31 March 2014

Opening Day Baby!

Can you feel it? There's just something about spring that makes people happy. Winter is finally over, the sun is out an hour longer. People are starting to put away their sweatshirts and coats and take out their t-shirts and tank tops. (Unless you live in Seattle, then you just keep on carrying on.) Symbolism is important, as spring is a re-birth of plenty of things. Dead plants start to live again. Grey skies are being pushed aside by blue sky and sunshine. And here we are, baseball is finally back.

The optimism of yet another new season brings excitement to a fanbase used to disappointment and mediocraty. New faces brings new hope to a historically bad franchise. Heck, even the SEAHAWKS were able to win the Super Bowl, why can't the Mariners be successful? That optimism needs to be cherished. It needs to be pushed into excitement. Seattle hasn't seen a swing like Cano's since Griffey. We haven't seen pitcher like Felix since... well Felix. Embrace it the new season. Prepare for wins and losses, prepare for ups and downs. And, when all else fails, prepare for the fact that we aren't the Astros, and won't be last place.

With today being baseball's "first day of school," let's break down the Mariners' Opening Day roster from the shuffling of the rotation and some surprises that made the ballclub.

First off, the catchers. As everyone expected, Mike Zunino will be the everyday catcher. Zunino had a fair spring offensively, hitting.239 while batting in 5 runs. He also did a fairly decent job defensively, handling the pitching staff and the numerous new arms. John Buck, who signed a one-year, one-million dollar deal will back up Zunino. Buck is a nice addition with over a decade of experience behind the dish in the big leagues and should help Zunino mature this year. The big question looming: will Zunino hit? Let's all hope spring wasn't the answer.

As stated in our previous post, Justin Smoak was named the everyday day 1st baseman early in camp. Smoak displayed good power numbers (3 HR, 10 RBI) in spring camp and has embodied consistency at 1st base defensively. Seems like a theme with this team...will Smoak hit? We hope so. After giving up Cliff Lee for him, our patience is up.
Manager Lloyd McClendon has said Corey Hart (1B) isn't ready to be the everyday DH and will see most of his ABs vs lefties to start this season, but he could see some games at 1st or in RF. I'd pencil him in as a utility, replacing players on their days off. One thing Hart does offer is versatility and depth if he can hit and stay healthy. His spring was relatively weak, but he played in less than half of the games.
In arguably the most surprising move of all of Spring Training, Robinson Cano has been named the starting 2nd Baseman.

Moving to Shortstop, Brad Miller hit the ever-living daylights out of the ball this spring displaying some great power numbers by leading the Cactus league in homers (4) and hitting .439. McClendon said over the last two weeks of camp Miller really separated himself from Nick Franklin and it was clear to everyone. Franklin will begin the season at Triple-A Tacoma. Miller also will play a sound defensive SS, lets just hope he keeps up his hot-hitting when it counts.
Kyle Seager had a decent spring like most of the Mariners roster and will start at 3rd Base (surprise, surprise). As statedbefore, I expect good things from Seager at the plate this season and possibly a gold glove candidate at the three-bagger. Let's just hope he can pick up his average (only .191 this spring).
The Outfield is a little crowded and that's where the surprises come. Stefen Romero, who hit some balls in the spring that haven't landed yet, made the club after only one season at Triple-A. Romero is a big, athletic corner outfielder who could see a lot of playing time should one of the everyday guys struggle at the plate. Defensively, not a whole lot of speed but has shown he can adequately play OF at the major league level.
Much like I expected, Abraham Almonte also has made the ballclub out of Spring Camp. Almonte can hit from both sides of the plate with great speed and puts death to flying things on the outfield green. Just like Romero, I think he'll see limited time to start but will get lots of late game pinch-running and defensive replacement duties.
As far as the starters, Dustin Ackley, who had a very solid offensive spring, will be the everyday LFer. The skipper said Ackley has re-found his confidence at the plate and has really made some great strides in the OF. Hitting .382 and pushing in 13 RBIs will do that to you. It's nice to see Ackley confident again, as this is a hige year for him.
Michael Saunders will be the guy in CF. I think he could have a breakout year at the plate. If he can hit left-handed pitching, he's a valuable piece to the puzzle. He can bunt, has great speed, and has improved at the plate every year. Saunders is also a top 10 defensive outfielder in baseball when healthy.
In RF, it'll be a mix between Logan Morrison, Almonte, and Romero. I imagine whoever shows they can hit, will get most of the playing time there. This is a weak defensive unit, minus Almonte, so the bat will get the playing time. We might be stuck never having a true starting RFer this year. Who knows...maybe Jack Z is looking for a piece in a trade to patrol that spot, only one could speculate.
The pitching staff is a big ole' jumbled mess. Last week, Randy Wolf and Scott Baker were given their releases after being told they had made the club but would be asked to sign 45 day consent releases. Both declined and became free agents.
Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker will start the season on the DL with Walker hopefully coming back in mid-April and Iwakuma in late-April.
The starting rotation for now will be Felix Hernandez-Erasmo Ramirez-James Paxton-Roenis Elias-Chris Young.
Roenis Elias is a 25-year old Cuban native who was a Double-A all-star in Jackson last year. He had an impressive spring an showed the manager he's ready for the big leagues. I'm just hoping he doesn't end up like Brandon Maurer last year. He shows great upside, but don't expect to much from the rookie. While impressive, we will see growing pains. Unless he comes out like Pineda did, expect him to be relegated once Iwakuma and Walker come back.
Rounding out the rotation is newly acquired Chris Young who is a former all-star. He was released last week by the Nationals and signed by the M's after Baker and Wolf split. Young is a tall, lanky righty finesse pitcher who can hopefully eat innings until the cavalry comes.
In the bullpen will be lefties Joe Beimel (who's been a journeyman reliever), Charlie Furbush and it will round out with righties Todd Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Hector Noesi (long relief), and Fernando Rodney who will anchor the back end. Farquhar will most likely set up most of the time for Rodney, but Beimel has shown in the past he can get guys out in the later innings, so I wouldn't be surprised if he nailed down that role during the season.
All in all, Marihawks is pretty satisfied with the decisions the Mariners made on the roster. We will see how the fare early with a beat up, makeshift pitching. The key will be staying healthy when those guys get back if they want to have success as many of them will be relied on for significant production this season. April will be a make or break month for every AL West team. Whoever starts hot will have the upperhand. Seattle starts with 22 of their first 25 games against their AL West foes, meaning we will get a decent idea of what kind of club we will have.
Here's to optimism, Seattle's biggest baseball ally. Let's see if the M's can follow the Hawks lead, or if they want to keep getting high draft picks.
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11 March 2014

