Throwing Depth at the Problem: M’s Acquire Dae-Ho Lee

Throwing Depth at the Problem: M’s Acquire Dae-Ho Lee

 

If you’re reading this, you know by now that the Mariners’ first basemen all sucked last year. I don’t need to put a fancy statistic here to show you just how much they sucked, you get the idea. With Logan Morrison gone, presumptive incumbent Jesus Montero now looks buried under several first base options for the Mariners, and that’s a good thing. Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto brought in what could be his most impactful acquisition of the winter in Adam Lind, added Steve Clevenger, and signed washouts Travis Ishikawa (his deal is not yet finalized and could be voided) and Gaby Sanchez to minor league deals in the hopes that one of them can contribute to the likely platoon at first base. There are reports also that Stefen Romero could see time at first base this spring. Yesterday, Dipoto officially added another name to that list of possible first base platoon mates in Dae-Ho Lee.

Lee is a Korean-born veteran of the Korean and Japanese leagues. The “Big Boy” is indeed big. He’s listed at 6’4” 284 pounds. If he doesn’t work out for the M’s, maybe Tom Cable can convert him into an offensive lineman for the Seahawks. (There are whispers somewhere on the Internet that he’s working at slimming down and may have already lost weight, but I can’t find credible sources on that.) Projecting production from Korean and Japanese league numbers to the Major Leagues is never exact, but the “Big Boy” is certainly an accomplished professional hitter. Last season, for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japan Pacific League, he slashed .282/.368/.524 and blasted 31 home runs. In 2010, he hit 44 home runs and drove in 133 RBIs for the Lotte Giants of the Korean Baseball League. Even if you adjust for foreign league inflation, Lee can put up useful numbers as a part of the Mariners first base platoon in 2016.

The dude is a masher. He led his Softbank Hawks to a championship last year and became the first Korean player ever to win Japan Series MVP honors. However, he’s heading into his age-34 season and he’s completely unproven at the Major League level. If Scott Servais can manage his health while keeping him fresh off the bench, he’ll have a positive impact for the Mariners. Dipoto signed him to a team-friendly deal full of incentives and no guarantee of a spot on the major league roster. Let’s face it, if he can’t launch home runs in the warm dry air of Peoria this spring, he doesn’t belong on the team. If he can, and I think he will, he’ll be a welcome addition to the Mariners bench. Gone are the days of Jack Zduriencik picking up one-dimensional players. It would appear that Lee could be a throwback to those days, but Lee’s career on-base percentage in his 15 seasons in the Japanese and Korean leagues is .387. He set a career high in strikeouts last season with 109. Dipoto is making a buy-low play for a patient, powerful slugger whose ceiling could be much higher than we think. As the king of the buy-low play, Dipoto may have added a piece that will put the M’s into contention with overwhelming depth at one of their least productive positions last year.

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2016 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: #19 Jonathan Aro

2016 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: #19 Jonathan Aro

Jerry Dipoto takes over a system known for churning out disappointment after disappointment. 2016 will be a telling year for how the newest incumbent manages his farm system. 

19. Jonathan Aro, RHP, 25, AA/AAA/MLB

The 2014 Seattle Mariners were good because of their bullpen. The 2015 Seattle Mariners were bad because of their bullpen. It really is that simple. So when Jerry Dipoto decided to ship Carson Smith, maybe the most promising relief arm in the system, to those heathen Boston Red Sox for a fifth starter and some guy named Aro (throwback to Fernando Rodney!), fans were obviously going to be upset.

But one aspect of that deal that many continue to underestimate is the legitimacy of Jonathan Aro as a future backend relief option. He isn’t Carson Smith, but he could be.

2015 was a big year for Aro. At the ripe age of 24 he saw his first action in the Major Leagues. That stint might be the most forgettable 10.1 innings he ever hurls, however, as the righty posted a 10% HR/FB rate and a 6.97 ERA. Yuck. But what wasn’t forgettable was the rest of Aro’s 2015. In 51.2 Triple-A innings, he pitched to a 9.23 K/9, 1.74 BB/9, and a 2.42 FIP. Those are some stellar numbers that deserve an extended trial at the Major League level.

But how, you might ask, can a 6’0″, 170 pound right-hander, with a 92 mph fastball and an average slider produce such great statistics?

Well it starts with his delivery. The Boston Globe ran a great piece on Aro last June. Red Sox pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel had this to say about the reliever: “He gets a good angle because he stays sideways longer. He has a relatively compact delivery. The ball gets on you. The hitter picks it up a little bit later than they do some other guys.” Never underestimate delivery deception when it comes to relievers.

The next, and probably most important facet of Aro’s game, is his ability to throw strikes. The guy just refuses to walk people. In his 300+ minor league innings, Aro has posted an impressive 2.2 BB/9. In his brief MLB stint, he struggled, not because of an inability to throw strikes, but the fact that he was throwing TOO many strikes. Having command at a young age is a bit of an anomaly.

