June 2014

Taijuan recalled, plus Maurer to get longer look

TaijuanBulllpenAs expected, the Mariners recalled top right-handed pitching prospect Taijuan Walker on Monday afternoon in time to start the evening’s game against the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

Walker’s spot on the 25-man roster was cleared when rookie outfielder Stefen Romero was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma following Sunday’s game against the Indians.

Walker, 21, will make his season debut with Seattle in the same stadium where he made his first Major League start on Aug. 30 last season. He picked up the victory while allowing just one earned run in five innings against Houston.

Walker pitched against the Astros twice in his three starts with the Mariners late last season, going 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA.

The hard-throwing youngster was expected to open this year in the Mariners’ rotation, but Walker missed most of the spring with a sore right shoulder and spent time early this season on the disabled list before working his way through a pair of Minor League rehab assignments and then a stint with Tacoma.

Walker, the No. 5 overall prospect in baseball according to MLB.com, went 2-1 with a 4.11 ERA in six starts with the Rainiers and was named the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Week on Monday for his four-hit shutout performance in his Tacoma finale against Oklahoma City last Tuesday.

Romero, 25, appeared in 51 games and hit .196 with 18 runs, six doubles, two triples, three home runs and 11 RBIs. Romero hit .263 (15-for-57) on the road and .154 (14-for-91) at Safeco Field. McClendon said the youngster will benefit from playing every day again in Tacoma.

”It gives him a chance to go down and get some at-bats,” McClendon said. “I think this young man has a bright future, but I know — having lived it and having done it — it’s the hardest job in baseball to play once or twice a week and expect to be productive. If he gets back here, he’ll be a better player for us as a result.”

The Mariners chose to keep right-handed reliever Brandon Maurer and go with a seven-man bullpen for now, which leaves just four position players on the bench each night. But McClendon said Maurer’s impressive performance – three scoreless innings with six strikeouts in two appearances – warranted the move.

“There are a couple factors that played into it,” McClendon said. “No. 1, our pitching has been our foundation and this gives us a chance to protect it a little and shorten up ballgames. We all know offensively we’re challenged a little, so it gives us a chance to shorten games when we can and protect guys and not overuse anybody. And this guy was pretty impressive coming out of the bullpen. It’s very hard to ignore what he did two times coming out of the bullpen, so we’d like to see more of him.”

Even without Romero, the Mariners still have five outfielders with Dustin Ackley, James Jones, Michael Saunders, Endy Chavez and Cole Gillespie, while Willie Bloomquist can also play there if needed.

“Bloomy can play all over the place and that obviously gives you a little more flexibility,” McClendon said. “Listen, it’s not like we’ve had this tremendous bench that we’ve run through every game. That factored in as well. In the American League, you have a DH. You don’t pinch hit that much and use your bench that much. And we don’t play the NL until Aug. 18, so it gives us a chance to give us a little more run with our pitching.”

McClendon: Felix should be AL All-Star starter

Hernandez FelixWith just a week left before Major League Baseball announces its All-Star squads, the Mariners appear to have four qualified candidates for berths on the American League team.

Five-time All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano currently leads the fan voting at that position and three others Mariners – Felix Hernandez, Fernando Rodney and Kyle Seager – have put up the kind of numbers that should draw notice when MLB players fill out their own votes this weekend as well as when AL manager John Farrell completes the rest of the squad prior to the announcements on Sunday, July 8.

Hernandez seems a sure-fire selection for his fifth All-Star Game, but Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon feels his ace should be more than just a normal participant this year after going 9-2 with a 2.24 ERA in his first 17 starts.

“He’s been fabulous,” McClendon said. “What more can you say about him? He’s been great. Heck, he should start the All-Star Game. If they want to win, they should start him.”

Hernandez’s primary competition to start the game seems to be Yankees rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka, who headed into his Saturday start against the White Sox with an 11-2 record and league-leading ERA of 2.11. Hernandez has the second-best ERA in the league at 2.24.

