Rainiers Rotation

February 29, 2012

Today we look at the possible starting pitchers in Tacoma – and this is the most difficult part of the roster to figure out.

There are two big problems: first, the Mariners have two open slots in their rotation, with a handful of guys competing for them this spring. We won’t know who is going to win those spots for several weeks.

The other problem is roles. Several of the pitchers who are competing for Triple-A rotation spots could end up in the bullpen at either Seattle or Tacoma. I’ll make a note of any pitcher who has recent bullpen experience.

OK, here we go…  

SEATTLE

  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. Jason Vargas
  3. Hisashi Iwamura
  4. Open
  5. Open

Kevin Millwood appears to be the leader for the #4 slot. The MLB veteran is in camp on a minor league contract, but I think he is unlikely to come to Tacoma if he doesn’t make the big club. Yes, he did pitch in Triple-A a bit last year, but I’ve been led to believe that is unlikely to happen again.

Blake Beavan availed himself nicely in his first MLB experience last year, going 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA in 15 starts for Seattle. Early word is that he arrived at camp in great physical shape.

Hector Noesi came from the Yankees in the Pineda trade. He was a starter in the minor leagues, but last year when the Yankees called him up they used him in relief. He did make two starts for New York. Just from my reading, I’ve heard that many scouts see him as a starter in the majors. It will be very interesting to see what Noesi is doing on opening day: big league starter? big league reliever? Triple-A starter? Triple-A reliever?

Charlie Furbush is another player in a similar position to Noesi – he could fill either a starting or a relief role, and he could be at either level. I would think that with his experience in Seattle last year, Furbush would be likely to break camp in a major league role of some kind.

Danny Hultzen was the Mariners first-round draft pick last year, the second player chosen overall. His only professional experience is 19 innings in the Arizona Fall League. However, the Mariners have said all along that Hultzen will compete for a major league spot in spring training. I think that might be a bit ambitious – if I had to speculate, I would guess that Hultzen will open the season at Double-A Jackson. 

TACOMA

  1. Erasmo Ramirez
  2. Open
  3. Open
  4. Open
  5. Open

Erasmo Ramirez is the only name I am 100% confidant will be in the Tacoma starting rotation. Amazing, huh?

Of the five players who I listed above as “frontrunners” for the Mariners final two slots, three might come to Tacoma – and two could end up in the Mariners bullpen instead. Only Beavan from the above group would definitely start in Tacoma if he did not make the Mariners rotation.

There is a large group of pitchers currently competing in major league camp who profile as possible Tacoma starting pitchers. Let’s run ‘em down:

Mauricio Robles is a hard-throwing lefty with command issues. He flashed tremendous potential at the end of the 2010 season for the Rainiers, and then was battling injuries throughout 2011. Robles has often been mentioned as a possible reliever.

Anthony Vasquez seems like a likely candidate to earn a spot in Tacoma’s rotation. Indeed, he had a rough time for Seattle in September – but let’s not forget that he was very good in eight starts for Tacoma, posting a 3.21 ERA in the hitter-happy PCL.

Matt Fox is a minor league free agent signed this winter after a solid season for Pawtucket of the International League (10-4, 3.96 in 21 starts, 7 relief appearances). Fox has two seasons of Triple-A experience under his belt and one MLB start (for the Twins in 2010). He has shuffled between the rotation and the bullpen for 4 of the last 5 years. 

Steve Garrison is a lefty the Mariners signed after the Yankees removed him from the 40-man roster last year. Garrison had major shoulder surgery that cost him essentially the entire 2009-2010 seasons, but he was healthy last year and made a big league cameo. Garrison pitched mostly in AA last year, and he’s always been a starting pitcher.

Jarrett Grube has started games at Double-A and Triple-A in the Mariners organization the last two years. A reliable minor league veteran, Grube could start or work as a long reliever in 2012.

Jeff Marquez is a sinkerballing right-hander who the Mariners signed as a minor league free agent. He’s pitched three seasons in the International League and had a brief call-up with the Yankees last year. He also had injury problems. Most of his career has been spent in starting rotations. He’s a strong candidate to make the Rainiers rotation.

