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Minor Moves

The best part of the Seahawks loss to the Panthers yesterday is the relief I have knowing that it's socially acceptable in this region to pour more energy into the Mariners than any other team at the moment. Therefore, it is also socially acceptable (or at least closer to socially acceptable) to talk about minor league transactions!

I have a soft spot for minor league transactions. There are so many of them and they get almost no coverage, probably because they rarely amount to anything at the MLB level. In fact, most moves are for bolstering minor league depth with no eye towards the MLB roster. Still, as someone who owns a mini season ticket package to the Rainiers, these moves impact my viewing pleasure of baseball arguably more than most other moves. Here is a recap of what the Mariners have done at the minor league level so far this offseason, at least in the upper levels. I will limit myself to players with AA and AAA experience:

Lost in free agency:

  • 1B Ji-Man Choi (Angels) - I liked Choi for years as a darkhorse prospect. He lacked power but had solid on-base and hitting skills across every level he played. Unfortunately, he did not play much, thanks to things like broken legs and drug suspensions. He will likely roll through Tacoma as a member of the Salt Lake Bees, and might see some time in the majors if things go right for him.
  • LHP Anthony Fernandez (Tigers) - Fernandez was never noted for his arm strength, but he profiled as the classic "crafty lefty." He has an array of pitches, none of them elite, but all decent enough with good command. I don't know how much arm power he has left after major arm surgery though. He is probably minor league depth, but a spacious park like Comerica could be a decent landing spot for him if injuries accumulate on the Detroit staff and he somehow finds himself in the majors.
  • 1B/3B Jordy Lara (Braves) - Lara has power, but it comes with contact and defense concerns. In most places I would assume he is minor league depth, but the Braves are in a fairly substantial rebuild. This is one of the few places I could imagine him getting some playing time just in case he finds a way to make enough contact to take advantage of his power.
  • LHP Lucas Luetge (Angels) - The former Rule 5 draft pick that posted a shockingly great start to his MLB career slowly sunk into AAA depth. He likely remains that for the Angels, but given his MLB experience he is likely seen as a guy that could be called upon in a pinch.
  • RHP J.C. Ramirez (Reds) - Ramirez spent time in the majors last year, and dials up a fastball in the mid to upper 90s. The Reds are rebuilding so he has a good chance to log some innings in the majors this year. The arm has never been the question. Everything else is though.
  • RHP Chien-Ming Wang (Royals) - Wang, now 35 years old, is becoming the AAA version of Bartolo Colon. He simply soldiers on! Also, since the Royals are affiliated with Omaha, he could pitch in Tacoma this year. I don't see any way Wang cracks the Royals staff at any point this year, but who knows? I don't know what would be a more entertaining story - Wang getting back to the majors, or building a small career in AAA without any MLB appearances.
Still free agents:
I can't believe I actually found a Leury Bonilla picture.
(Joel Dinda, Wikimedia Commons)
  • UT Leury Bonilla - Bonilla is the ultimate utility player. Frankly, his flexibility probably earned him at least half of his career. He played the infield mostly, but the most noteworthy part of his career are his rather ludicrous 11 pitching appearances in the minors as a position player. Perhaps more amazing is his career 1-0 record. I will forever love Leury Bonilla because I was at his victory. He was the first (and is still the only) position player I have seen pitch in person, which was one of the highest desires on my baseball bucket list. He came in during the 17th inning of a tie ballgame because the Rainiers were out of other options. Incredibly, Bonilla retired the side in order and even STRUCK OUT a batter with a mix that included a BREAKING BALL. It was a fairly slurvy, tumbling breaking ball, but it was enough to be devastating when it comes from the hand of a third baseman at 12:45am. Bonilla's pitching performance in the wee hours of that August morning stands as one of the most memorable and wonderful innings I have ever watched in person. The win was the cherry on top. I will always have a soft spot for Leury Bonilla because he gave me this memory.
  • LHP Jimmy Gillheeney - I don't have a similarly captivating story about Gillheeney. He's a softer-tossing lefy with a big, looping curveball.
New acquisitions:
  • OF Mike Baxter - Baxter is a scrappy spare outfielder. He brings 232 games worth of MLB experience to the Mariners, along with a decent batting eye. If all goes right he will stay in Tacoma the whole year, though he could conceivably help the Mariners survive a litany of outfield injuries.
  • RHP Casey Coleman - Coleman is an undersized right-hander with limited control on the mound and stuff that plays up quite a bit better in the bullpen. I would assume he slots into Tacoma's bullpen as a middle reliever but time will tell. He has a fair amount of MLB experience but none of his stints have gone tremendously well.
  • INF Benji Gonzalez - Gonzalez is a small, pesky switch-hitter with little power to speak of. He gets by with a decent eye at the plate. It's hard to imagine him playing anywhere beyond Tacoma, though at only 26 years old perhaps he still develops further.
  • INF Ed Lucas - Lucas is no spring chicken at 33 years old. That's rather old for a minor league free agent. He flashes an advanced eye in AAA, though it has not followed him to the MLB level in the looks he has received. Lucas could prove to be a very good infielder for the Rainiers in 2016 and helps build up some emergency depth in the Mariners system in case injuries pile up at the MLB level.
  • LHP Brad Mills - Mills has bounced around quite a bit the last few years as a pitcher intriguing enough to pick up but not good enough to hang on to. He is a lefty with some strikeout potential but control and command issues. It will be interesting to see if the M's make him rotation depth in Tacoma or slot him in the bullpen, where he just might be able to serve as MLB depth.
  • RHP Blake Parker - Parker is a surprisingly intriguing acquisition. He barely pitched at all last year, but before that racked up some impressive numbers in AAA and the majors. It's easy to see him as a contributor in the Mariners bullpen, assuming he is healthy and recovered. That's a significant assumption, but as a minor league signee there is no risk involved here. I will be watching him closely early on.
  • RHP Donn Roach - Roach has some MLB experience but for all intents and purposes looks like a solid veteran signed to soak up some innings in Tacoma. He likely slots into the Rainiers rotation as a capable arm that rarely dazzles but hopefully keeps the team in ballgames.
Few to none of these players are going to play in the majors next year, much less make an impact in the majors. No individual loss or acquisition on this list is significant. With that said, the signees are different than the players the Mariners let walk away. The new acquisitions are types of players that the Zduriencik regime generally ignored, for better or worse. Many of the new players are not all that "toolsy," but they are polished. They know how to maximize what skills they have. The hitters tend to have good plate discipline, and the pitchers tend to know how to navigate a handful of innings somewhat capably at the AAA level (instead of having big arms with little to no command). This will likely make for a better overall Rainiers squad, for whatever that is worth.

