Tagged: AL West

Given the chance, Jesse Chavez has nailed it as a starter

Back on March 29th, Jack Weiland wrote In the course of human events, there aren’t many things worse than late spring training injuries.” Aside from simply making an excellent observation – seeing your team’s ace go down in his last start before an Opening Day assignment must be a top-five gut punch moment – Weiland was actually busy finding a silver lining for the Oakland Athletics amidst their injury turmoil; with nominal staff anchor Jarrod Parker headed for a second round of Tommy John surgery, and fellow rotation member A.J. Griffin also on the DL, the A’s had been forced to elevate relative unknown Jesse Chavez – a reliever with a career a 5.48 ERA – into a starting role. Weiland though, saw some cause for optimism in the involuntary promotion, even opining “Chavez may have the stuff to stick, and to be an effective major league starter.”

So far, Weiland has looked like a genius. Through his first four starts of 2014, Chavez has pitched 26 innings in which he has allowed just 3 earned runs – good for a team-leading 1.38 ERA – and posted very impressive 9.7 SO/9 and 1.7 BB/9 marks. Additionally, after mostly teeing off on Chavez throughout his career, opponents so far this season are batting just .194 against the 30-year-old. From a would-be reliever then, to a dominant starter all of a sudden, it seems reasonable to ask ‘where on earth did this come from?!’

Selected by the Texas Rangers in the 42nd round of the 2002 amateur draft*, the Riverside Community College product was moved to the bullpen before he even progressed past Single A due to both durability concerns and command issues. Traded in 2006 to the Pirates in return for Kip Wells, he finally made his ML debut as a reliever in 2008, but would soon move from Pittsburgh to Tampa Bay, where he wouldn’t make an appearance before being shipped to Atlanta for Rafael Soriano, before bouncing to Kansas City, then Toronto, and finally, Oakland. Prior to the 2013 season, the California native had made 2 starts and 154 relief appearances, racking up -2.6 WAR (per Baseball Reference) along the way; he was the quintessential journeyman, perennially in danger of being waived. 

In 2013 however, things began to pick up for the string bean righty (despite being 6’2, he’s listed at just 160 lbs). In his first full year with the pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum as his home park, Chavez fanned nearly a batter an inning and gave up just three homers in 57⅓ innings out of the bullpen, and posted his first positive WAR contribution since 2009 (0.2). More encouragingly though, he showed subtle signs of an improved repertoire. As told to Jonah Keri by A’s pitching coach Curt Young, on June 13th against the Yankees, Chavez provided a glimpse of what we’ve so far been treated to this season: “the game goes to extra innings, and he really starts showing what he can do. He goes through multiple times in the order, and he’s got just great command of all four pitches.” Inserted to hopefully hold down the fort for a while, Chavez instead tossed 5⅔ shutout innings, allowing just one hit and two walks while striking out seven – sowing the initial seeds of thought in the minds of Oakland’s manager Bob Melvin and GM Billy Beane that led to his being given an opportunity to start when the injury bug bit this spring.

Given his chance, Chavez has so far run with it; in his season debut against the Mariners, he allowed one earned run over six innings en route to a 3-2 A’s win. He followed up that strong initial effort on April 9th against the Twins, fanning nine, walking none, and surrendering a single run in seven innings of work, before posting an identical line versus the Angels five days later. On Sunday facing the Astros, he finally picked up his first win of the season in what was probably his worst start to date (highlighting the ridiculousness of the win statistic) – still, even though he was struggling with his control, he only allowed one earned run over six innings, and managed to make some franchise history.

But back to Weiland, and what he saw to suggest Chavez’s usefulness. Well, Chavez actually has a surprisingly deep repertoire for a guy who was once pigeon-holed into a relief role; there is the odd kind of 90-95 mph fastball, handsomely backed with a 87-90 mph cutter (an offering that David Golebiewski did a great job of breaking down on Gammons Daily). Then there is a changeup at 84-87 mph, and finally, as written by Carson Cistulli “a curveball with considerable vertical break at 76-78 mph” – a pitch which even Mike Trout can only stare and admire. As acknowledged by Weiland too, “His command has also improved over the years,” something that (helped somewhat by the weak offenses he has so far face, the home ballpark, and Oakland’s defensive prowess), has certainly played a large part in Chavez’s unlikely success so far; he ranks in the top 10 among AL pitchers in percentage of strikes thrown, and   thus also finds himself among the likes of Masahiro Tanaka, Felix Hernandez, and David Price as the early AL leaders in SO/BB**.