James Paxton is the most advanced of the Mariners “big three” starting pitching prospects. He made seven dominant starts at Double-A Jackson last year (3-0, 1.85, 51 K’s in 39 innings), and he could be in line to make the Triple-A rotation to start the season. When he does come to Tacoma, he’ll be fun to watch.

Oliver Perez is a 30-year-old left-hander with 195 major league starts under his belt. He was impressive early in his career with Pittsburgh but injuries and a loss of command have spiralled him into his current status as a minor league camp invitee. If he shows improved command in spring training, he could land in any number of roles – there has been some scuttlebutt that he could resuscitate his career with a move to the bullpen. 

Forrest Snow was an emergency temporary fill-in from Class-A High Desert when he first joined the Rainiers last summer – and he pitched so well that we never sent him back. Then he went to the Arizona Fall League and excelled in a difficult pitching environment, Snow could start or relieve in 2012 – and if the Tacoma staff is full, a Double-A assignment to open the season wouldn’t be unreasonable in his development.

Andrew Carraway is a control artist who had a solid season for Jackson last year: 9-5, 3.66 in 21 starts, with a 106-to-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He’ll wear a Rainiers uniform someday, but will it be on Opening Day?

Other names to know: Steven Hensley, Kenn (two n’s) Kasparek, James Gillheeney, and Yoervis Medina.

Go ahead and throw darts at your computer screen, and make a Rainiers rotation!

Just to answer the inevitable question about Taijuan Walker: he’s 19 years old and pitched in Low-A last year. Even an assignment to Double-A Jackson would be a very aggressive promotion, and jumping three levels to Triple-A would be unheard of. We’ll talk about him next year – or maybe late this season, if he dominates all year.

Links:

Check back Friday for a news round-up, and next Wednesday we’ll look at the pool of Tacoma bullpen candidates.


The Cat?

February 24, 2012

I read somewhere that Mariners hitting prospect Vinnie Catricala has been called “Vinnie The Cat.” Not sure if I’m going to go with that on the air – what do you think?

Regardless, Catricala was the subject of a feature story in The News Tribune today, and there are a lot of good nuggets in it – you can read it right here.

The two big things I got out of this story are:

  1. It seems that the Mariners want to continue looking at him at third base, to a point where he worked on it during the off-season.
  2. The major league manager is talking about how the ball jumps off his bat.

The first point further muddies the Tacoma third base situation – I have no idea how that’s going to shake out – and the second point is just going to be fun. I’m looking forward to watching this guy hit.

Links:

  • Congratulations to Larry LaRue, the first reporter to notice the “sartorial splendor” of Forrest Snow. Forrest had no trouble complying with the Tacoma Rainiers road trip dress code, unlike most players called up from Single-A. In this story: Rainiers manager Daren Brown turns up in the media for the first time this spring.
  • From Larry Stone, we have more reports on the outstanding condition of Franklin Gutierrez.
  • Apparently new infielder Munenori Kawasaki is rather loud – Geoff Baker called him Brendan Ryan’scosmic Japanese twin.”
  • Speaking of Ryan, it appears he may have some shoulder issues.
  • Baker also has a blog post on how the Mariners starting nine is all set.
  • Bud Selig says that the international draft is “inevitable.”
  • Looking for a quick baseball chuckle? Check out Carl Willis giving his “Sermon On The Mound.”

I’m taking off on a brief preseason vacation, and there will be no blog update on Monday. We’ll be back on Wednesday with a look at the Tacoma starting pitching candidates.


Outfield Overflow

February 22, 2012

It’s time to look at the Tacoma outfield situation for 2012, and there is good news and bad news.

The good news is the Rainiers outfield is going to be full of mashers.

The bad news is that there are too many outfielders to squeeze onto the Triple-A roster, and there are going to be some unhappy outfielders in Double-A.

We’ll start with a look at the big club.

