• Cheater’s Guide to Baseball

    I can't help but recommend this book to anyone and everyone who likes baseball... and even those who really don't. A funny book about all the cheaters in baseball? What can be better than that during the steroid era?

    Pre-order your copy of Cheater's Guide to Baseball by Derek Zumsteg of USSMariner.

Archive for the ‘Spring Training’ Category

Scouting the 2007 Seattle Mariners

Posted by Jason A. Churchill on April 2, 2007

Looking back on the 2003 and 2004 clubs, the first thing one usually notices is how quickly those stars from 2000-2002 got so old and stopped performing. It seemed like it happened suddenly, though the decline is more than obvious in hindsight.

It was clear that the Mariners needed a rebuild, and GM Bill Bavasi was in charge.

Well, here we are three years later, and the 25-man roster made official this week, is the best Bavasi could do. Will it be good enough? It doesn’t appear so, but looks can be deceiving.

The M’s, like all clubs, have their strengths and weaknesses that provide the keys to success, or failure, to the entire ’07 campaign.

Strengths: The Mariners are a solid defensive club with potential Gold Glovers at shortstop, third base and center field, and all three outfielders can throw, with Ichiro and Jose Guillen possessing impact arms. Yuniesky Betancourt and Adrian Beltre combine to make up the AL’s best defensive left side and the improving Jose Lopez completes a sure-handed infield.

The M’s did make slight upgrades to their starting rotation over the winter. Our are the enigmatic Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche, as well as veteran Jamie Moyer, traded last August, replaced by Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez.

The threesome should throw more strikes and provide more stability, making the rotation a bit of strength in 2007.

Felix Hernandez is in the best shape since signing a pro contract and appears poised for a breakout season at the age of 21. The King is no doubt the ace of the staff and if the M’s are to contend at all, Felix will need to be consistently in top form.

— See Analysis Below —

The M’s have an ace closer in Putz and southpaws George Sherrill and veteran Arthur Rhodes give the club a solid duo to deal with all the left-handed bats in the division (Teixeira, Blalock, Anderson, Chavez, Swisher, Bradley, Kotchman, Kendrick, Matthews, Kotsay).

Offensively, there is more punch and contact this year, with the additions of Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen. Guillen had a huge spring and Vidro, while not the best DH in the world, is adept at working the count and making consistent contact. He should be especially effective against left-handed pitchers, and Ben Broussard can provide a solid option against righties.

The M’s are a good baserunning club and with a better philosophy should be able to create some advantages rather than running into outs.

Mike Hargrove has certainly switched gears on a lot of things, including the baserunning approach. He’s lightened his stance on Felix Hernandez and appears to be in a mindset of making choices based on whatever gets the team victories NOW, rather than staying loyal to veterans or dismissing ideas just because they aren’t his own.

Bench coach John McLaren is a big part of that.

Weaknesses: Even if the Mariners get median-to-plus or better seasons from the entire starting rotation, the limits on their production put a lot of pressure on a bullpen with question marks. The setup crew is shaky at best, unless rookie Brandon Morrow or the post-surgery Mark Lowe can ultimately grab the gig and run. Southpaws George Sherrill and veteran Arthur Rhodes give the club a solid duo to deal with all the left-handed bats in the division (Teixeira, Blalock, Anderson, Chavez, Swisher, Bradley, Kotchman, Kendrick, Matthews, Kotsay).

The middle of the batting order remains somewhat ordinary, as the club is relying on the kids and two veterans with injury concerns and potential declining skills to help the lineup score another 100 runs.

Sexson, Ibanez and catcher Kenji Johjima are the only defenders who grade below average heading into the season, but while Johjima was terrible in April and May last season, he did gather himself and get the job done for the final 2/3 of the year. He’s still below average overall, but if his work ethic dictates, he’ll be significantly better in many areas this season.

Johjima’s work with the pitching staff, and particularly The King, is perhaps the single most critical aspect of the season.

 

Felix Hernandez, RHP

The King begins his second full season in the majors as the club’s Opening Day starter and only chance to shut down opposing bats before the ninth inning. The owner of the best stuff of any right-hander in the game has few flaws and nipped one of them in the bud this off-season, dropping more than 20 pounds and reporting to spring training in the best shape of his life and more focused than ever.

