thoughts on the Mariners, MLB draft, and more homelinksdraftabout me

Scott Baker Joins Roster Mix

Scott Baker, back in the day (Keith Allison, photographer)
The Mariners made a couple small moves today, ditching Carlos Peguero on the Royals for cash or a player to be named later, and signing Scott Baker to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training (plus incentives for innings pitched). The Peguero move is minor - he was already in DFA limbo - though I will miss his mammoth at-bats in Tacoma. He was a fun one to watch, much in the same way Dan Cortes was a few years back. POWER and FATAL FLAWS, which will win?! In AAA, the outcome wasn't so certain as it is in the majors. Hence the fun.

The more interesting move is Scott Baker, who has been rumored as a fit for the Mariners for some time now. He joins Mark Rogers on the M's scrap heap of possible rotation arms, though is much stronger bet than Rogers, given that Rogers has struggled to throw strikes throughout his minor league career. Baker, on the other hand, sports 17.5 career WAR in nearly 1,000 MLB innings.

Baker, now 33 years old, isn't exactly a workhorse, given that he has only topped 200 innings once in his career. He also doesn't do anything particularly well - he has a decent strikeout rate, good walk rate, average home run rate, his fair share of ground balls, doesn't work all that deep into ballgames - literally no stand-out skill. However, Baker also doesn't have any real flaws, and no flaws over 170-ish innings racks up some surprising WAR.

Now, there is the possibility that Baker is finished, particularly given that he had Tommy John surgery in 2012. However, he made it back for three starts right at the end of last season and held his own. Many Tommy John arms bounce back more the second year after returning to the mound too, so there is a non-zero chance that Scott Baker gets stronger as 2014 wears on. If he does, the Mariners have themselves a solid rotation arm.

Frankly, a roster spot is Baker's to lose. His contract reportedly includes incentives tied to innings pitched. The only way he doesn't crack the rotation is if both James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez look good in spring training, and in that case Baker is likely a bullpen arm.

Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez, the top arms left in free agency, have had some up-and-down years recently, though both entered the market after "up" seasons. Baker hits the market "down." He probably isn't as good as Santana or Jimenez, but there isn't a $10 million talent gap between them, and his contract isn't about to make things awkward if/when more of the M's young arms are ready for a try in the rotation. It's been a while since I've felt this good about a move the Mariners made.

Kevin Mather New Mariners COO

Mather has played a large role in keeping Safeco up to date
Kevin Mather will replace Chuck Armstrong as Mariners Chief Operating Officer (COO) on February 1. Mather is an 18-year veteran of the M's leadership, most recently overseeing finance and ballpark operations (in other words, making sure Safeco Field stays afloat). For now, Mather assumes the COO role without relinquishing other duties, though the COO role is slightly diminished because Bob Aylward will be taking over as chairman of NW Sports Net (formerly ROOT Sports), which was also one of Armstrong's duties once the M's purchased ROOT Sports.

Mather is an odd subject to write about because his promotion is obviously significant Mariners news...but how in the world do you say something educated about a role so abstract and removed from the field of play?

Shannon Drayer has the best quotes I've found so far from Mather, along with helpful details about what his job will and won't be. I am encouraged, though words are not actions.

Two things Mather mentioned in his first press conference caught my attention. First of all, his vision for COO is a "supporter" for baseball operations. He knows he is not a baseball man, but understands that baseball operations take financial support. Mather's background is in finances, and the accounts I've read suggest he is quite good with money. The vision Mather provides is hardly groundbreaking, but might be more hands off than Chuck Armstrong has been characterized. Now, whether Armstrong meddled as much as some say he did, and Mather is more hands-off with baseball decisions, remains to be seen. I believe the organization would be best off if Mather makes sure that the entire baseball operations staff works together on baseball decisions, but also works with complete autonomy from other branches of the franchise. The baseball operations depend on the resources that the organization provides, but that doesn't mean other should have direct influence on how the baseball operations resources are used.

