2009 M's: Good To The Last Drop

Felix HernandezFootball is here, so it is easy to forget about the baseball season. It is especially easy since the Mariners likely aren't on their way to the postseason. However, the Mariners are almost as interesting to watch as ever. Here are some reasons to keep a close eye on the team in the midst of all the pigskin coverage:

  1. I'll give you three reasons why in one fell swoop. After tonight's victory against Tampa Bay, the Mariners are 79-72 on the year. Three more wins secures a winning record. They have 11 games remaining. At this point, a winning season is a highly attainable goal, but no less remarkable. This team is looking at improving by more than 20 wins, which teams just don't do. A winning record, even if it's just 82-80, would be a big deal.
  2. There is no guarantee Ken Griffey Jr. is coming back. He has been better than his .218 batting average suggests, even if his clubhouse contributions aren't considered. However, he isn't getting any younger. The M's face a challenging decision with him if he wants to come back. Enjoy him while he lasts, which may be only another week.
  3. Felix Hernandez is in the thick of the AL Cy Young discussion. Today, the M's announced that he will get an extra start on the last day of the season. A separate post on Felix's chances may be warranted in the near future, but it's pretty clear him, Zack Grienke, or CC Sabathia will take home the honors. A few more wins would really help Felix's chances.
  4. Matt Tuiasosopo's performance in the next week could have a profound impact on the offseason. If he earns some trust from Don Wakamatsu, he will be a more viable option to start somewhere on the infield. That could mean that the M's don't re-sign Beltre or Russell Branyan. Or (what I think is more likely), if they get both of those players back, Jose Lopez could be shopped around. He should have trade value, especially with the season he has put together at the plate. No matter what, Tui's performance in the next week will have an impact on the team's offseason plans.
  5. Every start matters. What will the 2010 rotation look like, outside of Felix Hernandez, and probably also Ryan Rowland-Smith? It's anybody's guess. The competition is already underway. Brandon Morrow and Ian Snell both have the stuff, but lack control. Fister lacks stuff, but has the control. Guys like Jason Vargas, Luke French, and Garrett Olson are somewhere in between. They all will be in the conversation in spring training, but strong finishes from any of them won't be forgotten.
Of course, the end of the season would be more excited if a playoff berth was on the line. There is no way around that. Still, the 2009 Mariners will be interesting to watch until the final pitch. There is a reason to watch every game the rest of the way, and not just to imagine what the future might look like. Besides, I know I need something to forget those Frank Gore runs from last Sunday...

Ichiro Does It Again For The First Time

IchiroWe needed some reason to wait out all the rain in Texas. Seriously, since when does it rain for days on end deep in the heart of Texas? Alas, not only did the M's win their first series in Arlington since 2006, but Ichiro made history. He got his 200th hit this season, as he always does, literally. Nine seasons in the majors, nine 200-hit campaigns. Nobody has ever done that.

Nobody.

Ty Cobb didn't do it.

Pete Rose didn't do it.

Nobody.

This isn't something remarkable because Ichiro came over from Japan and did it. I repeat, no baseball player has ever collected nine straight 200-hit seasons. Rattle off any of Ken Griffey Jr.'s, Randy Johnson's, or any M's player's career accomplishments, and they don't include something the game has never seen before. That is, until tonight, with a little dribbler that Ichiro beat out.

Ichiro's 200th hit of 2009 was the 453rd infield hit of his MLB career. Let that sink in for a second. Ichiro debuted in the majors at 27 years old. Considering how great his rookie season was, we can only imagine what could have been if Ichiro had signed with the Mariners as an up-and-coming 18-year-old prospect. He could be on pace for over 1,000 infield hits in his career.

What we are witnessing right now is more than special enough though. Just this year, Ichiro surpassed 3,000 career hits, 2,000 MLB hits, and now notched 200-hit season number 9 - in a row, because 9 all by itself just isn't impressive enough.

It is difficult to put Ichiro into any sort of historical perspective. He is, essentially, a slap-hitter extraordinaire. His approach to hitting was the preferred method until about 1920 or so, when Babe Ruth started bludgeoning baseballs new lengths, and accumulating unfathomable home run totals. Since Ruth, anyone with the power to hit the ball out of the ballpark on a consistent basis has been encouraged to tune their game towards power.

