Hybrid Revisited

This is a follow up on a post I wrote at the beginning of the month, about carrying a reliever/defender. In particular, three players that profiled to fit the role I described are in the midst of switching from the field to the mound. I decided to see what each of them are doing so far:
  • Brian Anderson, RHP, Royals - Anderson, a former outfielder, is yet to appear in any games. My guess is that he is in extended spring training, and hopefully will play in a short-season league, once those start up in mid-June
  • Tony Pena, RHP, Giants - Pena, a former shortstop, best known for making Yuniesky Betancourt a legitimate upgrade for Kansas City last year, is currently pitching in relief at AA Richmond. Through 7 appearances, and 11 innings, he has a 0.82 ERA. Pena also is holding opponents to a .139 batting average, and sporting a superb 2.86 ground out to air out ratio. Granted, this is all in only 11 innings of work, but in 19.1 minor league innings at the end of last year, his ground-to-air ratio was an even 3.00! Pena seems to have a pretty heavy sinker, which should make him a decent reliever. He could induce a double play, and also turn it with his shortstop skills. As a somewhat random sidenote, what if the Mariners had a guy with Pena's skillset? He could be the seventh man out of the bullpen, while also being a late inning defensive replacement at shortstop when Jack Wilson is a little dinged up.
  • Sergio Santos, RHP, White Sox - Santos was the player that prompted this updated post in the first place. He pitched against the Mariners over the weekend, and looked quite good. To this point, he has appeared in eight games, logging eight innings, and is yet to give up a run. Santos has only given up 2 hits, while walking 3, and striking out 10. Again, it is early, so the sample size highlights promise, but can't be used to conclude anything definitely really. However, since Santos is in the majors, we also have some pitch type data to look at. His fastball is averaging 95.9 MPH, and he also features a change-up and slider, each that average around 86 MPH. Fangraphs linear weights suggest all have been above-average pitches for Santos, which his early production backs up. Furthermore, the slider-change up combination should allow him to be effective against lefties and righties. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has called Santos a closer in waiting, and I would have to agree with him, based on what little we have seen so far.
Sergio Santos has probably outgrown my gimmicky roster spot, because he is quickly profiling as a valuable reliever. He may also have literally outgrown the spot, as he is now listed at 240 pounds. I highly doubt he carried that kind of weight at shortstop.
    Still, Santos and Pena raise a couple questions for me.

    First of all, how difficult is it to be an effective reliever? Both of these guys are starting off at high professional levels, with extremely limited pitching experience, and more than holding their own. It seems that a live arm paired with good athletic ability is a winning combination. That's hardly new news, but it is nice to see some anecdotal evidence. Furthermore, if the combo is as safe of a bet as Pena and Santos are making it appear to be, just about any slick-fielding shortstop or center fielder is a candidate for this theoretical hybrid roster spot of mine.

    Second, how crazy is the idea of a hybrid roster spot? I am digging into college prospects right now, and many players have experience pitching and playing the field. Truly, the only level we do not see it is in the pros. What's stopping a team from carrying a guy that's just halfway decent as a middle reliever, and then also using him as a late-inning defensive replacement if he can play the field? Middle relievers see action from the fifth through sixth or seventh innings, and defensive replacements come in around the eighth or ninth. A manager should not have to make an either/or decision, especially in the National League, where the pitcher is batting already. Particularly, Tony Pena's skillset seems perfect for this role.

    I realize I am going on a total of 19 innings between two players, so I have probably analyzed way too far with what little I have. However, I thought the idea could work before I had any numbers to look at, and the early returns could not be any more promising. In the right hands, a pitcher/defender hybrid makes a roster play like it has 26 men, which seems advantageous to me.

    The Rotation Situation

    Cliff Lee is starting April 30, according to Don Wakamatsu. Incidentally, his first start will be on Felix Hernandez bobblehead doll night. It feels like the sort of coincidence that has some sort of mysterious, cosmic meaning. I hope it is a some sort of sign of an impending Cy Young race between the two.

    Anyway, with Lee back, someone has to leave the rotation. On opening day, the logical candidates were Doug Fister and Jason Vargas. However, both Fister and Vargas are pitching very well right now. The obvious guy to replace, based on what we've seen so far, is Ian Snell.

