Tag Archives: Scott Servias

Cano, Cruz, Hernandez – What To Do, What To Do

So here we have the three most prominent and important players currently on the Seattle Mariners.

Of the three, only Nelson Cruz is performing at an acceptable level.  Robinson Cano is in the midst of an 80 game suspension and has become a disappointment to both his team and Seattle Mariner fans.  Felix Hernandez is a ghost of what he once was, a seasonal potential Cy Young Award pitcher.

There is going to be a lot of talk of what to do when Robinson Cano returns from his suspension.  Just how much can he contribute in a 6-week stretch to perhaps get the Mariners to the playoffs for the first time since 2001?  If he does help a lot, we lose his bat for the post season since he won’t be eligible.  And if he doesn’t he takes away critical at-bats from players the Mariners will have to lean on during the stretch run and the aforementioned playoffs.

There will also be a lot of talk of what to do after this year.  I suppose an optimist can view that what the Mariners have is a “happy” problem.  I’m not so sure.

Here is what I think is the best to do for this year and beyond for Cano, Cruz and Hernandez:

Robinson Cano

Robinson Cano started 2018 decently enough before his suspension.  The 6′, 210 lbs. was hitting .287 with 4 home runs and 23 RBI’s as well as playing 2B as smooth as anyone.

But right now, he isn’t the best 2nd baseman on the team.  That honor goes to Dee Gordon who, despite starting out in centerfield, transitioned perfectly back to a position in which he was a two-time All Star.  Granted, Gordon will need some days off and to have a player the caliber of Cano is fantastic.

But even if Cano goes on some sort of tear at the plate, the Mariners can’t keep Cano at 2nd because he can’t play in the playoffs.  Gordon will need to keep playing to prepare for the playoffs.

So that means Cano becomes a sub…but only at three spots:  2nd base, first base and designated hitter.

No problem with Cano playing 2nd or being the DH.  But he has never played first base in a major league game.  It shouldn’t be a problem for him though as he is a fine athlete.   But there are nuances at first that he needs to be aware of such as holding the runner, going to a different cut-off position, knowing when to stretch to help the infielders get a much needed out and the most obvious, searching for the bag on ground balls.

Ryan Healy has played a pretty good first base for the Mariners and has contributed decently at the plate, hitting .240 with 18 home runs and driving in 46.  As with Gordon, Healy will need some days off and Cano is a luxury to have.  However, I haven’t seen any news of him working out at first base and having a player learn a position on the fly during a playoff run isn’t a good idea even with the caliber of Cano.

Which leaves the third spot he can play:  Designated Hitter

Now you take the bat away from the Mariners most consistent and dangerous hitter, Nelson Cruz.

Cano and Cruz are pretty close statistically since 2015.

Since 2015 Age Avg. Hits HR RBI SLG %
Nelson Cruz 37 0.286 584 148 372 0.552
Robinson Cano 35 0.288 563 87 293 0.468

I guess the question would be is who do you want at the plate at the most critical junctions?  I’d take Nellie because he slows everything down at the most critical times.  With Cano, too often he strikes out, rolls a lazy grounder to second or flies out.  Nellie may get out but he always hits the ball hard.

The only luxury that Manager Scott Servias has is that Nellie is right-handed and Cano hits from the left side.  But there is no way I’d only use Nellie with left-handed pitching.

So what to do with Cano starting in 2019?  Not going to be able to trade him as is contract is too huge.  Mariners would have to pay him to play elsewhere and get little in return.  And if they release him, he still gets paid as his contract is guaranteed.

The most obvious choice would be move him to first providing Cruz signs next year.  But then you lose Ryan Healy who will be only 27 next year, has proven he can come up with some big hits as well as play a good first base at a fraction of the cost.  However, you could get a pitcher of value for Healy in a trade but in my estimation, you lose a superior first baseman over Cano…and with Cano a decade older, he will most likely start declining in production at the plate.

As stated before, Dee Gordon is the best 2nd baseman on the team.  He is six years younger than Cano, has far better range and has the knack for coming up with spectacular plays.  As far as offensive output, Gordon contributes way differently than Cano.  He steals bases and scores runs…he is a prototypical lead-off hitter whereas Cano is a typical 3-hole hitter who drives him in.

The edge goes to Gordon as the 2nd baseman for the Mariners based solely on his defensive skills and the fact he is six years younger than Cano.

Sorry folks, Robinson Cano’s days at 2nd base are over.

