June 2012

Should be a very busy day for Mariners

Official word doesn’t figure to come until this afternoon, but it looks like today will bring some significant changes to the Mariners makeup, with a roster shakeup likely involving four players coming and four others going.

Two of the roster moves are health-related. Rookie reliever Stephen Pryor is having an MRI today on his groin muscle after pulling up when he hit the first-base bag in the ninth inning of last night’s 5-4 loss to the Padres and is a likely DL candidate. That’s an unfortunate one as Pryor was hitting 97 on the radar gun and looking strong again in his sixth MLB appearance.

Left fielder Mike Carp also appears headed back to the DL after his right shoulder flared up again in recent days. That’s the shoulder Carp hurt in the season opener in Tokyo and caused him to miss 23 games already this season.

But two other healthy Mariners — utility man Alex Liddi and starting pitcher Blake Beavan — were packing bags and saying goodbyes after last night’s game and appear headed back to Tacoma. Both are young (23) with options. Liddi just needs more playing time and at-bats. If he’s going to be an outfield candidate, he needs a chance to play there in less-pressured situations than in the Majors. So it’ll be interesting to see if the Mariners play him at third base or in left field in Triple-A.

Beavan is another story. He had a rotation spot secured and got off to a nice start this year, but has struggled recently. Beavan is all about fastball command. He’s a strike thrower who has one of the lowest walk rates in baseball, but hitters know he’ll be around the zone and if he’s not pin-point accurate, they’ll take advantage of that until he further develops a changeup to keep good hitters from sitting on his fastball.

It’s not the end of the world, getting sent to Tacoma, though surely it’s not fun after you’ve been in the big leagues for a bit.

But plenty of guys go down, work on things and and then come back, which will be the case with several today. If Pryor does need to go on the DL, Steve Delabar seems the logical choice to be recalled to take his place. And Casper Wells likely will be back as well to provide a right-handed bat and capable outfield defense, which has been a problem recently with Chone Figgins and Liddi  being asked to play left field.

But the biggest changes figure to be the long-awaited arrival of center fielder Franklin Gutierrez as well as the promotion of rookie right-hander Erasmo Ramirez. Gutierrez is finally healthy and I’d expect him to retake his center field spot at least on a part-time basis as he works his way back in, which would allow red-hot Michael Saunders to play left field when he’s not splitting time with Guti in center.

And Ramirez figures to slide into Beavan’s spot in the rotation, perhaps as soon as Thursday night if Kevin Millwood isn’t quite ready to return from his strained groin muscle.

None of that is official yet and the Mariners always wait until players actually arrive before making announcements, just in case something goes awry. But the tea leaves weren’t hard to read last night as guys were packing bags, with logical replacements waiting in the wings and Ramirez’s scheduled Wednesday start for the Rainiers canceled.

So we’ll see what happens this afternoon and then hear from manager Eric Wedge before tonight’s game as to his exact plans on what the roster moves mean in terms of playing time and rotation slots. So stay tuned.

Lots of pitching questions in the air as homestand plays out

The Mariners pitching rotation stands as a topic of considerable intrigue heading into the remainder of this homestand, though we do know Felix Hernandez will be back on the mound tonight at Safeco Field after pushing his start back an extra five days following some lower back soreness.

Felix will be pitching on 10 days’ rest, so it’ll be interesting to see how he does against the Padres in the 7:10 p.m. Interleague contest. The Mariners ace hasn’t been sharp lately, even before the back issue, He’s a very un-Felix-like 1-4 with a 6.14 ERA in his past five starts and has allowed 42 hits in 29 1/3 innings.

So there’ll be a lot of watchful eyes on Hernandez, especially with the rest of the Mariners rotation in a bit of flux as well right now. Hector Noesi pitches Wednesday against the Padres and he’s lasted just 4 and 4 1/3 innings his past two outings. Those both wound up as no-decisions, but he’s lost his last three decisions and is now 2-6 with a 5.99 ERA.

