Monday, April 27, 2009

Don't get mad, get Wlad

Welcome back, Tad.  And welcome back me.  I posted a fair amount last season, but stopped midseason as the Mariners hit rock bottom and my interest in curling exceeded that of baseball - and the only thing I know about curling is that it's essentially goofy-looking shuffleboard on ice.

I will be shocked if this team wins more than 75 games this year, hot start notwithstanding.  However, I like the direction Jackie Z has taken the club.  The puke-inducing, dumster-diving Bavasi days are over.  Dice rolling no longer rules the decision-making process.  Emphasis on the less "sexy" aspects of the game has come to the forefront, not the least of which is defense.

Despite Seattle ranking near the bottom in fielding percentage, there are sophisticated metrics presently available that demonstrate Zduriencik has put together a very nice defensive team.  Here's one of them:

On this chart, the M's are currently near the top in UZR, which is defined as follows:

UZR (ultimate zone rating): The number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined.

I don't pretend to be an expert in this statistic, or whether or not it is valid.  However, if so (and assuming it holds up), it helps to validate Zduriencik's team-building approach.  

Ok, so what the heck does this have to do with the thread title?

Franklin Gutierrez was picked up in the J.J. Putz trade and has been a significant part of the defensive improvement for the M's during the early part of this year.  He's got a good glove, solid wheels and seems to pick the right route to the ball, unlike the circuitous misadventures of a certain former M's outfielder.  He's probably a great guy in the clubhouse and maybe even smells nice, too.  He has a significant role to play on this club, without a doubt.

However, his bat might as well be made out of milk chocolate.  I realize that he's just 26, but when you're coming off a .248/.303/.691 season after logging a career high 399 ABs, you'd better be good defensively.  Couple that with similarly "meh" stats in parts of three previous MLB seasons and good-but-not-great stats in the minors, and it seems clear that you might be destined to be an outfield version of Willie Bloomquist.  Pinch-running, late-inning replacement in the field, and spot starting might make more sense for Mr. Gutierrez, long term.

Wladmir Balentien, by contrast, displayed multi-tool talent in the minors, smacking 24 homers in his first PCL campaign, then 18 in just 275 AB's in his second.  Slugging was .509 and .584, respectively, and OPS was .871 and .938.  He even stole 15 bases (against four caught stealing) in 2007.  His previous lower-level minors stats look pretty zesty, too.  He doesn't hit for high average, but the boy can get on base, drive in runs, and has above-average power.  It's time to see if he can do it in the Show as well.

Balentien had slightly sprained his wrist early in the year and thus was not available.  Now that he's healthy, he needs to be given a chance to see what he can do.  This M's team is going to scratch and claw for runs all year long.  If Balentien is the real deal, he could give them a dose of what they need offensively and actually make Gutierrez more valuable as a true role player in the process.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It’s Hero Time

This blog has been dark for the better part of a year.

Last year's the M's mis-management team turned me off so bad that I largely lost the joy of baseball. I barely followed the playoffs, discontinued my subscription to Baseball Prospectus and came perilously close to folding a 15 year fantasy league for general lack of interest.

But I like the moves Zdurenczik made this offseason and have been pleasantly surprised at the results of the team so far this year, so when someone offered me tickets for Friday night's Tigers tilt I took em. It was Ichiro Bobblehead night after all. Kate, my 9 year old, is deeply into her softball this year and was very excited to go with me.

Two things happened at this game that may be the road to recovery for me as a baseball fan.

The first is that I was very much surprised at the amount of emotion I felt watching Junior bat for the first time in 10 years. Those that know me may not be surprised that I would have an emotional response, I am an emotional guy, but the depth of the feeling surprised me.

A flood of memories came back. I was a fan before Junior of course, and I've got the Ruppert Jones baseball cards and Jim Presley growth charts to prove it. But when Junior arrived in 1989, it felt like the Mariners had arrived too. We had our first winning season two years later and were no longer a joke. Junior led to the winning season, the first winning season led to Piniella, and Sweet Lou led us to 1995. Seeing Junior brought back all of that and put a serious lump in my throat.

If me getting choked up over seeing The Kid was somewhat predictable, the second inspiring moment was completely random and totally unexpected.

Kate loves the bullpen. You are so close to the players, you can almost touch them. Other than the 12 foot fence of course. The sound of the ball popping in the bullpen catcher's glove is a definite "Wow!" moment for a 9 year old.

