zero position players on the M’s 40-man roster on opening day. This year, there are five. It’s pretty much a 180 degree turn from how the club looked last year.

Tonight, the R’s kick off their season in Sacramento with a 7:05 start against the RiverCats, a Giants affiliate who’ll come to town later in the month. Tonight’s game pits Erik Swanson, a solid righty also acquired in the Paxton deal – and a good bet to be the first up if the M’s need rotation help – against Sacto lefty Andrew Suarez, who pitched in the Giants rotation last year. With some of SF’s off-season moves, they had a roster crunch which led to Chris Stratton moving to the Angels and Suarez getting optioned back down. Ex-Athletics/Brewers catcher and Thurston county resident Stephen Vogt will do the catching along with Giants prospect Aramis Garcia, a C with some power but who struggled at the plate in the minors last year (but did make his MLB debut). The top prospect on the team’s another pitcher, righty Shaun Anderson; we’ll probably see him at some point in the series, or when they head to Tacoma beginning on the 24th.

Tacoma’s home schedule begins next week, on Tuesday the 9th with a 6:05 start against the El Paso Chihuahuas. The Padres have been a loaded system for a little while, and this year’s no different. They’ll be in Tacoma for a three-game set, and we should probably see SP prospect Logan Allen, who’s just shy of 22 and coming off a brilliant 2018 campaign split between Hi-A and AA. Sure, Chris Paddack and Fernando Tatis, Jr. started in San Diego, but the Pads’ #3 prospect Luis Urias will play SS/2B, and slugging Canuck Josh Naylor (who seemed to hit a bajillion dingers against M’s affiliates last year) will be at 1B or an OF corner. Former 1st rounder and another noted prospect Cal Quantrill’s also in the rotation, and finally free of innings limits and the like after his post-draft TJ surgery.

The first big weekend series at Cheney sees the Albuquerque Isotopes visit for 4 games starting Friday the 12th of April. The Rockies affiliate is perhaps the 2nd-most prospect-laden group in the league behind Las Vegas (who are less of a sure thing), headlined by Rockies #1 prospect and somewhere around #20 prospect in the game, SS Brendan Rodgers. A SS with plus power, he put up eye-popping numbers in the Cal League, but took a slight step back last season. He’s still great, but there are more questions now, particularly on his hit tool; all of that sounds a bit like JP Crawford. They’re very, very different players, of course, but both may have something to prove in 2019. The Isotopes boast a few of the Rockies top pitchers like Jeff Hoffman, who’s been working at Driveline after some up-and-down seasons following his own TJ rehab. There’s former top prospect Ryan Castellani who’s been all over the map results and stuff wise in the past few years. Closer Yency Almonte figures to see time with the big club this year, and CF Yonathan Daza is in the Rockies’ top 10 list.

After Sacramento’s visit closes out the April home schedule, Albuquerque returns for the first weekend of May. They’ll be followed by the Reno Aces, beginning on Tuesday the 7th. They were supposed to be headlined by top prospect Jon Duplantier, a huge SP with solid velo from the right side, but the D-Backs called him up this week. Instead, we’ll settle for their #2 overall prospect, Taylor Widener, another RH SP. Widener’s got a mid-90s fastball and a good slider, and he used them to carve up AA hitters last year. Also pitching for the Isotopes are Taylor Clarke, Jimmy Sherfy, and ex-Red Sox lefty Robby Scott. Of note is former Rainiers/Mariners lefty Anthony Vasquez, who’s joined by ex-R’s OFs Andrew Aplin and Abraham Almonte.

On May 22nd, Tacoma welcomes the Nationals’ affiliate (wait, what?), the Fresno Grizzlies. This club had been an Astros affiliate for a few years, and then the Giants affiliate for a while before that; it’s going to take me a long, long time to associate them with the Nats, who haven’t had a PCL affiliate in…maybe ever? SS Carter Kieboom, the Nats #2 prospect, will play for the Grizz, but that’s pretty much it for big prospects. They DO have three pitchers named Austin/Austen, and Austin Voth played for UW.

