Impressions From Rainiers Camp

March 28, 2014

Back home in Tacoma after 3.5 days at Mariners/Rainiers spring training, I’ve had some time to let my first impressions of this year’s club sink in a bit.

I watched three (mostly) full games, and talked to a lot of coaches and a handful of players. Here’s what I came away with:

OFFENSE – This is going to be a good-hitting Rainiers team. The lineup looked impressive, even without players who are/were still in big league camp (specifically: Nick Franklin, Endy Chavez, and Humberto Quintero). I know he got bad press for arriving at spring training overweight, but Jesus Montero was stinging the ball in the games I watched – and he is under a lot of pressure to perform this year; I think he’ll rise to the occasion. I also think we will see improved performances from second-year Triple-A players like Nate Tenbrink and Rich Poythress. Adding PCL veteran Cole Gillespie is a boost to the lineup as well.

DEFENSE – The outfield – with some mixture of James Jones, Xavier Avery, and Endy Chavez to go with Gillespie – is going to cover a lot of ground.  There is nothing alarming about the infield defense, and catchers Jesus Sucre/Quintero/Brandon Bantz are all good on defense.

STARTING PITCHING – This is unexpectedly a big area of concern right now, due to the injuries (Walker, Iwakuma) and opting-out (Wolf, Baker) of several players during spring training. It appears that there will be pitchers who were not originally intended to open in the Triple-A rotation doing exactly that. Right now the only pitchers I expected to be in the Rainiers rotation who are (probably) in it are Matt Palmer and Andrew Carraway. We’re six days from the opener and I have no idea who the other three starters will be.

BULLPEN – Everyone I talked to said that the Tacoma bullpen will be a huge strength. The latest news regarding Bobby LaFromboise (below) could put a damper on that if he gets claimed, but it should still be a strong relief corps. Most of the Mariners final major league roster decisions involve the bullpen, but the Tacoma group should have some young guns.

Opening Night is Thursday. The team is supposed to arrive in Tacoma on Tuesday, so I expect we’ll have a roster for you on Tuesday afternoon, or Wednesday at the latest.

Links:

  • The Mariners named Erasmo Ramirez the No. 2 starter, Bob Dutton writes. This story also has the 2014 Mariners salary information in a sidebar.
  • On Thursday, the team signed veteran starter Chris Young to a major league contract. Young has been injured for years, but if he’s healthy he could be pretty good. That’s a very, very big “if.”
  • To make room for Young on the 40-man roster, reliever Bobby LaFromboise was designated for assignment. If he clears waivers he’ll report to Tacoma. I’m interested to see what happens here – we could certainly use him in Tacoma.
  • Nick Franklin talked about learning to play the outfield.
  • If Roenis Elias makes the major league rotation, it will be another case of the Mariners rushing a prospect to the big leagues too quickly, Jerry Brewer writes.
  • Exhibition round-up: there was no game on Thursday… on Wednesday a late home run wasted another solid start from Erasmo Ramirez.
  • Will Leitch has a behind-the-scenes look at MLB’s new replay review system.
  • Pat Jordan is one of my favorite writers, and he has a long-form feature on Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer. Great stuff.
  • In the PCL, on Wednesday afternoon the Texas Rangers may have set a modern record by announcing the Round Rock roster a full eight days before the start of the PCL season. That’s early!
  • Reno has added veteran outfielders Trent Oeltjen and Aaron Cunningham (a Port Orchard guy), and new manager Phil “Filthy” Nevin has guaranteed 60 degree weather on opening day.
  • The Arizona Diamondbacks assigned pitcher Archie Bradley to Reno. Bradley will be the No. 1 pitching prospect in the PCL – assuming Taijuan Walker joins the Mariners when he is healthy.
  • The big deal in Memphis is done: the St. Louis Cardinals bought the Triple-A team, and the City of Memphis took over AutoZone Park.
  • The new ballpark in Nashville is being built on an ancient burial ground. What could possibly go wrong?

On the flight home from Arizona yesterday, I finished a good book about sports broadcasting: Holy Toledo: Lessons From Bill King, Renaissance Man of the Mic by Ken Korach. Oakland A’s broadcaster Korach lovingly tells the life story of his late broadcast partner, who was considered the best radio announcer in Bay Area history. If you are into sports broadcasting, this is a great read full of tips and anecdotes. Any sports fan will love the “Mother’s Day” chapter. You can get the book here.


A Trip To Surprise

March 26, 2014

The Mariners Triple-A group traveled to Surprise to take on the Texas Rangers (Round Rock) on Wednesday morning, and they brought a couple of ringers.

Mariners Corey Hart and Mike Zunino led off each inning for Tacoma, as the two players are trying to get as many at-bats as possible prior to the Mariners opener on Monday.

Both players had extra-base hits early in the game. Zunino ripped a long triple to left-center in the first inning against Round Rock starter Ryan Rodebaugh, and Corey Hart laced a double to the gap in the third inning.

Tacoma scored two runs in the first inning, but the early lead did not hold up. Matt Palmer started on the mound for Tacoma, and he had a tough time putting scoreless innings on the board early. Palmer was trying to sink the ball and get grounders, but when he left the ball up it was hit hard.