Also on that list is A’s teammate Scott Kazmir. In fact, as well as being first among Junior Circuit teams in team ERA (2.55), the A’s also rank 2nd in the AL in BB% (Boston lead the way at 6.8%). Pounding the strike zone, Oakland’s pitchers have ensured the club hasn’t missed a beat (they topped my AL Power Rankings on Sunday) in 2014 despite the losses of two of their idealized rotation to injury and 2013 staff anchor (in more ways than one) Bartolo Colon to free agency. With Sonny Gray, the aforementioned Kazmir, and of course, the resurgent Chavez, the A’s are poised to ride their starting pitching to a third consecutive AL West division title. 

So much for licking their wounds. With Oakland, and in the case of Jesse Chavez, injuries are merely an opportunity for another to shine.

* He didn’t actually sign until May 17th, 2003 though.

** While Tanaka signed a $155 million contract with the Yankees over the winter though, Chavez will this year make $775k (#Moneyball!)


What’s there left to say about Mike Trout?

Following up on my selection of Bryce Harper as 2014 NL MVP last Friday, today was supposed to mark the occasion of my AL MVP pick. But really how much is there left to say about Mike Trout?

Since arriving in the Majors in May 2012, the Millville Meteor has been the most valuable player in baseball, posting consecutive 10+ WAR seasons in his age 20 and 21 campaigns. He has robbed home runs in spectacular fashion, playing center field with all the grace of a gazelle – a gazelle with a crazy vertical leap. On the basepaths, he’s a terror, using the speed that routinely turns grounders into infield hits to pose a constant threat when on base – which by the way, he generally is. At the dish, he’s been one of the five best hitters in the game, combining a patient approach (he was third in the majors with 110 walks last year), with both a plus hit tool (hitting .326 and .323 in the past two years respectively) and surprising power (he already has 62 home runs). Furthermore, he owns Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, the two pitchers he has faced most often so far in his young career, with Darvish recently admitting he has no idea how to pitch to him – high praise indeed, given his position as reigning AL strikeout king. By all measures, Trout is the most valuable player in the sport (hence why his upcoming contract terms are being widely, and wildly, debated). That Miguel Cabrera has beaten him to the official hardware in both the past two years is merely indicative of a voting class that still favors RBI(zzzzzz) over metrics that also take into account fielding and base running – y’know, crucial elements of the sport.

I’m not here to argue about Cabrera stealing Trout’s shine though; as Jonah Keri put it so wonderfully, “Criticizing Cabrera or Trout is like whining about the mole on Kate Upton’s upper lip.” Despite his lack of formal acknowledgment, when it comes to who’s most valuable, we know. The Angels are lucky to have him, and should hold on to their young superstar for as long as humanly possible. Things could have been very different after all…

In making Mark Teixeira a very rich man – signing the prize position player of the 2008 free agency class to a eight year, $180M contract – the Yankees sacrificed their first round pick in 2009’s MLB amateur draft to his former employer, the Angels, as compensation (Los Angeles would also receive a supplemental pick in the deal). Of course, in a rare turn of bad luck for the Yanks, that sacrificed pick later turned out to be a certain high school kid from from South Jersey (the supplemental pick too, if you were interested, was Tyler Skaggs). In an alternate world, Mike Trout would now be in pinstripes – and a whole heck of other things would probably be different too. Let the butterfly flap it’s wings.

Having extended an eight year offer of their own during the Winter Meetings, lets say Teixeira, having enjoyed his three month spell in SoCal so much, turns down the overtures of not only New York, Boston, Baltimore, and the Nationals, and instead re-ups with the Angels.

Having missed out on Teixeira, but already spent a cool $243.5M in bringing aboard CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees opt to sign the still-available Manny Ramirez to a two year pact. Though Teixeira amasses 3.0 additional WAR than Ramirez during the season, hitting .292/.383/.565 and finishing second in AL MVP voting, he performs miserably in the postseason, hitting just .180/.282/.311 in what begins a trend of disappointing playoff performances. The Angels fall to the Yankees in the ALCS, who (like in reality) go on to win the World Series over Philadelphia, Ramirez batting a serviceable .281/.324/.469 along the way. With the World Series title in their back pockets, the Yanks also head into 2009 armed with two first round picks, and one very specific target.