    Snell may be a better pitcher than Fister or Vargas, and as they all accumulate more innings, that may begin to show. However, I think it is important for players performing at high levels to get priority, because quality production needs to be a priority of any winning organization. Thus, if I were Don Wakamatsu, this decision is fairly easy to make. Ian Snell is the odd man out, at least until Fister or Vargas cools down. I would call Snell into my office this afternoon too, informing him of the decision.

    Why notify Snell almost two weeks in advance of Lee's return? It's thanks to the schedule. The Mariners have consecutive Thursdays off, and Snell's next scheduled day to start is this Thursday. If his spot is skipped, everyone else starts on their normal rest. With the groove everyone else is in, keeping everyone in their normal rhythm makes good sense. Snell would still make one more start before Cliff Lee's return, but it wouldn't be until April 27, in Kansas City. In the meantime, he could be an extra reliever.

    The other advantage of skipping Snell this Thursday is that it allows Ryan Rowland-Smith to start next Wednesday in Kansas City. Then, there is an off-day, and then Cliff Lee's glorious return. That means that both Fister and Vargas's spots will be skipped in the process. So, after Cliff starts on April 30, and Felix on May 1, the Mariners can pick Fister, Vargas, or Snell to start that Sunday. With only one start for each of them between now and May 2, I don't see any way Snell could grab it. The May 2 spot would go to Fister or Vargas, with Fister being the front-runner.

    Ian Snell is out of options though, so I wouldn't try to sneak him down to Tacoma. Instead, I would place him in the bullpen, and send Jesus Colome down to make room for Cliff Lee. Snell's stuff may translate well in the bullpen, and he is a better fit for a long relief role than Colome anyway.  I would like to see Snell take Vargas's spot in the rotation, but the performances of both pitchers can dictate that decision. For now, Vargas has earned his keep, and he may earn it all the way to Erik Bedard's return.

    We will see what Wakamatsu does, but I think the best choice is to slide Ian Snell to the bullpen for the time being. I will be surprised if anyone but Snell or Vargas loses their rotation spot.

    Cliff Lee Successfully Appeals

    On the heels of a convincing 8-2 victory over the woeful and increasingly star-crossed Baltimore Orioles, the Mariners scored another win. More accurately, Cliff Lee scored his first victory of the season, before throwing his first pitch of the season (yeah, he's that good). This morning, Major League Baseball rescinded Lee's five-game suspension.

    Finally, this ridiculous situation is over. I felt that Lee never should have been suspended in the first place, and this decision validates my stance. The punishment did not fit the crime at all. It is quite rare for a player to get suspended in spring training, most commonly occurring in response to big spring training brawls. Cliff Lee threw one very bad-looking pitch that happened to go over the head of the batter, during an outing where he was struggling with his control. After the game, he was diagnosed with the abdominal strain. It looked to me like Cliff Lee was being suspended for getting injured, and being rusty.

    However, what bothers me even more is how poorly baseball handled the appeal. Lee was supposed to have a hearing near the end of spring training, but some baseball official forgot to show up. That is what pushed the appeal into the season, and even this decision took almost a week to come down. Major League Baseball moved at a glacial pace from the start, which I find incredibly unfair to Cliff Lee and the Mariners. It was getting difficult to time Lee's rehabilitation because of their slow pace.

    It is kind of ironic that this is the same office that likes to complain about the slow pace of baseball games, but I digress. Major League Baseball handed down an unfair suspension, and then poorly handled the appeal process. The least they could have done was drop it, and to their credit, they did.

    Finally, it is okay to get all excited over Cliff Lee again!

    Fear a Limping Bird

    The Baltimore Orioles, better known as the worst team in the American League so far (and it is not even close), come to town for a three game series that starts tonight. It is easy to look at this matchup and consider the series won, if not swept.

    However, everything I wrote a week ago about the Mariners applies to the Orioles. Maybe Baltimore isn't that good, but the certainly aren't as bad as they have played so far this year. For instance, even if Brian Roberts has a bad back, is he really going to post a .464 OPS this year? Look up and down the O's lineup, and much like the M's a week ago, there are many players playing below what is expected of them.