Kevin Millwood is coming off six no-hit innings as part of Seattle’s combined no-no on Friday, but the veteran left that game with a mild groin strain and we won’t know until this afternoon if he’s likely to pitch Thursday. For the moment, that spot is being listed as TBA in the rotation.

If Millwood can’t go, the Mariners likely would move Jason Vargas up to Thursday as he’d still be on a normal five-day rotation given the off-day Monday. For now, Vargas is slated for Friday against the Giants, with Blake Beavan to follow on Saturday.

Beavan could also move up a day and still be on normal rest if Millwood needs more time. But Beavan himself is a little iffy lately, coming off a two-inning stint against the Dodgers. The 23-year-old could be in jeopardy of losing his own rotation spot, should the Mariners want to promote rookie Erasmo Ramirez from Tacoma.

So there are a lot of potential moving parts in the rotation at the moment.

One thing we do know: The Padres are bringing lefty Clayton Richard tonight, followed by right-handers Jason Marquis and Edison Volquez on Wednesday and Thursday.

Then there’s some pretty interesting arms coming with the Giants this weekend, with Ryan Vogelsong on Friday, Tim Lincecum on Saturday and Madison Bumgarner on Sunday. It will be Lincecum’s first chance to pitch at Safeco Field against the Mariners, a long-awaited matchup that ironically now comes with the two-time NL Cy Young winner struggling wtih a 2-7 record and 6.00 ERA.

But Lincecum grew up in Renton, pitched for the University of Washington and was disappointed when the Mariners passed over him in the Draft, so it will be interesting to see how he performs on Saturday.

Mariners need to turn around some stunning Safeco numbers

Coming off a nine-game road trip during which they hit .281 and averaged 7.3 runs per game, the Mariners open a nine-game Interleague homestand tonight that looms as a great indicator of just where this young club stands in its offensive progress.

Going 5-4 against the Rangers, White Sox and Angels — three of the hottest teams in the American League — was a nice boost. But if the Mariners come home and go back to their Safeco Field struggles, a lot of eyebrows are going to be raised.

Here’s one of the most stunnng statistics imaginable. Ten weeks into the season, the Mariners’ highest batting average at Safeco Field right now is Casper Wells at .235. And he’s now in Tacoma.

Ichiro is hitting .231. Brendan Ryan is at .217, Dustin Ackley .213, Kyle Seager .200, Jesus Montero .194, Justin Smoak .188, Michael Saunders .185, Mike Carp .145, Miguel Olivo .121.

As a team, the Mariners are batting .193 at Safeco Field. The next lowest home average in the AL is Oakland at .213. Their slugging percentage is an anemic .305, well behind the next-worse team in Cleveland (.346).

On the road? The Mariners are seventh among 14 AL teams with a .257 average and fifth in slugging percentage at .417. In other words, respectable.

Two quick points on this. Thanks to a difficult early schedule, Seattle has played the fewest home games in the Majors at 22 (compared to 37 on the road). But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I fully believe cold, damp weather has far more to do with the Mariners hitting difficulties at home than the deep fences.

Having more games in the middle of the summer, when the weather is warmer, could turn out being a nice bonus for this club. But the weather isn’t looking great this week, so we’ll see how they do against the Dodgers, Padres and Giants.

Manager Eric Wedge is counting on something else. He feels his young team is learning on the go this season.

“We’re not the same team now that we were at the beginning of the year,” Wedge said Wednesday in Anaheim. “We’re not the same team we were when we started this road trip. When it comes to the home-road splits , you can’t argue with it. They’re real. Over time will that get a lot better? I’m sure they will, because I think we’re a lot better. And the fact of the matter is, we haven’t been home much yet. If we can unpack and get comfortable, I think that will help us, too.”

So we’ll see how things play out this week. If the Mariners carry over the offensive momentum of the road trip, it will be a good sign. But history says the offensive numbers will decline some in Safeco Field while the pitching suddenly will look better again.

It’s been that way for 10 years. But that said, this team isn’t going to hit .193 all year at home. That number will go up. The key will be just how far in the coming months as the weather warms and this team continues to grow.

