Winter Meetings Start Next Week

November 30, 2012

Baseball’s Winter Meetings open on Monday in Nashville, Tennessee and I expect a real influx of “hot stove league” baseball news to break.

We’ve already had a taste these last few days, with major league free agents B.J. Upton (Braves) and Russell Martin (Pirates!) both signing new contracts, and the Nationals trading a top prospect to the Twins for outfielder Denard Span. As usual, we can expect more dominoes to fall during the meetings.

Personally, I don’t attend the Winter Meetings as there isn’t much of a reason for a Triple-A radio guy to go to them.

On Monday afternoon, I’ll put up a longer post on what exactly happens at the meetings – which is a lot of baseball business-related stuff, very little of which involves minor league radio guys (except for the PCL Travel Committee meeting – be nice to us, guys and gals!).

Links:

  • Geoff Baker caught up with Jack Zduriencik before the meetings.
  • Larry Stone got some feedback from player agents to find out if the moved-in fences at Safeco Field will help the Mariners attract free agents.
  • From Baseball America’s minor league transactions we learn that former Rainiers pitcher Jarrett Grube re-signed with the Angels. After being released by the Rainiers last summer, Grube finished the 2012 season with the Angels Double-A team.
  • The Sacramento Bee has a full story on new River Cats manager Steve Scarsone. He did something quite rare – after managing in the low minor for a few years, he quit baseball for six years to help raise his kids, worked in real estate, and then got back into the game. It’s not easy to leave the sport and then get back in.
  • Populous – the firm that handled the Cheney Stadium renovation – won the contract to design the new PCL ballpark in El Paso.
  • There is a lot of off-the-field drama in Reno regarding the ballpark lease and the city council. Read up on it if that’s interesting to you – but I must admit, for me it’s a TL;DR.
  • Know Your Enemy: Baseball America released it’s Top-10 Prospect lists for the Angels and A’s this week. They release these in divisional order, and their Mariners list is expected on Monday.
  • Remember that Jim Caple story on Wednesday about how he was using baseball power hitters uniform number to try to win Powerball? He was only slightly off-base – the winner used the numbers of Kansas City Royals Hall Of Famers.
  • What started as an eBay venture might be turning into a bizarre social experiment: a man is opening 14,400 packs of baseball cards live on internet TV.

Have a great weekend!


Baseball All Year

November 28, 2012

Many of your favorite Tacoma Rainiers players are still working hard on improving their skills, even though the Pacific Coast League season ended back on Labor Day.

A few players do this in their home towns, working at their local gym and with the nearby high school or college team that they are familiar with. Others work out at specific baseball-related performance training centers – there are a few scattered around the country, typically in baseball hotbed areas like Arizona, Florida, and California.

Players who are willing to spend their off-season away from home try to land roles on various Winter League teams in the off-season. Highly competitive Winter Leagues are played around the globe, in countries such as Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and even Australia.

While I refer to these leagues often on the blog we haven’t really talked much about them. Today we’ll check out the Winter League lineup.

Triple-A players like your Tacoma Rainiers will try to land spots on Winter League teams for three reasons:

  1. to work on improving a specific part of their game
  2. to impress their own major league team, and scouts from other teams
  3. to earn extra off-season money

Some also like to see the world, but not all players are in it for that reason.

The Seattle Mariners currently have players assigned to teams in six different Winter Leagues. Let’s check ‘em out:

Venezuelan Winter League – this league, along with the Dominican League, is played at the highest level among the foreign leagues. Most of the league is made up of native Venezuelans who play in the American major leagues or minors during the summer, and then play in their home country during the winter.

This league is known for large fan support and rowdy crowds. It’s important to note that in the eyes of Venezuelan citizens, the VWL is their major league. Winning is important here – losing managers get fired, struggling players get released, and champions are celebrated.

It can be difficult for non-Venezuelan players to crack a roster in this league. The Mariners have a long-standing relationship with one of the teams, Cardinales de Lara, which helps them place advanced prospects in the circuit. It is quite an assignment when the Mariners call an American Triple-A prospect and say, “we want you to go to Venezuela this winter.”

