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Time For Some Changes

It was really painful watching the Mariners get swept by the Twins over the weekend thanks to countless bad plays and bad decisions. The lowlight of the weekend had to be the triple play, but Sunday's game featured some bad managing decisions from Mike Hargrove.

Seattle actually did a very nice job against Johan Santana, but Hargrove did his best to prevent the Mariners from scoring. In the fifth inning with the score tied, Seattle had runners at first and second with no outs for their leading home run and RBI guy, the surprising Jose Lopez. Instead of letting Lopez swing and taking the chance of having a huge inning, Hargrove had Lopez sacrifice the runners along. Jose did that and Raul Ibanez followed with a sacrifice fly. The strategy worked, but I do not agree with it. The fifth inning is way too early to play for only one run, especially when the team's leading home run and RBI producer is at the plate and the heart of the order is following him with no outs. The inning had the potential to be a huge knock-out blow, but Hargrove made sure it was not.

After a groundout by Yuniesky Betancourt to start the seventh, Ichiro hit a stand-up triple, bringing Jose Lopez to the plate. Once again, this is the Mariners' leader in home runs and RBIs, and he is also among the league leaders in sacrifice flies. Unbelievably, Hargrove puts on the squeeze play and it backfires miserably, as Lopez popped it up and Ichiro was hung out to dry. What was a tailor-made RBI opportunity for the club's leading RBI man turned into an inning-ending double play thanks to Mike Hargrove.

In the tenth inning the Twins brought in Joe Nathan, and Ichiro promptly got an infield single. Up next was Jose Lopez and he was asked to bunt AGAIN, though to be fair to Hargrove, it certainly made sense in this situation. Still, thanks to Mike Hargrove, Seattle's leading RBI guy was asked to bunt in his last three plate appearances with a total of four men on base, two of them in scoring position! Does that sound like a winning strategy? As it turns out, Lopez could not get the bunt down, so he had to swing away and he ended up with a single. Now there are two runners on with no outs for Raul Ibanez. The bunt would make sense here, except Raul only has two succesful sacrifice bunts in his career, and the last one was in 2003. Hargrove asked Raul to sacrifice anyway, and he was not successful (did NOT see that one coming). At this point, I am wondering if Hargrove is trying to lose the game. Ibanez ends up hitting a frozen rope to right field that Michael Cuddyer made a great catch on. Seattle ended up not scoring and the first man up for the Twins in their half of the tenth, Lew Ford, hit a walk-off home run to end the game.

The Mariners offense certainly is not that good and as a result Mike Hargrove feels that the team must manufacture runs. However, he is taking the approach way too far and is actually hurting the offense. There is absolutely no excuse for having Jose Lopez bunt three times in one game, twice with runners already in scoring position. All Lopez is doing is setting up an RBI opportunity for someone who is not as good at driving in runs as Lopez. Hargrove needs to start treating Jose like the offensive threat that he is. Also, why doesn't Mike start Roberto Petagine a few times at first base? Richie Sexson is really struggling and it is time to try some new things instead of continuing to run the same guys out there and expecting a difference. At the very least Petagine would get some desperately needed at-bats and as a result would be more effective when asked to pinch hit. Actually, while I'm at it, let me throw out the line-up I would like to see the Mariners use:

Kenji Johjima
Jose Lopez
Raul Ibanez
Carl Everett
Richie Sexson
Yuniesky Betancourt
Jeremy Reed/Willie Bloomquist
Adrian Beltre