In June, the Memphis Redbirds make their once-every-two-year visit to the Northwest. The Cardinals affiliate boasts St. Louis’ #4 prospect in RHP Ryan Helsley, and he’ll throw to #5 prospect, C Andrew Knizner. Former M’s prospect Seth Elledge starts in AA, but may be up with Memphis by this time. Their IF boasts Tacoma-born, strikeout-avoiding 2B Max Schrock, who’d been fascinating to watch as he moved up the line first with the Nats and then in the Oakland org, but he really struggled in the PCL last year. Also on the club are back-end-of-the-top-30 guys like 3B Evan Mendoza and P Daniel Poncedeleon.

As soon as Memphis leaves, the R’s play host to Nashville. The 4-game series begins on the 7th (a Friday), and lets us get a look at the Rangers close-to-the-majors talent. Yes, this had been an A’s affiliate for a few years, but the Rangers shockingly left Round Rock. The Sounds are led by 2B Eli White, long-time Rays prospect Taylor Guerrieri (who once boasted one of the minors best changeups) and hard-throwing lefty starter Taylor Hearn. Willie Calhoun, the position-challenged hitting savant starts in AAA after failing to, uh, hit for the Rangers last year. Lower-tier prospect Jose Trevino will catch along with Jett Bandy, the former big leaguer who’s hit well in the PCL in the past.

El Paso returns beginning June 20th, and then – shockingly late in the year for it – the M’s finally get to see divisional rivals Salt Lake beginning Saturday, June 29th. The Bees remain an Angels affiliate, which they’ve been for a long while now. The Angels systems has been building for a while now, and while consensus top prospect Jo Adell is a ways away, top pitcher Griffin Canning will try to figure out how to deal with the PCL; he’ll probably be thrilled to be in Tacoma and away from his offense-addled home park. Canning struggled in Salt Lake last year, but we’ll see if he’s learned something from the experience. 1B Matt Thaiss is a converted catcher who may actually hit enough to play first. His power output isn’t great, but he’s a decent all-around hitter. At 2B is former M’s prospect Luis Rengifo who broke out in a big way in 2018, his first in the Angels org. He dominated hi-A and ended up finishing the year in AAA. He drew as many walks as he had strikeouts, and hit for average in three leagues.

The AAA All-Star game takes up the second week of July, but when it ends, the Rainiers are home to host Reno beginning July 11th. On the 15th of the month, the renamed Las Vegas Aviators come to town. Vegas is now an A’s affiliate, so we’ll get a look at a solid system headlined by dominating SP Jesus Luzardo (who was born in Peru, but was drafted out of Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas HS in Florida). Frankly, I don’t expect he’ll be with the team in July, but I suppose you never know. Mid-July is right around the time that former top pitching prospect AJ Puk might return to game action following TJ surgery right before opening day last year. The rest of the Aviators rotation is basically the A’s rotation of a year or two ago, with Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn (another ex-M’s prospect), and Daniel Mengden. This figures to be a tough club in the PCL. In addition to all of the pitching, they have A’s #3 prospect Sean Murphy catching, #7 prospect Jorge Mateo at 3B, and IF Franklin Barreto. This is pretty much the most loaded team in the league, and while there’ll be plenty of turnover by July, they’ll likely get restocked with guys like SP Grant Holmes or maybe SP James Kaprelian, SS Kevin Merrell.

We close out July with a visit from the Omaha StormChasers, who have an experienced group of prospects, or maybe ex-prospects with something to prove. The big name is Bubba Starling, the local kid the Royals took in the first round way back in 2011, buying him out of a football scholarship. It’s been…slow going for the freakishly athletic CF, but he’s back in Omaha on a minor league deal. He lost a lot of time due to injuries, but I’m rooting for him. He’ll be joined by fireballing enigma Josh Staumont who struggled with control, but took to a relief role quite well in 2018. SS Nicky Lopez is still a rising/traditional prospect, and he’ll man the left side with 3B prospect Kelvin Gutierrez. They’ve also got OF Brett Phillips, who scuffled in the majors with Milwaukee and KC last year, but was a great pure hitter in the minors.