Hernandez threw a scoreless inning of relief in last year’s game, but couldn’t pitch the prior year after he’d started for the Mariners on the Sunday before the All-Star Game, thus only giving one day’s rest before the Midsummer Classic. This year, Hernandez is lined up to make his last pre-All-Star start on Thursday, July 10, which would put the July 15 All-Star Game in Minneapolis right on his next normal start day.

Rodney also seems strongly in the All-Star mix as he heads into Saturday’s games with a 2.30 ERA and 22 saves in 24 chances, second only to the 23 saves of the Royals’ Greg Holland among AL closers.

“I don’t see why not,” McClendon said when asked about Rodney’s candidacy. “He’s done a tremendous job, as well as Seager.”

Though Seager hasn’t yet been in the top five vote-getters at third base among results released so far, he has very comparable numbers to Oakland’s Josh Donaldson, who currently leads the balloting. Seager heads into Saturday’s game hitting .274 with 20 doubles, three triples, 12 home runs, 55 RBIs and an .836 OPS. Donaldson is hitting .249 with 12 doubles, two triples, 18 home runs, 59 RBIs and an .807 OPS. Among all AL third baseman, Seager is first in triples and stolen bases, second in RBIs, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS, tied for second in home runs and third in hits and on-base percentage.

Fans can still cast their votes for starters at MLB.com by going online until Thursday, July 3, at 8:59 p.m. PT. The 2014 All-Star Game will be played at Target Field on Tuesday, July 15 on FOX.

Erasmo down, Maurer up … and Taijuan likely on way

TaijuanBulllpenStruggling starter Erasmo Ramirez was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma by the Mariners, with newly converted reliever Brandon Maurer recalled to take his roster spot in time to join Seattle’s bullpen for Wednesday night’s game with the Red Sox.

The move opens up a spot in the Mariners rotation that will need to be filled by Monday, which would have been Ramirez’s next turn when Seattle opens a six-game road trip in Houston. No decision has been announced on who’ll start that game, but all signs point to top prospect Taijuan Walker (pictured) being ready to join the club after throwing a four-hit shutout for Tacoma on Tuesday night against Oklahoma City.

Since Walker can’t throw again until Monday, there’s no point in adding him to the 25-man roster now. Instead, the club added Maurer to help out in the bullpen, where he’s been pitching well in Tacoma.

Manager Lloyd McClendon would say nothing more than that Walker “is in the discussion” to fill the rotation vacancy, but clearly was pleased with the 21-year-old’s performance in his six games for Tacoma since returning from a sore shoulder that sidelined him much of the spring.

“Taijuan threw the ball extremely well,” McClendon said of his 109-pitch shutout on Tuesday. “That’s very good. I was really happy to hear that. He came through it good and continues to progress. And hopefully he continues to get better.”

Walker made three starts for Seattle late last season and appeared in line for a rotation berth this spring until his shoulder problems cropped up. The youngster has gone 2-1 with a 4.11 ERA in six outings for Tacoma.

“His starts have been fine,” McClendon said. “The one before [the shutout], he had some ups and downs, but all pitchers do. From a health standpoint, he’s feeling better, he’s throwing, he‘s answering the bell every five days. The velocity is up and he’s building, so that’s encouraging.”

Maurer, 23, started seven games for the Mainers earlier this season and went 1-4 with a 7.52 ERA before being sent down and moved into the bullpen in Tacoma. The 23-year-old has gone 1-0 with three saves and a 2.79 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 19 1/3 innings for the Rainiers and will continue in a relief role now, though McClendon said his role now likely is to just bridge the gap until another starter is added.

McClendon said Maurer was added instead of bringing up a position player – with Justin Smoak eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday – because “pitching is our foundation. It’s the rock of this team and we have an opportunity to protect it over the next four to five days, so why not?”