With improved command and the team’s blessing to unleash a plus slider to go with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a devastating curve, the sky isn’t even the limit. Hernandez has worked closely with pitching coach Rafael Chaves to clean up his mechanics and further develop a better feel for his changeup, which is a mind-blowing concept; four plus pitches including a change that typically tags the radar gun in the 82-84 mph range – 12-15 mph off his four-seamer?

Yep, that’s Felix.

Hernandez displayed a few flaws in his delivery last season, most notably his tendency to lead with his chin tilted skyward as he motioned to the plate and the lack of rythmn in his drive step, making it nearly im possible for him to repeat his delivery.

So far this spring, Hernandez has become more consistent in finishing his pitches, thanks to a trick taught to him by Chaves – finishing with his eyebrows angled toward the ground in front of him, rather than the press box behind home plate.

His rock-and-fire motion is still there, but with reduced violence, creating a simpler, more repeatable stride toward the dish.

Expect stints of inconsistencies with Felix’s performance this season, but there’s very little reason to believe Hernandez won’t be significantly better in 2007 than he was a year ago. By this time next spring, the 21-year-old could run for president and probably win.

Heck, I’d vote for him.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Hernandez made the all-star game this season, but it also wouldn’t be a complete shock if he kind of cruised along unspectacularly until mid-season and then went on a tear to end the year.

Either way, I fully expect to see a number of stellar outings from the phenom, including a decent number of double-digit strikeout performances and possibly a threatened no-no – or two… or five.

Key Ingredient: Focus, Change-up. A determined King has no equal and as long he’s able to sustain his concentration and confidence, the season will at least be entertaining. The development of his change-up could play an enormous factor in his success levels this year.

Most Important Pitch: Fastball, two-seamer and four-seamer. Getting ahead in the count and avoiding the bigger pitch counts is imperative for Hernandez’s success, more so than the typical power pitcher, due to his age and relative inexperience. His secondary stuff matters none if he can’t get ahead of hitters on a regular basis.

What to Watch For: Radar gun readings. And I don’t mean triple digits or all the 98s posted on the digital boards around the AL. I’m talking about 81, 83, 84, 82 – the velocity of his change-up.

There were times in the minors when Felix would go 94, 96, 97 with the fastball, and on a 1-2 pitch he’d pull the string on a well-located change in the low-80s – sick.

If Felix is confortable throwing his change, the league may not have much of a chance over the next 10 years. Look for him to throw the pitch a lot more this year than last, just as he did this spring.

2007 Projection: 32 GS, 217 IP, .220 BAA, 2.6 G/F, 8.8 K/9, 2.7 BB/9

The Mariners 2007 season hinges on a lot of things – a lot of things going right, that is. But in the end, the club will have to score runs to contend… consistently. The pitching staff is what it is, and it will probably be somewhat consistent in being what it is, which is mediocre to average. If the offense can generate slightly above league-average support, the M’s have a chance to win 85 games.

If they repeat 2006’s offensive output and experience similar injury results, they’ll probably dupe their 78-win performance from a year ago.

I keep going back and forth on which end of the spectrum this club is going to land. Two hours ago, I went on record and said they’d win 79 games.

One last re-analysis and I’m going to change that, 45 minutes before the first pitch.

I sense a slightly better year year from Richie Sexson, thanks to a better first half, and the same for Adrian Beltre, who I think will reach the 30-homer mark for the second time in his career, and first time in mariners blue.

Ichiro is Ichiro. He’ll probably hit .325, steal 40 bags, post a .430 SLG and play a gold glove center field. Raul Ibanez will probably have a tough time repeating his career year of ’06, but unlike many, I don’t expect a large drop-off for one of the game’s biggest bargains.

Johjima… he’s a tough read. I think he’ll be better, just not a lot better, at least offensively. He may not match his ’06 BA/OBP, but he could pop a few more long balls and pound out four or five more doubles and make the all-star team this year.

But those are fairly marginal differences during a 162-game schedule.

So why are they going to be eight games better? That’s simple, the Jose’s and YuBet.

