The Seattle Mariners are the fly in the ointment for a lot of American League teams right now. At 37-22 and with a one-game lead in the AL West, they’ve prevented Houston from turning the next four months into one long coronation run. By joining the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox atop the American League, the Mariners are preventing teams around the .500 level from thinking about the second wild-card. And if Seattle keeps it up, it means an AL wild-card game won’t automatically be at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium.
But just how realistic is it for the Mariners to keep this kind of pace? The oddsmakers aren’t buying in. Houston remains a heavy 1-5 betting favorite to win the division. If you believe in Seattle, you can still bet them at 9-2 odds simply to win the AL West. Thus, the question lingers—are the Mariners a legit contender, or will they end up among a handful of teams trying to steal the final playoff spot with 88 or so wins?
The biggest thing Seattle has going for them is this—they have good frontline starting pitchers who haven’t hit their stride. Felix Hernandez has made 13 starts and his ERA is 5.33. Mike Leake has gone to the post 12 times and the ERA is 4.71.
In spite of this, the Mariners are still fifth in the American League in staff ERA. What if yesterday’s performance by King Felix—an 8 IP/1 ER gem against Tampa Bay is a sign of things to come? And what if Leake picks up the pace even modestly? There are no starting pitchers currently performing over their head, so that suggests that projecting Seattle pitching is all about the upside.
The same can be said for the offense. The Mariners don’t rely on their bats in any case, only ranking ninth in the AL in runs scored, but they are more likely to get better than they are to regress. Seattle will get Robinson Cano back in mid-August, when he’s both served his PED suspension and recovered from a hand injury.
It’s true Jean Seguara might not hit .331 all year, but neither will Kyle Seager muck around with a .stat line of .281 on-base percentage/.408 slugging. Mitch Haniger’s .359/.512 pace might slow, but Nelson Cruz might start getting on base at a rate better than .325.
In short, no matter how you slice the individual pieces, there’s no reason to think Seattle can’t have at the fifth-best pitching staff and ninth-most productive lineup in the American League like they do right now. And there’s a lot of reasons to think each could rank higher.
Furthermore, the front office has conveyed its seriousness about this season. They didn’t wait until the trade deadline to start dealing with weaknesses. Just before Memorial Day, Seattle acquired Denard Span and Alex Colome from Tampa Bay. Span’s insertion into the outfield provides veteran presence and also fills the void left by Cano (outfielder Dee Gordon was moved to second to fill Cano’s spot). Colome adds another arm to a bullpen that needed the depth.
So given all this, is Seattle a value bet at 9-2 to win the AL West? At the very least, shouldn’t we be at least acknowledging them as a legit team on a par with Houston, New York and Boston? Logically, all signs point to yes. But my gut instincts still say no.
This franchise has a bad history to fight against. They haven’t made the playoffs since the 116-win season of 2001, the longest postseason drought in MLB. I don’t rule out them grabbing a wild-card spot, but I still see the Mariners more on a par with teams like the Angels or Twins. They’ll be in the playoff hunt but they won’t be among the league’s elite.
I don’t like ignoring the logical reasons for optimism outlined here in favor of vague instincts and historical track record. But this is just not an organization I have any real belief in. The guess here is that Seattle comes back to the pack and Houston runs away with the division by Labor Day.
The American League wild-card race has five teams vying for the final spot in the playoffs. Assuming that the runner-up in the Oakland A’s/LA Angels race for the AL West title will be in the wild-card game, that leaves five more teams within five games of each other for the last spot. Those teams are, in order of the current standings, the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Cleveland Indians. Here’s nine thoughts on that race as it heads into the homestretch…
*Detroit is the best positioned of the contenders, even though they would be out of the money (by a game and a half) if the season ended today. That’s because the Tigers are also only three games back of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central, while everyone else is six or more out of first place. Detroit is the one team in this group of five that will be reasonably assured of making the playoffs in some capacity, as long they play good baseball down the stretch.
*In that same vein, how much longer can a team with David Price, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander at the top of the rotation continue to struggle along? I know Verlander’s having a very tough year, a 4.82 ERA that would be worse if he didn’t have such a pitcher-friendly environment to work in. But Rick Porcello’s strong year has made up for that and the Tigers have swung the bats well this season. Jim Leyland would have managed this team into the playoffs. Brad Ausmus has to prove he can do the same.
