Competition to Sign Shohei Ohtani Dropping Like Flies

marc w · December 3, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The clock is running. Teams have made their pitch to Shohei Ohtani’s agent why their organization’s the ideal place for the 23-year old star to develop. Ohtani will soon select a few finalists and have in-person interviews, essentially, that sound like they’ll determine which MLB team gets the ridiculous bargain of Ohtani’s services. Today, we’ve started to learn which teams will NOT make that second round, and the news thus far couldn’t get much better for M’s fans.

The big story is that Ohtani’s not interested in the Yankees. Not only were the Yankees pushing hard for Ohtani, but they’d made a series of trades throughout last season that gave them more international bonus pool space than just about anyone. Ohtani’s timing makes it clear that he’s not deciding based on the biggest payday, but it’s still somewhat shocking that *the Yankees* who, even in the bizarre world of international bonus pools still had a financial advantage, have been shown the door. I’ll take it, of course. The only possible consolation for the Yankees may be the fact that the Red Sox were eliminated as well.

In announcing that his efforts had come to nought, Yanks GM Brian Cashman said that his club had two big strikes against it in Ohtani’s eyes: the Yankees are on the East Coast and they’re a very large market. That’s…that’s encouraging, as the MLB markets on the West Coast tend to be pretty big. The Bay Area is gigantic, even if the population of the cities within it aren’t huge, and in any event, the smallest of those – the A’s – are out too.

Ohtani pretty clearly hasn’t limited the competition to JUST West Coast cities, but plenty of teams have announced that they’re out, and reporters are pointing to both San Francisco and Seattle as finalists. Thus far, the following teams are definitively *out*:
Athletics
Brewers
Cardinals
Diamondbacks
Mets
Nationals
Pirates
Red Sox
Twins
Yankees

Ohtani nearly signed with the Dodgers out of high school, and the Dodgers are still in the hunt, but they can offer just $300,000 in bonus money and play in one of the league’s largest markets. San Francisco and San Diego are strong contenders, but both are coming off abysmal seasons. That said, the former jump right back into contention if they sign Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton; the Giants have an offer on the table for Stanton now, as the Marlins RF decides whether to bless a move to SF or St. Louis or instead to hold out and try to force a trade to Los Angeles. The M’s can offer a realistic shot at the playoffs in the near term, a small-ish market, non-stop flights to Japan, and have much more to offer in bonus money than either LA or SF. Hell, Ohtani even did some off-season training in Peoria at the spring training home of the M’s (and Padres, who signed an agreement with Ohtani’s NPB team, the Nippon Ham Fighters).

The news today couldn’t have gone much better, though it’s worth remembering that the remaining competition is pretty stiff. San Francisco can point to the development of Madison Bumgarner as a reason to sign, and there’s the matter of three recent World Series titles. Texas is going all-out for Ohtani, as the org has extensive ties to Japanese baseball and landed Yu Darvish several years ago. The Rangers lead the pack in bonus pool funds, too. The Angels seemed like they wouldn’t be able to compete for Ohtani, but their recent trade with Atlanta (who *literally* can’t compete) brought back over $1 M in bonus pool funds, and thus they’re back in the hunt. The Cubs could conceivably compete on their history with pitchers, player development and winning, though they’re not on the West Coast.

While there are a lot of strong teams remaining, today’s news has improved the M’s odds of landing Ohtani significantly. Eliminating the Yanks/Red Sox – both of whom have development advantages over the M’s – as well as darkhorses like the Twins is a big step, and the idea that Ohtani wants to play in a smaller market would give the M’s an edge essentially no other team, with the possible exception of San Diego, could compete with. The M’s cleared the first hurdle and saw some of the favorites fall. They need to be on their game in the in-person interviews, and as Jerry Dipoto said on the last Wheelhouse Podcast, they’re ready for it.

Pre-Thanksgiving Round-Up

marc w · November 22, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Hope you all enjoy the holiday with family/friends. With the end of the Arizona Fall League and the lack of M’s players in the Australian Baseball League, the opportunities to watch live games involving M’s/M’s prospects are few and far between. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to talk about.

1: I wanted to follow up a bit on my last post. There were a number of thoughtful replies on Twitter, and I wanted to respond in large part to clarify my own thinking.

The first comes from Driveline Baseball head honcho Kyle Boddy, who wrote:

This is fair; I may be understating the impact of the wave of injuries the M’s suffered through. But the M’s injury woes weren’t exactly unprecedented – other teams – including divisional rivals – lost more players to the DL and/or more games to injury. Kyle’s argument is that the way the M’s were constructed made them *especially* vulnerable to a wave of injuries. My response is that I think we may be arguing the same thing: the M’s lack of development, something he notes in the 2nd reply, is the primary problem here. It’s not the injuries that have led us here, it’s the lack of development.

And that’s why I’m frustrated with the approach of churning through the back of the roster; this is an opportunity for development that the M’s are not taking advantage of. Churning through Costco-packs of Tyler Cloyds/Nick Rumbelows/Ryan Gartons *means* you aren’t building the depth you need if injuries hit. At the very, very least, trading a Zack Littell/JP Sears/Ryan Yarbrough, or pick-your-cast-off-of-choice, seems to show a disconnect between the pro and amateur scouting groups.

As readers like PNW Vagabond noted, the M’s aren’t trading blue-chip prospects here, so the costs aren’t likely to be too onerous (I’m talking about lower-level trades than the Luiz Gohara and Alex Jackson deals, which are going to huuuurt). If the M’s were using this strategy to get better, that’d be one thing – but there’s very little evidence that that’s happening.

To be clear: this is not strictly about trading a low-minors statistical wonder like Sears for an already-debuted, MLB-ready arm. That sort of thing isn’t necessarily bad. The problem is that the M’s have gone the other way on deals like this (Jose Ramirez, who’s been decent for the Braves for 2 years, was traded for Ryne Harper); the problem isn’t an attempt to jump-start development by trading for guys further along their developmental path. The problem is giving *anything* up for the privilege of cycling through guys at the back of the 40-man roster. As I said before, I don’t see any evidence that it’s made the big league team more resilient or more effective.