More significantly, these minor moves further illuminate the differences between Zduriencik and Dipoto. There are tons of minor league free agents that are not appreciably more or less talented than one another. So, teams differentiate based on particular traits that they prefer. Zduriencik tended to prefer raw tools, especially with pitchers. Dipoto is more interested in plate discipline and command. This is not surprising given Dipoto's public comments but it's good to see the integrity of his vision seeping into minor league moves.

Hall of Fame Eve

not this year, but one year...maybe, hopefully
The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) announced the Hall of Fame class of 2016 tomorrow afternoon. I will be teaching when the inductees are formally announced. I may or may not post tomorrow depending on how interesting the results are.

Honestly, I probably will post something tomorrow. The early indications suggest a very interesting vote.

Let's start close to home with the story that I, personally, thought would not be a story.

Ken Griffey Jr. is going to make it into the Hall of Fame. That has been unofficially known for years, and will be made official tomorrow. However, as of this evening, Griffey is listed on all the publicly disclosed ballots.* Nobody has ever been a unanimous hall-of-famer and Tom Seaver's record percentage might be in reach. We won't know how historic Griffey's vote total is until the final voting is officially revealed.

*Side note: I love how many ballots get leaked publicly. I think it increases intrigue around the Hall of Fame voting. The BBWAA has accidentally stumbled into a beautiful system that gives us a chance to make educated guesses on Hall of Fame voting while still not knowing final answers until the official reveal.

Both Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines project to be right on the razor edge for enshrinement this year. Their vote totals hover near the 75% threshold as of now, but both also exhibited some of the largest gaps in voting patterns between public and secret ballots. Their percentages will almost assuredly go down, and if the splits from last year hold true, their percentages should sink enough to keep both out of the Hall of Fame another year.

However, there is a pretty strong reason to believe that secret ballot voting patterns will change noticeably this year. The BBWAA amended their rules for who gets to vote and essentially did not mail out ballots to 100 old-time writers who have not covered the sport for over a decade.

It's impossible to say exactly how this will change voting, but the candidacy of Bagwell depends on wading into the murky waters of the PED "era" and differentiating within the large cloud of suspicion and shame that sits over that time in baseball history. The candidacy or Raines depends on advanced analytics much more than traditional statistics. Neither of these topics seem to be the types of things that a writer whom stopped covering baseball years ago would go to incredible effort to investigate and understand. This might go a long way towards explaining the huge gaps between the public and private voting patterns for Bagwell and Raines too, given that one of the largest motivators for revealing Hall of Fame ballots is through blog posts published for the teams, papers, and websites that active reporters write for.

