The Mariners Took The Weekend Series Against The Angels

The Mariners continue to surprise in delightful ways. No one really knows how they’re doing it, but they’re getting it done and keeping things interesting, against pretty solid-looking competition.

Last Friday’s game against the Angels was a perfect example. Our starter managed to go only 4 innings, our hitters were 3 for 11 with runners in scoring position, with 10 left on base, and yet the Mariners somehow managed to win the game 7-4. How does that happen? In this case, 3 solo homers and taking advantage of other hitting opportunities as they come about (and a whole lotta bullpen dominance).

Chris Flexen didn’t totally have it in this one, and was smartly pulled before the Angels could inflict any more damage. He went 4 innings, giving up 3 runs on 4 hits and a walk, with 0 strikeouts. There’s a lot of really good hitters – especially in the upper half of the lineup – so exercising caution is always the prudent way to go.

This was one of those rare games where we got contributions throughout, and particularly by the bottom of the lineup. Sure, Haniger had two hits (including one of the homers), but Moore, Crawford, and Murphy also had two hits apiece (those four players combining for all five extra-base hits).

The bullpen went five innings, giving up just one run in the process, as the Mariners hitters took the lead and played add-on late. I mean, don’t look now, but this is the best bullpen in baseball through a month and change! That won’t last, but it’s fun to watch so far.

Ljay Newsome REALLY didn’t have it on Saturday, giving up 8 runs over two innings. He’s not a starter, but he’s clearly better than this. I just think the Angels pose a tricky matchup for him (on top of him just having a bad day). I was fully expecting the Mariners to have to use a position player or two to get through all nine innings, but the bullpen (with fresh reinforcements coming up to replace injured pitchers on our team) held the Angels to just 2 more runs over the final 7 innings. That afforded the Mariners an opportunity to pull the game to 10-5 over the final couple innings, but clearly the damage was done at the beginning.

The rubber-match was a thrilling 2-0 victory – the first shutout of the Angels this season – where Justus Sheffield battled his way through 6 innings. The bullpen was even more dominant, giving up just 3 hits across the final three innings (I was a particular fan of Kendall Graveman’s work through the heart of the lineup in the 8th; if he was locked into an exclusive 9th inning closer role, a lesser pitcher might’ve been in there gagging the game away).

The hitting remains an issue, but in this one the Mariners were able to scratch across just enough runs to do the job. I won’t be happy until Jarred Kelenic gets the call-up, but in the meantime I hope to see him play in person for the Tacoma Rainiers sometime very soon.

The Mariners Split A 4-Game Series Against The Red Sox

It’s interesting to think about what a 13-9 start for the Mariners means. The strength of schedule has been fucking crazy. Boston is first in the A.L. East. The White Sox are second in the Central; the Twins should end up better than their record indicates right now. The Astros are obviously slumping and will be much better than their sub-.500 record when it’s all said and done. And the Dodgers and Giants are the top two teams in the N.L. West. So, to have this winning record, and only be a game behind the scorching-hot A’s is pretty outstanding!

But, it’s also incredibly early. And maybe the bullpen has been unsustainably hot. And the clutch late-game heroics have been unsustainably … existing. This could all be randomness that just so happens to be taking place against very good teams (and the Orioles).

Or, if you want to look on the bright side – something I’ve been trying to do a little more of lately, in spite of the blog’s name – maybe the Mariners are actually good, and they’ll REALLY start to rack up the W’s when we get to the part of the schedule where we can feast on the dregs of the game! Wouldn’t that be something?!

I mean, I’ll be honest: I keep waiting for the tide to turn and the Mariners to be exposed as the frauds they are … yet here we are, 22 games in, and still going strong! If you play around .500 against the good teams, and something like .667 against the bad teams, well, that’s a playoff team in all likelihood.

So, a 2-2 road set in the city of Boston is something akin to a 2-1 series against a shitty team.

Last Thursday, the Mariners were up to their usual tricks: erasing a 2-0 deficit in the sixth inning with an impressive rally (highlighted by a 2-run double by Ty France), then erasing a 3-2 deficit in the eighth with a J.P. Crawford double. Only to explode for a 4-spot in the tenth inning, featuring a clinching 3-run homer by Mitch Haniger to put it away.

Justin Dunn looked more in control in his 5 innings of work (2 runs on 6 hits and only 1 walk, with 5 strikeouts), and the bullpen was dominant from there (1 run on 2 hits and 1 walk, with 6 strikeouts).