If Cruz does not sign next year, Cano becomes the DH, case closed.  But in my opinion, if the Mariners don’t sign Cruz, they are out of their fricking minds.

So Cano will either be the starting first baseman or the designated hitter for the next five years.

Nelson Cruz

Granted, Cruz is 37 years old.  But he has kept himself in fantastic shape and has remained consistent at the plate since joining the Mariners in 2015.

He is the most clutch hitter the Mariners have had since Edgar Martinez.  And don’t think that Cruz hasn’t picked the best designated hitter on the planet for all he’s worth.

Nelson Cruz is always prepared.  His exercise regime is borderline neurotic.  Check out this story from the Seattle Times for insight on his workouts:  Nelson Cruz Workouts.

The only blight on Cruz’s remarkable career was a 50 game suspension for his connection with the Biogenisis PED scandal in his last year with the Texas Rangers which also involved Alex Rodrigues and Jesus Montero.  Cruz has never tested positive for PED and accepted a 50 game suspension in lieu of a 100 game suspension after MLB had threatened to out him.

What is not generally known is that for the most part, the reason was medical and not a way to increase performance.  In 2012, Cruz had lost about 40 lbs. with no explanation.  Doctors couldn’t find out what was going on until they had discovered a parasite and doctor’s prescribed steroids to resolve the issue.  The full story can be found here, courtesy of the Seattle Times:  Cruz PED Suspension

Outside of that one “transgression,”  Cruz has been an exemplary player and teammate.  The Mariners would do well to sign him to a two-year contract and let him finish his career as a Mariner.

Unfortunately, if that occurs, Ryan Healy will be the odd man out as Cano would most likely become the everyday first baseman.

Felix Hernandez

One thing that almost everyone can agree upon is that Felix Hernandez is not the pitcher he once was.

I know that both GM Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have said that Felix is a vital part of the Seattle Mariners.  However, I think that is more for Felix’s benefit than it is for us fans.

Everyone lays some importance to statistics and I agree that they tell part of the story.  For instance, from 2005-2014, Felix complied a 125-92 record with a 3.10 ERA.  And he pitched for some pretty awful Seattle Mariner teams, most notably the 2010 season where the Mariners lost 101 games and the 2011 team that posted a 67-95 record.

Place Hernandez with the Boston Red Sox in that same time frame and everyone would be talking about Hernandez as a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame.  He probably would have won 20 games at least 3 times and been in the post season within the first 3 seasons of his career.

But if there is one redeeming quality about Hernandez is the loyalty that he has shown the Mariners and they rewarded him in 2013 with a 7 year, $175 million dollar contract.  He has never wanted to be with any other team other than the Mariners and, at the time, it was one of the best things the Mariners could have done.

The only thing that the Mariners haven’t done for him is get him to the post season, something he could have easily accomplished since most likely, if had decided to go elsewhere, it would have been with a contender.

Felix’s contract is up next year.  And quite honestly, he is no longer the ace of the staff.  That belongs to James Paxton who has deferred to King Felix and rightfully so.

In fact, if the Mariners do re-sign him, it would have to be at a reduced rate and he would have to accept that he might be, at best, a number 3 or 4 starter.

No one can discount that Felix has given the Mariners everything he’s had for the past 14 years.  But at age 32, he is starting to break down and has had trouble getting out of the first inning of games.  He is not the strike-out artist that he once was (Side note here:  To all those in the King’s Court, please stop yelling “K,K,K,K” every time he get’s 2 strikes on a batter.  It only encourages him to do something he can no longer do:  Blow a fastball past a hitter) and has resisted changing his ways in order to extend his career.

Both Felix and Seattle Mariners fans need to face reality.  Felix is, at best, a number 3 starter.  And with the extension given Wade LeBlanc, I see the starting rotation for next year to be:

  1. James Paxton
  2. Marco Gonzales
  3. Felix Hernandez
  4. Wade LeBlanc
  5. Mike Leake

Even if the Mariners let him walk away, there is no way he’ll be the Ace of the staff again.

Seattle Mariners have some tough choices when Cano comes back from his suspension and ever tougher ones starting in 2019.

Let’s hope they make the right choices.

 

Way to Go Mike Zunino!

It was great to see Mike Zunino hit a 2-run walk-off home run last night to beat the Minnesota Twins, 6-5.