Maurer has done well in his new role in the bullpen and McClendon said he could be used either in a long or short role for now, depending on what needs arise. As for his potential as a reliever?

“We’ll see,” said McClendon. “It gives him less chance to think about things and obviously the velocity is up at the Triple-A level to 98 out of the bullpen. So it’s just intriguing.”

Ramirez, 24, will be given a chance to regain his command now in Tacoma. The young right-hander has gone 1-4 with a 4.58 ERA in 11 starts over three different stints with the Mariners this year. He lasted more than five innings in just one of his five outings since being recalled in early June and was lifted after 4 1/3 innings on Tuesday when he walked five and allowed five hits on 93 pitches.

Alex Jackson officially signs, takes BP today

The Mariners officially announced the signing of first-round Draft pick Alex Jackson as the club arrived back home to begin a six-game homestand.

Jackson, 18, was given a locker in the team’s clubhouse at Safeco Field for the day and will take batting practice with the team prior to Monday night’s series opener against the Red Sox.

Jackson, who agreed to a signing bonus of about $4.2 million, will report to the rookie-level Arizona League Mariners in Peoria on Tuesday.

Jackson played primarily catcher for Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, but will begin his professional career in the outfield for the Mariners after being the sixth overall pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft.

Jackson hit .400 (40-for-100) with a 1.459 OPS and 45 runs scored, seven doubles, four triples, 11 home runs and 31 RBIs in 35 games during his senior season at Rancho Bernardo. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder was rated as the top position player in the draft and fourth overall prospect by Baseball America.

Jackson was named to the 2014 Perfect Game All-American first team and the California All-Region first team after his senior season.  In four seasons with Rancho Bernardo, Jackson batted .375 with 156 runs scored, 35 doubles, six triples, 47 home runs and 127 RBIs in 135 games.

His 47 prep career home runs tied him with former Indians prospect Johnny Drennen (2002-05) for the all-time San Diego section record. Jackson had five homers as a freshman, 17 as a sophomore, 14 as a junior and 11 during his senior season. Jackson’s team played for California’s San Diego section championship in all four of his high school seasons, including winning the championship during his freshman and junior seasons.

Mariners agree to terms with top pick Jackson

Alex Jackson, the Mariners first-round pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, has agreed to terms with the club on a deal that includes a signing bonus of more than $4 million, according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis.

Jackson was the sixth overall pick in the Draft, a spot that carries a $3,570,000 value in MLB’s current slotting system.

Jackson is being listed as an outfielder by the Mariners, though he played mostly catcher at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego. The 18-year-old was regarded by many as the top power hitter in this year’s Draft.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has said Jackson is a good athlete who could be a quality catcher, but with 2012 first-round Draft pick Mike Zunino already at that position, Seattle will start Jackson out in the outfield and see how quickly he can advance.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder hit 47 home runs in his prep career at Rancho Bernardo, a traditional baseball power in the San Diego area.

With Jackson’s agreement, the Mariners have now signed their top 14 picks.

Mariners’ memories of Gwynn include final career HR

Beimel, Joe

Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon remembers talking baseball for hours with Tony Gwynn.

Mariners reliever Joe Beimel (pictured) remembers the few seconds in which he gave up Gwynn’s final home run of his storied career.

And as with every Major League clubhouse on Monday, players and coaches expressed sadness and recalled of one of baseball’s greatest hitters Monday after Gwynn died of cancer earlier in the day at age 54.

Gwynn’s death hit particularly close to home with the Mariners as Gwynn’s younger brother, Chris, is Seattle’s director of player development, overseeing the club’s entire Minor League system.

“Obviously waking up to that kind of news was pretty devastating,” said McClendon, who played against Gwynn for years in the National League. “Tony was not only a person I considered a friend, but as far as hitting was concerned he was a mentor as well.

“I look back now and sometimes you take things for granted,” McClendon said. “But to think this guy took time out of his day every time we came to town or they came to town to sit down and talk to somebody like me about hitting and the game of baseball, it just blows your mind. To think we lost him at the age of 54 is really, really tragic.”