Palmer was replaced by 24-year-old right-hander Jordan Pries, who I had to look up. Turns out he is a Stanford product who was a starter for Class-A High Desert last year. I’d be surprised to see him in Tacoma next Thursday, but maybe later this year or next.

The Rainiers defense looked like this:

  • C – Jesus Sucre
  • 1B – Jesus Montero (replaced by Rich Poythress in 6th)
  • 2B – Ty Kelly
  • SS – Gabriel Noriega
  • 3B – Stephen Proscia
  • LF – Xavier Avery (I saw him bat at least; I think he was in LF)
  • CF – Travis Witherspoon
  • RF – James Jones

Several players we expect to see with the Rainiers did not play today. Endy Chavez and Humberto Quintero are coming to Tacoma, but I didn’t see them. Nate Tenbrink wasn’t in there today, and Carlos Triunfel hasn’t been playing this week because he got hit in the wrist (not considered serious).

Sucre had a nice game defensively, hustling to back up an errant throw and gunning down a runner trying to steal.

On the Texas side of the field, former Washington Huskies star Brent Lillibridge doubled off Palmer.

Also of note, top Rangers prospect Joey Gallo hit a bloop single, struck out on a bad ball, lined out to second, and botched a grounder at third – we saw pretty much everything I’ve read about this guy, except for a tape-measure home run.

From Lone Star Ball:

The 2013 season saw Gallo spend the year at low-A Hickory as a 19 year old. In the Sally League, Gallo had one of the more insane statistical lines you’ll ever see, at any level. Gallo had a .245/.334/.610 slash line, with 165 Ks and 48 walks in 446 plate appearances. Gallo put up only 34 singles, along with 19 doubles, 5 triples and 38 homers. It was truly a bizarre season, one of the more extreme Three True Outcome campaigns you’ll come across.

No typos in there: he hit more homers than singles last year. So I suppose I saw a rarity today: a Joey Gallo single!

Links:

  • Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports gives his perspective on the Mariners situation with Randy Wolf.
  • Two of the Mariners stars from 2001 are in the final days of their careers, John McGrath writes.
  • In Tuesday night’s exhibition game against Kansas City, Nick Franklin played two innings in right field (no balls were hit his way). If that is going to become a regular thing, we’ll see it first hand in Tacoma while he learns the position.
  • Former Rainiers pitcher Michael Pineda earned a spot in the New York Yankees starting rotation.
  • The Kansas City Royals are trying to sneak Carlos Peguero through waivers, and they shipped Adam Moore to the San Diego Padres for cash considerations.

This ends my spring training trip. I fly home on Thursday and have one week for final preparations before the PCL season starts on April 3. The players down here are ready to get started, although there is a little anxiety as the Triple-A roster crunch is about to happen. We should have a Tacoma roster by Tuesday, I would think.


Gearing Up For Arizona

March 19, 2014

Today’s post is mostly a bunch of links, but things are going to be getting a lot more interesting around here very soon.

Early on Monday morning (so early that some of us would consider it Sunday night), I’ll be flying down to Arizona to catch three full days of Rainiers spring training. You can expect multiple blog posts detailing my observations from Mariners minor league camp. I may even sneak over to a big league game at some point.

Speaking of major league spring training, the Mariners made one roster move yesterday, reassigning outfielder Cole Gillespie to minor league camp. That leaves 39 players in big league camp.

We’ve had Gillespie inked into the Tacoma lineup since he signed as a minor league free agent in January – but he had a really good spring and made it this long in major league camp. He’s got a chance to get called up during the season if things break his way.

Links:

  • Yesterday’s News Tribune has an article on where things stand in Mariners camp: who is on the team, and what are the final questions.
  • Good news from Peoria: Hisashi Iwakuma has been cleared to resume throwing.
  • The Bob Dutton Q&A’s on his blog are pretty enlightening – here’s one from Tuesday that answers a lot of good questions.
  • Bob Condotta wrote a feature on new Mariners first base coach Andy Van Slyke.
  • Nick Franklin got the Fangraphs treatment (warning: stats!).
  • Ryan Divish wrote a blog post discussing the Franklin situation. He does a good job of explaining why moving him to the outfield is a bad idea right now.
  • Exhibition games: the Mariners and Padres played to a 5-5 tie yesterday, with Willie Bloomquist helping out with a big hustle play… the team had a rare spring training off-day on Monday.
  • If you are a Baseball Prospectus subscriber, don’t miss Sam Miller’s look back at Kerry Wood‘s 20-strikeout game.
  • Mike Jirschele managed Omaha in the PCL for the last 11 years – a good chunk of his 36-year career in baseball, all of which has occurred in the minor leagues. Until now – he’s a coach for the Kansas City Royals, and ESPN The Magazine has a feature on him (this link might require “Insider” status).
  • Bo Jackson tells Russell Wilson to stick to football.
  • Filling out your basketball bracket based on each school’s top baseball player will lead to an obvious yet controversial winner. It’s fun to look at this bracket, in which a couple of play-in teams make deep runs.
  • The cross-over between spring training and March Madness causes a lot of dual-sport broadcasters to be travelling excessively during this time. Ted Leitner of San Diego State-slash-Padres had his suitcase next to him on press row – and it drew unwanted attention during crunch time.