    Tonight's starter, Brad Bergesen, is another prime example of a guy that will get better. Maybe he should be in AAA, but he has been tattooed at an insane rate. It is hard for opponents to bat .400 on a consistent basis, no matter how bad the pitcher on the mound is.

    At the start of the season, I certainly thought that the Mariners were a better team than the Orioles, and based on the way both have played thus far, there is no reason to think differently. I like the M's chances to take this series, and leave home with a .500 record. It would be dumb to project any other outcome.

    However, I can't help but think that Bergesen is due to look more like the pitcher he probably is, and the offense he faces tonight is far from intimidating. Brian Roberts is due for some hits too, and there are a handful of Orioles due to flash some extra base power.

    Baltimore is going to look better at some point, and the longer they go looking as bad as they have been, the more improbable their run of futility becomes. They are going to win some games they aren't expected to win, like every team does over the course of a season. Coming off a win in Oakland, and throwing a starting pitcher that has struggled mightily against a subpar offense, looks like a scenario built to get Baltimore closer to where they should be.

    Not to be a fear monger, but this is a trap series. I would not bet on Baltimore winning it, but I would bet on them giving the M's a fight that defies their 2-11 record.

    UPDATE (11:20 AM) - Brian Roberts will get more hits when he is off the DL too. I should have caught that, but it doesn't make the point I'm making any different. The Orioles are still a team due for some good luck, and hopefully it won't come at the M's expense.

    NYM 2, STL 1, F/20: A Baffling Game

    There was an epic 20-inning affair between the Mets and Cardinals last night (box score available here). It was entertaining to watch from my vantage point, Safeco Field. My friends and I started rooting for 20 innings as we watched the out-of-town scoreboard. We also wondered how long things would go in that game before hitters started taking the mound, and chaos in general started to reign supreme in high leverage situations.

    By the 19th inning, even from the limited information an out-of-town scoreboard can provide, it was obvious the game had entered a surreal state. Joe Mather, primarily an outfielder, had taken the mound for St. Louis. I would later check the box score and find out he replaced middle infielder Felipe Lopez. It was very amusing, but not surprising, given the situation.

    Then it became apparent that this game was in an alternate baseball universe. Once the Mets grabbed the lead, Francisco Rodriguez came in the game to close it out.

    How in the world did the closer get saved until the 19th inning?

    K-Rod faced Ryan Ludwick to start with, who got aboard. Up to the plate stepped Albert Pujols. This was a golden opportunity! Ludwick expunged it himself though, getting caught stealing second. Oh well, I thought to myself, when you go a long time in a baseball game, odd things happen to perpetuate the game. Adding insult to injury, Pujols doubled.

    Next, Kyle Lohse stepped to the plate. As in starting pitcher for the Cardinals, Kyle Lohse. I turned to my friend next to me and pointed it out. A position player was pitching, so where was Lohse playing? St. Louis had literally used everyone on their bench, and were playing a pitcher somewhere in the field. Our best guess was left field, and checking the box score afterwards, we were right.

    In the end, Joe Mather struggled some, and the Mets prevailed 2-1. Francisco Rodriguez got the least-earned victory in major league history, after blowing the save in the 19th inning. Instead, Mike Pelfrey got that in the 20th, after starting for the Mets the day before.

    The game features all sorts of goofy stats. For instance, the Cardinals left 22 men on base in the game, yet only scored 1 run. Lots of guys had odd nights at the plate with their 8-10 at bats. Mather pinch hit in extra innings, got the equivalent of a whole game in, and then came in to pitch.

    Some of the numbers were expected. Long extra inning games almost always feature tons of men left on base. It intuitively makes sense. Most often, something has to go wrong to prolong a game so long, and it's much more likely to strand runners than to not get runners at all.

    However, I am not sure this game had any business going 20 innings. Either that, or perhaps it should have gone even longer. Both managers made some very curious decisions.