2: There’s been an interesting, uh, war of words surrounding WAR sparked by the comments of legendary sabermetric writer Bill James and then another brilliant writer, Joe Posnanski. James has a big problem with the WAR metrics (whether Fangraphs’, Baseball-reference’s or Baseball Prospectus’ WARP), which is that, at their heart, they measure RUNS, and then put that run-based metric on a win scale. Crucially, the number of games a player’s team actually won or lost is sort of irrelevant. To James, this is madness: “To give the Yankee players credit for winning 102 games when in fact they won only 91 games is what we would call an “error”. It is not a “choice”; it is not an “option”. It is an error.”

Why would WAR do this? Is this an error? This gets to a very fundamental disagreement over what individual player statistics are supposed to be doing, or as our erstwhile leader here Dave Cameron would say, what question they’re trying to answer. One of the fundamental tenets of sabermetrics, one shown so brilliantly by James himself, is that when we want to compare players, we need to figure out what context we want to include, and what we need to exclude. Team wins are the result of the contributions of many, many players, and they are ALSO the result of luck and chance. James is right that the luck and chance stuff can get lost in WAR – the Yankees runs scored/allowed don’t match up to their actual record, so *10 wins* or so of bad luck just melts away. The converse is to assign it to players based on playing time or whatever, knowing that they may not have had anything to do with it. If your runs (based on linear weights, or some team-specific runs-to-wins converter) MUST align with actual wins, you don’t have a choice.

WAR is trying to answer the question: “About how valuable was this player, assuming he played for an average team in average circumstances?” James is trying to answer this one: “Given that a team won X games, how much credit do each of their players get?” I think many baseball fans are more interested in the latter question, though I don’t know all of them have thought this position through: are we *really* saying that, if Mike Trout’s team was horrible, that he was a lesser player? I disagree with that, but then, I’ve been focused on the first question, not the second. The second really starts to sound a lot like the traditional sportswriting stuff that James made his name arguing against.

Contra James, I don’t think this is diminishing the games themselves at all. Felix – and M’s fans – were punished enough by the actual results of the games in 2010 – he shouldn’t have been punished again by voters. It’s actual results that matter for the playoffs, not pythagorean record (an imputed win percentage based solely on runs scored/runs allowed, and invented by James). But bringing those results into a WAR-type metric fundamentally changes what that metric is for, and not for the better. WAR can always be improved, and I’m not saying it’s foolproof at all. I think a Jamesian measure can have value, and if he wants to argue that Altuve was the deserving MVP, he’ll get no argument from me. But personally, I’m glad WAR is not attempting to bring sequencing and luck into this.

This discussion’s led to some good posts, my favorite of which was Jonathan Judge’s over at BP. Dave’s post at Fangraphs led to a segment on Brian Kenny’s show on MLBNetwork that talked through some of these issues as well. There’s a typically interesting discussion at Tom Tango’s blog where the one person most associates with WAR sets out where he agrees/disagrees with James, noting that James hinted at many of these “issues” with WAR (though stated them much less stridently) a few years ago. Of note is the discussion about WPA. You can create a version of WAR that uses win probability-added and not pure, context-free batting runs. But “Guy” notes in comments that it doesn’t seem fair to only use the WPA values from before an at-bat; after all, at-bats that seemed meaningless at the time can take on more significance later, if a team comes back from a big deficit or if relievers blow a huge lead. Good, nerdy stuff if you’re interested in this debate at all.

3: Game on – Shohei Ohtani will be posted. In recent days, MLB, MLBPA and the NPB were struggling to negotiate a posting process for this year. MLB and NPB had an agreement at one point, but the MLB Players union wouldn’t approve it. Finally, on Monday night, all parties agreed to essentially extend the current process for another year. The negotiation period in which an MLB team tries to sign Ohtani has been cut from 30 to 21 days, but it’s still the same basic system.

That means that the first hurdle to clear to negotiate with Otani is a laughable one: each team puts up a posting fee with a maximum of $20 million, and then Otani decides which team to negotiate a contract with. If he signs one, his old NPB team gets the posting fee from the MLB team. That is, every team pledges $20 million, and only have to pay IF they land Otani. Every team will post $20 million.

In the future, posting fees will be calculated as a percentage of the eventual contract; 20% of the first $25 million, with descending percentages from there. This would allow an NPB team to collect more when a superstar like Yu Darvish gets posted, but crucially, this only applies to over-25 year olds. Because of the change to MLB rules last year, Ohtani isn’t a major league free agent, but is instead subject to the international bonus pools, rules which are meant to apply to 16 year old kids (and are ethically debatable for them). In these situations, an NPB team gets just 25% of an absurdly low cap – perhaps $1 million or so. Ohtani is a black swan, and *because* he’s a black swan, his NPB team and Ohtani himself are forgoing lots of potential revenue. This new agreement seems to lock in that arrangement and ensure that a Japanese talent that somehow gets to free agency before 25 would get far less than he deserves and that the team that developed him would also get hosed.*
After the bizarre posting process, it gets more complicated, as teams negotiating power is constrained by the international bonus pools and the fact that MLB won’t let teams offer more than the standard minor league contract. Teams have every incentive in the world to find loopholes/push the envelope on secret deals or pledges to offer a contract extension if he so much as pitches a solid inning in spring training, but MLB rules prohibit such side deals. Showing clubs that they mean business may be why the league just banned former Braves GM John Coppolella for life and voided the Braves signing of 17 international free agents, including consensus top prospect Kevin Maitan. For years, teams have been cutting side deals with trainers, and punishments for these deals have been sporadic. The Braves seemed to be flagrant about their deals (reportedly signing a 14-year old to a handshake agreement), but the timing here seems important: MLB is watching how teams deal with Ohtani. This means that Ohtani will sign an absolutely absurdly below-market agreement, and MLB will be closely watching to see if teams court him by offering something slightly *less* team friendly. This is the strangest process yet, and now we know we’ll get to see it play out ’till the end.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* International soccer is much more used to players moving from club to club and country to country, so it’s not surprising that some want baseball to adopt FIFA rules giving ‘solidarity’ payments to teams that train players who eventually sign with huge international clubs. Essentially, this would mean earmarking a percentage of a players posting fees to each team that developed him. But as we’ve seen with local star Deandre Yedlin, differences between HS and FIFA laws can make this hard to enforce.