At an introductory press conference, New York’s scouting director Damon Oppenheimer speaks first: “He was the second guy on our overall board. It was (Stephen) Strasburg and then Trout.” With the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, the Yankees have of course, snagged Mike Trout, who had fallen into their laps after scouts didn’t pay enough attention to his Northeast high school. Additionally, with Trout already in the bag, the Evil Empire pass on picking up another high school outfielder, Slade Heathcott, and instead select Tyler Skaggs just four picks later. Not even Alex Rodriguez’s and Manny Ramirez’s joint PED admission later in the season can bring down the Yankees, though they eventually fall in the playoffs.

Fast forward to the winter of 2011. With Teixeira in Anaheim, free agent first baseman Albrt Pujols turns instead to his biggest offer, signing for ten years and $275M to be the face of the new Miami Marlins franchise, swallowing his request for a no-trade clause to be included in the deal. With no money left to spend, Miami can’t afford their other free agent target Jose Reyes, who agrees to fill the void at shortstop for the Cardinals. Prince Fielder remains available until January, when Texas finally step up and sign him in an pseudo arms race with the Angels for the most bloated 1B contract in the AL West (and yes, the use of “bloated” was very intentional).

The 2012 season begins, and Trout is called up by the Yankees in May. He does Mike-Trout things, posting a rookie season for the ages in which he hits 326/.399/.564 with an 168 OPS+, his play both inspiring comparison to ‘True Yankee’ Mickey Mantle, and John Sterling to come up with two incredibly annoying home run calls by June (I’m thinking “No Doubt! Mike Trout!” or “That one’s Troutta here!”). Quickly realizing the next franchise cornerstone is in the fold, Derek Jeter steps away from the game graciously after the season, having suffered a gruesome broken ankle in the postseason; in his retirement press conference, he speaks of recognizing how his body can’t do it everyday anymore, and jokes about how he’s been overmatched at shortstop for years anyhow. Rebuffing questions about whether he’d have preferred a retirement tour, Jeter says he wouldn’t want to detract from Trout – who will be the next Yankee captain.

After an amazing sophomore campaign, Trout is unanimously regarded as the best player in baseball. His cheap contract too, means that the Yankees have money to burn elsewhere, and instead of signing Jacoby Ellsbury, re-sign Robinson Cano – GM Brian Cashman dismissively amused that the Yankees would ever not lock in the game’s best player at the keystone for the rest of his career. Having signed Yu Darvish in 2011 with the money they saved not signing Teixeira (and the Rangers’ hands tied by the enormous Fielder contract), they augment their staff further with the addition of Masahiro Tanaka, and swing Tyler Skaggs along with a host of other top prospects to Tampa for a one year rental of David Price. With such formidable pitching depth, and Trout and Cano leading the offense, no one even cares about Rodriguez’s season-long suspension for his part in the Biogenesis scandal; the Yankees romp to the 2014 title regardless.

Mike Trout is named the 2014 AL MVP, just as he will be back in reality.

Platooning with Brandon Moss.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Billy Beane saw value where few else did.

Drafted in the 8th round out of high school way back in 2002 by the Boston Red Sox, as an infielder and pitcher, Brandon Moss was slowly transitioned to the outfield and eventually made his ML debut in 2007. With Boston’s strong positional depth though, the lefty never caught on with the club; by 2008, he was packaged to Pittsburgh as part of the Manny Ramirez to L.A. deal. The Pirates however, saw nothing to their liking either, and designated for assignment the Georgia native in 2010. Moss cleared waivers without a claim and found himself outrighted to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. Attempting to catch on elsewhere in 2011, he signed a minor-league free agent deal to play in Philadelphia, but would receive just 6 at-bats with the Phillies. Then, in 2012, with the 28 year old a free agent once again, Oakland came calling.