SEATTLE

The Mariners are going to start Ichiro in right, Franklin Gutierrez in center, and a job share of Mike Carp and Casper Wells in left.

A fifth outfielder will make the team – and I believe that player will be either Michael Saunders or Trayvon Robinson, because the Mariners will want their fifth outfielder to be able to play centerfield. Darren Ford (see below) could be a sleeper candidate here.

TACOMA

I’m going to number these just to see how many candidates there are – this is not a ranking!

1) Saunders or Robinson, assuming that one of them makes the Mariners roster and the other does not. Both are on the Mariners 40-man roster, and both have an option. Also, you could make the argument that both of them would be better served playing everyday in Triple-A than playing once a week in the majors, since both are young, talented and hopefully improving.

2) Carlos Peguero – the slugger put up big home run numbers in the Dominican this winter (11 HRs in 45 games), but he still struck out 63 times and drew just 10 unintentional walks in 166 at-bats. Peguero still has a lot of room for improvement at the plate, but he should be an asset in the Rainiers lineup.

3) Mike Wilson – wrote about him on Wednesday, he’s pretty much a Triple-A star these days. If he’s on the Rainiers roster, he’ll find his way into the lineup.

4) Darren Ford – a speedster signed as a minor league free agent in November, Ford has MLB time with San Francisco the past two years – almost exclusively as a pinch-runner (33 games and only 14 at-bats!). He’s only played in 18 career Triple-A games, all at Fresno last year – the Giants bumped him from AA to the majors in 2010, strictly to have his speed on the bench. Ford will be fun to watch if he’s on the Rainiers.

5) Vincent Catricala – we talked about him in the corner infielder post two weeks ago. The pure hitter could start in left field for Tacoma.

6) Chih-Hsein Chiang – the outfielder from Taiwan came to the Mariners in Erik Bedard Trade #2 last July. Chiang was hitting .340 at AA Portland before the trade, but then he hit just .208 in 130 at-bats for Jackson after the deal. He could go back to AA to start the season – but the Mariners like him; he’s on the 40-man roster and they traded for him.

7) Johermyn Chavez – another outfielder on the 40-man, Chavez is coming off a very disappointing 2011 season. After destroying California League pitching in 2010, Chavez hit just.216 with 13 homers at AA last year. New farm director Chris Gwynn talked about not promoting a player until he “dominates a level,” so it would seem that Chavez is ticketed for a Jackson repeat. However, just two years ago Greg Halman was bumped from AA to Triple-A with similar statistics.

8) Johan Limonta – like Catricala, we covered him in the corner infielders post, but he played 53 games in the outfield for Tacoma last year, and of course he’s going to hit in the Pacific Coast League.

9) Jake Shaffer – Shaffer got off to a fast start at Jackson last year, but he tailed off in the summer months. Still, Shaffer ended up hitting .287 with 11 home runs as an everyday player at Double-A, and he could make a better case for promotion to Triple-A than some of the other guys on this list.

10) James McOwen – he burst onto the prospect scene in 2009 with a 45-game hitting streak at High Desert, then missed the entire 2010 season with an injury. McOwen came back last year and batted .261-4-26 at Jackson. He’s 26 years old and could end up in a Tacoma uniform sometime this season.

Other players in the mix: Brandon Haveman, Danny Carroll, Denny Almonte, James Jones.

The Triple-A outfield battle will be one of the most compelling dramas to play out on the back fields of the Mariners spring training complex in March.

Links:

  • Big news from Peoria, where Eric Wedge announced that Ichiro will bat third, and that Chone Figgins is the favorite to bat leadoff. Larry Stone has all of the details here, including a description of Ichiro’s new batting stance. 
  • John McGrath is having trouble coming to grips with Ichiro in the 3-hole. I’ll add one to his list of unlikely three-hitters: Tommy Herr of the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals had 110 RBI with only eight homers – he batted behind Vince Coleman and Willie McGee.
  • Figgins is grateful for the chance to bat leadoff again.
  • Kyle Seager is going to have to play well in spring training to make the Mariners roster.
  • Casper Wells is hoping to be the Mariners full-time left fielder.
  • Baseball America released its Top 100 Prospects list, and Larry Stone has the run-down on the five Mariners listed. I really enjoyed Stone asking the players if they pay attention to these lists.
  • David Aardsma – who spent time rehabbing at Cheney Stadium last year – has signed with the Yankees. He’s coming back from Tommy John surgery and won’t be ready to pitch until late in the season.
  • Former Rainiers slugger Bryan LaHair is currently the Chicago Cubs starting first baseman. Great to see him get a chance!
  • Former Mariners and Rainiers outfielder Raul Ibanez signed with the New York Yankees.
  • Baseball America was caught off-guard last summer when the Mariners drafted Cavan Cohoes from Patch High School in Germany – so they went in-depth to learn his story.
  • The Reds named Johnny Cueto as opening day starting pitcher. Cueto never pitched in Tacoma – I only mention this because he is the closest thing to a Curto in professional baseball.
  • Want to hear your voice on the loudest stadium PA system in all of professional sports, allowing you to give a headache to 8,500 people simultaneously? The Reno Aces are hiring an on-field MC.*
  • Manny Ramirez signed a minor league contract with Oakland. Lots of questions about this, so here is the order of events: 1) the A’s will look at Manny in spring training and decide if he can help them. If they want to give him a shot, then 2) he must serve a 50-game suspension – and I believe, but I’m not certain, that he must be added to the A’s 40-man MLB roster to begin serving. 3) Manny is allowed to go on a minor league rehabilitation assignment for the final ten days of the 50-game suspension. It is at this point – in the middle of May – that he would probably join Sacramento.
  • Long-term PCL drama from Boise: while the city is mulling building a downtown Triple-A ballpark, the short-season Boise Cubs are threatening to leave town if the existing stadium isn’t improved. I’ve never been there, but a friend who has coached in the Northwest League compared their current stadium to Heidelberg Park.
  • Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie made Baseball America’s Pre-Season Top-50 High Schools ranking.
  • We wrap it up with big-time congratulations to Ryan Divish, who was recognized by the Associate Press for feature writing – I believe it was his Eric Wedge – John Wayne feature from last February that won the honor.

Check back Friday for a news round-up, and then on Wednesday we’ll break down the Tacoma Rainiers 2012 starting rotation candidates.

* I’m not kidding – it’s so loud there, the players complain about it during batting practice and outfielders wear ear plugs. They turn it up to 11 at 4:00 and don’t turn it off until 15 minutes after the game. If you complain about it, an Aces employee looks at you and says “what?” I think everyone on the Aces staff used to work as a roadie for Metallica.


We’ll Take Him!

February 20, 2012

Mariners position players reported to spring training over the weekend, and we have a deluge of stories from Peoria.

The big Rainiers-related news is that outfielder Mike Wilson cleared waivers and accepted an outright assignment to Tacoma. Wilson was removed from the Mariners major league roster when they signed a pair of relievers nearly two weeks ago.

Wilson has proven to be a big hitter in the Pacific Coast League, and we’ll happily take him here in Tacoma if the Mariners decide to send him to the Rainiers. Wilson hit .331 with 16 homers in 87 games for Tacoma last year – he slugged .555, and he reached base at a .418 clip.

I think Wilson deserves a major league chance. He’s 28 years old and has nothing left to prove in Triple-A. The problem for him right now is that there is not an opening in the outfield with the Mariners. Another opportunity for Wilson down the road might be a shot at the major leagues in Japan.  

At any rate, manager Daren Brown won’t mind putting him in the Rainiers lineup until a better opportunity comes along for Wilson.

Links from the last three days:

Coming Wednesday, we look at the Tacoma outfield candidates. There are a lot of them.


The Kid

February 17, 2012

Sad news in baseball yesterday, as Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter passed away at age 57.

There are a lot – and I mean a LOT – of stories about Carter online. He touched many people.

I remember Carter from when I was a kid. My grandparents lived in Florida, and when I was in elementary school my parents would send me out to Florida during the week-long spring break.

