Opening Day Roster Set

Charlton JimersonDuring the broadcast of the M's/Cubs game today, the 2008 opening day roster for the Mariners was announced. Here they are:

STARTING LINEUP
  • C - Kenji Johjima
  • 1B - Richie Sexson
  • 2B - Jose Lopez
  • SS - Yuniesky Betancourt
  • 3B - Adrian Beltre
  • LF - Raul Ibanez
  • CF - Ichiro
  • RF - Brad Wilkerson
Analysis: There is not much to say here. The lineup was for all intents and purposes set before spring training began. There was little competition here, and no surprises either.

STARTING ROTATION
  1. Erik Bedard
  2. Felix Hernandez
  3. Carlos Silva
  4. Jarrod Washburn
  5. Miguel Batista
Analysis: Much like the starting lineup, the rotation was set before spring training started. John McLaren even announced the order before spring training games began, so there was absolutely no competition all spring. To say there are no surprises here is an understatement.

BULLPEN
  • Cha Seung Baek
  • Ryan Rowland-Smith
  • Sean Green
  • Eric O'Flaherty
  • Mark Lowe
  • J.J. Putz
Analysis: This is the first place where there were a few surprises. McLaren was not sure whether he would go with a six or seven man bullpen the entire spring, and all along I thought the odds were the M's would go with seven, though any six-man scenario would include R.A. Dickey. In the end, McLaren surprised me twice, both with the bullpen and taking Baek over Dickey. Instead, the team "traded" C Jair Fernandez to the Twins for Dickey, allowing the team to keep him in AAA and not lose him. Listening to Bavasi on the telecast today, it was clear that Baek's lack of remaining minor league options was a major factor in the decision, and I am fine with that. Baek and Dickey are different pitchers, but one is not much better than the other. Preserving depth is certainly worth something, and because of that I am happy to see Baek in the bullpen.

The other interesting bullpen story is Mark Lowe. He has looked fairly sharp in spring training, and that coupled with Morrow's arm injury and overall lack of control opened up a spot for him. However, it is clear that the M's are planning on bringing Morrow back up once he is ready to go, so Lowe may have to hit the ground running to stay around.

Another player worth watching is Arthur Rhodes. He did not make the team, but he has looked good in the spring and he will continue to rehab from arm surgery. If he looks good in the minors, McLaren is going to have a hard time keeping him off the team. If either O'Flaherty or Rowland-Smith falter, he could be up soon.

BENCH
  • Willie Bloomquist
  • Miguel Cairo
  • Mike Morse
  • Charlton Jimerson
  • Jamie Burke
Analysis: I am quite pleased with this bench. Keeping one less man in the bullpen allowed for one more bench player, which opened up the space needed for Mike Morse. However, after listening to the telecast today, it sounds like the last man on was actually Jimerson or Cairo. McLaren has been so impressed with Morse's spring that he now thinks he will platoon with Brad Wilkerson. Though looking at the numbers it would make more sense to have Morse platoon with Ibanez, I like that McLaren is rewarding such a great spring training peformance.

As for the rest of the bench, there is lots of versatility and speed. Both Bloomquist and Cairo can play virtually everywhere and grab a bag when needed, but Jimerson will likely be the primary pinch-runner. It is obvious that McLaren really wants to run this year, because he kept these three players and did not keep either Greg Norton or Jeremy Reed, both left-handed hitters but not as big of threats to steal. Personally, I probably would have kept Greg Norton and not Miguel Cairo (well, if I really was running the team I never would have signed Cairo to a major league contract), but I credit McLaren for a thinking a little outside of the box and starting the season with no left-handed hitters on the bench.

All in all, the final opening day roster excites me. The Mariners rewarded the good spring performances that Baek and Morse turned in, which I really like. They also went with less proven players, like Charlton Jimerson and Ryan Rowland-Smith, over more experienced guys, like Greg Norton and Arthur Rhodes. John McLaren has a clear vision of what he wants the 2008 Mariners to look like, and he built the roster by picking the 25 guys that fit his vision best. He did not just favor experience, or just talent. This team has a good mix of both, and also has a little depth in the minors too at all positions. This is the best roster the M's have put together under Bill Bavasi.

The Next Great Knuckler?