It is vitally important, at least in my eyes, that Bagwell and Raines get in sooner rather than later. Edgar Martinez is not getting in this year, but he has gained more votes among returners to the ballot than anybody else, which is saying something because a handful of players are poised to make significant strides. My hypothesis is that the historically large class of 2015 helped clear out some needed ballot spaces. In other words, I think a number of the votes Edgar will pick up this year come from people who have always considered Edgar a hall of famer but squeezed him off the ballot in favor of others. Another historically large class would help clear the ballot further and get the BBWAA members back to a point where they are simply asking themselves if a player is a Hall of Famer or not, instead of also feeling pressure to rank who deserves a vote or not.

Tomorrow will be a significant day in Mariners history no matter the outcome of the 2016 Hall of Fame vote. The only question is how significant. Ken Griffey Jr. will become the first player in the Hall of Fame displaying a Mariners cap. As much as I love Dave Neihaus and Randy Johnson, the Hall of Fame is about the players and those caps. The Mariners become a little more concrete and everlasting once that trident gets chiseled on a Cooperstown plaque, and that will finally happen tomorrow. It will be a great moment in Mariners history that has been a long time coming.

How special will that moment be? Will it also be historic within the grand context of Hall of Fame voting? It very well could be. And how many others will join Griffey in the class of 2016? There is a real chance that the Hall elects another quartet, which would be good news for Edgar's continued campaign.

So Many Remaining Free Agents

Justin Morneau (William Andrus, UCinternational: Wikimedia Commons)
This year's free agent market is moving slowly,  meaning several good players remain available. It seems likely that there will be an uptick in movement after the new year as both teams and players feel some urgency to hammer out agreements before spring training begins.

Jerry Dipoto has publicly stated that the Mariners are done making major moves. With that said, there are many decent free agents remaining with only so much time and so many roster spots up for grabs. It seems likely that somebody who could be valuable to the Mariners can be found for cheap - perhaps even as a non-roster invitee signing.

Fangraphs has a helpful sorter that lists remaining free agents with projected 2016 WAR totals. I have split the free agents into three major groups - up the middle defenders, corner defenders, and pitchers. Within those groups I stratified them by projected WAR total for 2016.

Obviously, the best players would help the Mariners most, but I am assuming that the Mariners have little to no money left and largely an interest in bolstering depth. The question is which players as free agents could bolster the Mariners and be interested in a supporting role. I have highlighted my best guesses as good fits in each group:

Second base, shortstop, center field

  • 2 WAR: Howie Kendrick (2.6), Denard Span (2.4)
  • 1 WAR: Dexter Fowler (1.7), Ian Desmond (1.5), Austin Jackson (1.4), Jimmy Rollins (1.4)
  • 0 WAR: Alexei Ramirez (0.8)

The Mariners look quite good up the middle of their infield thanks to the presence of both Chris Taylor and Shawn O'Malley. Taylor may not have hit much in the majors (yet) but his glove is good enough to make him a capable starter for many teams. It is good the Mariners already have infield depth because the free agent market has little to offer up the middle defensively.

However, another player who can patrol center field would sure be handy. Leonys Martin is the everyday man, but what if he does not hit again? Or gets injured?

Austin Jackson could, ironically, be a fit. He would certainly be nice to have as a reserve, given his solid defense, good speed, and youthful age (still just 28, which is young for a free agent).

The real question is if the Mariners are a good fit for Jackson. Ultimately, I doubt it, but the market for center fielders seems tepid at best for now. It could make some sense for Jackson to accept a one-year deal somewhere he thinks he can carve out playing time before trying free agency again. If there are few offers for Jackson and he thinks the Mariners offer the best chance at playing time, perhaps he bites.

First base, third base, left field, right field

The Mariners largely filled their first base hole when they signed Adam Lind but he could use a platoon partner to face lefties. Jesus Montero could be that answer but I would still be monitoring the free agent market if I was Jerry Dipoto. Justin Morneau, believe it or not, has run a reverse platoon split for his career! He is better against lefties and still hits pretty well when healthy. His age and health concerns likely limit his market. He could be a good fit in Seattle, where he would not be expected to play every day but could help the lineup stay strong if Lind or Nelson Cruz goes down with an injury for some time.

