Mariners Made Some Minor Moves, Brought In Another Catcher

This is the time of year where it’s easy to lose track of the Mariners’ wheelings and dealings, so I’m going to do my best to corral them in the occasional post (mostly so it’s easier for me to go back later and find them, when I do my longer Mariners-related preview posts).  So, without further ado, some stuff:

  • Exercised Seth Smith’s 2017 option for $7 million
  • Declined Chris Iannetta’s option
  • Waived Nori Aoki (picked up by Houston, ugh)
  • Furbush, Clevenger, and Ryan Cook declined assignments with Tacoma, became free agents
  • Claimed Dean Kiekhefer off waivers from St. Louis
  • Lind, Storen, Dae-ho Lee, and Guti also granted free agency
  • Trade Vidal Nuno to Dodgers for catcher Carlos Ruiz

So, mostly news about guys who probably won’t be back.  I can’t imagine, with the shitstorm on Twitter, that the Mariners will work that hard to bring back Steve Clevenger.  Furbush is still annihilated with injuries, so I don’t know what his deal is.  I guess he’ll continue to work his way back into pitching shape and then see if he can get a deal somewhere.  It’s not impossible for him to return to Seattle, but he’s going to have to prove he’s 100%, or else come back on a minor league, try-out deal.  Either way, can’t afford to keep those guys on our 40-man roster; better to have the open spots.  The Mariners actually need a quality left-handed reliever, not a guy who will spend the entirety of 2017 on the DL.

Speaking of left-handed relievers, Vidal Nuno is gone!  I dunno, he was a guy we all liked for his versatility, but it turns out if you’re a crappy starter and a crappy reliever, the bottom line is you’re crappy.  We were able to swap him for another catcher, which looks like an awesome deal from a Mariners perspective.

Mike Zunino came back to the Majors in 2016 better than he was before, but he’s still not a finished product.  His defense is second to only a select few, as he was among the league leaders in defensive runs saved, while playing less than half the season in the Bigs.  With Ruiz’s bat – and competent on-base abilities – I wouldn’t mind seeing an equal timeshare between the two guys.  If they can stay healthy, we might be looking at not just replacement-level production out of the catcher position, but actually having it be a net-positive for this team!  Either way, it’s a VAST improvement over Chris Iannetta, which is all I can ask for.

Also speaking of left-handed relievers, this Kiekhefer guy is one of those!  He has all of 26 Major League appearances under his belt, all in 2016, and most of them pretty sub-par.  He’s sort of like a lefty version of Steve Cishek, only not as good.  He’ll destroy left-handed hitting, but he appears to struggle mightily against righties.  I guess you could argue he’s still pretty young, and for the most part looked better in September than he did earlier in the year (one 4-run appearance aside), but more than anything I think you peg him to be Spring Training fodder.  He’s on the 40-man roster, for now, but that’s not necessarily set in stone.  Whether he has options (I would assume he still does) is another issue.  If he pitches well in spring, either he makes the big league team, or he goes to Tacoma as insurance.  I guess we’ll see.

I think the writing was already on the wall when it came to Smith and Aoki.  The team likes Smith’s veteran leadership and steady (sometimes power) bat in the lineup over Aoki’s streakiness and slap-hittiness.  Aoki’s questionable defensive ability, and his poor base running, really did him in.  Nevertheless, I hate seeing him go to Houston, as I’m CONVINCED he’ll have a career year, even if he doesn’t play every day.

As for everyone else, we’ll wait and see.  I can’t imagine the market is too broad for Guti, so expect him back.  Dae-ho Lee might be less inclined to return, unless he’s guaranteed more playing time.  I have to think we’re going to look for a more permanent fix for our first base woes.  Drew Storen might be the toughest one to retain, as I can’t imagine the Mariners will want to break the bank for a right handed reliever who had a nice half-season with us, but is ultimately a hit-or-miss prospect going forward.  If he wants to come back on a relatively minor deal, fine, but I don’t think I’m paying more than $2-3 million for his services.

So far, so good.  The Mariners are better now than they were at the end of the 2016 season.  Let’s keep doing that and everything should be fine.

The Bullpen Was Too Much Miss, Not Enough Hit

Unless you take that phrase literally, in which case “miss”ing bats is a good thing and getting your balls “hit” is a bad thing, in which case I hate the title of this post already.

The amount of power a bullpen holds over the quality of your team’s baseball season is pretty obscene.  Granted, every area of a baseball team plays its part – hitting, defense, starting pitching, baserunning – so to get to a point where your bullpen can make or break your year means you need your starters to keep you in the game, you need your hitters to give you a lead, your defense needs to not give the other team extra outs, and you can’t take away outs from your own team by getting picked off or taking an extra base you shouldn’t have.

So, while the hitting for the Mariners wasn’t good for the longest time (mostly during the Jackie Z era), it didn’t really matter if our bullpens were good or not.

But, it’s a new day.  Our hitting is solid, our starters – for the most part – keep us in ballgames (even if they’re not particularly dominating), our defense is good enough (again, for the most part), and while our baserunning is pretty bad, it’s also a pretty small part of the game of baseball, all things considered.  A team like 2016’s Mariners had it all going for them, meaning the bullpen was the most important factor in deciding whether or not we’d make the playoffs.

And, as you can tell by our absence, obviously the bullpen wasn’t quite good enough.

For starters, the Mariners were 30-30 in 1-run games.  This is actually what one would expect.  If you’re significantly better, then it would stand to reason that you’re luckier, as these sorts of things tend to even out over time.  If you’re significantly worse, then it would stand to reason you’re unlucky.  So, we can throw luck right out the window as far as the Mariners are concerned.

The Rangers, on the other hand, were 36-11 in 1-run games, which is, like, an all-time crazy record for 1-run games.  Their dumb ass luck ran out though, when they got swept by the Blue Jays in the ALDS, going 0-1 in the playoffs in 1-run games.

Anyway, here are the records of the A.L. playoff teams in 1-run games:

  • Texas:  36-11
  • Cleveland:  28-21
  • Boston:  20-24
  • Toronto:  21-25
  • Baltimore:  21-16

So, as you can see, there’s a good mix.  Texas, Cleveland, and Baltimore were all over .500; Boston and Toronto were both a few games under.  What I noticed straight away is that the Mariners were involved in significantly MORE 1-run games than any of these teams.  37% of our games were decided by a single run.  Looking at it another way, 73% of our games (119) were decided by 4 runs or less.  So, we played a lot of close games.  I’d wager we were among the league leaders in close games.  As such, the performance of our bullpen meant a lot more than that of the rest of the American League.

The Mariners were involved in 74 save opportunities this season; we converted 49 of them, for a save percentage of 66%.  The league average was only 68%, so that doesn’t put us too far behind the 8-ball.  But, how does that compare to the playoff teams?  Let’s take a look:

  • Texas:  56 of 73, 77%
  • Cleveland:  37 of 48, 77%
  • Boston:  43 of 61, 70%
  • Toronto:  43 of 65, 66%
  • Baltimore:  54 of 68, 79%

So, as you can see, 4/5 playoff teams had superior save percentages than the Mariners.  If we’d just saved 70% of our opportunites – 2% above league average, and right in line with the playoff teams – that’s 3 more wins you could add to our total, which just so happens to be the number of games the Mariners missed the playoffs by.

The story of the 2016 Mariners bullpen kicks right off with injuries.  Charlie Furbush was a guy we’d penciled in for a significant role, but he didn’t throw a single inning.  Ryan Cook was another guy we brought in, at least on a tryout basis, but he’s a guy who’d had success as recently as 2014, and was one of the better relievers out there in 2012 & 2013; he too never pitched an inning for us.  Then, there’s Evan Scribner, who didn’t throw his first Major League pitches until September, when it turned out he’s actually terrific!  So, right off the bat, we were at a disadvantage, meaning guys like Joel Peralta and Steve Johnson were getting extended looks early in the season.

Then, you have Tony Zych, who made the Major League roster out of Spring Training.  He had the best fastball on the team, and arguably the best “stuff” of any of our relievers.  He made it to 10 appearances before he got hurt and was lost for the year (for all intents and purposes; he came back in late August for a couple of innings, but had to be quickly shut down again).  And, of course, there was Joaquin Benoit, who got hurt in April, returned about a month later, but was not the rock we needed out of our 8th inning set up guy.  He ended up being traded to Toronto for Drew Storen, where the change of scenery did both of them good.