*As an avowed Yankee-hater, I always tend to overestimate the boys in Pinstripes, if only because I don’t want to ever let my guard down. Consequently, I’m still thinking they have a big run left in them. Michael Pineda is pitching extremely well, a 2.05 ERA since his return from what amounts to two years’ worth of injuries. Hiroki Kuroda has gotten going, and if Masahiro Tanaka can get back on the mound and be effective again, that’s a tough 1-2-3 Joe Girardi can throw at people. And the inspirational value of Derek Jeter’s final year is the big intangible.
*Where New York has failed this year is in their offense, and I’m going to single out Jacoby Ellsbury. It’s not that the centerfielder who crossed the Rubicon from Boston this past offseason has had a bad year—he hasn’t. He’s got a .340 on-base percentage and does a great job defensively in centerfield. Boston is worse off for not having him this season. But was he really worth the 7-years/$150 million deal the Yanks gave him? Yankee Stadium hasn’t provided the upgrade in power numbers that was expected, and this early years of that contract are when Ellsbury should be most productive. Instead, he’s merely pretty decent.
*I just don’t see where Toronto has the pitching to make it. Mark Buerhle is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00, and that’s mostly on the strength of a great start to the season. The Jays can hit with anyone. Edwin Encarcion is back in the lineup, Jose Bautista and Melky Cabrera are having a big years and players like Juan Francisco and Adam Lind are steady contributors. But to make up 4.5 games in a multiple team race in a month-plus requires sustained winning streaks that are only possible with starting pitching.
*Terry Francona is nothing short of a genius to have Cleveland still holding a puncher’s chance, with a 65-63 record. The Tribe’s own pitching woes have been there all year, they dealt Justin Masterson to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline and other than Lonny Chisenhall at third base, have not gotten any pleasant surprises. But Tito still has the Indians over .500. I can’t see them making up five games and leapfrogging four teams with their flaws, but Francona has done a terrific job to even have his team in this conversation.
*Felix Hernandez is a lock for the AL Cy Young Award, and in a race where everyone has vulnerabilities, is the biggest X-factor. Any team that’s on the borderline of being #5 in the league is going to have problems, but when your rotation is the one that comes around every fifth day to King Felix, that’s a very steady anchor. Not to mention an arm that scares the heck out of the A’s or Angels if Felix were able to pitch the wild-card game.
*Was Robinson Cano’s decision to leave New York for Seattle this offseason the deciding factor in this race? Cano has given at least a little bit of life to the Mariners’ punchless offense, batting .328. And though the home runs haven’t been there (11), power is down across baseball, so the effect isn’t as dramatic. And Cano’s great ability to drive the ball in the alleys still has a slugging percentage at a solid .467. If he’s in New York, this race isn’t a race.
*Time for a prediction—I’m picking the second wild card to be…the Kansas City Royals. I’ve got the Tigers chasing them down in the AL Central, but KC’s pitching is still good enough to hold on. And on that same note, watch to see if New York or Toronto can make a run at the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. It’s a tough climb (seven games), but the Orioles just lost Manny Machado for the year and could come back to the back. But those are topics for a separate column. For now we’ll just say the AL Central produces the second wild-card.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
The Seattle Mariners are way back in the American League West, 10 ½ games behind the Texas Rangers coming into Wednesday’s games. The Mariners aren’t much closer in the wild-card picture, where they’re nine off the pace. But the season isn’t quite to the halfway point and we always see a team or two we don’t expect make a surge. Could Seattle be that team?
This is a pertinent topic on my Monday podcast appearances over at Prime Sports Network, as host Greg DePalma picked the Mariners to win the World Series at the start of the year, and is still insistent that if they can just make the playoffs, the 1-2 punch their starting rotation can deliver makes them a good longshot bet to go all the way.
The latter point is true enough, with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma leading the pitching staff. But whether or not there’s enough help to make this a postseason topic is the question our MLB coverage will seek to answer today.
THREE KEY CHANGES
When your record is 34-44 and you don’t have players with a recent history of success, there need to be changes and Seattle has made three significant ones, affecting the everyday lineup, the starting rotation and the bullpen.
*In late May the organization called up Nick Franklin to play second base. Franklin has immediately made an impact with the bat, posting a stat line of .355 on-base percentage/.479 slugging percentage.
*After Brandon Maurer was a big disappointment in the rotation, with a 6.93 ERA in his ten starts, Seattle inserted a veteran castoff in Jeremy Bonderman. So far so good, with a 3.30 ERA in five trips to the mound for Bonderman.
