Future M's?

A new blog post is way overdue, but nothing in the past week has really moved me to write. It is still a bit too early for me to really get into NFL draft mode, and the baseball season is still too young to start looking at statistics and drawing any solid conclusions out of them. The Duke Lacrosse team scandal (or the increasing lack of one) continues to hang around, as does the Barry Bonds backlash thanks to the recently published Game of Shadows. As important as these stories are, they are being beat to death by the media and I have nothing new to add. This blog is called My Random Sports Musings, so here comes a heavy dose of Random: let's talk college baseball!

Baseball, like football and basketball, has a draft but it is easily the least popular one of the three major sports. That does not make it any less important though. Thanks to another season with more than 90 losses, the Mariners once again will get a very high pick and a quick glance through the minor league system shows a dearth of pitching talent, especially below AA. In response, I decided to go in search of some college hurlers who Seattle would be wise to look at:

Eddie Degerman, Senior, Rice: The Owls have a strong baseball program and Degerman looks like the latest great pitcher to come out of this university. Last year, Eddie went 8-1 with a 3.28 ERA in 18 appearances, 14 of which were starts. Even more impressive was his 1.09 WHIP and 117 strikeouts in only 98 2/3 innings, with only 38 walks. This year, Degerman has gone to the next level. Check out these numbers: In 11 games (10 starts), he is 8-0 with a 1.29 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and 92 strikeouts and 23 walks in 69 2/3 IP!

Tim Lincecum, Junior, Washington: Tim would be much more than a local pick if the Mariners were able to draft and sign him. Interestingly, more batters have reached base by walking against Lincecum (40) than by getting a hit (35), which is usually a sign of bad control in a pitcher. However, this is far from the truth in the case of Tim Lincecum; it actually points out just how good he is. For the year, opponents are batting a measly .137 against him. Add in a strikeout rate of over 12 per 9 innings and a 1.52 ERA, and it is clear that Lincecum would be a welcome addition to anyone's farm system.

Derrik Lutz, Junior, George Washington: Though from a less prominent program, Lutz is putting up eye-popping numbers. In 2005, he went 8-1 with a 2.79 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 10.5 K/9 IP, and a K/BB ratio of better than 3 to 1. This year, Lutz is only 2-2 but with a 1.40 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.5 K/9 IP, and a K/BB ratio of nearly 4 to 1.

The Mariners have adopted a more aggressive running style this year, so I decided to also look at college baseball's finest base-stealers. One guy in particular stood out:

Zach Penprase, INF, Jr., Mississippi Valley State: Already with 45 stolen bases in 48 attempts, Zach has more than proven he can run. He has much more to offer as well, as evidenced by his .364 batting average, .444 on-base percentage, and seven triples this year. Despite playing at a rather small school, Penprase may have the ideal combination of hitting, plate discipline, and speed that teams covet in a leadoff hitter.

This is hardly a complete list of baseball prospects, or even a list of elite prospects. However, after a rather cursory scan of the NCAA Division-I leader boards these were four guys that seem to fit what the Mariners are looking for right now.

Kenji!

Mariners fans, and avid baseball fans in general, are keeping a close eye on the newest Japanese ballplayer to come to America, Kenji Johjima. Unlike all his predecessors, Johjima is a catcher, which makes his transition particularly tough. Like Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, Johjima has to make the adjustment as a hitter, which is difficult enough. In addition, he must also learn how to handle his own pitching staff despite the fact that none of the Mariners pitchers speak Japanese fluently. Word is many general managers thought Johjima faced an impossible task and thus did not even consider signing him, despite his obvious talent (Johjima had averaged .300 with 30 homers his last five years in Japan, and also won numerous fielding awards in his career too). However, Mariners GM Bill Bavasi felt Kenji Johjima’s talent, leadership, work ethic, and positive demeanor would be up to the challenge and he signed the Japanese star.

