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Honest Abe

The Mariners, for all intents and purposes, set their 25-man roster yesterday with the cuts they made. Perhaps you've caught on by now, but I've used spring training to feature particularly interesting players on the team - ranging from relative unknowns (Stefen Romero and Roenis Elias) to knowns that will hopefully take a step forward (Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley). Today I round out the previews with Abraham Almonte.

The Mariners acquired Almonte last year from the Yankees when they traded away Shawn Kelley. It's hard finding much in terms of analysis about the trade because Almonte wasn't considered much beyond depth. He opened up last year in AA, despite being 23 years old, a rather advanced age for AA.

However, thanks to a lack of outfield depth combined with a surprising season at the plate, Almonte surged to AAA and muscled his way into the majors for a look in September which showed some promise. In particular, Abe flashed surprising power last year, blasting 17 home runs combined across AA, AAA, and MLB after his previous season-high in the minors was 8. His walk rate also improved without a loss in batting average. Lloyd McClendon reportedly likes Almonte's power-speed combo, so the spike in home runs is noteworthy.

Still, Abe Almonte, opening day center fielder? He's never been considered a bona fide outfield prospect. McClendon also appears set on making him the leadoff hitter, which further asserts that he's seen as a real piece on the 2014 Mariners. Is Almonte everything McClendon thinks he is?

Let's start with Almonte's defense. There's no way to know how good it is. Here's what is known though: the other options aren't good. Michael Saunders is capable, but below average and better suited for a corner. Ackley also didn't look big-league caliber in his short audition last season. Playing Almonte in center at least allows others to play better fits defensively; so, if Almonte can play center field capably, if not spectacularly, it's a real boost to the ball club. I am not convinced that Almonte is any better in center than Saunders, but why not find out? Nobody should argue that Ackley, Almonte, and Saunders are the M's best defensive outfield, given the other options on the roster.

My biggest bone of contention is with Almonte's hitting. He is not a leadoff hitter, plain and simple. Never has been, likely never will be. His strikeout rate in the minors has hovered in the 16%-20% range - in other words, a whiff roughly once every 5 or 6 trips to the plate. Predictably, that rate spiked a bit in the majors last season. He's likely to strikeout, on average, about once a game, which as a regular puts him on pace for 150-160 strikeouts in the season.

The strikeouts aren't enough of a reason on their own to bump Almonte down in the order but they point to the main issue, and in my humble opinion, the main error in McClendon's thinking. It seems that those in love with Almonte's skill set see a young man who hustles with great speed and surprising pop - basically a guy who will put lots of stress on the defense and stir things up at the top of the order.

Indeed, Almonte has great speed, and it results in both stolen bases and overall above-average base running according to the data available on FanGraphs. However, Almonte's greatest traits are only factors when he puts the ball in play, and he doesn't do that often enough, especially given his marginal power (even with the boost this past season) to be a true impact batter.

I worry that Abe Almonte will be for Lloyd McClendon what Brian Hunter was for Lou Piniella in 1999. Hunter was a gangly gazelle of sorts that the Mariners acquired as their latest, greatest solution in left field. He looked the part of a classic leadoff hitter - not much power but blazing speed. He stole 44 bases that season so he put that speed to good use. It was easy to see him flying around the bases in front of that loaded late '90s murder's row that the Mariners put together.

However, take a closer look, and Hunter was an abysmal lead off hitter in 1999. He sported a .277 OBP, which might explain how he scored only 71 runs with the Mariners despite Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Edgar Martinez (all in their primes) batting immediately behind him.

Almonte is a better hitter than Hunter ever was. That's not where I'm going with the comparison. My main point is that it seems McClendon only sees the positives in Almonte. That's the kind of thinking that leads managers to trot the Brian Hunters of the world out in pivotal positions despite crippling flaws.

There are good reasons that scouts have always projected Abe Almonte as outfield depth. He is versatile, with some speed, and even some power, but holes in his swing and only capable but unspectacular defense. The Mariners are thin in center field, to say the least, so it's not surprising that a fringe player like Almonte is about to get regular playing time, particularly after a career year (at least to date). Playing Almonte is not a bad idea, given the available options.

Maybe Almonte is about to break out and become a bona fide starter. However, the odds are against that. Raul Ibanez is the only outfielder I can think of in the past 25 years that emerged as a pleasant surprise from the M's farm system, and he blossomed with the Royals, not the Mariners. The only surprise from Almonte last year was 11 home runs in 396 PCL at-bats - a league that tends to favor hitters, by the way. That power surge, especially in such a short span in a hitter's league, shouldn't overwrite years of data and scouting reports, at least not yet.

Overall, Almonte's skills still scream outfield depth much more than leadoff center fielder. Maybe he is more, but expecting it isn't a smart gamble.

Dustin Ackley 2.0 Reloaded With a Vengeance

Dustin Ackley, looking like a good hitter
Lloyd McClendon anointed Dustin Ackley the starting left fielder in spring training and Ackley has done nothing in camp to relinquish the spot. McClendon's announcement was a minor surprise at the time, given the M's seemed to acquire corner outfielders (or at least definitely not center fielders) in Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, and Ackley played center field last year after getting moved off of second base.

Ackley is one of the more interesting pieces to the Mariners 2014 puzzle now, especially given a sizzling spring training where he has sprayed hard line drives into the outfield gaps with a regularity unseen since his rookie campaign. What might he be as the Mariners regular left fielder? Can he be more than a spring training mirage?