As a student of the art of hitting and a long-time hitting instructor with the Tigers, McClendon appreciates the greatness that was Gwynn.

“You can look at all his numbers and stats and talk about everything, but the one that really stands out the most to me is to think that in a 20-year career he struck out 434 times in almost 10,000 at-bats, that’s just phenomenal,” McClendon said. “That’s 20 strikeouts a year. Heck, I did that in a week. I didn’t listen enough. But what a tremendous loss for baseball. My heart goes out to his family.”

Beimel, 37, is the one Mariners player who competed against Gwynn at the end of his Hall of Fame career with the Padres. Beimel was a rookie starter with the Pirates in 2001 when he gave up Gwynn’s final career home run on Aug. 11 in a 6-2 victory for the Padres at PNC Park. It was Gwynn’s only homer his final season in San Diego and the 135th of a career that was more about his .338 batting average and eight National League batting titles.

“A couple of my friends told me it was to center. I thought it was right-center,” Beimel recalled. “I know it was a hanging slider. Before the game we were going over the scouting report and it’s my rookie year. We get to Tony Gwynn and they’re like, ‘There really isn’t a way to pitch him. He can hit everything. So maybe you should just try throwing it right down the middle.’ So first at-bat, I throw it right down the middle and he cracks a friggin’ double. I’m just like, ‘Oh man.’

“I did get him out on a lefty changeup that I’ve thrown maybe five of my whole career, then he hit the home run on a hanging slider the third at-bat. He was pretty good.”

Gwynn thus finished his career hitting .667 against Beimel as that was the only time they ever met.  Beimel says 10 years later, a friend of his put on a baseball clinic with Gwynn and asked if he remembered his last home run. And Gwynn recalled every detail of the at-bat.

Beimel hasn’t forgotten it either.

“I actually took pride that I gave up his final home run,” said the southpaw. “I kept watching the box scores the rest of the season to see if he’d have another one and when he didn’t, I said, ‘Yes!’ … It wasn’t that cool at the time. But now it’s pretty cool.”

Injured Hart takes some hacks in first BP since injury

Hart, Corey

Mariners designated hitter Corey Hart took some early batting practice Friday, his first outdoor work since going on the 15-day disabled list after straining his hamstring on May 18 in Minnesota.

The 10-year Major League veteran says he’ll likely begin some running drills on Saturday and doesn’t think he’s too far from being ready to go out on a Minor League rehab stint to get some game action in order to prepare for his return.

Hart drove the ball well in his hitting session, easily clearing the fence in left-center at Safeco Field several times before heading to the indoor cage to do some more work.

“I feel better,” he said. “I haven’t had any setbacks. I’m just doing the normal stuff. I want to make sure I don’t go backward.”

Hart missed all of last season following two microfracture knee surgeries while with the Brewers, so the two-time National League All-Star is all too familiar with the training room. He said this injury stint seems relatively tame in comparison as he figures to only be out a few more weeks, if all goes well.

“I’m used to worse things, so it’s actually going pretty quick,” he said. “It’s coming along well. I don’t see it being too much longer.”

After working all spring to regain his timing following the missed 2013 season, Hart was batting .209 with five doubles, five home runs and 17 RBIs in 37 games before hurting his leg while stealing second base against the Twins.

Jesus Montero: “I’m here to learn and get better”

Montero, Jesus

Jesus Montero, regarded as one of the top hitting prospects in baseball three years ago when he was acquired by the Mariners, was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma by the club on Thursday and said he’s ready to do what it takes to stay in the big leagues.

Montero, 24, was added to the 25-man roster after outfielder Michael Saunders went on the 15-day disabled list Wednesday night

Montero arrived in Seattle from Memphis, Tenn., on Thursday in time to suit up for their 7:10 p.m. PT game against the Yankees at Safeco Field, though the 24-year-old was not in manager Lloyd McClendon’s starting lineup against right-handed rookie Chase Whitley.