Since then, well, I’ll leave it to David Fiers of Fangraphs to explain the colossal bargain Oakland (typically) acquired: “among first baseman with at least 750 plate appearances, Moss’ .381 wOBA ranks fifth and his 146 wRC+ rates as fourth best. Socking 51 dingers over that time frame places Moss eighth and his 139 RBIs come in at 15th.” Again, the Phillies only gave this guy 6 at-bats in 2011, nor did Moss ever receive more than 250 in his time with either Boston or Pittsburgh. What the hell happened then, for Brandon Moss’ production to spike so dramatically as soon as he shrugged on an Athletics jersey?!

Though it’s by now common knowledge that many hitters perform far better against opposite-handed pitchers, many teams still either choose to ignore, or don’t possess the necessary positional flexibility to fully take advantage of, platoon pairing. Thankfully for Moss, Beane’s Athletics are not one of those teams – in fact, along with Tampa Bay (it’s not a coincidence both are low-budget organizations), they consistently wring offensive production from small investments by forming platoons. But while Matt Joyce remains the long-time poster boy of the strategy in Tampa, Brandon Moss might just be the biggest platoon beneficiary of anyone currently employed in the league.

After racking up 21 HRs, 52 RBIs, and a slash line of .291/.358/.596 (*cough* .359 BABIP *cough*) in 84 games in 2012, Moss received a career-high 505 plate appearances as the Athletics’ primary first baseman in 2013. Of those, 417 were against right-handed pitches, and boy, did the lefty crush ‘em;

As shown in the table above, Moss was a full 68 points better in batting average and 164 points better in slugging percentage versus right-handers, against whom he slugged 26 of his 30 home runs. Additionally he walked more and struck out less when facing righties, his platoon use alleviating concerns about the slugger’s plate discipline.

Credit where credit’s due, given consistent playing time for the first time in his career, Moss did make strides in regard to his approach at the dish; his walk rate reached almost 10% and, although still very high (27.7%), he cut his strikeout rate by almost 3% over the season – an improvement made almost entirely over the second half of the season (his K% went from 30.8 to 23.2. after the All-Star break), helped by both his declined proclivity to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, and also by a raised contact rate. His power too, despite the offense-supressing reputation of Oakland’s home ballpark, the O.co Coliseum, was legitimate rather than fluky; his ISO of .267 ranked third among qualified hitters, while according to ESPN’s home run tracker, the average true distance of his home runs was 403.7 feet – 20 of his 30 dingers were judged “Plenty” or “No Doubt” (meaning they cleared the fence by at least 20 feet).

It’s clear by the numbers however, that Moss was helped most in breaking out during 2013 by Bob Melvin’s line-up writing ability – put in the best position to succeed by his manager, the lefty did just that. Hitting on a situational basis, Moss is clearly among the best power bats in the game, and a bargain at his 2014 price of $4.1M if he can replicate the 2.2 WAR he accumulated in 2013. Alongside the performance of fellow oft-overlooked contributors Josh Donaldson, Coco Crisp, and Josh Reddick, Moss’ continued righty-crushing will go a long way towards Oakland defending their AL West division crown.

Let’s just hope he won’t have to face too many lefties come playoff time.

Robinson Cano, 2B & part-time GM.

Many internet prognosticators figured it would be at least 12 months before Robinson Cano voiced his displeasure concerning Seattle’s roster construction, projecting a full season of disappointment before any public outcry. Instead, it has taken only 90 days as a member of the Mariners for the star second baseman to provide the front office with some pointers. Though the speed of his ‘advice’ hasn’t earned him much in terms of popularity amongst his new fanbase, it would be wrong to instantly dub Cano and his contract off the mark, and begin the what seems inevitable process of his becoming a financial albatross to the team. He’s probably actually right.

Cano’s signing with the Mariners started the clock of contention ticking for Seattle, a situation succinctly explained by Mike Curto: “The mix of Cano’s age (31) and the financial commitment speeds up the Mariners’ calendar. The team is now pressured to win in the next few years, before Cano’s skills severely decline.” With a clear window of serviceable Cano years to operate in, and armed with an impending $2 billion thanks to a new long-term agreement with DirecTV, the M’s promised to be aggressive on the free-agent market in building a team around their prize in order to immediately contend in a loaded AL West division. What actually happened however… well, they struck out – as my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series detailed. Entering the season, the Mariners are projected to have Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager batting ahead of Cano, with Corey Hart in line for clean-up duty. That’s a problem, one Cano had no issue with immediately highlighting in an interview with CBSSports.com earlier this week:

“I’m not going to lie. We need an extra bat, especially a right-handed bat. We have many left-handed hitters. We need at least one more righty. You don’t want to face a lefty pitcher with a lineup of seven left-handed hitters.”