R.A. DickeyThe Mariners pitching staff got a whole lot less intriguing in spring training once Erik Bedard was acquired, but not all intrigue was wiped away. Aside from guys like Arthur Rhodes, Chris Reitsma, and Mark Lowe working back from injuries, the M's have arguably one of the most intriguing pitchers in all of baseball right now - R.A. Dickey. Aside from a great name, Dickey throws a knuckleball, which remains the most intriguing pitch in baseball.

The knuckleball is a spectacle, and always will be simply by its nature. A pitcher's talent is essentially evaluated on their power and control. When it comes to power, that generally either means the pure velocity they have, or how sharp of a break they get on their breaking balls. Control of course is how well the pitcher locates their pitches. The knuckleball has no power and is impossible to control. In fact, it is arguably better with less power, and there is no way to determine how well or sharp it breaks either. As for control, not only is the knuckleball terribly difficult to locate, success with the pitch depends on an inability to locate it! At its best, the knuckleball dances where it pleases, which gives the pitcher a limited idea at best of where it is going, and guarantees there is no way the hitter knows what to expect. Deception is an age-old part of pitching, but the knuckleball provides it in such a counterintuitive way that it always will be a bit of an interloper among the rest of the pitches.

Since the knuckleball is so different, scouts have a hard time evaluating a knuckleball pitcher. On top of that, the pitch itself is difficult to develop into a "consistent" pitch (whatever that means for a knuckleball), so not many pitchers seriously try to learn it. As a result, there simply are not that many pitchers around that throw the knuckleball. However, the knuckleball refuses to die, and there always seem to be at least one pitcher in the majors that lives and dies by it. Ever since Steve Sparks retired, that man has been Tim Wakefield, but at some point he will likely retire. It is about time for his successor to emerge.

Enter R.A. Dickey. At 33 years old, Dickey would not be considered much of a prospect by most, but he should be treated as one to a certain extent. Dickey used a traditional repertoire of pitches up until about three years ago, and worked his way all the way to the major leagues. He was not all that great, but he had toyed with a knuckleball, and made the decision to focus on it. He has been in the minors since working on the pitch, and the pitch has obviously developed. It is easy to see in his AAA numbers:
  • 2005: 10-6 record, 5.99 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 5.99 K/9
  • 2006: 9-8 record, 4.92 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 4.17 K/9
  • 2007: 13-6 record, 3.72 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 6.32 K/9
Granted, Dickey is old by AAA standards, and his experience gives him a competitive advantage that would be virtually non-existent in the majors, but there is more at work in his improvement than getting older than his competition. Dickey says he is getting the knuckleball figured out, and that statistics back him up. The Mariners were intrigued enough this offseason to make him a Rule 5 draft pick.

So far Dickey has been quite impressive this spring, and could not have done any more to give himself a chance at making the M's roster to this point. I hope he makes it too. He deserves a chance with the way he has performed this spring, and there is good reason to believe he would be an effective long reliever at least. Dickey would also allow the M's to go with only a six man bullpen because the knuckleball stresses the arm less than traditional pitches, meaning Dickey can pitch more innings with less rest and remain effective. This would allow the M's to carry an extra bench player, which should allow them to keep Mike Morse around.

However, above all that, it is time for a successor to Tim Wakefield, and why can't it be R.A. Dickey? He had talent, and switching to the knuckleball was not a last-ditch effort to hang around (though he was likely to spend the rest of his career in AAA). The knuckler may have been Dickey's last chance at prolonged major league success, but it was still more of a willing switch instead of a choice out of desperation. Dickey may be older by traditional baseball terms, but knuckleballers have been known to pitch well into their 40s. In knuckleball terms, Dickey is more like 23 or 24 years old, and just hitting his stride. At worst, the M's have an inning-eating middle reliever that really is not that great, but does save the rest of the bullpen arms. However, I like Dickey's chances at being more.