McClendon said Montero will play primarily against left-handed pitchers, mostly at designated hitter, though there’s an outside chance he might see some time at first base.

Montero was hitting .270 with 15 doubles, one triple, eight home runs and 40 RBIs in 59 games with Tacoma with a .465 slugging percentage and .800 OPS and said he learned from his experience after failing to make the Mariners’ roster in Spring Training.

“It’s tough. It’s Triple-A and there are a lot of veteran guys there pitching,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little tough, but sometimes you’ve got a good couple games. I feel great to be here, I feel like I earned it, I feel like I learned something. Now I want to be here forever.”

What did he learn?

“The biggest thing for me was how valuable it is to be in the big leagues, how good it is to be in the big leagues,” said the youngster. “I have to respect the game, I have to do the best to be here all my life and to help the team to win.”

While Saunders is an outfielder, the Mariners have more of a need for a designated hitter at this point as they’ve been operating without a full-time DH since Corey Hart went on the 15-day disabled list on May 19 with a strained hamstring. Montero will get his chance to show now if he’s ready.

“I think he’s trying to get things back together,” McClendon said. “He’s been working hard and he’s actually been swinging the bat better than the numbers indicated down there. For me, he was the logical choice. We’ve got a 15-day DL [with Saunders] and he’s on the roster. It just makes sense to bring this young man up and give him the opportunity.”

Montero said he worked on conditioning as well as his first-base efforts while in Triple-A and will continue to do so, noting that he feels he’s improving at the new defensive position. While he’ll play mostly DH for McClendon,  he was already planning early defensive work with infield coach Chris Woodward.

“It’s getting better, a lot better,” Montero said. “I’ve been doing my early work every single day. I’ll bet today I’m going to do something with Woody. He’s waiting for me. I’m here to learn and here to get better.”

Montero expected to replace Saunders tonight

Montero, Jesus (2)

With Michael Saunders being placed on the 15-day disabled list Wednesday night with an injured right shoulder, the club is expected to add designated hitter/first baseman Jesus Montero to the 25-man roster to take his place on Thursday.

The Mariners can’t confirm that move until Montero arrives in Seattle in time for Thursday night’s 7:10 p.m. series finale with the Yankees, but the 24-year-old was not in the lineup for Triple-A Tacoma’s game on Thursday morning in Memphis, Tenn., and is believed en route to Seattle.

While Saunders is an outfielder, the Mariners have more of a need for a designated hitter at this point as they’ve been operating without a full-time DH since Corey Hart went on the 15-day disabled list on May 19 with a strained hamstring.

The Mariners have been going with an extra outfielder for the past two weeks since recalling Endy Chavez from Tacoma. Even with Saunders sidelined, they still have five outfielders in Dustin Ackley, James Jones, Cole Gillespie, Stefen Romero and Chavez.

Gillespie has been used at DH the past two games and Romero and Ackley have also taken turns there, as has backup catcher John Buck. But Gillespie and Chavez likely will split time in right field on a regular basis while Saunders is sidelined and Montero would provide a right-handed bat to a lefty-heavy lineup.

Montero was hitting .270 with 15 doubles, one triple, eight home runs and 40 RBIs in 59 games with Tacoma with a .465 slugging percentage and .800 OPS.

Montero was regarded as one of baseball’s premier young hitting prospects when acquired by Seattle from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda trade in 2012 and he hit .260 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs in 135 games while splitting time between catcher and DH as a rookie that season.

But Montero lost his job as the starting catcher early in 2013 after batting .208 with three homers and nine RBIs in 29 games. He was sent down to Tacoma, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and then was suspended for the remainder of the season in the Biogenesis scandal.