On Friday, the 2nd of August, the Iowa Cubs come to town. The club is nowhere near as loaded as the old days with Kris Bryant and Javy Baez, but there are some back-of-the-top-30 guys on the IF like SS Zack Short and 2B Trent Giambrone. There are a few minor prospects among the pitchers, but comeback story Tim Collins, the 5’7″ hurler for the Royals for a few years, is a bigger name. James Norwood and Dillon Maples are solid pitchers; both excelled for Iowa last year, the former in relief, and the latter in the rotation. By this time, the club will likely promote a few more of their top pitching prospects from AA, guys like Michael Rucker and Thomas Hatch, and we could see SS prospect Nico Hoerner.

Fresno, Salt Lake and Vegas close out the home schedule, with the final games on the first two days of September. Go catch a game or a series in Tacoma; it’s a great place to watch baseball, and the league’s great thanks to spectacular variation in run environment from park to park and division to division.

Tonight’s line-up:
1: Braden Bishop, CF
2: Eric Young, JR. LF
3: JP Crawford, SS
4: Jose Lobaton, C
5: Joey Curletta, 1B
6: Shed Long, 2B
7: David Freitas, DH
8: Kris Negron, 3B
9: Tito Polo, RF
SP: Erik Swanson

Off-day Round-Up

marc w · April 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s are off today, heading to Chicago right before a storm that has *already* postponed tomorrow’s contest (which was supposed to be the White Sox’ home opener). Still, a lot’s happening with the team and in baseball, so let’s examine the first week.

1: The M’s may have a new closer in Anthony Swarzak

Swarzak came over from the Mets in the Cano/Edwin deal, and is only a year and a half removed from a brilliant 2017 season that saw him post career highs in strikeout rate and velocity. He spent years as a set-up guy with the Twins, and, following what seemed to be official Twins policy, pitched to contact. For a reliever, his K rate was essentially non-existent, and thus at the mercy of the BABIP gods. They were kind in 2013, but not so much in 2012 or 2014, and he eventually left Minnesota for the Indians org.

The Tribe ditched his sinker for a four-seamer paired with his solid slider, and his K rate spiked, though he still wasn’t exactly effective. He also had trouble staying on the field, so he only pitched 13 innings for them. The following year, he was off to the Yankees, who were in the process of setting records for most sliders thrown and fewest fastballs. Eager to fit in, Swarzak suddenly doubled his slider usage, throwing more breaking balls than fastball in 2016. It didn’t produce results, at least not then, but better velo, more vertical movement, and plenty of strikeouts was too intriguing to stop. So he didn’t, and in 2017, he K’d 91 in 77 IP. He was traded across town to the Mets midway through, as the Yankees simply couldn’t give him enough innings given their cerberus of Chapman/Betances/Robertson a year after Chapman/Betances/Miller.

And then the injuries returned. After a lost season, the Mets moved on, and packaged him with other contracts they were glad to be rid of. If healthy, Swarzak would give the M’s a legitimate bullpen weapon, and his platoon splits aren’t as brutal as you might think for a FB/SL guy. His velo was down a touch last night, but that’s to be expected. If he can get back up to 94-95 by late May, that’d be awesome.

2: The M’s definitely do have a new reliever in Connor Sadzeck, whom they acquired from the Rangers in a minor trade. He’s got premium velocity, averaging nearly 98 last year and sitting 98-99 in an appearance against the M’s late in the year. At 6’7″, he figures to have solid extension, which could further reduce the time batters have to decide to swing. Or, uh, get out of the way. Sadzeck’s had…issues with control, walking 11 in his 9 1/3 IP with Texas. His minor league track record is more encouraging, though he’s not likely to ever be a control pitcher.