When Cano signed his 10-year, $240 million contract in December, it was clear he was leaving a bad offense behind in New York; as Baseball Prospectus pointed out in their fantastic annual, “The second baseman accounted for 68 percent of the Yankees’ BWARP” in 2013. At age 31, he quite rightly jumped at Seattle’s offer – purportedly $65 million more than the next-highest bidder – and GM Jack Zduriencik’s promise to build a contender around him during the remainder of his prime. The problem there being that Cano’s prime may already be over – and Zduriencik has so far done nothing.

Mike Bates of SB Nation studied the 20 most valuable players who spent more than half of their careers at second base through age 30 since 1900; his results showed that the group average fell from a cumulative 47.3 WAR through their age 31 seasons, to just 22.3 WAR after. So while Cano has been remarkably durable so far in his cumulating a career 45.1 WAR (he’s currently in the midst of a seven season streak of at least 159 games played), and consistently great at both the plate and in the field, every historical indicator points to those days of healthy performance soon ending. In his study of the unsightly aging curve of offense-minded second basemen, Fangraphs writer Tony Blengino wrote the following about Seattle’s splashy acquisition:

History says that Cano will ride out the end of his peak period in 2014, begin a solid decline phase with some .300ish, 18-20 HR seasons, than begin a deeper secondary decline phase during which he accumulate hits — and outs. By age 35, there will likely be a severe disconnect between Cano’s salary and his production.

Paging Jack Z – 2014 is this year! It has always been acknowledged that the back end of the Dominican native’s contract would be an overpay, but the obliviousness of the Mariners front office to the obvious decline on the horizon is a little frightening for a long-suffering Seattle fan base. Father Time catches up with even the best players in the end – just ask Albert Pujols and the Los Angeles Angels.

All of which is why Cano’s recent lobbying for help (including for the still-available Ervin Santana and Kendrys Morales) makes sense; if he is only going to be able to provide front-loaded production, the team should go out and get help now. Per Cot’s Contracts, the Seattle payroll is currently sat at around $74 million, with just Cano and Felix Hernandez as the only large contracts, yet with the benefit of their upcoming TV deal they neither seriously pursued Nelson Cruz or Ubaldo Jimenez in free agency, nor made an aggressive push for a David Price deal despite possessing a suitable return piece in Taijuan Walker (who is now injured, naturally). Cano’s addition alone will not be enough to in one year turn around completely an offense that in 2013 finished 12th in the Junior Circuit with 624 runs scored and ranked 10th in the AL in team OPS (.695), let alone push a 91 loss team to the peak of the AL West and into the playoffs – baseball is the most individual ‘team sport’ after all. One man can only do so much, and that one man is due to decline; (the admittedly conservative) PECOTA has him projected to hit .297/.352/.482 with a .307 TAv and 21 HR in 2014 – and his numbers are only going in one direction from there.

Cano probably knows it. Seattle apparently, does not. Keep talking Robbie, I don’t blame you. If the M’s are serious about contending, maybe they’ll start listening too.

Hello Baseball! Injuries mess with Texas.

In yesterdays installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I found yet another reason to love the Rays – RHP, and amateur thespian, Chris Archer. From Tampa Bay’s seemingly endless stream of above average hurlers then, to a club in dire need of some additional pitching depth; less than a week into Spring Training, the Texas Rangers are already beset by injuries to their projected starting rotation. They’ve a lot to figure out in the coming few weeks before Opening Day…

When the calendar flipped to 2014, it looked as if the Texas Rangers were ready to reclaim their throne atop the AL West from this pesky Athletics. Having lost the second AL Wild Card spot in a tie-breaking Game 163 with the Rays, Texas first traded for Prince Fielder’s left handed power bat, parting with longtime franchise keystone Ian Kinsler in the process. Then, looking for an outfield boost and leadoff hitter, they inked Shin-Soo Choo – he of the .423 OBP in 2013. With an upgraded lineup to backup a rotation that last season cumulatively accrued a 114 ERA+, the Rangers were looking well stocked. At least until the injury bug bit two surefire starters.