It’s really quite remarkable, not just how the bullpen ended up looking compared to how we pictured it at the beginning of 2016, but also how it evolved throughout the season.  On top of those other injuries, Storen, Wilhelmsen, Nick Vincent, and Steve Cishek all found themselves on the DL at one point or another.  When you factor in how the starters weren’t always (or even USUALLY) at their best, this bullpen was continuously taxed nine ways from Sunday, all the way until September, when we were finally allowed to expand our roster.

This, of course, affected how we shaped the rest of our roster the first five months of the season, bringing into question why Major League Baseball limits teams to 25-man rosters, when so much of the game is specialized by way of bullpens and platoons and pinch runners and defensive replacements.  It makes no sense, when you think about it, but that’s baseball for you.  It’s the “neither here nor there” of professional sports.

If you want to know how the bullpen was doing at a particular point in the season, just look at the schedule.  You don’t need to hunt for stats to figure out when this bullpen was rolling vs. when it was sucking my will to live.  In the month of May, for instance, it was on a nice little run (the Mariners just so happened to have gone 17-11 in May); in the month of June, they fell apart (the Mariners just so happened to have gone 10-18 in June).  They were great in early August, terrible in late August, and so on and so forth.  This was one of the streakiest Mariners teams in recent memory, and those streaks almost always coincided with how the bullpen was doing.  They’d go long stretches of scoreless baseball, followed by painful stretches of agonizing baseball.  And, in the end, it all added up to 3 too many blown saves.  Who were our culprits?

Well, the first name that comes to mind is Steve Cishek, who started the season as this team’s closer, but lost that job on August 1st, after yet another meltdown.  Of his 7 blown saves, the Mariners were only able to come back and win 1 of them.  He also cost us 3 other games when he came into the game tied and took it on the chin.  Immediately after ceding control of the closer’s job to Edwin Diaz, he went on the DL, only to return to be a masterful set up man.  He’s also under contract for next year, so bank on him being back.

Edwin Diaz was lights out through his first three months or so.  We started him off slowly, but he quickly earned higher leverage roles when it was readily apparent that he was striking out everybody he faced.  He blew three saves, but we were able to come back and win two of those games.  He took 3 other losses when he came into a tie situation, but two of those games were in his pre-closer days.  He did end up taking the loss in the season-deciding game on October 1st, but he was in his 3rd inning that day, and was clearly over-worked to that point.  Diaz will go into 2017 as the frontrunner for the closer role.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to manage his outings a little better.  He was on pace to make something like 74 appearances over the course of a full season, so maybe we can try to shave off 5-10 next year, since he’s still a growing boy and all.

When you take a look at the actual numbers for our bullpen, one name sticks out like a sore thumb:  Nick Vincent.  Even though he had a spell on the DL, he’s one of those constants you can point to on this team this year.  He was brought in just before the regular season, and almost immediately entered the regular rotation as one of our high-leverage pitchers.  What sticks out is that Nick Vincent of all people was involved in 9 save situations, and somehow managed to blow SIX of them!  One fewer than Steve Cishek, and double the number of blown saves of Edwin Diaz; what in the holy fuck?

As I’ve said before, Vincent isn’t bad, but he’s also not a guy – in an ideal world – you want in there late in the game with a lead.  He’s a guy who should be used earlier in games, when the starter gets knocked out prematurely.  Or, put him in there in the 6th/7th innings, or in games where it’s close but we’re trailing.  I’m not saying he can’t handle the pressure of high-leverage, game-winning situations, but I’m VERY MUCH saying his stuff is weaksauce and I’m surprised guys didn’t smack him around more than they did.  Unfortunately, the 2016 Mariners bullpen was far from an ideal world, so he was counted upon more than he should’ve been.  It’s one of the reasons why he hit the DL in the first place; he simply wasn’t used to pitching that much, and his body couldn’t take it!

His semi-saving grace is that only 3 of his 6 blown saves led to losses.  But, again, he accounted for 4 other defeats in tie-game situations.  Of our pitchers who were exclusively relievers, who threw a minimum of 20 innings this year, Vincent was one of only two who had a negative Win Probability Added, leading me to believe that it’s pretty difficult for a reliever to GET a negative rating for this stat over the course of a full (or even PARTIAL) season.

For what it’s worth, Vidal Nuno is the other reliever to have a negative WPA.  I was about to dismiss his numbers though, as he seemed to be used mostly in mop-up duties, but apparently he appeared in the 4th most high leverage situations of guys in our bullpen at 16.  The only people to appear in more high leverage games were Vincent (24), Diaz (26) and Cishek (37).  Diaz had a whopping 1.9 WPA (meaning he alone was worth nearly 2 wins by himself), and Cishek actually had a respectable 0.7 WPA (or he was worth nearly 1 win by himself).

Most of the guys had their ups and downs, but I’d like to point out a few of the good ones.  Drew Storen was actually pretty great, especially considering Toronto was THIS CLOSE to DFA’ing his ass before they traded him to us for Benoit.  Tom Wilhelmsen, same deal (especially considering his stint in Texas, when he was worth -0.9 WPA in 21 games before they did DFA his ass).  Mike Montgomery was also one of the good ones, which is why it’s so unfortunate that he was traded away to the Cubs mid-season.  He’s a pretty rock solid reliever, and he’s good for the occasional spot start, which in my book makes him invaluable, but in the Mariners’ book makes him worth Dan Vogelbach.  Scribner, as I said before, had the all-world September; and Arquimedes Caminero has some lethal stuff, if only he can harness it.

Going into 2017, there’s a lot to like about this unit.  We’re, unfortunately, going to be without Charlie Furbush again, as he needed surgery that would keep him out ANOTHER year, but hopefully with certain guys returning, we can solidify this part of our team and not have to worry about it so much.

Guys I like:

  • Edwin Diaz
  • Steve Cishek
  • Evan Scribner
  • Tony Zych

If we can get these guys back and keep them healthy, that’s as good a foundation to a bullpen as can be.

Guys I like, sort of:

  • Drew Storen
  • Nick Vincent
  • Tom Wilhelmsen
  • Vidal Nuno

Storen isn’t under contract, so the team would have to go out and re-sign him, but I think for the right price, that could be a nice little move for this team.  The rest of these guys, I could take or leave.  I don’t totally trust any of them in high leverage situations, so I’d PREFER they stick to 6th/7th innings, or in extras; but, I also wouldn’t be devastated if the team traded them away or otherwise got rid of them.

Guys I find interesting:

  • Arquimedes Caminero
  • Dan Altavilla

Caminero I talked about before.  Altavilla is another one of these guys (like Diaz) where the Mariners brought him up straight from AA.  He was called up late in the season for the team to get a look at him, and only 3 of his 15 appearances were in high leverage situations, but he showed good stuff, and if he carries that over into Spring Training, I could easily see him making this roster.  If he proves he’s got what it takes to do well in those high leverage situations, he could find himself quickly climbing into the Guys I Like category.

All the other bullpen guys on the roster feel like Spring Training fodder and little more.  The team is in desperate need of a quality left-handed reliever, so I’d expect them to make a move in that regard in the not-too-distant future.  My way-too-early prediction for next season has our bullpen looking like this:

  • Diaz – closer
  • Cishek
  • Scribner
  • Zych
  • Vincent
  • Altavilla
  • Random Lefty Not Currently In The Organization

Depending on the lefty, that strikes me as a bullpen we can work with!  Again, assuming they’re utilized properly.

Injuries Are Killing The Mariners This Year

I know nobody wants to hear it.  Teams are snakebitten every year; all teams have to deal with injuries at one point or another.  But, it’s also no secret that the teams you chronically see going on deep playoff runs tend to be the teams that are predominantly healthy.  Unsustainably healthy.  You won’t see this type of freaky health from year to year, but if you can get lucky in one season, you can go a long way with your primary guys avoiding stints on the DL.

