“The stars are faint; and I am weary as I have seldom been before, weary as no Ranger should be with a clear trail to follow. There is some will that lends speed to our foes and sets an unseen barrier before us: a weariness that is in the heart more than in the limb.”
-Aragorn, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
With a month (plus four days) of the season already past we here at PBNW thought it a good time to review what’s happened so far this year. Although showing signs of improvement the Mariners currently sit at 11-16 and are in the midst of one of those losing streaks that lead fans to ponder existential thoughts about purpose, meaning and how much nicer kayaking is than watching a baseball game for three hours.
Nonetheless we soldier on (for now) with some thoughts on the state of the franchise in a bit of a roundtable on Mariner related topics.
Joining me in today’s discussion is Brendan Gawlowski, a history major who specializes in knowing the fingernail length of all of history’s most famous eccentrics, and PBNW founder Jon Shields, who once, after smacking his head on his toilet discovered the equation for cold fusion, but sadly upon relieving himself in said commode found that it had left him.*
* (Facts assumed to be true until disproved.)
What Mariner Made You Happiest in April?
JS: I've been a Michael Saunders apologist over the past few years so seeing him finally have a run of success has been the highlight of the young season for me. He still has plenty to prove, but what he's done to date is nothing short of amazing given his track record. His dismantling of opposing lefties (1.537 OPS) in limited plate appearances has been shocking.
Honorable mention: Tom Wilhelmsen. My god, dude.
BG: For baseball reasons: Michael Saunders. He's gone through so many swing adjustments and failed so miserably at the plate in his career that many (myself included) had written him off before the season. Watching him succeed against lefties, hit for power, and even occasionally drive the ball to the opposite field has been a bonus and a joy.
For non-baseball reasons: Munenori Kawasaki. His mannerisms, particularly when he shakes his hands or zealously congratulates teammates after good plays have made me laugh nearly every time he's been on camera. Even if he doesn't hit a lick, he's worth keeping around for his glove, speed, and entertainment.
NB: Tom Wilhelmsen was already one of my favorite players on the team due to his fastball velocity (95.2 MPH average) and well known backstory as a former baseball washout/world traveler/bartender/cannabis enthusiast. This year he’s become the team’s best reliever, leading the team with thirteen appearances and sporting a gaudy 18/2 strikeout to walk ratio. He’s been Eric Wedge’s go to shutdown guy out of the pen and should be the first choice in high leverage situations.
The real joy of Wilhelmsen has gone beyond the numbers and reached almost Putz’ian levels with this year’s ability to locate a world-class, 12 to 6 curveball. I often determine the quality of pitcher stuff by watching how the best hitters in the world react to it. The Hammer of Thor (my personal name for the curve) has made big leaguers look absolutely foolish.
Mariner that made you angriest/saddest this April?
JS: Angriest: Eric Wedge. Saddest: Justin Smoak. Wedge's roster management, lineups and tactics have been maddening all season long, moreso in my mind than at any point last season. (Or did I simply block last season out?) Smoak, on the other hand, looks absolutely hopeless as a Major League starting first baseman, let alone one of the impact variety. Come July, it may be time to start looking for a new "first baseman of the future."
BG: I figure most will say Chone Figgins, so I'll go with Justin Smoak. He's struggling horribly and doesn't appear to be any closer to fixing his inability to hit off-speed pitches. In contrast to his performance in the first half of 2011, in which he looked like an emerging slugger, his difficulties have been frustrating and sad, and his justifiable demotion to the seventh slot in the lineup is depressing. That ZiPS doesn't even see him as one of the eight best position players over the rest of the year speaks volumes.
NB: I’m flogging a fetid, rotting horse corpse here but Miguel Olivo drives me absolutely nuts. I had a chance to talk to Miguel and watch him interact with fans a bit in Arizona this Spring. He is absolutely a fantastic dude and you really do get the impression that of those “leadership” intangibles is a commodity he supplies in abundance. But between the well, well documented struggles with passed balls, the atrocious OBP, the silliness of things like diving headfirst into 1B on a close play he is a posterboy for heart before head in athletics. For him I hope he heals quickly from his injury and goes on to play another 2-3 years. I just can’t stand the thought of it being in a Mariner uniform.
Your Favorite Moment of April?
JS: The unlikely comeback in Toronto was fantastic, but my favorite moment of April came on the 19th. With one out and the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a 1-run game, Felix Hernandez capped his masterful performance against the Cleveland Indians with back to back strikeouts of Jason Kipnis and Shin Soo Choo, putting da team on his back, doh (link NSFW, language). I'm getting pumped up just thinking about it.
BG: The opening game of the Blue Jays series. Between Ichiro's throw, Lawrie's error, Jaso's single, and Saunders's homers, the 9-5 win was a reminder of why we all love baseball. Honorable mention to the first eight innings of Felix Hernandez's dominating performance against Cleveland.
NB: Way back on April 11 the Michael Saunder Redemption Show debuted. With the team down to its final out Saunders tied the game with a line drive to right-center and busted his ass to second for a double. He followed it up by brazenly stealing third and went on to score when John Jaso singled, securing a 4-3 Mariner win.