And I guess at this point in Mike Z’s career, one can only think of the Grateful Dead’s line from their iconic song, Truckin’:  “Sometimes the light is shinin’ on me, Other times I can barley see, Lately it occurs what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Indeed, Zunino’s career with the Seattle Mariners has been a strange trip.  Right now, his batting average for the 2017 season is .229, the highest he’s held in his 5 years with the Mariners.  And it has to be frustrating to him since being drafted 3rd overall by the Mariners in 2012.

Defensively, Zunino is one of the best in the major leagues.  He calls the games really well and has that innate quality to settle pitchers down when needed.

But for far too long, he was a black hole in the Mariner line-up.  Striking out at a pace that bordered on the ridiculous, missing pitches that he should have crushed and pretty much not having a clue what to do once he got to the plate.

Zunino was sent down earlier this year to get his swing right.  No one can deny his strength.  After all, in 2013, he did hit 22 home runs while hitting a paltry .199 for the year.  But working with Scott Brosius when he was sent down, as well as with Mariner great Edgar Martinez, they got Zunino to apply a set of rules that he can focus on.

The result?  His last 8 games has been nothing short of amazing.  Average:  .444, On base %:  .485, Slugging %: .900.  No one can expect him to keep that pace and we’ve seen surges from Zunino before.  And it would be hard to expect a career .214 hitter to suddenly become a .400 hitter for the rest of the year.

However, one can see when Zunino comes to the plate, he has a plan, something he didn’t have before.  The testament to that was a conversation that manager Scott Servias had with him after Tuesday’s nights game when he struck out 3 times.  Servias had asked him about those at bats.  Instead of giving the skipper a deer in the headlights look and a “I don’t know,” Zunino knew exactly what was going on.  He told Servias that “I got a little quick, I gotta slow my leg kick down, my timing is going to be fine, I’m going to be OK.”  I don’t think last year you would have heard that from Mike Zunino.

And the next night, that proved true with Mike going 2-3 with 2 home runs and 3 RBI’s, a walk and zero strike outs.

Oh sure, there have been some slight mechanical changes.  He is standing up a little straighter at the plate and his head his more turned to the pitcher to allow better tracking on the ball.  And when you have only .4 seconds to decide on whether or not to take a swing, every advantage helps.

But for the longest time, Zunino didn’t have a clue what to do at the plate and could no longer rely on his natural abilities.  The pitchers at the major league level are the best in the world and will figure out your weakness and unmercifully expose it on a constant basis.  After all,  it’s their job to do so.

And these pitchers will make adjustments to Zunino and then the real test comes:  Will Zunino still trust his process?  Will he stick to the plan and continue to only look for pitches he can attack?

If Zunino can lift his average this year to around .235 to .240, one would have to qualify his season as successful.  I don’t care how many home runs he gets.  If this process works, he’ll hit 18-22 by default.  What I care about is productive at bats:  Moving the runner over, getting in the runner from third base and keeping innings alive.

If there is a message I could relay to Mike, it would be this:  All Seattle Mariner fans are pulling to you Mike.  And we hope that we continue to see you in a Mariner uniform for the rest of your career.

What’s Different About the 2016 Seattle Mariners? Team Chemistry!

Seattle Baseball\

The Seattle Mariners are in first place. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

While it may be only the end of May, at this time last year the Mariners were 24-26 in the midst of a 7-game losing streak and by all indications, really weren’t going to get any better as the season went on.

Now, with a sparkling 27-18 record that includes an 18-7 road record, the best in the majors, they sit atop of the American League West division with a 1-1/2 game lead on the Texas Rangers.

What’s different? Statistically, not much from last year. Mariners have scored 21 more times than 2015, have 30 more RBI’s, increased walks by 13 and reduced strike outs by 62. Not significant increases that indicate a magic bullet for the improvement over last year.

Pitching stats show a better picture: Lowered ERA from 3.78 to 3.20, allowed 80 less hits and 54 less runs scored and decreased the walks by 31. Pitching staff has done a real nice job keeping opposing runners off base.

Perhaps it is the change in philosophy from the Jack Zduriencik/Lloyd McClendon days. The 2015 Mariners had high expectations picked by some to be in the World Series. But after 7 disappointing seasons, the plug had to be pulled.

No sense in going over what happened last year…we all know that last year’s team was uninspired to put it mildly. It seemed to me that players didn’t care about winning…and part of that could be the decisions to play players out of position such as Brad Miller and Dustin Ackley. It can be important to one’s morale to play a position they want to play and feel they are good at instead of being placed anywhere on the diamond.