The Mariners have been spectacularly unlucky in 2016.  There hasn’t been a single day this year where some key piece hasn’t been missing.  This team has never been complete!  And, it seems like just as soon as one guy gets healthy, another guy goes down.

Look at this timeline of guys hitting the DL:

  • 4/3 – Furbush & Scribner (key bullpen pieces)
  • 4/25 – Benoit (had he been healthy all year, a guy you could expect would have been a lockdown 8th inning guy)
  • 5/3 – Zych (was dominating through the first month, has missed most of the season)
  • 5/22 – Marte (just when he was starting to assert himself as one of the better short stops in the American League)
  • 5/27 – Martin (Mariners have no competent backup defensive centerfielder on their roster; defense suffered accordingly while he was out.  He was also on a hot stretch offensively when he went down)
  • 6/1 – King Felix (I don’t need to tell you how huge this was)
  • 6/17 – Miley (he wasn’t good, but it further depleted a shaky starting rotation)
  • 6/24 – Sampson (he only made one start, but we never got to know his potential)
  • 6/29 – Vincent (further depleting our bullpen at the worst possible time)
  • 6/30 – Clevenger (was set for increased playing time, but ultimately worked out with Zunino’s return)
  • 7/6 – Walker (was supposed to be his breakout year, but the nagging foot issue inhibited his growth)
  • 7/23 – Marte again (mono, really)
  • 7/30 – Karns (never really popped this year, but again, lack of depth for our pitching staff)
  • 8/4 – Cishek (his injury might have been a key part of him blowing those saves and losing his closer’s job)
  • 8/16 – Paxton (just when he was starting to dominate the league)
  • 8/22 – Storen (just as the bullpen was starting to gel into a dominant unit)

And that doesn’t even factor in Kyle Seager, who’s missing games this week, as well as Cano and Cruz at times this year missing games due to minor injuries.  Suffice it to say, I’ve seen O’Malley and Freeman start more games than I care to see.

If the Mariners could just get their best 25 guys to stay healthy for any extended period of time, you’d be looking at a no-doubt playoff team!  Probably one giving the Rangers a serious run for their money!  As it is, it’s a miracle the Mariners have held in there as long as they have.

Mariners Finish Trade Deadline Period By Dealing Miley

I’ve been saying all along we need to hold off until we see all the moves in context.  Well, it’s the afternoon of August 1st, and all the major moves have been made (it’s still possible to get rid of someone like Lind – who has a fat contract and doesn’t bring a ton to the table – before the end of the month, but that won’t mean much at this point, as I’ll get into later).

First, we had Montgomery for Vogelbach, and we didn’t know what to think.  That one probably sits more in the camp of The Future than Win Now, but Montgomery is more or less just a bullpen piece at this point, and Vogelbach could be called up to Seattle at any time.

Next, we had Benoit for Storen, which was an obvious Greener Pastures move for two struggling relievers.  Not much insight there (though, again, you see the Mariners go younger to bring in a guy with more upside, even if his contract expires after this year).

Now, we’ve got Wade Miley going to Baltimore for minor league starter Ariel Miranda.  I know I’ve been conducting the Hate Train on Miley pretty much since he started showing us how worthless he is, but there’s no rational way to look at this move as anything other than a sell-off.  Miley was set to earn upwards of $9 million next year, with a club option for 2018 that would’ve paid out $12 million.  At the very least, we avoid that high salary next year and the $500,000 buy-out for 2018 (the Mariners sent no money Baltimore’s way, so it’s all on them now).

I don’t know why people are so upset!  I mean, yeah, I get it, the Mariners are sellers, and not even GOOD sellers.  They sold off scraps and got back question marks.  Part of that, I’m sure, is that there weren’t any good deals out there.  But, you can’t help but see this amalgam of moves as the Mariners – once again – trying to have it both ways.  They get to be sellers without going so far as selling our most prized assets (*cough* NELSON CRUZ *cough*), but they can also say, “Look, we’re still pretty much the same team we were in the first two months, so let’s not totally close the door on this contention thing.”

And sure, I get it, Miley’s been on an upswing recently.  He’s on a run of 3 quality starts in a row, and 4 out of his last 5 starts.  Hell, his most recent outing – Saturday, against the Cubs – was his very best of the season!  But, don’t forget the rest of the starts.  Don’t forget all the bullshit outings we got out of Miley this year.  A guy who was supposed to be – AT WORST – an innings eater, couldn’t even do THAT!  What value does that guy have, who brings nothing to the table whatsoever?  He’s not going to get you some stud prospect.  He’s going to get you exactly who we got.

Ariel Miranda, with 1 career Major League appearance.  Who’s played the bulk of his career in Cuba, who just made Baltimore’s AAA club this season.  He’s a lefty starter with a good fastball (94 mph range) and a good changeup (he’s actually better against righties than lefties), but nothing much going on with his other breaking balls.

In my book, this guy is no worse than Miley RIGHT NOW.

Everyone points to Miley’s experience as the deciding factor, but what does that mean?  I take it to mean you know what you’re going to get with Miley.  That the younger pitcher will be wild and inconsistent from start to start.  Well, look at the breakdown of 29 year old Miley’s starts with the Mariners this year, from April through July:

  1. Bad Start
  2. Bad Start
  3. Really Bad Start
  4. Good Start
  5. Great Start
  6. Good Start
  7. Bad Start
  8. Good Start
  9. Bad Start
  10. Bad Start
  11. Really Bad Start
  12. Great Start
  13. Bad Start
  14. Really Bad Start
  15. Good Start
  16. Bad Start
  17. Good Start
  18. Good Start
  19. Great Start

Tell me, where’s the consistency?  For what it’s worth, a Good Start is like a regular Quality Start; a Great Start is 7 innings or more with 2 runs or less; a Bad Start is 4 runs or more (or a 3-run, 5 inning start); a Really Bad Start is anything less than 5 innings.

Miley has as many Really Bad Starts as Great Starts.  He has more Bad Starts than Good Starts.  That’s not acceptable, at all, from a veteran starter earning as much money as Miley makes.  He’s a fucking washed up joke, and it’s Baltimore’s loss.

You’re telling me Ariel Miranda can’t give us Miley-esque production as a back-end starter right now?  Because I think he can.  And if he does, then boom, the Mariners have already won that trade, because he’s making peanuts, is younger, and has more upside.  He just needs a chance.

If you ask me, the Mariners got better RIGHT NOW, just by getting rid of Miley.

What does this mean going forward though?  It means, starting tonight, the Mariners have to nut up or shut up.  Felix has to round back into his dominant form.  Paxton needs to be a stud.  Walker needs to return and stay healthy.  Iwakuma needs to continue his run of quality pitching.  And one of our 5th starters needs to emerge.  Wade LeBlanc, Ariel Miranda, or Nathan Karns (seems unlikely on the Karns one, but the other two are possibilities).

It means, starting tonight, the bullpen needs to coalesce.  Absolutely NO MORE BLOWN SAVES from Cishek.  If he blows one more game, he’s done as the closer, period.  Keep putting Diaz in there in the most pressure-packed situations and hope he continues to shine.  And the veterans – Wilhelmsen, Nuno, Storen, eventually Furbush, hopefully Vincent – need to be dialed in.

We need two months of pure excellence out of the entire pitching staff in order to get this thing done.  Anything less, and you’re going to see more of the same frustrating .500 ball that we’ve been watching of late.  Because this is it!  This is the team we have, for the final two months of the season.  No more help is walking through that door.  In fact, guys are more likely to leave, if we can find any takers for Lind, Aoki, or Seth Smith (all names I’ve heard bandied about in trade rumors).

But, even if we do find takers, don’t expect to get a lot in return.  Removing Lind, Aoki, or Smith are cost-cutting moves plain and simple.  You only get those guys off your team if you think they won’t be of any help to you reaching the playoffs, and you want to open up some roster spots for younger guys like Vogelbach, like the recently recalled Guillermo Heredia, like whoever else in Tacoma you want to see drink a cup of coffee.