I think so. There are reasons to believe that this is the year Dustin Ackley finds a home in the majors.

Let's start with Ackley's big spring training. Neil Payne at the re-launched FiveThirtyEight investigated spring training stats and found that they do have some predictive power. Payne's model suggests that especially hot (and icy) spring trainings warrant updated projections. He identified a handful of players at the extremes this year, and Ackley falls in the "extremely hot" category.*

*Along with Brad Miller. Crazy legs could be very good this year. Enjoy saying you knew how good he was before everyone else finds out.

Payne uses Marcel projections for a player's offensive output, which put Ackley at a .316 wOBA (below average). His spring puts him at a projected .323 wOBA (almost average).

Hitting isn't the whole story though. There's also Ackley's base running and defense. He routinely grades out as an above average baserunner (2.0-ish BsR per year), and in limited left field action last year looked bad statistically (-10.3 UZR/150). So, I went looking for a 2013 left fielder with about a .323 wOBA, 2.0 BsR, and -10.3 UZR/150 to see how valuable he was.

The best I came up with was Michael Brantley, who strikes me as a decent comparison beyond statistics. Like Ackley he has marginal power with good speed. Brantley had a .320 wOBA last season with 3.1 BsR and -10.8 UZR/150. That amounted to 1.7 WAR. Roughly 2.0 WAR is considered an average everyday player by rule of thumb.

So, given Ackley might hit just a bit better than Brantley but run a level below him on the base paths, with roughly the same defense, I'd pencil him in for a projected 1-1.5 WAR. That would make Ackley a below average left fielder but at least a contributor.

However, a 1 WAR left fielder would be a real victory for the Mariners. Neither Raul Ibanez nor Jason Bay ran a positive WAR in the outfield last year, despite all their combined home runs. Moreover, Casper Wells is the only Mariner since 2009 to log any time in left field and post a WAR over 1.0 (he got up to 1.2 in 2012, though split time in center and right too).

There's also the matter of Ackley's -10 UZR defense. It's based off of only 81 innings in left field - literally only 9 full games worth. It's worth remembering these are games Ackley played in left field after practicing second base full time for the better part of four years. Even with little practice and a sudden change in mid-season, Inside Range metrics suggest Ackley made the expected plays in left field at a 95% rate and never faced the sort of marginal ball which could have been used to show where his range compares to other left fielders. So really, it's arguably more accurate to say Ackley's left field defense is an unknown.

Left field profiles well for Ackley's skill set, especially in Safeco Field. He has the speed to cover left field's ground in Safeco and he won't face the long throws that would be demanded of his below-average arm in center and right field. The only matter for turning his speed into good outfield defense is developing his ability to read fly balls and take direct routes to where they land. That's probably a matter of work more than anything else, and Ackley worked himself into an above average second basemen from scratch once he was drafted. Ackley was an outfielder and first basemen at North Carolina. He could be a decent left fielder and beat the below-average projection I used. Even if he ends up at 0 UZR that would add 1 WAR to his projected total.

Coming up with Ackley's projected 1-1.5 WAR is the result of forecasts built on top of forecasts. That means there is a large margin for error, especially in a sport already as variable as baseball. However, it's safe to say that more theoretical outcomes end up with Ackley being a positive contributor than not, and at a position where the Mariners haven't had a regular contributor for quite some time.

Also, if Ackley's scouting reports and production as a prospect are still worth something, then it seems his spring training is more a return to what he should be than some inexplicable leap forward. His athletic talent and work ethic suggest that he could be a decent defender in left field too. Projecting 1-1.5 WAR might be conservative for Ackley, and something closer to league average, or maybe even above, is a real possibility.

Forever Young

Chris Young
The Mariners signed RHP Chris Young to an MLB deal this morning, meaning the Mariners finally signed a starting pitcher! He likely thrusts either Blake Beavan or Roenis Elias out of a rotation spot (odds are it will be Beavan). The Mariners made room on the roster by designating LHP Bobby LaFramboise for assignment.

First, a note on LaFramboise. He's a side-arming lefty reliever who has been very productive in AAA the past two seasons. He got a quick look from the M's last year and in 10 innings gave up quite a few runs. However, he also struck out over a batter an inning without many walks. He's a capable bullpen arm and I'll be very surprised if he sneaks through waivers. Somebody will claim him, and he might even get some legitimate big league time depending on who claims him. Hector Noesi seemed like a more logical DFA candidate, given that he is out of options, seems to fit the role that Chris Young will now fill, and has struggled more than LaFramboise the last two seasons. I won't get up in arms yet though; it seems likely that there will be more casualties to get non-roster guys on the roster.

Young got cut loose by the Nationals just days ago so he wasn't an option when the Mariners signed (and cut loose) veterans like Scott Baker and Randy Wolf. Young is more interesting than either Baker or Wolf, and he just might be better too.

The first thing that stands out about Young is him standing - literally. He is 6'10", the same height as Randy Johnson. The height likely makes him more True to the Blue than either Baker or Wolf, both of whom are diminutive in comparison. That's about all that Young and the Big Unit have in common though.

