Jesus Montero is kind of fat. Taijuan Walker’s shoulder doesn’t feel 100%. Hisashi Iwakuma hurt his finger pretty bad. Franklin Gutierrez is opting to sit out the entire 2014 season with a recurrence of his gastrointestinal symptoms. Pitchers and catchers reported to camp yesterday, and there will be optimistic feelings in the future, but there are no optimistic feelings now, only other feelings, and a desire to not have to feel them. The organization has had better weeks, and they haven’t even overpaid Nelson Cruz yet.
Incidentally, there’s construction going on outside. As a consequence, my whole entire building is shaking, ever so subtly but ever so noticeably. What I’m feeling is a fraction of what Franklin Gutierrez might be feeling every day, and this feeling’s unpleasant. The heart weeps for Guti, who’s alive and young and rich and unable to do the only thing he’s done since he was a child.
If you’ll allow me a moment to write pragmatically, unemotionally, the latest news isn’t so bad for the Mariners on the field. From an on-paper standpoint, Gutierrez had some upside, but now that job could be given to Abe Almonte, and there’s a lot to like about his skillset now that he’s no longer an active alcoholic. In Almonte, I see a good fourth outfielder who might make for a fringey starter, and if he ends up getting more time with Gutierrez out — Almonte, and not Endy Chavez — the Mariners should be about as all right as they were. Almonte doesn’t have Gutierrez’s strengths, but Gutierrez doesn’t have those same strengths to the same extent anymore, and Almonte is good at some other things. The short of it: I’m kind of fond of Abe Almonte, and I wouldn’t mind him playing.
But this isn’t about Almonte. This isn’t about Montero, who’s a non-factor. This isn’t about Walker, who believes that he’s fine. This isn’t about Iwakuma, who should hopefully miss only a few turns. This is about the latest chapter in the book about Franklin Gutierrez that only the most heartless of people would want to read. My sense is that, while we have a new chapter, the book’s almost finished. The baseball part, anyway. Gutierrez is 31 in a week. He’d be 32 if he played in 2015, and if he played in 2015, he’d have to get over the problems that have plagued him for more years than I’d like to remember.
Franklin Gutierrez might have to retire. Not today, not anytime soon. For now, he’s just going to focus on his own health. But it’s something he’s going to end up thinking about, and something he’s going to end up discussing with his family. Right now, Gutierrez is out at least until he’s feeling consistently better. There’s no timetable for when that might happen, since this is a recurrence of something he’s struggled with before. We might have seen the last of Franklin Gutierrez in the major leagues, and if we have, his last game saw him go 1-for-4 with a dinger. It was a shot to left off Bartolo Colon, Guti’s third homer in six starts, and that stretch was a promising sign that Gutierrez might be back to being a helpful all-around player again.
My hope is that Guti returns, even if it’s somewhere else. I’ve always been an obstinate Guti believer. My guess is that he’s finished. Maybe he signs another low-risk contract or two, but my guess is that his career totals today will match his career totals in a decade. It’s been a heartbreaking career, but from where I sit, I think at least there are twin consolations. Consolations that might help Gutierrez feel better in some time.
He did get to play to his peak. In 2009, over a full season, Franklin Gutierrez about maxed out his skillset, and his team won a surprising 85 games. One site paints him as about a seven-win player. Another site paints him as about a six-win player. He played like an elite-level center fielder, and he had a better peak season than the majority of players can manage. He turned himself into an area star. Mariners fans loved him and the team put him in a commercial. At least for six months, Gutierrez found out what he could be at his best. Because of that year, he was able to sign a $20-million contract, which can support a person and a family for an awful long time. Franklin Gutierrez made it, he really made it, once.
And it’s not like he had control over what happened. When something beautiful reaches its end, often, one is left wondering what could’ve been done to keep it going longer. Maybe there could’ve been this action. Maybe there could’ve been this behavior. Often, there are regrets, potential mistakes acknowledged in hindsight, and emotionally the reflection process can be interminably devastating, but for Gutierrez, this is a disease. Everything’s been out of his hands — there’s nothing he realistically could’ve done to avoid this. It’s not like he can look back and think he should’ve hit more. It’s not like he can look back and think he should’ve stretched more. He got sick, and it got bad, and there were some other freak accidents too, and as much as that makes Gutierrez terribly unlucky, it can be easier to cope with bad luck. Gutierrez isn’t staring ahead at a lifetime of blaming himself for a career that didn’t burn as bright as it could’ve.
You come to terms with bad breaks. Eventually, you come to terms with bad breaks, and if this proves to be it for Franklin Gutierrez, he shouldn’t leave behind many regrets. He played well when he was healthy. He continued to try to play when he wasn’t, and for stretches, he still resembled a high achiever. And he did make his money, which is one of the primary things that makes a professional baseball career so appealing — he hasn’t won a championship, and there was the potential to make many more millions, but he still made millions and in that sense he’s one of the fortunate ones. He’ll be able to support himself and other people and he’ll be able to afford care for his health. Ultimately that’s the point.
Franklin Gutierrez hasn’t retired, and the next time he might feel up to trying to give it a go, I’ll be right back there in my familiar spot, selling him as a high-upside roll of the dice. I’ll always want to believe in him because of what I’ve seen him be. He’ll never be that again, he’ll presumably never be close, but he was an everyday spectacle. Bad luck can rob him of his present and it can rob him of his future, but down the road Franklin Gutierrez might well be able to tell the story of his career with a comfortable smile on his face.
I want to give Jesus Montero the benefit of the doubt. I’m usually inclined to give the benefit of the doubt — life tends to be complex, and people tend to have reasons for doing the things that they do. Maybe Montero didn’t quite understand the question. Maybe Montero gave more of an answer, that wasn’t included in the post. Maybe Montero still isn’t entirely comfortable with and confident in his English. Maybe there are legitimate reasons for this, but I can’t get over how poorly this reads:
“I gained a lot of weight in my country,” [Montero] admitted. “So, now, I’m on a program to lose weight. I’m working really hard to get my weight back. I wasn’t doing nothing (after finishing winter ball), just eating.”