My bet is that this upcoming homestand – starting tonight with 4 against the Red Sox, then 3 against the Angels over the weekend, then 3 more against the Tigers – is going to be the most important homestand of the year.  There’s one off-day this month for the Mariners, and it takes place after that Tigers series.  If you don’t see something like an 8-2 record in those ten games, I think we go into full-on Play For Next Year mode.  I think you start seeing more guys from Tacoma called up.  I think you start seeing guys like Aoki and Lind and maybe even Smith getting released or traded for peanuts.  I think you see a switch at closer, and you see even more crappy Tacoma relievers called up to show what they can do.

That’s because, after the homestand, it’s 20 games in a row, all but 6 on the road.  The Dog Days!  They’re here!  With the August 31st waivers deadline, followed by the September call-ups, if the Mariners haven’t made up a significant chunk of their 5-game deficit in the Wild Card standings, you’re going to see a whole lotta mailing it in.  How soon that starts will be dictated in the next 10 days.

Pressure’s on, Mariners.  Are you going to be like all the other shitty Mariners teams we’ve suffered through recently?  Or, are you actually going to shock the world?

All Star Week Finale: Mariners Shit Stains

I TOLD YOU I’D SHOOT, BUT YOU DIDN’T BELIEVE ME!  WHY DIDN’T YOU BELIEVE ME?

Yesterday, I hit upon the good things we’ve seen in this Mariners season.  Today:  the rest.

Like yesterday, let’s start on the hitting side.  Nori Aoki is the obvious huge disappointment, as he entered this season on the heels of not only a fruitful career in Japan, but a solid and productive 4-year MLB career as he bounced around from the Brewers to the Royals to the Giants.  I mean, like clockwork, the guy was batting in the .280’s every season, with solid on-base numbers, minimal power, and enough defense to make the whole package pretty enticing.  This year, however, his power has gone completely in the toilet, and his batting average is 40 points lower than normal.  His stolen base output has declined every year since coming to America, and this year is no exception, as he has 4 stolen bases against 7 caught stealing.  His left field defense is suspect at best, and his centerfield defense was a God damn neverending sewage-eating contest.  It’s been so bad for Aoki this year that he was sent down to Tacoma (where, to his credit, he’s regained some of his old form at the plate, albeit in only 11 games), which all points to one thing:  age.  He’s 34 years old, and it’s very reasonable to boil all this down to him just being on the downslope of his career.  Don’t take it hard, Aoki, plenty of players even better than you have come to Seattle in their twilight years only to die the True Death.

Adam Lind is my other everyday player (or quasi-everyday) catching some shade today, although I have a hard time really disliking the guy.  He seems like a really cool dude, and I like him as a player a helluva lot more than I did Smoak, LoMo, or Montero.  I do still think he’s got a bit of a turnaround in him this year, but I’m not sure that belief is entirely based in reality.  Lind had a pretty awful April, playing most every day.  He started to pick it up in May, but then he went right back in the toilet in June, so I dunno.  As noted yesterday, Dae-ho Lee is rightly eating into Lind’s playing time, as the team is trusting Lee more and more against right-handed pitching.  Should Lee continue to prove he’s capable of playing and producing on an everyday basis, we could be looking at a situation where Lind is relegated to backup status (getting occasional starts against righties, and/or when the team opts to put Cruz in the outfield and play Lee & Lind at the same time).  It’s just a bummer, because I figured Lind, of anyone we brought in this year, would be a guy you could count upon to play to his career norms.

***

And that’s it!  I’m moving on to the pitchers, because they’ve been a neverending source of rage and agita in my life this season.

Right at the top of the list – indeed, the most disappointing development of the entire 2016 Mariners season – has been the health of Felix Hernandez.  I mean, he’s far and away my favorite player on this team, and far and away my favorite local athlete playing today (he also sits on my local Mount Rushmore next to Gary Payton, Steve Largent, and Edgar Martinez, but that’s neither here nor there).  Going into any Mariners season, my worst nightmare has always been if King Felix gets injured.  By and large, over the previous ten seasons, I’ve mostly managed to dodge that harsh reality, but this year, both myself and the team has been cock-slapped by his absence.  This year’s team has EASILY had the best lineup of hitters we’ve had ’round these parts since Felix has become a Major Leaguer.  And, at least through the first couple months, this team as a whole looked like it had the best chance to make the post-season in the same span.  As a die-hard Mariners fan, all we’ve wanted to see over the last decade was Felix Hernandez pitching in the post-season.  To reward him for his baffling loyalty to this organization, and prove to the world that he made the right decision (or, at the very least, to show that it wasn’t all for naught).  The panic in all of our hearts has always been, “WE NEED TO MAKE THE PLAYOFFS WHILE FELIX IS STILL IN HIS PRIME!  WE’RE WASTING HIS MOTHERFUCKING PRIME, YOU GUYS!”  So, to have him go down with this calf injury, when – 1. we have the best team around him we’ve ever had, and 2. our pitching depth is as poor as it’s ever been, and ergo he’s never been more needed – is truly a cosmic Fuck You to every Mariners fan still foolish enough to follow this team.

I didn’t mean to push this section into a second paragraph, but here’s my point:  where would the Mariners be if Felix had never gotten injured?  He went down on May 27th.  We’ve gone 17-25 ever since.  In the starts that he missed (counting every five days, assuming no rotation shuffling), the Mariners have gone 3-5, including Paxton’s initial disaster of a start on June 1st, a mediocre Miley start on July 9th, and a few hard-luck defeats where the offense didn’t necessarily show up (or, commonly known as your average Felix start).  A healthy Felix would conservatively get you two more wins in that stretch, with a very reasonable possibility of him pitching a shutout in there and squeezing out a third.  But, a healthy Felix also slots out some of the shakier pitchers who have made appearances in the rotation.  Maybe a healthy Felix – combined with Paxton’s resurgence down in Tacoma – bumps Karns out of the rotation sooner.  Maybe it prevents Adrian Sampson’s call-up (and subsequent arm injury that cost him his season).  Maybe we don’t have a potentially-useless LeBlanc to kick around.  MAYBE, it allows us to DL Taijuan Walker sooner – which I’m on record as saying we should have done in the first place – because we’re not so obsessed about our awful pitching depth.  There are endless What If’s out there, all surrounding the injury of our Ace.

But, it also bears mentioning that even when Felix was healthy this season, he didn’t look quite right.  Dating back to last year, Felix has been prone to getting knocked around a little bit in some starts.  His velocity is way down (even more than usual), and his command hasn’t quite been there.  Was the injury causing that?  Is it the natural effect of aging (he may only be 30 years old, but he’s got a billion miles on his pitching arm right now)?  It’s something to watch, as he makes his rehab starts ahead of an expected return to the Majors next Wednesday.  Please be healthy and good again, Felix!  We need you more than ever before!

***

I devoted more of this post than I’d anticipated on King Felix, so let me run through the rest of the pitching disappointments as quickly as possible.

Wade Miley – Fuck You!

Joel Peralta – Good Fucking Riddance!

Wade Miley – Fuck You Again, I can’t wait until this team cuts your ass!

Joaquin Benoit – Over-priced, spent time on the DL, has been garbage since his return.  Not the 8th inning enforcer we traded for.

Nathan Karns – 5 & Dive specialist we haven’t seen since Erik Bedard.  Not a long-term solution to our rotation woes.

Hisashi Iwakuma – A .500, middle-of-the-road pitcher who might be an okay 3rd or 4th starter, but is past his prime and no longer a viable #2.

James Paxton – Has the stuff to be an ace, but for some reason always gets killed by dribblers, dinks, and dunks (and poor defense).

Taijuan Walker – This injured foot has killed what was once a promising season in his development; a chronic set-back that likely won’t resolve until after the season ends.

Tony Zych – Probably this team’s 2nd best reliever (after Diaz), whose injury issues will cost him almost the entire season.

Charlie Furbush – Has been out the whole year, is set to return soon, but will probably be terrible.

Tom Wilhelmsen – Has returned, has been okay in his first few appearances, but the other shoe is right here, just waiting to drop.

Fernando Rodney – A HUGE Fuck You!  Pitches like dogshit last year for the Mariners, gets demoted, gets released, then comes back this year to have his very best-ever season?  What the fuck?!  Eat all the dicks, you turd!

Steve Cishek – For making me long for the days of the Fernando Rodney Experience.  Whereas Rodney’s appearances were always a slow bleed for 30 minutes, followed by complete disaster; Cishek just stabs you in the gut, then comes back two days later to jam his thumb into your festering wound.