*Most important, the team has finally given up on Tom Wilhelmsen at closer. He blew five saves, had a 4.09 ERA and has been replaced Yoervis Medina. With a 2.70 ERA, Medina has been good in setup work and now we’ll find out if he can close.
OFFENSIVE HELP STILL NEEDED
Seattle is going to need more than Franklin to lift the offense though. This is a team that ranks 13th in the American League in runs scored, and hasn’t shown any flashes of strength in either getting on base or hitting for power. I would cite two big disappointments, catcher Miguel Montero and first baseman Justin Smoak.
Montero and Smoak were once prize prospects, in the Yankee and Ranger organizations respectively. They were the key pieces when Seattle traded starting pitchers Michael Pineda and Cliff Lee. Montero has been so bad he’s been sent back to the minors. Smoak has finally, in his third year, produced a decent on-base percentage of .351, but he doesn’t actually hit, with a .244 batting average and five home runs.
I know in most cases, the OBP would be enough for me, but when you’re at a position that demands offense and were highly regarded enough to be swapped for Cliff Lee, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest you should actually swing the bat and connect with the baseball on occasion.
Third baseman Kyle Seager has been the one everyday player who has had a solid season in all facets of his game, with a. 343/.463 stat line. Others are mixed bags. Raul Ibanez has hit 17 home runs, but with a .286 on-base percentage, he doesn’t have value if the power slows. Michael Morse has the same profile, albeit less extreme on both sides, with a .313 OBP and 11 home runs. Morse is currently on the disabled list, but all accounts say it will be a short stay. Franklin Guiterrez slugs .583, but has just a .290 OBP.
Seattle’s team-wide rankings for OBP and slugging are equally bad (13th in both cases), but when you break the talent down individually it seems that the power is there, including Kendry Morales, who has slugged a respectable .430. But there are precious few who get on base consistently and that’s what make Franklin such an important call-up, and his continued good play essential.
BULLPEN HELP STILL NEEDED
Even if Medina pans out as the closer, there is a major depth problem in this bullpen. Oliver Perez is having an excellent year, with a 0.98 ERA, but after that, no one else is even tolerable. Carter Capps, Danny Farquah, Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan are all train wrecks waiting to happen if manager Eric Wedge calls them in. Maybe Wilhelmsen will respond to his demotion with better work, but that requires a lot of optimism.
Seattle’s bullpen ERA ranks 14th in the American League, which is impossible for almost any team to win with. When you’re a team that counts on winning games with pitching, it becomes even more glaring. Normally one might suggest this be fixed at the trade deadline, but with only a month to go, it’s more likely Seattle will be giving up major league talent rather than acquiring it.
THE SOLID SEATTLE STARTERS
When it comes to the starting pitching we can say nice things about Seattle. King Felix and Iwakuma have each made 16 starts and they could finish 1-2 in the Cy Young voting. And it’s Iwakuma who would be in line to be #1, with his 2.26 ERA, while Felix “languishes” at 2.71. Bonderman’s nice starts have been a lift and even if he doesn’t continue to pitch that well, he only has to perform well enough to be a #5.
Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang are the veterans in the middle, and while the season-long numbers are ugly, with both ERA hovering around 5, the recent form is much more positive. Over the last six starts, Harang’s ERA has dipped to 2.72, with Saunders at 3.22. In the case of Saunders we can add that should this team get in the playoff race, he has a lot of big-game experience from his days with the Angels in the late ‘00s, and then last year in Baltimore when he pitched well down the stretch and beat Yu Darvish in the wild-card game.
The rotation’s ERA is seventh in the American League, but when you factor in Maurer no longer being a part of it, and the improvement of Harang and Saunders, it’s fair to think of this as an elite starting five.
IS THERE PLAYOFF HOPE?
The fact Seattle gets such good work from their starting pitchers makes me loathe to completely dismiss them. Any team can go on a hot streak. But we have to point out that teams that win with pitching also have deep bullpens to accompany them. You can’t build a strategy around getting leads into the seventh inning of 3-2 or 3-1 and then have a disaster of a relief corps. Somewhere along the line, you either have to have an offense that can give you bigger leads or a lights-out bullpen that can get nine outs. Seattle has neither.
