Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Mariners in the Second Half

SEATTLE, WA - JULY 07:  Robinson Cano #22 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates with teammates after getting the game winning hit to defeat the Detroit Tigers 7-6 in eleven innings at Safeco Field on July 7, 2015 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

As you know by now, the Mariners were fairly underwhelming. A seven game losing streak followed by 34 straight games of .500 ball has left Seattle at 41-48, 7.5 games behind the Angels in the west. You could jump off the bandwagon now, hell, most of you probably already have, but history shows us it’s still too early to give up on the 2015 Mariners, and there are plenty of reasons to believe.

The Rotation is Complete

Pitching was the saving grace for the 2014 Mariners, and while the offense was expected to have upgraded for 2015, the team was still anchored around the premise that the starting rotation would have to be very good for the Mariners to compete.

There was a period early on where that just was not the case. Hisashi Iwakuma struggled then got hurt, Taijuan Walker was awful, and James Paxton‘s injury seemed to be the nail in the coffin for a team that suddenly found itself with very little pitching depth.

But since then, guys have stepped up. Walker has been an entirely different pitcher since May 29th. Over his last nine starts, he has a pitcher slash line of 3.03/3.18/3.00 (ERA/FIP/xFIP), a 9.25 K/9, and a ridiculous BB/9 of 0.61.

Mike Montgomery has been huge in the first eight starts of his career, throwing 55 innings to the tune of a 2.29 ERA. The rookie even threw back-to-back shutouts in consecutive starts, which just adds to how incredible he has been since filling in for Paxton back in early June.

Iwakuma is finally showing signs of life, throwing 8 innings of shutout ball in the second start since his return from the DL. If the Mariners are getting back the Iwakuma from 2013 and 2014, he will do wonders for the stability of the starting rotation.

Robinson Cano is Back

Perhaps the poster child of the Mariners disappointing season to date, Cano has been well off his career numbers in 2015. We expected a decline due to age eventually over the course of his 10 year contract, but his .251/.290/.370 slash line, and 0.0 WAR over the first half were well unexpected. However, there is reason to believe the second baseman has finally turned it around.

Through June 14th, Cano was hitting .237/.239/.327 with a wRC+ of 69. Pretty awful numbers for a $24 million man. However, since that date he is hitting .287/.318/.475, with seven doubles, four home runs, and a wRC+ of 123. Even more impressive, in July, Cano is hitting .327/.364/.519 with a 152 wRC+. It appears that his bat speed has returned, and even more important, his demeanor exudes confidence, rather than the hopelessness he had shown on many occasions early in the year.

If this truly is the return of the real Robinson Cano, the Mariners offense will get a huge boost in the second half of the season.

Mark Trumbo is Finally Here

If Robinson Cano is the poster child for the failed 2015, Mark Trumbo is the (newest) poster child for Jack Zduriencik’s disappointing tenure with Seattle. In the first 82 plate appearances since being traded to the Mariners, Trumbo hit .131/.171/.190 with a 29% strikeout rate -3 wRC+. He more than twice as many strikeouts as hits, and only two of those eleven hits were for extra bases.

But in his last 28 plate appearances before the All-Star break, Trumbo caught fire, hitting .462/.500/654 with a .192 ISO and 232 wRC+. Obviously he won’t continue at that pace, but this could be the beginning of a return to his normal self. If this is the Mark Trumbo the Mariners thought they were getting when they made the trade, his presence in the middle the lineup will do wonders for the total offensive production.

Second Halfley

Once again, Dustin Ackley has not lived up to expectations in 2015. Even the scaled down, utility role he was given prior to the season has seemed to be too much to ask for. Through June he was hitting .199/.259/.338, and the only reason he was still on the team was his ability to play the outfield. But since July, he’s hitting .381/.435/.667 with a double, triple, and home run.

This isn’t uncommon with Ackley’s career, as he’s always been a summer hitter exclusively. Here is his career wRC+ by month:

April: 76
May: 74
June: 74
July: 114
August: 127
September: 67

Good Dustin Ackley (or by his alias Second Halfley), will not be here for ever, but while he is, the Mariners will benefit greatly on both sides of the ball.

The Offense We’ve Been Waiting For

The Mariners offense has been very good so far in July. In fact, after a June that saw the team nearly set the franchise record for least runs scored in a month, the Mariners have returned to produce some of the best offensive numbers in baseball.