Young is now tower of power on the mound. His fastball topped out in the low 90s when he cracked the majors back in 2007, and averaged a stunningly low 84.6 miles an hour in 2012. He didn't pitch at all in the majors in 2013 thanks to major shoulder problems. Furthermore, Young combines his soft pitches with extreme fly ball tendencies - so extreme, in fact, that he has a lower ground ball percentage than any other pitcher in the past decade.

Ladies and gentleman, your fifth starter! A 6'10" monolith to fly balls, finesse pitching, and shoulder problems. In all honesty I make this move sound worse than it probably is, though it is every bit as absurd as I make it sound.

Chris Young's injury history the past four seasons very strongly suggests that he will break down at some point this season. That's probably okay though. What the Mariners really need to know is that he can make it through April, and since he's healthy right now that's not a bad bet to make.

Also, velocity has never been a big part of Chris Young's game. That 85-mph heater in 2012 was good for a 4.15 ERA and 0.9 WAR over 115 innings with the Mets. Moreover, his only bad season was an injury-marred 2009 campaign (other than the missing seasons he has accumulated with injuries.) There are reasons to believe that the Mariners will get some solid starts out of Chris Young until he inevitably gets hurt.

In the end I wonder what makes Chris Young more desirable than Scott Baker or Randy Wolf. I will say that Young performed better in Nationals camp than Baker did with the Mariners. He's had a year off like Wolf, but was more productive before his injury than Wolf was with his, and Young's shoulder woes are arguably less impactful than Wolf's Tommy John surgery. However, it's worth noting that Chris Young got an MLB deal from the Mariners, which is a much higher commitment than the non-roster deals both Baker and Wolf signed.

Chris Young is a Mariners starting pitcher as of today. That's probably a good thing despite the odd, twisting path that got Young and the Mariners to this point. There is a good chance he pitches better than Beavan, Wolf, or Baker would have. I don't understand how the Mariners justify giving him the money they wouldn't hand Randy Wolf, but whatever. The Mariners added a starting pitcher today instead of dropping one and that's a positive development.

Mariners Payroll Actually Expanded

As I came to grips with the bizarre Randy Wolf news last night, I quoted that the Mariners payroll was around $74 million, which would be about $10 million less than last season. Then this morning the Associated Press estimated it at $92 million, which would be about $8 million more than last season. The gap begs investigation.

First of all, upon closer inspection, my $74 million estimate is way too low. I made some mistakes. I used the 2014-2019 payroll commitments at Cot's Baseball contracts, and at the bottom of the 2014 column you will find the number $73,994,643. That's the number I used. However, I realized this morning that total does not include Fernando Rodney's salary, even though he is listed in the Mariners payroll commitments. Including Rodney's salary brings the projection up to $81 million.

Additionally, payroll commitments are slightly different than the payroll. Players under team control who haven't reached arbitration are not included in the Cot's payroll commitments. All of these players earn $500,000 essentially. The Mariners have 13 players with payroll commitments so they would need 12 players making minimum salary to round out a 25-man roster. That adds another $6 million to the overall payroll, bringing the estimate up to $87 million. I should have quoted this figure, not $74 million, to begin with. My apologies.

The AP payroll estimate also includes their estimates for player salaries. I took all the Mariners they listed and added them up. The total came to $88.6 million, though it is worth noting their projection includes 29 players. Removing 4 minimum-salary players saves $2 million, which brings the M's estimated payroll to $86.6 million, which is essentially the same number I got from Cot's contract data.

Still, even with $88.6 million in player salaries, the AP estimates that the Mariners have $92 million in payroll commitments. That's a gap of $3.4 million. The article (linked to above) warns that "cash transactions and buyouts are reflected in the team payroll figures, so they will differ from the sums of player salaries," and these anonymous expenses must be what drives the gap.

Where did that money go though? The Mariners finally shed all their dead weight in salaries. Chone Figgins and his $9 million annual salary was still on the books last year. Things like that would contribute to payroll.

I've only got two guesses. Joe Saunders had a mutual option that was declined at the start of free agency. Perhaps there was a buyout included in that option. Terms of the mutual option were never public. This happened at the start of free agency and was for a 2014 contract year so perhaps the AP calculating system includes some money attached to this transaction. In addition, perhaps Franklin Gutierrez still earned some money one way or another, even though he is on the restricted list and will not earn any money during the 2014 season. These are the best ideas I can come up with.

The AP estimate still seems a bit high to me because it assumes 30 players on the active roster the entire season. Players on the DL collect salary but it seems a bit extreme to assume 5 players will be on the DL the whole season.* However, at the end of the day, arguing over DL spots is splitting hairs. Maybe it's the difference between $91 million and $92 million.

*although maybe not since it looks like the Mariners will open up the season with 5 players on the DL (Danny Hultzen, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer, Stephen Pryor)

In the end the Mariners actually expanded their payroll with Robinson Cano - or maybe they expanded it for Fernando Rodney. The payroll increase over last year is almost exactly the value of his salary, and he was the last player they signed to an MLB deal. The Mariners really wanted that magic plantain of his. Maybe it's true to the blue.

Spitting Sabermetric Truth on

I was recently reach out to about writing for, and as you might guess since I'm making this post, I took up the offer. I'll write some general things about sabermetrics from time to time over there, and it might eventually serve as a nice bank for me to reference as my own sabermetric library. We'll see. For now, if you feel so inclined, you can check out my post about why sabermetricians don't love the traditional triple crown batting stats.