He throws a fairly standard four-seamer from a movement perspective, but the velocity could help it play up a bit. His primary breaking ball’s a slider, though he threw a curve in spring training a few years back. That curve shows some intriguing depth and horizontal movement, and I wonder if the M’s will go back to that pitch. The slider’s fine. Slider-y. Obviously, the most important thing is to work on his mechanics to see if he can’t keep the ball in the zone. If he can, he’d be a solid addition to a bullpen that could use some help.

3: The return of Graham MacAree

Former LL writer and long-ago mod at this very site Graham MacAree long ago left the area to work for SBNation, helping produce the uncategorizable brilliance of Jon Bois…content as well as starting the network’s Chelsea FC blog. Graham’s been watching the M’s hot start from his hideout/laboratory in rural France, and has a word of warning for potential M’s bandwagoners: Hope is a trap.

It’s frankly awesome to see Graham write about the M’s again for the first time in a decade or more, but the piece seemed too pessimistic, or perhaps hectoring in its tone for much of M’s twitter. I loved it, but then I’m a pessimist, and includes snippets of Alexander Pope’s translation of the Odyssey, so I’m pretty much the target market for the thing. If you get a chance, I recommend it highly. No one’s saying don’t have fun. We’re saying have fun even if you know the axe will fall.

4: The Brewers are Doing Something

Today, former M’s prospect Freddy Peralta turned in one of the performances of the year, throwing 8 shutout innings at the Reds in a 1-0 win. He struck out 11, walked none, and yielded just 2 hits. That’s cool and all, but the real story was *how* he did it. Peralta threw 106 pitches on the day, and *90* of them were four-seam fastballs.

The Yankees slider-mania that I mentioned above caught on, and as we’ve talked about, baseball’s seeing fewer and fewer fastballs. It’s frankly remarkable that a non-Bartolo pitcher could not just throw a blizzard of FBs at a team, but do so as a way to get strikeouts. The majority of his Ks came on FBs, as they’d pretty much have to. It made his curve that much more effective, but it was something he didn’t want to overexpose, so he’d just paint fast-but-not-THAT-fast four-seamers around the zone and the Reds simply couldn’t touch them.

The thing is, Peralta’s not alone. With Cory Knebel slated for TJ surgery, the Brewers have Josh Hader closing. Just like last year, he’s off to a fast start with 3 saves and 10 Ks in 5 scoreless innings. He’s allowed just 6 balls in play on the young season, just one of which went for a hit. So far, so normal: really good reliever having really good week. That’s not the point. The point is: Hader has thrown 62 pitches this year, and *60* of them have been four-seam fastballs.

It’s a good pitch, and he’s been FB-dominant for a while, at nearly 80% FBs last season. But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a pitcher get so many whiffs on a pitch that batters absolutely know is coming since Kenley Jansen and Mariano Rivera, who at least had some cut to confuse batters. Hader’s heater has plus rise, and more than he showed last year, but it is neither as fast as a ton of relievers in the game nor as freakishly moving (as, say, this.)

Hader, like Peralta, have to have some deception in their delivery, and I’m wondering if it’s something the Brewers are teaching. Peralta’s movement isn’t too exceptional, though he gets surprising rise from a lower slot. The Brewers lowered his slot this year, giving his pitch a bit of a different shape, though like Hader, he was about as FB-dominant as it’s possible for a starter to be last year.

Something to watch to see if teams start to zig as other teams zag to follow the Yankees/Astros. A related, but distinct, thought came up yesterday as the Angels stared at a ton of Marco Gonzales sinkers but swung like mad against his change and cutter. Gonzales induced only two swings-and-misses on the night, but by getting the Angels to swing at (and thus put in play) HIS pitches and leave his 88mph sinkers alone, he got them to make some terrible contact. Can THAT be taught? Can pitchers use batters’ tendencies (to take on the first pitch, for example), to sneak in-zone fastballs when batters are less likely to swing, and then switch to cambios when they’re more likely to swing? Hopefully.