The Mariners rank in the top 10 of most significant offensive categories in July, including seventh in wRC+, ninth in OPS, and ninth in runs scored. The Mariners currently have 8 players with a July wRC+ greater than 100.

Seth Smith: 215
Dustin Ackley: 211
Mark Trumbo: 170
Nelson Cruz: 161
Robinson Cano: 152
Kyle Seager: 148
Brad Miller: 133
Franklin Gutierrez: 128

This offense was never asked to be the best in baseball. All they needed to do was put up numbers that fell in the top half to top third of the league and they could win games. So far in July, that’s exactly what this offense has done. If that trend continues, this team cannot be counted out just yet.

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Michael Girsch, New Mariners GM?

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Let’s face it. Jack Zduriencik is out of time. He’s had 7 years to turn an organization around, and has found limited success in doing so.

If the 2015 Mariners record doesn’t kill your enthusiasm—currently 38-44 and past the halfway mark— there’s also today’s Baseball Prospectus Top 50 Prospects list, which doesn’t include any Mariners.

We don’t have a winning MLB team, and our farm system isn’t full of elite prospects. For a 7 year rebuild, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

At this point, I think it’s essential for the Mariners organization to take a new direction. While Zduriencik couldn’t quite build us a winner, he did give us a franchise with plenty of value (unlike what he inherited in late 2008). As things look now, the Mariners will likely have a protected Top 10 draft pick next summer, plus at least one additional supplemental pick (for Austin Jackson and possibly Hisashi Iwakuma). That’s a big opportunity for the future of the Mariners.

With a new GM at the helm—one who is progressive with modern baseball theory—this team could quickly see real success.

Michael Girsch currently works as the Assistant GM for the St. Louis Cardinals. Last year, he was in talks for the Padres GM position until he withdrew his name from consideration. He’s a young guy just shy of 40 years old, with a degree in Mathematics and also an MBA. As you could imagine, he’s an analytics type who’s spent years working within baseball’s best mid-market team.

This Fangraphs interview provides some background on Girsch.

Of course, front office personnel can hardly be assessed from the internet. And as a blogger, it’s borderline silly for me to even suggest a name.

But the larger idea is there: This organization needs to get on board with the advanced state of baseball.

And that begins with the General Manager.

By bringing in a young, analytically savvy GM, the Mariners will move away from old-school thinking. The fact that Zduriencik has continually employed low OBP teams is entirely senseless. For a team that plays in an “Extreme Pitcher’s Ballpark”, assembling a squad of high-OBP hitters is the answer. (See: San Francisco Giants for more information.) But for this team to have bottom-of-the-barrel OBP year after year is suicidal. And this is where old-school thinking has made Zduriencik a failure.

What really draws me to Girsch is his experience with the Cardinals. Their organization shares many similarities with Seatte: Mid-market team with 2015 payrolls in the $120m range; pitcher friendly ballpark; a desire for homegrown talent/drafting to put winning teams together.

You don’t want a Billy Beane type who excels by trading excessively. And you don’t want a Brian Cashman type who uses an enormous bank account to put together winning teams. You want the John Mozeliak type.

Michael Girsch—specifically—might not be the answer. But his resume looks exactly like what the Mariners should to be searching for.

It’s time for a change.

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[Tags: Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Taijuan Walker, Carson Smith, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Seth Smith, Mark Trumbo, Mike Zunino, James Paxton]

Mariners Make Correct Move, DFA Willie Bloomquist

Seattle Mariners' Willie Bloomquist smiles in the dugout as he is congratulated after scoring against the New York Mets in the third inning of a baseball game Monday, July 21, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

While the club has not officially completed the transaction (as of July 2nd at 10:54), it appears utility man Willie Blomquist has been designated for assignment in favor of his younger, better counterpart Chris Taylor.

Mariner fans have been waiting quite some time for this move to take place. It’s not that anyone dislikes Willie B, but it’s been made obvious that he is no longer healthy/agile enough to do what he does, which is provide solid defense at multiple positions and pinch hit against left handers.

Chris Taylor may not provide a major offensive upgrade to Blomquist, he produced a wRC+ of 21 in 68 plate appearances this year, but he is a very capable defender, giving the team an option to rest Brad Miller from time to time.