Mariners Play Hardball With Wolf, Everybody Loses

The camo can't hide that Randy Wolf's best days are
behind him at this point in his career.
Another day, another starting pitching casualty, this time thanks to some odd roster gerrymandering. Today was when MLB players signed to minor league deals needed to be told whether they made the opening day roster or not across Major League Baseball. The M's had three such players in this boat - OF Endy Chavez, C Humberto Quintero, and LHP Randy Wolf. The M's had two such players in this boat - OF Endy Chavez and C Humberto Quintero. For good measure they gave LHP Randy Wolf a decision today as well.

Both Chavez and Quintero were informed they would not make the club. Quintero was a no-brainer with Mike Zunino and John Buck in the fold. Endy Chavez also was an unsurprising decision, and there is word the he already agreed to a minor league deal. I look forward to seeing him roam Cheney Stadium's outfield this summer (I make it to many more Rainiers games than Mariners ones).

Then there was Randy Wolf. He made the team and as a result got released, because this team is just loaded with starting rotation options at the moment. Bob Dutton tweets that Hector Noesi is now in the mix for a rotation spot after most (including me) assumed he would be among the first in line to get cut loose for 40-man roster space.

Only the Mariners. Is this what it means to be "true to the blue?"

Ryan Divish has nicely detailed breakdown of what happened with Randy Wolf today. Basically, Wolf made the Mariners, which guaranteed him $1 million this season - with one catch. The Mariners asked him to sign a 45-day out clause, which essentially gives the M's the option to cut him loose after a month and not give him all $1 million. Zduriencik says that it is a common agreement with players in Wolf's situation, and Divish points out that the rules do not allow the Mariners (or any team) to offer the clause until they have formally told a non-roster invitee like Wolf that they have made the team.

So, the Mariners didn't really offer a bait-and-switch or poison pill, but the damage was done. Wolf felt the clause substantially altered the contract he initially agreed to and he wasn't going to stand for that. Wolf wouldn't sign the out clause, so he and the Mariners are going their separate ways.

It's painfully easy to see why the Mariners wanted Wolf to sign the out clause. Both Taijuan Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma will likely be ready to go 45 days into the MLB season, which will come in mid-May. Wolf would have to outpitch either James Paxton or Erasmo Ramirez to keep a spot in the rotation, and potentially by a noticeable margin given that both could be long-term fixtures on the team for years to come. Wolf decided to take his chances now in the free agent market than a month down the road.

Wolf wasn't all that amazing in spring training, though not horrible either - but the fact remains that he is an old starting pitcher who didn't pitch at all last season and is even farther removed from being a productive contributor. I doubt he will find an MLB deal anywhere without signing that 45-day clause and he's even less likely to find a team as starved for starting pitching as the Mariners right now. It's plausible that Randy Wolf just turned down his best, and maybe even final, chance to make it back to the big leagues. It's also possible he gets scooped up tomorrow. The next week will be an interesting one for him, but at best he's making a lateral move, and the lateral move probably represents a better outcome than he can expect.

The Mariners clearly had the leverage in this situation and good reasons to both offer Wolf the out clause and expect him to take it. I don't think they were malicious or misguided offering it. Also, although the Mariners rotation depth is maligned, they have other options in guys like Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi. They are the kind of options that make a fan crinkle their nose, but to be honest Randy Wolf is much closer to smelling salts than citronella or chamomile at this stage in his career too.

However, in the end, I am not sure the Mariners made a good decision, even though it is easy to justify. Think about it: 45 days in the majors is roughly 40 or 41 games, depending on off days. In other words, a quarter of the season. So, the out clause would allow the Mariners to pay Randy Wolf about $250,000 instead of $1 million.

The Mariners just stood firm and let Randy Wolf walk over $750,000 after deciding he was good enough to make the opening day roster. The M's projected payroll as of right now is $74 million, $10 million below last year's mark (even after signing Cano.)* Ownership said the money is there to expand payroll for the right player, but the team's actions aren't remotely close to these words. Somehow they decided to tighten the purse strings further with Cano, even though he came out and publicly said that the Mariners need more pieces.

*Worth noting that this projection does not include bonuses which Corey Hart could earn. Those would push the payroll closer to $80 million. Doesn't change the overall point I'm making.

In the end, the Wolf saga leaves everybody a loser. Wolf increased his risk substantially of making an opening day roster with no realistic chance at more money or guarantees. The Mariners lost another rotation option in a group already considered thin. In the end, given that Wolf is near the end of his career and probably not much beyond a replacement-level pitcher, none of the on-field ramifications mean all that much. It's the fact that the Mariners were so stubborn over $750,000 that sticks with me, given the rotation needs and the context of their offseason. I don't get it; I really don't get it at all.

Roenis Elias Deserves Rotation Spot, for Better and Worse

Apparently the Mariners roster is more set than the 38 players left in camp imply. Scott Baker got offered a spot in AAA Tacoma, declined, and so was cut loose yesterday.* Baker seemed to be a shoo-in for the rotation, but getting shelled in three consecutive starts and racking up only one strikeout (looking, not even swinging) all spring unraveled his chances. The decision surprised me but was hardly a bad move.

*The MLB CBA also dictates that decisions must be made on Humberto Quintero and Endy Chavez today, FYI. I expect neither of them to make the opening day roster.