Is Help Really On The Horizon For The Mariners?

I feel like the narrative for the 2016 Mariners is about to be established, and it’s totally fucking fraudulent.

At the end of May, the Mariners were in first place and headed into a key stretch of season.  Then, Ketel Marte and Leonys Martin went down in the same week, and the Mariners totally bungled that key stretch of season.  They both returned as soon as their 15-day DL stints were up, but that was just the beginning.  In what has become a nightmare scenario, the Mariners have seen King Felix, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, Nick Vincent, Joaquin Benoit, Steve Clevenger, Tony Zych, and Adrian Sampson all hit the DL this year (on top of such “mainstays” as Charlie Furbush, Jesus Sucre, Ryan Cook, and Evan Scribner all starting the year on the DL).  While losing these guys certainly hasn’t helped the cause of remaining in post-season contention, I feel like the argument is about to shift to where it’s the injuries themselves that are to blame for all of this, and by simply getting guys back, the Mariners will return to their April & May glories.

When, the reality is, I was writing about this team needing help before most these injuries even started!  Now, I’ll certainly take the blame for putting the whammy on this team when I wrote about how healthy they’d been to date, but it’s pretty quaint to look back on that post now.  THESE Mariners look like they need help just about everywhere, wheras THOSE Mariners weren’t too far off.

I’ll give you this:  getting Felix Hernandez back will – hopefully – be a big boost to this rotation.  It’s tough to say how much this calf injury is going to affect him the rest of the year – we know he’s a gamer, and will play through a lot of pain to be the leader this team needs, but will that make him a less effective pitcher overall?  Regardless, King Felix at 75% is still better than Wade Miley, Wade LeBlanc, Mike Montgomery, and Taijuan Walker at 50%; indeed, King Felix at 75% is probably better than everyone on this roster (save Iwakuma when he’s on a hot streak).

I still think this team needs another bigtime starting pitcher, but given how the last six weeks have gone, I’m less high on acquiring a 2-month rental than I was in mid-May.  I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect this team to blow the farm on 2016 alone, when so much of this team (especially in the pitching department) is falling apart and needs an upgrade.

With Felix back, your five best starting pitchers are:

  1. Felix
  2. Iwakuma
  3. Paxton
  4. Montgomery
  5. LeBlanc

Walker will jump up to the 3-4 range once his foot injury heals, thankfully pushing LeBlanc out of here, but the fact remains that Karns and Miley are both ineffective and need to be removed (if not from the team entirely, then at least from the rotation – which has already happened to Karns).  The timetable on Walker looks like at least another couple weeks, which puts us into August, but I still maintain that this team needs to get him all the way back to 100% before bringing him back, because his injury-shortened starts are killing this team.

As for the bullpen, I don’t know where the help is going to come from, to be honest.  As a good start, it’d be nice to take away the closing role from Cishek.  I thought this was a really well-reasoned argument to go to the Bullpen By Committee approach.  That’s a tough thing, though, when I really only have confidence in one guy – Edwin Diaz, who has been un-fucking-believable – and even then, I have to see what happens when the league figures him out and he has to adjust.  If anything, I think the Mariners need to be more like the Angels in their bullpen usage – just annoy the piss out of everyone by using multiple relievers per inning if you have to, playing the matchup game to the Nth degree.

But, let’s face it, who can trust this bullpen?  Cishek and Benoit were supposed to bring veteran stability to this unit, but they’ve both been disasters at times.  Nick Vincent was strong to start the year, but he’s injured (and before that, was starting to get hit pretty hard).  Montgomery has been good, but he struggled in late-game, pressure situations (and he might also be MUCH better used in the starting rotation).  Nuno has been good, but he’s more of a wild card than we’ve seen.  The jury is still out on Karns (though, the team appears to be saving him for mop-up long relief).  And, if Miley does get demoted to the bullpen, how exactly will that be a good thing (when the vast majority of his starts involve him getting shelled early, only to settle down for the last few innings)?

Beyond that, Zych appears to be a lost cause for 2016.  Furbush is on the mend, but will he return to his 2015 form?  Or, his pre-2015 form when he was spotty at best?  Wilhelmsen is back, and looking like he’s being groomed for more high-leverage situations (even though he was a Hindenburg crossed with a Challenger-level disaster in Texas); can’t say I have much trust there.  And, with all these veterans leaving a lot to be desired, why would I feel good having faith in the likes of Cook or Scribner, should they ever fully make it back from injury?

That just leaves the Tacoma guys:  Roach, Aro, Martin, Guaipe, and Rollins, none of whom have been able to consistently throw strikes or generally do their fucking jobs at the Big League level.

So, you can go ahead and make Diaz the closer if you want, but that’s still only taking care of the 9th inning.  What about the 8th, 7th, 6th, and 5th innings?  You know, the ones our starters are too inept to get through.

Quite frankly, I LIKE how they’ve used Diaz so far.  Diaz is by far the best reliever on this team right now, and he’s being used as such:  in situations with runners on base, in close ballgames, when you absolutely, no questions asked, need a strikeout to get out of a huge mess.  As has been noted by countless smarter baseball fans than myself, sometimes the most important inning of relief ISN’T the 9th inning.  In fact, I’d say more often than not, that moment reveals itself to be earlier; but, baseball is so entrenched in this system of set up men & closers that it’s considered automatic when it really shouldn’t be.  As such, THAT’S the most important reason why I think the Mariners should go with a bullpen by committee; not because I necessarily need to see Cishek pitch earlier, but because I don’t think he should be entrusted with getting the final three outs when he might only be qualified to get 1-2 of those outs.

Fuck.  The.  Save.  Stat.

You want some help on the horizon?  Get rid of established bullpen roles, bring in another starter for more than just the stretch run, demote the shit out of Miley & Karns, and let everything ride.

You know what you DON’T do?  You don’t make “corner outfield” your top priority.

Here’s what I don’t understand:  everyone under the sun praises Seth Smith for his quality, professional at bats.  Yet, these same people keep telling anyone who’ll listen that this team needs to trade for a left fielder.  WHY?  I get it, you’d like to see improved outfield defense.  So would I.  But, you still need to start Smith against any right-handed starter, which puts him in your lineup 2/3 of the time.  And, while his numbers aren’t necessarily eye-popping, I think you’re getting enough out of Guti in his platoon role to justify the roster spot.

Which, I guess, leaves right field, where we’ve seen more of Nelson Cruz than anyone could possibly like.  But, it comes back to getting your best hitting lineup out there.  And, more often than not, when a right handed pitcher is on the mound against us, that means getting both Lind and Dae-ho Lee in there.  Lee has shown he deserves more regular at bats, even against righties, which means if you’re getting both Lee and Lind in there, one of them is going to have to DH.  That pushes Cruz into the outfield, for obvious reasons, on the days you don’t sit one of Lind or Lee.

This team doesn’t need a starting corner outfielder (besides, getting one that’s good defensively AND one that has good on-base skills, is a fucking unicorn that most other teams aren’t willing to part with); it needs a better reserve outfielder.  Nori Aoki has already been demoted to Tacoma, which was appropriate and the right start.  At this point, if anything, you’d just want a reserve that’s better than him, or O’Malley, or the recently recalled Dan Robertson (who really hasn’t had a chance to play enough to show you he’s ready to stick or not).

For me, I’m not really sweating the outfield right now.  The rest of this team’s hitting and defense is good enough to withstand the occasional Robertson start in the outfield, or the occasional outfield with both Smith and Cruz roaming the corners.

In TL;DR, while there IS help on the horizon, with injured guys getting healthy, I don’t necessarily think it’s going to be enough to turn around the fortunes for this star-crossed team.  For this team to do what it truly NEEDS to do, it’s going to have to trade away the farm and it’s going to have to take on some significant payroll, neither of which I think this organization is prepared to do.

The Mariners Broke Their Mini Losing Streak

Of 4 games.  Was damn near 6 games, if we never manufactured the greatest comeback in franchise history last Thursday.