First it was Derek Holland on crutches and out until midseason – after a curiously unlucky incident involving his dog, the Rangers were without a man who provided 213 innings and 3.3 WAR last season, as well as some of the iffiest facial hair in the game. Then it was 2012 All-Star Matt Harrison, who after undergoing three surgeries last year, two of which were to alleviate a herniated disc, reporting lower back pain in the same area as the previous procedures. Throw in the loss of Matt Garza and Justin Grimm over the winter, and the Rangers officially moved in scramble mode barely a week into Spring Training. Fortunately for Texas, they have plenty of internal options to fill in the gaps; whether the replacements are up to scratch however, is another matter entirely.

At the top of their starting five, the Rangers appear to be pretty well set; AL strikeout king and primary subject of the GIF of the year Yu Darvish would be the bona fide ace of the staff even before the injury bug bit Texas, while Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando would also doubtlessly have been carried over from their respective 2013 rotation roles. Both however, in an ideal situation would have remained at the back end of the staff, Ogando having bounced between the rotation and long relief before making 30 starts last year  (and falling off badly down the stretch), and Perez entering only his second full season in the majors, despite posting a more than respectable 3.62 ERA as a rookie. Instead, the pair are slotted in as no. 2 and 3 behind Darvish.

Tommy Hanson meanwhile, was brought to camp as a lottery ticket after suffering through a terrible 2013 with the Angels (going 3-4 with a 5.42 ERA, in just 15 games), but is now projected to be the no. 4 member of the rotation – this despite a history of shoulder problems and a worrying loss of fastball velocity last year (a potentially huge problem given the launching pad Globe Life Park provides for opposing hitters). Behind Hanson in the five spot? It could be any number of candidates, all with significant question marks aside their names.

As the top pitcher on the consecutive World Series teams fielded by Texas in 2010 and 2011, Colby Lewis and his veteran experience would appear to have the inside track on the job, but at 34 years old, is coming off a lost 2013 in which he underwent a hip surgery that no other pitcher has ever had before. Nick Tepesch, while not a hard thrower, gained some starting experience last year, compiling a 4.84 ERA in his 17 games, but barring improvement, is simply a replacement level option. Last year’s Spring Training darling, Michael Kirkman, too is in the mix, even after a 8.18 ERA and a 2.318 WHIP as a reliever in 2013. Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers will also both be given the chance to start in the Cactus League, but their removal from the bullpen would leave Texas dangerously thin on the back end; with Joe Nathan gone to Detroit and Neftali Feliz only just returning from injury himself, both will presumably be needed for depth purposes. Scheppers in particular, who posted a 1.07 WHIP and a 1.88 ERA in 76 relief appearances last year, appears to be too valuable a commodity for Texas to significantly alter his role, whereas Ross struggled with reverse-splits to such an extent last year that a promotion to starting seems far off.

Questioned about the problematic final starting spot, manager Ron Washington voiced humorous unease: “You’re never comfortable, but someone will emerge… There’s no doubt about it. All of those guys can’t be horses—.” In a tough AL West, the vacancy certainly represents Texas’ biggest weakness as Opening Day approaches, with no apparent savior on the horizon either; Having spent big already this offseason to bring in the aforementioned Choo and Fielder, it seems GM Jon Daniels has closed the checkbook on Ervin Santana (probably a wise move given his less than ideal fit for the park), meaning there’s no one else really to sign. Help will have to come from within, and perform admirably until the wounded return. If they’re to live up to their lofty winter expectations, Texas might just have to get by being lucky for a while. They’re due at least.

Hello Baseball! The Seattle Mariners are still the Mariners.

It’s Day 27 of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, meaning it’s finally the alphabetically-determined time of my newly local team! After yesterday waxing lyrical about Oakland’s new star pitcher Sonny Gray, today I look at a fellow AL West club; the 2014 iteration of the Seattle Mariners. After a noisy offseason full of signings, coaching turnover, and postulations of contention, are the M’s actually ready to flourish though? (Here’s a hint: No!)