Rainiers Opening Day is two weeks from tomorrow. Can you believe it?


Welcome New Rainiers Manager Roy Howell

March 12, 2014

The Seattle Mariners decided on Roy Howell to manage the Tacoma Rainiers this season.

In case you are just tuning in, original manager Rich Donnelly was promoted to major league third base coach after John Stearns had to step down due to hernia surgery.

Howell was brought into the organization as a hitting coach, spending the last two seasons with Advanced-A High Desert. He was supposed to do the same job at Double-A Jackson this year, but he ended up getting a rather nice promotion in the shuffle.

Howell played in the major leagues from 1974 to 1984, with the Toronto Blue Jays, Milwaukee Brewers, and Texas Rangers. He played on the 1982 Brewers World Series team along with former Rainiers pitching coaches Jim Slaton and Dwight Bernard. He was an all-star in 1978, and to this day he holds the Blue Jays record for most RBI in one game (nine, September 10, 1977 at the Yankees).

Howell has limited managing experience – three years for short-season Eugene, although he did manage in the independent Atlantic League in 2011 and that league has a few Triple-A calibre players in it. He also has PCL experience from his days as the Portland Beavers hitting coach from 2000 to 2002.

Howell played in the PCL at the end of his career, in 1985 with the Portland Beavers.

I’ll get a chance to talk to Howell when I go to spring training later this month. Furthermore, I assume we’ll have some newspaper stories to link to on Howell for Friday’s blog update.

The Mariners made their second round of spring training moves yesterday, and quite a few players were optioned to Tacoma.

Optioned to AAA TACOMA (5):

Left-handed Pitcher (1):    Bobby LaFromboise

Right-handed Pitcher (1):  Logan Bawcom

Catcher (1):                      Jesus Sucre

Infielder (2):                      Ji-Man Choi, Carlos Triunfel

Re-Assigned to Minor League Camp (6):

Right-handed Pitcher (2):  Logan Kensing, Matt Palmer

Left-handed Pitcher (1):    Nick Hill

Catcher (1):                      Mike Dowd

Infielder (2):                      Ty Kelly, Nate Tenbrink

A couple of things strike me here: first off, Bawcom and LaFromboise did not get very long looks to make the Mariners bullpen. Perhaps their relief crew is a bit stronger than expected.

The other interesting thing is the wording that Ji-Man Choi was optioned to Tacoma. When I covered the Tacoma first basemen a few weeks ago, I wrote that he could end up starting the season in Double-A because Tacoma is expected to have Jesus Montero and Rich Poythress as the 1B/DH. That could still happen – the “to Tacoma” part of “optioned to Tacoma” is not binding – but for now it looks like Choi will be on his way to Cheney Stadium on April 3.

All of the players “assigned to minor league camp” have a Triple-A profile except for catcher Mike Dowd. He’ll probably go to Jackson.

Links:

That’s it for me today – I’m off to the MGM Arena for the late games on the opening day of the Pac-12 Tournament. Related: I bet I’m the only person in a Las Vegas hotel room who spent his morning googling Roy Howell.

We’ll be back with a full blog post on Friday, and remember that the Rainiers open house is Saturday so plan accordingly!


Rainiers Should Have A Loaded Bullpen

March 10, 2014

Finally a slow news day, so we can get to our last Rainiers position preview: the bullpen.

Folks in the Mariners front office are excited about the power relief arms that the organization has accrued, and we should get a first-hand look at these guys in Tacoma.

Returnees

Jonathan Arias: the big Dominican joined the Rainiers at the end of April last year and posted a 5.58 ERA in 32 Triple-A games. His stuff is better than his numbers; if he improves his command he could be a valuable part of Tacoma’s 2014 bullpen.

Logan Bawcom: the Rainiers closer last year saved 21 PCL games, was named Tacoma Pitcher of the Year, and was added to the Mariners 40-man roster in the fall. If he doesn’t make the big league club he’ll find himself back in the Rainiers bullpen.

Nick Hill: the lefty overcame injuries to have a strong season with Jackson last year, earning a late-August promotion to Tacoma. He’s ready for a full season in Triple-A and I think he’ll do well here.

Bobby LaFromboise: the 2012 Rainiers Pitcher of the Year wasn’t quite as effective in 2013, but he still had a good year (3.39 ERA in the PCL) highlighted by his first MLB call-up. He could crack the Mariners roster or be sent to Tacoma, where we’ll be happy to have him.

Chance Ruffin: Listed among the rotation candidates as well; I’m still not certain if he’s going to be a starter or reliever this season. He pitched well out of the Tacoma bullpen late last year and earned a September call-up as a reliever.

Forrest Snow: he must serve an MLB-mandated 50-game suspension first, but we’ll probably see the affable Washington Huskies alum in the Rainiers bullpen at some point this summer.

Up-And-Comers

Kyle Hunter: a left-hander who posted a 1.40 ERA at Double-A Jackson last year, Hunter was selected to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and now might be ready for a promotion to Tacoma. The report is that he achieves success through tremendous command of his pitches.

Stephen Kohlscheen: a former 45th-round draft pick who exploded onto the scene at Double-A Jackson last year, Kohlscheen is a 6-foot-6 right-hander from Nebraska. He went 7-3, 2.41 at Jackson with 85 strikeouts in 66 innings, earning an invitation to big league camp this spring.