That’s why I can’t agree with my podcast colleague. Greg has been right far more often than me over our two-plus years of broadcasting together, but I think he blew this one. Seattle can put starting pitchers on the All-Star team and high in the Cy Young voting, but it’s going to take a lot of work for them to even get in the playoff conversation, much less actually qualify for postseason play.
AROUND THE AL WEST
Texas (44-33): How do you win when it seems like every starting pitcher you have goes on the DL? Try closing 26 of 30 save opportunities. The Rangers cash in their chances to win games.
Oakland (45-34): TheSportsNotebookfeatured the A’sa couple weeks ago, and unless Texas can get some starting pitching back healthy, you have to like Oakland’s odds over the long haul.
LA Angels (34-43): Forget the question about whether Mike Scoscia should be fired. The real question is whether Scoscia should even want to manage this team anymore, now that the organization has drifted so far from the fundamentally sound approach he used to make them a winner. This current roster is going to kill the skipper’s reputation.
Houston (29-49): They’ve won more games than Miami has over in the National League and for the Astros, I think that qualifies as a successful start to the year.
The Arizona Diamondbacks lived through a disappointing 2012 season, after winning the NL West the year before. The D-Backs struggled with injuries early, often teased throughout the summer, but never quite put together a sustained run at either San Francisco or Los Angeles. It’s the defending champion Giants and the free-spending Dodgers sucking up all the media air in the NL West in the spring of 2013. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage today will see if Arizona should be considered in the group of contenders, and we’ll also check on two more potential darkhorses out west, the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.
Any sort of bounceback for the Diamondbacks has to be built around starting pitching. That’s true, to a large degree with anyone, but this team has the potential for really good starting four. Ian Kennedy slipped after his 20-win season of 2011, but that was to be expected. In a way, I think the D-Backs can be almost as heartened as his 15-win, 4.02 ERA year of last year—it’s not spectacular, but it’s sustainable and steady. And Arizona has a pitcher more than capable of being a true #1 for the long haul in Trevor Cahill. Only 25-years-old, Cahill already has four straight years as a good starting pitcher under his belt and it’s easy to envision him making the leap to Cy Young contender. Wade Miley doesn’t have the quite the same track record, but he’s only 25 and put up a good year in 2012.
The depth in the rotation will rely on the health of a proven veteran and the development of two young arms. We know Brandon McCarthy can pitch. The question is whether he’ll stay healthy. Actually, maybe that’s not even a question either, given that McCarthy is 30 and has never made more than 25 starts in a season, and has often missed huge chunks of a season. If manager Kirk Gibson is counting on anything more than 15-20 starts from McCarthy, the skipper is being optimistic. At least McCarthy is effective when he does take the mound. The other two candidates for the rotation are 23-year-olds Patrick Corbin and Randall Delgado. Each has pitched well enough to make you think they can develop into a higher-end starter and can certainly be back-end pitchers this year.
Arizona is going to be fine in the bullpen. The tandem of David Hernandez in the eighth and J.J. Putz in the ninth is already solid and now they’ve brought in Health Bell. As bad as Bell was in Miami last year, with a 5.09 ERA, that was an aberration in a lousy situation. Brad Ziegler is another steady under-the-radar arm in the setup crew. Gibson has both depth and quality in his pen.
We’re left with the question then, of whether Arizona can score enough runs to support this staff, especially in the wake of Justin Upton being sent on his way. It’s an offense that has a lot of decent parts individually, but I question how well they’ll all function as a unit. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Martin Prado, the third baseman who came over from Atlanta in the Upton deal, to really get on base a lot. Prado is the only one in the lineup who’s even hinted at being a steady table-setter. Unless we include centerfielder Adam Eaton, who had a .382 OBP in cup-of-coffee stint last year. Eaton might well come through, but that’s a big burden to put on a kid if you have hopes of contending.
Arizona has the power in the lineup—Paul Goldschmidt is only 25 and the first baseman has already established himself as a bona fide offensive star and Miguel Montero has his moments at catcher. Others, like Jason Kubel and Cody Ross at the outfield spots, have the pop, but aren’t good at keeping themselves on the base paths consistently. It can add up to long droughts when the home runs aren’t popping.
If you believe Aaron Hill can repeat his 2012 season, you’ll feel a lot better. He had the best year of his career and his first good year since 2009. Good for him, but I need to see more before thinking anything other than “one-year wonder.”