We made our way to the pen in the eighth and watched Brandon Lyon throw in the Tigers pen. When he got called in, we wandered over to the much more crowded M's side, but just as we got there a spot opened up, right on the mound end.

It was a little boring at first because Morrow was the only guy up and he was already warm, only throwing once a minute or so to stay ready. After two outs in the M's inning though, he started working pretty seriously. Shortly the M's made the third out and Morrow came in to close it out. We shouted good luck at him and Kate turned to go.

I held on for a second because I enjoy watching things in the margins. Sometimes you see some pretty interesting things during changeovers and after everyone else has stopped watching. In this case my patience was rewarded. The bullpen catcher flipped the ball Morrow had been throwing to pen coach John Wetteland, who made a beeline for Kate.

You assume that these guys are used to the crowds and don't pay any attention to who is watching them. They have been trained all along to be indifferent and aloof from the adoring (or heckling) throngs. But Wetteland had clearly seen us already, he asked for the ball and didn't look around for someone to give it to, he knew where he was going.

"Can I throw you this ball sweetheart?"

My normally poised and composed daughter, who talks incessantly, was completely speechless. Grinning, she could only manage a nod.

Wetteland points to the top of the fence. "I have to throw it over, are you ready?"

Kate holds her hands out in a fielding stance.

"Of course you are ready, you brought your mitt! Okay, ready, here it comes!"

The ball goes up and over the top of the fence and comes down to rest squarely in her glove. She stares down at the ball as if she has been given some priceless gift (Jonas Brothers tickets?) beyond measure. By the time she looks up, Wetteland has already turned to go. "Thank you!" we both shout.

Wetteland doesn't turn back, acknowledging us only by the briefest flick of his left hand in some sort of minimalist wave.

The grin on Kate's face is impossible to describe. The trip home was filled with as many details of John Wetteland's career as I can recall and a lengthy dissertation on the duties of the bullpen coach. She woke her mother up to tell year the story and called her Grammy at 7 am the next morning to tell her. I think she slept with the ball.

I don't know if I am all the way back. The Bavasi years have scarred me permanently. But the thrill of seeing my favorite player and experiencing the simple pleasure of a free baseball through the eyes of my little girl have started the recovery.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Kids and Disasters

Hello all...I'm back from a good long trip through China and the Philippines, where I successfully isolated myself from Mariner malaise (at least until Typhoon Fengshen/Frank made my homeward trip an epic ordeal for the ages, and I had to read SOMETHING about the M's).

You'd think that time off would have improved my mood. I even return to find that the morons in charge of the organization decided to fire the GM and manager (yeah!) but not themselves (boo!)...and that the M's remain about as horrible a team as you could imagine. It has been postulated that a random team of AAA scrubs could win about 30-35% of their games in the major leagues, and here we have a $100 million dollar juggernaut plugging along at a .395 clip...truly scrumptious!

Upon my return, my family celebrated by taking me to see the local AA team on the 3rd of July (the team was away on the 4th, so this was the big fireworks extravaganza). So on Thursday night, we headed south to Chattanooga to join a capacity crowd at beautiful AT&T Field to witness the Lookouts vs. the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (yep...that's the AA Mariners affiliate).

The game was plenty eventful, ending up a 7-6 victory for the visitors (yeah M's!). We even saw a little of the minor league talent that is supposedly Bill Bavasi's one positive legacy with our franchise.

-Matt Mangini: good eye, massive power (so say the long foul balls), massively long swing...but he avoided striking out at all, which was surprising.
-Mike Wilson: looked good, with a solid double, two walks, and an intentional walk.
-Joe Nelson and Greg Halman: showed batting-practice power against non-prospect reliever Mike Hrynio, whose 6.28 ERA entering the game was no fluke. (While warming up when he came in for the 6th, he did an unintentional Nuke LaLoosh impression, punishing the backstop, and not for the last time in the evening, with a pitch.)
-Mark Kiger? He's the guy whom the Oakland A's brought to the majors to reinforce their injured middle infield spots for the playoffs in 2006. He turned 28 two months ago, and yet he's starting at SS for the M's AA team. Yeah, we're loaded with prospects! A 1-3, two walk, CS performance got his season average up to .228. Yeesh.
-Lefty Justin Thomas looked interesting on the mound, although his results were meh. Some innings he was dominant against a not-horrible Lookouts team.