Last year, Jesus Montero got hurt. He also got moved away from a premium defensive position, and he struggled to perform, and while he was in the minors he got suspended for a PED violation committed earlier on. Montero’s value has disintegrated into near-nothingness, and given a player like that, still young, you’d think the player would do everything possible to show up to camp ready to impress. Yet after winter ball, Montero says he was “just eating”. Not even eating responsibly. Eating sufficiently irresponsibly that now the Mariners have put him on a diet to get him down to a reasonable playing weight. So that he can be at a reasonable playing weight in Tacoma, since he’s sure as shoot not making the big club.
This offseason, Jesus Montero got pudgy. Last offseason, Jesus Montero had to try to learn how to run. The Mariners have had Jesus Montero for two full offseason, and each of them has been differently embarrassing.
Not that this seals any deals, of course; last spring, Nick Franklin showed up weirdly fat after eating nothing but like Olive Garden baked butter pasta several times a day for a few months. The Mariners were horrified and worked to get Franklin back into shape, and he wound up good enough to bump Dustin Ackley to the outfield. But at least Franklin’s heart was in the right place, and he thought he was working to get himself better. I don’t know what Montero was doing or thinking, but if it was more than just lazily eating, he might consider a more extended explanation.
Two years ago, Jesus Montero was Baseball America’s No. 6 prospect. Two years ago. He was the kind of prospect you could flip for a Michael Pineda. If he were that prospect today, he’d be the kind of prospect you could use as a centerpiece to land Giancarlo Stanton. Instead, Montero today is the kind of prospect you could exchange for Mike Stanton, the other Mike Stanton, maybe, perhaps as long as you threw in some cash. He’s so without value the Mariners have nothing to do but try to allow him to rebuild some value. Montero is a month younger than Brad Miller.
From the most optimistic perspective, Montero puts the Mariners and Mariners fans in an interesting position where everyone’s given up on him, but he might still re-establish himself. The talent has to be in there somewhere, and who knows, maybe Montero actually comes out and hits like the player he was supposed to become. Nobody thinks he’ll do anything — everyone’s already accepted that he’s currently garbage — so at this point he’s pure upside. He achieved his maximum downside so quickly there’s still time and room for improvement.
It reminds me of a story from when I was younger. I’ve loved watermelon all my life, but perhaps never more than I did when I was nine. My grandparents grew a lot of fruit in their backyard, and I thought, why not me? There’s plenty of space and every watermelon has seeds in it. So one day I had some watermelon, and I collected the black seeds, and then I went out back and buried some of them under a few piles of dirt. I wasn’t sure entirely what I was doing, but that’s how you plant plants, right? You put their seeds in the ground? I covered them up and for the next few weeks I made sure the area was steadily watered. I couldn’t wait to have my very own watermelon plant.
I’d planted seeds before, so I had some understanding of what you’re supposed to observe, when things are going well. In time, I grew frustrated that I wasn’t seeing any sprouts. The seeds weren’t doing anything. Maybe I’d done something wrong. Maybe there was something wrong with the seeds. Maybe it was just bad luck. But before too much longer I gave up and stopped watering that part of the yard. It was worth an attempt, but despite all my excitement, it wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to live my dream.
I continued to do whatever nine-year-olds do for a while. I made stupid jokes that I thought were clever. I built Legos. My body expanded. I probably ate a lot of watermelon. There was school. I thought about the things that I thought were important to life, and then one day I went out back with my brother to start making a little mini-golf green. We’d recently come into some golf clubs, see, and everybody enjoys a round of mini-golf. We figured out where the hole was going to go, then I glanced over at where I’d planted the watermelon seeds so many months earlier. It’s not that I expected anything to be there — it was nothing but a casual glance. But something was different. I walked over, and, sure enough, there were green sprouts sticking out of the earth. Watermelon was growing. Watermelon was growing in my own backyard. I didn’t have a lot of big dreams as a kid, but this was among the biggest, and I was going to be able to live it.
Jesus Montero might well go on to become those watermelon plants. That’s currently the optimistic view. After we’ve all given up on him, Montero might still surprise and bear legitimate fruit. I should also note that story never happened. Not the end of it, at least, and growing plants is hard work. I sure did bury a lot of watermelon seeds, though. And my mom never hesitated to pick up another fresh watermelon from the grocery.
He might take his physical while you read this. He might let a ball get over his head while you share this on Facebook. Bob Dutton says he keeps hearing it’s a matter of time before Cruz ends up with the Mariners, and I imagine we all have the same sense. Nelson Cruz isn’t a Mariner yet, to my knowledge, but we’re already a lot of the way along the path to dealing with it. By the time there’s word, actual, official word, it might make nary a ripple, at least within our spheres on the Internet. This is one of the consequences of Twitter, and a media landscape worshiping the deity of content generation. Another consequence is a burning, intensifying desire to disconnect yourself and live in the woods. Let’s all build a cabin in the woods.
Why is this almost certainly going to happen? I need to leave myself an out, because there is some chance Cruz goes elsewhere, but you can think it right through and you keep stumbling to Seattle in the end. Cruz’s market isn’t big enough for him to pick favorites and pick other places he doesn’t want to go to. If he were truly in demand, he could identify cities he’d like to live in, successful organizations he’d like to play in, hitter-friendly ballparks he’d like to hit in. As is, Cruz isn’t Masahiro Tanaka, and as much as he might like it in Texas, it seems like the Rangers are only willing to give a year and some millions. Cruz should be reduced to having to take the best offer that presents itself.