I’ve had many American players tell me this was a life-changing experience for them, and it has helped them achieve a better understanding of what their Latino teammates go through when they are playing in the USA.

The VWL is played at a high level – the league is full of quality Triple-A level players, and there are major leaguers sprinkled in as well. Sometimes established major leaguers from Venezuela will join their local team for the stretch run and playoffs – just a few years ago, the Mariners had to specifically request Felix Hernandez to not do this, as they didn’t want to risk injury.

Typically the Mariners send a few non-Venezuelans to the Cardinales, but this year there is only one: Rainiers reliever Danny Farquhar. The Mariners do have seven players assigned to Lara, and six of them are Venezuelans.

Dominican Winter League – much of what is true about the VWL applies to the DWL as well. The league is chock-full of Dominican professionals, and they play for keeps in a baseball-crazed nation.

The league has a long history, dating continuously back to 1951, but with several of the teams pre-dating the league and going back longer than that. One team, Tigres de Licey, has been in existence for over 100 years and is considered the Yankees of the Dominican.

Because of the league’s long history, generations of baseball men have spent time in the Dominican, either as a player or a coach. For decades major league manager prospects have been asked to run a Dominican team to help prepare them for the show.

From talking to scouts, it seems that these days the DWL is known for hard-throwing pitchers – especially relievers. DWL rosters are typically full of flame-throwing pitchers who come in for short stints, often starting early in the game.

Among others, current Rainiers Carlos Triunfel and Carlos Peguero are playing in the DWL.

Triunfel is an example of an interesting but common case in the DWL: the Tacoma everyday shortstop, and a prospect of some regard, is used mostly as a pinch-hitter down there. Why? Well, the Dominican is the land of the shortstop, and his team has Hanley Ramirez and Jurickson Profar… and on top of that, the Dodgers sent Dee Gordon down there to get some work in. Shortstop is always a stacked depth chart in the DWL.

Mexican Pacific League – that’s the name of the Mexican winter league, which is a different entity from the summer-playing Mexican League (minus the “Pacific”). This is another league that has a long history, dating back to 1957 in its current form.

Like the other foreign leagues, this one is loaded up with Mexican nationals. The Rainiers/Mariners native Mexican Oliver Perez is pitching in the circuit right now, for the Tomateros de Culiacan.

I love the team names in this league. Perez plays for the Culiacan Tomato Growers, there are the Guasave Cotton Growers, and who can resist the Los Mochis Sugar Cane Growers? Sadly, the Saltillo Serape Makers play in the summer league.

Puerto Rico Baseball League – this one has recently recovered from hard times, it actually suspended operations five years ago, only to come back. I couldn’t even find an official league website to link to!

In the past the Rainiers have had many players go to this league – longtime Rainiers pitcher Andy Baldwin played multiple seasons in the league.

This year the Mariners have one player assigned to Purto Rico: Rainiers left-hander Brian Moran is currently pitching for the Manati club.

The winners of the four above winter leagues advance to the round-robin Caribbean Series, played the first week of February. The Caribbean Series is hotly contested and watched by fans from all four countries.

There are two other leagues the Mariners sent players to this off-season:

Australian Baseball League – a relative upstart that began in 2010, this league plays at a lower level than the four leagues listed above. Many teams send a few of their Class-A level minor leaguers to participate in the Australian League.

Like all of the above leagues, the Australian League is heavily populated by natives – but there is a twist here. Because Australia is geographically closer to Asia, many major league teams send their young Korean and Taiwanese prospects to Australia to get some off-season work in.

The Mariners have sent two Americans who played in Class-A last year (Andrew Kitteredge and Nate Melendres) to the league, as well as a South Koreans Ji-Man Choi and Seon Gi Kim.

There are some cool names in this league, such as the Adelaide Bite. The championship title is known as the Claxton Shield.

Arizona Fall League – OK, this one isn’t really a Winter League, it says Fall right there in the title, but I’ve gotta include it anyway. This is the American entry, it is known for top prospects of all nationalities, and each MLB team sends 6-8 players to participate in it. The games are played in October and November, in spring training stadiums.