M’s Acquire Ex-Yankee RP Nick Rumbelow in Annoying Trade

marc w · November 18, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The world is awash in outrage, and I don’t want to add to it. Nor do I want to draw any false equivalence between annoying back-of-the-40-man trades and something that really deserves an intemperate response. However mad you can be about trading some low-minors lottery tickets, that’s how mad I am right now. It’s not really about the players involved; Nick Rumbelow may turn out fine. But this is the latest example in a very worrying trend.

Last year, the M’s famously went through 40 pitchers last year, a product not only of injuries (though they clearly contributed), but also of a particular style of roster management. That’s easier to see when you look at AAA Tacoma’s roster, where the Rainiers used an astonishing 52 pitchers in 2017. How can that be when other teams lost more time and/or more pitchers to the DL? Because the M’s, under GM Jerry Dipoto, crank through the bottom of their 40-man roster like no other team.

Because of baseball’s roster rules, these spots at the back end of the 40-man can often be pretty tenuous. Teams roster players to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, for example, but then they may get outrighted or DFA’d once another transaction comes over the transom. Teams with a productive farm system *need* each of those 40 spots, while teams without many prospects might use the waiver wire to fill out the roster instead. The M’s are firmly in the second camp, and thus it’s not a huge shock that they used the 40-man on minor trades and waiver claims. Used well, a team can use these back-end roster spots to build up some depth, especially in the bulllpen. The problem isn’t that the M’s acquire guys like Nick Rumbelow, a one-time prospect who came back strong from Tommy John surgery last year. The problem is that they both pay for the privilege in talent AND then quickly drop guys from the 40-man. The M’s can’t get the most out of any of these live arms, because their hyperactive roster strategy means they can’t actually develop anyone.

Last August, the M’s made a minor deal, trading a couple of lower-level prospects in Anthony Misiewicz and Luis Rengifo to the Rays for C Mike Marjama and RP Ryan Garton. Garton needed a 40-man spot, and eventually pitched a handful of innings down the stretch for Seattle. Garton throws 93+ – nothing overwhelming – with lots of vertical ‘rise,’ has a high-spin curve and an interesting cutter. I don’t want to oversell this; Garton was just outrighted off the roster in October, meaning he cleared waivers. The problem, to me, is that Nick Rumbelow looks an awful lot like Garton. Rumbelow throws 93+ with arrow straight movement and plenty of rise. Seriously, Rumbelow averaged 10.52″ of rise in his 2015 cup of coffee while Garton was at 10.42″ last year. Rumbelow’s slurvy curveball is actually a *low* spin pitch, but his big secondary pitch is a change-up that gets a bit more drop than Garton’s. It’s nothing incredible, movement wise, but it’s helped his K rate against minor league lefties, for what that’s worth.

Rumbelow missed essentially all of 2016 rehabbing his elbow, and only really pitched for half of 2017. To be fair, he put up the best results of his career, limiting hits like never before and inducing some grounders. Dipoto said he thought Marco Gonzales was simply *better* after coming back from TJ, and this may be another case. He may throw the ball better still in 2018 as his surgery fades in the rear view. But he’s 26, and was released by the Yankees not that long ago. Given the Yankee bullpen, he was a marginal roster guy, though of course they added him to their 40-man a few weeks ago. He’s a longshot, but he’s not worthless and may develop in the system. The problem is that the M’s haven’t shown that they have the patience required to actually develop players like this.

James Pazos was solid early on but faded down the stretch. Ryan Garton was intriguing (uh, to me, at least), but if he pitches in Seattle again, he’ll bump Rumbelow or the next Rumbelow from the roster. Meanwhile, all of these moves churn through guys the M’s have drafted and spent some time developing. Rumbelow cost the M’s two low-level pitchers, 2017 draft pick and K-rate king JP Sears and 2016 J2 signing Juan Then. Sears was a blog favorite for putting up video game strikeout numbers in Everett and Clinton. A senior sign out of the Citadel, Sears wasn’t exactly a lock to make the majors. With a 90 MPH fastball, I think a bunch of evaluators might have seen him as a trick-pitch guy, though you simply can’t argue with the results. A longshot like Sears has to open eyes to get a shot, and, well, he opened some eyes. Juan Then was the M’s third-biggest J2 bonus, but put up solid numbers in the M’s Dominican League team while the #1 prospect the M’s signed struggled mightily (he slugged .185) and the #2 prospect was sent off in the Ryon Healy deal. On its own, you wouldn’t bat an eye at two really-far-from-the-majors kids going for a big league ready on-the-40-man player. But the M’s have traded minor league pitchers for Pazos, Garton, Rumbelow, Arquimedes Caminero, Evan Scribner, David Phelps, Shae Simmons, etc. Meanwhile, they’ve been just as active on the waiver wire, bringing in guys like Blake Parker, Evan Marshall, Ryan Weber and a bunch more we’ve all forgotten. Each of THESE moves often bumps someone else off the roster.