While his fastball and slider fail to impress, Aro’s changeup is quietly phenomenal. Jake Mailholt from Lookout Landing puts it best “There were 409 right-handed pitchers in the major leagues who threw at least one changeup in 2015; the horizontal movement on Aro’s was sixth highest. When batters swung at the pitch, they missed almost half the time. He threw just 32 of them, so we’re working with the smallest of sample sizes, but the promise is tantalizing.”

Based on the status of the Mariner’s bullpen, we’re going to see Jonathan Aro at some point in 2016. This, in fact, could be a great thing! From what it appears, the relief core will need all the help it can get in the upcoming season, and Aro has as good a chance as any to earn a spot in the back end of the bullpen.

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2016 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: #20 Greifer Andrade

2016 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: #20 Greifer Andrade

Jerry Dipoto takes over a system known for churning out disappointment after disappointment. 2016 will be a telling year for how the newest incumbent manages his farm system. 

20. Greifer Andrade, SS, 19, Rk

At just 19 years and 2 days old (Happy belated birthday!), Greifer Andrade is one of the most exciting and projectable prospects in the Mariners system. 2016 was his second season as a professional after signing for a $1 million bonus in 2013. In 57 games in the Dominican Summer League, Andrade hit .307/.369/.407 with a 6% walk rate and an impressive 15% strikeout rate. His .380 wOBA was 13th among all short stops in the international leagues.

Andrade is not a big, hulking slugger, standing just 6 feet tall and weighing in at 170 pounds. Power is not a major facet of his offensive game currently, seeing as he posted an isolated power of just .102 in 2015. Scouts are optomistic that he can add on some weight with the proper advisement, which should allow him to reach double digit home runs in the future.

Currently his offensive potential is founded on his above average ability to put the bat on the ball. His great hand-eye coordination and discipline at the plate rarely seen at his level give him the ability to spray the balls over the field, with enough pop to reach the gaps on a line. Andrade has an advanced approach that should keep him at the top of the order, getting on base and moving runners over.

Defensively, Andrade is more of a work in progress. He has quick feet, soft hands, and a strong throwing arm, the foundation of any great short stop. But his lack of range and choppy fielding mechanics may mean that he will end up at second or third base. He is relatively new to the infield, having moved from the outfield just last year, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him make drastic improvements in 2016 as he gets more comfortable.

Like many young international free agents, Andrade has an incredibly high ceiling and could turn into a future star. Unfortunately, many of these teenagers never make it to the majors. Andrade seems to be one of the more mature players from his class, which may give him an advantage as he progresses through the system. Look for him to grade much higher at mid-season, after the beginning of his first full professional campaign.

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2016 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: An Introduction

2016 Seattle Mariners Top Prospects: An Introduction

Theo Epstein led the Cubs to the postseason on the back of one of the greatest prospect classes ever. Jack Zduriencik was fired six months ago, in large part, for failing to develop the same type of model. Finding young, cheap, club controlled talent is crucial in this day and age, and any general manager that wants to keep his job better have a clue on how to make this ideal come to fruition.

Jerry Dipoto inherits a system known for churning out disappointment after disappointment. It doesn’t help that many of the more promising prospects left are coming off forgettable seasons. 2016 will be a huge year for the newest incumbent and the first time we see how the players in his system grow, and how he approaches acquiring new talent through the draft and international pool.

Luckily for Dipoto, the Mariners still have quite a few high potential prospects left in the organization. This will be a critical make-or-break year for many of them. Let’s just hope this regime has more success than the last.

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Ken Griffey Jr. was Better than Barry Bonds

Ken Griffey Jr. was Better than Barry Bonds

I know. Barry Bonds put up absurd numbers during his career. In 2004, Bonds posted a .602 OBP. He drew 120 intentional walks that year while only managing his usual 45 home runs. Look up his video game stats on Baseball Reference for a good time. But his accomplishments pale in comparison to the Northwest sports legend that is Junior.

Ken Griffey Jr., who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday with a record 99.3% of the vote, should go down as one of the best left-handed hitters of all time. Yes, better than Barry Bonds. Bonds hit more home runs than any other player in history. He holds the single-season record for home runs. His career stats are ludicrous. But here’s the thing: he’s not in the Hall of Fame and Griffey is because no one knows how many home runs Bonds would have hit if he didn’t use Performance Enhancing Drugs. There was never any doubt that Bonds was one of the best hitters of his generation, possibly in the history of the game. Even if, in some alternate reality, Bonds stayed clean and didn’t turn his body into an ultra-efficient hanging slider crushing machine, I don’t doubt we’d be including him in the GOAT conversation anyway along with left-handed greats Babe Ruth*, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig. Yet he will never approach the 99.3% Griffey earned from the Hall of Fame voters. (Who are the three voters that didn’t vote for Griffey anyway? Kylo Ren, Snoke, and a resurrected Darth Sidious? Come on.)