It was a brilliant look at the kind of tools Saunders has always possessed and the first indication that he may (finally) be ready to harness them.
What has you most intrigued for the next month?
JS: I'm looking for May to give us a better idea of what the Mariners have in their players. Is Michael Saunders playing above his head or will he just continue to tighten things up? Is Kyle Seager actually good enough that the Mariners should stop worrying about third base? Is Brendan Ryan going to hit enough to save his job? What the hell is wrong with Dustin Ackley? And so on.
BG: I'm most interested in seeing how long Chone Figgins stays on the roster. At this point, there are a plethora of superior options for both left field and third base, and there's basically no way to construct a case for giving him meaningful playing time. That said, there is a surprising dearth of reasonable alternatives in the minor leagues for Figgins' roster spot, so his release isn't necessarily imminent. I'm curious to see if he winds up on the bench for several weeks or if the team pulls the plug and calls up an organizational soldier. If he doesn't tear the cover off the ball this home stand, I have to think he's basically done as a starter.
NB: Jesus Montero spent April being the quintessential raw rookie. He has two walks, a .301 OBP and runs like bear juggling a ball on its nose. But he also is tied for the team lead in home runs and is batting a very respectable .292. With Olivo's injury we're going to get to see a lot of the total package with Montero this month, with all the good and bad. It would be great to see him walk a bit more. We don't need Edgar but a slower Jose Lopez is not what any Mariner fan wants to see.
For my 30th birthday I was given a small, yet extremely nice, bottle of 30 year old scotch. I've been trying to decide when to open it. I think I'll do it when Jesus Montero throws out a would be basestealer. I think there's a good chance my 30 year old scotch becomes 31 year old scotch.
Player most likely to be demoted?
JS: In terms of role: Chone Figgins. Specifically to the minors: there doesn't appear to be a clear-cut answer but Justin Smoak has to be in the discussion. While the Mariners have generally let young players work through their struggles, at some point the Mariners will have to throw Smoak a life preserver. Whether that would be good or bad for his development is debatable, but one thing is certain: he's drowning in the Majors.
BG: Erasmo Ramirez, only because I'd like to see him stretched out and preparing for big league starts. That, and no team managed by Eric Wedge ever needs to carry twelve pitchers. No other player on the roster screams 'demotion,' unless they want to get radical with Smoak.
NB: I might be reaching here since Wedge seems to really like him but I sure feel like Alex Liddi would be well served with a bit more time in Tacoma. I know he's had some success this year but he still looks overmatched against high-quality major league pitching. I'd like to see him work out more at 1B down in AAA and be ready should Smoak and Carp wash out. His increased patience has been great to see as has the increase in contact rate. But I just don't think he's a major league regular at this point.
Player most likely to be called up from the minors?
JS: Shawn Kelley has been one of the few Tacoma Rainiers performing well, posting dominant numbers since his demotion. He seems to be an obvious choice should the Mariners drop Kevin Millwood in favor of Erasmo Ramirez or Hisashi Iwakuma. Danny Hultzen and Nick Franklin are off to nice starts in AA but probably won't be candidates for a big league job until summertime, if then.
BG: Shawn Kelley probably belongs in the big league bullpen, so I guess he wins by default. Luis Rodriguez is another good candidate if the M's want to have some infield flexibility.
I'll also throw a plug for Luis Jimenez, a twenty-nine year old first basemen with nearly 900 minor league games under his belt. Jimenez, who has never played in the majors, is off to a good start in Tacoma with five homers and a team leading .846 OPS. Since the M's will likely add someone to the 40-man (and active roster) when Figgins is finally released, why not Jimenez? The M's don't have a pressing positional need, prospects like Trayvon Robinson and Carlos Triunfel are struggling too much to justify a promotion, and I like seeing career minor leaguers get a cup of coffee.
NB: Jiminez is a really nice call from Brendan there. I have to go Shawn Kelley as well though. He's lighting up AAA (18 K, 4 BB), has experience in the big leagues and looks to be the obvious choice. I do wonder if the team really spirals if our first callup doesn't come from that loaded Jackson team though.
Having seen the team play twenty-seven games now how many wins are you expecting by season’s end?
JS: Sustained performance from Ichiro, Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager along with improvements from Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley will lead this team to 75 wins!
BG: 72. You can make a reasonable case that this team stands to improve by devoting less playing time to Miguel Olivo and Figgins (and possibly Smoak.) Assuming Jesus Montero and John Jaso are adequate behind the plate, the position players will probably play better as a whole going forward than they did in April. Between that and a schedule with more home than road dates the rest of the way, I expect the M's to outplay their current winning percentage the rest of the way.
NB: I have yet to give in to pessimism/reality. The Mariners have opened the season with 60% of their games on the road and every opponent so far has a .500 record or better. The time to bounce back is now with a three game series at home against the woeful Twins and I think they will. I still see this team surprising a lot of people and winning about 80 games.
Rest in peace MCA