November 2010

Tracking the old coaching staff

BrownDaren.jpgDaren Brown, who served as the Mariners interim manager after Don Wakamatsu’s dismissal last season, will indeed be back in Tacoma as the Rainiers manager next season, the club made official on Monday.

Brown has been in the organization for 11 years now and will start his fifth season as Tacoma’s skipper.

And he’ll have a familiar face as hitting coach, with Alonzo Powell resuming those duties after himself earning a midseason promotion to the Mariners last year following Alan Cockrell’s firing.

The Mariners went 19-31 with Brown at the helm in the season’s final two months.

Roger Hansen, who worked as Brown’s bench coach for those 50 games, has returned to a role as the roving catcher instructor in the Mariners minor-league system.

Carl Willis, the pitching coach for Brown, has already been retained in that same position by new Mariners manager Eric Wedge. Willis and Wedge previously worked together in Cleveland.

Much of last year’s Mariners staff is back in the game somewhere:

  • Wakamatsu has hired on as bench coach of the Toronto Blue Jays, where he’ll work with new skipper John Farrell.
  • Former pitching coach Rick Adair is the new bullpen coach in Baltimore.
  • Mike Brumley, who started last season as the Mariners’ third-base coach before being moved to first base in mid-campaign, is the one member of Wakamatsu’s original 2009 crew that has been retained by Wedge. He’ll be the first-base coach for the Mariners next season.
  • Ty Van Burkleo, Wakamatsu’s bench coach, interviewed last week for the Texas Rangers hitting coach position that opened when Clint Hurdle was hired as the new Pirates manager. But the Rangers wound up hiring Thad Bosley instead.
  • No word on job possibilities at this point for Cockrell, former third base coach Lee Tinsley or bullpen coach John Wetteland.

 

Mariners adding a little infield depth

General manager Jack Zduriencik hasn’t busted any big moves in the opening days of Hot Stove action and — outside of conjecture over what it would take to get in the Justin Upton Sweepstakes — the Mariners haven’t been prominently mentioned in many of the early rumblings.

This clearly is a different offseason than last, when the Mariners had just cleared a bunch of money off their books and were at least contenders in many of the prime free-agent pursuits.

RodriguezLuis.jpgThis offseason will wind up having some action, but more likely of the trade variety later on when the Winter Meetings gear up and GMs start to get serious about making moves.

The Mariners will sign a couple Major League free agents, but not likely the Chone Figgins-type blockbuster of ’09. So far Zduriencik and staff have stuck with combing the Minor League free agent pile and have announced nine names who will be invited to Major League Spring Training in February.

The club always brings about 20 Minor League free agents to Peoria and invariably, a couple wind up making the club and helping out in some way. Last year the Mariners got Josh Wilson, David Pauley and Josh Bard via that route, for instance.

You never know who’ll end up in Tacoma and who might provide a nice addition to the big-league roster. But it’s worth keeping an eye on one of Wednesday’s additions, utility infielder Luis Rodriguez.

The Mariners face a decision on young second baseman Dustin Ackley. Either they make him the man from the get-go, or bring in a veteran stop-gap and give Ackley a little more time in Tacoma.

Rodriguez could compete with Josh Wilson for the utility infield position as well as provide a possible fill-in solution at second base, where he’s started 69 games for the Twins and Padres among his 363 Major League appearances.

Rodriguez, 30, is a .243 career hitter in the big leagues, but is coming off something of a breakthrough season last year when he batted .293 with 16 home runs and 56 RBI in 94 games for Charlotte, the White Sox’s AAA club.

Is he the ultimate solution? No. Ackley obviously is the future. But if the Mariners decide their 2009 first-round pick needs a little more seasoning, as Zduriencik continues to suggest, then Rodriguez might be part of the present.

Sean Kazmar, a 25-year-old middle infielder who played briefly with the Padres in ’08 and spent the last two years with the Portland Beavers, is another who’ll be in that mix along with Matt Tuiasosopo and whoever else Zduriencik might land between now and February.