We know that the Mariners have more money to spend, and we know that they’re trying to demonstrate their intention of competing in 2014. We know they like Cruz because they’ve talked about Cruz by name. We know the Mariners could fit him into the lineup, and we know the Mariners value players of Cruz’s type even just based on the way they hyped up Michael Morse a season ago. The Mariners are likely to like Cruz’s upsides. Other front offices are more likely to dislike Cruz’s downsides.
The Orioles are also looking for help, and the Orioles also have a little money to spend, but they currently seem focused on starting pitching and they’ve had positive things to say about David Lough, and specifically his defense. If the Orioles were to sign Cruz, it would probably be to have him as a DH. The Mariners could offer more playing time in the outfield, and if Cruz is anything like most of his peers, he doesn’t want to be a DH yet, even if he doesn’t run like he used to. Players like playing, and in Seattle Cruz could do more playing.
It wouldn’t do Cruz a lot of good to settle for one year. I mean, if he really doesn’t want to play for Seattle, he could just go back to Texas, but it’s not like his market would be any better in December. He ought to end up accepting a short multi-year contract, and we’ve already heard the Mariners are pretty comfortable with two years and maybe a third-year option. By this point Cruz understands he’s not coming close to his initial demands. He’s just about out of leverage, and the Mariners, if I had to guess, are just waiting for him to come down to wherever their level is. Theirs is probably still going to be the highest level. It’ll be significant, but short of something massive. Maybe even something only a little more pricey than the Fernando Rodney contract.
A bunch of people have asked me on Twitter if signing Cruz would make the Mariners contenders. The answer depends on what you think of the Mariners now, because Cruz barely changes them. Maybe he’d make them, I don’t know, a win better. Maybe less than that! There’s nowhere that a win is the difference between a contender and a non-contender. It’s all just math, and Cruz would turn some of the numbers into slightly bigger numbers. The M’s would probably still be worse than the A’s, the Rangers, and the Angels, but the gaps aren’t enormous. The division is winnable, the playoffs are achievable.
The trickiest part might be sorting out the Mariners’ roster post-Cruz, assuming Cruz happens. You could put Cruz in a corner and split 1B/DH between Justin Smoak, Corey Hart, and Logan Morrison. You could put Cruz in a corner and still give the other corner to Morrison/Hart for some reason. There’s no way to make things great because no great plan involves Nelson Cruz at the core of it, but there would be decisions to make. Peter Gammons passed along the idea that the M’s could deal Smoak to the Pirates, because the Pirates could use a first-base upgrade, but Smoak might not even be an upgrade, and he certainly wouldn’t bring back great value. The Mariners gave up little to get Morrison. The Mets haven’t been able to turn Ike Davis into anything worthwhile. The Pirates might prefer a guy like Mike Carp, which is the kind of hilarious I don’t want to think about too much. And the Mariners keep hyping Smoak up, suggesting he’s got fans among the string-pullers. I don’t know the solution because I can’t put myself in the Mariners’ mindset and I’m more than a little proud of that.
Earlier in the offseason, I saw two inevitabilities: Bronson Arroyo would sign for too much with the Giants, and Nelson Cruz would sign for too much with the Mariners. Arroyo went to a different team, for a more reasonable amount of money. Cruz is going to end up with a more reasonable amount of money, too, but Seattle’s still looking inevitable. It didn’t happen while I was writing the first paragraph, here, but if you’ll excuse me, I need to check Twitter again. In a weird way, Nelson Cruz officially signing with the Mariners would bring me and all of us some closure.
Even in a year characterized by disappointment and failure – a year that brought us the weird, bitter end of the Zduriencik and Wedge partnership and the total, comprehensive destruction of the M’s best position-player prospect – there are moments of joy and beauty. No, there aren’t any meaningful games to choose from in the traditional sense, but what are we all doing here if not searching for meaning? We M’s fans look into the void, and declare a corner of it “a future #2 starter.” We see, ok, if not beauty, then auguries of change, development and not-Brendan Ryan.
Game Number: 12
M’s record: 4-7
SPs: Iwakuma vs. Darvish
Why it’s listed: The M’s opened 2013 with a dominating performance from Felix and backed it up with a great start by Hisashi Iwakuma. And then they went 2-7. Before this game, Dave wrote that the next 9 days were crucial to the M’s continued ability to compete in 2013, and that with Michael Saunders ailing, the team needed a huge lift from someone to stay competitive against two of the league’s elite in Texas and Detroit. 12 days later, Dave wrote this, so you can tell how that all worked out. But this game…THIS game was different. This was one of the bigger mismatches of the young season, with presumed (and actual) Cy Young candidate Darvish facing a line-up of Jason Bay, Endy Chavez, Brendan Ryan and Kelly Shoppach and facing presumed DL candidate Hisashi Iwakuma. A third of this line-up would be DFA’d during the year, and that’s the part that DOESN’T include Brendan Ryan.
The M’s jumped on Darvish early, with a HBP/WP, a 1B, then an RBI single from Raul Ibanez, who’d looked abysmal to that point, followed by a huge two-run double by Kyle Seager. It wasn’t text-book, but the M’s had a 3-0 lead. Given the nature of the line-up, you won’t be shocked to recall that the M’s were done scoring after that, but Iwakuma made three runs hold up, going 6 1/3 IP of 1-run ball (a solo HR accounting for the run, naturally) over 6 1/3 IP. The M’s bullpen helped out, with Stephen Pryor unhittable for 1 1/3 IP, then turning it over to Tom Wilhelmsen, whom M’s fans still trusted in mid-April.
The M’s were in deep trouble and absolutely needed to steal a win, and they did. Their actions over the next two weeks rendered the importance of this game moot, and we all settled in to another year of…this. But this game showed that Iwakuma was both not hurt and ridiculously good when he was on.
Line from the game post: “The M’s are facing Yu Darvish, at home, with a starting pitcher who may not be 100%, and it *kind of makes sense* to start Ibanez/Chavez/Bay in the outfield. That’s why the M’s are in trouble in the short term. But if you’re going to steal a win, *steal* one. Make it hurt.”