Dominic Leone: Listed at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Leone is known for his power fastball. He climbed three rungs of the minor league ladder last season and could start the year with the Rainiers. However, he doesn’t have much Double-A experience (18 innings) and the M’s may decide to have him open the season with Jackson.

Carson Smith: A 24-year-old righty, Smith spent the entire 2013 season at Jackson and posted a 1.80 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 50 innings. He’s ready to move up – I think Shane the Clubbie already has a locker prepared for him at Cheney Stadium.

Veteran Additions

Joe Beimel: A 36-year-old lefty who came back from elbow surgery last year, Beimel has a chance to crack the Mariners bullpen. If he doesn’t make it, he might agree to come to Tacoma – he pitched in 30 Triple-A games for Gwinett in the International League last year.

Logan Kensing: the Colorado Springs closer from last year was brought in on a minor league deal. He had 15 saves and a 3.05 ERA for the Sky Sox last year, and also appeared in one MLB game for the Rockies.

Zach Miner: Miner is a 32-year-old right-hander who has spent all or parts of five seasons in the majors, including last year with the Phillies. He’s currently pitching well in the Cactus League and is a Mariners bullpen candidate, but he’s on a minor league contract (for now).

Ramon Ramirez: another MLB veteran, Ramirez was brought to camp on a minor league contract with the hope that he would earn a spot in the Mariners bullpen. He pitched in the PCL part of last season with Fresno and could theoretically do it again with the Rainiers this season.

That’s 13 bullpen candidates (not including Snow), with probably eight making the Rainiers opening day roster. Some will end up in Seattle, others in Jackson.

I should note that there are a few Mariners relievers who are seen as big-leaguers, but have minor league options remaining: Lucas Luetge, Yoervis Medina and Tom Wilhelmsen each spent time in Tacoma last season.

Links:

  • James Paxton is honing in on a spot in the Mariners starting rotation.
  • John McGrath is the best. In this column, he appreciates the minimalism of “Who’s Who In Baseball.”
  • While it seems apparent that the Mariners front office is no longer emphasizes outfield defense, Lloyd McClendon thinks it will be improved this year. Seattle Times columnist Jerry Brewer disagrees.
  • Brewer caught up with our old buddy Willie Bloomquist, and he also wrote a story about Kyle Seager.
  • If you can get past the massive mug shot of Ryan Divish, this is a solid story on the work Brad Miller is doing to improve his shortstop defense.
  • Even ESPN’s Jim Caple is writing about Abraham Almonte.
  • Exhibition round-up: Felix Hernandez started on Sunday, although he was long gone by the time a bunch of Rainiers players mounted a big comeback victory over the Rangers… the Mariners laid waste to the NL West in a pair of Saturday split-squad games: Dustin Ackley led the parade with three hits in an 18-3 waxing of San Francisco, and Jesus Montero homered twice in an 8-5 win over the Dodgers… and on Friday, Jesus Montero hit a couple of doubles in a 10-9 loss to the Reds.
  • The 2014 season marks Tacoma’s 20th year as a Mariners affiliate. That’s a long stretch for a minor league baseball team, but it is not the longest.
  • Old pal Corey Brock has the story on former Rainiers catcher Rob Johnson and his attempt to convert to pitcher.
  • Josh Kinney spent last year in Tacoma’s bullpen, and now he’s trying to crack the Pirates roster.
  • Ex-Rainiers slugger Mike Carp hit one out for the Red Sox yesterday.
  • Check out this video of a player’s locker. Seriously, check it out.

Looking For A Leader

March 7, 2014

A Recent History of Tacoma Managers

2010: Daren Brown manages the first-place Rainiers until August 7, when he is named Mariners interim manager after Don Wakamatsu is fired. Hitting coach Jose Castro manages the Rainiers for the remainder of the season, and into the playoffs.

2011: Daren Brown manages the Rainiers all season.

2012: Daren Brown returns and manages the Rainiers all season.

2013: Daren Brown manages the Rainiers for one month, then is promoted to Seattle to be the third base coach. John Stearns takes over the Rainiers and finishes the season.

2014: Rich Donnelly is brought in from outside the organization to manage in Tacoma. The longtime MLB third coach gets promoted to Seattle on March 7, after M’s third base coach John Stearns steps down due to health-related issues.

Here we go again. The Rainiers don’t have a manager, and opening day (April 3) is fast approaching.

Stearns had surgery for a hiatal hernia. He’s going to be out of action well into April, it seems. He stepped down today, saying (according to a Mariners press release) “It is not fair to the organization, to Lloyd (McClendon) or to the players for me to expect to jump back in after not being able to participate in the bulk of spring training. Instead, I have asked Jack (Zduriencik) to re-assign me within the organization, and he has agreed to do so.”

Stearns will work as a pro scout this season – something he has done before. This means we might see him at Cheney Stadium at some point this season, which would be fun.

So now we once again need a manager in Tacoma.

Who are the in-house candidates for the Rainiers manager job?

Brown is still around and we would love to have him back, but his status in the organization is a bit cloudy after Jack Z broke up Eric Wedge‘s staff last Fall.