When God gives you 19 intra-division games against a team as hapless as the 2013 Houston Astros, you are supposed to take fully advantage and sing His praises; unfortunately last years Seattle Mariners said “meh”, and passed over the scheduling gift, going just 10-9 against one of the worst teams in baseball history. Even worse, they were actually lucky to do so averagely, allowing the punchless Astros offense 91 runs in those 19 games while scoring only 81 themselves. Needless to say, the 2013 Mariners (who went 71-91, though their pythagorean win expectation was just 67-95) weren’t especially good.

And so the offseason began with drastic change promised. First out the door was manager Eric Wedge, who reportedly felt the incredible foulness of Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik’s, president Chuck Armstrong’s, and CEO Howard Lincoln’s dissatisfaction with yet another losing season. Amidst the damning accounts of front office dysfunction, former Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon was hired to right the ship – Zduriencik’s third manager of his tenure, and the team’s seventh since 2007.

Faced with a wave of negative press while simultaneously attempting to improve their lackluster offense, the Mariners threw money overboard in an attempt to right the ship, inking 31 year old second baseman Robinson Cano to a ten year, $240 million contract (a contentious subject to be discussed in a later post). In securing free agency’s biggest prize early, Seattle headed to baseball’s Winter Meetings ready to spend further in order to alter the public’s perception of their tolerance for losing.

The additional deals promised never materialized though. With incumbent DH Kendrys Morales and his associated compensatory pick lost to free agency (at least so far – he remains unsigned), and in need of a power outfield bat to replace Raul Ibanez (… I know – you can’t be good if Ibanez is playing the field), the Mariners were strongly linked to Nelson Cruz, but couldn’t work out a deal with the righty slugger. Instead, the M’s settled for Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, who will split time in between the outfield, first base, and DH. Hart it must be added, who is expected to play 145 games and bat cleanup behind Cano, is already listed as day-to-day with knee tenderness – this after having missed the entire 2013 season recovering from surgeries on both knees. It appears then, that Seattle will be relying on significant improvements from former top prospects Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley (Jesus Montero seemingly out of the mix given his still-awful receiving and just incredible winter weight gain) to ignite an offense that has produced the least runs of any team over the last half-decade. Given their respective longstanding struggles, such a sudden reversal in fortunes seems unlikely.

With an enviable stable of young impact arms on the way to join Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the rotation, Seattle’s lack of urgency in regard to acquiring additional starting pitching was more understandable. Already though, the Mariner’s presumed biggest strength is hurting; Iwakuma will miss a further 3 weeks and the start of the season after catching his finger in some protective netting, whereas top prospect Taijuan Walker has himself a worrying case of shoulder soreness. With Danny Hultzen too already out for the season, suddenly the back end of Seattle’s rotation looks set to feature the relatively unproven James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez, veteran Scott Baker (returning from elbow surgery that kept him out of 2012 and most of 2013), or (gulp) Hector Noesi. With just Ervin Santana left available on the free agency market – who is apparently demanding a multiyear deal – it seems for now that Seattle will once again be pinning their hopes for respectability on the continued existence of King Felix’s healthy right arm.

Where the Mariners did make a splashy signing however, was probably at the least needed position; in giving former Ray and ‘proven closer’ Fernando Rodney a two year $14 million deal, they not only managed to antagonize sabermetricians everywhere, but blocked the more than capable Danny Farquhar from the role. With Farquhar having saved 18 of his 20 opportunities towards the end of last season, Tom Wilhelmson waiting in the wings, the proven volatility of closers, and the 36 year old Rodney’s horrific peripherals, the contract seems questionable at best; but hey, it’s not like the ultra-savvy Rays know anything about extracting value from unreliable relievers before letting other teams overpay for them.

After pledging change, Zduriencik has somewhat misguidedly delivered then. Even after his expensive capture of Cano though, and subsequent signaling of Seattle’s willingness to open the checkbook (quite rightly so too, given the TV money boom the team will soon enjoy), Cot’s Contracts pegs their opening day salary at just $73,994,643, the Mariners’ lowest payroll since 2000, and $32,342,136 below the ML average. With the perennially underrated defending AL West champions Oakland going nowhere, a re-tooled Texas squad, and the Mike Trouts too, their division would have looked plenty daunting even if Seattle had aced this past offseason; as it is, a fourth-place finish again looks likely. The Mariners are still the Mariners, dysfunctional as ever.