With Baker's release the Mariners rotation battle both clarified and became more intriguing. King Felix, Erasmo Ramirez, and James Paxton appear to be locks at this point. Blake Beavan, Roenis Elias, and Randy Wolf appear to be battling for the two remaining spots. For what it's worth, Elias is enjoying the most productive spring of all three and is slated to start a game this week - and by now, the starting slots are going to likely starting rotation members.

So it's time to get to know Roenis Elias just a bit better. First of all, his back story is amazing. He hails from Guantanamo, Cuba - the same Guantanamo of Guantanamo Bay, the polarizing US military facility where terrorists continue to be incarcerated and interrogated since 9/11. Elias defected from Cuba, and defecting is quite the dangerous escapade. Subsequently the Mariners signed Elias and he has patiently worked his way up the M's minor league ladder the past three seasons. I don't know much about Elias's personality but his story of deep sacrifice and dedication to baseball is a very easy one to root for. It's enough, quite frankly, to make me want him to make the opening day roster whether he is ready or not.

And let's be honest - Roenis Elias is probably not ready for a starting gig in the majors. I conclude this through the same logic that led me to say that Brandon Maurer wasn't ready last year. It takes an exceptional talent, even among the exceptions that make the majors, to successfully jump from AA to the majors as Elias will have to do if he cracks the starting rotation. Elias was quite good in Jackson last season but I would hardly call him exceptional.

Dig deeper though, and there are some exceptions to be found. Let's start with highlights from his spring start against the Angels:

It is easy to see some of the things that make Elias an intriguing pitcher, first and foremost that breaking ball. It breaks sharply with both vertical and lateral movement thanks to Elias's arm slot. The arm slot and break on that ball should make it an evil pitch against left-handed batters, and we see a lefty totally frozen in the highlights. However, the highlights also show Elias getting a swing and miss from a right-hander against that breaking ball as he buried it in the dirt down and in.

Elias's fastball is also above average and appears to be a good offering when he mixes it with great command. Obviously, the highlight package features well located fastballs so he looks highly effective. Elias throws 90-93 MPH with relative ease, and judging from all the choppers in the highlight package, he also generates some sink on his fastball.

So, when Elias is at his best, he primarily features a sinking fastball with great command to induce easy ground balls around the infield. When he gets ahead he can use a breaking ball that that wipes out left handers and might even be an underrated offering against righties. However, after watching the highlight video above, Elias looked like a candidate to run some noteworthy platoon splits.

Sure enough, the data backs up what we can see with our own two eyes. Lefties sported an absurdly low .492 OPS against Elias in Jackson last year, while righties had a .718 OPS (still pretty solid). The year before, in High Desert, lefties had a paltry .618 OPS whereas righties had a .784 OPS.

I think Elias is ready to get MLB lefties out at an above average rate right now so the real question is what he will do against right-handers. In some ways Elias is fortunate, because Safeco Field still plays bigger for right-handed batters because of its layout. Elias, like any pitcher in Safeco, has more margin for error with righties than lefties. Elias is basically a two-pitch pitcher, and I don't think his breaking ball is much of an offering to right-handers except as a pitch thrown in the dirt to try to strike them out with. In other words, his success against right handers is almost entirely dependent on his fastball command.

Interestingly, Elias walked a lower percentage of right-handers (8.7%) than left-handers (9.8%) last season. Of course, the usual small-sample-size warnings need to be applied, but the data suggests Elias commands his fastball against righties as well as against lefties. However, Elias also gave up 8 of his 9 home runs allowed to right-handers last season. In High Desert the year before his walk rate was stronger against lefties, though the home run rate was still higher against righties, even when scaling for the fact that he faces more right-handed batters. This results make sense - Elias's breaking ball shouldn't be as effective against righties and they should be able to sit on his fastball a bit more. Furthermore, his arm slot is less deceptive for righties so they should be able to see the ball a bit better. Therefore, his margin for error is smaller with righties than lefties. The margin for error will be exponentially smaller in the majors.

However, just because Elias is much better against left-handed batters doesn't mean he is bad against righties. He also might not benefit much from facing AAA batters as they might not expose Elias's weaknesses any more than AA batters. Elias needs to face competition that demands him to find those corners of the strike zone even more than he already does. Veteran AAA hitters might force pitchers to throw more strikes than in AA, but they are AAA hitters for a reason - often because they don't punish mistakes in the strike zone the same way MLB hitters tend to.

MLB hitters might punish Elias too much though. Brandon Maurer could tell Elias a thing or two about that. Control wasn't Maurer's issue - he walked less than 3 batters per 9 innings in the majors last year, and had a K/BB ratio well better than 2/1 - but command was. He gave up home runs at an astronomical rate because he threw pitches that caught way too much of the plate way too often.

All in all, I can live with the idea of Elias breaking camp in the starting rotation. Realistically he will get three or four starts before Taijuan Walker and/or Hisashi Iwakuma are ready to go. Elias should be temporary, unlike the plan with Maurer last year. The Mariners aren't relying on Elias for 150 innings; it's more like 15 or 20 early in the season. Then he could slide into a bullpen role where I would use him as a specialty lefty on nights when I want a lefty in the 6th or 7th inning before Charlie Furbush comes in, and also as a spot long reliever on those nights when a starter gets blown out early. The hybrid role would take advantage of Elias's current strengths while also providing some development opportunities in low leverage situations.