Hart is eligible to come off the disabled list as soon as he’s ready, but he’s likely to be out at least another few weeks as he’s just now starting to do some initial work in the batting cages and hasn’t begun running yet on a hamstring he injured three weeks ago.

The Mariners recently signed veteran outfielder/first baseman Xavier Nady to a Minor League deal, but he’s batted just .167 in his first 10 games with Tacoma.

The club activated Logan Morrison off the 15-day DL on Wednesday, but he’s expected to play quite a bit of first base with Justin Smoak going on the DL with a sore left quad muscle.

Smoak, Saunders both sidelined Saturday

Smoak catchJustin Smoak was out of the starting lineup for the second time in the past three games on Saturday as the Mariners first baseman continues dealing with a sore quadricep muscle in his left leg.

Veteran utility man Willie Bloomquist will take his place again at first in the 4:10 p.m. PT game at Tropicana Field. Bloomquist hadn’t started at first base since 2004 when he replaced Smoak in Wednesday’s victory in Atlanta, but he handled the position without problems.

The Mariners also lost one of their hottest hitters Friday when Michael Saunders felt his right shoulder tighten up while swinging the bat in the third inning of a 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay and the right fielder was out of the lineup for Saturday’s rematch with the Rays.

Saunders didn’t believe the injury was anything serious, but more of a discomfort. But the 27-year-old was scheduled to meet with the Rays team doctor on Saturday to make sure there’s no structural problem with what McClendon called “an impingement.”

Both players are regarded as “day-to-day” in regards to their availability.

McClendon had hoped sitting Smoak in Atlanta, combined with the team’s off day Thursday, would refresh the big switch-hitter. But Smoak struggled running to first on a ground out in his first at-bat in Friday’s 4-0 loss to the Rays and then wasn’t moving well in his second at-bat after he walked and then had to run to second on an infield single by Cole Gillespie.

Smoak stayed in the game and struck out his final two at-bats to finish 0-for-3, but McClendon had seen enough.

“His running was not good at all,” McClendon said prior to Saturday’s game. “He’s not a speedster by any stretch of the imagination, but he was really dragging it yesterday. I just didn’t like what I saw.”

After hitting .250 in the first month, Smoak has struggled the past five weeks and his average is down to .208. He’s still tied for the team lead with 12 doubles, is tied for second in home runs with seven and is third on the club with 29 RBIs.

Because he still appeared in Wednesday’s game as a pinch hitter, Smoak remains the only Mariner to have played in all of the club’s first 60 games. But his production has dipped in recent weeks and McClendon feels the strained quad has contributed to that, so he’d like to get the youngster’s legs back under him.

Smoak says the nagging injury just hasn’t improved, despite the team’s first off day in 17 days on Thursday.

“It was a little bit more of the same,” Smoak said. “I’ll give it a rest tonight and go from there. I actually felt really good yesterday during BP and before the game. Then the first at-bat, running down … it’s not something like it’s real crazy. Just a little bit of the same. It’s a little tight in there. I just have to keep trying to loosen it up.”

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota TwinsSaunders has hit .356 over his last 16 games to raise his average from .226 to .280. With six doubles, three triples and four home runs, his .448 slugging percentage is second on the team behind Kyle Seager’s .476.

He will be replaced in right field on Saturday by Gillespie, who has been on a hot streak of his own. Gillespie is 7-for-13 over his last four starts to raise his average from .217 to .333. Gillespie has played 20 games for the Mariners since being called up from Tacoma on April 24. The 29-year-old outfielder spent parts of the past four seasons with the D-Backs, Giants and Cubs.

The right-handed Gillespie has been used mostly against left-handed pitchers by McClendon, but was in the lineup Saturday against right-hander Alex Cobb.

“We’re just trying to mix and match,” McClendon said. “Righties hit this guy in the past and have had some success this year off him. I’m just trying to see what we’ve got. We don’t have the perfect lineup, so we’re just trying to mix and match and put guys in there and hopefully find a little lightning in a bottle.”