Felix gives a thumbs up after playing catch

Felix Hernandez played catch and did his normal stretching with the team before tonight’s game in Anaheim and gave a big thumbs up and “bueno” to manager Eric Wedge as he left the field, which should be a good sign for his ability to return to the rotation by this weekend.

Hernandez, who tweaked his back in his last start Friday in Chicago, will throw again Thursday when the team returns to Seattle and a decision will made Friday on his next start. Wedge said the best-case scenario would be a Sunday start against the Dodgers.

But if there is any uncertainty, he’ll be held until at least Tuesday against the Padres.

Hernandez felt some soreness in his lower back in the third inning against the White Sox and then was replaced after giving up a pair of home runs in the fifth inning. He was scheduled to start Wednesday night against the Angels, but Hector Noesi is starting that game on three days’ rest instead.

With Thursday’s off day, the Mariners can continue skipping Hernandez for the time being without causing any problems with their rotation. Kevin Millwood will start Friday on his normal fifth day, having last thrown Sunday in Chicago.

Jason Vargas, who won his seventh game of the season Monday in Anaheim, will also stay in his normal five-day routine by starting Saturday.

Sunday’s starting is being listed as TBA for now. If Hernandez is fully recovered, he’ll start the 1:10 p.m. series finale. If not, Blake Beavan would slide into that spot on his fifth day, having last pitched Tuesday against the Angels.

Here’s tonight’s lineup in the series finale against the Angels, who are going with right-hander Jerome Williams:

Ichiro Suzuki RF
Dustin Ackley 2B
Kyle Seager 3B
Jesus Montero DH
Justin Smoak 1B
Michael Saunders CF
Miguel Olivo C
Mike Carp LF
Brendan Ryan SS

Hector Noesi RHP

Is Vargas emerging as darkhorse All-Star candidate?

Not a lot of Mariners love in the initial release of All-Star voting today. No Seattle position player cracked the top five. Ichiro is ninth among outfielders, where they go 15 deep in the vote totals.

Ichiro had his streak of 10 straight All-Star berths snapped last year. The Mariners haven’t put up great offensive numbers early and most of their guys are young, so no real surprise in any of this.

Kyle Seager is having a nice season at third base (.274, 7 HR, 32 RBI), but he’s in his first full year in the Majors and isn’t well known nationally at a position where Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Moustakas are currently leading the vote.

The interesting question at this point figures to be which Mariner does get selected to the All-Star team this year. Last year the club had three — Felix Hernandez, Brandon League and Michael Pineda.

Hernandez is 4-4 with a 3.42 ERA in 12 starts and now is going to miss at least one start due to some back soreness. He’s been good, but not great, in the first two months and could well be the Mariners pick if he gets healthy and wins a few more before the All-Star break.

But the surprising guy who might be putting himself in position right now is Jason Vargas, who is tied for the AL lead in wins after last night’s victory at 7-4 with a 3.64 ERA. And it’s worth noting that Vargas has a 1.10 WHIP and opposing batters are hitting .227, while Hernandez has a 1.26 WHIP and batters are hitting .251.

You can see all the All-Star voting for both the AL and NL at the bottom of this story on MLB.com.

Second day draft coverage

A day after choosing Florida catcher Mike Zunino with the third pick in the MLB Draft, the Mariners started the second day of the draft by taking shortstop Joe DeCarlo 64th overall.

DeCarlo is ranked the 57th best high school prospect by Baseball America. The 5-foot-10, 205-pounder from Garnet Valley High School in Glen Mills, Pa., was signed to play with Georgia next year as a third baseman.

DeCarlo comes from an athletic family, as his father played football at the University of Delaware, two brothers played baseball at William & Mary and his sister played lacrosse at the University of Virginia.

With the 98th overall pick (3rd round), the Mariners selected high school pitcher Edwin Diaz, a right-hander from Puerto Rico.

Although he’s listed at just 6-foot-2, 160 pounds, Diaz can reach the upper 90’s with his fastball.