Jim Pankovits managed Double-A Jackson for three years, and now he is the roving minor league infield instructor. The story I heard (second- or third-hand) is that Pankovits wanted and requested the roving job – so switching back to a manager role might not be what he had in mind. That being said, he has the experience to do the job.

Jack Howell oversees all of the Mariners minor league managers and coaches. He might just say, “what the heck, I’ll do it.” He’s done some managing in the low minors.

Scott Steinmann served as Rainiers bench coach last year after Stearns came in. He’s currently slotted to be with short-season Everett as hitting coach (Steinmann enjoys working with the younger players). His experience last year might cause him to be reassigned to manage Tacoma.

Former Rainiers catcher Jim Horner managed in High Desert last year, got promoted and is currently set for his first season of managing at Double-A Jackson. They could bump him up to Triple-A – but this would cause an organization-wide chain reaction that might be more trouble than it’s worth.

Roy Howell (no relation to Jack Howell) is the new Double-A hitting coach. He has managed in the lower minors in the Padres system, and he has three years of PCL experience as the hitting coach for Portland from 2000 to 2002. He managed in the Atlantic League two years ago. I have no idea if he’s interested in managing again.

These seem like the most likely candidates to me. It’s probably too late to go outside of the organization. Baseball people commit to a job once spring training starts; the off-season is when managers/coaches shuffle between organizations.

However, the independent leagues could be raided. Maybe it’s time for a blast from the past… Dan Rohn was just named manager of the Traverse City Beach Bums, who are an independent team in his home town. Has enough time passed to bring back Rohnie?

Thank goodness they made the move before the season starts. Whoever the new Tacoma manager is – sources from Arizona say we should find out within a few days – at least he will have the last few weeks of spring training to work with the team.

Here’s an idea that we should actually employ: let the fans manage.

Believe it or not, this has been done before. In the Major Leagues.

Maverick owner Bill Veeck once had a “Grandstand Manager Night” when he owned the St. Louis Browns. He gave fans sitting around the dugout signs to voice their opinion, and let them vote on key decisions. Meanwhile, actual Browns manager Zach Taylor sat in a rocking chair next to the dugout, smoking a pipe.

This really happened in 1951. And the Browns won, too. Fans all-time managerial record, in Major League Baseball history: 1-0.

We can do this.

We can do this.

Should the Rainiers managers be in the bleachers, or down in the Dugout Club?

I can just picture the new Dugout Club sales brochure: “The Dugout Club puts you closer to the action than ever before. You are intensely involved in the on-field action – in fact, each Dugout Club ticket now includes the right to vote on the starting lineup and key strategic decisions during the game. The Dugout Club puts you in the manager’s chair. Each Dugout Club ticket includes unlimited hot dogs, soda, beer, wine, and peanuts.”

The pressure is on you - the fans.

Fans: the pressure is on you.

Here’s more on The Day The Fans Managed. It’s an amazing story – give it a read.

Let the fans manage the Rainiers in 2014!

Needless to say, our final positional preview (the Tacoma bullpen candidates) has once again been postponed. Monday! I really, really, really mean it this time! Unless, um, they name the Tacoma manager that day.

Links:

  • Ryan Divish has a story on the Rainiers manager situation.
  • Those of you who watched a lot of Rainiers games last year are just like me: not surprised at all that it looks like Abraham Almonte will make the Mariners. I’d wager he ends up starting a lot of games, too.
  • The Mariners don’t need Kendrys Morales, John McGrath writes.
  • Lookout Landing has a thorough look at James Jones, who is likely to take Almonte’s spot in the Tacoma outfield.
  • James Paxton is a survivor, Jerry Brewer writes.
  • Meanwhile, after a week of rest Taijuan Walker played catch yesterday. So far, so good.
  • Bob Dutton ran through the Mariners bullpen options.
  • Dutton also talked to new closer Fernando Rodney about his crooked cap.
  • Baseball America’s Matt Eddy reminds us that three potential Rainiers in spring training camp have special contract provisions.
  • If you’re an ESPN Insider, here is Buster Olney’s take on Ken Griffey Jr.
  • Dr. Frank Jobe changed baseball forever. He passed away at age 88 – here is his New York Times obituary.
  • Exhibition round-up: Rodney made his Mariners debut, and Brad Miller turned in a web gem during Thursday’s 7-4 win over the White Sox… defensive problems cost the Mariners in an 8-5 loss to Cleveland on Wednesday. Almonte hit a leadoff homer.
  • We’ve got some PCL news today. The Omaha Storm Chasers will host the 2015 Triple-A All-Star Game. I know many of you want it in Tacoma (and so do I) – the Rainiers did not bid for the 2015 game, due to the Chambers Bay US Open happening at roughly the same time. Patience…
  • The Salt Lake Bees have a new name for their stadium: Smith’s Ballpark. Smith’s is a large grocery chain in Salt Lake City. So long, Spring Mobile Ballpark. This is the third name for the ballpark in my time in the PCL – whatever the name is, it’s one of the finest facilities in the league.
  • Former Tucson General Manager Mike Feder was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks in a promotional capacity.

Weekend reading idea: baseball strategy books. We might need YOU.