2014 Seattle Mariner Season Preview

Rodney, Cano, and Felix. $, hopefully in more ways than one.
Opening day is only 4 weeks away... longest 4 weeks ever, amirite?!

I am bringing in Spencer Hansen to do the Mariner's Preview this year. I'll add my two cents at the bottom. Spence knows more about the Mariners than anyone I know, so I'm glad to have him.

Spencer's 2014 Mariner Preview:
Obviously there have been some bright spots to the 2014 off-season with the signing of Robinson Cano, Cory Hart, Logan Morrison, and Fernando Rodney, among others. 

There are still some looming question marks; who will fill the outfield? Who will hit behind Cano? Will they sign another starter? 

Almost 3 weeks into Spring Training (ST) Manager Lloyd McLendon has set the tone for the ball club. McLendon had stops in Pittsburg and Detroit as a manager and a hitting coach and has been a respected offensive mind in the MLB over the past decade. He has instilled a toughness and sense of accountability among the players and is regarded as a players coach...but is he the right man for this job? Can he lead the M's to the promised land after a 12 year playoff drought? 

I believe he was a good hire for two reasons; a) he past managing experience and he has past coaching experience with a winning club and worked with HOFer Jim Leyland for several years. b) He is a great teacher of hitting and will be a key asset for a young ball club that has hitters that could experience some growing pains in the big leagues this season. 

A full Safeco Field, unfortunately all too rare.
McLendon also made it known to the media this week that Justin Smoak is "his guy" at 1st base this season. Smoak, with many things to prove at the plate this season did see slight improvements at the plate in 2013, but I expect this is a make or break year for him. Either he hits and stays, or doesn't and gets cut sometime in late-June, early-July. I think an ideal good year for Smoak is a batting average around 250-260 and 25 HRs. I think that's key if the Mariners want to have a chance at the post season as he could potentially hit behind Cano this year, which could also benefit Smoak because he could see better pitches. I've been waiting for the news to break on ESPN that the M's have resigned Morales, but as the days to Opening Day dwindle, so do my hopes that'll he be back. 

SS Nick Franklin
Also another unknown is who will be the everyday SS as McLendon has said that it's about "50-50" between Brad Miller and Nick Franklin for that spot right now. There has also been much speculation about whether Franklin will be dealt. The M's have gotten numerous calls on him and the two suitors that make the most sense right now remain to be the Mets and the Rays, with no real moves being made as of now. If the season started today, I would guess Miller would be the guy. He has been smooth with the glove and has shown he can be a durable, everyday guy. On the other hand, Franklin has hit the crap out of the ball this Spring with a couple of dingers and played solid defense. I think the better investment is in Miller because he shows more upside at SS and has a nice left handed swing and he has that blue-collar, down and dirty, get it done no matter what attitude. Just an old school type of ballplayer. 