What would the Seahawks have done?
Not enter the game 4-7.
Game Number: 134
M’s record: 61-73
SPs: Walker vs. Peacock
Why it’s listed:
Taijuan Walker’s the best pitching prospect the M’s have produced since King Felix. Of course his big league debut’s going to be on the list, and the fact that he shut the Astros out for 5 innings on only 2 hits just makes the decision easier. I’d been following Walker’s meteoric rise, which helped make this one of the few games in 2013 that felt like it mattered. I was nervous. I clapped at my TV after groundouts and whiffs. It was like a simulacrum of a playoff game, or a meaningful down-the-stretch game – the kind we haven’t had in a decade plus. Part of that’s my own weirdness, and part of that’s the dearth of any opportunity to get stoked for a late-season ballgame, but I *felt* something. Thanks, Taijuan Walker.
Let’s be clear: this was not actually one of Walker’s best games. I’ve seen Walker in person maybe 3 times, and on TV a few more, and I *still* don’t think we’ve seen what he can actually do. In the first inning of this contest, he was touching 94-95, and didn’t have his best command (understandably so). His cutter in particular just wasn’t that sharp, as he left quite a few up over the zone, and piped a couple over the heart of the plate. But that’s what makes this special – Walker doesn’t need to have everything working the way a Joe Saunders does, or hell, the way Erasmo Ramirez does. His repertoire, mechanics and stuff mean that hitters have a lot to consider, and thus Walker got away with some centered pitches.
I’d been struck by his poise in his AAA debut, another outing where he simply didn’t have a feel for his cutter, but he pitched out of a jam in the 3rd, when a 2-out double and then an error by Justin Smoak led to an unearned run. He was facing hitters for the 2nd time, and he yielded another hit and a line drive before getting out of the inning. In the 4th, facing the heart of the Astros line-up, he struck out Jason Castro, got a foul-out and a grounder. I know: it was the Astros. That’s context, sure, but Walker dominated a big-league team (kind of) without his best stuff. In his first big league appearance. That’s worth celebrating.
Line from the game post: ” It’s important to be reminded that it’s possible to really care about this team, and the development of a core group of players who could actually compete someday. Is this a low bar to get over? Yes, it is, but that doesn’t mean we’ve cleared it very often.”
What would the Seahawks have done? Faced with opposition like this, the M’s would have dominated early on to ease the pressure on Walker. Final score: 45-1.
Game Number: 1
M’s record: 0-0
SPs: Hernandez vs. Anderson
Why it’s listed:
Yes, we’ve seen it before. Hell, Felix has dominated the Oakland A’s on opening day before. This wasn’t about novelty, this was about Felix eliminating any doubt that his massive contract extension had changed him. This was about sending a message to the A’s, suddenly an elite team in the AL. And yes, the rest of the league is accustomed to these messages, and now disregards them because the M’s have struggled to back up a dominating Felix performance with more than a flurry of ground ball outs and a quick series loss. But so what? It was opening day, and Felix pitched 7 2/3 IP with 8 Ks and just 1 walk. John Jaso doubled, and while that was annoying because of context/circumstances, it just didn’t matter. The M’s got the best team in the AL West, facing that team’s best pitcher in one of his rare bouts of health, and shut them out.
Was the lack of run support worrying? Not facing the A’s #1 starter, and not on April 1st in Oakland’s cavernous ballpark. Is it annoying that the best most fans felt about the team came on opening night? Yes, sure, though I want to point out they won the next game too. But the M’s season went south quickly, as we saw in #5 above. If that just means it was somewhat inevitable that this game would end up on the list, well, so be it. Felix dominated a really good division rival, and somewhere underneath all of that scar tissue, we were excited about the M’s again.
Line from the game post: “Opening day means we can stop tabulating probabilities and start rooting *against* them.”
What would the Seahawks have done? A key early season match-up against a tough divisional foe? They’d focus on defense. With 2 outs in each inning, Felix would bean an A’s batter. With runs at a premium, the M’s would play ridiculously shallow on the IF corners while shouting insults to the batter. Chin music and constant abuse will take a team out of their rhythm.
I haven’t been following the M’s as much for the past few weeks. As most of you know, the M’s next-door neighbors won a championship with one of the most dominating Super Bowl performances in memory (and Super Bowl history is littered with dominating performances). For years, the Seahawks success – hell, even their mediocre 7-9 seasons – has highlighted just how bad the M’s have been, and how two different M’s GMs have tried and failed to right the ship. Those fans that still care about the M’s despairingly list just how *different* everything feels at the Clink, and how Seahawks GM John Schneider seems like Billy Beane supplied with a league-wide salary cap and actual clairvoyance.
Everyone’s weighing in on what “lessons” the Hawks have to teach the M’s, and so I thought I’d stop high fiving random people in the supermarket and see if there’s anything to glean from Schneider’s rapid rise to the top. Beware, there be tenuous analogies in these parts.
The Seahawks absolutely dominating defense is their calling card. Several teams in recent memory, from the Rays in 2008, the Giants in their 2 World Series years and the Tigers of last year seem like decent comps, but a closer look at each team shows that they just don’t fit. The Rays turnaround was led by Evan Longoria, who was not only an offensive factor, but a 3rd overall pick. The team transformed itself in part by trading disgruntled prospect Delmon Young for help at SS and SP Matt Garza. The Hawks, frankly, didn’t need an overhaul. The Giants won with great defense and pitching, led by Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Buster Posey, so the home-grownness looks similar, but again, the closer you look, the more the analogy falls apart. Each of those Giants stars was a first-round pick; the team did a marvelous job of developing them, but it’s not like they came out of nowhere. The team was fortunate to hit on some big bets, and it paid off for a GM previously known more for his nearly pathological love of veteran grit than his draft acumen. The Tigers pitching staff put up the kind of stats that make a comparison to the Seahawks seem appropriate, but again, the way the Tigers were assembled is quite different. Verlander was homegrown, but Scherzer and Fister came in trade. Anibal Sanchez was first acquired in trade (a deal that also netted the Tigers their 2B), then kept on a free agent deal. The offense was headlined by perhaps the biggest trade haul in a generation and the roundest player to ever command a $200m free agent deal. None of this is to say that the Tigers bought their way to the pennant or got lucky – their trades are now the stuff of legend, and it’s the only thing that makes me hesitate before slamming the return they got on Doug Fister this off-season. It’s just not a great parallel to the Seahawks.