The M’s couldn’t keep the good times going on Friday, but very nearly did pull yet another game out of their asses! Yusei Kikuchi didn’t have it, giving up 5 runs in less than 5 innings of work. The bullpen, however, kept us in it JUST enough to let things get interesting (minus an unearned run attributed to Ljay Newsome, who was otherwise solid). We were down 6-2 in the ninth inning before a 3-run homer by Kyle Seager made things interesting. But, just not enough offense in this one; 4/12 with runners in scoring position, with 9 left on base.

We bounced back in a huge way on Saturday behind a STRONG Chris Flexen start (7 innings, 1 run on 4 hits & 1 walk, with 7 strikeouts). The offense blew the doors off, with France, Seager, White, and Haggerty all contributing multi-hit games in the 8-2 victory. Can’t say enough good things about how Flexen has looked the first few times through the rotation. He is a VERY welcome surprise, after the dud of a bottle rocket that was the return of James Paxton.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t pull off the series victory on Sunday, as Nick Margevicius couldn’t get more than a single out and we had to go with a Bullpen Day. After being pulled prematurely in his previous start, Margevicius was put on the IL today with shoulder inflammation; we’ll see who takes his place (though Newsome figures to be a safe bet).

You’d think a Bullpen Day – with the way the bullpen has been going – might not be the worst idea. And, indeed, they were excellent, holding the Red Sox to 1 run over 7.2 innings. But, the damage was done with the 4-spot Margevicius gave up, as we lost 5-3. Again, the offense scuffled, going 2/11 with RISP and striking out 11 more times. That’s going to happen, as the offense isn’t elite after the first couple batters, and as we go up against top tier starters. Hopefully, things start to level off on both ends (where we’re not facing so many guys with Ace-like stuff, and our hitters regress to a more competent level of baseline).

Now, it’s four in Houston. So, maybe the swoon starts today? We’ll see! I’m still waiting.

What’s Happening Here? The Mariners Won The Series Over The Astros

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. Even in those recent seasons where the Mariners have mostly contended for a playoff spot, we never had results like this.

Oh sure, we’ve seen 5-2 type road trips, especially in the month of April it would seem. What happens afterward? Invariably, we return home to face the fucking Astros. The hype train starts chugging along in the leadup to that Friday night game, with everyone thinking, “If we can keep this going against the divisional favorite, we might really have something this season!” And THEN what happens? The Astros fucking smack us down and we return to the depths of our own despair, tails between our legs, resigned to another year of mediocrity.

It’s that point, in every season, where hope is dashed. Emphatically. You can set your watch to it! My friends and I texted all about it. We ultimately decided to forego gambling against the Mariners on Friday because every time we’ve ever been this sure about an outcome, we’ve lost miserably.

For a while there, it looked like a bit of a missed opportunity. After four scoreless innings, the Astros put up three runs in the 5th. Just to tease us, the M’s got two back in the 6th, only to watch the Astros get two more in the top of the 7th to make it 5-2. At that point, I don’t know if there was a Mariners fan alive who would’ve been delusional to expect a comeback.

Yet! The Miracle Mariners are starting to make some of us into believers! Two runs in the bottom of the 7th made it 5-4. An Evan White solo homer in the 8th tied it up. And, I shit you not, a ground-rule single in the bottom of the 9th walked it off!

Get the fuck out of here! What are we seeing?!

Well, admittedly, we’re seeing a depleted Astros squad that was missing four prominent players due to some sort of COVID-related issue. But, even without those guys, the Astros are still plenty good, so I’ll take a win over them any way I can get it.

Yusei Kikuchi had another impressive-looking start going, only to have his numbers look not-so-hot in the end: 7 innings, 5 runs. It seemed to me that he was dealing through the first four no-hit innings by featuring his live fastball. Then, he went away from it, featuring some iffy breaking pitches that the Astros were able to handle. Maybe it was to conserve his pitch count (he finished with 91 over those 7 innings), but I wish he’d put Aledmys Diaz away with the hard stuff before he hit that 2-run single, even if he ended the game at a sub-90 pitch count. Those two runs were nearly the final nail in the coffin.

That being said, the top of this lineup is ridiculous. Haniger, France, and Seager combined to go 6 for 12, with 5 RBI and 2 runs scored. That’s a beautiful thing! You obviously can’t expect that to remain the entire season, but in the early going this team is going to have to rely on those guys to carry the mail, until Kyle Lewis returns from injury (this week, hopefully) and Jarred Kelenic gets the call-up.