With the 126th pick, a compensation pick for not signing Kevin Cron last year, the Mariners selected high school left-handed pitcher Tyler Pike from Winter Haven, Fla.

Pike is currently signed to play baseball for Florida State. As a junior, Pike went 10-1 with a 0.89 ERA and 123 strikeouts.

The Mariners chose an intriguing player in the fourth round in Patrick Kivlehan. The Rutgers third baseman was the Big East Player of the Year this season as a junior. Interestingly enough, though, Kivlehan was four-years removed from the sport after a career with the Scarlet Knights’ football team.

Kivlehan hit .410 with 10 home runs and 36 RBIs during league play, becoming the first Big East player to win its triple crown.

The Mariners again went with a position player in the fifth round, and for the second time in the draft, took a shortstop. They selected Chris Taylor, a junior from the University of Virginia. Taylor is known more for his defense than offense, but hit .284 this season with five home runs, 47 RBIs and 12 steals in 14 attempts.

– Josh Liebeskind

Mariners take Florida catcher Zunino with third pick in Draft

Five months after trading for premier catching prospect Jesus Montero, the Mariners added another big-time backstop to their organization by selecting Florida’s Mike Zunino with the third pick in Monday’s 2012 First-Year Player Draft.

Zunino, 21, was selected to the Baseball America All-American team and was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year last year as a sophomore at Florida and is backing that up with another big season this spring as a junior.

“Mike is a sturdy, blue-collar, talented defensive receiver with extra-base offensive potential,” Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara said. “He is a winning player, and will be a good fit with the Mariners. We look forward to having him in our organization and working his way towards being part of our Major League club in the future.”

Zunino is the seventh catcher drafted by the Mariners in the first round, but just the fourth with their first pick. Seattle selected Jason Varitek 14th overall in 1994, Ryan Christianson 11th in ’99 and Jeff Clement at No. 3 in ’05.

As the son of Reds scout Greg Zunino, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder grew up in the game and that background shows in his play.

“He’s the best catcher in the country. I think that will be shown, obviously, when the Draft comes around,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan told MLB.com. “Tremendous player. Tremendous kid. Great work ethic. Great leader. He’s the total package.”

Zunino was drafted in the 30th round by the A’s out of high school in Cape Coral, Fla., but opted for college and has had an outstanding career at Florida. He hit .371 with 19 home runs and 67 RBIs and a .674 slugging percentage in 72 games as a sophomore.

Zunino is batting .316 with 18 homers, 60 RBIs and a .667 slugging percentage in 62 games this year, with 28 walks and 45 strikeouts.

This was the third time in four years that Seattle had a pick among the top three selections. The Mariners took North Carolina’s Dustin Ackley at No. 2 in 2009 and Virginia lefty Danny Hultzen second last year.

Seattle had used its first pick to tab a pitcher five of the past six years with Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, Josh Fields, Phillippe Aumont and Brandon Morrow, with Ackley the lone position player to break that trend until Zunino’s selection.

The Mariners weren’t certain Zunino would be available with the third pick, but the Astros surprised by taking Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with the first pick and the Twins took Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton second.

Zunino was Seattle’s only selection on the opening day of the Draft. Their next pick comes Tuesday with the third pick in the second round, which is 64th overall after Monday’s first round and sandwich picks.

Ichiro leading off again Saturday, says he feels renewed

Ichiro Suzuki is back at the leadoff spot again Saturday, as expected, as manager Eric Wedge will give his revised lineup some time to see what it can do. Today’s game is at 1:10 p.m. PT.

Ichiro talked after the game Friday night about feeling renewed with his return to the top of the order, which clearly seems his preference after 52 games hitting third this season.

Speaking through interpreter Antony Suzuki, Ichiro indicated he was looking for a spark from his return to the role he’s filled for 1,721 of the 1,786 games he’s started over 12 seasons with Seattle.

“Being back in the leadoff is very comfortable,” he said. “It feels like getting back to my own spot. There was no hesitation. We started the season a couple months ago, but now is like a second start for me. And it’s a refreshing start as well.”