The Hawks built their secondary and linebacker core largely through the draft, and spent in free agency on edge rushers on the line. It’s an interesting strategy, almost the inverse of what I might expect given the admittedly little I know about advanced football analysis. But while the Hawks have one legitimate first-round guy that many teams coveted in Earl Thomas, the team is famously peppered with back-of-the-draft flyers and questionable reaches. NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. famously panned several of the draft classes that produced the Seahawks starting QB, a starting LB and more. Richard Sherman was a 5th round pick, Malcolm Smith a 5th rounder, and fellow LB KJ Wright was a 4th round selection. Sure, Marshawn Lynch was a highly-touted ex-first rounder when the Hawks acquired him, but he’d largely failed to live up to expectations in Buffalo, and honestly looked a step slow in his first season in Seattle (until a certain playoff game). The key to the Seahawks isn’t just that they’re largely home-grown, it’s that the guys they appeared to have signed/drafted for depth simply took over, and in the process helped cover what would’ve been high-priced errors.
So who in the baseball world does that sound like? To me it sounds like the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that played in the World Series in 2006* and 2013 (whoa), and whose recent success has been driven in large part by big contributions from unheralded young players. Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter went in the 8th and 13th rounds, respectively. Yadier Molina was a 4th round pick. The pitching staff had more of a draft pedigree, but Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha, while first-rounders, certainly never seemed like difference makers – they just seemed like safe, boring, back-of-the-round selections. Shelby Miller was a legitimate phenom (although he went 19th overall; we’ll comp him to Earl Thomas, who went 14th overall), but their vaunted bullpen was another collection of late-round flyers (Trevor Rosenthal somehow lasted to the 21st round of the 2009 draft. Kevin Siegrist went in the *41st* round).
It all looks sort of familiar, er, at least to me. But the problem comes when trying to extrapolate these lessons to out-of-sample teams. You can’t discern a concrete “lesson” here, other than something easy and circular like “draft awesome players that no one else thinks are awesome.” I’m not Gladwellian enough to distill this into a meme-ready soundbite, and I’m not sure what there is to distill. Be better than your competitors! Hidden talent is out there somewhere! At this point, we’re really just looking at two very different front offices that just seem to function a bit better than others. It’s not that they’re never wrong, but their depth is such that any errors can be quickly covered over.
This is the sports version of the “great man” theory of history – with powerful visionaries as shapers of national and international events, whose singular genius trumps the power of culture, economics, technology and the like. It’s a pretty out-of-date theory, but it seems to work here. I’m sorry, M’s, but there doesn’t seem to be much to learn from the Seahawks other than the importance of player development. That’s nice, but it’s essentially a truism, and there seems to be so little to glean from football player development – where it’s sometimes possible to be a prospect despite never having seen an actual football before in your life. So take heart in the fact that Seattle’s completely sports crazy right now. Be inspired by the Seahawks rise from team in disarray to presumptive favorites to champions in about four years. There aren’t any specific strategies to take back to Safeco, but it’s helpful to remember how quickly things can change.
Fernando Rodney is 36 years old. That might surprise you, in either way. He might be older than you thought, because it’s really only been recently that he’s been any good. Or he might be younger than you thought, because you can’t really remember baseball before Fernando Rodney, because baseball always has dozens of pitchers like Fernando Rodney at any one given moment. Rodney built a whole career on being a reliever with an electric arm and potential. Then he built a new career. A career where he’s more than Mike MacDougal.
Rodney debuted in 2002 and for a decade, for literally a decade, he was hard-throwing and mediocre. His strikeouts wouldn’t match his velocity. His walks would, and then some. That whole decade, he was worth about 2.5 wins, according to his FanGraphs page. Last year Mark Melancon alone was worth 2.5 wins. In 2011 Rodney was a wreck for the Angels, and he barely pitched in September. It looked like it could be the end of the line, if a reliever ever hits the end of the line when he throws 96. The Rays scooped Rodney up and he set a new all-time ERA record. In the low way, not the way you might’ve expected Rodney to do it. Rodney was worse last season, but he was simultaneously worse and good.
Rodney was always a guy with a live arm and promise. He figured things out at 35. Rodney’s why teams still give those guys chances. And Rodney’s a Mariner, now, for two years and $14 million, or $15 million, if he’s healthy and great. The Mariners were first linked to Rodney some months ago, and it seemed inevitable they’d throw money at some kind of veteran for bullpen work. Rumors died down until they burst back to life. Rodney’s the new guy, and he’s the new closer.
Which is a bummer for Danny Farquhar, and which is kind of a bummer for us, because I think we’re all pretty big Danny Farquhar fans. We know we have the numbers on our side, and there’s reason to believe that Farquhar’s the superior reliever. Ideally, your closer would be your best guy, and your setup guy would be your second-best guy, and so on down the chain. If Farquhar’s better than Rodney, it’s weird to have Rodney as the closer. But more important than having guys in the right order is having the right guys, and closer be damned, the Mariners needed bullpen help. It was awful flimsy behind Farquhar and Charlie Furbush, and while Rodney’s no sure thing, he’s what Yoervis Medina wishes he were. Rodney solidifies the unit, probably, and given that the Mariners are in the business of trying to contend, Rodney does positive things for their playoff odds.