There’s nothing wrong with trading prospects to fill big league needs; the last M’s FO failed in part because of their *reluctance* to do so. But what have the M’s really gained in all of this churn? In order to kick the tires on a long list of pitchers, the M’s have essentially ceded the development role in AAA AND traded away a minor league team’s worth of low-minors pitchers. They’ve gotten essentially replacement-level production out of it, though of course guys like Simmons and Phelps are clearly better than that (when healthy). If Dipoto had some special eye for relief talent, that’d be one thing. Outside of Nick Vincent, a cast off from San Diego, the M’s have actually done better with home-grown relievers like Emilio Pagan than they have with trade acquisitions like Chase de Jong or Pazos.

So much of Dipoto’s “buy low” approach depends on a strong player development group that can help correct mechanical issues or improve strength/range of movement. So much of Dipoto’s roster strategy makes that development mission impossible. The M’s bullpen coach Mike Hampton quit midway through 2017. Tacoma operated like an independent league team. The M’s ran through 40+ pitchers. This trade makes me think we’re going to do it all again next year.

The M’s First Two Trades of the Offseason

marc w · November 16, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

The M’s acquired what they say is their starting 1B for 2018 yesterday when they flipped RP Emilio Pagan and low-level SS Alexander Campos for A’s 1B/”3B” Ryon Healy. Doing so allows them to fill a line-up spot cheaply, while dealing from an area of comparative strength (righty relievers). Then, today, they went back to that same well and flipped intriguing power arm Thyago Vieira to the White Sox for international bonus pool space. The two moves are quite different in what they bring to the franchise, but the key to them both is that the M’s are saving money in a couple of pots. These deals on their own are lackluster, even annoying…but they only really make sense once we figure out what/who the M’s are saving their money *for*.

Ryon Healy, a product of the University of Oregon, had a brilliant first few months in the majors in 2016, which capped off a stellar season that saw him rise from non-prospect (or depth prospect) to starter. After a few years of being a low-OBP guy with moderate power, a swing change enabled him to hit quite a few more extra-base hits. He’s not a good defender, so this change was absolutely critical: no one wants low-OBP, medium power 1Bs. A low-OBP guy with plus power sounds more like Mark Trumbo (as Dave just pointed out). Had the A’s just found a replacement for Josh Donaldson, another guy who limped through the system without enough power to be an everyday player before making adjustments and becoming an MVP-caliber player? Well, the results from 2017 don’t look great for Healy. His OBP was just over .300, kept low by a walk rate under 4%. His ISO fell back from 2016 levels too, and thus, while his power wasn’t bad (it’s still his best tool), he ended up near replacement level when you add in his position and defense.

You can see the thought process from Dipoto/Seattle’s point of view fairly easily, too: if 2016 wasn’t the “real” Healy, then neither was 2017. If he regresses towards his career averages, you have the makings of someone with a much better hit tool than Trumbo, and thus more singles/batting average. Sure, it doesn’t add up to a superstar, but a moderate-K guy with pop is something of a rare bird in today’s game, and even better for a team that needs to spend money on pitching, it’s an undervalued combination of skills. Besides, all it cost was a reliever who’s bound to regress; Pagan’s 2017 looked great thanks to a low HR/FB ratio. As a fly-ball specialist, Pagan’s going to give up HRs, and when a few more fly balls die on the warning track, his great control makes him look great. If a few more of those flies end up in the first row, he looks a lot more like 2015 Evan Scribner, where even the best K-BB% around can’t keep him above replacement level. To be clear, relievers are now more valuable, and if there’s one place this particular skillset might still play in 2018, it’s probably Oakland. But I’m sure Dipoto’s thrilled to get a starter for the 3rd-or-so right-handed reliever in the M’s pen.

That said, there are some serious red flags with Healy that make it tough to just split the difference between his 2016 and 2017 numbers. His K:BB ratio worsened last year as well as his power production. His GB% ticked up a bit, which explains some of the drop in ISO as well. I’d argue that all of these things have a common source: there’s essentially no hitter in baseball who’s more fastball-focused. I know, I know, “You said that about Ben Gamel, Marc,” you all say. I still feel that it’s an issue with Gamel, but Healy takes that profile and distills it even further. As with Gamel, Healy’s pitch type linear weights are amazing on pitches Pitch Info classes as fastballs. In 2017 – a year in which he was replacement level and an average-at-best hitter, remember), he did exceptional damage on FBs. Breaking that down even further, Brooks/Pitch Info shows that essentially all of that damage came on four-seamers. Statcast data agrees, and if we look over the past two seasons combined, Healy’s wOBA on four-seam fastballs ranks 8th in baseball behind Joey Votto and ahead of Jose Altuve and Kris Bryant. If we look at sinkers/two-seamers, though, a very different picture emerges. Here, a much lower launch angle produces a grounder-hitting guy with a wOBA under .290, ranking 391st out of 442 qualified hitters. Things don’t look a whole lot better if you add in breaking balls and offspeed pitches; Healy’s whiff rate rises, but his launch angle and exit velocities are still much lower than on four-seam fastballs. Essentially, Healy’s quite vulnerable to both breaking balls *and* sinking fastballs. Some teams already seem to know: the Astros, a team that both employs sinker-maven Dallas Keuchel and a team-wide emphaiss on bendy pitches, have held Healy to a career .640 OPS with a 35:5 K:BB ratio. The M’s, who’ve given Healy more four-seamers than anyone, have given up the most HRs to Healy.

As the book gets out on Healy, it may be harder and harder for him to reach the highs of 2016, and in any event, his projections are pretty ugly. Steamer currently projects him for 0.1 WAR, or essentially dead on replacement level, with a slash line of .258/.296/.428. You can bet the over on that (I think I would), but he’s got to blow that out of the water in order to really add value to a team that wants to contend for the playoffs. If anything, this is yet another of Dipoto’s favorite kind of move: the buy-low. Healy’s value is limited not only by his poor 2017, but by the fact that Oakland’s youth movement has essentially left him without a position. Even elite bat-first guys are going for a comparative pittance, so you may as well get one whose value can’t get lower, especially given his years of club control and pre-arb salaries. You could squeeze more out of the position by platooning him a bit with Dan Vogelbach, too, which…ehhh, at least it’s cheap. But buying low isn’t solely about regression towards the mean; it’s a tacit vote of confidence in the M’s ability to actually *improve* players. If the M’s know how to make Healy more selective, or more patient, or more powerful, then this might work. Thus far, as with the acquisition of Scribner or Vogelbach or Danny Valencia, the M’s haven’t really been able to do so. Player development takes time, I know, but I wish I felt one tenth the confidence that Dipoto seems to have that THIS is the group of coaches best positioned to unlock talent in Healy (or whoever else). Fingers crossed, eh?