The second, more concrete, thing that Mather suggested is he will lobby for a three-year budget structure. This could revolutionize the way the Mariners operate and is long overdue. Unfortunately, it also might be too late for this way of thinking to impact the 2013 team. The Mariners currently operate year-to-year, meaning they hope to at least break even each season. However, Mather's proposal suggests that the goal should be to break even every three years. This structure would give Zduriencik latitude to lose money on a bigger budget in some years, and make it back in others (if money is not recuperated by something like a playoff run). With this kind of budgeting mentality, the younger, cheaper teams the M's fielded the last few seasons would have resulted in savings that go towards future payrolls, instead off...wherever they've been going. Lincoln and Armstrong's pockets? The moose's antlers? Not the payroll, that's the only thing for sure.

All in all, I am cautiously optimistic about Mather taking over. I felt the Mariners could benefit from a major shake-up in leadership, and Mather isn't that, but he might end up bringing the benefits of both a shake-up and stability. Mather already has longstanding relationships with the Mariners leadership, and that allows him to hit the ground running. However, Mather does not have the baseball background Armstrong has (or if you want to be more pessimistic, the background Armstrong believes he has) and that will likely impact how he performs his duties as COO, particularly with the added presence of Aylward and the cable channel. Mather will need to collaborate in ways Armstrong never had to, for better or for worse.

Mather said he feels bad for Chuck because he is stepping into an opportunity. He is right about that. The whole reason Mariners fans are so frustrated is because the Mariners should be better than they have been. Changes would be welcome and appreciated. Here's hoping that Mather's mix of existing partnerships and different strengths he brings to the COO position add up to some productive changes for the Mariners.

You Know Who Isn't the Seahawks? The Mariners.

Richard Sherman, celebrity softball slugger
I am a Seahawks fan, though never in the same way I am a Mariners fan. I have liked the Seahawks since well before their first Super Bowl run, so I'm not a bandwagon fan, but they aren't about to challenge the Mariners in my own fandom.

The Seahawks aren't an invisible force on my blog though. Way back in the primordial ooze of this website, it was originally "Tim's Random Sports Musings," and I happened to start blogging about halfway through the 2005 NFL season. Baseball was pretty dormant at the time, given that it was the offseason, and the Seahawks were on a roll. That roll got them the top seed in the NFC and ultimately an ill-fated (or, more accurately, badly officiated)* Super Bowl trip against a retiring Jerome Bettis, up-and-coming Ben Roethlisberger, and the now forever hated Pittsburgh Steelers.

*I wrote a blog about the Super Bowl, and I found that Seattle was the first team to ever lose it with more time of possession, total yardage, and fewer turnovers than their opponent. I've never gone further to see how many teams lose in the regular season with the same trio of advantages, but I suspect it is extremely few.

At some point, not far into my blogging life, I realized it made more sense to focus on the Mariners with a little bit of general baseball thrown in. There were other things I cared about, but that's where my main focus was, and it was more than enough to write about. So I didn't transfer any of the Seahawks posts because they are not germane to the current blog.

Fast forward to 2013. I went to the Richard Sherman celebrity softball game at Cheney Stadium this past summer, and wrote a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the swings on display at the game. I'll admit, I thought it was one of my better posts ever on the Musings. It is now my fourth most-viewed post ever, and it was my most viewed in 2013.

The post found its way to both the Seahawks and Mariners reedits in July, and the referrals are what resulted in the heavy traffic. However, the real stunner for me was that the Seahawks reddit referrals dwarfed the Mariners ones. Way, way more people were on the Seahawks reddit...even though the Seahawks were in one of the more dead periods in the NFL season at that point, the Mariners were in the heart of their season, and I was a baseball blog on a football message board.

That's when I realized both how irrelevant the Mariners had become, and how big of a deal the Seahawks were going to be. I knew they were a talented team, and a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but I didn't realize how hyped up people already were.