The pitching situation as far as starters has also become messy this spring. It's looking like Hisashi  Iwakuma and young phenom Taijuan Walker will start the season on the DL which leaves the M's looking for a free agent arm or giving young guys a significant role early in the season. When all healthy the rotation will look something like Felix-Kuma-Walker-James Paxton-Scott Baker. I imagine Scott Baker will see an increased role with injuries. He was non-roster invitee to Spring but will most likely make the club. He was above average in Minnesota but I think pitching in Safeco won't hurt him at all. James Paxton also has came in looking good and also more mature. He's making better pitches, has shown better control, and his arsenal of pitches is more well-rounded. 
Hopefully this King can make some magic.

The bullpen was shored up with the signing of Fernando Rodney at the back end and he hasn't seen much action due to a small injury but should be fine and on track to go Openind Day. I think our middle relief will also be improved now that Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen will not be relied upon in the 9th to shut the door. I still expect one of those guys to set up Rodney, but I expect a bounce back year from Wilhelmsen. Also you gotta love Danny Farquhar, a blue-collar guy that throws upper 90s with wicked off-speed stuff. He just needs to work on his location and developing those off-speed pitches. 

In the outfield, it's a little crowded. Franklin Gutierrez was put on the Restricted List, meaning he will not play this season and will not be paid his $1 million. Pencil in Dustin Ackley in in LF. Ackley has sown a much better approach at the plate this season and I think he'll make a nice transition out there this season. I expect a bounce back year from Ack.

Hopefully there is more to fear than just the beard.
After Ack it gets tricky with no one guy taking control of a spot. I'd really like to see Michael Saunders break out this year and be an everyday guy because when fully healthy he is a top 10 defensive outfielder in this league. If he can show that he can hit left handed pitching and cut down on strikeouts he will very much be in the everyday picture this season. 

Some under the radar guys you may or may not know are Stefen Romero and Abraham Almonte. Both spent last season in Triple-A Tacoma and had good years. Romero is a corner outfielder who shows a lot of power from the right side and can also hit for average and is a plus defender in RF. Almonte is a speed-demon and switch hitter and can hit well from both sides of the plate. I think Romero is on the outside looking in but I believe Almonte will make the Opening Day roster. McLendon has said they can find multiple ways to get this guy in the game and has potential to be the leadoff guy this year. He understands the role of the leadoff, has plus speed and that ability to hit well from both sides helps him. Almonte is also a great bunter and will set the table nicely for Cano, Kyle Seager, and Corey Hart. 

Maybe the LOB could rub off on the M's.
The key to success this season will be guys staying healthy. With Kuma and Walker out to start it will be tough in April but position guys need to be durable as well. Corey Hart and Logan Morrison were nice pickups because they were cheap, low-risk, high-reward guys that could significantly contribute. Hart was a 30 homer, 100 RBI guy two years ago and a perennial All Star. Hart will probably DH for the most part but will see some time at 1st and possibly in RF. Morrison also could see time in the OF and at 1st base and if he hits will be a solid role player to plug in because he's very versatile.
I think this team is very much improved, but also still has some holes to fill, whether that be a RH bat or a starting pitcher. 

My prediction for the season is 85 wins, who knows if that'll be enough to get that second wild-card. I think the M's undergo some growing pains but McLendon takes this club a step in the right direction and they WILL be a playoff team in 2015. As far as individual awards, I think Cano, Seager, and Felix are All Stars and Seager is my dark horse for the batting title.

Thanks Spence! I definitely appreciate the analysis. Hard to keep up when everything I hear is about the Rangers. And yes, they do have the best QB in the state of Texas.

As for my prediction, I was pretty off last year. I predicted the M's to finish third with an 85-77 record, while they instead fell to 71-91and fourth place (how great is it that the Astros are in the division?) This year I'm not as optimistic as Spencer is. Oakland is going to win the AL West, Texas is going to pick up a Wild Card spot at number two. I think Seattle was what it takes to finish third place, above the vastly overrated Angels and the hilariously bad Astros. I predict an even 81-81 this year. I do agree with Spencer though, if they get it together, the playoffs aren't too far in the future for us.

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SODO MOJO. (I lost track of their annual sayings, so I'll stick with this one.)