Actually, though, the most interesting M's-related feature of the game was that this year's pitching coach for the Lookouts (currently the Reds affiliate here in Chattanooga) is none other than Chris Bosio. BOZ! The team was holding an auction of the special pre-4th of July patriotic jerseys of their players and coaches (winner gets an autographed game-worn jersey), but I couldn't bring myself to bid the $85+ it would have taken to get a Bosio tent. Good times.

Perhaps I'm spoiled (last season I got to see real prospects Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey for a while; two years ago we had Joey Votto all year as the starting 1B), but this game really didn't seem to have the minor-league star power that I might have expected at the AA level for the Mariners. Oh, I know--many of our gems are still in Rookie/single-A leagues. Sure. Still, pretty disappointing. From the one game (extremely small sample size), I'd say that only Mike Wilson "looked" like he might be ready to move up. From the stat lines they brought into the game, it looks like 1B Thomas Hubbard, OF Johan Limonta, and C Adam Moore are having decent seasons, along with Nelson and Halman. No pitchers stand out.

I'm pretty reluctant to trust the Mariners organization with any hope until the idiots atop the chain are sacked. This game didn't give me much real hope for the future...but hey, it's just one game.

More sunshine and Pollyanna predictions from me later....

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Time is Right

Bryan LaHair, come on UP!

Victor Diaz, come on UP!

Matt Tuiasosopo, come on UP!

Rob Johnson, come on UP!

Ryan Feierabend, come on UP!

You're the next contestants on "The Time is Right"!

Ahem, Lee? Want to do something to give Armstrong and company something to think about when it comes time to evaluate your performance for the remainder of this season? How about doing a little housecleaning to rid the club of dead weight and/or empty chattel, with these (and/or others) players in mind as heirs apparent.

No, the farm isn't exactly stuffed to the brim with premium prospects. However, until they are given the Daric Barton leeway the far superior franchise Oakland has employed this year (pointed out in Tad's post three weeks ago), nobody quite knows for sure what we've got down there. We know what we've got up here - the sorriest collection of major leaguers in all of baseball.

As bad as Bavasi and McLaren were, forcing them to walk the plank isn't going to turn this creaking, leaky ship around by itself. It's a good start, but the boat has taken on way too much water. It's time to start bailing. Can I make any more clichéd , seagoing metaphors? See how seamlessly I wove in that theme with the whole Mariners thing, then unraveled it all in the last two sentences? That's just the kind of guy I am.

Show the kind of guy you are and do something for the good of the franchise. Start by initializing the cleanup of Bavasi's mess. It's not like you're Pat Gillick, probing the bottom-feeders for possible talent to pluck away at the trade deadline. Oh, wait ...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Blown Away!

Ready ... aim ... FIRE!

Bill Bavasi and John McLaren, shown the door by the Mariners over the past few days.

I actually now believe that a wholesale youth movement is on its way. And speaking for the majority of "stat geek" Mariners fans who never once believed the team was anywhere close to being as good as its 88-74 record last year, and thus by extension was nowhere near contending status as it was constructed this year, I can say this with a clear conscience: it's about freaking time.

The next GM needs to be a guy willing to build through youth and homegrown talent first, and when the time is right, supplement it with the right kinds of free agents. The fact that we have as many 30+ guys on our roster for a team that had one winning season in the last five speaks volumes as to the ridiculous way this team was built. Go back a few posts and read my quick synopsis of Cleveland versus Seattle, which really is an indication of the right way to rebuild (the Tribe) versus the wrong way (the Mariners). The Indians aren't doing well this year, granted, but injuries to studs are a big reason why. Prior to this year, they were a combined 48 games over .500 the previous three seasons, culminating in a division championship in 2007. We were a combined 16 games under .500, even with last year's aberration.

Pulling the plug and going entirely with youth - to whatever degree that's possible - will be unpleasant and is sure to dry up the coffers for a few years as attendance dwindles even more. In the long run, that's how you rebuild a team. Few can do it on the fly, and those are typically huge-money clubs and/or teams with very agile GMs. We're borderline there on the first order, nowhere near on the second.

Meanwhile, "Stand Pat" is riding high in Philadelphia. Welcome to the 1980's.