Mariners Make First Roster Moves Of Spring

March 5, 2014

It’s Wednesday, and this is the day we are supposed to do our final positional preview (the Tacoma bullpen candidates), but I’m postponing it until Friday. I have another project I need to complete today, and we also have some news we must attend to.

The Mariners made their first round of spring training cuts this morning. This coincides with the opening of minor league camp, which I believe was today (that’s always a little bit nebulous, because so many minor leaguers report days and even weeks early).

First, let’s clarify the wording on the roster moves: when a player is on the Mariners 40-man roster, he gets “optioned to (a minor league team).” That doesn’t mean the player is going to start the season with the specified team – he can be reassigned to any minor league level later in the spring – although it does give us a hint as to what the organization is thinking at this time. Players who are not on the 40-man roster are “re-assigned to minor league camp,” and these guys will be assigned to specific minor league teams at the end of the month.

The moves:

Optioned to AAA TACOMA (1):

Left-handed Pitcher (1):    Danny Hultzen

Optioned to AA JACKSON (2):

Left-handed Pitcher (1):    Anthony Fernandez

Outfielder (1):                   Julio Morban

Re-Assigned to Minor League Camp (10):

Right-handed Pitcher (5):  Jonathan Arias, Andrew Carraway, Stephen Kohlscheen, Mark Rogers, Chance Ruffin

Left-handed Pitcher (1):    James Gillheeney

Catcher (2):                      John Hicks, Manuel Piña

Infielder (1):                      Gabriel Noriega

Outfielder (1):                   Burt Reynolds

Hultzen, of course, will be placed on the Tacoma disabled list for the season. It appears that we should pencil Fernandez and Morban onto the Double-A roster for now, although both could see time in Tacoma this season – or even make the Rainiers opening day roster.

All six pitchers reassigned to minor league camp are strong candidates to open with Tacoma. Rainiers fans have seen a lot of Arias, Carraway, and Ruffin the past two years.

We discussed the catchers five weeks ago, and the picture is a little bit clearer now. Manny Pina strained an oblique yesterday and is going to be out for several weeks, severely impacting his chance of opening the season with Tacoma.

Noriega remains a candidate to make the Rainiers infield, and I have no idea what’s in store for Burt “Cano’s Cousin” Reynolds.

Links:

  • Bob Dutton talked to some veterans about the land of opportunity that currently is the Mariners starting rotation.
  • Blake Beavan had a solid outing Monday, reminding people that he is still in the big league picture.
  • Bob Dutton of The News Tribune did another of his insightful Q&A’s.
  • Exhibition round-up: Felix Hernandez tossed two scoreless innings in a win over the Dodgers yesterday, but he wasn’t happy with the way he threw… the M’s had a split squad on Monday, winning both games. Potential Rainiers shortstop Chris Taylor launched a grand slam to beat the Reds, and Dustin Ackley continued his torrid Cactus League start in a win over the Rockies.
  • The Times sent Jerry Brewer to Texas Rangers camp to check in on Russell Wilson. They also have a photo gallery. Someone asked ESPN prospect guru Keith Law on Twitter how he graded Wilson as a baseball player. Law said “non-prospect.” (Sorry – I have tried and tried, but have not figured out how to link to an individual tweet on the web).
  • Brewer wrote a more Mariners-related column which basically says that Cano is correct.
  • Wanna get an early taste of what the 2014 MLB season has in store for us? Baseball America’s team of editors answered some of the key questions going into the season.
  • Torii Hunter kissed an alligator. Now remove that muzzle and do it again, Torii. I double-dog dare you.

Coming Friday, we look at the Tacoma bullpen candidates. Really, on Friday – I mean it!


Cold Calling Harry Caray

March 3, 2014

We have lots of links surrounding the Mariners and Rainiers down below, as the spring training media machine keeps churning. I don’t have anything to add to those links today, so instead I’ll tell a story about Harry Caray, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Saturday.

I was a huge fan of Caray when he was Cubs TV announcer at the end of his career. His daily national telecasts on WGN were a soundtrack to my college years. I think most baseball fans from the 80s and 90s enjoyed the old-man-who-doesn’t-care candor he brought to the booth.

I had the privilege of meeting Harry in 1998. I think that the story of how this happened is kind of entertaining, so here goes.

I was working for the Class-A team in Rancho Cucamonga, California in 1998. We met Harry because of the actions of a sales guy we had named Mike Junga, who was a big Caray fan.

Junga had one of the crucial jobs for any minor league baseball team: sales. His job was to sit in a cubicle and make phone calls to strangers all day long, trying to sell season tickets, group tickets, and luxury suite rentals. That was his job: show up for work, make a hundred cold calls, try to sell a few tickets, go home. Not the most exciting gig in baseball, but Junga had a creative mind and he would do things to spice up the day.

The ticket office had stacks of phone books for areas all around Rancho Cucamonga. Knowing that Caray had a winter home in nearby Palm Springs, Junga grabbed the appropriate phone book, looked under the C’s, and there it was: Caray – no first initial, no address, but a phone number.

To entertain himself between cold calls, Junga decided to call the Caray number. He called once in the morning, and again in the afternoon. The phone rang and rang, but nobody picked up. There was no answering machine.