Whenever Kenji needs a day off, Betancourt can me moved to up to second, Reed/Bloomquist and Beltre can move up one spot in the batting order, and Rene Rivera can bat ninth. I think this is the best lineup for the Mariners for multiple reasons. First, of the Mariners on pace to qualify for the batting title, Ichiro and Johjima are first and third on the team in on-base percentage, respectively (number two is Carl Everett, just .005 ahead of Johjima). So, though neither is a prototypical top-of-the-order hitter, they are the best tandem the Mariners have. Next, the third through sixth hitters in my Mariners lineup are the Mariners top four home run hitters and four of their top five RBI men (Johjima is fourth on the team in RBIs). Finally, Betancourt gets to move up in the lineup because he deserves to (a team with this bad of an offense should not have a guy batting .280 in the ninth spot), Jeremy Reed/Willie Bloomquist continue to platoon in the eighth spot, and I have come to grips with the reality that Adrian Beltre is nothing short of horrible right now. Look it up, he is easily Seattle's worst hitter so he should therefore bat ninth. In addition, I would play Petagine much more by having him start at first base and maybe even at designated hitter every now and then if Carl Everett needs a rest. My goal would be to have Petagine start atleast twice a week and get in a minimum of 10 plate appearances a week (Roberto has a grand total of 22 plate appearances so far this season). Considering Beltre's struggles, I would not hesitate to play Mike Morse more, and even experiment with Willie Bloomquist at third base. Bloomquist's complete lack of power prevents him from being a good option at the top of the lineup but his good batting average, on-base percentage, and speed could fit nicely at the bottom of the order. I am tired of watching Mike Hargrove and his futile efforts to "improve" the offense. I would love to see what my suggested lineup could do. Change is needed.

Chasing Immortality

Going in to the 2006 season, the biggest story by far was Barry Bonds’s march to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. The interest intensified when his alleged steroid use came to the forefront of the sports world again with the release of Game of Shadows. The chase has taken on a new dimension thanks to Albert Pujols’s fast start that has many people believing he could become the new single-season home run king. So, while Bonds is chasing Ruth, Pujols is chasing Bonds. These two sluggers have deservedly garnered attention in their chases of prolific records, but it is inevitable that Bonds will pass Ruth and the single-season home run record has been broken twice in the past decade. It is a travesty that these two players are gobbling up coverage that should be reserved for what may truly be 2006’s immortal achievement. 2006 should belong to the Kansas City Royals.

Now, I know there is a good chance you are sitting in your computer chair right now reading this and asking yourself, “Royals? The Kansas City Royals? C’mon, with all the great stories in baseball this year, you’re saying I should pay attention to the Royals? You’ve gotta be kidding!”

I am not kidding. Yes, the Royals are a bad team and yes, that usually means they are not worth watching. However, this team is not just bad. It is exceptionally bad, so bad it is impressive. You almost have to try to be as inept as the Kansas City Royals have been so far this year. As I write this blog the Royals are 10-35, easily the worst record in baseball, and they have not won in over two weeks. The “gold standard” for ineptitude is currently the 1962 Mets, who were a woeful 40-120. However, the Mets were an expansion team, so they will always have that crutch to lean on to defend how terrible they were. It really looked like the 2003 Tigers would “eclipse” the Mets, but they won their final two games to finish the year 43-119, tantalizingly close to immortality.

On a side note, The Tigers literally charged the field like they had just won the World Series when they won their final game and avoided 120 losses, but I do not understand why. To be honest, if I am going to be on a bad team, I want to do it right. I would want to be able to pull out the team picture from that year and tell my grandchildren, “Yup, that’s your granddaddy right there. I was on the worst team of all-time,” not, “Yup, that’s your granddaddy right there. Whoa Nellie, that was a tough year. We lost 119 games, but we weren’t the worst of all-time, just the second-worst of all-time.” It’s like losing at losing.

Anyway, as promising as things looked for the 2003 Tigers, the 2006 Royals have an even better opportunity to catch those infamous ’62 Mets. To start with, the statistics indicate this is the type of crappy team that just doesn’t come around very often. Right now the Royals are dead last in the majors in pitching and second-to-last in hitting, only to the Cubs. However, it can be argued that the Royals really are the worst hitting club since the Cubs must let the pitcher hit instead of using a designated hitter. For comparison, the 2003 Tigers were second-to-last in hitting and second-to-last in pitching. However, it could be argued that they really were the worst in the majors at both because the only team below them in hitting was the Dodgers, who had to have a pitcher hit instead of a DH, and the only team below them in pitching was the Rangers, who play in a much more hitter-friendly park than the Tigers staff did. Comparing the ’03 Tigers and ’06 Royals directly, the Tigers definitely had a worse offense but the Royals clearly have a worse pitching staff. By all statistical comparisons, the 2006 Royals are on the same level as the 2003 Tigers.