—————————————————————————————————————

The second move came down this morning, when the M’s swapped 100-MPH throwing Thyago Vieira to pick up $500,000 in international bonus pool money from the White Sox. Trading a young, cost-controlled fireballer for a half-million in lottery tickets sounds silly, but of course this is not a normal year for international bonus pools. With the imminent posting of Shohei Ohtani, teams are already jockeying to make a competitive offer to the potential two-way star. The M’s had under $2 million in space, a far cry from the Rangers $3.5M+, but given the amount of money Otani’s leaving on the table by coming over now, teams have to expect that bonus space won’t be the deciding factor. The M’s are trying to get closer, trying to essentially argue that they can match whatever the Dodgers, say, will offer while offering a much better payment on day 1. The Dodgers exceeded their bonus pool last year, and can only offer $300,000 this year – a fact that won’t stop them from lobbying hard for Ohtani’s services. The M’s can’t quite match Texas’ bonus, but they can sell him on the city, being closer to Japan and near an airport with nonstop flights AND an immediate multi-million dollar payday.

The M’s saved money to get a first baseman with Healy, and now they’re maximizing their bonus pool flexibility. That’s exciting and all, but giving up two intriguing relief arms ups the pressure on the M’s to actually land someone worth spending all of these savings on. Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta won’t come cheap, and while the Vieira trade won’t help with that, the Healy savings might. If they don’t land Ohtani, and I’m still guessing that they won’t, they still need to make a splash on young talent – perhaps some of the prospects the Braves are set to lose thanks to their punishments for improper payments.

The common thread here is that the M’s will have money to spend, and they’ve now filled one starter position without spending any of it. They can be more aggressive internationally, too, and while we all hope that means Ohtani, the Braves’ misdeeds mean there will be some nice consolation prizes, too. The free agent market and Ohtani’s posting have made this a pivotal year for the franchise, and they’re set up well to play in those markets. But coming close won’t end the M’s playoff drought; the M’s need to actually acquire elite talent, and they don’t really have an excuse if they fail.

’17 40-Man Preview Extravaganza

Jay Yencich · November 13, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners, Minor Leagues

Well, it’s that time of the year again. If you sense less enthusiastic intonations in my pixels this time around, you’re not wrong. As exciting… debatably exciting, as previous incarnations of the 40-man preview were, this year we find our cupboards more barren and the reasons are two-fold. One, as I’ve noted previously with some sneering, is that there has been some eagerness on our general manager’s part to send off risks for modest ceilings. Had we projected forward from the same time in 2016, then as 2017 40-man offseason additions, we likely would have been thinking about Tyler O’Neill and Zack Littell as prep draftees from ’13 and Luiz Gohara as an international signing as headliners. Heck, we could’ve even talked up the finer points of Pablo Lopez. Joke’s on us, it seems. The second reason is that our ’14 draft was not a major one for college selections (or any selections, really). The Rays will probably add Ryan Yarbrough and the Giants might add Tyler Herb, but we already have Altavilla on the roster and the rest have not much distinguished themselves. As exhaustive as I used to be in projecting guys who even had a ghost of a chance, I don’t think many losses from this group would come back to haunt us (rimshot).

I am duty-bound to report back on my findings, although I feel as if the acquisitions of Mike Marjama and David Freitas mean that we can safely overlook the coterie of catcher in the high minors, to say nothing of the fact that a lot of those fringe candidates are technically minor league free agents at the moment. The deadline we’re looking at for all additions would be Nov. 20th at 5 pm PT / 8 pm ET. Credit to Baseball America for providing that information as Major League Baseball’s own website doesn’t often bother anymore.

Omissions will include Jordan Cowan (faded after good start to end up sub-.700 in OPS), Adonis de la Cruz (reliever, walks, SSS), Anjul Hernandez (has some Ks, is youngish, great googly moogly walks and hits), and Chris Mariscal (older and exposed in double-A stint). Those I’ve mentioned in the past that haven’t really done much to make their cases since, I’ll also skip. Wow, sub-1500 words? I’m losing my edge.
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Roy Halladay, 1977-2017

marc w · November 7, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Roy Halladay faced a good M’s team three times in 2000. He tossed a total of 7 innings across 1 start and 2 relief appearances, yielding 13 hits and 7 runs. He walked 5 and struck out 2. He was 23, and would start the next season down in the Florida State League after compiling an MLB ERA over 10 in that season. Sure, the year before, he’d put it all together against Seattle, going 7 shutout innings in a duel with Jamie Moyer. But in July of 2000, it looked like that’d be a great bar story, the talented kid who’d made the show but couldn’t stick.*

Halladay wasn’t exactly a young phenom, and he’d amassed over 200 big league innings. Sure, his minor league numbers were better, but they didn’t scream can’t-miss-prospect; his BB/9 in AAA was about 3.5, while his K/9 was just over 5. He’d been a first-round pick, so it’s not like the Jays were giving up on him, but in the years since the draft, he’d showed little evidence that a breakthrough was imminent.