Ichiro is hitting .270 with a .303 on-base percentage, both slightly below last year’s .272 and .310 marks that were the lowest of his career. His slugging percentage of .363 is up from last year’s .335, but both are well below his career  .420 mark.

The only change from Friday’s lineup in the wake of the 7-4 loss is John Jaso at catcher in place of Miguel Olivo. Wedge has stuck to his plan of rotating Jesus Montero, Olivo and Jaso far more since Olivo’s return from the DL. Montero is at DH again today.

Here is the full lineup against White Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd (4-5, 5.02) as the Mariners attempt to halt Chicago’s nine-game winning streak:

Ichiro Suzuki RF
Dustin Ackley 2B
Kyle Seager 3B
Jesus Montero DH
Justin Smoak 1B
John Jaso C
Mike Carp LF
Michael Saunders CF
Brendan Ryan SS

Hector Noesi RHP

Ichiro back in leadoff role, Seager batting third

Mariners manager Eric Wedge has made out his lineup card for tonight’s 5:05 p.m. PT game against the White Sox in Chicago … and for the first time this year it doesn’t have Ichiro Suzuki in the No. 3 spot.

Instead, the 38-year-old is back in his familiar leadoff role, where he hit for his previous 11 seasons in the Majors. Kyle Seager will bat third.

Wedge installed Ichiro in the three-hole early in Spring Training, saying it was in part to give Chone Figgins a chance to jumpstart himself in the leadoff role and in part to get the team’s best veteran hitter in the middle of the order.

But Figgins didn’t produce and now is back to a utility role, while Ichiro wasn’t much of a run producer in the third spot. Although his .271 batting average is second on the team, he’s fifth in RBIs with 17 and his .367 slugging percentage is ahead of only shortstop Brendan Ryan among regular Mariners position players.

Seager leads the team with a .278 batting average, .466 slugging percentage and 28 RBIs. He’s 7-for-11 with four doubles in his past two games.

We’ll have more once we get to talk to Wedge before tonight’s game, which should be a good one with Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Here’s tonight’s full lineup vs. White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy (6-1, 3.07):

Ichiro Suzuki RF
Dustin Ackley 2B
Kyle Seager 3B
Jesus Montero DH
Justin Smoak 1B
Mike Carp LF
Miguel Olivo C
Michael Saunders CF
Brendan Ryan SS

Felix Hernandez RHP

Hard-throwing rookie Pryor added to bullpen mix

The Mariners dipped into their fleet of young Minor League pitching prospects for the first time Friday as Stephen Pryor, a hard-throwing right-handed reliever, was selected from Triple-A Tacoma.

Pryor, who throws in the upper 90s, will be with the Mariners as they open their series against the White Sox tonight at U.S. Cellular Field.

Pryor, 22, takes the place of Steve Delabar, who was optioned to Tacoma on Wednesday night. To make room on the 40-man roster, the Mariners placed veteran reliever George Sherrill on the 60-day disabled list. Sherrill is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on May 4, but had been on the 15-day disabled list.

Pryor, a fifth-round Draft pick in 2010, didn’t allow a run in 12 innings over nine appearances for the Rainiers and recorded two saves after being promoted from Double-A Jackson. He allowed just five hits with seven walks and 15 strikeouts and opponents were 0-for-16 against him with runners on base, including 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.

Before his promotion to Tacoma, Pryor had posted a 1.13 ERA in Jackson with seven saves, allowing just two earned runs in 16 innings. Both earned runs came in his first appearance this season with Jackson on April 5 vs. Birmingham. Since then he has not allowed an earned run in his last 27.0 innings and his nine saves with Tacoma and Jackson are the most of any Mariners’ Minor Leaguer.

The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Tennessee native split last season between Class-A High Desert and Jackson. He has been strictly a relief pitcher in his three seasons in pro ball since being drafted out of Cleveland State Community College.

 He is 4-3 with 24 saves and a 2.87 ERA in 82 career Minor League relief appearances.