Taylor’s role has not been made clear yet. Last time he was brought up, the team thought he could be the everyday short stop while moving Miller to the outfield. Based on the results, that does seem like a valid option anymore. Taylor may be used in the same utility man role that Blomquist was, or the team may opt to set up a platoon between Miller and Taylor. This could also be a way to showcase Taylor for a possible late July trade.

However they use Taylor, it is nice to see the Mariners going with the clearly better option over “veteran presence,” and hopefully this move will work out for both Taylor and the Mariners.

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Something Special

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We’ve had the privilege to watch Felix Hernandez for years now. He’s awesome. Everyone knows that. But Felix needs help. He can’t do it on his own. And for as long as he’s been “The King,” the Mariners have been looking for his prince.

First it was Erik Bedard. Then it was Cliff Lee. Most recently it’s been Hisashi Iwakuma, but injuries and inconsistenies have kept him from really being a legitimate number two.

When Jack Zduriencik took over as general manager back in 2009, he made it clear that he wanted to build this team around pitching and defense, with the center piece being Felix. He used the draft to stock pile a group of viable prospect arms, and now it seems our patience has finally paid off.

Over the last month, Taijuan Walker and Mike Montgomery have been incredible.   Their success has come to fruition over the past two nights against the San Diego Padres, and it seems like each of them have finally realized their once top prospect potential.

Montgomery took the mound Tuesday night and simply dominated. He threw a complete game shut out, allowing just one seventh inning base hit. The more impressive part is that it was his second complete game shutout in as many starts, after blanking the Kansas City Royals back on the 23rd.

In his brief, six start career, Montgomery has thrown 44.1 innings to the tune of a 1.62 ERA. Nobody thought this would be the type of production Seattle would get from a guy labeled as a busted prospect and traded for Erasmo Ramirez. Sure his 2.3% HR/FB and 83.7% LOB rates will regress eventually, and his overall numbers will fall back to earth, but this is what scouts thought he was capable of for years, and maybe the Mariners have struck gold purely by accident.

Following Tuesday nights 5-0 victory, Taijuan Walker took the hill to finish off the mini two game series. He picked up right where Montgomery left off, throwing six shutout innings, allowing just one hit, striking out seven and walking none. He only threw 76 pitches and likely could have finished off the complete game shutout, but Lloyd McClendon pulled him to stay on pace for his season innings cap.

At the beginning of the year, he was either walking guys or throwing fastballs right down the middle. It was hard to watch, as a loss was almost guaranteed every time he took the mound. But on May 29th, everything changed, and Wednesday afternoon’s stellar outing is just another in this incredible run Walker  is currently on.

In his last seven starts, Walker has a 1.91 ERA with 44 strikeouts and three walks in 42.1 innings. Opposing batters are have an abysmal .586 OPS against him. His walks have nearly disappeared, and it’s been a really, really long time since he’s given up a free pass.

Taijuan is finally starting to pitch like the guy everyone thought he could be as a prospect. His velocity is there. His stuff is there. And now his command is there. He’s lowered his pitcher slash line to 4.34/3.95/3.74, and his season numbers are starting to look quite respectable.

These past two games have me so excited, not only for the rest of this season, but for years to come. Both guys have had their fair share of struggles and doubters, but let’s not forget they were both consensus top 25 prospects and first round picks at one in their careers. This past month has shown us just how good they can be, and that one day, they may belong in the top tier of Major League pitchers.

Time will tell what the future holds for these two young pitchers. If they have truly realized their potential, the combination of Felix, Walker, and Montgomery will be something special.

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Iwakuma Closing in on Return, Tough Decision Looms

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The veteran duo of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma was supposed to help anchor a young Mariners’ pitching staff that the team could ride through October. Obviously Felix has Felixed this year, but Iwakuma has not shared in the good fortune so far in 2015.

The veteran right-hander gave up four earned runs in each of his first three starts of 2015, producing an ERA of 6.61. His velocity was way down and he was leaving pitches in the middle of the plate, resulting in a HR/FB of 27.8%, worst among all starting pitchers in 2015.

It was almost a relief to see him go down with a minor back injury the day following  his April 20th start in which he allowed four earned runs in 5.1 innings to the Houston Astros. This allowed Seattle the option to replace him with a more effective pitcher, and gave Iwakuma time to find his usual form.