These aren’t the big offseason moves fans are awaiting, but they are part of the process of filling out the Spring Training roster and providing depth in the system. And sometimes a nugget can be found among the Minor League free agents.

Here’s my story on the latest four signings, which included Rodriguez and three pitchers, including knuckleballer Charlie Haeger.

(Luis Rodriguez photo taken by Doug Pensinger of Getty Images)

Mariners well represented in Arizona Fall League finale

Lots of good stuff for the Mariners out of the Arizona Fall League on Saturday as the AFL held its championship game in Scottsdale, Ariz.

AckleyDustinMug.jpgTop prospect Dustin Ackley was named the AFL MVP prior to the title game, then went 1-for-4 and scored a run in a losing effort as the Peoria Javelinas lost a 3-2 decision to Scottsdale in the league finale.

Ackley, batting third and playing second base for Peoria, singled to left in the fourth and scored on a hustle play from second on a ball bobbled by Scottsdale’s second baseman.

He also reached in the sixth on a broken-bat grounder to first when he beat the throw with another good display of speed after the ball was briefly mishandled.

Perhaps best of all from a Mariners’ perspective, Ackley made a couple nice defensive plays, showing good range to his left as he continues adjusting to second base.

There’s little question Ackley can hit. He led the AFL with a .424 batting average and also had the top slugging percentage in the league. The fact he showed well in the field in the title game can only help his chances of earning a quick rise to the Mariners, though GM Jack Zduriencik continues saying the youngster might be best served to at least begin next season in Triple-A.

The only other Mariners’ farmhand to hit Saturday was Nate Tenbrink, who grounded out in a pinch-hit appearance in the ninth.

Three Mariners prospects pitched in relief for Peoria, with Josh Fields and Josh Lueke both throwing scoreless innings.

Tom Wilhelmsen was the third Mariner reliever and he wound up the losing pitcher after giving up two hits and a run in the fourth. After getting highly-regarded prospect Bryce Harper out to lead off the inning, Wilhelmsen gave up a pair of doubles and what turned out to be the game’s final run.

Wilhelmsen, 26, is the former Brewers draft pick who left baseball for six years before making a comeback this past year.

The 6-6 right-hander was one of 10 players the Mariners added to their 40-man roster on Friday.

Fields, the Mariners’ first-round pick in ’08, pitched a perfect seventh inning for Peoria and struck out two while throwing 95-96 mph fastballs.

Lueke, the 25-year-old reliever who came to the Mariners in the Cliff Lee trade, worked the eighth for Peoria and also was touching the 96-97 mph range. He walked his first batter, then got three straight outs, including a pair of strikeouts that included Harper on a change-up.

Lueke also was just added to the 40-man roster, which protects players from being claimed by other clubs in the upcoming Rule 5 draft.

The Mariners, one of five teams represented on the Peoria roster, even had a presence in the broadcast booth as Dave Valle did the color commentary on the MLB Network.

Pineda gets promotion to 40-man roster

The Mariners will make some additions to their 40-man roster this afternoon in order to protect some youngsters from the upcoming Rule 5 draft. And GM Jack Zduriencik already acknowledged the not-surprising news on KJR-AM this morning that one of those players will be top pitching prospect Michael Pineda.

PinedaMichaelMug.jpg
Given that Pineda will be brought to Spring Training with the chance to compete for a spot in the Mariners rotation next season, it’s a given that the youngster would be protected this year, which is the first time he would have been exposed to the Rule 5 draft after five years in Seattle’s system.

Pineda, 21, was the Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year after splitting time between AA West Tenn (8-1, 2.22 ERA) and AAA Tacoma (3-3, 4.76). He racked up 154 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings.

The Mariners have just 29 players on their current 40-man roster, so expect a good number of promotions today.

Here’s a link to the current 40-man roster as it stands.