Jose Guillen will be a force at times, and during the time he’s on the DL or in a bit of a slump at the plate, he’s an asset in the clubhouse (as long as he’s not threatening his manager), and defensively as well.

Jose Lopez is the club’s biggest wildcard in the batter’s box. He could pretty much repeat his 2006 numbers and nobody would complain much. But there’s more there – possibly 20 homers and 35 doubles – and this is the ideal season for him to breakout.

Betancourt may or may not improve on his 2006 offensive performance, but there really isn’t much of a chance that he takes a dive, either. He’s no automatic out and with more experience he’ll start hitting more line drives, too.

I’m hard on this club, I know. I’m very critical of Howard Lincoln, Chuck Armstrong and Mike Hargrove, and I’ve lost patience with GM Bill Bavasi. But at some point the law of averages have to help the M’s, rather than shove their faces further into the dirt. Some of these “should-be” talents should pan out, even if to the 70-80th percentile. The weakest division in baseball helps, especially since the A’s are as vulnerable as they’ve been in eight years.

PI’s TEAM PROJECTION 2007: 87-75, 2nd in AL West

Posted in Baseball Analysis, Predictions, Seattle Mariners, Spring Training | 60 Comments »

Quick Look at the AL West

Posted by Jason A. Churchill on March 30, 2007

Texas Rangers

Yeah, they can hit. Michael Young, Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira and Ian Kinsler are all above-average offensive players for their position and provide the Rangers with plenty of sock.

But this team still has major pitching deficiencies. Kevin Millwood is solid and Vicente Padilla should eat innings, but after that it’s less than a crap shoot.

How will Brandon McCarthy do in his first full year as a starter in the big leagues? Robinson Tejeda and Kameron Loe are pitch-to-contact types, which rarely bode well for the hitters paradise that is Rangers Ballpark at Arlington.

Loe is a groundball pitcher, but how will his stuff hold when he’s going through the lineup a second and third time? Last season, Loe’s first year starting in the majors, the 25-year-old righthander allowed a .904 OPS after the 6th inning and a 1.222 OPS after pitch No. 75.

Tejeda is a flyball pitcher. Ouch. And Padilla is no surefire solidification to the rotation. He’s just as likely to implode as he is to repeat his decent 2006 season and the team’s ace, 32-year-old Millwood, is and always will be a candidate to spend extensive time on the disabled list.

The bullpen is a little bit better with Akinori Otsuka, Frank Francisco and Eric Gagne expected to anchor the relief corps. Otsuka was very good in ’06 as the team’s closer but will begin the year as the setup man to former closer-extraordinaire, Gagne, who has thrown just 15 innings over the past two seasons combined.

CJ Wilson does give new skipper Ron Washington a viable left-handed option, as does veteran Ron Mahay. But if the rotation doesn’t get them into the 7th consistently, it won’t matter much.

A ton has to go right for Texas to boast enough pitching to win more than 80 games, including health, luck with the journeymen and a few kids stepping up and taking a role by the horns.

The Rangers’ defense is also nothing to brag about, though catcher Gerald Laird has gold glove capabilities. Blalock and Teixeira are a tick above average at the corners, and Young is below average at shortstop. Kinsler, a former shortstop, is solid at second but the outfield is very ordinary without a plus defender in the group.

Ultimately, the Rangers will again need to outscore their opponents, and yet again that will likely leave them on the outside of the postseason, looking in from their living room televisions in October.

Oakland Athletics

Every year, or every other year at least, Billy Beane’s ballclub takes a serious hit via free agency or financially-forced trades. Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada left for the money. Beane traded veteran starters Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder for younger arms and prospects.

Through last season it’s worked for the A’s, who have had a winning campaign seven years in a row, even after the major losses the roster has endured.

But something is different about 2007.

Let’s compare and contrast.

When the A’s dealt Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, they received Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and a strong first base prospect in Daric Barton. Haren has outpitched both Hudson and Mulder both seasons in Oakland and he’s done for a fraction of the price.

After losing offensive juggernauts in Giambi and Tejada, both former AL MVPs, the A’s went to younger bats that came through and supported the pitching staff to somewhat satisfactory levels.