For those of you who don’t mind a little standings-watching in early June, the Mariners have dug themselves quite a hole, as they trail the Rangers by 4 games (for the record, if you DO mind a little standings-watching, go fuck yourselves; seriously, what’s the big fucking deal if I check the standings every now and then?).  Obviously, it’s not the end of the world, and there’s a lot of baseball left to play, but it’s crazy how hot the Rangers have been lately (and ohbytheway, they’re going to be in town for another weekend series starting Friday; WILL THE MARINERS BE SWEPT AGAIN?  Stay tuned).

As the old saying goes, a really long journey starts with a first step!  And that first step for the Mariners was getting off the schneid.  They did it in a somewhat improbable way, in that Wade Miley was at the helm of a solid pitching performance!  Seven innings of 4-hit, shutout ball was just what the doctor ordered, as the Mariners – behind Nelson Cruz’s two homers – chased Cleveland’s starter in the fourth inning.  From there, it was cruise control to the finish and a 7-1 victory.

Aside from the Miley start he so desperately needed to work his way back to respectability, I didn’t find a whole lot about last night’s game very interesting.

Monday’s game, however, is another story.

Granted, Monday’s game was a 3-1 loss for the good guys, as the offense just never could get going.  But, the story here was all about the pitching.

James Paxton took the mound for his second start in the Majors this season.  He didn’t disappoint.  He went 6 innings, holding Cleveland to 5 hits and 1 walk, while giving up 3 runs (1 earned) and striking out a whopping TEN batters.  If Chris Iannetta would’ve come down with the throw at the plate – tagging out the runner who ended up scoring – which by all accounts was right on the money and a catch he should’ve made, odds are that game is a lot different.  At the very least, you can make an argument that Paxton gets a no decision instead of a loss; at best, who knows if he gives up that solo homer the next inning?  Maybe he would’ve gotten a shutout victory!

Nevertheless, Paxton’s performance was absolutely legendary.  It has, quite honestly, forced me to re-think my whole stance on his very existence!  This is a James Paxton the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been watching him pitch off and on since 2013!  He’s always been big, and he’s always been a lefty, and when he’s been healthy, he’s been a promising potential piece of some brilliant future Mariners team.  But, of course, he’s never been able to stay healthy – and maybe that’ll continue.  All I know is, while he’s been good, he’s never been anything special.

Paxton has always had an okay fastball.  I couldn’t tell you where he would average in the past, it’s been so long since I’ve seen the Paxton Of Old; but it feels like he was usually somewhere around 93 mph.  That’s an okay fastball.  Not great, not elite, but better than the finesse schlubs like Miley and Joe Saunders and the like.  Paxton’s issue has always been with his control, working those edges of the strike zone, staying away from the middle of the plate.

But, this year?  Shit, he’s topping out at 100 mph!  Where the FUCK did THIS come from?  And, I’m not just talking about him hitting triple digits in the first inning, before getting tired and settling into the 95 mph range.  I mean he’s in there, over 100 pitches, still hitting 100 on the radar gun!  With a nasty slider or curve or whatever to keep hitters off-balance.

I mean, are you JOKING me?  As I said before, now I have to re-think everything!  Going into this year, and even through the first couple months of the season, when Paxton was toiling away in Tacoma, working on his velocity and his command, I had him pegged as prime trade bait.  Should the Mariners be in contention at the trade deadline – which it looks like they will be – James Paxton (packaged with another guy or two, perhaps, from the lower minors) could be flipped for another team’s 2-month rental.  Whatever this year’s version of David Price is, the ace starting pitcher on the last year of his rookie deal, who will be a difference-maker for a quality team in the post-season that needs an extra little push.

But NOW?  After seeing THIS?  I mean, obviously, it’s only two starts (of him throwing 100 mph heat), but if this is the new normal for James Paxton, are we better off keeping him, inserting him into the starting rotation for good, and riding him to post-season glory?

Before, Paxton always projected – at least, in my eyes – as topping out as a quality #2 starter.  But, with this type of stuff, the sky is the limit.  Tall lefty, throwing 100 mph, with a biting slider:  that’s ace material.  That’s Randy Johnson material.  That’s the second coming of The Big Unit, with Mr. Snappy’s command being all the difference between him being a solid mid-rotation pitcher and him being the other ace this team needs (when Felix comes back healthy, of course).

If he keeps this up, this is truly a gift from the gods.  If he works out, first of all, I don’t see how you send him back to Tacoma.  Either you ride with a 6-man rotation, or you make a tough call on Walker or Karns (with the way Walker’s been pitching over the last month, that call might not be so tough if it continues).  But, if this works out, and we get ace production from this unlikeliest of sources, then if we do need to make a deal at the deadline, it won’t necessarily have to be for a starting pitcher!  We can use that to shore up the bullpen, or bolster some of our hitting depth, or fix some other hole that comes up at the time.

Oh yeah, and don’t think I’m sitting here sleeping on Edwin Diaz.

In the very same game where Paxton was as dominant as he was, Edwin Diaz made his Major League debut.  Previously a minor league, AA starting pitcher with issues (mainly that he doesn’t have a quality third pitch to get lefties out on a consistent basis), the Mariners – earlier this very season – converted him to a reliever (because relievers are better able to get away with only having two quality pitches, especially when one of them is the fastball Diaz is sporting).  After making essentially five starts, Diaz had all of 11 appearances where he went 2 innings or less (“relief” appearances, for all intents and purposes).  In those appearances, he pitched a total of 13.2 innings, giving up 2 runs (1 earned), 7 hits, 2 walks, and striking out 19.

That was, apparently, all that mattered for the Mariners.  To be fair, the M’s have been struggling with that final bullpen spot.  Joel Peralta turned back into a pumpkin, and we’ve seen guys like Mayckol Guaipe, Cody Martin, and Steve Johnson all occupy that spot, with varying results.  While Johnson is still on the roster, he’s not a guy you want to count upon in high-leverage situations.  Tony Zych had a setback recently and doesn’t appear to be close to returning.  So, essentially, the Mariners have been relying on a 5-man bullpen, and those guys were getting seriously over-worked.  If we’re content with Steve Johnson being the last man in the bullpen (to be used during blowouts and as a last resort in extra innings situations), the team desperately needed another quality arm it could mix into the rotation in the 7th and 8th innings.  Enter Edwin Diaz.

Like Paxton, Diaz also hits triple digits on the radar gun (topping out at 101 mph).  Unlike Paxton, Diaz has a lot of run on his fastball, making it remarkably more difficult to hit.  And, for a 22 year old kid making the leap from AA to the Majors, in his first-ever appearance, he had absolutely no trouble whatsoever locating the strike zone (10 of his 11 pitches were strikes).  He ended up striking out 1 batter in his first perfect inning, before returning to the dugout to a standing ovation from the home crowd.  All in all, not a bad start to a career.

As I said before, this could also be a gift from the gods.  I’ve said all along the Mariners needed another top-notch starter; and I think we’ve all been in agreement that the bullpen could use a little life injected into it.  With Diaz, maybe we’ve found that guy (yet again, saving us from later having to trade for that guy).  As Zych and Furbush get healthy, there will be a roster crunch, but that’s a GOOD problem to have.  No one ever complained about having too much quality depth.

King Felix Is On The DL, and I Just Want To Die!

Okay, so it’s only a calf strain, and it will (hopefully) only mean him missing a couple starts, but running into a bunch of DL stints all at the same time (Marte, Martin, now Felix) is NOT the type of cluster luck with which I want the Mariners to be associated!

In his place, James Paxton was called up from Tacoma, pulled down his pants, stood atop the toilet seat, and proceeded to wave his ass back and forth as he sprayed diarrhea everywhere EXCEPT inside the bowl.  I don’t want to say his first start back in the Majors last night (3.2 innings, 10 hits, 8 runs, 3 earned runs – thanks to his OWN throwing error in the first inning – 1 walk, 7 strikeouts, 2 bigtime home runs) is the reason my wife left me and my kids want nothing to do with me, but God damn it Claudia, stop telling little Boris and Jim-Jim their “real father” is in prison because it makes them feel better!