The Rule 5 draft is held on the final day of the Winter Meetings on Dec. 9.

UPDATE (4:39 p.m.): The Mariners just released the names of all 10 players who’ve been added. Here’s the list and I’ll update with full story after a conference call with Jack Zduriencik.

·      OF Johermyn Chávez

·      RHP Maikel Cleto

·      LHP César Jiménez

·      INF Alex Liddi

·      RHP Josh Lueke

·      RHP Yoervis Medina

·      OF Carlos Peguero

·      RHP Michael Pineda

·      LHP Mauricio Robles

·      RHP Tom Wilhelmsen

 

There’s a couple interesting names on that list. Jimenez is a 26-year-old lefty who pitched 31 games of relief for the Mariners in 2008 and four games in 2006, but missed most of 2009 with a torn labrum.

 

He made a nice start on his comeback this past year and is pitching well enough in the Venezuelan League right now that the Mariners chose to protect him.

 

Wilhelmsen is another 26-year-old who pitched very well in the Mariners’ low-minor system after coming back from a six-year absence from baseball.

 

Most of the others are promising young prospects. Only three of the 10 were position players. Liddi is a third baseman from Italy with good power, Chavez is an outfielder they got in the Brandon Morrow-Brandon League trade who hit 32 home runs in A ball this year and Peguero is a big (6-5, 247) kid from the Dominican who played in the Futures Game.

 

Zduriencik said he didn’t know how soon any of these kids would make the big club, but they all are in position to get a chance in what appears a good situation for young prospects to make a name for themselves.

 

Here’s my updated story on mariners.com with quotes from Zduriencik and info on all 10 players. 

 

Mariners sign two minor-league free agents

No developments out of the GM meetings involving the Mariners yet this week, so we’ll have to satisfy your thirst for news with a couple minor-league free agent deals.

The Mariners typically sign about 20 minor-league free agents and then invite most of them to Spring Training, so these names will trickle in over the coming weeks. But the first two surfacing Wednesday were veteran reliever Justin Miller and former Padres infielder Sean Kazmar.

MillerJustinMug.jpgMiller, 34, is a right-handed reliever with 216 big-league appearances and a 24-14 career record with a 4.82 ERA. He’s pitched with the Blue Jays, Marlins, Giants and spent last season with the Dodgers, appearing in 19 games with a 4.44 ERA.

Here’s his pitching bio.

Kazmar, 26, played with the San Diego Padres in 2008 when he got 39 at-bats in his only big-league callup.

The 5-9, 180-pound Georgia native is a middle infielder who spent the past two years with Portland in the PCL, hitting .275 with eight home runs and 53 RBIs last year with the Padres’ Triple-A club.

Here’s Kazmar’s bio.

Players loved hearing Niehaus call their highlights

NiehausJersey.jpgThere’ll be a public ceremony to celebrate Dave Niehaus’ life on Dec. 11, the Mariners announced Wednesday, and you can bet it’ll be a moving event with lots of tremendous speakers and memories.

The irony, of course, is that the missing voice will be the one who would have lent the perfect dramatic touch to such a service.

When long-time Mariners players and employees gather to honor Niehaus, they’ll attempt to live up to the gold standard set by the man himself. Because, let’s face it, everyone who speaks will be trying valiently to pay back the ultimate wordsmith who so eloquently described their own lives for the past 34 years.

Many players and managers insist they never read the papers or listen to the radio when it comes to their own team, but as you’d expect, after Niehaus’ passing everyone acknowledged not only listening to The Voice, but taking special pride in hearing his description of their feats on the field.

“We all have egos and like to dig on ourselves,” Jay Buhner told me. “But when Dave is calling a home run, you’re going home and tuning in. You’re flipping through the channels so you can hear ‘My oh my’ or ‘Grand salami time.'”

Yeah, they’re human.