When the top of your lineup is dealing like that, anything you get from the other six guys is gravy. White and Crawford have struggled, but at times they’ve flashed as well. I hope that tips to where they flash more than they don’t. Tom Murphy coming around with his bat will be huge too; I’m not as worried about him as I am the younger guys.

As for the Saturday game, I missed it entirely. I mean, it’s hard to blame me, blink and you would’ve missed it! 1-0 defeats are VERY rare in today’s game, and while it sucks to be on the losing end, there are still positive take-aways for the Mariners.

Chris Flexen went six innings, spreading out 10 hits while somehow limiting the damage to just the 1 run. Insane! I don’t know if that’s sustainable, but it’s nice to see a gutty performance like that. The bullpen as well continued to keep it on lockdown, which makes it all the more disappointing that the hitters couldn’t get one over on Zack Greinke (who went 8 shutout innings, striking out 6, on just 91 pitches).

Again, if this were one of those Mariners teams of years past, the rubber match probably would’ve been a lost cause. But, instead if was an emphatic 7-2 victory!

This one could’ve gone haywire in a hurry. Nick Margevicius had to be pulled during the first at-bat of the fifth inning, with … arm fatigue? Is that a thing? Anyway, he’s supposedly going to make his next start, so that’s neither here nor there. He went just the four innings, giving up 2 runs (1 earned), and the M’s were temporarily down 2-1 heading into the bottom of the fifth.

That’s when the offense came alive, with a 2-run triple by Haniger (that was almost caught for a heartbreaking out in deep centerfield) and a 2-run homer by France (who else?). Haniger and France added on in the 7th, with back-to-back RBI doubles to give the game its final score.

The bullpen has been on fire lately, with the best ERA in baseball over the last week and change. I especially liked how Servais stuck with Rafael Montero in the highest-leverage situation in the 8th, even though the M’s had just tacked on two more runs. The 3-4-5 hitters were coming up, and even though we had a 5-run lead, that’s just the type of scenario where you could see a team like the Astros start to mount a comeback. Better to put them away right then and there, to give Steckenrider a soft landing in the 9th.

The Mariners are 10-6, everyone! The Mariners were in first place heading into this series, and the Mariners are still in first place today! Who saw that coming?

The Mariners Toppled The Twins

Last Thursday’s 10-2 drubbing of the Mariners by the hot Twins bats feels like a decade ago. We shouldn’t forget about it, though, because that’s the second start in as many outings for Marco Gonzales where he looked decidedly un-ace-like. After giving up 3 walks and 3 homers on Opening Day, Marco gave up two of each to the Twins. His ERA now sits at over 10, and while it’s not time yet to completely panic, there’s a version of Marco out there in the Multiverse who REALLY breaks bad, and this is the start of it all.

I don’t think that’s the Marco of our universe, though. But, I’m not throwing that out with the bathwater, either. I pause because it’s the very start of the season, after an unusually-short 2020 season. His command/control is clearly off, and it just might take him a little bit to get it going again. I hope that’s it, and that he rights the ship in a hurry.

Based on that game, you’d be right to worry about … well, everything! But, then Yusei Kikuchi stepped onto the mound and spun 6 innings of 2-run ball to keep us in it! His only blemish was a 2-run homer by Nelson Cruz (on a pretty good pitch on the outside of the zone, hit the other way over a very high wall), and can you blame him for being mashed by one of the best in the game today? I’m always surprised when Nellie makes an out!

This was a nice little coming-out series for Taylor Trammell, who had his first Major League homer in this one. Haniger also had a solo blast that contributed to the Mariners’ temporary lead. Kyle Seager would also come up big in this series, hitting a go-ahead RBI in the eighth inning before Rafael Montero blew his second save of the season in the bottom of the eighth (why he was in there so early is anyone’s guess; I refuse to research this insignificant detail). Ultimately, Haniger hit the winning sacrifice fly in the tenth to help put this one away. Sadler, Graveman (who also got the win), and Middleton (who ended up with the save) all did their jobs with a scoreless inning of bullpen work each. Lots of help up and down the lineup in this one; it seems like this team – more than most – is going to need the whole “Team Effort” thing to be a big part of their victories this season, at least until the superstars separate themselves. All in all, a nice 4-3 victory for the M’s.