So, yeah, the Mariners got a taste of their own medicine a little bit last night.  After smashing the Padres on get-away day on Tuesday, 16-4; the Padres returned the favor to the tune of 14-6.  Aside from Paxton, I guess, having a case of the jitters(?) even though this isn’t his first rodeo in the Big Leagues, he had good velocity on his fastball to the bitter end, which isn’t nothing.  I hardly expect all of his starts to go this poorly, so it’ll be nice if he can maintain that velo, at least until we have a chance to trade him – with other prospects – in order to get that second ace starting pitcher we’ll likely need in the second half of the year.

Beyond Paxton, Joel Peralta provided us with his near-daily reminder that he’s not long for this team.  At this point, he’s trying to get people out with batting practice fastballs, and MF-ing Charlie Furbush and Tony Zych can’t return to full health soon e-fucking-nough.

On the flip, if Paxton hadn’t had a total first inning meltdown, we could’ve easily won last night’s game.  Cano jacked a 3-run homer in the top of the first to give us a brief lead.  Seager went 4 for 5 and is making the game of baseball look silly right now.  Guti, Lee, and Sardinas also had multi-hit games last night to improve their numbers.  On a normal night, 14 hits and 6 runs is more than enough to win you a game, so I wouldn’t read too much into last night, other than Get Well Soon, Felix.

After today, we won’t have San Diego to kick around for the rest of the year, so let’s make it count!  So, Wade Miley, can you do us all a favor and sack up this once?

Are The Mariners (Gulp) Only Built For The Regular Season?

As we cruise into the final days of May, in first place in the division and one of the best teams in all of baseball, it’s only natural to be excited.  PLAYOFF FEVER, COMIN’ ATCHA!

It’s been so, so, SO LONG since we’ve had a baseball team this good, this well built.  It’s not like 2007 or 2009 where the winning was flukey and unsustainable.  It’s not even like 2014, where pretty much everything went right and we STILL came up a game short of vying for the Wild Card.  This is a team, from 1-25, that’s good enough to sustain through the whole season.  Yes, there will be lows, but I’d argue fewer and further between.  With a lineup this good and this veteran; with a rotation that looks pretty steady, and a bullpen that might be better than we thought (though, one might argue, some of these guys were due to regress in the positive direction after having down years in 2015), this team should be able to nip a lot of losing streaks in the bud, before they turn into total calamities.

So, let’s just take that for granted.  And, let’s assume that the team stays reasonably healthy, and doesn’t totally fall apart with injuries.  This, right here, in 2016, will be the Mariners team to take us back to the post-season.

What happens then?

One of my all-time sports regrets – and there are more than a few – is that 2001 Mariners team.  It’s a different feeling than the gut punch that was losing the Sonics, or the two Super Bowl defeats.  It’s even different from the other good Mariners teams who fell short.  In 1995, we were more or less just happy to be there (and just ecstatic to reach the ALCS); in 1997, it didn’t feel like an end of an era so much as the beginning of a long and fruitful stretch of post-season runs with the best core of players in all of baseball (it was, in fact, the end of an era, as Randy, Griffey, and A-Rod would all leave in ensuing losing seasons).

2001 stands alone, because it’s all at once a source of tremendous pride and abject horror.  I look back on that year with fond memories, because we won 116 motherfucking games!  We tied the all-time record!  We even hosted the All Star Game and got to show the world how great Safeco Field was and is!  It might be another 90-something years before we see a 6-month stretch of dominance like that again.  Sure, there will be 100-game winners, but 116?  In the American League?  That feels like a pretty safe number.  I had SO MUCH FUN watching that team day-in and day-out; I never wanted that season to end!

And then it did.  And HOO BOY was I miserable.

When you’re a kid (unless you’re some spoiled brat of a rich kid), you learn pretty early on that life isn’t fair.  You’re not going to get your way, and it’s totally arbitrary, and you don’t understand why, and it sucks, and you’re pissed.  But, in sports, you want to believe that the best team WILL win it.  You root for a team like the Mariners, you pay your dues (for the most part; as much dues paying as you can do when you become a fan in September of 1995), you wait your turn, and then here it is!  2001!  116 wins!  FINALLY!  It’s OUR time!  We are, clearly, far and away, the best team in all of baseball, and this is the year we get our championship trophy to celebrate it!

I didn’t get to root for a lot of successful teams growing up.  The Seahawks were the local turd in the punchbowl for the entire 1990s, I was never into college sports as a child, so I had the Sonics.  The Sonics may or may not have been the best team in 1994 – when they lost in the first round to the Nuggets as a 1-seed – but I find it truly hard to believe that they were the best team, when they couldn’t even beat an 8-seed who was just happy to be there.  That team, even if it managed to find a way to get to the next round, probably would’ve ended up losing to the Rockets or Jazz or Spurs.  It was flawed, and feasted upon all the bad teams, while cleaning up at home.  Then, by 1996, the Sonics were clearly NOT the best team, because they ran into the buzzsaw that was the 72-win Bulls.

Really, in my lifetime, the first team I rooted for that was LEGITIMATELY the best team in that particular sport that particular year was indeed the 2001 Mariners.  And, as such, that’s really the first time I got a taste of not only life not being fair, but sports not being fair.

With a little perspective, you start to throw caveats into the mix.  Sadly, the 2001 Mariners weren’t the best baseball team that year, they were just the best REGULAR SEASON team that year.

For, you see, a team like the Yankees, they won 21 fewer games in the regular season, but they were built for the post-season.  Our lineup was good, theirs was a little bit better.  Our pitching feasted upon all the run support they were given, their pitching was battle tested.  Their starting rotation was dynamic – with Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Orlando Hernandez.  Our starting rotation was entirely unremarkable – with Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele, and Paul Abbott.  Their bullpen featured the greatest closer of all time in Mariano Rivera; our bullpen relied on a closer in Kaz Sasaki with a nothing fastball, who needed pinpoint command of both his pitches – especially his splitter – to get the job done.

In the end, what happened?  Well, the Mariners lost in 5 games, and didn’t score more than 3 runs in any of their defeats.  Likewise, an over-worked bullpen in the regular season ended up faltering in key moments late in the 50/50 games of that series, giving the Yankees a decided advantage.  We were a team built for the regular season.  Guys like Sele and Garcia absolutely thrived until the spotlight shone too brightly and they were forced to truly bear down.  And the hitting, solid up and down the lineup, simply couldn’t find a way to push runners home when they had the opportunities.

So, with all of this as preamble, I say again, if the 2016 Mariners make the post-season, as we’re all starting to expect they will, what happens when we get there?

In an ideal world, I’d just be sitting here enjoying the ride.  Let Future Steven worry about what happens in October; this is May!  October is MONTHS away!

But, I can’t help it.  I see a team like the Red Sox, and they look really poised to do well in the playoffs.  They’ve got an ace, just like we’ve got an ace, but they’ve got a couple starters behind their ace that look pretty great.  The Cubs and White Sox, shit, they’re ALL pitching!  The Royals have been there before, and you figure they’ve got another run in them to get back into contention.

The Mariners, you can tell right now, are going to need a lot of help if they end up making the post-season.

I like Felix, but I’m not sure about ANYONE after him.  That includes Taijuan Walker, who can be dominating, but is still young, and is still finding himself.  Kuma is not the rock-solid #2 starter we all remember from 2013.  Wade Miley is the epitome of a guy built for the regular season.  And Karns?  Who knows if he’ll still be pitching, or if he’ll run into an innings limit?  Sure, we’ve got Paxton down in Tacoma, just waiting for his opportunity to prove he’s got what it takes, but I think we can all agree, if this team is going to make a bunch of noise in the playoffs, it is GOING to need another dominant starter after Felix.

With Felix and Ace #2, I think I could be okay with Taijuan Walker holding the fort as our third starter.  Now, whether or not the team will go with him, or the more veteran Iwakuma, is up for debate.  We’ll have to see where those guys are by season’s end.  If Walker proves he has what it takes to really lock things up in the important games in September, I could see him supplanting Kuma.  But, if not, then you’re looking at Walker as your 4th starter, which means you probably don’t need him until the ALCS (although, I’d be PRETTY interested to see Walker out of the ‘pen in the ALDS, just to get some work in, throwing in the upper-90s, with his awesome change-up as an equalizer).

If we’re unable to make that deal for another ace, then you gotta really hang onto your butts and hope the hitting lineup has enough juice.  With no other incoming starting pitcher, we’re probably forced to go with Miley in a more prominent role, and that frightens me to no end.