At the appropriate cost. The Mariners sure as shoot aren’t paying Rodney to repeat his historic 2012, because that would be all but unrepeatable. They’re really just paying him to be a good reliever, and he’s coming off a couple good seasons, and it’s not like any other resources have been sacrificed. Rodney costs two years of money, then he’s gone and remembered in some way, to be determined.
Lots of people have been talking about the M’s signing Nelson Cruz. The M’s themselves have been talking about the M’s signing Nelson Cruz, even publicly, on the record. It’s feeling like a thing that’s going to happen. I can already sense myself working to get over it. I will have already been through all the stages by the time the news initially hits. Cruz is perceived as a major splash, but after looking at all the numbers, you could make the argument that Rodney’s the bigger improvement for this team. Maybe just equivalent, but Cruz is overrated by many, and Rodney is underrated by some, and this contract is probably better than that contract would or will be. Cruz wouldn’t mean nothing, but Rodney addresses an area of quiet concern. During the season, it wouldn’t have been so quiet.
Oh, it’s beyond easy to envision Rodney coming apart and turning into what Yoervis Medina actually is. It’s easy to envision Rodney turning into a guy we never want to see on the mound in a game closer than six. That’s something Rodney already was, for a long time, and now he’s older and not pitching to Jose Molina, and even a good version of Rodney puts people with weak hearts in hospitals. Rodney’s never going to feel safe, and as he shoots his celebratory arrow, it’ll be accompanied by the sound of some tens of thousands of people finally breathing. It’ll sound like an actual arrow in flight. Prepare yourself for even the good outcome to be mildly traumatizing.
But Rodney can be good because he’s been good recently, and we want the Mariners to have more talent on the roster, and I’m excited to have a closer with a little ego and personality. Farquhar’s too nice. Wilhelmsen’s too uncertain and spacy. I guess Brandon League had a little ego and personality but he was a moron. I don’t even remember what David Aardsma was like. I very much enjoyed the J.J. Putz era. The Mariners’ new closer has a choreographed save celebration. He also wears his hat in such a way that from the back you can’t tell where he’s looking. One thing Fernando Rodney isn’t is forgettable.
It’s not a great move by the Mariners, but it’s not a bad move by them, either, and the team’s better now than it was. I might usually want more, but I’ll take this. I’m actually pretty easy to please. Decisions in the past have caused me to forget that. But I’m a fairly positive guy. This, this right here — this is fine.
Carlos Peguero is gone. Officially, now, not just designated for assignment. Instead of clearing waivers, Peguero was given to the Royals in exchange for cash, and cash can be subsequently exchanged for goods and/or services that could do more for the Mariners than Peguero would. Now, the Mariners could always conceivably get Peguero back if and when he’s designated for assignment by the Royals in a few weeks, but presuming he’s out of the organization for good, you’re free to say your goodbyes. I’d tell you to be brief, but that shouldn’t be a problem.
So the two names in Mariners news today are Peguero and Scott Baker. With that in mind, here’s a video from 2011, connecting them. It is a remarkable video of a remarkable thing.
According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, that dinger maxed out at 39 feet above the playing surface. A few weeks later, Peguero did this to Chris Volstad:
That dinger also maxed out at 39 feet above the playing surface. In 2011, there were four lower home runs hit, but they were all of the inside-the-park variety. So Peguero hit the lowest out-of-the-park home run that season, and he did it not once, but twice. Also, there was no lower out-of-the-park home run in 2012. There was no lower out-of-the-park home run in 2013. To find a lower such dinger, you have to go back to early 2010. So Peguero has hit the lowest true dingers in years.
And in 2012, he hit one of the highest home runs of the year, maxing out at 144 feet above the playing surface. Carlos Peguero is versatile, if you put a microscope over the one positive thing he’s capable of doing.
Sure is a lot of potential in Peguero. Sure is a lot of potential in almost literally every single human. Sure are a lot of disappointing humans. Peguero’s not dull, though. We had our moments, which is more than you could say for whoever the hell Chris Jakubauskas was.
Just yesterday I was reflecting on what it was like to talk about and analyze transactions before we had all the numbers and understanding we have today. It never felt hopeless — if anything, I think writers might’ve been more confident — but the old way seems so foreign now, so inclined to beat around bushes when today we’re equipped to just dig them up out of the ground. That’s probably not what that expression means. These days we just go about things differently, with presumably more complicated thought processes, and I thought it might be fun to attempt a side-by-side comparison. The Mariners have made a move allowing for just such an attempt, officially signing Scott Baker to a minor-league contract.
He’ll get $1 million if he makes the team, and he could earn an additional $3.25 million if he were to hit all his incentives. But as of today, it’s a low-risk, minor-league deal, costing the Mariners an almost negligible sum. I want to look at this, quickly, in an older way and a newer way. It’s been a while since I wrote in the older way, so what follows is just a best guess, but here’s to analyzing this Scott Baker acquisition over the years.
The Mariners have been in the market for starting-rotation help, and in Baker they’ve identified a potential massive bargain. It’s true that Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery, and that’s a very involved operation, but it’s never been more effective than it is today, and it’s more of a career-delayer than a career-destroyer. If Baker isn’t good, he’ll cost the Mariners next to nothing. If his arm doesn’t look right, they can keep him in the minors or cut him in spring, and there’s little harm done. But if Baker’s back to the old Scott Baker, well, the old, healthy Scott Baker was a reliable above-average starting pitcher with more strikeouts than you might’ve expected from his stuff. He had a ton of value when he was healthy, and he says he’s healthy again now, and he did, after all, pass the Mariners’ physical.
Sure, you could drop tens of millions of dollars on an Ervin Santana or a Ubaldo Jimenez. Maybe that gives you a little more certainty. That’s also a hefty commitment, and if Baker’s back, he’s about as good as anything else available. This is a brilliant move for the Mariners to make, with plenty more upside than downside. Yeah, maybe Baker does nothing at all. Or maybe he makes 30 starts with a sub-4 ERA. There aren’t many ways for this to look like a mistake, but there are plenty of ways for it to look like a bargain. This is an example of smart shopping.