The Mariners were silly to roll the dice with their starting rotation the way they did and the risk has already bit them hard. Roenis Elias is about to crack the Mariners rotation in part because the Mariners were pretty stupid, but also because he has some pitching skills that cannot be ignored. Elias isn't the type of phenom that should go straight from AA to the majors, so he isn't about to be a contributor. However, his ability to wipe out lefties and mitigate right-handed damage with Safeco Field's dimensions are positives that might allow him to at least be a replacement-level starter.

Elias doesn't crack the starting rotation of a contender, but I'm hesitant to criticize Lloyd McClendon if he keeps Elias around. It's not as if Blake Beavan or Randy Wolf are strong possibilities to give much beyond replacement-level innings, and neither features a weapon like Elias's breaking ball (even if it is only death against lefties) or Elias's upside.

Stefen Romero, Southpaw Smasher (?)

Stefen Romero won yesterday's Cactus League tilt with a walk-off three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Pretty cool stuff that certainly did not hurt his chances to make the opening day roster.

Romero hit the game-winning home run off of Evan Scribner, a right-hander, but the rest of this post is about left-handers. The Mariners were linked to Nelson Cruz all offseason because Zduriencik let it be known that the team was looking for a right-handed power bat to offset the M's lefty-laden lineup. Stefen Romero has emerged as the best internal option, and emerged enough to potentially claim a spot on the opening day roster.*

*Time for a mea culpa. I totally ignored him as a possibility just over a week ago. Oops.

Now, since Romero doesn't project to play every day, and he would earn a bench spot as the right-handed bat the Mariners feel they need to offset all their lefty hitters, it is likely that Romero's most meaningful action would come as a pinch-hitter against lefty specialists. Essentially, he is the guy tasked with making managers ask themselves what they would rather deal with: one of their premier set-up righties against guys like Brad Miller, Dustin Ackley, Logan Morrison, and maybe even Kyle Seager** - or the lefty specialist against Stefen Romero.

**Cano bats left-handed too, but nobody is pinch-hitting for him, regardless of the situation. Nor should he ever be lifted for a pinch-hitter.

So it would be pretty cool if Stefen Romero can, you know, hit lefties pretty well. I dug into his minor league track record for some answers.

Minor league data is incomplete at best, for many reasons. First of all, there are only small sample sizes for Stefen Romero at each level, and the level matters a ton. Romero hasn't really faced lefty specialists because they don't exactly exist in the minors until AAA, and maybe AA here and there. A pitcher becomes a lefty specialist after they've proven they can't handle other more significant roles (starting and closing/late relief). Baseball Darwinism basically guarantees all specialty lefties are "crafty." If they weren't, they'd be a starter or a closer. Therefore, projecting how Romero fares against specialty lefties is a whole bunch of educated guesswork.

Let's start by understanding what kind of Romero hitter is in general. Here are a couple heat maps from showing where Romero's hits go when facing left-handers and right-handers:

vs. lefties
vs. righties

Romero has faced many more righties simply because there are more righties in baseball, and that is why the righty heat map is more populated. However, aside from more data points, the two heat maps don't look all that different. The hottest spot on both is the hole between shortstop and third base. There's also a frequent spot for ground balls at second base. There are three frequented pockets ranging from the left field foul line to straightaway center. In all, Romero exhibits a slight pull tendency whether he faces lefties or righties. Unsurprisingly, most of his home runs are to left field too. His approach doesn't seem to change much whether he faces a left-hander or a right-hander.

The heat maps square up with Romero's production so far in the minor leagues. According to splits I obtained at Minor League Central, Romero's career minor OPS against left-handers is .885, while against right-handers .859, a minuscule difference especially when the small sample sizes are considered (along with league and ballpark switches in that time). Moreover, that difference is completely driven by walks as his walk rate against lefties (9.6%) is almost double that of his against righties (5.1%). Everything else is virtually the same, though perhaps you could convince that his K% is a bit different depending on handedness (17.0% vs. L, 15.7% vs. R). That's the biggest gap in his splits though, other than walks.

Romero has essentially been the same hitter in the minors whether he faces left-handers or right-handers, which generally comes in handy. However, it's unfortunately a value that will go unused if Romero mainly gets at-bats as a lefty specialist smasher. So would he still be of value as a hitter only against left-handers, given one of his strengths is his consistency against either hand?

It's hard to say how Romero would fare against lefty specialists. Like most hitting prospects he is a great fastball hitter. Via MLB Farm again, 75% of Romero's hits in pitch F/X parks (a very, very limited sample size in the minors) came on fastballs while just about 35% of his swings and misses came on heaters. Most hitters swing and miss against breaking pitches more often, so that's not an alarming statistic, but it's still there.

Specialty lefties don't throw many fastballs though. They tend to throw loopy breaking balls that are death to lefties because of arm slots that seem to start behind a left-handed hitter and make pitches cut away out of reach of a lefty hitter. However, the same tactics make a ball cut in to righties and don't create that awkward "behind the hitter" effect at all from the right-handed batter's box. Hence why lefty specialists tend to have massive platoon splits.

So, how would a lefty specialist attack Romero? Would he be lost against their breaking ball? Or would their breaking ball be utterly ineffective?