The AFL is already over – the Mariners affiliate Peoria Javelinas won the title, and Rainiers infielder Nick Franklin had a big season hitting .338 with a .422 OBP and 22 RBI in 20 games.

Always be weary of hitting stats when looking at the AFL numbers – this is a highly offensive league, much like the PCL.

I’ve never been to the Fall League, but from what I hear the crowds are tiny and made up mostly of scouts – which sounds great to me, if you want to get your inner baseball geek on. Someday I’ll be down there in the fall and will check out a game or two.

You can see all of the Mariners statistics from the Winter Leagues in a PDF release right here.

Links:

  • The Seattle Times has a report that the Mariners wined-and-dined free agent hitter Mike Napoli, and they are using their new drawn-in fences as a selling tool.
  • Greg Johns writes that the Mariners are looking for offense at next week’s Winter Meetings. I’m sure my man Greg had to contact hundreds of sources to get that story confirmed!
  • Marvin Miller passed away yesterday at age 95. He had an enormous impact on the sport – here is his New York Times obituary. John McGrath wrote about Miller, too.
  • In the darkest depths of the off-season, straight out of nowhere, we have a Fangraphs Q&A with Rainiers pitcher Danny Hultzen. Lots of good stuff in here, including a detailed description of how he throws his change-up. His Little League coach taught him how to throw it!
  • Former Rainiers catcher… err,  make that multiple-times-over ex-Rainiers catcher and possible future Rainiers catcher Guillermo Quiroz signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants are pretty set (that’s an egregious understatement) with Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez behind the plate, so it seems that Quiroz will be injury insurance at Triple-A Fresno.
  • Old pal Jeff Clement signed a Triple-A deal with the Minnesota Twins. A good spot for him, in my opinion, as he can try to mash his way to big league DH at-bats.
  • In the PCL, Sacramento has a new manager in Steve Scarsone, promoted from their Double-A team. Previous Sacramento manager Darren Bush was added to the major league coaching staff.
  • We knew it would happen sometime: the short-season Eugene Emeralds swallowed the hook and switched to a Sasquatch logo. So far it seems that people like it.
  • ESPN’s Jim Caple is going to win the $500 million Powerball lottery later today with his selection of power hitter uniform numbers. That’s his plan.
  • Presented without comment: Bob Weir and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead have nominated Giants third base coach Tim Flannery for Sportsman Of The Year.
  • The Mariners announced their spring training schedule. Pitchers and catchers report on February 12th. Seems like a long way away, huh?

OK, let’s do the math here… 2+31+31+12= 76 days until spring training!


Thanksgiving Leftovers

November 26, 2012

I hope you had a great holiday. Here’s a quick round-up of Mariners-related rumors and news from the weekend:

  • Be still my beating heart: there are rumors that the Mariners might be willing to sell the farm for my 2012 PCL man-crush Wil Myers.
  • The other Mariners-related rumor over the holiday weekend involves free agent hitter Mike Napoli. Fangraphs took a moment to answer all of your Mike Napoli-related questions.
  • From Baseball America’s minor league transactions we learn that the Mariners have re-signed free agent catcher Jesus Sucre. Sucre had a solid season at Double-A Jackson and is a good candidate to play in Tacoma in 2013. He has an excellent defensive reputation.
  • Despite Sucre coming back, I still think that the Mariners will sign a defense-minded catcher with major league experience to act as a third catcher in the big leagues. It seems unlikely that the team will carry only Jesus Montero and John Jaso to handle all of the catching. Obviously, we hope that Mike Zunino will be ready soon, but there is no guarantee that will be the case. This is one of the reasons the Napoli rumors have legs – although he’s not real strong defensively, he does lighten the load on Jaso and Montero.
  • Also from that Baseball America transactions link, former Rainiers lefty reliever Justin Thomas signed with Oakland/Sacramento.
  • As expected, former Rainiers slugger Bryan LaHair signed with the Softbank Hawks in Japan. As also expected, he is being paid quite handsomely.
  • The LaHair developments caused friend-of-the-blog Rob Neyer to spend some time pondering Bryan LaHair, Ken Phelps, Japan, and “4-A hitters.”
  • For ESPN Insider subscribers, Buster Olney has a very clear and well-written column on performance enhancing drugs and the upcoming Hall Of Fame voting.