Slap-hitting didn't leave the major leagues with Babe Ruth. It left the spotlight though. Ty Cobb was universally considered the best player ever to play the game before Ruth. Debate ensued for decades after both players retired, largely fueled by their drastically different hitting styles. Now, the debate includes legends like Ted Williams and Willie Mays, both players with over 500 career home runs.

Baseball isn't devoid of great slap-hitters since Ty Cobb. Pete Rose and Rod Carew come to mind. Still, take a look at the hitters most comparable to Ichiro according to Baseball Reference. It is a hodgepodge of players that mostly played before World War II. There are some notable contemporary ballplayers in the mix, such as Kenny Lofton and Ken Griffey Sr., but Ichiro plays a throw-back style of game as good as any of the old-timers.

Yet, at the same time, Ichiro is as new-age as they come. He is the first position player from Japan to ever play in the major leagues. He has his first name stitched on the back of his uniform. He's not exactly the type of guy that rubs a little dirt in his bare hands, spits a wad of tobacco juice out of his cheek, and digs in at the plate. He has his own clothing line back in Japan, after all. Ichiro maintains an unquestionably modern persona, so much so it masks his old-style game. It only adds to Ichiro's mystique and complexity.

Ichiro is a hall-of-famer. Just how great is he though? 3,000 MLB hits would be highly impressive. He basically would have to average 200 hits a season until he is 40 to reach that. It seems unlikely, but this is a man that has put together nine straight 200-hit seasons, and is putting together a season comparable to his rookie one at 35 years old. There is Ichiro's defense too, which I haven't even touched on at all. That's certainly part of what makes him so great.

There is the pressure Ichiro plays under too. When asked how he feels when he breaks a record, he said, "When I break a record I never feel satisfaction and I feel that is from the expectation from Japan, I strongly feel the expectation from Japan. It kind of, (pause) my records are things I feel that I feel the Japanese in Japan feel I must have. I always want to feel satisfaction but whenever I accomplish a record I only feel relief. It is not allowed for me to not accomplish this."

Ichiro is one of a kind. Purely from a cold, hard, statistical standpoint, I think his offensive impact is overrated. His OPS is always good, but not great. His batting average is consistently great, but his on-base percentage is only good because he is so aggressive. I thought re-signing Ichiro to the big deal he got was a bad decision, especially with his age.

However, at this point, there is no denying Ichiro's greatness. The more I watch him, the more I'm convinced he is the closest thing to Ty Cobb that baseball has seen in the past century. However, Cobb never had to deal with the culture shock that Ichiro did, the stigma that Japanese position players are not MLB caliber, or the pressure from an entire nation that comes with breaking a stigma. All of that's old news now because of how well Ichiro has done, but it is still worth mentioning. The fact that it is old news says plenty about Ichiro.

Comparisons are hard with Ichiro because there simply is no comparison. He has carried the high expectations of a nation with remarkable ease and acumen. He has brought a host of old players to life, and forced us to blow the dust off of long-standing records. He has been the one and only Ichiro.

River Cats End Rainiers Run

Adam MooreIn the end, Tacoma didn't have enough pitching to go any further. A couple six-run outbursts by Sacramento were the stars of a 13-8 series-clinching win for the River Cats. They will play for their third straight PCL title.

Gaby Hernandez started for the Rainiers, his first work since coming up with one of his best performances of the year in the division-clincher against Colorado Springs. This outing was one of his worst, as he scattered a couple outs over six runs.

Tacoma was down 7-0 before they started to crawl back. Chris Shelton hit a three-run home run in the third inning to open up the Rainiers scoring against River Cats starter Shawn Chacon. Matt Tuiasosopo added a two-run home run in the sixth inning to make it 7-5.

It looked like the Rainiers may have a comeback up their sleeve, as they got the go-ahead run on base in the sixth, and the tying run to the plate with no outs in the seventh. Sacramento's bullpen buckled down when they needed to though.

On the other hand, Tacoma's bullpen did not.

A six-run explosion by Sacramento in the bottom of the seventh put the game out of reach. Tacoma's offense tried to make a late comeback in the ninth inning, when they scored their final three runs. In the end though, the reigning PCL champions proved to be just too much to handle.