    Consider the 18th through 20th innings for the Cardinals. They were all pitched by position players, and to facilitate that, Kyle Lohse, a pitcher, came into the game in left field. You can't make this kind of stuff up. For the 19th and 20th innings, an outfielder was pitching, while a pitcher was in the outfield. I don't care that Lohse is a starting pitcher. The bottom line is that a pitcher was in the outfield while an outfielder was on the mound, and that is supposed to make good baseball sense?

    The winning manager, Jerry Manuel, is far from immune either. K-Rod came in for the 19th inning, albeit in the first save situation of the game. However, the cost of saving him for that point was warming him up multiple times, starting in the 8th inning. Rodriguez said after the game he may have thrown as many as 100 warm-up pitches in the bullpen before finally entering the game.

    As a brief side note, Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin came in for the 17th inning. I doubt he is in much better shape after warming up numerous times.

    The bottom of the 19th as a whole should have played out quite differently. Francisco Rodriguez should have been used well before it. Ryan Ludwick never should have tried to steal second with the best hitter on the planet at the plate. Furthermore, why did the Mets even pitch to Pujols? On deck was Kyle Lohse! He of a career .369 OPS Kyle Lohse! It makes Ludwick's decision to steal even more preposterous, as well as the decision to pitch to Pujols.

    Maybe the game was destined to go on forever no matter what. I didn't have the privilege of seeing it, so I don't know the vibe that it had, especially by the 11th or 12th inning. However, after seeing some of these antics from the latest innings, I wonder what got the game to that point in the first place. It is hard to leave 22 men on base, but it's easier to fathom when Ryan Ludwick is running with Albert Pujols at the plate and Kyle Lohse on deck.

    I tend to believe that MLB managers have far less impact on games than their counterparts in other sports. It isn't like managers really get a chance to call plays, or decide where the ball is going to go. Their biggest impact on the game most often is made when they fill out the lineup card, before the game even starts.

    However, I assumed that managers are smart enough to not put a position player on the mound by placing a pitcher in left field, that they won't get a reliever up seven or eight times before putting them in, and won't pitch to the best hitter in the game with a pitcher on deck and a base open (especially after another dumb decision to run with said hitter in said situation at the plate). Even in the absurd circumstances that a 20th inning presents, some baffling decisions were made last night. At least these two teams have the punishment of facing each other again tonight, after the self-inflicted wounds the managers placed on each of their rosters last night.

    Reasons For Hope

    Overall, the M's first road trip wasn't all that great. It is hard to find silver linings in a 2-5 stretch, especially against division rivals, and especially when one of those opponents is the foe again tonight. Going beyond the box scores and results, just watching the team was deflating. Aside from Franklin Gutierrez, nobody was terribly exciting.

    Which is precisely my point.

    If the 2010 Mariners continue to look just like they did on their first road trip, this season is doomed. There will be no offense, dicey pitching four out of five days, and the losses will rack up at prodigious rates.

    The Mariners more or less earned their 2-5 start. Four games were decided in the ninth inning or later, and the M's went 2-2 in those games, exactly what you would expect if games that close are more or less toss-ups. The other three games were decisive losses, which you would expect from a team with iffy pitching and no offense.

    So, was the road trip representative of the M's true ability?

    Let's take a closer look at the offense using a relatively limited tool, batting average. It's plenty good enough to illuminate my point.

    Franklin Gutierrez batted .444 on the road trip. He batted .283 last year, and has a career average of .272. His batting average is going to dip. Let's say it will dip 180 points, to .264.

    We can't be selective with regression to the mean though. Let's check out all the other regulars.

    Ichiro is batting .286, Chone Figgins .240, and Casey Kotchman .227 (though with some decent power). Their career averages are .333, .291, and .268, respectively. That's a total of 139 batting average points below their career averages. Let's say between the three of them, they improve by 75 points.

    Jack Wilson has a .261 average so far, and Griffey is hitting at a .267 clip. They both batted around .220 for the M's last year, though their career numbers suggest that they may be able to keep up their current paces. Let's be harsh and say that they both dip 50 points.

    So, to recap, we have gone through six spots in the lineup and deducted 215 total batting average points from what we saw on the road trip.

    Jose Lopez is hitting .179 on the year so far. His average last year was .272, and his career mark is .271. Let's say his batting average improves 80 points, to .259.

