July 2011

Some thoughts on today’s trade with Tigers

Doug Fister was only 3-12 with the Mariners this season, but there's little question he pitched far better while enduring the lowest run-support in the Major Leagues. (Getty Images/Jim McIsaac)

A couple observations from today’s Mariners trade that sent Doug Fister and David Pauley to the Tigers for four young players.

— From a strictly personal view, I always hate losing players who are good guys in the clubhouse, good to work with from a media standpoint. And to me, Fister and Pauley are two of the best.

Pauley took this morning’s news pretty hard. He was red-eyed in the clubhouse when talking initially between hugs with teammates and coaches as he began packing up his locker. He fought back tears several times, admitting the news blindsided him.

He spoke about how it’d be nice to join a team in a playoff chase and play close to his wife’s home in Michigan, but between those statements he kept stopping to wipe away tears that came from saying goodbye to guys he obviously enjoyed playing baseball with the past couple years.

An hour later, Pauley had composed himself when meeting with a larger media group alongside Fister. But make no mistake. Major League Baseball might be a big-time business and professional athletes get lots of perks, but they’re also human beings and being uprooted from friends and co-workers that you like isn’t always an easy thing.

— Lots of reporters complain about Fister’s bland personality, but the more I got to know the big right-hander, the more I enjoyed talking to him. He’s an interesting guy who still wants to become a school teacher some day and loves talking to kids. He’s a down-to-Earth sort who was telling me just this week how much he enjoyed pitching at Yankee Stadium for the first time. And when he’s on the field, the guy is an absolute bulldog who got the most out of his abilities every time out.

Fister is also a far better pitcher than his 3-12 record this year, as most Seattle fans know. Much of that was the incredible lack of run support. The team scored 10 runs in his 12 losses, which is next to unbelievable. He wound up with a no-decision in the game in D.C. when the bullpen blew a 5-1 lead in the ninth. He took a 1-0 loss to the Padres in the game the only run scored after the umpire issued a three-ball walk to Cameron Maybin, who then came around and score.

It seemed like every series, Fister was running into CC Sabathia or Jered Weaver or whatever stud the other team was rolling out and his luck just never evened out this year.

All that said, it will be interesting to see how Fister does with Detroit. Without question, he benefitted from pitching half his games in Safeco Field, where he was 9-16 with a 3.42 ERA in 35 games in his career. On the road, he’s 3-14 with a 4.40 ERA.

Those numbers were far more even this season and, despite his lousy win-loss record, he seemed to take a big step forward this year. So I think he can be a quality middle-of-the-rotation guy for the Tigers. And obviously he’ll enjoy working with a more-potent Detroit lineup.

— As for a strictly baseball evaluation, it sounds odd, given Fister’s 3-12 record, but I give GM Jack Zduriencik credit for “selling high” with Fister and Pauley. Some fans are naturally upset because both had pitched well for the Mariners this year. But realistically, these are two right-handers in their late-20s who seem to be squeezing every ounce of potential out of themselves this season.

If they keep doing that with the Tigers, they’ll be valuable additions this season and perhaps beyond. But neither is an irreplaceable part of the Mariners’ future puzzle. They aren’t “high upside” guys, they’re “high effort” guys who are great to have on a good team, but not guys who’ll take you to the next level on their own.

In return, the Mariners got two Major League ready players in outfielder Casper Wells and left-handed pitcher Charlie Furbush, plus at least one potential high upside prospect in third baseman Francisco Martinez, a 20-year-old already playing Double-A ball who was in the Futures Game earlier this month.

And Zduriencik was pretty clear that the Player to Be Named Later in the deal is more than just a throw-in. A reason for a PTBNL in this scenario is that players can’t be traded until a year after they have signed their contract after being drafted. And the Tigers have a couple top prospects that fall in that category, including promising closer Chance Ruffin, a first-round “sandwich” pick (48th overall) a year ago out of the University of Texas.

Ruffin, 22, posted 17 saves and 55 strikeouts in 43 innings for Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo this season before getting a quick promotion to the Tigers and pitching a pair of games recently. He was just sent back down, but clearly he’s a bright young prospect and the sort of player that could change the complexion of the Fister-Pauley trade in the future.

We’ll learn a little more about Wells and Furbush upon their arrival Sunday at Safeco and through the final two months of this season. And we’ll just have to wait and see on Martinez and the PTBNL. As with all trades, fair judgment won’t come for several years. And in this case, we can’t even pretend to begin evaluating until at least learning who the fourth player will be in a couple weeks.

After rain delay, game set to begin at 6 p.m.

After nearly a two-hour rain delay, tonight’s Mariners game at Yankee Stadium is now expected to begin at 6 p.m. PT.