It's truly a mixed bag that the Rainiers season is over. Even though it is AAA baseball, it is disappointing to see their miracle run come to end. Whatever the level is, a championship is exciting.

However, with the earlier exit, some Rainiers are going to get a bit more time in the majors. Shannon Drayer tweeted this morning that Adam Moore, Garret Olson, and Matt Tuiasosopo are on their way to Texas right now. Moore will make his major league debut when he gets in a game.

It is weird on some level. Baseball players, like any professional athlete, want to win every time they compete. However, a loss in this case helped three players (particularly Moore) reach the ultimate goal of any minor-leaguer, to make it to the big show.

In the end, this might have been the best case for the whole Mariners organization. I don't care if it's "just AAA," a winning culture is a winning culture. Wins anywhere can only help. However, the Mariners continue to battle through more than their fair share of bumps and bruises. A handful of the roster always seems to be out a couple days here and there for something. The M's can use, and to a certain extend need, September call-ups. Another week would have taxed the team even more.

Thanks to the 2009 Tacoma Rainiers for stirring up a little pennant fever reminiscent of the 1995 Refuse to Lose run. Congratulations to Adam Moore for making it to the major leagues too. I am already looking forward to the 2010 Rainiers. Guys like Nick Hill, and at some point Philippe Aumont and Josh Fields, should shore up the pitching staff. That Dustin Ackley kid is supposed to be a good hitter, and he might be around for next year's pennant chase too. Like everything Jack Zduriencik touches, the Rainiers were better this year, and the future is even brighter.

Rainers vs. River Cats Preview

Last night's Mariners loss was tough. It wasn't fun seeing Miguel Batista pitching in the tenth. It was even less fun hearing reaction from players after the game. Mike Sweeney sounded particularly dejected. Reality seems to be setting in within the clubhouse that this team isn't going to the playoffs.

However, one reason Batista was in the game in such a crucial situation is because the bullpen is thin right now. That's thanks to a few arm injuries, and the lack of September call-ups. You can thank the Rainiers for the lack of call-ups, because they finished a stunning late-season surge, beating the Colorado Springs Sky Sox on the final day of the season to clinch the division crown!

There is enough Mariners coverage out there, and it's an increasingly somber time of the year for the team. Until Tacoma is out of the playoffs, the Mariners Musings are going to stick with the Rainiers. They start a five-game series with the Sacramento River Cats, AAA affiliate of the A's, tonight. Here is a series preview:

LINEUPS

Sacramento: For the year, the River Cats had an average offense. However, as is common with AAA teams, a couple key contributors for most of the year are now in the majors. These include OF Eric Patterson, 1B Daric Barton, and SS Cliff Pennington. However, unlike most AAA teams, Sacramento was able to offset these losses well. Promising prospect 1B Chris Carter has been called up, and he adds much more power to the lineup than Barton did. Furthermore, the Matt Holliday trade brought back highly-touted 3B Brett Wallace, who is playing every day for Sacramento, and may be spending his final days in the minor leagues. Though Sacramento's lineup looks different than it did much of the year, it is still just about as good.

Tacoma: The Rainiers, unlike the Mariners, have a potent lineup. They led the PCL in home runs behind the strength of several good, though not great, sluggers. We saw a few of them briefly during the season in Seattle, 3B Chris Shelton and INF Matt Tuiasosopo. 1B/OF Bryan Lahair spent the whole year in Tacoma too, and put together a great season. The only significant contributors during the season not with the team now are OF Michael Saunders and 1B Mike Carp. However, Tacoma pulled off their entire comeback without Saunders anyway, and they have a glut of first baseman and corner outfielders, making Carp somewhat expendable. The Rainiers still have a formidable lineup, and I would say it is slightly better than Sacramento's.

STARTING ROTATION

Sacramento: The River Cats rotation had the potential to be filthy great with all the young pitching talent the A's have. The problem is that they were a little too good, and are all in the majors. Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill opened up the season in Oakland, and Gio Gonzalez and Vin Mazzaro have since joined them. Sacramento's rotation is not completely bare, but it's not what it should have been. The most notable name is RHP James Simmons, a former first round pick that has struggled this year. He is slated to pitch game five, if the series goes that far.