I also would have to blame a lot on Jack Zdurencik’s ability to evaluate players:

  • Justin Smoak, in the five years he played for Seattle, had a batting average of .226, struck out about 87 times a year and while he showed flashes of power, more often than not, he ground into double plays.
  • His replacement, Logan Morrison, wasn’t much better. He did have a solid season in 2014 hitting .262 with 11 home runs but only drove in 38 runs in 336 at bats. His performance dropped considerably in 2015, hitting a paltry .225, showing more power with 17 home runs and driving in 54. But he was more known for assisting Fernando Rodney in shooting make-believe arrows.
  • Ackley, a highly touted player coming out of college, hit decent in his 4 years with a .250 batting average. But he never looked comfortable at the plate and getting moved around defensively probably messed with his head.
  • Mike Zunino is perhaps Zdurencik’s biggest mistake. Evaluated him correctly but promoted him way too fast. Drafted in 2012, he zoomed thru A to AAA ball and with a mere 159 minor league games under his belt (59 at AAA level), he became the Mariners starting catcher in 2013. 2015 was epically bad as Zunino hit .174 and struck out 132 times in 350 at bats. He was able to hit 11 home runs and played great defense at catcher. But he was a black hole in the line-up.

So what is different between this year and last year? For one thing, after the initial 3-6 start, they have gotten off to a way better start over the first 46 games. First place in the American League West with a game and a half lead over the Rangers. Last year? At the end of May, they were 24-26, in fourth place, 6 and half games behind the Houston Astros.

I also am a big believer in how Jerry Dipoto and his team with the type of players they brought in, those with good on base percentage and getting more balls in play. Dipoto and first-year manager Scott Servais also did a real smart thing when spring training opened.

Early in camp, each day, Servais had players stand up during the morning meetings to discuss their backgrounds. It could go from explaining how they got into the big leagues, who they admire the most and what difficulties they overcame to get where they are. They also spoke about any hobbies they might have. That’s important in a team environment. It shows that players may have common interests and could form bonds outside of baseball which in turn, can form a high level of trust on the field.

Some examples of how this brought the team together:

  • Reliever Tony Zych said he liked to play pool. Servais asked if he was any good and Zych said yes. Servais tasked Zych to get a pool table in the clubhouse the next day. Second baseman Robison Cano ponied up to cover the cost. The next day, Servais and Zych played. Servais played the first shot, sank it and then missed his next. Zych never gave his manager another shot as he ran the table, much to the delight of the team.
  • Comedian Domingo Ayala delivered one liners and jokes for a day.
  • Pitcher Danny Hultzen was assigned to deliver a world daily report which later expanded to Nori Aoki doing reports on Japan and Nelson Cruz on the Dominican Republic.
  • When Cano’s team beat Cruz’s team in a situational hitting contest, Cruz had to buy steak and shrimp for the entire Mariner complex

Team chemistry, one of the most overlooked aspects of the game, was being developed. And it starts with Servais whose style is to keep things positive. He likes to keep it loose but when it’s time to work, you have to be ready. Servais made it a point to spend almost 95% of spring training on team-building with the goal to develop equity and trust with players.

I’d say he’s achieved his goal.

We all know the crux of this team is Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager. None have disappointed this year and Cano, now healthy, is putting together a monster year. But other players, like Leonys Martin. He is hitting .262 with 9 home runs, which is already a career high. Prior to coming to the Mariners, he had 20 career home runs…he keeps hitting like this and he’ll have 20 by mid-July!

How about Seth Smith, playing solid defense out in right field and an OPB of .376 which is great for the number 2 guy in the line-up.

And Chris Iannetta, brought in until Mike Zunino can claim his spot back, with some timely hits including one walk-off home run.

And how about those situational players such as Dae-Ho Lee, whose walk off home run against the Rangers in April snapped a 6-game losing streak. Or Franklin Gutierrez who smacked a monster home run against the Reds last week.

These players have brought an attitude that we haven’t seen since 2001 Mariners when they won 116 games.

And the pitching! Did anyone expect Wade Miley to be 5-2 and be such an innings eater? Or that Nathan Karns would beat out James Paxton for the number 5 slot and be 4-1 with a 3.53 ERA?

How about a bullpen that was much maligned last year, coming in with a 2.62 ERA with 13 saves and 32 holds and an average of 9.87 strikeouts per nine innings.

This team is getting runs, making opposing pitchers work, playing good defense and not letting the other teams score.