At the time, there were a couple of closely-related tenets of the nascent sabermetric community that pretty much everyone agreed on. The first was that minor league stats could effectively predict major league performance, indeed, they were at least as good as *MLB* stats at predicting future MLB performance (once adjusted for level/context, of course). As you can see, there was little in Halladay’s MiLB resume to suggest he could either a) miss bats at an elite level or b) develop pinpoint command. The conclusion that’s distinct, but clearly similar to this theory held that raw stuff, or talent, or ability, or skillset was essentially fixed, innate. It’s what allowed minor league stats – and stats in general – to be predictive: they were an indicator of skill. That’s not to say that all a pitcher could ever be was what he was at 19 years old, but it implied that development was about figuring out what in a pitcher’s bag of tricks was particularly good or noteworthy and honing that skill into a weapon. You couldn’t just “develop” into a hard-throwing strikeout artist – you either were or you were not. If you were throwing 89 but had good control, it would probably be best to focus on command. If you threw a sinker, you should focus on being the best ground ball pitcher you could be. Roy Halladay had so-so command and so-so stuff: his stats told us. Things were looking bleak.

You all know what happened next, and while Toronto’s coaches and player development staff get a lot of credit, the primary reason Roy Halladay not only got another big league shot but became ROY HALLADAY was that he worked incredibly hard. Sabermetric ideas worked well on the population at large, but they couldn’t identify players like Halladay who simply wouldn’t stop improving themselves. Armed with a new approach, Halladay first became an absolutely elite control pitcher and what we would now call a contact-manager (a species the nascent sabermetric community was pretty sure did not exist back when Halladay was evolving into one). Even then, when he’d become a very good MLB starter, he *kept* developing and by 2008, he was a strikeout pitcher as well, and by far the league’s best overall arm.

Given his insane work ethic, it wouldn’t have been a shock if Halladay had been a hyper-competitive gym rat, a guy fueled by resentments real and imaginary. Instead, Halladay was the kind of guy even those who couldn’t hit him wanted to talk to. During and after his playing days, he was reaching out to younger pitchers, especially those who were struggling – often for the first time – and didn’t know why. He wanted to help, and his example must’ve been the focus of dozens or hundreds of young pitchers who got roughed up in their first taste of the bigs. That’s what made Halladay so much more than the story of an extemely talented pitcher who shook off early struggles and reached his potential. That’s pat and boring. Instead, Halladay showed that what you are now isn’t what you’d always be. Other pitchers soaked it up, either directly or, as in the case of Brandon McCarthy, by carefully and meticulously copying his every move.

After McCarthy found success by completely overhauling his repertoire, the A’s essentially codified it and institutionalized Halladay-mimicry for a while, something I’ve talked about a few times on this blog. The damage to the old idea of a fixed quantity of “stuff” went far beyond the more literal “throw cutters and sinkers.” I don’t want to oversell this; coaches and teammates have passed on new pitches for years, and things have clicked for many, even after years of fruitless struggle. But THE story of 2017 wasn’t the ball, it wasn’t stockpiling draft picks, or Statcast – it was the very Halladay-esque idea that you could go out and fundamentally change everything about a ballplayer. You could smash through the hypothetical ceiling that prospect people always talked about. Charlie freaking Morton could throw 98, because hey, why not. Chris Taylor could slug .500 in the majors, but finish a few HRs shy of Zach Cozart’s season total. Roy Halladay didn’t teach Taylor to elevate the ball, but he started something that’s still working its way through the game. By being not only relentless but open, friendly and helpful, Halladay fundamentally changed a few people’s careers, and the ripples of those changes have altered the game for the better.

Roy Halladay died today at the age of 40. He’s a few months younger than I am, and by all accounts was as dedicated to his family as I try to be. Even with a Halladay-like work ethic, I’d never be able to throw 80, let alone 90. But there’s something about his personality and the way he related to others – athletes or not – that’s inspiring. I don’t think a Chris Taylor-like transformation of my personality or abilities is in the offing, but Halladay is one of the people who makes me want to be a little bit better, and, crucially, that putting the work in to do so is worth it. I hope his example and his legacy is some comfort to his loved ones and especially his kids. RIP.

* The proper name for outings in which replacement-level pitchers toss one great start against Seattle and then fade away is a “Waechter” after former Tampa hurler Doug Waechter.

Game 160, Mariners at Angels

marc w · September 29, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Marco Gonzales vs. Tyler Skaggs, 7:05pm

The M’s kick off the last series of the year with a match-up of Jerry Dipoto’s newly-acquired lefty Marco Gonzales and an old favorite – a lefty so enticing, Dipoto traded for him twice, as GM of two different teams.

When ex-Arizona GM Josh Byrnes was fired in July of 2010, Dipoto couldn’t afford to sit tight and wait for his tenure as interim GM to end. The D-Backs were out of it, and would finish with more than 90 losses. But they’d acquired some veterans in a push to jump-start their rebuild, a move headlined by the now-painful swap of Max Scherzer for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy. In late July, with Dipoto now in control, they still had one big trade chip as the deadline approached: Dan Haren. Failing to capitalize could set the team back years, so Dipoto made his move. He acquired lefty command/control guy (hmm) Joe Saunders for immediate help but also got prized Angels prospect Tyler Skaggs as the PTBNL. Haren was great down the stretch in Anaheim, but couldn’t get the Halos above .500, but with a full year of Haren in 2011, the Angels won 86 in 2011. Meanwhile, Skaggs’s stuff seemed to regress upon his arrival in the D-backs org, but by that point, Dipoto wasn’t long for Arizona. He became the Angels GM in 2011, a bit more than a year after his first big trade.

After two disappointing season split between AAA and Arizona, Skaggs had worn out his welcome in Arizona. So when Dipoto was working on the three-team trade involving Hector Santiago and Mark Trumbo, he got the D-Backs to throw in Skaggs as well. Almost immediately, his velo improved, and Skaggs made 18 pretty good starts for the Angels in 2014. Seen as a potential #3, Skaggs then missed all of 2015 with TJ surgery, and injuries have hampered him ever since. He won’t make 100 IP this year, so 2014 remains the only year in which he had at least 100 big league innings. He still has a rising four-seamer at 92 and a big breaking curve ball he throws about 30% of the time. Unfortunately, his change never really developed, and thus he lacks a good pitch against righties – RHBs are hitting .272/.344/.452 against Skaggs this year.