Every year, every team in baseball brings some starters to spring training on minor-league contracts. Scott Baker’s more interesting than most of them are, given his history, and given that he’s coming off something as understood these days as Tommy John surgery. While getting Baker might not stop the Mariners from pursuing other starters, he does give them a potential depth option, to bolster the group behind Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma. The Mariners aren’t out any real money if Baker doesn’t look sharp. All this is is a roll of the dice to see if Baker looks like his old familiar self.
Because his old familiar self was a quality starting pitcher. He isn’t less than that now because of a decline — he’s less than that now because of injury, and he might well bounce back. But then, that might not happen. As much as Tommy John recovery seems so routine these days, the Cubs got basically nothing out of Baker in 2013. Ryan Madson hasn’t pitched since 2011. Cory Luebke hasn’t pitched since April 2012. Nothing about this process is automatic, and nothing about this process assures a 100% return to effectiveness.
Consider how neat it is that the Mariners were able to get Baker on a minor-league deal. Now consider that the MLB market allowed for that to happen. Clearly, no one else sees Baker as a safe investment, including his former teams, and that strikes me as not insignificant. Maybe overly cautious, but not insignificant. 171 starters started at least a game in the majors in 2011 and 2013. Baker’s average fastball lost 2.6 miles per hour. Five starters lost that much or more. Ricky Romero, these days, is a disaster. Roy Halladay had shoulder problems and retired. Ramon Ortiz was awful. CC Sabathia got worse. Jered Weaver got worse. It’s not good to lose ticks, especially when you drop into the 80s.
And maybe a part of that was just Baker finally getting back on a mound. Maybe he’s only now returning to full arm strength and full pitching confidence. But the last time he pitched, well removed from surgery, he wasn’t quite himself. So he still has some things to prove. It’s not unreasonable to think that Scott Baker could bounce back, but it would be unreasonable to expect it.
I think that covers it. I think, in the past, I would’ve been a lot more optimistic about a signing like this. I still like it — there really isn’t much downside at all — but I feel like I’m a little more realistic about Baker’s chances of being any good. There still exist the same floor and the same ceiling, but in my mind, the probabilities have shifted. There’s information in the fact that Baker’s coming off surgery. There’s information in the fact that the market allowed him to sign this particular contract. Seattle’s got a big park, and a good opportunity, but obviously no one thought Baker was worth a guarantee, and I don’t feel right ignoring that.
Ultimately though, what’s most important is that the Mariners did get a guy with upside at a low cost. There’s no way to dislike this, that I can come up with. The Mariners haven’t sacrificed anything for the Scott Baker chance, and the more talented starters you have, the better your odds of getting a good rotation from the group. How this could go wrong is if the Mariners give Baker too many big-league starts to be not good, but there’s nothing to complain about until there’s something to complain about. Scott Baker’s a Mariner now, and they’ve done a lot worse.
Something we know is that the Mariners aren’t finished trying to tweak the roster. We know this because if they were finished, that would be stupid. Recently there have been some interesting messages put out there. On the one hand, people have suggested the Mariners are just about out of payroll flexibility. On the other, the Mariners have said they still have some resources, and they just admitted to being in the market for a No.3 starting pitcher. You can’t target a No. 3 starting pitcher if you can’t make any more significant moves.
So what is a No. 3 starting pitcher? For one team next year, the No. 3 starter will be Anibal Sanchez. For another team next year, the No. 3 starter will be Kevin Correia. So, a No. 3 is somewhere between Anibal Sanchez and Kevin Correia, and that’s what the Mariners are targeting. The first guy to grab your attention is Ervin Santana, but the way Jack has been talking, Santana might be too expensive. Another rumor out there is that the Mariners are highly interested in free agent Scott Baker. I don’t know if Baker would count as the No. 3, or as something else, but that’s a thing that’s been floated on the Internet, and so that’s a thing I’m free to riff on.
This is amazingly simple. If you happen to be in a rush, read only the next two sentences. The last healthy version of Scott Baker was a quality, dependable starting pitcher. The big question is how he’ll recover from his elbow surgery.
And that’s it. That’s what we can say. Baker would be good if he could get back to being what he was for a few years with the Twins. He might not be able to do that, on account of the elbow problems, and he’s also just older, as we all are. The three years before his surgery, he was as good as Max Scherzer and Hiroki Kuroda, more or less. Good pitchers! Then health problems. Baker pitched in the majors last season, but he pitched all of three times, and he wasn’t himself. I mean, he was himself, by definition, but he wasn’t his old himself. He was a version of Scott Baker you’re not familiar with yet.
Given how routine Tommy John surgery has become, I don’t think it scares people the way it used to. I think a common assumption is that pitchers end up fine on the other end, given a long enough rehab. So Baker just looks like a high-upside pickup. Which he would be, but he’s far from automatic. Remember: Baker has started three games over the past two seasons. He’s started six games since the end of July, 2011. How could it go wrong, you ask? The Cubs paid Baker $5.5 million last season, and he played three games. He looked like a smart risk, but that’s why “risk” and “guarantee” are different words with different definitions.
According to reports, the Cubs have already basically ruled out re-signing Baker, even though they’re still looking for rotation help. That’s interesting, although it’s not like we can know exactly what it means. When Baker did come back last year, his fastball was down about 2-3 ticks from where it was beforehand. Obviously, that could just be part of the rehab, and Baker could be back to 100% these days. But he might also just be less of a pitcher now, and while Baker offered quotes about how velocity isn’t as important as command and movement, the reality is that velocity matters and a lower-velocity Baker would be a lower-effectiveness Baker, almost certainly. If the market viewed Baker as a good gamble, he’d have more of a market.