The Royals certainly look bad on paper, and they look just as bad on the field, if not worse. They have an innate ability to lose that could be described as precocious. This week, Kansas City became only the fourth team since 1970 to have 2 10-game losing streaks in the same season, and it is only the middle of May! Let me repeat that: Only 3 teams in the last 35 years have accomplished in an entire season what the Royals have already done. That is nothing short of special. If Kansas City can have 2 double-digit losing streaks in the first 45 games of the season, just imagine what’s possible in the final 117 games!

It’s not like the Royals are unlucky either, they truly are this horrible. Today is a perfect example. Kansas City scored 6 runs in the first inning, a miracle in itself considering the Royals’ pitiful offense was facing the surprisingly staunch Tigers’ staff. Now, all they had to do was try to hold on to the six-run lead for another eight innings. At the end of the seventh, Kansas City still led, though the score was now 8-5. After Bobby Keppel gave up a single to start the inning, Ambiorix Burgos was called out of the bullpen to preserve the lead and hopefully get the game to Kansas City’s best reliever, Elmer Dessens. Burgos got the first two batters he faced, but he couldn’t get the next four and he gave up three runs (though to be fair one run was charged to Keppel) and the game was put in Dessens’s hands, now with the score tied at eight apiece. Elmer got the first batter he faced, ending the inning with the hope of victory still alive.

Naturally, Kansas City did not score in the bottom of the eighth so the game went to the ninth still tied. Dessens got the first man he faced, but what followed was total carnage. Craig Monroe homered. Then Marcus Thames hit a home run, his second of the game. Next, Brandon Inge singled and then Curtis Granderson also singled, advancing Inge to third. Finally, Dessens was relieved, though his replacement Andy Sisco did not fare much better. He did get the first batter he faced to fly out to center and the ball was not even hit deep enough to score the runner on third. However, the next man up was Ivan Rodriguez and he hit a home run to clear the bases and essentially end any hope of a comeback. Adding insult to injury, Sisco walked the next batter but eventually finished the inning. When all was said and done, what had been an 8-5 lead for the Royals at the start of the eighth turned out to be a 13-8 loss.

As bad as things are for the Royals right now, they could easily get worse. To start with, their division features the best pitching team in baseball (Tigers), the best hitting team in baseball (Indians), and the defending world champions (White Sox). Don’t forget about the Twins either, who are heating up now that the offense is coming around and Johan Santana has regained his Cy Young-caliber form. Thanks to the unbalanced schedule, Kansas City will face these 4 teams over 60 times this season and consequently may face a tougher schedule than anyone else in baseball. None of these teams are likely to show the Royals any mercy either because they will absolutely have to win every game they can to keep pace in what is shaping up to be an intense pennant race. Furthermore, the Royals’ two best position players to this point, Mark Grudzielanek and Esteban German, should be coveted by many teams at the trading deadline. Grudzielanek is quietly one of the finest second baseman in the game, a veteran with a relatively cheap contract, and also has post-season experience. In other words, he is what every contending team drools over at the trade deadline and it would be rather surprising if Kansas City held on to him. As for German, he is not nearly as accomplished as Grudzielanek, but is even cheaper and can play all over the diamond, and every contender can use a solid utility player coming off the bench. Also, if Mike Sweeney ever gets healthy, he would be a strong candidate to get traded as well. This would only make the offense even worse than it already is.