My best guess is that a lefty specialist's stuff is not all that different from what Romero has already seen in the minors. Remember, lefty specialists are never top prospects. They survive on deception, and that is mitigated, if not completely negated, by right-handed batters. Moreover, one thing Romero's higher walk rate against lefties might suggest is that he sees the ball better out of a lefty's hand, which would again hint at negating deception. With that said, Romero struggled mightily against the few left-handers he faced in AAA last year (.679 OPS in 95 plate appearances, versus an .806 OPS against righties in 316 plate appearances), so maybe those slurvy, sweeping breaking balls are death on him.

I am really only certain of one thing right now: Stefen Romero is not destined to be a lefty smasher in his career. If the M's try to turn him into that he will join a graveyard of failed hitting prospects already too large thanks in part to organizational ineptitude. However, breaking Romero into the majors against crafty southpaws could work. There are as many reasons in his minor league stats to think he will fail miserably as there are to believe he will do just fine in such a role. It's at least a question worth answering in the batting cage and spring games through Lloyd McClendon's seasoned eyes.

AL West Preview at 500 Level Fan

Jeremy Gibson at 500 Level Fan asked me to weigh in on the AL West for his 2014 preview. Here's a link to the post, for your lunchtime pleasure.

FanDuel Posts Continue

There are six total parts out so far in the FanDuel MLB preview. Here's who me and 31 other bloggers though would be a surprise team this year. The results (ironically?) surprised me:

Cuts Galore; Roster Taking Shape

A couple rounds of cuts this week leave the Mariners with 40 players left in camp. First, the cuts:

INEVITABLE: C Mike Dowd, C Jesus Sucre, 1B Ji-Man Choi, "1B" Jesus Montero, INF Carlos Triunfel, INF Ty Kelly, INF Chris Taylor, INF Nate Tenbrink, OF Xavier Avery, LHP Nick Hill, RHP Logan Bawcom, RHP Logan Kensing, RHP Matt Palmer

No offense to anyone in the "inevitables." Several of them have potential MLB careers. These were all players on the wrong side of the numbers game and more or less around for the experience of big league camp until it was time to get serious.

SOMEWHAT INTERESTING: LHP Bobby LaFramboise, OF James Jones

I though LaFramboise might have a chance to crack the opening day roster since Oliver Perez is now in Arizona. I thought that James Jones would eventually get cut but not for a while longer with all the playing time he got. I'm actually relieved Jones got cut at this point because I wondered if Lloyd McClendon was too in love with him. He has things to learn in the minors.

So who will make the team?

ON THE DL: Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, maybe Stephen Pryor (still recovering from last season). That brings us down to 37 players.

LOCKS (18): C John Buck, C Mike Zunino, 1B Justin Smoak, 2B Robinson Cano, 3B Kyle Seager, INF Willie Bloomquist, OF Dustin Ackley, OF Corey Hart, OF Logan Morrison, OF Michael Saunders, LHP Charlie Furbush, RHP Scott Baker, RHP Danny Farquhar, RHP Felix Hernandez, RHP Yoervis Medina, RHP Erasmo Ramirez, RHP Fernando Rodney, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen

I know Scott Baker is a non-roster invitee, but he just got moved from a start against the Angels to play in a minor league game. The M's open up the season against the Angels, and Baker has already faced them twice. Doubtful these facts have nothing to do with the change.

The remaining battles:

Shortstop: Brad Miller vs. Nick Franklin - I guess this is a battle because the Mariners say it is. Brad Miller should have been the favorite coming into the spring, and even if he wasn't he's had a very good spring that should shore up his standing. I almost included Miller as a lock. Nick Franklin will go to AAA unless/until he is traded.

Capable centerfielder on the bench: Abe Almonte vs. Endy Chavez - The cuts have at least made this battle clear, unless you also believe Cole Gillespie could play center field regularly. Quite honestly, I almost made Almonte a lock for this spot because he's already on the roster and Chavez quietly slipped to below replacement level last season and he's not getting any younger.

Fourth and fifth starters in the rotation: LHP James Paxton, LHP Randy Wolf, RHP Blake Beavan - I think Paxton nearly has a rotation spot nailed down given the control he's shown this spring. Beavan and Wolf are in an interesting duel though...or sort of interesting, at least. The reality is that the whoever wins this spring training battle will get booted from the rotation once Taijuan Walker or Hisashi Iwakuma is healthy, and neither project to sit out a ton of starts to begin the season. Still, Wolf vs. Beavan is at least too close to call. Beavan has outperformed Wolf, for what it's worth, but Wolf is more experienced and left-handed.

Bullpen lefty: Lucas Luetge vs. Joe Beimel - Again, younger guy verses veteran, though in a more limited role on the team. No idea how McClendon will choose with this one, though I'd simply stick with Luetge since he's already on the 40-man roster and Beimel isn't.

The last bullpen slot: This position could go to the odd man out in the rotation race or one of the remaining righties I am about to talk about. Both Zach Miner and Dominic Leone have appeared five times, which is tied for the most appearances by any M's pitcher this spring. It's a seven-way tie, so I don't want to make that too big of a deal, but playing time suggests that McClendon wants to see these guys for some reason. They have both done well for themselves, though I still like Carson Smith even more and he has performed very well in his 3.2 innings.

If you count up all the players you'll realized I totally ignored some that are still in camp. Those are folks I expect to go sooner rather than later.