Steve Pearce intrigues me the most though. Projection systems really like him. He doesn't fit the Dipoto mold perfectly - he strikes out a ton and does not have great on-base skills - but he has power and struggled last year thanks largely to a bad BABIP rate. He is a strong candidate for a rebound. Moreover, he has experience playing both first base and left field, and he rates as a passable defender in the outfield according to the stats. I don't know what kind of market has developed around him, but he could be a steal as a non-roster invitee. Seattle would have to be an intriguing place to him because there is a clear path to playing time for him as Lind's platoon partner and the chance to slide into the outfield rotation if any of the current quartet (Smith, Gutierrez, Martin, Aoki) goes down with an injury.

I highlighted Kelly Johnson for similar reasons, minus the bullish projection. He would be passable depth, but he has already transitioned into a reserve role. He would seem to be open to that again.

Will Venable and Shane Victorino could both provide potential outfield depth. Venable in particular seems like a great fit because he could slide over to center and be passable. Victorino has a similar skillset but is much older and would have to accept a reserve role. He would essentially have to be willing to take the route of Franklin Gutierrez, and he would be Guti's replacement if Guti were to get injured. Those are big 'if's.


Pitchers

  • 3 WAR: Cliff Lee (3.3), Wei-Yin Chen (3.0)
  • 2 WAR: Scott Kazmir (2.8), Josh Johnson (2.8), A.J. Burnett (2.5), Ian Kennedy (2.3), Brandon Morrow (2.2), Mat Latos (2.1)
  • 1 WAR: Yovani Gallardo (1.9), Mark Buehrle (1.6), Doug Fister (1.5), Alfredo Simon (1.1), Edwin Jackson (1.0)
  • 0 WAR: Aaron Harang (0.9), Tim Lincecum (0.9), Kyle Lohse (0.9), Chad Billingsley (0.8), Joe Blanton (0.7), Ross Ohlendorf (0.6), Jeremy Guthrie (0.6), Jeff Francis (0.5), Tommy Hunter (0.4), Antonio Bastardo (0.4), Fernando Rodney (0.4), Gavin Floyd (0.4), Chris Capuano (0.3), Matt Thornton (0.3), Manny Parra (0.3), Matt Albers (0.3), Neal Cotts (0.2), Ryan Webb (0.2), Randy Choate (0.2), Carlos Villanueva (0.2), Joe Nathan (0.2), Tom Gorzelanny (0.1), Peter Moylan (0.1), Tyler Clippard (0.1), Eric O'Flaherty (0.0), Blaine Boyer (0.0), Franklin Morales (0.0), Matt Belisle (0.0)
No team can have too much pitching. I expect all of these pitchers to sign before the season starts, though it would be reasonable to guess that many of these pitchers will be choosing which team to accept a non-roster spring training invite from. The Mariners are probably not an enticing fit from a non-roster standpoint because the rotation already has six capable arms. However, Safeco's spacious dimensions is also the kind of locale that could allow a pitcher to recover some value and try to get a bigger deal next offseason.

If the Mariners want to go after a reclamation project, Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow fit the mold. Both have power arms and both have broken down over the past few seasons. A transition to full-time bullpen work might make sense for both of them. Morrow has already experienced success in the bullpen, albeit early in his career.

Players with connections to the northwest are always fun to speculate about too. Both Doug Fister and Tim Lincecum could be looking for places to rebound and would make for fun stories if signed by the Mariners.

Now, on to the most realistic options. Tommy Hunter has been a quietly effective reliever the past three seasons, though he took a step back in 2015. However, he possesses a huge fastball that averages over 96 MPH out of the bullpen, and he has some command of it. You would expect more strikeouts from such a big arm, but the results are still solid and he largely fits the mold of a Dipoto pitcher. It's easy to imagine him in middle relief for a Dipoto team and he could get lost in the free agency shuffle. Another big arm that might be had on a non-roster invitee deal is Fernando Rodney. Snicker all you want, but he could be interesting on a non-guaranteed deal.

Manny Parra and Carlos Villanueva both have experience starting in their past with at least decent results. They have also experienced success in the bullpen. Parra throws harder than Villanueva so seems like the better fit for Dipoto's style, but both could be the type of solid innings absorbers that keep quality arms from getting overused.

The next few weeks could be indirectly interesting for the Mariners. They hardly seem in position to pursue anyone, but a handful of players are going to lose out in the game of musical chairs that is MLB free agency. A player or two who could be of surprising value to the Mariners might slip through the cracks and be had for a price that fits the Mariners budget at this point.