While everyone is gawking at Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, slip out of the main crowd and take a seat on the Kansas City Royal bandwagon. You won’t regret it. This team is going nowhere at a historic pace. Any statistician will tell you this team is destined for failure. Any scout will tell you this team is destined for failure. The Royals have already called one player’s-only meeting and after it got spanked 8-0. They have already tried everything to turn this season around and nothing has worked. Amazingly, despite being so pitiful, they actually have a couple players who should attract attention at the trading deadline, which means the team will likely be even worse heading into the final part of the season, when they face all those playoff-hungry division foes. We may never see a team this bad face such an uphill battle again in our lifetimes, so I believe we should cherish each and every whiff, wild pitch, dropped fly ball, and errant throw as the Royals lose game after game after game after game. This team looks destined to chase immortality.

Beginning To Believe

Thanks to last night's thrilling game between the Suns and Mavericks and the season finale of American Idol, I doubt many people saw the Mariners' 7-4 victory over the Orioles. The Rangers lost yesterday as well, which means the M's are a mere two games out of first place at the moment. On this date last year, Seattle was already 7.5 games out and in 2004 a whopping 12.5 games behind. Do the Mariners really stand a chance to contend this year?

The short answer is no. Though the offense has improved, it has unfortunately improved very little. As a team, the Mariners batted .256 last year with a .319 OBP and .391 SLG. This year, they are batting .262, still with .319 OBP but a slightly better .401 SLG. Simply put, this little offensive production is not enough to consider the Mariners contenders.

However, there are reasons for hope. It is safe to assume that the offense will improve significantly because Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, and Jeremy Reed are all better than what they have shown so far and there are signs that Sexson and Reed are heating up. If those guys just do what they are capable of the offense will be respectable. Also, the Mariners' pitching is noticably better than last year, though they are mediocre by most measures.

A mediocre offense and mediocre pitching may not sound like the makings of a contender, but unless some team really heats up in the division, that may be good enough. The Rangers are in first place right now with a .500 record, so by definition they are mediocre. To this point the AL West looks alot like last year's NL West, which means most around baseball will probably look at the pennant race as a joke. However, even if Seattle is able to contend just because they happen to be in an absurdly weak division, it would mean a ton for this franchise. A pennant race would make fans pay attention again and generate excitement around the team that has been lacking for a couple years. It would restore faith in the organization and instill confidence that the team is improving. It likely would make Seattle a much more attractive place for free agents too.

I still have plenty of problems with what the Mariners are doing (just watch Mike Hargrove's use of the bench or Bill Bavasi's quest to acquire every catcher in the known universe) but I still believe this team can succeed with the current front office. Watching the Mariners the last few years has been so frustrating not just because they have been old and bad, but also because it seems like they never caught any breaks. This year it looks like Seattle is catching a huge break and I hope they capitalize. A .500 record is within reach and I am more and more convinced that may be enough to cause an outburst of playoff fever around Puget Sound.

There Goes the Streak

I recommended watching the Pistons and the Heat tonight, and I should have taken my own advice. Instead, I decided to watch the Mariners to see if they could win their fifth straight, something they never accomplished in 2005. Going into the game I was getting excited for the Mariners. With last night's win the pulled to .500 on the season at home and were only three games out of first place. Richie Sexson was showing signs of coming out of his season-long slump and the middle infield combo of Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez was continuing to be better than advertised. Even better, the Mariners looked like they had caught a break tonight as the scheduled starter for the Orioles, Hayden Penn, had to have an emergency appendectomy. In his place would be a hodgepodge of relievers, "highlighted" by John Halama.

The good times lasted for four batters. Then, Ramon Hernandez stepped up to the plate and tattooed a Pineiro offering out of the park to give the Orioles a three-run lead before the M's could even bat. The Orioles ended up sending all nine hitters to the plate in the first inning and also tacked on another run to make the score 4-0 as Ichiro entered the box for the first time. He got a hit to extend his hitting streak, and as it turns out, that was the highlight of the night.