Though three games don’t make a season, Bavasi has to be smiling right now. Kenji Johjima did everything against the Angels. At the plate, he hit a home run the other way in just his second major-league at bat to tally the first Mariner run of the season. His home run sparked the offense as Seattle tied the game at three, though they eventually lost 5-4. Then for an encore, Johjima took an 0-2 offering the next night and crushed it to left field for yet another home run, this time in a 10-8 Mariners victory. As a hitter, Johjima has had little trouble adjusting to this point.

However, perhaps more impressive has been Johjima’s work as a catcher. Kenji has shown a ton of natural leadership and already exhibits a strong rapport with the entire pitching staff. He is very active behind the plate, bounding and bouncing to wherever he needs to set up and he uses hand gestures quite frequently to make it clear what he wants the pitcher to do. When a pitcher is struggling, Kenji is not afraid to go to the mound and discuss what is going wrong either. In fact, based on the body language and gestures Kenji has used in a few mound visits, it even appears that he has picked up on a few mechanical problems and alerted the pitcher to what he is doing. Most impressive to me though is the pitching staff’s confidence in him, as I saw few pitchers shake off the pitches he called for against the Angels. They should have confidence in him too as, with the exception of one Vladimir Guerrero blast (and to be fair, who outside of Vladimir Guerrero takes an off-speed pitch on the low-outside corner of the plate and pulls it over 400 feet?), the Angels only pounded balls that missed Kenji’s target.

Seattle’s catchers last year were nothing short of abominable as a group, so Kenji Johjima is going to have to struggle mightily to be any worse. However, even through just three games, it is obvious that he is a massive improvement. While it is unfair to expect Kenji to keep performing at his current torrid pace, especially at the plate, it is fair to say that Japanese catchers can make the jump to Major League Baseball, and even make it seamlessly. Kenji has taken all the air out of his naysayer’s sails and will continue to prove he belongs in the big leagues with every pat of his catcher’s mitt and every nod of his pitcher’s head.

2006 Mariners Preview

Finally, the Mariners opening day roster is set and opening day is tantalizingly close! Here is a quick guide with some key things to know heading in to 2006. First of all, the roster:


STARTERS
C: Kenji Johjima
1B: Richie Sexson
2B: Jose Lopez
SS: Yuniesky Betancourt
3B: Adrian Beltre
LF: Raul Ibanez
CF: Jeremy Reed
RF: Ichiro
DH: Carl Everett


BENCH
C: Guillermo Quiroz
INF/CF: Willie Bloomquist
1B: Roberto Petagine
OF: Joe Borchard


STARTING ROTATION
1. Jamie Moyer
2. Joel Pineiro
3. Jarrod Washburn
4. Gil Meche
5. Felix Hernandez


BULLPEN
Jeff Harris
Julio Mateo
Jake Woods
George Sherrill
Rafael Soriano
J.J. Putz
Eddie Guardado


Obviously, more than 25 guys will end up playing for the Mariners, so watch for these guys too:
Matt Lawton, OF: He’ll be on the squad after he serves his 10 day steroid suspension.
Mike Morse, SS/3B/OF: One of the final cuts in spring training, versatility very valuable
Chris Snelling, OF: Still recovering from an injury but when healthy has terrific hitting ability.
Rene Rivera, C: Would’ve made the team if Quiroz had not been picked up
Francisco Cruceta, P: Performed the best of all pitchers that didn’t make the squad out of spring training
Kevin Appier, P: One of three candidates to be called up if/when a starting pitcher goes down.
Jesse Foppert, P: The second candidate to come up when a starter goes down.
Clint Nageotte, P: A candidate to start, also could be used in the bullpen.


REASON FOR HOPE
As a team the Mariners had the 8th best batting average of all teams in spring training (.293), were 19th in OBP (.340), and 17th in SLG (.454). Based on those numbers, the offense was average, which may not sound exciting but really should be considering the Mariners had horrific offensive numbers in spring training the last two years and were just as bad in the regular season too. Even more promising, most of these numbers were accumulated without Adrian Beltre, who was busy slugging away for the Dominican Republic in the WBC. It appears that new hitting coach Jeff Pentland has really helped Beltre out and that he is poised for a much better year than 2005. Though this team won’t be a juggernaut on offense, many of the last couple years’ woes should finally be forgotten.