Mariners Bullpen Far From Finalized

Brandon MorrowThe one place the Mariners actually have some legitimate spring training competition is in the bullpen. As much as the Bedard trade impacted the M's starting rotation, its effects are prominent in the bullpen too, thanks to the departure of George Sherrill (86/84) and "return" of Brandon Morrow (75/81). Here is how the bullpen is shaping up as of now:

LOCKS TO MAKE THE OPENING DAY BULLPEN
  • J.J. Putz (89/87) - He is one of the best closers in baseball, and there is no way anybody is taking away his job, no matter how he or others perform.
  • Brandon Morrow (75/81) - Morrow went to Venezuela as a starter to prepare for a likely job in the rotation, but the acquisitions of Carlos Silva (75/74) and Erik Bedard (96/94) changed things. He will be back as the right-handed setup man, the same role he worked his way into last year.
  • Sean Green (73/72) - Green was a bit of an unsung hero for the Mariners last year, but his breakout performance did not go unnoticed by McLaren and the front office. He will man primarily the seventh inning, as he did by the end of last year.
Depending on the number of position players the Mariners keep, that leaves either three or four spots in the bullpen yet to be determined. Here are the prime contenders for the remaining spots:

LEFT-HANDERS
  • Eric O'Flaherty (78/83) - Though Sean Green was a pleasant surprise, the real unsung hero for me from last year's bullpen was O'Flaherty. He is a better left-hander than he gets credit for, even from the Mariners. For me, he would be a lock to make the bullpen, but that does not seem to be the case with the Mariners. He should take over Sherrill's role the last couple years, and even though he is not a lock, he is still the clear front-runner.
  • Cesar Jimenez (60/72) - Jimenez missed a bunch of time last year due to injury, but showed some promise in Tacoma in his 16 appearances. He is healthy again, and the Mariners like him enough to give him a chance to compete with O'Flaherty for the lefty specialist job. Cesar has a very nice change-up, and it is the main reason the M's see him as a viable option this year. If I were in charge he would be ticketed for Tacoma, both because I think he still has a little room to grow before being a good bullpen option, and also because I think highly of O'Flaherty.
  • Horacio Ramirez (55/55) - There is no spot for Ho-Ram in the rotation, but he's still making over $2 million a year, so it is hard to believe the M's will have no qualms sending him down to Tacoma to start the season. That is where he should be, but at this point he seems to be a leading candidate for long relief.
  • Ryan Rowland-Smith (73/79) - I cannot tell what the Mariners are thinking with Rowland-Smith. Along with Morrow, Ryan was stretched over the winter to become a potential starter, though he was a long shot to make the rotation even before the Bedard trade. The M's seem quite enamored with Jimenez, and may opt to keep him and O'Flaherty, and send Rowland-Smith to Tacoma and let him develop as a starter. They may also decide to keep Ho-Ram around as a long reliever, which would also squeeze Ryan out of the picture. To me it is obvious that O'Flaherty and Rowland-Smith should be the two bullpen lefties though.
RIGHT-HANDERS
  • Chris Reitsma (50/50) - Listening to McLaren talk about Reitsma, one of the bullpen slots may be his to lose. Chris has been a solid major league pitcher for a long time, but really fell off the table last year thanks to several arm injuries. He is healthy again, and according to the M's coaching staff he has looked impressive. If he returns to form, he would be a valuable pitcher to have. He is a non-roster invitee, so a spot on the 40-man roster would have to be cleared for him.
  • Mark Lowe (68/87) - Lowe's rating in my system is based off of his 2006 numbers, because he did not play much in 2007 thanks to a very serious arm injury. Lowe throws hard and has good mound presence, but he still looks a little rusty to me. If the M's can afford to (and they can), it would be best to let him get back in the groove of professional baseball in AAA.
  • R.A. Dickey (64/67) - The Rule 5 selection and knuckleball specialist does not have as good of a chance to make the roster now that Erik Bedard is in town, but he still has a chance. Thanks to the low strain a knuckleball puts on the body, he could pitch multiple innings on consecutive days, making him an intriguing option as a long reliever. His first couple spring outings were rather rocky, but his most recent was quite good.
OTHERS WITH AN OUTSIDE CHANCE
  • Ryan Feierabend (57/72) - The M's are giving him a bit of a look as a left-handed reliever. He may be a solid option, but there are at least three better options for that role in O'Flaherty, Rowland-Smtih, and Jimenez. He should continue to develop as a starter in AAA.
  • Jake Woods (51/59) - Also a lefty, but he simply is not as good as other ones in camp. He is off to a hot start this spring, and if he stays hot he may stick around and be considered a little more seriously.
  • Cha Seung Baek (73/73) - Baek was going to get a look as a potential starting candidate until the Bedard trade, so now he is an option for long relief. However, I think there are too many pitchers in front of him the M's prefer for him to have a realistic chance.
  • Sean White (65/65) - White was a Rule 5 selection last year, but did not play much thanks to an injury. Like Baek, I think there are too many guys the M's prefer in front of him. He was stretched out as a starter in the winter, and he may get a chance to continue to start in Tacoma.
  • Jon Huber (53/62) - Huber turned heads when he posted a 1.08 ERA in 16 appearances with the M's in 2006, but really struggled in 2007. He'll likely have to bounce back in Tacoma before the Mariners strongly consider him again.
As of now, here is who I think the Mariners will carry in their bullpen:
  • R.A. Dickey
  • Horacio Ramirez
  • Chris Reitsma
  • Sean Green
  • Eric O'Flaherty
  • Brandon Morrow
  • J.J. Putz
R.A. Dickey is the one I'm least confident on by far. I could see the M's going with Jimenez or Rowland-Smith instead, or deciding to go with only a six-man bullpen. Here is who I would keep in the bullpen:
  • R.A. Dickey
  • Ryan Rowland-Smith
  • Sean Green
  • Eric O'Flaherty
  • Brandon Morrow
  • J.J. Putz
Between more effective starters and Dickey, who can pitch multiple innings any given night, I think the bullpen would be just fine with only six members. Also, if the M's only carry a six-man bullpen, it will make it easier to keep INF Mike Morse (69/75), who is out of minor league options. As long as O'Flaherty takes over for Sherrill, I do not think there is much the Mariners can do to really irk me with their bullpen selections.