I can only imagine how many more people are on the Seahawks reddit now.

The Seahawks have taught me a few things about the Mariners this year. First of all, the Mariners have never had a team like the current Seahawks squad. The Seahawks were expected to be great and  lived up to the hype. That combo has never happened in Mariners history. Seriously, think about it. The 1995 team is fabled because of their miraculous "Refuse to Lose" campaign. Their season was supposed to be dead when Griffey went down with the wrist injury - and, frankly, it pretty much was dead, particularly looking at the AL West standings in mid-August. The 2001 team is the best in M's history, and at 116 wins was a legitimate World Series contender. However, that came on the heels of the team losing Griffey and A-Rod in back-to-back offseasons. Who loses two players that good and gets better? Nobody expected 116 wins out of the 2001 Mariners. It's part of the mystique and magic of that team.

The second thing the Seahawks have taught me about the Mariners is just how inept the Mariners leadership really is. The Seahawks just made their second Super Bowl in eight seasons - which is probably more impressive than most realize. The apperances feel farther apart because the whole organization has turned over - players, leadership, everything but ownership - in those eight years. That's my point: The Seahawks found two completely different paths to the Super Bowl within a decade. The Mariners are yet to find one path to the World Series in almost 40 years of existence now, despite some waves of good fortune and good luck.

Personally, I believe any championship (particular in US sports leagues, where the champion is decided by a short tournament in any sport) takes both skill and luck. Talent only gets a team so far, so the Seahawks have caught some breaks this year, just like they did in 2005. The Mariners, over their years, have caught breaks too. The 2001 season featured pretty much every player in a career year. Zduriencik's initial campaign featured best-case-scenario seasons from Russell Branyan, Mike Sweeney, and Griffey. There's also the Bavasi miracle team that somehow one 88 games with a negative run differential - the roster that apparently convinced the M's leadership that they were Erik Bedard away from a World Series.

I doubt the Seahawks have had much more luck as a franchise than the Mariners, but recently the Mariners squeak out .500 seasons when they are lucky, whereas the Seahawks now have a Super Bowl habit when things break right. I'm not sure a ferry ride across Puget Sound could connect the talent gap between the two franchises, and it is only exacerbated by the M's brain trust and their inability to differentiate between good fortune and good talent.**

**While on the other hand, the Seahawks do things like draft an undersized quarterback (Russell Wilson) in the third round, and cut a fourth round pick rookie (Chris Harper) to keep a previously undrafted free agent (Jermaine Kearse)

Somehow, Seattle fans sensed all this by at least July of last year. I saw it in the traffic to this blog. More than anything, the Seahawks have taught me what it feels like to watch and root for a bona fide contender. My sports fandom is too young to recall the glory days of the Sonics, when they also had that same vibe, but they are the only comparison. The Mariners, frankly, have never been that good. They have had some great players, and several good teams, but it's never been more obvious just how far away they are from the World Series than right now.

A-Rod Doing His Best To Look Even Worse

I thought I was done writing about the Alex Rodriguez suspension until A-Rod struck again in only the way that A-Rod can. I was aware of the 60 Minutes investigation as I wrote my Rodriguez post Sunday afternoon, but unaware of how bad it would make everyone look. Take a gander for yourself if you really feel like hating the next 15 minutes of your life:

In no particular order, a few thoughts:
  • The 60 Minutes investigation had a clear bias towards Major League Baseball. It doesn't come through so much in the clip above, but is really obvious in the first half when only Bosch is interviewed. Several questions boiled down to "How could you ruin the game?!" I think both Bosch and Rodriguez could have been shed in a more complete light that made both of them look a bit more favorable.
  • Anthony Bosch is a mercenary. He worked with A-Rod because he got paid a bunch of money, and made it clear in his 60 Minutes interview that he cooperated with Major League Baseball because they provided more value than A-Rod as the investigation unfolded. In particular, part of Bosch's agreement with Major League Baseball was that he could talk to anyone about his history with MLB players, "which could result in book, movie, and/or media deals." Bosch cares about himself and getting all he can. His interview feels sleazy because there is no trace of ethics or responsibility to others...but ironically, his blatant self-interest makes his testimony more believable for me.
  • I'm not sure why Rob Manfred and Bud Selig agreed to be part of the piece. They largely corroborated what was already said by Bosch, which makes sense because all of their information came from Bosch. The deals they cut with Bosch are shady at best, and could have looked way worse than they did if the 60 Minutes interview hadn't slanted in their favor anyway.
  • Details about A-Rod's regimen and strategies to beat tests served as a sobering reminder for how behind drug testing is, and probably always will be. Testing methods will always be more transparent than cheating methods.
I didn't plan to write about the 60 Minutes interview until A-Rod sued both the MLB and MLBPA. His lawsuit included disclosure of some documents, which you can look at yourself below. I was most interested in the arbitration ruling from Saturday (page 44), which even includes the letter Selig sent to Rodriguez informing him of his suspension (page 56):

I wrote that we would never find out what happened in the arbitration hearing, but it turns out I was completely wrong! We know everything, thanks to this document unsealed by Alex Rodriguez himself.

I have to admit, this new mountain of resources have changed my mind. Both sides have highly questionable claims and ethics, but at the end of the day, the truth is the truth, and the Joint Drug Agreement (JDA) is what it is.

A-Rod's Legacy Sealed

A-Rod: Major League Hero is a real book (my copy pictured on the left). It is an "unauthorized" biography by James Fitzgerald. I'm not sure why A-Rod wouldn't have authorized it, because, quite frankly, nobody is going to write a biography quite like this about him anymore.

The book came out in 2004, right as Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees, and before PED drama ensnared him and his reputation. It has only gotten better with age. An unauthorized biography deserves an unauthorized quote (though is it unauthorized since I am giving credit where it is due. From a chapter titled "The World According to A-Rod:"

"Many of Alex's words of wisdom are just for fun; others are inspirational. Enjoy these. Copy them down and put them up as posters or simply remember them." - James Fitzgerald

Imagine that paragraph repeated for 150 pages or so, and you've got a decent picture for what this literary treasure contains. But what does A-Rod have to say about himself - at least according to an unabashed, hero-worshipping read about a man who an arbitrator just decided is suspended for the entire upcoming season?

  • "Always follow your dream. Don't let anyone tell you you can't be something." - Alex Rodriguez. Well A-Rod certainly lives by these words of his own wisdom. Why else would he appeal this decision to a federal court? Not even his own union is willing to fight the decision, though they say they "strongly disagree" with the ruling while also saying the respect the process and include no plans for further action. Even with everyone more or less forcing Rodriguez out of the game, he continues to fight to play in the Majors.
  • "I want to step forward. I don't want to step on anyone's toes. [But] if I do...too bad." - Alex Rodriguez. Again, any doubt A-Rod lives by these words? He made life a circus for the Yankees last season when he returned, and he intends to go to spring training even with the season-long suspension. He knows a thing or two about stepping on toes these days.
  • "There is a difference between image and reputation. Image is nice. Reputation is built over an entire career. Reputation is what I'm searching for." - Alex Rodriguez. According to Tom Verducci, A-Rod has found his lasting reputation. He will forever be A-Fraud.
  • "You'll never hear me say I'm satisfied or say I can't do more. There's a lot more I could do." - Alex Rodriguez. Who knew this quote would be so prophetic? Perhaps A-Rod. He injected more than his fair share of PEDs, and is now fighting his suspension with a fervor that cannot be topped, even though his actions seem destined for failure.
Fitzgerald finishes his string of A-Rod's quotes with the only quote not from A-Rod himself. Instead, Lourdes Rodriguez, A-Rod's mother, gets the last word:
  • "Money and fame are like dust. You aren't worth anything if you don't stay the same person you were before you had them."
Really, it is remarkable how well A-Rod: Major League Hero aged, isn't it? I looked up all these quotes today because I did not write them on posters or commit them to memory, as Fitzgerald prescribed. I should have heeded his advice. This whole saga would have been so much more predictable.