Bobby Crosby, Eric Chavez and savvy role players have gotten the job done in the absence of superstars. Last season, Nick Swisher showed signs of becoming a long-term run producer who can slug .500 year-in and year-out.

Joe Blanton and Rich Harden have helped Haren replace Hudson and Mulder and the A’s haven’t missed a beat. But who’s going to make up for the loss of Barry Zito and Frank Thomas?

I think the economics of the game may have finally caught up to the A’s, as Mike Piazza and Chad Gaudin have very little chance to make an impact in the wake of Zito and Thomas.

Sure, guys can step up and take up some of the slack, but what if Harden spends more time on the disabled list and Piazza continues to decline? Can Chavez and Swisher carry the club offensively surrounded by complimentary hitters?

Just as the Texas Rangers would have to be as lucky as a drunken Irish rabbitts foot on St. Patty’s Day to compete with that pitching staff, so would the A’s to stay healthy enough and get the necessary max performances they require to score enough runs and pitch adequately enough to sustain winning streaks and stave off the long-suffering struggles of a baseball team that just isn’t all that good otherwise.

This could be the year that Oakland takes a step back, barring full seasons from Crosby and the entire pitching staff. There aren’t any ML-ready impact bats in the minors and the pitching well is as dry it’s been in the Oakland system in years.

If all goes right, they could sniff the 90-win mark. But chances are they’ll endure the bumos and bruises that most clubs do, and end up somewhere in the low-to-mid 80s – at best. A bad break or two on top of that and the first losing season of the decade could be on the horizon.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Another team with a lot of concerns health wise, Anaheim is still the favorites in the division. But with Bartolo Colon sure to miss time as he continues to eat his way out of baseball and lose velo on his heater, the Halos need Jered Weaver to get healthy fast and stay that way.

 

John Lackey is among the most underrated pitchers in the game and Kelvim Escobar, again – when healthy – is on that list, too, and each right-hander needs to log major innings to save the still-solid Anaheim bullpen.

Hector Carrasco can stand in for injured starters, but isn’t likely to match the effectiveness of any of the projected starting five. Southpaw Joe Saunders was strong last season and will be on speed dial from Triple-A Salt Lake if he doesn’t make the club out of spring camp.

Ervin Santana is solid, but struggles away from home. He’s still got room to develop and is a solid No. 3 starter in the making. The pen is as good as ever with K-Rod, Scot Shields and Justin Speier leading the pack.

Offensively Anaheim will need the kids to step up, starting with either Kendry Morales or Casey Kotchman at first base. With Chone Figgins to miss time with an ankle injury, Dallas McPherson or Brandon Wood will need to step in and produce to protect Garret Anderson and Vlad Guerrero. Guerrero seems to be breaking down a bit physically, but he’s as productive as ever and swiped 15 bags in 2006.

The key may be the top of the order with youngster Howie Kendrick, free-agent signee Gary Matthews Jr., and Orlando Cabrera the leading candidates to hit in the top two spots.

Only Kendrick has the plate skills to put up solid on-base numbers but that’s nothing new to a lineup card signed by the best skipper in the AL, Mike Scoscia.

The off-field distractions of Matthews, injuries to the pitching staff and the continued decline of Anderson make the keys to the Angels season the young bats. Kotchman, Kendrick, Napoli, Mathis, Morales, McPherson and Wood; At least two of them have to give the defending division champs a spark in order to hold off the three mediocre clubs in the west.

They are talented enough to win 90 or more. They are implosive enough to lose that many.

What gives?

Posted in Baseball Analysis, Spring Training | 22 Comments »

Backup Plan for M’s vs. Rainiers Tilt – Free Baseball!

Posted by Jason A. Churchill on March 31, 2006

The Seattle Mariners have announced a backup plan for the weather-threatened game on Saturday. Get this.

If the rain greatly threatens the start of the game, the contest will be moved to Safeco Field – and admission will be free for all!

The game at Cheney is sold out, but there will be plenty of room for early walk-up if the game is played at the Safe.

Posted in Seattle Mariners, Spring Training | Leave a Comment »