“You always wanted to hear him say ‘Grand Salami’ with your name right after it,” said Dan Wilson.

“On many occasions I’d just turn the TV or radio on or hear a play on the news and it was great,” said Edgar Martinez. “His voice is so different and he was so good at calling the game, I think we all took it for granted. But now that we realize he’s not going to be there, we’re going to miss him. We’re going to miss that voice.”

Former outfielder Dave Henderson says he used to turn on the radio in his car on the way home to hear the replays. And often, he said, Niehaus’ calls seemed more entertaining than the game he’d just taken part in.

“The inflection of his voice, when he go from the way down lows to the yells of the ‘My oh mys,’ it just captured you,” Henderson said.

Wilson, who caught for the Mariners from 1994-2005, said Niehaus elevated the games for everyone.

“When his voice rose and you could her the crowd roar behind him and the excitement building, it brought things to a new level,” Wilson said. “I think viewers could feel that and we could feel it, too, later on when we listened.

“As a player, you felt like you’d really done something when Dave called it.”

That’s what was special about Niehaus. He touched the players, he touched the fans, he touched an entire region for 34 years. And I have no doubt his memorial — or Celebration of Life, as the Mariners are billing it — will be something every fan and former player will want to be part of as a way to reach back.

Here are the details of the service.

Take two! Felix and Garrett Olson have acting futures …

FelixOlsonPulpFiction.jpgFelix Hernandez won’t find out about his Cy Young fortunes until Thursday, but the Mariners ace already has proven his stuff on another stage with some great work along with teammate Garrett Olson on an ESPN The Magazine photo shoot.

Hernandez and Olson were converted into Pulp Fiction characters Jules and Vincent for an upcoming ESPN the Mag movie edition.

It’s great stuff and you can click here to watch a short video showing their make-up conversion and a bit of the photo shoot. Great stuff.

The shoot was arranged through Octagon Sports Agency.

Here’s a link to another photo as well as one more here.

No word on whether the two pitchers plan to scrap their budding baseball careers and concentrate on acting just yet, but judging from their initial efforts, they’ve certainly got a gift.

It turns out, sometimes the truth really is stranger than Pulp Fiction.

Photos from the Niehaus fan memorial

If you missed the Dave Niehaus fan memorial on Saturday, Mariners photographer Ben VanHouten captured a lot of the scene at Safeco Field.

You can click here for one photo gallery of Ben’s work and here’s a second gallery.

It was an emotional afternoon and I was very impressed with the job done by the Mariners to honor Niehaus in such short order.

There’ll be a more formal memorial — or a celebration of Dave’s life — coming in a few weeks at Safeco Field. The Mariners want to get that right, so they’re taking their time to get everything lined up before announcing a date.

I have no doubt that will be an incredibly moving day. Without question, Niehaus meant a great deal to a whole lot of people. I talked to some of the fans at Saturday’s event and was blown away by the way they presented their thoughts on how much he meant.

One fan told me how his aging mom and aunt used to listen to Dave and the Mariners each night, how that was the highlight of their day, which reminded me of my own mom and how much she used to enjoy the broadcasts and build her day around them as well back in the late ’90s. I’m guessing lots of people can relate to that.

A younger fan wearing an autographed Niehaus jersey beamed as he told me how much Dave meant to him, his words really capturing what so many people felt and are absorbing now.

Everyone I spoke with had their own story to tell and you can read that story here.

While I’m thinking of it, I also wanted to alert Niehaus fans that Pat Hughes of WGN radio in Chicago has produced a series of CDs featuring some of baseball’s all-time great announcers and you can get a copy of his Niehaus compilation for $14.95 through this  baseballvoices.com website.

Mariners fans struggling to cope with loss of a legend

NiehausMemorial.JPG

They came in small groups throughout the day Thursday, a steady stream of Mariners fans wanting to pay tribute in some way to Dave Niehaus.One by one they pushed forward to view the growing pile of mementos at the front gate of Safeco Field, where loaves of rye bread, bottles of mustard, baseballs with personal messages and one very poignant picture of Niehaus’ grandkids with a note telling Grandpa how much they were going to miss him didn’t leave a lot of dry eyes.