Gonzales is also a lefty, and also has a fastball at around 92. Like Skaggs, Gonzales’ development is being hampered by the failure of his third pitch to develop. Like Skaggs, he throws a fastball/curve/change, but with Gonzales, the change-up’s also been light years ahead of the curve. He’s throwing more curves this year, but it’s still not fooling anyone; he has no strikeouts on the pitch, and batters are 9 for 15 when putting it in play. Like Skaggs, Dipoto’s obviously seen something in Gonzales beyond his stats or his pitch movement numbers. After taking some criticism about the O’Neill-for-Gonzales swap, Dipoto had this to say to the TNT’s Bob Dutton, “”Clearly, we like Marco Gonzales better than the mainstream media…but the mainstream media hasn’t been familiar with Marco Gonzales for a year-and-a-half. You know what happens? Sometimes pitchers have Tommy John (surgery), and sometimes they come back and they’re good.”
The M’s need him to be right.

1: Segura, SS
2: Haniger, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Valencia, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Gamel, LF
9: Motter, RF
SP: Gonzales

Game 159, Mariners at Athletics – Final Getaway Day of 2017

marc w · September 27, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

Erasmo Ramirez vs. Kendall Graveman, 12:35pm

Following on from yesterday’s weird post, I want to talk briefly about the Mariners of 2006. That year, the M’s went 78-84, and signs of a rebuild following the nadir of 2004 abounded. At the same time, it’s kind of easy to spot a focus on a particular kind of pitcher that they used to bridge the gap between the 99-loss team of 2004 and the next great M’s club. The next year they won 88 games and made the in-hindsight-disastrous decision to go all in for 2008, but that’s besides the point. My point was that the M’s of 2006 were at a similar point as the 2017 group’s evolution, and apparently that stage comes with a ton of command/control pitchers. In both 2006 and 2017, the M’s traded some of their prospects for immediate help, and in neither season did that help make a material difference. In both cases, the front offices were a couple of years into their tenure, and while spotty, you could make the case that player development was improving.

Adam Jones had just gone from “I can’t believe the dumb M’s took him as SS and not as a RHP” to one of the most intriguing and valuable CF prospects in the game. Asdrubal Cabrera was 20 as well and expendable given the M’s glut of SS talent, kind of like Tyler O’Neill could go because there wasn’t a clear spot for him to play in Seattle. Ryan Feierabend was the beta version of Marco Gonzales, or maybe Bobby Livingston was? Maybe Clint Nageotte = Andrew Moore. Richie Sexson was still an effective slugger, like a younger, worse Nellie Cruz, and both clubs had great 3Bs locked up for a while. Both teams even had a frustratingly mediocre Felix Hernandez. This isn’t to say that this year’s M’s club is destined to wander the baseball wilderness for another decade, or that Marco Gonzales’ only chance at a long career will be in the KBO (though seriously, good on you, Ryan Feierabend). This isn’t to say that the M’s will rue the day they traded O’Neill the way the Choo and Cabrera deals still sting. It’s just an observation, a feeling of deja vu. The problem with 2006 was that the M’s made a bunch of decisions that ultimately crippled them, false dawn of 2007 aside. I’d argue the 2006 M’s had more talent to fritter away, and fritter it they did. The 2017 M’s won’t make the same mistakes, because they can’t. But they need to think carefully about next year, and what it’s going to take to compete with the Astros. The 2006 M’s saw a rising Angels club, a club that would beat the crap out of the M’s for the next several years, and sacrificed everything to try and keep up. The M’s need to learn the lesson of the Astros’ rise, AND the lesson of 2006 – real help needs to come from the bottom up. Thanks to the second wild card, you can buy a sort of contention. But you can’t buy (in talent or FA dollars) your way to parity with Houston/Cleveland.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Vogelbach, 1B
7: Motter, SS
8: Marjama, C
9: Hannemann
SP: Erasmooooo

Kendall Graveman came to the A’s in the Josh Donaldson deal as a low-spin, pitch-to-contact ground ball guy. Since that time, he’s added two ticks to his sinker and it’s now a HIGH spin pitch (even after accounting for the velo increase). After all of these fairly large changes, he remains pretty much *exactly* the same as he was in 2015. He showed flashes of becoming a high-K guy early in the year, but this year’s season line looks nearly identical to 2015’s. Which looks pretty much the same as 2016’s. He’s changed his pitch mix, his velocity, even how the pitches fly through the aid, but there remains an essential Kendall Graveman-ness to him that keeps him in the low-K, 50% GB, FIP and ERA in the mid-4s zone.

Game 158, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · September 26, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

James Paxton vs. Daniel Mengden, 7:05pm

This season hasn’t gone according to plan for either club, and now the games are about seeing something from rookies and planning for the future. Given how different these clubs looked a month and a half ago, or at least, how different these clubs looked at themselves, it’s kind of stunning to see that they’re separated by a couple of games in the standings. The A’s, the team that sold off Sonny Gray, and who’d seen the rest of their good starters torpedoed by injuries, are neck and neck with the club that tentatively, sort-of went for it. As I mentioned yesterday, the A’s called up a couple dozen prospects, and the kids have been alright, producing an aggregate batting line that’s among the league leaders. Outside of Matt Chapman, they can’t really catch, but hey, if you want to put a positive spin on the A’s (at this moment) last-place campaign, you can do it.

It’s harder to do for the M’s, for reasons that have much more to do with expectations, payroll, expectations, injuries, and expectations than they do with the specific players and how they fared in 2017. More and more, I think trying to assess the team’s progress towards some ultimate goal is a bit futile, or at the very least, kind of a downer. I don’t mean to re-write Patrick Dubuque’s masterful summary of another year that felt like this one, but I do want to note that this year felt a bit like poetry. Poetry is not, pace many definitions out there, about “beauty” and it’s sure as hell not about who’s going to win the AL pennant. Merriam-Webster defines it as, “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Wikipedia’s definition gets at something important, too: “a form of literature that uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.” The key is the substitution of “ostensible meaning” for “concentrated imaginative awareness” of something else, something in addition to the plain text.