In fact, Iwakuma’s velocity has already returned during his two rehab outings with Everett and Tacoma. He is back to working in the high-80s to low-90s, a large improvement from the beginning of the year.

In the two outings since the beginning his rehab assignment on June 20th, Iwakuma has thrown 7.2 innings, allowing only one run — a solo home run — and striking out seven. If he can return to be the same pitcher that produced two straight 3+ WAR seasons, he will have a huge impact on the stability of the Mariners’ rotation for the rest of the year.

Obviously, when Iwakuma returns to the rotation someone has to go. The only problem is, the Mariners starting rotation has been really good of late. When James Paxton went down in mid-May, the Seattle front office was thrashed for not accumulating enough starting pitching depth. But what was once a glaring weakness has become the team’s biggest strength almost out of nowhere. So as Iwakuma nears a return to Seattle’s rotation, who becomes the odd man out?

There was a time this season where you could look at the schedule and tally a loss every five days next to Taijuan Walker‘s name. However, in June, Walker has been absolutely phenomenal, posting an ERA of 2.36, K/9 of 9.44, and BB/9 of only 0.79. These stats don’t even include his May 29th start in which he threw eight scoreless innings, allowing only two hits while striking out eight. Walker has been incredibly good for seven straight starts, lowering his season ERA from 7.33 to 4.64.

Prior to this stretch of games, Walker would be the clear choice to send down to Tacoma in lieu of Iwakuma. Hell, that likely would’ve happened already, though for a different pitcher. But this sudden resurgence has more than secured himself a spot in rotation, and hopefully this is the beginning to a tremendous career.

Roenis Elias has had a season exactly opposite to Taijuan Walker. After taking over for Iwakuma on April 26th, Elias had a 2.79 ERA through his first nine starts. However, in two out of his last three starts, he has failed to make it out of the fourth inning, allowing seven earned runs in both outings. His next start has been pushed back a day from Wednesday to Thursday against Oakland, and he’ll need to prove he still belongs in the Major Leagues.

The reason Elias is in danger of losing his job, despite only having two rough outings so far this season, is the emergence of Mike Montgomery. His story is just awesome. After falling from the top prospect graces, Montgomery has bounced between systems before being acquired from the Rays for Erasmo Ramirez. After James Paxton went down at the end of May, Montgomery was called up to fill the gap before Iwakuma returned. But so far, the young lefty has been irreplaceable, with a 2.04 ERA and 22 strikeouts in his first five big league starts. It all came to fruition on Friday, when he threw a complete game shut out against the Kansas City Royals, the team that drafted him.

Montgomery goes tonight against the Oakland Athletics, which happens to align perfectly with Iwakuma. He’s been incredible so far in his brief stint with the club, but he’ll need to continue to be good in order to keep his spot in the rotation.

So what do the Mariners do? Obviously Felix isn’t going anywhere, and it appears both J.A. Happ and Taijuan Walker have strong holds on their roster spots. Iwakuma will pitch tonight in Tacoma, and it may be the last start he needs before returning to the club, meaning the earliest he can return is Sunday. If the decision were to be made now, Elias would likely be on his way down, but both he and Montgomery will have another turn through the rotation, meaning anything could happen.

If the club feels Iwakuma does not provide an upgrade over either of the two, they may elect to keep him on his rehab assignment (which extends past the All-Star break) until he proves he can be better. A six-man rotation is also not out of the question. No matter who goes down, the Mariners are in a great spot with the current state of their rotation, and having too many worthy pitchers is a good problem to have.

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This Team is Done* (*Probably), and What that Means

Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, left, yells at umpire Will Little after being ejected in the third inning of a baseball game Tuesday, June 2, 2015, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

“These eyes saw it. Austin Jackson was safe!”

Time for a reality check: We’re just shy of the 2015 midway point. And the Mariners are 8 games below .500; currently the 7th worst team in MLB.

Think about it, if they play .500 baseball for the remainder of the season—a big “if” at this point—the M’s still likely secure a protected Top 10 draft pick for 2016.

Now, I’m as bummed as anyone else about this team. I made bold predictions that they’d win the AL West. But if I remove my biases—and view this team like the Red Sox or the Rockies who have similar records—I’d profess that the smart thing to do is sell and rework the roster for 2016.