We know that the major league season is 162 games…we also know that at some point during the season, the Mariners are going to go thru a tough patch. But I think with the make-up of this team and the chemistry it has, that tough patch will be a short one.

This team has a chance to be in the playoffs…and if they get there, I’d put some money on them getting to the World Series and winning it.

Seattle Mariners – What Can We Expect This Time?

Mariners

This Friday, February 19th, 2016, kicks off the Seattle Mariners 2016 baseball season.

And while I appreciate all the changes new Mariner GM Jerry Dipoto has made since he took office in September, the most burning question I have is, just what can we expect from this team in 2016?

Dipoto says all the right things, that the Mariners foundation is excellent, build a team that has flexibility, balance and is sustainable and the team needs to add depth.  What else is he supposed to say, right?

But there is one thing I found different than any of the other GM’s that have sat in that chair for the Mariners.  He is taking a holistic view of the team and rather than try to have instant success via free agency, he is going to build from a farm system that is stocked with some very good talent.

We all can trace back to the failures the Mariners have tried in bringing up players who appeared to be ready but weren’t.  The most glaring example is that of Mike Zunino.

In college, while at Florida, Zunino was a career .320 hitter and averaged 58 RBI’s per season.  Had an excellent slugging percentage of .605 and an on base percentage of .383, excellent numbers for a catcher.  And no one could dispute his defensive skills.  When the Mariners drafted him 2013, I could see Zunino behind the dish full-time in 2015.

Zunino continued to excel in the minor leagues, moving quickly from A ball to AAA ball by 2013, just a year out of college.  And with the numbers he had in the minors, it wasn’t surprising he was called up at the end of the 2013 season.  Slugging percentage of .597, batting average of .313  and showed some power hitting 27 home runs and driving in 94 during his short time in the minors.

When he was slated as the starting catcher to start the 2014 season, I thought it was too soon.  But I got the feeling the Mariners were in panic mode and wanted him up.  And he was a major flop at the plate over the next two seasons.  Sure, he hit 22 home runs and drove in 60 in 2014, but his batting average was an anemic .199 and the on base percentage dropped to .294.  Add to that and he struck out 158 times, often in critical RBI situations.

2015 was even worse, hitting only .174, striking out 132 times with a mere .300 slugging percentage.  It was clear that Zunino had some major flaws in his swing that big league pitchers graphically exposed.  Interim GM Jeff Kingston mercifully shipped Zunino down to the minors and kept him there for the remainder of the season instead of calling him up in September.

Dipoto knew that a cultural change was needed.  And while I liked Lloyd McClendon as a manager, the writing was on the wall when Dipoto was hired in.  I like the hiring of Scott Servias, whom Dipoto worked with during his stint with the Angels.  And while Servias has never managed at any level, Dipoto hired some savvy veteran baseball men in Tim Bogar and Manny Acta.

There was an immediate need to change the culture, not just at the major league level, but through out the entire organization.  I think one of the reasons why Zunino flamed out was because he had connected with the coaching staffs at the minor league levels but not with Howard Johnson, who was the batting coach for the Mariners when Zunino was first called up.  And by the time Edgar Martinez could put some time in with him, Zunino was so screwed up that the best thing they could do was let him work it out in the minors.

Dipoto gathered all of the coaches from every level and wanted to get everyone on the same page, stressing what the big league club needed to succeed.  And to do that, the players coming up from the minors needed to have good on base percentage and low strike-out ratios.  The idea is to make opposing pitchers work, to stretch them out early and get to the opposing teams middle relievers as soon as they can.

The hitting coaches in particular needed to stress the same things at every level.  Dipoto and Edgar Martinez came up with a game plan that will start in A ball and have the same game plan all the way to AAA ball.  So when a player is called up, he will need to meet the same expectations as he did in the minors and the surprises will be minimal.

I suspect that was the issue with Zunino.  His expectations in the minors were vastly different than what was expected in the majors.  His whole hitting philosophy was changed by Howard Johnson when he got there and he had to think to much while at the plate, which caused indecisiveness, which caused hesitation, which caused him to strike out.

When a player, regardless of the sport, has to think too much, he’s toast.  As the great Crash Davis always said “Get out of your head” is always a great mantra to follow.

I agree with most of the predictions out there, that the Mariners will hit about 75 – 83 wins this year.  And while that might be a disappointment again, we need to give this management team a chance to impellent their plan because I believe this is a solid foundational plan that will make Seattle a baseball town again.  Not for just a couple of years, but for a couple of decades.

Looking forward to the season!