Tacoma: The Rainiers rotation has been a patchwork piece of art for most of the season, thanks in large part to the constant shuffle between them and the M's. Mariners fans will certainly recognize the games two and three starters, LHP Garrett Olson and RHP Brandon Morrow, respectively. Additionally, game four starter RHP Gaby Hernandez has been on a roll as of late. Tacoma's rotation was largely uninspiring this year, but thanks to demotions, it's probably as strong as it has been all year. In fact, thanks to Oakland's call ups, it matches up decently well with Sacramento's.

BULLPENS

The bullpens are not worth dissecting separately. Sacramento has a better one, period. Miguel Batista has kept a job all year in the M's 'pen, which should tell you something about the guys available in Tacoma. RHP Mike Koplove and RHP Robert Manuel have added some stability as late-season additions, but the team also lost reliable closer RHP Randy Messenger when he was called up by the M's.

This could be a fun series. We haven't seen a pennant chase like this since 1995. This Rainiers team even plays baseball a bit like the mid-'90s M's - lots of offense, some good starts here and there, and hope for the best with the bullpen.

There is a David versus Goliath element to this series too. Sacramento is gunning for their third straight PCL crown. It is hard to call them a dynasty, given the high turnover on AAA rosters from year to year, but in some ways that makes their run even more remarkable. They had by far the best record in the PCL this year, so they have to like their chances to threepeat.

However, I'm going to be a homer, and go with the Rainiers in this series. They are red hot right now, and the demotions of Olson and Morrow really help the pitching staff. On top of that, The River Cats are due to lose. It's hard enough to win back-to-back championships, much less three in a row. It's time for them to lose a playoff series, and why not it be to the Rainiers?

UPDATE (3:56 PM Pacific time) - The Mariners just announced that Brandon Morrow is getting called up, and will start Friday against the Rangers. This is good news for the M's, but a big blow to the Rainiers. I'll still pick the Rainiers, but this does change things. Tacoma just lost their ace. Perhaps Carlos Silva makes another rehab start in Morrow's place? He last pitched the last time Morrow started, and has not appeared in a game since.

UPDATE (4:12 PM Pacific time) - The Rainiers announced a few roster moves. The most notable is the addition of LHP Nick Hill. He has started and relieved this year, so I am not sure what he will do with Tacoma. Either way, he's a boost to the Rainiers pitching staff, especially with Morrow's loss.

Fister Flummoxing

Doug FisterDoug Fister was supposed to come up and keep a spot warm for Brandon Morrow. His only real asset was supposed to be control. AAA batters were hitting over .300 against him, after all.

Two victories later, over the Yankees and Angels of all teams, has me taking a closer look at Fister. Granted, he still does not have many starts. Balls are getting hit at defenders too, as evidenced by a remarkably low batting average on balls in play. Still, consider the two starts against the Yankees and Angels:

14.1 IP, 13 H, 2 BB, 6 K, 1 HR

That is Fister's combined line against the two best lineups baseball has to offer right now. Two lineups that routinely butcher and bludgeon all sorts of pitchers. Is Fister really that lucky, or really that good?

The likely answer is neither.

More balls will find holes eventually, and that will hurt Fister. I expected an average on balls in play of at least .300, and it is approaching .200 right now. Also, virtually any pitcher can look great for short stretches. For example, take a look at some of Oliver Perez's starts from the past few seasons. He is capable of greatness, but also capable of failing miserably. Seeing Perez here and there at just the right times could convince you he's one of the best pitchers in the game.

However, frankly, when it comes to Fister, I didn't think with his best stuff and luck he could shut the Yankees down like he did. Now, he's gone out and silenced the vaunted Angels lineup too.

Luck only carries any pitcher so far. Ditto goes for killer defense, like the M's have. Each solid start by Fister makes it less likely that luck is contributing, and more likely that it is skill.

Reality is bound to catch up with Fister. The run he has started his career with is too remarkable, and unsustainable. However, reality might be a dependable innings-eater at the back end of the rotation. Fister could be what Carlos Silva was supposed to be, except for less than 1/24th of the price.

I still can't figure out exactly what is making Doug Fister so successful right now. It can't be all luck. The flummoxing, lanky control artist has become a must-see-to-believe revelation. I keep waiting for him to stumble, but he simply refuses to. Maybe it's just because he is a little too good to fall. It's as good of an explanation as any at this point.