They’ve cleared the tarp off the field, pregame ceremonies are underway and players are warming. So by all accounts, they’ll get this one started at least.

The Yankees already have a doubleheader scheduled for Saturday, so they surely don’t want to have another twinbill this week and will do what they can to play this one tonight, even if it means starting at 9 p.m. ET and getting done somewhere near midnight.

The Mariners are attempting to put an end to their 15-game skid, with Jason Vargas taking on former Mariner right-hander Freddy Garcia.

Mariners will leave it to Beavan to snap skid

Blake Beavan will be on the mound today against the Red Sox, attempting to end the Mariners' 13-game losing streak. (Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

He sat in the back corner of the crowded visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park on Friday afternoon, tucked away by himself texting friends and playing games on his phone.

 But today young Blake Beavan will be at the center of attention at the historic ballpark, with 38,000 sets of eyes and another sellout crowd in Boston watching how he handles the hottest team in the American League as Seattle tries to snap a 13-game losing streak.

All that stands between the Mariners and a franchise record-tying 14th consecutive setback is a 22-year-old kid making his fourth Major League start … against Red Sox All-Star right-hander Josh Beckett, who brings a healthy 8-3 record and 2.12 ERA up against a Seattle team that has struggled against far-lesser pitchers.

The easy-going Beavanseemed blissfully unaware of the challenge ahead on Friday, soaking up his first experience at Fenway and eagerly awaiting his opportunity.

“It’ll be fun just to get to experience all the history and all the greats that have played here,” he said. “The first thing I did when I got here was go out on home plate and take some pictures and send them to my parents and brothers and everybody. I told ‘em how much better it was being on the field than playing it on a video game.”

Beavan has done very well in his first three starts in place of the injured Erik Bedard, going 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA against the Padres, Angels and Rangers. Two of those games were at Safeco Field, while he faced the Angels in Anaheim and gave up two runs in 6 1/3 innings.

None of that quite prepares him for Fenway and its fabled Green Monster, though he draws on what experience he has from Cheney Stadium in Tacoma and other hitter-friendly parks in the Pacific Coast League.

“Coming from Tacoma, it’s not a very big park either down the lines,” he said. “You kind of get used to dealing with the PCL where the balls fly and the [smaller] parks you play at. You try to get that out of your mind. But at least here you know there’s a big enough wall where they have to ge it up to get it out.”

One factor that won’t weigh on Beavan is the heat, with forecasts calling for 100 degrees in Boston this afternoon. The Texas native says that suits him just fine.

“I kind of like it,” he said. “You sweat a lot, it’s hot, but it feels like back home. It’ll be different pitching in it because I haven’t pitched in that kind of heat in six months, and that feels like forever when you don’t see a lot of heat and sun in Seattle. But I think it’ll feel good for my arm.”

The Red Sox figure to bring a different kind of heat with Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, et al. This will be a tough test for Beavan and it could be his last start for the Mariners for a while, if Bedard’s sprained left knee feels good in a simulated two-inning workout today.

But Beavan has proven he can pitch at this level and his emergence as another potential rotation candidate certainly is one of the bright spots in recent weeks for a Mariners team that could surely use another nice surprise Saturday as they seek to avoid making the wrong kind of history at Fenway.

Mariners expected strength has become a weakness

Miguel Olivo tosses his bat aside Thursday during the Mariners' 12th straight loss in Toronto. (Brad White/Getty Images)

As the Mariners look to excavate themselves from a 12-game losing streak that has undone much of the progress made by a surprisingly competitive first half, it’s not hard to pin-point the source of the problem.

Yeah, the Mariners’ punchless offense is the issue. But if we look at this thing a little more deeply, it’s not just a lack of power. Everyone knew this club didn’t have a lot of boppers. That should surprise no one, including Jack Zduriencik.

But what Zduriencik did try build this club around over the past two years was the notion that a strong pitching and defensive club could compete with an offense that got on base consistently and turned the lineup over. And that simple matter hasn’t happened for two years now, with this season falling even further down the ladder.

Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley, Franklin Gutierrez and, yeah, Ichiro Suzuki are all veterans who could be counted on to at least get on base consistently, even if they weren’t setting home-run records at positions that normally supply much of the power.

But none of those players have come close to doing what they’ve done throughout their careers in recent months. In fact, of the nine veteran position players who’ve held spots on the roster for much time at all this season, shortstop Brendan Ryan is the only one with an on-base percentage in 2011 that is higher than his career average.