The rubber match on Sunday looked like as big of a lost cause as I’ve seen. I tuned in specifically to see Chris Flexen – because I missed his first start with the M’s – and it was an interesting one! He was in a nasty little jam in the first, but got out of it while giving up only the one run. It looked like he might cruise for a while after that, but the third inning happened with lots of unlucky balls finding grass they shouldn’t have (including a pretty harmful error to help things along). Flexen limited the damage to three more runs (two earned), only to pretty much fall apart in the fifth. In all, he went the five innings, giving up six runs (five earned), while throwing only 84 pitches.

The Mariners were down 6-0 at that point, and I officially switched over to watch The Masters, so I missed the four runs the Mariners scored in the top of the sixth. Including a homer by Seager, and a 3-run blast by Trammell! Once I saw what was happening on Twitter, I switched it back, and was rewarded by a pretty entertaining little comeback!

The Mariners got one more back in the seventh, and it was a 6-5 game until the ninth, when Kyle Seager stepped to the plate with two on, jacking his second homer of the game. The bullpen was truly remarkable in this one. Will Vest went two scoreless, Drew Steckenrider pitched a scoreless eighth to earn his first victory, and Rafael Montero bounced back with his second save of the season, with an easy 9-pitch affair.

It was reasonable to think – before this past weekend – that Trammell might be on a fast track to Tacoma for a long-ish stint in AAA, but hopefully he’s starting to turn a corner. Hopefully success begets success. He’s still sitting with a sub-.200 batting average, so obviously there’s work to be done. But, now pitchers know they’re going to have to be reasonably careful with him. At the very least, I’d love to see what he looks like when Kyle Lewis reclaims his spot in the middle of the order. If nothing else, our outfield coverage should be insane!

Also, props to Kyle Seager for his output so far this season. This is the guy I was hoping to see, as it may be his final year with the team that drafted him.

Wins like these are important to teams like this. That attitude of never saying die or whatever is a pretty big deal when it comes to Scott Servais-managed Mariners squads, which is why I’m really rooting for him to make it through this rebuild unscathed. I do think Servais is one of the good ones; if managers do anything other than decide when to take out pitchers and be scapegoats for underperforming teams, I think they can help breed a culture, and I like the culture he’s breeding here. Given what the Mariners have had to endure in all the years since Lou Piniella was here, it’s HARD to turn around a culture like the one that had set in!

That’s all I got. Four more in Baltimore starting today. They’re pretty bad, the Mariners should be somewhat better, so you’d hope another series win is in the cards, as we get to the real meat of the April schedule coming up.

The Mariners Somehow Won Their Opening Weekend Series!

Actually, that’s not such a remarkable feat, but you try writing thousands of quasi-unique blog post titles and see what you come up with.

After staying at the game past 11pm, and then not getting home until around midnight last Thursday, I didn’t have it in me to watch the entirety of Friday night’s game. I’m such a bad fan! I’m such an old man! Kill me now!

What I did see, however, was an impressive outing by Yusei Kikuchi (who swapped places with Paxton in the rotation for … reasons), who went 6 innings, giving up 3 runs on 6 hits and 1 walk while striking out 10! Unfortunately, all three of his runs came on 2 homers, and he ended up with a no decision for his troubles.

This feels like a pretty standard 6-3 loss for the Mariners in 2021: pretty good starting pitching, not so great hitting (only 6 hits all game), and a dud performance from the bullpen (highlighted by Drew Steckenrider’s 3 runs in 0.2 innings of relief). Once the game was given away like that, I toddled off to bed. But, I still say this one was promising, for Kikuchi’s improved command alone. If he can keep that up all year, we might be onto something!

I’ll admit, I didn’t have high hopes for the rubber match on Saturday (the rare Sunday off-day is throwing me for a loop, I have to admit), with Chris Flexen making his Mariners debut. I was also outside working with my friends in their backyard gravel pit, so I managed to miss all but the very end of this one. Which is too bad, because it looks like I missed a pretty good Flexen outing! 5 innings of shutout ball, on 4 hits & 2 walks, with 6 strikeouts. We were told ahead of time that he might be limited in how long he could go, so all things considered that’s pretty amazing!

The bullpen behind him was also pretty fantastic! I would assume the combination – in some order – of Kendall Graveman, Anthony Misiewicz, and closer Rafael Montero will be in play for the vast majority of games where the Mariners hold a lead late. These are the guys Scott Servais is going to rely on until they prove they can’t handle it. Graveman went 2 shutout innings, striking out 5. Misiewicz appeared to struggle, but got two outs in the eighth. And Montero came through with the 4-out save after blowing one on Opening Night. All in all, as solid a 4-0 victory as you’ll see.