Overall, there’s more to like here than not. I have my concerns about the offense, but I’m not blind to its potential and the ability they’ll have to be really good if Kubel and Ross can get hot in unison. And no matter what, I expect the pitching to keep them in games and the bullpen to hold leads.
Arizona’s Over/Under win number in Las Vegas is only posted at 82. I think that’s much too low. I see this team going into the high 80s on the strength of the pitching and Goldschmidt, and could potentially go higher if everything else clicks. It’s an easy Over pick for me.
San Diego: There’s no reason to be optimistic about Arizona’s NL West brethren over in San Diego. There are only two worthwhile offensive players on this team, third baseman Chase Headley and left fielder Carlos Quentin. The latter has been dealing with knee issues, and in the case of Headley he’s out until early May. I will say this—when Headley is healthy, he’s as good as it gets in the National League at third base. He popped 31 home runs last year in the vast expanse of Petco Park. Put him in Yankee Stadium and he probably hits 50.
Otherwise the Padres are reliant on Yonder Alonso to muscle up a little more. The young first baseman is a decent hitter for average, but has shown no power and at a corner infield spot like this, it’s tough to get away with a singles hitter. Yes, I know Pete Rose pulled it off back in the day, but this Padre lineup around Alonso doesn’t exactly remind anyone of the Big Red Machine.
A pitcher-friendly park like Petco should have a great staff in it, but that’s not the case. Edinson Volquez may have had his first healthy full year since 2008, but the “ace” still had a 4.14 ERA. To apply the logic of Headley, if you put Volquez in the Bronx, he might well have an ERA close to 6 and his shakiness would be much more apparent. Clayton Richard’s ERA also hovers in the 4 neighborhood and the Padres are now filling out the rotation with retreads like Jason Marquis and Freddy Garcia.
I don’t see a lot of hope for this team and would go Under 74.5, and I can see 100 losses being in the cards. The bullpen has good depth, but there won’t be leads to protect and the relievers that pitch well will be on the trade market by July.
Seattle: We stay on the west coast, moving up north and into the American League. This is another offense that looks positively awful, although there are two key differences the Mariners have in contrast to the Padres. The first is negative—the M’s don’t have the excuse of having to hit in a huge park. The positive is that Seattle has no fewer than four players who could have breakout years and turn this entire story around.
The four are catcher Jesus Montero (23-years-old), first baseman Justin Smoak (27), second baseman Dustin Ackley (25), and third baseman Kyle Seagar (26). If you’re cup half-full, you look at the ages. If you’re cup half-empty you see that they’ve all had at least one, and in most cases multiple years of regular major league duty and have yet to show anything. Montero is the one that gets the big benefit of the doubt, whereas I’ve pretty much lost patience with Smoak. We’ll put Ackley and Seagar on the bubble.
Seattle will be better if left fielder Michael Morse can regain his 2011 form with Washington, when he hit for both average and power. Rightfielder Michael Saunders hit 19 home runs last year and Kendrys Morales hit for power, although the DH saw his OBP plummet after coming over from the Angels. Seattle also brought Raul Ibanez back home, but the 41-year-old’s postseason heroics in New York last October obscured the fact he’s been an offensive liability for the better part of two seasons.
The rotation has almost as many question marks, with the last spots being fought for by Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan and high-end spots being held by 31-year-olds Joe Saunders and Hisashi Iwakuma. The latter is a Japanese import who put up a 3.16 ERA in 16 starts. It was a nice showing, but the fact he’s your #2 starter based on that shows how many questions there are. Saunders pitched well for Baltimore down the stretch and in the playoffs, but has otherwise been inconsistent for a couple years. And if these pitchers can’t go deep into the games, don’t look for help from the bullpen. While closer Tom Wilhelmsen took advantage of his first real opportunity in the majors and saved 29 games with a 2.73 ERA, there’s no depth in front of him.
If nothing else, the rotation comes back to Felix Hernandez every fifth day. Since 2006, King Felix has taken the ball regularly and ranged from either “very good” to “Cy Young contender” to “should be in the MVP discussion if voters weren’t so biased against pitchers.” Every hope Seattle has comes back to Felix.
The win projection is at 78, and if the young hitters and pitchers all come together, that’s very easily doable. But that’s a lot to have go right—I count no fewer than 10 question marks in the everyday lineup and starting rotation. And then you have to hope a bullpen magically comes together. A 65-win season is also within “reach.” I’m not saying it will be that bad, but the possibility is enough to make me go Under 78.