Sports writers continue to vote for Bonds because he was clearly one of the best ever to play the game. He continues to fall short of the needed votes to put his name on a plaque in Cooperstown, however, because of the general hatred and mistrust surrounding PEDs in baseball. I won’t bore you with arguments over whether or not that’s fair, but the fact remains that Griffey contributed more to the game than Bonds ever did.

Before Griffey started the MLB tradition of wearing Jackie Robinson’s 42 every Tax Day in 1997, he saved baseball in the Pacific Northwest. If former Mariners owner George Argyros had his way in 1987 when the M’s had the first pick of the draft, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing about baseball in Seattle. Argyros wanted to select pitcher Mike Harkey with the first pick, but Chuck Armstrong and others in the M’s front office batted down that idiotic idea and took Griffey. Throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the goons who owned the M’s threatened to move the team from Seattle multiple times. Heading into the great 1995 season of lore and glory, King County voters (I was eleven years and a few months too young to vote) shot down a ballot measure for a new stadium. After the M’s reached the playoffs for the first time in dramatic fashion, the Washington State Legislature approved an alternative plan for funding a new stadium. Safeco Field was literally the “The House that Griffey Built.” Without the magic of the 1995 Refuse to Lose team, I doubt we’d be able to watch the Mariners play in Seattle in one of the most beautiful parks in Major League Baseball. And there’s no way the M’s would have made their miraculous comeback without The Kid that season. On the day Griffey broke his wrist making The Catch in 1995, the Mariners were 3.5 games behind the Angels in the standings. When he returned to lineup 73 games later, they were 12.5 games out. Griffey hit a walk-off home run in his first game back and The Comeback was on.

Barry Bonds splashed hundreds of balls into McCovey Cove over the years, but did he save baseball in San Francisco? In Pittsburgh? Did he stay clean when seemingly all the best hitters around him were juicing? Did he produce steroid-like numbers despite immense pressure to participate in the steroid craze? No. And that’s why Griffey is a Hall of Famer and Bonds is my generation’s Pete Rose.

Here’s a picture of my dog Griffey.

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I named her Griffey even though she’s a girl so I could say the name of my favorite baseball player over and over and at least have a flash of the feeling I had as a kid hearing his name announced in the Kingdome. Plus I think if she understood the rules of baseball, she’d be an excellent center fielder.

*Babe Ruth, according to Baseball Reference, contributed 183.6 WAR during his 22-year career, the most in baseball history. The second most? Cy Young, at a mere 168.4. Since 1935, when he retired, no player has come close to being as valuable as the Sultan of Swat. Where’s Bonds, you ask? 4th in WAR all-time, at 162.4. Another interesting fact: Ruth incredibly won only one MVP award, the same as Griffey.

The 25-Man Roster, As of Today

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The majority of Jerry Dipoto’s 2016 roster is set. While Dipoto jumped in front of the market early this offseason, we can imagine he’s also waiting to see what’s leftover when the market concludes. That would fit his bargain-hunting style, right? Perhaps he picks up a nice piece or two in the early spring. Perhaps not. For the sake of this piece, let’s say the roster is complete.

There’s not much controversy with 90% of the names. The bullpen is currently a pile of arms, and outside of Benoit and Cishek, who makes the team will probably hinge on spring training performance, plus the options and contract status of each pitcher.

Here are the givens:

C: Chris Iannetta
1B: Adam Lind
2B: Robinson Cano
SS: Ketel Marte
3B: Kyle Seager
LF: Nori Aoki
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Seth Smith
DH: Nelson Cruz
4OF: Franklin Gutierrez

SP1: Felix Hernandez
SP2: Hisashi Iwakuma
SP3: Wade Miley
SP4: Taijuan Walker
SP5: Nate Karns / James Paxton

(In the unlikely event that the entire rotation is healthy come April 4th, you can envision Paxton starting the season in Tacoma. Last we saw him, he wasn’t even throwing his curveball in the fall league.)

So then, assuming a 7-man bullpen, that leaves 3 spots open on the roster:

1) Backup catcher is all-but-certain to be employed by Steve Clevenger, while Mike Zunino stays back in Tacoma to work on his swing.

2) Backup shortstop could be a battle between Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas. I’d think Taylor has the edge, as his glove is truly above-average.

3) Which offers the real question… Does this final roster spot go to a 1B platoon partner, or does is go to an outfielder capable of playing CF (as there’s no backup CF on the roster)?

In effect, Jesus Montero or Shawn O’Malley?

Barring a roster shakeup due to injuries, I see O’Malley making the team. To be honest, O’Malley might be a better bat at 1B than Montero (if you’re more concerned with OBP than SLG). One would assume O’Malley is also the better defender in all areas over Montero.