I am genuinely surprised that A-Rod still ended up with such a massive suspension. The basic premise of his defense rested on air-tight logic. The fact remains that this is Rodriguez's first suspension. The Joint Drug Agreement clearly states that a player faces a 50-game suspension for their first PED conviction. Therefore, Major League Baseball blatantly went beyond the agreement's guidelines with their suspension.

We will never know exactly what was shared from either A-Rod or MLB's side inside the arbitration hearing, but something beyond the drug agreement had to be used to justify a suspension beyond 50 games. His suspension, by the rules agreed to, is a clear injustice - yet in the court of public opinion, there is no doubt that justice was served. A-Rod's reputation seemed to make him guilty more than anything else.

Alex Rodriguez seemed destined for an unprecedented career by 2004. I hope that is true now more than ever. 

Tanaka's Teammates

The hot rumor today is that the Mariners are considered frontrunners for Masahiro Tanaka's services. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. A fair amount is made of Hisashi Iwakuma coming from Rakuten (Tanaka's current team) and succeeding. Shannon Drayer posted a piece about player personalities and cities.

I don't know how to handicap the Tanaka sweepstakes. It will probably come down to money, and if that's similar enough, Tanaka's comfort level with whatever city he chooses. As I thought about comfort levels, I got to wondering: who have Tanaka's teammates been? What kind of stories could they have told him about Major League Baseball during his career in Japan?

The results surprised me. I tallied up Rakuten and MLB seasons for players that both played for Rakuten while Tanaka pitched for them (2007-2013), and in the MLB at some point in their careers. All of Tanaka's teammates played in the Majors before going to Japan with one exception (Hisashi Iwakuma, so an exception certainly worth mentioning). Below is an area chart visualizing the data. Bigger areas means more time playing for Rakuten; darker shades of red represent MLB experience:

Masahiro Tanaka's MLB Connections
area represents Rakuten seasons, shading represents MLB seasons

I doubt there is much of consequence or strategy revealed in this graphic, but it's interesting. The Indians are the only MLB team which Masahiro Tanaka couldn't ask a former teammate about, which is pretty remarkable when you stop and think about it. This graphic only represents six years worth of players with MLB connections that played for Rakuten - not any team in Japan, just Rakuten. I expected to be surprised by the number of connections, but this still blew my mind.

However, most mind-blowing might be the Expos. Look at their box! It's pretty big, especially considering that the team ceased to exist (or, more accurately, relocated) nine years ago. That's three years before Tanaka's career in Japan began!

Most players represented in the area graph played sparingly in the majors, and sparingly for Rakuten too, so it would be ridiculous to think that Tanaka has lasting bonds with all the players represented in the graphic. However, it's equally ridiculous to think that Major League Baseball is a mysterious land to Tanaka. He has possibly heard first-hand accounts of every MLB franchise (except Cleveland) while hanging around Rakuten's clubhouse.

The only potentially interesting insight in the graphic is the Yankee presence. If Tanaka signs with the Yankees the headlines will likely focus on their deep pockets and the glamour of playing in New York. However, for what it's worth, they have both a large rectangle and heavy shade of red, which speaks to an extensive Rakuten presence along with several years of experience on the Yankees. Perhaps the strong former Yankee presence over an extended period of time in Rakuten makes Tanaka feel like he knows the Yankees better than any other franchise. Maybe that matters, maybe that doesn't. I think it might - the Cubs and White Sox are pretty small and pale on this graphic, and neither seem to be big players in the Japanese baseball marketplace despite playing in Chicago.

Click the jump if you'd like an interactive version of this graphic.