Some folks aren’t ready to admit this, I get it… I hope I’m wrong and the team gets red hot.

But back here in reality, there’s a more pressing question: If the M’s do wish to overhaul their roster for 2016, will they keep Jack Zduriencik in the drivers seat?

If left up to me, I’d say no. I’ve been pretty supportive of Zduriencik, but his results are damning. In 7 years here, Zduriencik has never fielded a respectable offense. His unwavering tendency to favor sluggers over on-base production is well-documented, and well ridiculed.

Yet if the Mariners do become deadline sellers—and Zduriencik is on his way out—doesn’t the ownership need to replace him before then? Like, soon?

We’ll leave the Zduriencik thoughts there. But as for selling, who would they move?

Austin Jackson, CF

Jackson is hitting, finally. He’s a free agent next year, making him worthless to this club if we don’t compete. He will see a Qualifying Offer, so he comes with a comp draft pick as well.  Honestly, I don’t see many obvious landing spots for him as a rental. Would any team offer us a prospect more enticing than a comp draft slot?

Hisashi Iwakuma, SP

Iwakuma’s health will be all the talk when he returns to the rotation in early July. If he looks good, I imagine many teams will be interested. His price tag is low, and he should warrant a Qualifying Offer/draft pick. Personally, I see the Dodgers all over this.

All Other Pitching Not Named Felix Hernandez or Carson Smith

Names like Mike Montgomery, Roenis Elias, J.A. Happ, Tom Wilhelmsen, Fernando Rodney (please!) would be available… Hard to imagine James Paxton or Taijuan Walker being traded mid-season, for the fact that they’ll demand MLB hitting talent in return, nothing a contender would give up… But otherwise, so much of this staff is available for the right return.

Logan Morrison, 1B

I see LoMo in a Cardinals uniform in August.

Dustin Ackley, OF

Smart contenders load up on defensive replacements and depth for the post-season. Ackley makes sense for the Yankees and maybe a few other clubs. Probably wouldn’t bring back much return. But personally I’d love to see him gone.

Of the other sexy names—Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, & Brad Miller—none make much sense to trade. Various reasons, but mostly because the Mariners need a new approach with their supporting cast, not a new “core”.

We’ll see what happens. If the M’s turn it around in the near future, this post will look foolish. But I think the writing is on the wall… This team is flawed, and their record proves it.

And personally, instead of seeing 2015 carry out its mediocrity, I’d rather see this club make big changes: In the front office and by selling at the deadline.

Yes, 2015 went to hell. And so be it.

But if 2016 follows in the same footprints—led by this GM who refuses modern baseball theory—forget it.

I’ll become a Pirates fan.

Or something.

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Mercy: Week #12 Review

Cano Mask

“IT JUST CONTINUES!” – Dave Niehaus

Record:  34-42 (2-4);  4th in AL West, 9 GB

Who’s hot

Seth Smith has continued to quietly be one of the Mariners best and most consistent hitters. Over the last seven games, Smith is hitting .300/.364/.500 with a home run, two RBIs, and three runs scored. Smith has been one of the few pleasant surprises for this club, and it’s hard to imagine where they would be offensively without him.

Who’s not

Bar Seth Smith, the Mariners offense was putrid this past week. The team only scored 17 runs, even with a seven run breakout on Tuesday. Averaging less than 3 runs a game is not going to get it done, regardless of how good the pitching is. In fact, four of the key players on offense–Kyle Seager, Logan Morrison, Nelson Cruz, and Mark Trumbo–hit less than .200. And if you include Robinson Cano, all five of the Mariners’ supposed best hitters batted less than .220. You can blame Jack Zduriencik,  Lloyd McClendon, and the rest of the coaching staff all you want, but at some point the hitters need to step up.

Injury Updates

Hisashi Iwakuma is getting closer to returning, and he officially started his rehab assignment with the Tacoma Rainiers on Thursday. The right hander will make at least one rehab start on Tuesday, and the club will reevaluate him after that. It’s possible we could see Iwakuma back in the rotation in the next turn.

Roster Transactions

The Mariners called up veteran outfielder Franklin Gutierrez from Tacoma, optioning speedster James Jones in a corresponding move.

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