2019 Tacoma Rainiers Preview

Jay Yencich · April 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Writing what amounts to 14,000+ words of previews over a short period of time ends up being rather draining on me, to say nothing of the deletions that are needed to streamline reading. I say this as a flimsy apology for free and detailed content. The Rainiers are really a team worth heading down I-5 to see, I just end up loopy and more prone to digressions.

The rotation features two potential major league starters, one MLB vet, and two guys who haven’t made it yet but seemingly could with the right improvements. The bullpen will become more or less familiar depending on the needs of the parent club and has quite a few arms that are viable or near viable major leaguers. Catching, I think is geared more towards pitching development, which again, isn’t bad at this level. There are a few exciting infield starters and the outfield is really, really fast and thus will be limiting the variables there for the flyball pitchers on the roster. So go visit Cheney Stadium, unless the Mariners continue their absurd run, in which case, do it anyway but wait for an off-day or a road trip.

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2019 Arkansas Travelers Preview

Jay Yencich · April 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

Here we go for a third season in Arkansas with the Travelers. They have a possum and a horse for mascots. Big fan. More of the possum than the horse. Big on hissing at stuff and playing dead to avoid threats. What were we talking about?

This team is, like the West Virginia squad, a rather talented group and so I found myself with a bit to say. Sure, the catching is a repeat of last year, but that may bring with it some added polish with which to direct the pitchers. For the rotation we have two, two-and-a-half guys who could be strong contributors if things break right for them, though the others are nothing to dismiss. The bullpen has a few standouts and is certainly a diverse bunch of velocities, angles, and ways of getting results. The infield has Evan White plus some likely producers, but the outfield could feature three viable major leaguers in any given day and that’s exciting. Potential and aptitude make for some entertaining baseball.

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2019 Modesto Nuts Preview

Jay Yencich · April 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

This roster is… uh… familiar? Of the twenty-five players listed for opening day, fourteen of them had already played on the 2018 Modesto squad, which went 62-78. The Mariners have restocked parts of the system and look to be fairly talented throughout, but this one looks to be filled with miscellany.

The rotation appears to be a blend of “consistency” and “baffling inconsistency,” which I’d expect to lead to lots of ups and downs. The bullpen, when good, has a chance to be quite good, so leads if gained could be retained. Catching, or at least the starting catcher, is probably the biggest star on the roster. The outfield is full of guys who were formerly well-regarded. The infield is cool if you like Gritty Dudes with Dirty Uniforms and Intangibles and less so if you don’t.

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2019 West Virginia Power Preview

Jay Yencich · April 3, 2019 · Filed Under Mariners

This was not an offseason move that I was anticipating. Sure, I had been goading the Mariners for years to buy a Cal League franchise and stop with all this High Desert nonsense, but the quirks of the Midwestern League, with its routine early-season snow-outs, had become the price of doing business for me. Moreover, I liked the Midwest League, and had been friends with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers broadcaster since back when they were an affiliate. Now we’re operating a full-season affiliate in a part of the country unfamiliar to me outside of our brief dalliance as the parent club of the Pulaski franchise in the Appalachian League. Now I have to commit to memory a whole new set of park factors.

The West Virginia Power will be among the more exciting teams in a system that can now use that adjective without a smirking irony. Even without Stowers, the outfield is poised to be a star attraction the likes of which we haven’t had in a while. The rotation has some high potential in spots and is competent overall. For catching, we might have the second-best starter on the farm, or one of the more interesting ones. Bullpen could be good, but has a few question marks. The infield looks to be defensively solid and offensively hit or miss. Overall, the look is that of a competitive team with a few fun top prospects.

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