    Adam Moore and Rob Johnson combined are hitting .100 on the young season. I think it's safe to say they can combine to hit .190 on the season. That's a 90-point improvement.

    Finally, there is Milton Bradley. He is batting .048 so far. Last year (which by the way was considered a total bust) he hit .257, and his career mark is .276. Let's say he bats .228. That's a 180-point gain.

    Add all this fast-and-loose regression up, and the M's lineup gains 135 points in batting average over what they have now. That averages out to 15 points per lineup spot, and I assumed everyone would hit worse than their career numbers indicate. The M's offense may not be great, but it was freakishly bad on the road trip. It will get noticeably better.

    The pitching was frustrating to watch too, and they did much of it to themselves with all the walks they issued. However, the current BABIP for the whole pitching staff is .348, the worst in the entire American League by 15 points. Digging further into batted ball data, M's pitchers have the highest line drive percentage of any staff in the majors (25%), which isn't too surprising after watching them. They seemed to get hit hard on the road trip, and the stats back that up.

    However, the highest line drive rate for a staff in all of baseball last year was 20.6% (by the Phillies).  The highest BABIP in 2009 was posted by the Red Sox, and it was .320. Even if the Mariners have the worst pitching staff in the majors, there is NO way this staff is as bad as it has looked so far. In fact, in case you are wondering, the M's had a .280 BABIP last year, and a line drive rate of 19%, with guys like Miguel Batista and Garrett Olson logging significant innings.

    The Mariners are better than they have shown so far. Even if everyone underperforms, and Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard don't make one pitch for this ballclub, the Mariners are still a much better ballclub than they have shown. While the road trip stunk, it's not worth panicking over.

    More Than Death to Flying Things

    First of all, let's admire the play one more time:
    Here is the video. I've watched it four times since it happened. It's not going to get old. It has a great chance to be the play of the year.

    A ton happened in yesterday's ninth inning. The Mariners were on their way to a fifth consecutive loss, led by a punchless offense yet again. King Felix was on the hook for a loss he didn't deserve. The defense had a couple pretty bad miscues. The team looked as dead in the water as a team could look six games into the season.

    Then a shaky closer came in, and the M's were smart enough to let him walk himself into trouble, and then the lineup turned over, and all of a sudden there was a glimmer of hope.

    Then, there was Franklin Gutierrez.

    With the game tied in the ninth, Guti banged a single just past the shortstop for his third hit of the game, bringing home the go-ahead run. The single was an exclamation point on a great day for Guti. But, because saving the M's from the jaws of defeat once wasn't enough, he went and made a catch that even Ichiro marveled at. Guti himself called it amazing after the game as well.

    I asked in my brief season preview post back on Monday how good Franklin Gutierrez is. I went as far to say that he could get MVP consideration if the chips fall his way.

    Keep it on the down low for now, but the first couple chips fell Guti's way yesterday. The Mariners do not win yesterday's ballgame (on national TV too) without him. He got a little luck to have the chance to drive in the game-winning run, but that catch...I am not sure anyone else in baseball could have made that catch.

    I'm serious. To start with, Gutierrez had to have the pure speed and leaping ability to get to the ball. On top of that, he had to have the anticipation and skill to navigate a tricky wall, while timing his jump perfectly to intersect with the ball's path. Most leaping grabs are made by players running along the same path as the ball, or standing in place, then leaping. However, Guti was cutting across at full speed as he bounded. The play took an insane combination of ability and skill to pull off.

    Anyway, back to Guti as an MVP candidate. Consider this: he had three hits at the plate yesterday, including the game-winner, yet all anyone can talk about is his defense. It is only one game, but there aren't many players in baseball that are capable of a game like that. While it is way too early to say anything definitive, Franklin Gutierrez is a darkhorse MVP candidate until further notice.