There simply aren't interesting battles in camp this spring, unless you count the faux battle between Brad Miller and Nick Franklin. The other reality is that the winners of these battles simply get the first crack at the job and there will be movement during the season. We already know Iwakuma and Walker will be coming back, likely before April is over.

Still, there is something special about an opening day roster, and most positions have gone from an unruly glut to a few extra names after this week's cuts. The 2014 Mariners are taking shape.

Double Take on Smoak

Lloyd McClendon didn't say much about his opening day lineup at this point, other than the blatantly obvious (Cano and Seager) Justin Smoak. No, really, Justin Smoak is a lock at first base, even with Logan Morrison and Corey Hart around. McClendon expanded on his thoughts and suggested that Smoak will feature a different approach at the plate that makes him a doubles hitter instead of home run slugger. McClendon went as far to say that he envisions the potential for 40-45 doubles from Smoak to go with 20-25 home runs.

Smoak's career high for doubles is 24, mind you. He has hit more home runs than doubles each of the past two seasons. McClendon's vision for Smoak is quite different from the version that's stepped up to the plate. Smoak would have to change quite a bit.

But Justin Smoak might just have this change in him. And if he does, the Mariners have the first basement they thought they got from Texas in the first place.

McClendon's comments excite me mostly because I'm convinced that Justin Smoak never was meant to be the light tower slugger that the M's seemed to try to morph him into the past few seasons. Scouting reports from his high school days suggest that his lean build (at the time), plus the lack of classic raw power, made him a mildly unorthodox first base prospect. Granted, players change as they mature, and Smoak filled out, but even at the time of the Cliff Lee trade there were questions about his power potential.

Smoak's questionable power profile was also backed up by his minor league production as he rocketed through the Rangers system. In 723 minor league at-bats Smoak accumulated 32 doubles and 22 home runs - not the 40-25 split McClendon envisions, but a bit closer to that than the even split he's had the past few seasons.

I don't see 40 doubles for Smoak. McClendon seems a bit optimistic to me. However, the approach McClendon is preaching might fit Smoak's skills better than what he's been trying the past few seasons. A doubles approach might lead to more contact, and hard contact at that. It wouldn't hurt his plate discipline either, which is a strength of his. Maybe Smoak only hits 15 home runs, but if he gained some doubles and singles in the process he might be a better first baseman, and the best first baseman he can be.

Spring Training Update

The Mariners looked pretty good last spring, so their good start this year is nice but hardly a harbinger of things to come. Still, winning always beats losing - and I will write that line even though the M's lost pretty badly today. Overall, the spring has to be considered a success. I'm still skeptical of this team's talent though, which keeps me from getting real jazzed. Here are some of the more interesting developments as I see them at this point:

Plot thickening in the outfield

James Jones has emerged as the story of spring training thus far. He's hitting pretty well and Lloyd McClendon loves him. It shows up in his quotes and the amount of playing time he's giving Jones.

For the record, I don't think James Jones should make the Mariners. He's got holes in his swing and he's yet to really play in AAA. The junk-ball veterans that often litter AAA pitching staffs will find Jones's holes. I think he's got some thing to learn in Tacoma that would serve him well.

With that said, Jones can play center field, and the Mariners are quite thin at the position. Xavier Avery can probably play some center field. So can Abe Almonte. However, both of those players aren't hitting like Jones in spring training, and neither have the tools that Jones possesses either.

I would still go with Almonte as the fourth outfielder, but Jones has a case at this point. He's outperforming everyone who was thought to have a chance at the fourth outfielder spot, and McClendon has clearly taken note. The outfield depth chart is getting rewritten with each game, and it's clear that Jones will shoot up it when all is said and done. The only question is how far.

The rotation race

Only seven pitchers have started a game in spring training for the Mariners; five will crack the opening day rotation. So the real question is who are the two odd men out at the moment?

I say one is Brandon Maurer. He has been roughed up a bit, has a start and a relief appearance, and probably started the spring as an outsider looking in.

The second man out is tougher to figure out. The next worst performer (in very limited innings) is Randy Wolf, but he has a ton of experience and potentially won't take a minor league assignment if that means anything to the M's. He is likely battling with James Paxton and Blake Beavan. Paxton has the most upside of the three, and at this point he will likely break camp with the M's if they decide he doesn't have something major worth developing in the minors some more before he takes on a role in the majors.

So, the real question is if Lloyd McClendon would prefer Wolf or Beavan. Personally, I'd probably favor Wolf just a tad, mostly because he is a veteran and left-handed. But I wouldn't complain about Beavan cracking the opening day rotation. Beavan is organizational depth if you ask me, but the Mariners are going to open the season with two starting pitchers on the shelf. I'm totally fine with Blake Beavan as the sixth or seventh starter on the team depth chart.

Maybe the more interesting sub-story here is that I think Erasmo Ramirez and Scott Baker already have cinched up roster spots, given their early performances and the injuries in the rotation.

So, if you are looking for guys to watch for in the box scores, basically every starting pitcher is interesting, plus James Jones and his direct competition (likely Abe Almonte and Xavier Avery).

FanDuel Fantasy Preview

I am one of 32 bloggers who participated in a fantasy baseball preview for FanDuel. The nifty info graphic below is from the first article. If you are about to draft (like my main league), perhaps you will enjoy the piece.

Courtesy of: FanDuel (click image to enlarge)