It didn't look like that would be the highlight for most of the game though. The Mariners got to Halama in the third inning and pretty soon Sam Perlazzo seemed to be throwing any reliever he could find at the Mariners in hopes of preserving the lead. His tactics worked, as the Orioles led 5-3 going into the bottom of the 8th.

The eighth started off very promising with a lucky single off the bat of Carl Everett. Then, Adrian Beltre stepped up to the plate and actually put a charge into a ball for a change. He drove a LaTroy Hawkins offering deep to right center and Corey Patterson was not able to catch it, allowing Everett to score and Beltre to make it all the way to third. Suddenly, Seattle was down only a run, the closest they had been the entire game, and the tying run was on third base with no outs! It looked as if the comeback not only could happen, but would happen.

Ah, but these are the 2006 Mariners and they are managed by Mike Hargrove. First up was Kenji Johjima, who has been everything the Mariners could have asked for both at the plate and behind it. Unfortunately, he left plenty to be desired this at-bat as he popped up to first base. Due up next was Willie Bloomquist but Hargrove decided to pinch hit Roberto Petagine in his place. This would have been a great move - except that Petagine's last appearance was as a pinch-hitter an entire WEEK ago in Oakland. It is absolutely ludicrous that Hargrove is not using Petagine more, especially considering how badly Richie Sexson has struggled. Even worse, when Hargrove finally does use him, he puts him in an extremely pressure-packed situation. Petagine was set up for complete failure and that's exactly what happened as he popped up to third base. There were now two outs in the inning and Yuniesky Betancourt was due up. Once again, Hargrove went to the bench and this time sent up Jeremy Reed. Hargrove likely made the move to set up the classic lefty-righty mismatch that managers absolutely love, but I really did not like the move for two reasons. First of all, I am not convinced that Reed is a better hitter than Betancourt. Though it is true Reed has heated up recently, Betancourt is in the midst of the longest hitting streak in his young career and Betancourt's numbers over the season are better than Reed's. Also, Seattle had to put someone else at shortstop for Betancourt in the ninth since they pinch hit for him, which greatly weakens the infield defense. The move seemed destined to harm the team. Sure enough, once Reed was announced as the pinch-hitter, the Orioles brought in their closer Chris Ray and it took him only four pitches to strike out Reed and preserve Baltimore's lead.

It felt like the Mariners may have blown their chance at winning the game in the eighth, but in the end it may not have mattered as the bullpen completely melted down and allowed nine runs in the top half of the ninth, highlighted by Ramon Hernandez's grand slam. Somehow, the Mariners found a way to squander a close game and get blown out in it at the same time, making this loss exotically painful.

Aside from the atypical bullpen meltdown, this game was painful because it pointed out how poorly Mike Hargrove has used the bench this year. It started back in mid-April when Seattle designated Joe Borchard for assignment just to keep Matt Lawton, supposedly because he was so valuable to the bench. That move backfired miserably as Borchard was snatched up by the Marlins and Matt Lawton is no longer with the ballclub because Hargrove never used him. In Lawton's place is Mike Morse, or as Mike Hargrove called him, "the infielder we've been looking for all year." Looking for all year? He's been sitting in AAA all year, just waiting to be called up. Did you forget about him? Maybe you did because he was only batting .227 and striking almost exactly once out of every four at-bats against AAA pitching. Please Mike, is this really the infielder you've been looking for? How does this make Hunter Brown feel, who plays every infield position and has clearly outperformed Morse this year in Tacoma? Brown is nothing special, but he would make a great utility infielder because he can play all over the diamond and you won't feel too guilty about not getting his bat in the lineup on a regular basis. On the other hand, hitting is supposedly Morse's strength, so if he is not getting to the plate (which he won't) he's a wasted commodity, kind of like Roberto Petagine right now. I got spoiled watching Lou Pineilla use a bench to perfection, but I expect more out of Mike Hargrove, especially now that he's got the infielder he was looking for. I really should have watched that Heat/Pistons game.