Spring Training was usually going on, and the nearest camp to my grandparents house was in West Palm Beach. Both the Atlanta Braves and the Montreal Expos had training camp there, sharing the same stadium like the Mariners and Padres do today (but on a much smaller scale).

As a baseball-crazed kid, I would wait around the clubhouse exit after the exhibition games and try to get autographs. While some players would rush out to the parking lot as fast as they could, Carter would always stop and sign and be friendly with the kids. He was the star of the team at that time, and it was awesome that he would take the time to be nice to the kids.

I guess the kids in West Palm Beach were pretty lucky, because the star of the other team did the exact same thing: Dale Murphy of the Braves.

Lots of links:

  • We’ll lead off with Gary Carter’s New York Times obituary.
  • We have two features on Rainiers pitcher Erasmo Ramirez: one from Larry LaRue at The News Tribune, and one from Greg Johns of MLB.com. We won’t preview the Rainiers starting rotation until the 29th, but I have Erasmo inked in.
  • LaRue also has a feature on Danny Hultzen – another possible Tacoma starter.
  • Spurred by his wife, Blake Beavan added cycling to his off-season workout plan.
  • More position players are arriving in camp.
  • Geoff Baker has a piece on the off-season workouts of Michael Saunders and Steve Delabar.
  • Baker writes that you just can’t touch Munenori Kawasaki’s intangibles.
  • Vincent Catricala is working on his defense at third base.
  • Kyle Seager is trying to add some power, and he’s seeing some progress.
  • More videos: Steve Delabar on how to throw a split-fingered fastball, and Danny Hultzen with a lesson on the curveball.
  • Inspired by Jeremy Lin, Larry Stone came up with a few names of baseball players who seemingly came out of nowhere and became instant superstars. Mark McGwire is on the list; he’s a great example. McGwire hit .318-13-59 in 78 games for Tacoma in 1986 – solid numbers, absolutely, but would you think that player was going to hit 49 home runs as a rookie in the American League the next year?
  • I am angry and depressed that we will not be in Sacramento on June 22 for Johnny Doskow Bobblenose Giveaway Day this season. I guess there is always eBay.

Have a great weekend!


Up The Middle

February 15, 2012

After the overabundance of corner infielders last week, today’s look at the potential Rainiers middle infielders will be brief.

SEATTLE

Shortstop: Brendan Ryan

Second Base: Dustin Ackley

Reserve Infielders: Chone Figgins, Luis Rodriguez, Munenori Kawasaki.

I think that two players from the reserve infielders group will make the Mariners opening day roster. Figgins seems to be a lock, so it appears that Rodriguez and Kawasaki are battling for what will essentially be the back-up shortstop job.

Both Rodriguez and Kawasaki are on minor league contracts going into spring training, so either (or both) could end up with the Rainiers. It is possible that Rodriguez – a veteran with over five years of MLB service – has an opt-out clause in his contract if he does not make the big league team. This information is rarely released publicly, so it’s hard to know for sure but it seems logical in this case.

TACOMA

Shortstop: Carlos Triunfel. We got out first look at Triunfel over the final month of last season, when he hit .279 but drew only two walks in 111 at-bats. He was better on defense than advertised, but he’s still looking for that first Triple-A home run. Look for the 22-year-old Triunfel to be the Rainiers starting shortstop throughout the 2012 season.

Second Base: This is where things get murky. Luis Rodriguez would be a good fit here, but first he has to not make the Mariners roster, and then (possibly) choose to report to Tacoma. Munenori Kawasaki could play here if he ends up with the Rainiers. Another possibility is Kyle Seager, if he gets squeezed off the big league roster.

Scott Savastano is a potential answer here. Savastano played second base for Double-A Jackson last year after Seager was promoted, and he swings a pretty good bat: he hit .283-10-49 in 368 at-bats, with a .362 on-base percentage. Savastano played in one game for the Rainiers in 2008 – he was an emergency fill-in from the low minor leagues, and he started at third base on September 1 after Matt Tuiasosopo got called up. I actually remember this game because he smoked a couple of line drive singles; it was the last day of the season.