    Opening Day 2010 Musings

    A collection of thoughts from yesterday, more or less in chronological order:

    • Good to see guys like Albert Pujols, Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum pick up where they left off
    • It was even better to see Miguel Batista pick up where he left off
    • Very amusing to see the Royals roll out an opening day lineup with Jose Guillen, Willie Bloomquist, and Yuniesky Betancourt batting fifth, sixth, and seventh
    • Mark Buehrle should already have a Gold Glove wrapped up after this phenomenal play
    • Not even the Disney channel would touch a script of Jason Heyward's life at this point
    • Miguel Batista and Jason Heyward helped me and my fantasy team ignore Carlos Zambrano's implosion
    Of course, the main attraction for me was the Mariners game:

    • I wonder what Ben Sheets looked like in the off-season. I don't see how a scout couldn't give a favorable report on him, based on what I saw last night. His fastball still has pretty good zip, and his curve ball is still nasty. I'm not sure it all adds up to $10 million worth of nasty, but Sheets looked better than I expected.
    • Felix's six walks are not representative of how well he pitched. The strike zone was very small. In particular, the lower third was non-existent. There were a total of 15 walks in the game, which is ridiculous. None of the pitchers in the game (M's or A's) were that wild.
    • Jose Lopez looked better at third base than I expected
    • Milton Bradley broke his bat by slamming it in the ground, and a little bit later glared at the A's fans after catching a routine fly ball. He is a ticking time bomb, no doubt about it, and I found myself loving it. It might even be good for this team. I don't mind having one player around that is so hyper-competitive.
    • One game isn't enough to answer all the questions on this team. However, Casey Kotchman looked good, Griffey had a productive night, Rob Johnson hit a home run (and walked too!), and David Aardsma looked like David Aardsma. One game in, we only got reasons to lean towards positive answers.
    If the next six months are anything like yesterday, it's going to be a fantastic season.

    2010 Mariners Preview

    It has been a while since I've woken up and known the M's are going to play a game that matters. That is the beauty of opening day for me.

    By now you have probably checked out enough previews and predictions, so I will try to take a bit different approach. Instead of giving some broad overview, or trying to give exact numbers, I will focus on key changes, and key players. With this team, that's more than enough to write about.

    So, here are my reasons the 2010 Mariners won't be just like the 2009 bunch.

    First of all, the changes:

    1. Chone Figgins replaces Adrian Beltre - It is debatable which of these two players is actually better, but let's not forget how bad Beltre's 2009 campaign was. He missed significant time with injuries, and even when playing, they made him a shell of the hitter he can be. Figgins in 2010 will blow away Beltre's 2009 production, even if the defense isn't as good. This is one of the biggest reasons to expect the M's offense to be better this year.
    2. Casey Kotchman replaces Russell Branyan - Kind of an opposite argument here to the Figgins/Beltre one. With Branyan's back problems, it is pretty clear who is the superior player right now. However, there is no getting around the gaping hole Branyan's 2009 production at the plate leaves. Kotchman won't fill it, but he should at least hit for average, and he brings a much, much better glove with him to first. Casey is a very different player than Branyan, but overall I think he is a better replacement then most are giving him credit for right now.
    3. Jack Wilson replaces Yuniesky Betancourt/Ronny Cedeno/et al - Jack isn't a great hitter, but he's definitely better than Yuni or Ronny was in 2009. His defense is light years ahead of virtually every shortstop too (especially Yuni). It's easy to point at Jack and say he is a reason this team won't score enough runs, but don't forget who he is replacing from 2009. He is a big reason this team has a better starting nine this year - and even a reason it is reasonable to expect the M's to score some more runs.
    4. Milton Bradley replaces Endy Chavez/Michael Saunders - I don't care how good Bradley's legs are, the defense takes a hit with him out there. However, he is the superior hitter. Yet another reason this team will score some more runs, though not as clear-cut if this is a significant upgrade, considering the defense, and Bradley's well-documented past.
    5. The starting rotation has more upside - Chris Jakubauskas, Garrett Olson, and Carlos Silva combined to make 25 starts for the 2009 Mariners. That's not going to happen this year. Ian Snell is in line to eat up a lion's share of those starts. Certainly, Snell is a question mark, but I'll take him over the trio he replaces. Furthermore, Cliff Lee is in line to take Jarrod Washburn's starts, and while Wash was surprisingly fantastic, I'll take Lee too.
    6. Kanekoa Teixeira and Shawn Kelley are taking over middle relief - Both of these pitchers have question marks around their ability to handle this role, but would you rather have them, or the Miguel Batista/Garret Olson/Chris Jakubauskas cross-your-fingers-for-a-few-innings mix the M's had in that role in 2009? I thought so.
    7. Brandon League is in the bullpen too - Brandon Morrow, Roy Corcoran, and Randy Messenger combined for 44 relief appearances last year. A healthy Sean White and Shawn Kelley may take some of those appearances, but many of them will likely be handed to Brandon League. That's a good thing.
    There are key holdovers to watch too. Here are some particular situations worth watching:

    • Ichiro will be worse, but how much worse? Ichiro had one of his best years in 2009. Age and regression to the mean should catch up to him in 2010. He can't be banked on to put an equally insane year, though he should still be great. However, on a team offensively challenged, this is worth pointing out, and worrying some about.
    • How good will David Aardsma be? I liked Aardsma as a breakout candidate last year, but never expected him to be as good as he was. He isn't likely to keep his home run rate as low as he did last year, and he has been beaten around pretty hard in spring training too. I wonder how long Wak will stick with Aardsma in the closer's role. I think Mark Lowe takes over as early as mid-May. I'm that worried about Aardsma.
    • How good will the catchers be? I mean this in a positive way. The M's have suffered through a couple seasons where the backstops have more or less been a black hole on offense. That shouldn't be the case this year. Both Rob Johnson and Adam Moore have some offensive upside, and in this case, even being below average is a noticeable improvement. Johnson and Moore are more than capable of that. Plus, gone are the days of pitchers whining about Kenji's pitch selection.
    • Will Ken Griffey Jr. be better than last year? Supposedly, Griffey's knee has been bad for a few years, but is better now. For what it's worth, Griffey's walk rate increased significantly the past few years, and his BABIP went way down. There is a correlation, but that doesn't mean causation, especially at Griffey's advanced age. If the knee has really been that big of a problem, perhaps Griffey can bounce back more than almost anyone (including myself) thinks he can.
    • How good is Franklin Gutierrez? As big as Guti's 2009 campaign was, 2010 is in some ways even bigger. He established that he is a good player, but how good? It's easy to look at his breakout season, and assume he will regress down towards his career rates in 2010. That's okay if that happens, but I'm just going to throw this out there: Guti finally got a chance to play every day. He flashed some serious power at times in 2009. The M's want to see more of that, along with more patience. They've seen enough of both out of Guti in spring training to toy around with hitting him third. What if he sticks in the third spot, and hits around 25 home runs? That would put him close to 100 RBIs, if not over. Combine that with a decent batting average, improved on-base percentage, elite defense (and the newfound love for defense in the media), and a pennant run by the M's, and Franklin Gutierrez might get some MVP consideration.
    The 2009 Mariners befuddled many experts, and just as people started to pick out what was skill from luck, the roster changed drastically. The 2010 team has tons of new faces, and more than its fair share of question marks. Combine questions with a poor spring training, and it is not surprising that the M's have gone from a novel pick to do great things, to an overrated posse with obvious holes.

    For me, the questions remain unanswered. About the only thing I am sure of is that this team will score some more runs. How many more though? Will the pitching and defense stay just as good too?

    I don't know how good this team is, but I think guys like Franklin Gutierrez, Casey Kotchman, Milton Bradley, Erik Bedard, Ian Snell, and David Aardsma will go a long ways toward determining this team's fate. I just listed a quarter of the roster, and that's the point. Turn anywhere on this team, and there is a looming question mark. No matter how much the roster is analyzed, those answers won't come until the season starts to unfold.

    Hopefully the answers are more good than bad.

    A Hybrid Roster Spot

    Maybe I've hit upon a bit of a running series about rethinking the traditional set-up of a Major League roster. On the heels of my post about pitching staffs a few weeks ago, I present an idea I haven't seen anyone really consider for the last spot on a roster. It is inspired by a trio of fringe players I've noticed.

    There are at least three former position players trying to reinvent themselves as pitchers this year: Tony Pena with the Giants, Brian Anderson with the Royals, and Sergio Santos with the White Sox. This isn't too new of a phenomenon, either. A couple of Mariners in the past decade, Rafael Soriano and Chris Jakubauskas, switched to the mound to improve their chances at making the majors.