On-base percentage is just one statistic. You could do this same exercise with slugging percentage and get similar results as this club is at the worst in the history of the Mariners franchise in both categories for a second straight season. But getting on base is something that doesn’t require anything more than working counts, drawing walks, getting base hits. And even that’s not happening.

Don’t tell me about Safeco Field. The Mariners had a Major League-leading .360 on-base percentage in ’01 when they played half their games in Safeco Field. This year that number is at .288, well below last year’s franchise-record low .298.

Here are the veterans and their 2011 numbers compared to their career averages coming into this season. No, I don’t know why this is happening. Nor does Eric Wedge or Zduriencik or anybody else. But here are the raw numbers:

On-base percentages
                                   2011    Career   Change
Chone Figgins              .236     .359     -.123
Franklin Gutierrez        .219     .316      -.097
Ichiro Suzuki                .312     .376      -.064
Milton Bradley              .313     .366      -.053
Jack Wilson                   .259    .309      -.050
Jack Cust                      .348     .378     -.030
Miguel Olivo                  .256    .283      -.027
Adam Kennedy             .305    .330      -.025
Brendan Ryan               .324    .314     +.010

And before anybody gets too excited about Cust’s healthy on-base percentage, remember that he was expected to provide some of the much-needed power as the DH in the middle of the lineup. And his slugging percentage of .322 is dramatically off his career slugging average of .452.

In other words, nothing much is working offensively the way it was supposed to for the veterans on this club, outside of Kennedy having a pretty decent season as a non-roster invitee and Olivo providing a little more power than expected with 13 home runs. And, yes, Ryan being slightly above his career numbers — as a guy who is a defensive-minded shortstop.

Bradley is long gone, of course, and others are likely to follow in the coming days. I still don’t think the concept of building a high on-base percentage team was wrong, but it just never came to fruition with this group for some reason. And now the club is left with a team not only lacking pop at the traditional power positions (left and right field, third base, designated hitter), but without much offense to speak of whatsoever from those spots.

And that is certainly not a competitive formula, as the club is showing now that its superior pitching is wearing down.

Felix, League named to AL All-Star team

Mariners ace Felix Hernandez and closer Brandon League were named to the American League All-Star team on Sunday, as announced on the MLB All-Star Selection Show presented by Taco Bell.

Hernandez won the AL Cy Young Award last season without making the All-Star team. This year Hernandez earned an All-Star bid, but likely won’t be able to pitch in the Midsummer Classic since he’s scheduled to start for the Mariners next Sunday, two days before the July 12 All-Star Game in Phoenix.

League earned his first All-Star berth as he shares the AL lead in saves at 21 with the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera heading into Sunday’s games. He was one of five closers named to the AL team.

League, 28, took over as the Mariners closer this season for the injured David Aardsma and has been perfect outside of a four-game blip in mid-May when he lost four straight games. Prior to that, he racked up nine straight saves and since then he’s gone 12-for-12 in save opportunities while not allowing an earned run in 18 straight appearances.

League (0-4 with a 3.48 ERA) has 27 strikeouts and five walks in 33 2/3 innings. The Hawaiian native came into the season with just eight saves in seven Major League seasons, having worked primarily as a set-up man in Toronto from 2004-09 and then Seattle last year after being acquired along with Minor League outfielder Johermyn Chavez in a trade for right-hander Brandon Morrow.

Hernandez has followed up on last year’s Cy Young season with an 8-7 start with a 3.35 ERA. He ranks third in the AL in innings pitched at 129 and strikeouts at 124 and again is the ace of a Mariners staff that has kept Seattle in contention in the AL West despite an offense that ranks at the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category.

Hernandez pitched in the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, but didn’t get selected for the game last year when he went on to win his first Cy Young.

Ichiro Suzuki saw his run of 10 straight All-Star selections come to an end when he was left off the AL team after the slowest first half of his Major League career. Ichiro, 37, is hitting .268, more than 60 points below his career .331 average.

The veteran right fielder has stolen 20 bases, but has current career lows in on-base percentage (.317) and slugging percentage (.330). Both numbers are well below his career averages of .376 and .430.

Ichiro had been voted into the All-Star game nine of his first 10 years in Seattle and was named as a reserve in ’05, the one year he didn’t get chosen by the fans. He had the longest active streak of All-Star appearances.

Ichiro was the only Mariner selected to the All-Star Game last year and the club hasn’t had more than two All-Stars in the same season since ’03, when five Seattle players were selected.

Mariners rookie Michael Pineda was not named to the initial group, but some pitchers likely will be added as others — like Hernandez — are subtracted due to their schedules. Hernandez, Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Tampa Bay’s James Shields are all slated to start next Sunday, which would mean they’ll need to be replaced.

So we’ll have to see how that plays out.