I’ll be back with a run-down on the winter leagues later this week. It could be a quiet week; the calm before the storm with the Winter Meetings taking place in Nashville next week.


Mariners Protect Five Minor Leaguers

November 21, 2012

The Seattle Mariners added five minor league prospects to the 40-man major league roster on Tuesday evening – including a pair of Tacoma Rainiers.

The five added players include 2012 Rainiers Vinnie Catricala and Bobby LaFromboise, as well as lower-level minor leaguers Brandon Maurer, Anthony Fernandez, and Julio Morban.

To make room on the roster, the Mariners designated Chone Figgins and Scott Cousins for assignment.

Here’s a run-down on the five prospects:

Catricala was the Mariners Minor League Player of the year in 2011, batting .349 with 25 homers and 106 RBI across Class-A and Double-A. He spent all of the 2012 season with the Rainiers and struggled in his first Triple-A season, batting .229 with 10 homers. Still, the Mariners see enough potential in Catricala that they do not want to risk losing him. The 2013 season will be a crucial one for Catricala.

LaFromboise was the Tacoma Rainiers Pitcher of the Year in 2012, posting a 1.59 ERA in 27 relief appearances. LaFromboise is a major league ready left-handed relief specialist. Now that he is on the roster, he needs to somehow crack a Mariners bullpen that already has three quality left-handed relievers. This is an area of strength for the Mariners right now.

Maurer was the Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2012, spending the entire season at Double-A Jackson putting up a 9-2 record with a 3.20 ERA in 24 starts. Possessing a mid-90s fastball, the 22-year-old right-hander had 117 strikeouts in 137 innings. Maurer wasn’t really on the radar prior to 2012 due to injury problems – a full season of good health did wonders for him. Expect to see Maurer in the Rainiers starting rotation to open 2013.

Fernandez, 22, had a breakthrough season as a starting pitcher in 2012. He opened the year in hitter-friendly High Desert, pitched very well there, and then continued to have success after a mid-season promotion to Jackson. Combined he went 6-8 with a 3.51 ERA. The lefty struck out 134 batters in 164 innings. Whether he starts the season in Jackson or Tacoma will depend on the number of Triple-A free agent starters the Mariners sign, and spring training performance.

Morban, 20, is a toolsy Class-A outfielder who put up good numbers at Class-A High Desert in 2012 – when he was on the field. He appeared in just 76 games because of three trips to the disabled list. However, he walloped 17 homers in that half-season, batting .313 with a .911 OPS. Unless he goes bananas at Jackson in the first half of 2013, we probably won’t see him in Tacoma until 2014.

As for the two players removed from the roster, Cousins was just claimed on waivers a few weeks ago; he might clear and be with the Rainiers in 2013 – we’ll find out next week. Figgins you know about – or if not, he’s the subject of the stories linked below.

Links:

  • The newspapers focused on the end of the Chone Figgins Era – we have stories by Ryan Divish of The News Tribune and Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times.
  • Larry Stone writes that the Mariners should have cut ties with Figgins long ago.
  • Baker got some quotes from new Mariners infielder Robert Andino.
  • Jason Churchill has a brief write-up of Julio Morban.
  • The Mariners released their most recent Winter League Report yesterday.
  • Two former Rainiers were removed from 40-man rosters yesterday: Adam Moore from the Royals and Bryan LaHair from the Cubs. LaHair is a special case – it appears he is being sold to a team in Japan, where he will be payed handsomely.
  • Former Rainiers skipper Dave Brundage (2006) was named manager of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs – that’s the Phillies Triple-A club.
  • The Chicago Cubs signed outfielder Johermyn Chavez as a minor league free agent; he spent the last two years with the Mariners Double-A Jackson affiliate. I previously speculated that the Mariners would try to keep him.

Have a great Thanksgiving!