Junga did this every day for a while before telling a few of us about it. Once a group of about four of us team employees were at lunch (probably at Nancy’s Cafe; seems like we always went there), and Junga told us what he was doing. Someone brought up an important question: what was he going to do if Harry ever answered the phone?

We kicked it around and eventually decided that if anyone ever answered the phone at the Caray house, Junga would identify himself as a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes employee, and see if Harry would be willing to sign a few baseballs for our annual charity auction.

Then we all forgot about it – except for Junga.

He kept calling and calling the Caray number, and it would always ring with no answer. He knew Harry lived in Chicago and the Palm Springs house was a winter getaway. The winter was winding down.

The calls became routine for Mike. He didn’t even get excited about it anymore, but he kept trying. One day in January it happened.

Junga had dialed this number a hundred times during the off-season, so when someone actually picked up the phone, it was a total shock.

Harry: “Hello?”

There was no question it was Harry Caray. That voice was instantly recognizable.

Stunned Mike Junga: “Harry! It’sMikeJungawiththeRanchoCucamonga-QuakesandI’mcallingtoseeif”

Harry: “SLOW DOWN!”

Mike calmed down and had a pleasant conversation with Harry. Harry agreed to meet us and sign a few baseballs for our charity auction – but only if we met him at his place. It was about 45 minutes away.

The conversation ended with Harry Caray giving my friend directions to his house. At the end of the lefts and rights, Harry says “It’s the house with a cow on the mailbox.”

Two days later, Mike, myself, and our VP of Finance Jay Middleton (a huge baseball fan who was not missing this) drove out to Harry Caray’s winter home. Sure enough, the mailbox was painted to look like a cow.

We knocked on the door at the appointed time, and were let in by Harry’s wife Dutchie. She took us out back by the pool, where Harry was sitting in the shade, with about five newspapers stacked up next to him.*

Harry was very friendly. He asked a few questions about our team, which was a Padres affiliate at the time. He signed our baseballs. I asked him a question or two about how he got started in baseball. Then I went for the home run.

I was hoping Harry would record a “liner” for me – just him saying, “This is Harry Caray, and you are listening to Rancho Cucamonga Quakes baseball with Mike Curto.” How awesome would that be?

Harry politely declined. He said that other than the Cubs, he had an exclusive with Budweiser for any promotional voiceovers. “I’ve been with Budweiser for many years and I’m not doing anything that might mess that up.”

We each had our picture taken with Harry, said our thank-yous, and left. We spent the 45-minute drive home basking in how awesome it was to have just visited with Harry Caray.

Three weeks later, Harry passed away. He suffered a heart attack while having Valentines Day dinner with his wife. He was 83.

Harry is on the right.

Happy 100th, Harry.

Links:

  • The Mariners starting rotation is in disarray, as it is becoming more evident that neither Hisashi Iwakuma nor Taijuan Walker will be ready for opening day.
  • The door is open for Randy Wolf to walk into the Mariners starting rotation. All he needs to do is perform.
  • Apparently Ryan Divish was feeling extra-inspired while writing this excellent story on Danny Hultzen‘s spring training.
  • Good stuff from Shannon Drayer on James Paxton, who improved his delivery by watching video of Clayton Kershaw.
  • New TNT Mariners writer Bob Dutton took some fan questions from Twitter and gave longer, more elaborate answers on his blog on Friday. There is some solid insight from spring training camp here.
  • Dutton has a story on the battle between Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, with the title “Winner to Seattle, Loser to Tacoma.”
  • Jon Heyman of CBS Sports talked to Robinson Cano about improving the Mariners. Cano has some specific ideas – all of which involve raising the payroll from last year. It is unclear if the M’s are willing to do this.
  • Cano’s comments spurred Art Thiel to write a column on the issue.
  • Some exhibition game notes: yesterday, potential Rainiers infielder Gabriel Noriega – known for his smooth glove – had a rough inning defensively in a loss to Cleveland… Saturday, new dudes Cano and Logan Morrison had multiple hits in a win over the Angels… and on Friday, likely 2014 Rainiers James Jones and Nate Tenbrink homered in a 12-1 wipeout of San Diego.
  • Here’s another good story: Tim Booth previews Russell Wilson‘s appearance at Ranger spring training, which started today. He talks to Mariners minor leaguers who played with and against Wilson in college.
  • Catch up with Ichiro right here. He doesn’t really have a role with the Yankees this year, but he plans to play “many more seasons.”
  • John McGrath dropped by Cheney Stadium this weekend and talked to UW pitcher and draft prospect Jeff Brigham.
  • We’ll close with a fun one: Jeff Sullivan looked at all three bunt doubles that were hit in the majors last year. One of them came on a very smart play by Cano. The third one is simply hilarious.

Check back Wednesday for our final positional preview. We’ll take a look at the Raniers bullpen candidates.

* Pre-internet, that’s how baseball announcers did their research: by acquiring as many different sports pages as possible.


Rainiers Rotation Roulette

February 26, 2014

Trying to predict the Rainiers starting rotation right now is a fool’s errand.

Even thought that guy in the picture over there on the right looks like a fool, he’s not. I will not be predicting the Rainiers rotation, and here is why:

The Mariners only have two of their rotation spots locked up, and one of them is injured and won’t be ready until mid-to-late April.