Perhaps next winter, it will be Zduriencik’s ass getting hit by the door on the way out.

Hello Baseball! Remember the name Sonny Gray

Yesterday, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series devolved into a subtle form of 29 other teams’ favorite sport; Yankee bashing. But then again, it’s hard to deny that despite their free-spending ways, the New York infield has become a hospice of sorts. The Oakland Athletics on the other hand, have no such problems – routinely extracting immensely valuable contributions from young players and lesser names alike. 2013 was no exception; despite a lack of big names on the roster, the A’s went 96-66 and won the AL West once again, only to be bested in the playoffs by the Detroit Tigers for the second consecutive year. After two high-profile postseason duels with none other than Justin Verlander though, the name of Sonny Gray might soon alter Oakland’s relative lack of star status.

Ahead of Game 5 of the 2013 ALDS, Athletics manager Bob Melvin had a decision to make regarding his choice of starting pitcher; on the one hand, there was his nominal staff ace Bartolo Colon, who after a unexpectedly brilliant regular season had been hit around a little too easily by the Detroit Tigers in Game 1. On the other, there was the rookie Sonny Gray, whom despite having made only 10 starts at the big league level during the season, had out-dueled then-reigning AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander in Game 2, throwing eight frames of scoreless ball, and striking out nine. With Oakland’s season on the line, the former Vanderbilt Commodore was selected to take the mound; unfortunately, Miguel Cabrera cared not for the narrative.

That Melvin went with Gray in Oakland’s most important game in 2013 should surprise no one. That Gray threw an obvious mistake – a belt-high, middle-in fastball to Cabrera – at the worst possible time, should. Because up until that point, the 18th overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft had been dominant, his 10 starts down the stretch yielding a 2.85 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 24.8 K%, and 8.1 BB%. Furthermore, his SIERA (3.21) placed him 12th among pitchers who had thrown at least 60 innings, nestling him nicely in between some young aces you may have heard of – Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez. Yes, Sonny Gray is that good.

You’d be forgiven for doubting him heading into 2013 however. Even his manager recently admitted to doubts: “If you would have asked me, sitting right here (a year ago), if he would be pitching for us in the playoffs I would have said that’s a stretch. So when you look back, sure, it’s surprising.” After throwing just 22 innings after being drafted in 2011, the 5’11 Gray had a 4.14 ERA (with just a 5.90 K/9, and 1.70 K/BB ratio) at Double A Midland in 2012, causing him to fall off both Baseball America’s and MLB.com’s top 100 prospects lists. Promoted to begin 2013 at Triple A regardless of his prior issues, Gray flipped the switch; when Dan Straily started struggling, his 3.42 ERA, 2.74 FIP and 118 strikeouts in 118 1/3 innings (20 GS) earned him a call up to The Show.

He never looked back, his impressive raw statistics backed up by a 2.70 FIP and 2.97 xFIP, suggesting his excellence wasn’t just a product of O.co Coliseum’s favorable dimensions. Per Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x data, Gray threw exactly 1200 pitches for the Athletics in his time up (including postseason), relying on his 93mph four seam fastball to generate a 53.6 GB%, and a filthy 80mph curveball to put batters away. The curve in fact, according to Fangraphs pitch values, ranked as most valuable in the game amongst starters with 60+ innings – besting Clayton Kershaw by 0.79 runs per hundred pitches – and induced a startling whiff rate of 15.31% from opposing batters. Just to keep hitters off balance, Gray mixed in a change 7.2% of the time too (though he can also turn to the sinker, cutter, and slider to form a six pitch arsenal – but used them very sparingly). With his control under… ahem, control – a future ace had officially emerged by seasons end.

As Melvin testified of the now 24 year old, “He did some amazing things in a short period of time.” Now it’s time for Gray to lead a deep Athletics pitching staff for a full season; he will presumably join Jarrod Parker and newly acquired Scott Kazmir at the top of the Athletics rotation, with A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, Drew Pomeranz, and Tommy Milone competing for the remaining two spots. If all goes to plan, the young righty will be the first to take the ball for Oakland in the 2014 playoffs, and push them past their ALDS hump.

Maybe then, the public will finally recognize a name on the A’s roster as a true star.