    Players who switch from hitting to pitching tend to have similar stories. They can't hack it as a hitter in the pros, but flash a strong arm on defense. Some scout tells the player to take the mound, and then they stick a radar gun on him. If he can get into the upper 80s or low 90s with no coaching, scouts see potential.

    The typical story of a pitching crossover also reveals a typical skillset. If a player cannot hit too well, they likely have some defensive abilities that allowed them to progress through the farm system. A strong arm helps (particularly in the outfield), but there is more to defense than that. Pena's career UZR at shortstop, and Anderson's career UZR in the outfield, support this little hunch of mine.

    So, converts tend to be players with good defensive ability, often at premium positions, a live arm that might make them a decent pitcher, but hitting ability so lackluster their defense cannot make them a serviceable position player.

    Teams, when constructing a roster, often debate the pros and cons of carrying 11 or 12 pitchers, and the value of carrying defensive replacements over pinch-hitters. Role players tend to be role players for a reason: they have holes in their skillsets, but they have something they can do pretty well.

    What if we stop looking at the Brian Anderson's and Tony Pena's of the world as position players or pitchers? Instead, what if they are a little bit of both? Could they fill two fringe roles on a roster simultaneously?

    In some ways, this is not a radical idea at all. For instance, Giants hot prospect Buster Posey was the catcher and closer at Florida State. Former first baseman John Olerud did a fair amount of pitching too when he was at Washington State. Many professional ballplayers have hitting and pitching experience against fairly high levels of competition.

    A player that hits/defends and pitches would be a radical idea by MLB standards though.

    I think a good manager could take advantage of a defender/reliever hybrid. There is no rule that a pitcher has to face batters in succession. For example, it is legal for a reliever to come in and face a batter, then go to second base for a few hitters, and go back on the mound. The only rule is that once they are removed from a game they cannot go back in. It's the same rule for any player.

    Let's suppose it is the seventh inning in a close game, and a manager wants to make a defensive replacement in left field, and also wants to get lefty-lefty and righty-righty matchups on the mound. If the manager had a player like Brian Anderson around (assuming he can be a decent reliever, a BIG IF at this point), the manager could bring Anderson in to face the righty. Then, when it is time for the specialty lefty, Anderson goes to the outfield, where he is actually an asset! Once it is time for a righty again, Anderson takes the mound again, and someone else takes his place in left field. An entire pitcher is saved, and if a defensive replacement was going to go out in left field anyway, no bench spot has been burned in the process.

    Heck, if a team somehow got a lefty and a righty who were both decent relievers and good outfielders, they could play the matchups to perfection for multiple innings without burning through their bullpen, and potentially fielding a stronger defense in the process. It could make a pitching staff play more like it has 13 or 14 options, while also freeing up the bench to include a more "pure" pinch-hitter, without worries of their defensive limitations.

    The drawback of the hybrid is obvious. When a hybrid enters the game, the lineup essentially features a pitcher (or two, if playing in the NL, where I think this would be especially helpful). However, the drawback is more or less hidden if the hybrid comes in during the late innings, when they would be lifted for a pinch-hitter anyway (or even better, if/when their spot in the lineup doesn't bat by the end of the game).

    Again, I think a skilled manager would find a way to avoid the hybrid's weaknesses while taking advantage of their strengths. A bad manager would...well...make fans wonder what's going on. But bad managers do that without wacky roster ideas.

    Unlike the pitching staff idea I threw out there a few weeks ago, a hybrid position requires a player with a pretty unique skillset. It only makes sense with a guy that defends well, pitches at least marginally well, and probably does not hit well. However, there are three guys switching to the mound this year that profile as candidates, and I wonder how many others would also fit the mold if teams looked for it.

    I feel like defensive specialists, pinch-hitting specialists, and situational relievers (especially specialty lefties) limit rosters. So, if a player can fill a couple of those roles, it seems like it would make the player more valuable. It would be almost like playing with a 26-man roster, and when combined with creative pitcher usage, could make a team more difficult to match up with in later innings.