That’s not to suggest O’Malley would see much time at 1B. Perhaps Robbie Cano plays 25 games there, allowing Marte/Taylor/O’Malley to cover some range at 2B.

Montero has zero skills that warrant his inclusion on Dipoto’s roster. There’s little reason to think Montero will perform better in 2016 than he did in 2015, when his Tacoma stats were pretty, and his MLB stats were not. We’re talking about a 27% strikeout rate, very low walks, and he actually didn’t even hit left-handed pitching at all. Granted, small sample.

I mean, if you want a right-handed platoon at 1B, with poor defense, huge power, and tons of strikeouts—plus a nice walk rate—go ahead and bring in Chris Carter. No sense in hoping Montero can fulfill his potential, which is essentially Chris Carter.

In a perfect world, your backup CF would already be accounted for, and you wouldn’t need a platoon at 1B. But this is the reality as of today. And if you’re choosing one over the other, it’s gotta be the backup CF option. (Boog Powell might also make the team, but I’d guess he stays in Tacoma to start the season.)

But I don’t think Dipoto is done. Finding a solid outfielder to replace Seth Smith (example: Marcell Ozuna)—one who can cover CF—you then can afford the platoon at 1B. I’d assume this is Dipoto’s preference, so long as he doesn’t have to pay enormous sums to acheive it.

Guess we’ll see.

…..

/Phone rings
/This is Jerry
/Hey Jerry, it’s Jack Zduriencik
/Um, hi?
/Chris Carter
/What?
/Home runs
/Dude, I gotta go
/[mutters profanity]
/Whatever man
/Home runs
/ …
/Home runs
/Alright, peace dog.

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Welcome Back, Hisashi Iwakuma

Welcome Back, Hisashi Iwakuma

First of all, I saw “Star Wars” last night and I was completely blown away, even if they rehashed a few exact plot points of “A New Hope” and “Jedi”. You gotta go see it. I’ve never seen a Stormtrooper bleed before. Okay, on to baseball. In a bizarre twist of fate, Hisashi Iwakuma re-signed with the Mariners after failing his physical with the Dodgers. The Dodgers, after reviewing Kuma’s physical report, backed out of a deal they made with him on December 6th, which was reportedly a three-year, $45 million dollar contract. Something about his physical spooked the Dodgers and they attempted to return to contract talks to knock off a year or two of the 35 year-old’s deal. Jerry Dipoto somehow got between the Dodgers and Kuma and struck a deal with the righty himself (sorry, Magic).

Kuma agreed to a team-friendly one-year deal with options for 2017 and 2018. The financial details have not been released yet. We also don’t know why the Dodgers suddenly tried to back out of the originally reported contract they agreed to with Kuma. Either way, this is the best move of Dipoto’s offseason so far. I’ve mentioned my qualms with bringing Kuma back in the past, but signing him to a one-year deal with options for more is an excellent move for three reasons:

1. When healthy, Kuma has been one of the best pitchers in the American League for the past three seasons. In 2013, Kuma finished third in AL Cy Young voting while posting a 2.66 ERA in 219.2 innings and a WHIP almost exactly at 1. Last year, in 129.2 innings, he had his worst statistical season as a Major Leaguer, going 9-5 with a 3.54 ERA and a 3.74 FIP. He also became the second Japanese pitcher in Major League history to throw a no-hitter, joining Hideo Nomo. This is a man who has walked 127 batters in 653.2 innings in the Major Leagues. Damn…

2. A one-year deal with options for two additional years allows Kuma to walk if his 2016 season doesn’t work out. Kuma has a long list of injuries that have kept him off the mound the last two seasons. If 2016 turns into an injury-plagued disaster, the Mariners can let him go without any further damage to the team.

3. A one-year deal with options for two additional years makes Kuma tradeable. Justin’s article about Dipoto’s master plan praises Dipoto for making short-term, low-commitment deals for useful players, making them trade bait if the season goes down the drain. At the very least, the Mariners can start to rebuild the farm system if they lose about 50 games by the All-Star Break. The team-friendly deal that Dipoto engineered with Kuma makes him all the more attractive to suitors for a potential deadline deal (God forbid). The return for a good starter on a one-year deal could be huge.

We all know about Kuma’s injury concerns and his failed physical for the Dodgers is also a bit disconcerting. But with Kuma returning to a rotation that appeared to be deep already with at least serviceable starters behind Felix Hernandez, the Mariners have a deep, talented rotation that features two ace-level starters at the top. It remains to be seen how Wade Miley and Nate Karns pan out in Mariner green. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton have to stay healthy and continue to show promise. But add even 150 innings of Kuma to the mix and we could have an excellent rotation on our hands. Plus, we might get another Kuma bear hat night.

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