What about highly regarded prospect Nick Franklin? I just don’t see him breaking camp in Triple-A. He had an injury-riddled 2011 season and he has only played 21 games at the Double-A level. They were an excellent 21 games, but he’s just 21-years-old this season and there is no hurry to move him up. Look for Franklin to open the season at Jackson, and if he plays well we should get to see him in Tacoma some time this summer. 

Up next Wednesday is the outfielders. Ugh, what a mess. Too many outfielders.

Links:

  • Confirming what we suspected last Wednesday, Mariners manager Eric Wedge said that Alex Liddi will be playing a lot of first base this season.
  • Scratch one off the catcher list: Chris Gimenez opted to become a free agent rather than return to the Mariners on a minor league contract – in his spring training notebook, Larry LaRue reports he signed with Pittsburgh. I’m a bit surprised by this – it definitely hurts the Mariners and Rainiers catching depth.
  • Haven’t heard yet about Mike Wilson, who was designated for assignment the same day as Gimenez. We’ll probably find out about him by the end of the week.
  • At the Seattle Times, Geoff Baker did a write-up on Mariners pitching prospect James Paxton – who is a potential Rainiers starter in 2012.
  • Catchers are the unsung heroes of early spring training.
  • Outfielder Trayvon Robinson had his eyesight checked and he’s going to wear some goggles this year.
  • Larry LaRue is a veteran of many spring trainings, so he had no trouble picking out the happiest camper in Mariners Spring Training. It’s one of our guys!
  • Mariners reliever Chance Ruffin uses a brief video to show us how he throws his slider.
  • Former Rainiers outfielder Adam Jones is getting paid. Hey buddy, can I get a loan?
  • Former Rainiers pitcher Michael Pineda has a new buddy on the Yankees in second baseman Robinson Cano.
  • The New York Mets hired Josh Lewin to be on their broadcast team. I’ve only met him once, but I like Josh: when he was with Texas and the Rangers were in Seattle for a night game, he came to a Rainiers – Oklahoma City day game just to check out Cheney Stadium and see his team’s Triple-A affiliate. He climbed up to the old “press box” on the roof and said hi to everybody.
  • ESPN baseball expert Buster Olney posts his famous Deion Sanders story every year at the start of spring training. If you’ve never read it before, make sure you do so today (Insider access required).
  • One of the legends in my business, Milo Hamilton of the Houston Astros is announcing his intention to retire at the end of the 2012 season.

Check back on Friday for a news round-up.


Nameless No More!

February 14, 2012

We’ve been through the winter on a blog with no name*, but now we have one.

One of the things I learned this off-season is that the Rainiers front office is apparently led by Superman fans. So they came up with this new name (the old one had to go), and here we are. I’m not so sure how I feel about this “Man of Spiel” stuff – more like “Man of Spew.”

The new name was actually devised by a co-worker who went to the dentist, came back and said we should call it “Booth Decay.” One thing led to another and here we are.

I’m glad the era of the No-Name Blog is over. Let’s hit the news.

Links:

  • The Mariners are playing a spring training game in Tucson while I am on my trip to Peoria. I will *definitely* go watch the Triple-A game instead that day.
  • Larry LaRue put up an in-depth profile of Mariners pitching prospect Taijuan Walker. Don’t look for Walker in Tacoma on opening day – but we should see him some day.
  • Geoff Baker wrote about new Mariners reliever Hong-Chih Kuo, and his relationship with the late doctor of sports psychology Harvey Dorfman.
  • Huge day for players, coaches, trainers, and RG’s throughout the PCL: the last holdout from the Bad Hotel Era has upgraded for 2012. Thank you, Isotopes!
  • Here is something really cool: a video from ESPN of former Rainiers infielder Mike Morse explaining his swing.

Middle infield preview on Wednesday!

* That’s not my line. I was forced to use it against my will by the boss, even though it’s a parody of a lyric from a Neil Young ripoff band.


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