The passing of the venerable broadcaster hit Seattle hard over the past two days. His 34-year run as the Mariners’ voice had powerfully cemented his place as the club’s most-enduring and endearing figure and, at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a close second.

What is it about baseball broadcasters that capture a region’s hearts? And how did Niehaus take that love affair to the next level, to the point where his sudden death by a heart attack Wednesday led to both of Seattle’s all-sports radio stations providing non-stop commentary on the topic Thursday while fans searched for ways to connect, some way, somehow, to the man whose voice has been synonymous with Mariners baseball since its beginning in 1977?

Long-time Seahawks play-by-play man Pete Gross was elected into that team’s Ring of Honor just before dying of cancer in 1992 and Bob Blackburn, the original voice of the Sonics who died earlier this year at 85, had his banner hanging in the rafters at KeyArena before the team moved to Oklahoma City.

But Niehaus’ death seems to have caused the biggest reaction yet in Seattle sports history, which is a testament both to his popularity and the nature of baseball and its nightly story-telling over a six-month stretch each season.

Rick Rizzs, who worked alongside Niehaus for 25 of those years, saw up close how fans loved and reacted to his partner everywhere they went. So, no, he’s not surprised by the outpouring of support for Niehaus now in his passing.

“I’m not shocked at all by the emotion and way people feel about this guy because after 34 years you become part of their family,” Rizzs said. “When you lose a Dave Niehaus or Pete Gross or Bob Blackburn, you lose somebody who is part of your family. And that hurts. It hurts deeply.

“To have Dave’s voice come through that radio for 34 years and next spring it’s not going to be there? That’s going to be a shock for a lot of people. So I’m not surprised by the outpouring. Fans loved this guy and rightly so. And he loved them back.”

Which is why a lot of tears were shed across the Northwest the past two days by grown men and women, people who’d connected to Niehaus and considered him a friend.

Everyone knew he was getting older. Everyone knew it would end some day. But when a man does his job for 34 years and does it so well that an entire region connects emotionally to the mere sound of his voice, that’s not something that is easily lost.

Nor will it be easily replaced.

The one Mariners story I never wanted to write

This isn’t the way I wanted to start my new Mariners blog on MLB.com. I wanted to introduce myself to new readers today, tell people how excited I was about my new job and all that good stuff.

NiehausDave.jpgThen I found out Dave Niehaus had died Wednesday afternoon of a heart attack while on the deck of his home in Bellevue, Wash., and a happy day turned upside down.

The first post on my blog turned into the last thing I wanted to write.

Like all Mariners’ followers, I’ve enjoyed Dave’s gravelly voice and gifted story telling for years. I grew up in Seattle and was lucky enough to listen to him from the beginning.

But I was also one of the fortunate ones who got to know Niehaus and his gracious style and precious sense of humor during my time covering the team over the past 15 years for various publications, every one of which at some point asked me to write a story about the lovable lead broadcaster.

That’s the thing about Niehaus. He truly was the best thing going for Mariners’ baseball for many years. There’s something special about the relationship of a baseball play-by-play man and a community. The 162-game nightly relationship, the story-telling pace, the ability to go into people’s homes and hearts on a regular basis can make for a rare broadcast bond.

And Niehaus, as that man and that voice for 34 straight years, bonded like no other in Seattle and few others in the country.

His death Wednesday hit Mariners’ fans hard and many have placed flowers and notes at the gates of Safeco Field.

Surely a memorial will be forthcoming and we’ll keep you posted. But until then, I just want to add my own small tribute to the large litany of thoughts and words being bestowed on the man who was a friend to all Mariners’ followers.

Rest in peace, Dave Niehaus. You truly were the best.

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