Roster Moves Coming, Vasquez’s Big Scare

November 20, 2012

I’m back! Sorry for the lack of updates the last 6-7 days, I was out-of-town but that’s all over now. I’m hunkering down for the winter and will be with you for the remainder of the off-season. We have lots to go over so let’s get to it.

Sometime before 9:00 tonight the Mariners have to set their 40-man roster to protect players for the Rule 5 draft. To keep it simple, certain minor league players are eligible to be drafted by other MLB teams if they promote that player to the majors for the entire season. Eligible players have either three or four years of minor league experience, depending on how they were drafted/signed.

Anyway, it means that the Mariners are probably going to cut a few guys from the 40-man, and add a few as well.

Seattle Times scribe Larry Stone runs through some of the options on his blog right here.

The 2012 Rainiers had two players that will create interesting decisions.

Left-handed reliever Bobby LaFromboise is the player most likely to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft. Left-handed relief specialists historically get picked in the Rule 5 Draft, and LaFromboise appears ready to pitch in the majors. So, easy decision, right? You put him on the 40-man. Wait… it’s not so easy, because the Mariners already have three excellent left-handed relief specialists on the roster in Charlie Furbush, Oliver Perez, and Lucas Luetge. Only a rash of injuries – or a trade – would cause them to need more left-handed relief help.

Then there is the confounding Vinnie Catricala situation. Catricala was the Mariners Minor League Player of the Year in 2011, but he struggled mightily throughout the 2012 season during his first Triple-A campaign. If he was eligible last winter, he would have been placed on the 40-man roster in a no-brainer decision. But after the 2012 season, would any other team draft him and keep him in the majors all year? It seems unlikely… but Catricala did just play in the Arizona Fall League, which is heavily scouted by all 30 MLB teams. What are those other teams thinking on Catricala? Can the Mariners risk leaving him exposed?

The one no-brainer the Mariners have is Double-A starter Brandon Maurer, who was tremendous for Jackson in 2012. He’s going on the 40-man roster, and he’ll probably be in the Rainiers rotation come opening day.

The Mariners made a trade today, sending outfielder Trayvon Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for utility infielder Robert Andino.

We’ve talked about how Robinson is out of options and is either making the opening day roster or being exposed to waivers. It was going to be hard for Trayvon to make the team, so I think this is a good deal.

Andino will take the utility infield position that opened up when Muneori Kawasaki was released. Andino is a high-energy player and a lively clubhouse guy, if my experience seeing him in the Triple-A All-Star Game in Toledo a few year ago is any indication.

Hopefully Trayvon will have a good experience in Baltimore and will get a decent shot at making the Orioles roster.

Rainiers pitcher Anthony Vasquez had a serious scare over the last week, and after what could only have been a terrifying ordeal his prognosis looks good.

Vasquez had emergency brain surgery on Friday, and the situation was life-threatening. Fortunately – before we even learned this was happening – Vasquez had a successful surgery and it appears that he is in the clear.

Can you even imagine? Please, send some positive thoughts Anthony’s way.

The whole story on Vasquez was published by Greg Johns of MLB.com, you can read the details right here.

Links:

  • The Peoria Javelinas won the Arizona Fall League championship on a disputed call. The Mariners supplied seven players to the Javelinas, so congratulations to Vinnie Catricala, Nick Franklin, Bobby LaFromboise and the rest of the fellas.
  • At USS Mariner, marc w has a post on Mariners prospects in the Fall and Winter leagues. I’ll have my own post on these leagues later on – maybe next week?
  • Popular ex-Rainiers infielder Matt Tuiasosopo has signed a minor league contract with the Detroit Tigers. That means that if he doesn’t make the big league club, he’ll be a Toledo Mud Hen.
  • Former Rainiers reliever Brian Fuentes announced his retirement. A member of Tacoma’s 2001 PCL Co-Champion team, the left-hander was named to four major league all-star teams.
  • Former Rainiers pitcher R.A. Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award.
  • Former baseball scout turned baseball writer Bernie Pleskoff has a glowing report on Mariners catching prospect Mike Zunino. He uses the phrase “impact player” – that’s a term scouts don’t throw around casually.
  • David Schoenfield wrote a column on how the Mariners could contend next year.
  • Ichiro announced he will not play for Japan in the World Baseball Classic. Ichiro had the game-winning hit in the championship game the last time the WBC was played, in 2009.
  • The Mariners are selling a DVD of Felix Hernandez‘s perfect game, and it’s priced right at ten bucks.
  • I know I’m fortunate that I don’t have to buy tickets so my perspective may be off-base, but this Tacoma Rainiers Black Friday season ticket deal looks like a straight steal to my eyes.
  • Trades? 40-man roster decisions? Brain surgery? Rhubarb The Reindeer celebrated Thanksgiving, and we have video.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a look at the Mariners 40-man roster moves.