It’s obviously too early to draw any grand conclusions from three games. I don’t think the Giants are overburdened with quality pitching, so while it’s nice that the M’s hitters did as well as they did, we could very well be in for lean times ahead. Only three American League teams – who have played in just three games – have more team strikeouts so far. And, again, that’s with the Giants not having good pitching whatsoever.

The vaunted White Sox come to town for three starting tonight, before we hit the road for Minnesota and Baltimore. It would be nice to steal as many wins over the next ten days as possible, considering how difficult the schedule gets in the back-half of this month, and on into May.

2021 Mariners Preview Extravaganza: We Have A Starting Rotation

I don’t know if the official 26-man roster has been set yet, but I do know we have the 6-man rotation good to go. So, I’ll start there. I’ll forego the bullpen because I don’t know those men, nor do I care to know those men. Tomorrow, I’ll look to talk about the everyday players and then we’ll get this pig in gear!

  1. Marco Gonzales (L)
  2. James Paxton (L)
  3. Chris Flexen (R)
  4. Justus Sheffield (L)
  5. Yusei Kikuchi (L)
  6. Justin Dunn (R)

The next man up – at least until Logan Gilbert gets his initial call-up – figures to be lefty Nick Margevicius. So, a lot of familiar faces there.

Once the M’s signed Paxton, this is pretty much the group we expected all along, even if the order after the top two is a little surprising. I think you can really toss all four of the bottom guys (five if you count Margevicius) into a hat and pick them out at random. Is Flexen really the #3 guy? Or, is he just projected to be the most-reliable right-handed starter and Scott Servais wanted to break up the four lefties? My hunch is it’s the latter.

When healthy, I’ll ride or die with Gonzales and Paxton all day every day; I think that’s as solid a 1-2 punch as you’ll find. Especially with Paxton as your #2? When he’s going strong, he’s as dominant as they come! If things break right with this team, these two guys should have tremendous winning percentages when it’s all said and done.

Neither, of course, were particularly amazing in Spring Training; Gonzales had a pretty high ERA and Paxton only made two official starts (with, presumably, lots of games in back-alleys to fill out his pitch counts). But, these are tried and true veterans who only need to get the work in; they have nothing to prove in these games. I expect big things.

Flexen has always been an interesting case, as he’s largely either an unknown in America, or a terrible pitcher. He salvaged his career in Asia, and obviously is hoping he can carry that over back in the Major Leagues, but this is all Wait & See for me. He had five starts in Spring Training, and pretty pedestrian numbers, but his last two starts totalled 8 innings of 5-hit, shutout ball. So, at least he’s hot heading into the regular season.

Justus Sheffield impressed the hell out of me in 2020. He’s another one with pretty shabby Spring Training numbers, but his last two starts totalled 8.2 innings of 6-hit, 2-run ball. He’s not the proven veteran that Gonzales and Paxton are, so I don’t know if we can totally write off his performance in those four official games. I would still expect an up-and-down season, hopefully with more ups than downs. A full Mariners turnaround and/or a playoff-bound 2021 season likely requires Sheffield to be better than he was in 2020, and to continue to improve as time goes on. I’ll be rooting like crazy for this to happen, even though I have my nagging doubts.

Seeing Yusei Kikuchi as the #5 starter is pretty abysmal, all things considered. There’s no way the Mariners signed him to all of that money to be their fifth starter. Kikuchi had three official starts in Spring Training and his numbers were solid. He continues to make steady progress, but I don’t know if he’s making ENOUGH progress to be a guy that will stick around beyond 2021. At this point, I’d say my prediction is that he’ll continue to scuffle and won’t be here in 2022 under his existing contract, if at all. BUT, of any one of these bottom four guys who might put it all together, I think Kikuchi has the highest ceiling in 2021 (if not necessarily beyond). He has the stuff! The fastball works. If the command locks in, the American League better watch out, because Kikuchi could be pretty special.

I was happy to see Justin Dunn make the rotation in the 6-spot, because obviously he has a much higher ceiling than Margevicius. He’s apparently in tremendous shape and has added a few MPH to his fastball. He’s still young, he’s still raw, but he battled like crazy in 2020 and I’m hopeful another year in the Bigs will work wonders for his development. Like the rest of these bottom four guys, I expect ups and downs. Like Sheffield (and, really, everyone, I suppose), here’s to more ups than downs.