REASON FOR DESPAIR
In spring training Seattle pitching was torched, beaten, battered, bruised, mutilated, lit up, and/or destroyed, depending on which term you prefer. No matter the stat, the M’s pitchers failed miserably this spring training. ERA? 7.96, dead last in spring training. WHIP? 1.81, dead last in spring training. Opponent’s slugging percentage? .533, dead last in spring training. Walks per nine innings? 4.27, dead last in spring training. Home runs allowed? 39, tied for only sixth-worst in spring training! The few positive signs for M’s pitchers in the spring are a good groundout-to-flyout ratio and a mediocre ability to strike guys out (Seattle has been among the worst pitching staffs in baseball the last few years at strikeouts). There is no way Mariners pitchers will be as bad as this in the regular season, if only because of Safeco Field, but the spring numbers are still very alarming.


THE BOTTOM LINE
The 2006 Mariners are better than the ’05 M’s or even the ’04 M’s. They really are heading in the right direction. Felix Hernandez will be a bona fide ace in the near future and it is safe to assume that Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, and Jeremy Reed all have their best baseball ahead of them. At the very least, this team is relatively young and will improve as opposed to being an old team that will continue to get worse, as has been the case the last few years. Seattle has finally hit rock bottom and 2006 is the start of their next ascent, hopefully all the way to the top of the baseball world. As for this year, a .500 finish is not out of the question and, considering how bad Seattle has been, an 81-81 season would have to be considered a success.

Baseball's Real Dirty Secret

There has been plenty said and written about steroids in the last few days, months, weeks, and years, and justifiably so as ugly detail after ugly detail has been pried out of seemingly a parallel universe. Even with college basketball’s Final Four this weekend, I had to finally touch this scalding hot topic.

I, like many fans, was stunned when Ken Caminiti admitted in a Sports Illustrated article that he had used steroids while playing baseball, even in the 1996 season when he was named the National League MVP. A couple years later came the second confession from the Incredible Hulk himself, Jose Canseco. However, he was much more brazen than Caminiti. Not only did Canseco say he did steroids, he wrote a book implicating several others and claimed that steroid use was rampant in baseball. I did not give Canseco’s remarks any validity as it looked to me that he was just trying to incite uproar to sell more books and make more money. My suspicions were confirmed when Rafael Palmeiro, who was implicated in Conseco’s book as a steroid user, stood in front of congress and denied every using steroid. However, I began to change my mind when Palmeiro was suspended for using steroids, reportedly the same ones Conseco had said Palmeiro used in his book. Recently Game of Shadows has been released and it is the most valid chronicle of steroid use yet. Perhaps most telling is that Barry Bonds, the biggest name linked to steroid use in the book, did not sue for libel but did sue for the profits made off the book, claiming the writers in essence stole his story. All of this has led baseball to start testing for steroids, stiffen up penalties for steroid use, and most recently investigate the past use of steroids by players.

As bad as the steroid problem is, and it is extremely bad, there is another dirty little secret in baseball that will impact 2006 as much, if not more, than steroids. Along with the stiffer penalties that baseball put on positive steroids test in the off-season, they also decided to start testing for amphetamines for the first time ever. Amphetamines, or “greenies,” have been used by virtually every baseball player to gain a little “edge” before the game – to be a more specific, players pop a few of these small pills and get completely wired to the point that the pain accumulated over a long, grueling season is numbed and they can’t blink their eyes until sunrise. Players have been tired come August and September with the greenies; imagine how much more tired they will be without them. Or, will many take the risk and pop them anyway, leading to a breathtaking amount of suspensions? Nobody really knows how amphetamine testing will impact the game, but it has to be titanic just because of how prevalent greenies have been.

So, while andro, HGH, “The Clear”, and many other exotic terms for equally exotic steroids are bandied about in the media, keep an eye out for the impact of amphetamine testing. Greenies are baseball’s dirty little secret right now, but by the end of the year their presence, or lack thereof, could easily eclipse any talk of steroids.