This Stove Is Getting Warmer!

November 14, 2012

That old hot stove is starting to heat up in the major leagues, with word of a big “fire sale” trade by the Florida Marlins in the works, free agent Torii Hunter apparently signing with Detroit, and the MLB owners meetings going on.

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports is at the owners meeting, and he got Mariners president Chuck Armstrong on the record saying the team is prepared to spend more money on payroll, and they are (obviously) targeting offense. We knew this, but it is nice to hear it coming straight from the top.

Links:

  • Former Rainiers and Mariners catcher Rob Johnson signed a minor league contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. He received a major league spring training invitation and will attempt to beat out Tony Cruz as the backup catcher to Yadier Molina.
  • Our guy Erasmo Ramirez is pitching for Nicaragua in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament this week.
  • From Baseball Prospectus (subscription) we learn that Rainiers lefty Bobby LaFromboise has struck out 11 of the 19 left-handed batters he has faced in the Arizona Fall League.
  • Former Seattle Mariners manager Bob Melvin won the American League Manager of the Year award.
  • The Seattle Times has commentary on the huge (proposed) Marlins – Blue Jays trade: Larry Stone on Marlins fire sales, and Geoff Baker on the Jays spending money.

I’m going to my personal happy place for my final out-of-town trip of the off-season, and won’t be back to update the blog until Tuesday. I suspect we’ll have some baseball news to report by then.


It’s Awards Week

November 12, 2012

Major League Baseball announces its major awards this week, starting with the two Rookies Of The Year late this afternoon.

The drama will come on Thursday, when the MVP awards are announced. Regardless of who wins the AL MVP – either Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera – there will be a huge reaction in the online circles. I think I’m not going to check Twitter all day on Thursday; it will be like avoiding Facebook on election day.

One thing that would be awesome, and I believe it is possible: Trout and Cabrera could tie for the MVP. It has happened before, in 1979. Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez each had exactly 216 points in the baseball writers balloting, and they were named Co-MVPs. We had a tie game in the NFL this weekend, let’s have an MVP tie!

One former Rainiers has a real chance at a win this week: New York Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey is a finalist for the NL Cy Young Award, and the winner will be announced on Wednesday.

I recently read Dickey’s autobiography, which has been on the shelves since before the season (I read my baseball books during the off-season, when I have more time). It’s a pretty good read, and it moves quickly.

Dickey has had a lot of interesting things happen in his life, and not all are good – it’s really a story of perseverance, in my opinion. Knuckleball enthusiasts will get details on learning the pitch, minor league baseball fans will get a few zany stories, and spirituality is a recurring theme (but not to a point of overdoing it).

The Tacoma/Seattle element is pretty brief, as he spent only one season in our corner of the country – although he makes it clear that our weather is very good for knuckleballing. In the afterward, he reveals that he started writing the book while he was with the Rainiers – something I did not know at the time.

The centerpiece of the book is his story of trying to swim across the Missouri river, which runs right behind the old team hotel in Omaha. Dickey did tell this story to the team while on a bus trip when he was with the Rainiers; to say he had everyone’s attention would be an understatement.

It’s a good read, I recommend it.

There was no baseball news of any consequence to us over the weekend, but we do have a few stories of note:

On another personal note, my favorite non-baseball sport opened up this weekend. My team did well, and so did the Huskies. Even the Cougs won!


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