The over/under for Mariners wins is 72.5 (72-90/73-89). That’s a pretty low bar for this team to clear. If it does, I think we’ll have to lean on the rotation to … just keep us in games. That’s largely what they did in 2020. Nothing TOO flashy, just some solid 5-6 innings of 3-4 run ball. The hitting will be there sometimes and will fail us sometimes (but, I think it’ll be there more often than not); the bullpen PROBABLY won’t blow it every single time.

For this team to exceed expectations and actually contend for a playoff spot, I think the rotation will have to be better than just solid. They’ll have to go long stretches of carrying this team. Of not putting too much on the shoulders of the bullpen, as it tries to sort itself out. It COULD be capable of that, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I think this rotation is good enough to get us to 76-80 wins, with the team constructed around it as such. The real wild card is what we have in the upper minors, how quickly they can develop, and how hot they start their Major League careers.

The Mariners are going to have to ride their youngsters if they’re going to wildly exceed expectations. Fingers crossed!

The Mariners Brought Back James Paxton!

For athletes not named Felix Hernandez (my one and only), it’s usually Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind whenever someone leaves the Seattle orbit. To be fair, with fantasy football what it is, it’s relatively easy to keep tabs on ex-Huskies who have moved on to better things; and I always enjoy whenever the Husky basketball Twitter feed updates me on all the goings on of our pro Dawgs. But, I’m rarely going out of my way to keep tabs on players once they’ve left the Seattle area.

The Mariners traded James Paxton to the Yankees after the 2018 season, for Justus Sheffield and others. I knew at the time that he didn’t have a lot of club control left, but I couldn’t have pinpointed with any certainty when that contract was set to expire. He went to the Yankees with high expectations, and even though his numbers ended up being relatively in line with past performance (maybe just a tick worse, but negligible overall), and even though he started a career-high 29 games, he obviously fell short of those expectations. If we’re being honest, though, it’s almost impossible to meet expectations when it comes to the Yankees; if you’re not leading them to a World Series, then you’re probably falling short in some way.

Regardless, 2020 was as close to a disaster as it gets. Even in a pandemic-shortened year, Paxton’s season was further cut short due to injuries, and he managed only five starts. Before the season even started, he had surgery on his back that would’ve cost him 3-4 months, then his recurring forearm issue returned and that was that. The Yankees apparently just let him walk, rather than extend him any further offers.

I guess we know which team won THAT trade!

When I heard Paxton was still a free agent a month into 2021, those whispers that he might prefer a return to Seattle became a lot more interesting. There has, of course, been a lot of lobbying from a segment of the fanbase for the Mariners to “spend money”, if not to win now, at least to put us into a better position to win in 2022, when some of the highly-touted prospects start showing up. Even though this is only a one year deal, it makes a lot of sense to bring Paxton back now, to see what he has left in the tank.

It’s a one year deal for $8.5 million. I’m told there are incentives tied to the number of starts (or maybe just appearances) he makes: $750,000 for 10 starts, and another $750,000 if he makes it to 20 (max value of $10 million, in other words). That seems like a pretty achievable goal; he could spend a good chunk of the season on the Injured List and still make it to 20 starts no problem.

I like the move because I like James Paxton. When he’s healthy, there aren’t many left-handed pitchers who are more dominant. He’ll be 32 years old this year, and as we all know, durability isn’t his strong suit, so I don’t know if it’ll ever be wise to trust him with a huge-money, multi-year contract. But, at this point – even if he makes it through 2021 unscathed (which, the smart money says he’ll be at least a LITTLE scathed eventually, based on history) – I don’t think there’s enough trust in him to guarantee anything more than a 3-year deal at best. So, if he’s great again, and the Mariners like what they see, another extension a year from now shouldn’t break the bank.

Plus, get this: he actually LIKES Seattle! Who knew THAT was possible?! I’m used to professional Seattle teams having to over-pay to bring in quality free agents; it’s rare for this to be an ideal landing spot for an incoming player.

The bottom line is, it’s a win-win for both parties. Paxton gets a low-pressure environment to showcase his abilities, and the Mariners get a relatively cheap starter to throw onto the pile. It works to both parties’ advantage that we’re rolling back the six-man rotation as well. Obviously, it seems like this is the best way to maximize Paxton without over-working his arm, while still giving the Mariners an opportunity to build up the arms of some of our younger prospects.