In a teleological sense, this year kind of sucked. Everyone got hurt, which hobbled the M’s chances in 2017, and now everyone’s a year older, there are no prospects on the immediate horizon, and the Astros and Indians look like they may be good for a long while. Hell, even the A’s – the poor A’s – can speak of their reasons for trading Gray, and how it moves them closer to their ultimate aim. The M’s can’t really do that, and – here I’m talking to myself, mostly – there are only so many ways of saying so. What were the rhythmic qualities of this season? What was substituted for bland “our goal is to build a world championship ballclub” talk?

This season was the tension between the sharp, business-like litany of transactions, beginning before the actual games, and continuing after the games are done, and a 91 MPH fastball, with plenty of armside run, snaking across the plate and boring in on a right-handed hitter. The transaction list grows; it becomes almost a parody of itself. The pitch is always 91 MPH. The batter may be looking change-up. The game itself is no longer interested in 91 MPH fastballs, and looks quizzically at the transaction list. The pitch bends confidently.

Is that enough? I don’t know. I just know that I can *see* this season, and that it reminds me of Ryan Feierabend, and that sounds horribly dismissive, and I honestly – honestly – don’t mean it to. I don’t doubt that the M’s brass has some sort of a plan, and that the flurry of moves and the lack of concrete steps forward in talent isn’t dispositive proof that it’s flawed. I know that the Mariners gave up 36 HRs on fastballs between 90-92 MPH, but I don’t know how we’ll see Kyle Lewis next year, or what Evan White might do in the Cal League. I’m worried about the A’s, but then, the A’s looked dead in the water like 3 months ago. This season was a 91 MPH fastball, arcing back towards the middle of the plate. If you want a strikeout, that’s not the pitch you’d throw. But it could set up another pitch, and I look forward to seeing that pitch next year.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, CF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Alonso, 1B
6: Zunino, C
7: Valencia, RF
8: Beckham, 3B
9: Motter, SS
SP: Paxton

Dave’s post on Bruce Maxwell is a solid one mostly for the slightly off-topic but absolutely necessary entreaty to donate to Puerto Rico relief efforts. Puerto Rico needs a ton of support right now, and if you want to do it because Edwin Diaz (or Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor or Roberto Clemente) is from there, cool. If you’re moved to help fellow Americans in need, great. If it’s a more universal desire to assist when you’re aware of suffering, do it. Just help.

Game 157, Mariners at Athletics

marc w · September 25, 2017 · Filed Under Mariners

King Felix vs. Daniel Gossett, 7:05pm

Happy Felix Day.

After the wave of protests occurring during the anthem at NFL contests, the scene shifts to baseball, where A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell is perhaps the first MLB player to lodge a similar protest. Maxwell, whose father was black and who grew up in Alabama, talked about the motivation for taking a knee with Yahoo’s Jeff Passan in a must-read piece today. The A’s don’t draw many fans, and there’s more NFL tonight, so it’s getting kind of lost, but Maxwell’s been remarkably candid and thoughtful about his reasons for it and touching base with everyone from teammates to ownership. He’s now also receiving tons of ugly abuse and threats and social media, because that’s essentially who we are now.

It snuck up on me, but the A’s second half surge has pushed their offense above the M’s and above the league average for the year. Down the stretch, the A’s – THE A’S – have been one of baseball’s best offenses, hitting the 3rd most HRs and nearly getting to a 10% walk rate. Their wRC+ is tied with the Cubs for best in MLB in the second half. It looks like I’m going to need to eat some more crow for, er, crowing about how the M’s were in a much better position for the medium term than their poor brethren to the south. The A’s had a bunch of corner IF prospects who hit but no one believed in, and then some middle IF prospects who people liked but who put up so-so results. Their pitchers put up great numbers in the minors, but turned to pumpkins in the majors, leading to the club cycling through them at a rapid rate. Let’s remember, it was their young staff that was supposed to carry them this year, and their young staff collapsed. 2016’s Dillon Overton or Daniel Mengden haven’t played much of a role, with Overton jettisoned to Seattle in the offseason. This year was supposed to be about Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs and Kendall Graveman, but injuries have prevented the latter two from performing for much of the year, while Cotton’s been worse than his most pessimistic projection.

And it hasn’t mattered, damn it. The A’s called up Matts Chapman and Olson, traded for Boog Powell, and got contributions from Ryon Healy and Chad Pinder and now they’re more than a competent hitting group. Chapman’s been brilliant with the glove, and Olson’s power has definitely translated. A year ago, it looked like the A’s mass of mid-level prospects may not pan out, and that crown jewel Franklin Barreto might not hit. This year, well, uh…Barreto hasn’t hit, but the A’s seem to have a decent group to build around.

In the first half of the year, the A’s seemed stuck while the M’s – irrespective of their 2017 record – had found three competent OFs. A few months later, and that’s been flipped; the A’s have a new cost-controlled IF while the M’s have Mitch Haniger and a shopping list.

Of course, as rapidly as that picture changed, it could change again. The Reds, as Jeff noted at Fangraphs, lead the league (by a mile) in the number of starts pitched by rookies. So far so good for a rebuilding club. The problem is that they led last year too. And the year before that. That starts to look less like a rebuild and more like meaningless churn. The M’s didn’t match the Reds because their depth guys had some MLB experience: Heston, Bergman, etc. had big league experience, while Andrew Moore came up later. It’s critical that the M’s figure out who’s part of the long term plan and who’s depth.

1: Gamel, LF
2: Haniger, RF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Cruz, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Alonso, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Motter, SS
9: Hanneman
SP: El Rey

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