I also don’t think it would hurt to bring in a superstar reliever.  For the regular season, I like our bullpen as is (when you factor in the eventual return of Zych and Furbush).  In the post-season, though, my confidence is wavering.  Cishek strikes me as the type of guy who’s MUCH too volatile in a post-season setting.  Benoit’s got a good, but not great arm.  Nick Vincent has been good against right handed hitters, but I don’t want to see him in a situation where he has to face someone like Big Papi or something.  Right now, I think I’m only REALLY sold on Mike Montgomery, who has looked OUTSTANDING in his bullpen role.  He’s got an additional 3-4 miles per hour on his fastball, he’s good to throw multiple innings, so he can really bridge the gap if a starter needs to be pulled after five innings.  He’s also super strong against lefties, in the event we need to mix & match late in a game.

I’m not saying you completely throw out the bullpen and try to start over with a bunch of deadline trades.  But, I’d like to see us take advantage of some sellers out there.  Maybe bring in another guy with closing experience, in the event Cishek falters down the stretch and we need to go with more of a bullpen by committee approach.  Like, for instance, maybe we’re able to work out a deal for one of the better Yankees relievers?  Maybe we offer them a package that features James Paxton or Nathan Karns as the centerpiece?

Maybe we go all-in on 2016, because let’s face it, there’s no such thing as dynasties in baseball, and you’ve GOT to strike while the iron’s hot, damn the consequences?

If we make the playoffs and look more or less the same in October as we do in May, I’m afraid there are going to be issues.  2016 looks to be the funnest season we’ve had ’round these parts in well over a decade, but just having fun can’t be the only goal.  In years past (and I’ve said this many times), I would have gladly taken a baseball team that’s just entertaining enough, just interesting enough to contend until football season starts, and then go ahead and fall apart if you have to.  But, this year?  When we’ve got Cano, Cruz, and Seager all in their primes, when we’re FINALLY able to make good with King Felix and give him a winner for the first time in his Hall of Fame career, we can’t just crack the ALDS and act like we’re just happy to be there.  We can’t go into this thing ready to say, “Well, there’s always next year.”  If the opportunity arises, and it costs us everything in our God damn farm system, I don’t care, you have to make the moves that transform this team from a Regular Season Dandy into a Post-Season Juggernaut.

Let 2001 be a lesson to you, Mariners.  That team was pretty happy just to be there.  That team was CONVINCED there would be plenty more chances to get back to the show and win it all.

That team was the last one in franchise history to make the post-season, in what has become the second-longest playoff drought in all of the major American professional sports, behind the Buffalo Bills.  And you don’t want to be compared to the Buffalo Bills, trust me.

Mariners Swept Reds, Maintain First Place

Friday’s game looked like a distressing start to the season.  Iwakuma was once again just okay, in giving up 3 runs over 6 innings.  The Reds were up 3-1 by the time we got to their bullpen, at which point everything changed.

Last year, the Mariners had a pretty awful bullpen.  But, this year’s Reds team might have the worst-ever!  Save the numbers for some Reds blogger, but I’ll say they really saved our bacon on this night.

In the final three innings on Friday, we managed to turn a 3-1 deficit into an 8-3 victory.  Dae-ho Lee was the big hero, with a pinch-hit 2-run single in the 7th to give us the lead; he’d follow that up with a solo homer in the 9th, as a little icing on that cake.  Cruz also had a homer, Seager had a double, and Martin had a nice day where he got on base all four times.

Saturday’s game was a 4-0 victory for Felix Hernandez, but wasn’t nearly as dominating as the score suggests.  Felix once again had awesome stuff, moving all around the plate, and was able to go 6 innings of 4-hit ball, but he did walk 3 batters, and had a couple of scary bases-loaded situations in the 3rd & 5th innings.  Fortunately, Joey Votto has been having just a horrific season, and was the final out both times.

Martin had another fantastic game, with a homer and a couple walks.  But, it was Guti who broke the game wide open with a 3-run blast in the 4th inning.  It was an upper deck shot (official distances vary) and easily the longest home run for the Mariners this season (and likely one of the top 5 in all of baseball).

Sunday’s game, once again, felt like a real cold fish.  I feel bad automatically assuming the worst out of every Wade Miley start, but to his credit he didn’t do a whole lot to elicit any confidence out of me.  In the first inning alone, he gave up three hard hits and hit a batter, en route to putting us in a 3-0 hole.  As is his way, he quickly settled down after that, ending up with a so-so line of 6 innings and 4 earned runs, with 6 strikeouts against 1 walk.

The Mariners managed to chip away against their starter, getting 2 back in the 3rd, and the other 3 in the 5th.  Martin had the series to end all series, finishing the weekend 4 of 5 on Sunday.  He’s lifted his average from .182 on May 2nd, to .252 today.  That’s big.  He’s shown vastly unusual power numbers – compared to the rest of his career – with 8 homers so far, while his career high in ANY season has been 8, (and with 20 homers TOTAL through his career before this season), but if he can get his regular hitting numbers up to snuff, he might be the greatest pickup in an offseason full of tremendous pickups.

Couple other notes from the weekend:

Ketel Marte sprained his thumb from sliding into 2nd base, which is going to cost him a 15-day DL stint.  Chris Taylor was brought up as insurance, with Shawn O’Malley taking over the everyday short stop role until his return.  It doesn’t sound like anything serious, but this team could ill afford to play with a 24-man roster (while Marte heals up), when literally no one else on the team is qualified to play short stop, so they HAD to make the move.

As a quick aside, I wondered what the Mariners might do with Marte out, if O’Malley got hurt and the team never called up anyone to fill in as insurance.  My best guess:  the team would have to make due with Kyle Seager at short stop (I THINK he has some experience, maybe in the low minors, or in his college days), and slide Dae-ho Lee over to third base, where he has experience from playing in Korea.  THAT … would be entertaining for about an inning, and then I think I’d have my fill (sort of like when you have a position player pitch in a blowout game to save your bullpen).

My final note is on that bullpen, specifically the Mariners’.  I don’t know if it was because we were playing in a National League park, or if it was just coincidence, but every starter this weekend went exactly 6 innings, leaving the remaining 3 innings – each game – for the bullpen.  On Friday, we had Montgomery, Vincent, and Peralta each pitch a scoreless inning (Peralta getting those garbage innings, what with his recent struggles).  On Saturday, we had Nuno, Montgomery, and Peralta each pitch a scoreless inning (Montgomery looks like he’s going to take over for Peralta and start getting some of those high-leverage situations, since he’s been so rock solid this year).  On Sunday, we had Vincent, Benoit, and Cishek each pitch a scoreless inning (Vincent appears to be the right-handed option behind Benoit – and sometimes in place of Benoit – since he’s been a monster against right-handed batters).

It’s interesting how quickly things have shaken out in the bullpen.  Peralta’s usage will, hopefully, continue to go down as guys like Vincent, Montgomery, and Nuno continue to show their value.  Steve Johnson – the last man in the ‘pen – appears to be reserved for blowouts and desperate, extra innings-type situations, at least until Furbush comes back, at which point – in spite of there being three lefties in the ‘pen – we will have some semblance of a FULL bullpen.  And, I know we’re a ways off, but when Zych comes back, we might have a difficult decision to make (not so difficult in my eyes – just dump Peralta – but it might be difficult for the team/management).

At least for now, it’s nice to know the team can take a long approach with Zych, making sure he’s at full strength, before thinking about bringing him back up.  Anyway, it might be another 3-4 weeks AT LEAST before a bullpen move is made, for either Furbush or Zych.

Don’t look now, but the Mariners are smack dab in the middle of a stretch of 26 games in 27 days.  They get another home off-day this Thursday, before 17 in a row.  It’s been a remarkably friendly schedule for the Mariners so far this season – with 7 off days through the first 7 weeks (including this Thursday).  While June is a bit of a bear with a 10-game East-Coast road trip, we still have 2 off days there, and another bunch of off-days in July with the All Star Break.  But, if you take a look at late July, all the way through August, the Mariners will play 33 games in 34 days.

So, you know, good to pad our record now, while the going is still good.