Ultimately, I think it boils down to this: no one was super-excited about Chris Flexen. I think we can all agree – for a team like the Mariners, in the middle of a rebuild – the Flexen signing is a relatively smart one. But, he’s still a big question mark when it comes to being a Major League starter. Considering all the other big question marks we have in this rotation, it’s only natural to want to bolster this part of the roster.

So, what are we looking at now? Not a bad little rotation, all things considered:

  • Marco Gonzales
  • James Paxton
  • Yusei Kikuchi
  • Justus Sheffield
  • Chris Flexen
  • Justin Dunn

Even though Paxton is more of your prototypical Ace-type starter, there’s no way he’s taking over Marco’s spot in the rotation, which is probably for the best if you think about it. That further takes the pressure off of Paxton – he can be just one of the guys – and obviously doesn’t create a rift on the team, considering Marco is one of the main leaders on the roster. Also, since Paxton’s fastball is so much faster than Marco’s, it makes more sense for him to go after, that way whenever we face the same team, they won’t be all geared up to crush Marco’s softer stuff (what that means for the guy who ultimately has to follow Paxton is, of course, troublesome, but that’s neither here nor there).

Obviously, I have no idea the actual order of the rotation; that won’t be made clear until we get into Spring Training. But, those are the guys likeliest to qualify for the rotation, so barring any surprises, I think we’re pretty set. It wouldn’t shock me to see Flexen moved up in the rotation, just to break things up, since the way I have it would mean four consecutive left-handed starters in a row, but again, we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

I like the top two guys a lot! The next two, I have relatively high hopes for; and the last two are total wild cards.

This being baseball, I wouldn’t expect the rotation to remain static. There will be injuries. There may be demotions. And, of course, there will be guys in the upper minors who are pounding on the door, just itching to make their marks.

The only question that remains between now and when the players report to camp is: will the Mariners make any more signings? Taijuan Walker is STILL a free agent, you know …

Chris Flexen Is A Guy The Mariners Might Be Counting On (and Some Thoughts On The Six-Man Rotation)

The six-man rotation for the 2020 season felt like a great way to give our guys some semblance of experience this year, while at the same time protecting them during a wonky situation where we had a long break, then the ramp-up to Spring Training, then another long break, then a quick ramp-up, followed by a 60-game season. Pitching baseballs for a living under normal circumstances is quite taxing, but this had the potential for real leaguewide disaster!

The six-man rotation also offered the Mariners an opportunity to get a good sample size from numerous starters. Going in, we had two guys who were deserving locks to crack the rotation (Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi), two guys who were coming off of devastating injuries and multiple years away from the game (Taijuan Walker and Kendall Graveman), and two rookies who had never (to my knowledge) cracked an Opening Day starting rotation (Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn). That’s four unproven guys, plus a number of minor leaguers (including Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome) who we would end up throwing in there when Walker was traded and Graveman went down with another injury (and ultimately landed in a bullpen role). As the M’s are in the middle of a full rebuild, it was necessary to get a good look at as many different guys as possible. Hence, the six-man rotation was born.

But, now we’re talking about carrying over the six-man rotation into 2021, when things are (hopefully) returning back to normal. Part of that has to do with protecting the guys (we don’t know how their arms will respond, going from pitching so few innings in a year, to a full 162-game season), part of that has to do with the Mariners still being smack-dab in the middle of a full rebuild (though ideally closer to being contenders than having to scrap it all and start over), but an interesting wrinkle is that part of the decision might reside in this is just where the game of baseball is headed. The Mariners MIGHT be on the ground floor of revolutionizing the sport in a major way. That’s kind of exciting!

The thing is, it’s going to be difficult to quantify whether or not this is an effective way to run a pitching staff. We likely won’t know until we’ve had multiple seasons of data on injuries and effectiveness; it would also be helpful if other teams joined in on our quest to normalize the six-man rotation, to give us all even more data on the matter (but, that also might take away our competitive advantage, if indeed this will be the new normal). The thing is, professional sports are inherently risk-averse. If the Mariners come out and shit the bed in 2021, they might be inclined to blame it on the six-man rotation (particularly if our starters struggle in spite of the extra rest they’re getting between starts), and then the concept will likely die.

I’m always in favor of trying new things in sports. It gets back to that competitive advantage notion. When you reach the highest levels of your sport, everyone has the same information. Every team has an analytics department. Teams have the smartest minds working as hard as possible, all in an effort to get the SLIGHTEST edge over their opponents. To the point where it feels more like luck than anything else when a team has sustained success.