I’m not trying to talk people out of Scott Baker, because I like the idea of Scott Baker, as anyone would. The last time he was healthy, he was neat, and maybe he’s healthy again now. I just want to make it clear that when you’re dealing with the talented and delicate, sometimes you end up seeing a lot of the talent, but sometimes you end up seeing a lot of the fragility. Lots of players would be better if they could get back to being what they were. Baker’s among them. Last September he was throwing 88 instead of 91, and someone already tried rolling the dice on him once. You don’t need to go far back for proof that Scott Baker can disappoint you.
Obvious statement: Scott Baker would be great on a minor-league contract! At that point there’s not no risk, but there’s limited risk. On a major-league contract, everything depends, and everyone has a point beyond which they’d no longer be real comfortable. Remember that the Mariners are kind of planning on winning, soon. There are a lot of reasons to favor talent over durability. The A’s have been fortunate doing that very thing. It’s not clear how much talent Scott Baker actually still has, when he’s able to get on a mound. He’s not quite Franklin Gutierrez, but that’s also an impossible benchmark.
Tanaka’s going to New York, and it’s official, so no take-backsies. It always kind of looked like the Mariners would make a whole lot of sense, even before people started connecting them to Tanaka, and then people started connecting them to Tanaka. But then that stopped, and about a week passed, and then we got here. We can’t be certain to what extent the Mariners were actually involved, and I don’t know if they’ll ever choose to open up about it like, say, the Astros have in acknowledging they met and made a nine-figure offer. Maybe the M’s were in really deep. But there was no actual indication of that, and perhaps the M’s anticipated how high this would go and started to look elsewhere. Perhaps the M’s were uncomfortable with seven years and $175 million.
Because that’s what this is going to cost the Yankees: seven years and $175 million. Unless Tanaka is healthy and good, in which case it’ll cost them four years and $108 million, and then he’ll opt out and sign for more. Tanaka was at his absolute most appealing several months ago, I think. At that point he was an idea, a talented mystery, and he’d be in a position where he’d basically have to sign with the team with the highest posting bid. And we loved the way posting bids came from some kind of separate budget. Then changes to the posting system more or less exposed Tanaka to free-agency prices. Suddenly everyone got to be involved. Today’s numbers function as a splash of cold water on a daydreamer’s face.
No more is it about Tanaka being a mystery, and therefore potentially being a bargain. The posting fee plus the salary add up to Felix Hernandez money. Tanaka has an opt-out. Felix has a cheap option if he hurts his elbow. It isn’t fair to just directly compare the numbers like that, but it still conveys a powerful and mostly accurate idea — Tanaka’s being paid to be somewhat similar to Felix Hernandez, and Felix is getting paid basically what he’s worth. While the Yankees are happy to print their own money, had the Mariners guaranteed a contract like this, there would’ve been more ways for it to go bad than good. Though I’m fairly certain Tanaka will be pretty good, this goes well past the point of being an obvious deal. At these terms, the Mariners were at least not wrong to hold back.
It’s just that, you know, there’s that dilemma. Tanaka won’t be a bargain, but he was probably the best free agent left. Maybe the best available player left. And the Mariners still need to get better, if they aim to contend in the short term, which is kind of the whole point of signing Robinson Cano for so much. I know they say it’s a ten-year marriage, and I know they say they expect Cano to age gracefully, but he won’t be better in 2017 than he will be in 2014. The plan, it seems, is to win. The progress is incomplete.
By the FanGraphs projected standings, the Mariners are the 11th-best team in the American League. By the FanGraphs projected WAR, the Mariners are still the 11th-best team in the American League. Of course, there’s a whole mess of teams right ahead of them, and the M’s are close enough to get carried away, but being trapped behind that many teams leaves them with very low odds. The M’s could still badly use another four or five wins, which is to say, the M’s could still badly use immediate roster upgrades. A few of them, since you probably won’t gain that with one player.
And there’s relatively little left. I mean, there’s a lot left, a lot more than usual by this point in January, but there’s nothing easy about the task the Mariners face, especially if it’s true that they’re pushing up against their budget ceiling. David Price would be a splash, but we’ve been over that. The remaining upper-tier starters are all interesting, but they’ll be expensive and they’re all no less mysterious than Tanaka is, given Garza’s health, Santana’s volatility, and Jimenez’s unpredictability. It’s been interesting to think about the link between the Mariners and Scott Baker, but Baker might not return to being the consistent pitcher he was. I keep advertising Chris Capuano everywhere, but that’d be a small improvement. They need more improvements.
For me, the wild card in a way is Nick Franklin. He’s got nowhere to play, and he’s young and good and appealing. Ordinarily fans are loath to trade their own quality prospects, but I think we’ve all come to terms with Franklin’s expendability. He’s potentially of the most use to the Mariners by getting traded, provided the trade is a good one, for help. He’s good enough to be the centerpiece in a move for a relative splash, a move that would forgivably focus more on the present. But I can’t speak to the league-wide demand. The one move I know in which Franklin was involved, I didn’t like. I should hope that the Mariners could turn him into something pretty good.
It’s a weird day for Mariners fans. It’s a good day, just in that, all right, the offseason can resume now. Tanaka’s finally off the board, and he got a massive deal, so it’s not like the Mariners totally whiffed. But the Mariners still do need to get better, and no route will be quicker than the Tanaka one would’ve. So if the front office wants to achieve the goal it set for itself some months back, it needs to go all Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment. I don’t know if she actually navigated security lasers in the movie but that’s what the promotional poster made it look like. You could also think of the Mariners as having to play Operation, and Jack Zduriencik’s got some chubby fingers.
In time, Tanaka will be just another pitcher. Maybe a very good one, but in time he’ll feel real. We’ll be able to say, okay, he’s as good as this other guy, like we can do with Yu Darvish. In time he’ll feel a lot less, I don’t know, exotic. The process started today when we heard about the one hundred seventy-five million dollars. I’m okay with the Mariners sitting this one out. I’m just not quite sure what they’re supposed to do now. The Seahawks are in the Super Bowl, though. Wow!