Spring Training Games Underway

Peoria Sports ComplexI do not think a player can be properly evaluated in two games, and I also believe spring training statistics tend to be given too much consideration in decision-making. However, a player that performs remarkably well cannot help but grab the eye of a coaching staff, and it does make cutting them a little more difficult. Just two games into the spring training "season," the Mariners already have a couple of interesting players standing out:
  • Mike Morse, INF/OF, (69/75) - Signing Miguel Cairo (70/68) practically spelled the end of Morse's career in Seattle (which I am not thrilled about). However, Mike is off to a rapid start in the Cactus League, and if he keeps it up, he may just stick around. The odds are still stacked against him, but I think the M's will have a hard time cutting him loose on waivers for nothing if he has a killer spring.
  • Wladimir Balentien, OF, (70/81) - John McLaren has already anointed Brad Wilkerson (69/68) the starter in right field, and though he is off to a nice start, Balentien must have turned some heads with his multi-homer game. I was hoping for at least an open competition between Balentien and Wilkerson for the job, and so maybe it will become a competition if Wlad impales the ball for the better part of March.
Realistically, individual performances do not matter much in spring training, and considering that McLaren has already named virtually the entire opening day roster, he seems to not put much in spring training performances either. However, McLaren has laid out a number of goals for the team this year, and those changes should show up in spring training numbers:
  • For pitchers, their has been a tremendous emphasis on pitching inside. So far, M's pitchers have hit three batters this spring, and I would expect to see many more hit batters if the coaching staff continues to drive it home to every member of the staff. I am sure nobody on the coaching staff is telling M's pitchers to hit batters, but I doubt they frowned when to Padres were plunked on Sunday.
  • On the basepaths, McLaren wants to be much more aggressive, and has gone as far as saying he thinks that Ichiro can steal 80 bases, and Yuniesky Betancourt 40. I am not sure which prediction is more ridiculous, but on Saturday the M's stole four bases as a team, and on Friday Brian LaHair inexplicable tried to steal second and was thrown out by a mile. If the Mariners do not run wild in spring training, they certainly will not in the regular season, so this bears watching.
  • Jeff Pentland has stated that he is working with M's hitters on being more selective at the plate in hopes of working pitchers more, and getting a few better pitches to hit. In theory, this should lead to more walks and higher pitch counts. In the first couple games the hitters have been drawing some walks, though that could be a product of wild pitchers as much as disciplined pitch selection at this point. Once again, if hitters are not going to take pitches when statistics do not matter, the odds of them taking more pitches when games count is extremely slim.
It is really hard to find any sort of intrigue this spring training because McLaren has made so many decisions already. I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing, especially looking at this year's team, but it does take some of the wind out of Spring Training's sails. There still are a few things to look at, but ultimately it is just nice to hear the sweet sounds of baseball again.