It’s jarring when a pro team does anything remarkably outside of the ordinary. Teams in recent years have dabbled with the “Opener” – a relief pitcher starting a baseball game, pitching one or two innings (to get out the opposing team’s very best batters) before the actual starter comes in and goes the next 5-7 innings while hopefully seeing the top of the order fewer times in that particular game (because the stats say the more times a batter gets to go up against the same pitcher in a game, the more success they’ll have as the game goes along). There have been decidedly mixed results on how the Opener has worked out, but I think consensus is trending toward the direction that it’s a flop. Too many of these relief pitchers starting games are getting pounded and putting their teams in big holes (which leads me to wonder, with the top of the order properly warmed up against a fireballer like that, are they having more success against the softer-tossing starting pitchers who follow them out there?). But, hey, you can’t gain a competitive advantage without breaking some eggs!

The last really successful organization that found an edge against the rest of the league was the Oakland A’s around the turn of the century. They were the first team to really adopt the concepts of Bill James and other prominent analytical baseball minds to their advantage. They were a roaring success, though weren’t quite able to translate that into World Series titles (all they did was infuriatingly make it so the Mariners were denied two more opportunities to make the postseason, in 2002 and 2003, the last two truly great M’s teams).

It’s hard for me to say that a six-man rotation will be on par with what the A’s were doing, but I do believe it has significantly more value than the Opener.

For starters (!), the Mariners really don’t have an elite rotation. Marco Gonzales continues to shatter my expectations, but I also wouldn’t put him on par with the best of the best ace starters in the game today. Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn also impressed me a lot in their rookie campaigns, but they too have clear ceilings that aren’t at that ace level. Yusei Kikuchi has been a disappointment through two years, but it’s still too early to give up on him as he transitions from Japan to America. Margevicius and Newsome are not likely to be long-term rotation guys, as we have younger pitchers we will be looking to promote either in 2021 or 2022 at the latest. Graveman, as I mentioned, is now a bullpen guy going forward, due to his chronic neck issue that he apparently refuses to have surgery on, yet doesn’t prevent him from throwing really hard for an inning or two every other day. Taijuan Walker could always be re-signed if the price is right, but for now the Mariners have gone in another direction.

I had never heard of Chris Flexen before word came down that the Mariners signed him to a 2-year, $7 million deal. This obviously has the feel of another one of those buy-low Jerry Dipoto deals where he’s trying to squeeze out significant value from a candidate to have a bounce-back in his career. Except, in this case, Flexen was NEVER good … until he went over to the Korea Baseball Organization for the 2020 season. He had a lot of success over there in his 21 games started. Strikeouts were up, walks were down, it was everything you could ask for. With the caveat that the level of competition is obviously not where it is in the Major Leagues. It sounds like he was able to take advantage of their aggressive style of play in getting hitters to swing at his stuff outside of the strike zone. So, it’s hard to say if his stuff will translate back to the U.S.

The upside is: there is precedent for someone to go to the KBO and come back and pitch well. Also, the money is quite nice. $7 million over two years is nothing in MLB terms (even in the wake of a pandemic-related financial collapse). If he turns into a useful starter, then he’s an absolute bargain! And, if he stinks, then hey, no sweat off our noses.

Probably best not to expect too much out of Flexen, but feel free to leave yourself open to believing that he might keep the good times rolling. My hunch is he’ll look good out of the gate, then the league will start to adjust to what he’s doing out there, and then we’ll know if he’s worth a damn or not. If he can adjust to how the batters adjust to him, then we might have something. But, if he can’t figure it out, then it was a nice idea that just didn’t pan out (but maybe he can still be a useful bullpen guy for a while).

I think we were all hoping for a little more out of free agency when it came to bolstering the rotation, but if this is indeed truly it, then I think I’ll be slightly disappointed. Yes, the Mariners have a lot of highly-rated prospects working their way through the minor leagues in the next two years, but not ALL of them are going to pan out, for one reason or another. Remember “The Big Four” of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Brandon Maurer? Hultzen never pitched in the Majors with the Mariners due to injuries, Walker had middling success until he was traded away, and Maurer eventually had to convert to a bullpen role and hasn’t pitched since 2018. Paxton was the only guy who panned out, and he still had his share of injuries throughout his career, ultimately getting traded to the Yankees for Sheffield when we started our rebuild.

Nothing is a given, is my point. And, if we’re truly going to go forward with this six-man rotation, it seems like there should be plenty of room for a guy like Flexen, as well as a free agent with more substance. We’ll see if the Mariners think the same way as I do or not.