Mariners rotation:

 

  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. Hasashi Iwakuma (out until mid-to-late April)
  3. Taijuan Walker (in pencil)
  4. TBD
  5. TBD

 

I’m penciling in Walker because of comments that Lloyd McClendon made before spring training, basically saying that he would be very disappointed if Walker didn’t make the rotation. So let’s stick him in there, but with the caveat that he has to perform well in the Cactus League to turn that writing from pencil to ink.

Then we have a host of people fighting to make the other three spots (including Iwakuma’s – that spot is available at the start of the season).

Jack Zduriencik has been extremely aggressive bringing lots of cheap arms into spring training, to get a look at a number of guys for these rotation spots.

The list of candidates to fill out the Mariners rotation, and to pitch in Tacoma, is long. Let’s hit it, in alphabetical order:

Scott Baker: a once-successful starter for the Minnesota Twins, Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched much the last two years. The Mariners signed him to a low-risk, incentive-laced minor league contract. I get the feeling that the Mariners want Baker to earn one of the big league rotation spots, but if not he could end up with Tacoma.

Blake Beavan: had a nice run in the Mariners rotation in the second half of the 2012 season, but followed it up with a disappointing 2013 season. Blake’s mechanics looked very different while he was in Tacoma in 2013 – he looked like he was pushing the ball towards the plate. Not sure what we’ll see from Beavan this year.

Andrew Carraway: a non-roster invitee to spring training, Carraway could end up in the Rainiers rotation for a third season this year. He was really good at the start of last year for Tacoma, then he pulled one of those upper-back-near-the-shoulder muscles and wasn’t the same after. The Mariners would love to see a return of the early-season Carraway from last year.

Roenis Elias: remember this name; he’s gonna be a Rainier at some point. The left-hander from Cuba had a real strong season at Jackson last year and was invited to big league camp. I’ve heard scouts say that if starting doesn’t work out, Elias profiles as a possible major league left-on-left relief specialist. Either way, he’ll make his way to Triple-A… but when?

Anthony Fernandez: a 23-year-old lefty, Fernandez is on the Mariners 40-man roster. He made 22 starts for Jackson last year, going 9-8, 4.43. Has not yet appeared in a Triple-A game – Fernandez isn’t really a candidate to make the Mariners rotation out of spring training, but a good impression could land him in Tacoma.

Jimmy Gilheeney: left-hander made 20 starts in Jackson and five for Tacoma last year, and earned an invitation to big league camp. He’ll need to have a strong spring training to crack the Tacoma rotation, but it could happen.

Brandon Maurer: jumped from Double-A to the big leagues last spring; can he win a rotation spot again? Well, he’s done it before. I suppose Brandon is also a candidate for Mariners long relief since he did that for a while last year, but it doesn’t make sense to me for him to be in the bullpen at age 23.

Zach Miner: starter, reliever, Triple-A, or MLB – Miner has done it all recently. He returned to the big leagues with the Phillies last year in a relief role – his first MLB work since 2009 with Detroit. Miner is one of those types of pitchers that GMs love to stash away in Triple-A for depth purposes. And Triple-A managers love guys like this, because they can both start and relieve, and they usually have a professional attitude about the role.

Hector Noesi: for Noesi to play for the Rainiers this year, he’ll have to clear waivers because he is out of minor league options. It’s not a forgone conclusion that he would clear: Noesi has a live arm and classic pitcher’s body; some team might take a chance on him. Noesi can start or relieve.

Matt Palmer: a true PCL veteran, Palmer has also pitched parts of five seasons in the majors. The 35-year-old has plenty of experience as both a starter and a reliever. He profiles to take the Brian Sweeney swing-man spot in Triple-A, and he has enough big league experience to serve as a valuable insurance policy if the Mariners need bullpen help or a spot-starter.

James Paxton: man, those four starts in September for the Mariners after his call-up were terrific, weren’t they? I like Paxton’s chances to stick in the Seattle rotation come opening day. However, if he gets optioned to Tacoma, we’ll take him!

Erasmo Ramirez: another homegrown player with a real shot at making the rotation, Erasmo’s numbers were down during an injury-plagued 2013 season. Ramirez is a good “sleeper” to earn one of the Mariners rotation spots. Just like Paxton, if Erasmo ends up in Tacoma, we’ll happily take him.

Mark Rogers: a minor league free agent brought in from the Brewers, Rogers was always considered a top prospect until shoulder injuries waylaid him. He’s reached the majors and started a few big league games before. This is going to be strictly a health call: if he looks good and strong, health-wise, the Mariners will find room for him in the organization.

Chance Ruffin: I have no idea if Chance is a starter or reliever right now – I’ll figure this out later in the spring. He made 16 starts in Double-A last year, then two for Tacoma, then moved to the bullpen, and even got himself called up in September as a reliever. I think he’s a reliever now, but that’s what I thought last spring and he ended up starting.

Anthony Vasquez: a former Rainiers and Mariners starter, Vasquez returned from a really scary situation – brain surgery – to make a dozen starts in Double-A last year. It’s hard to envision Vasquez as a reliever – I think he’ll be starting somewhere; quite possibly for Tacoma.

Randy Wolf: a 37-year-old lefty, coming off Tommy John surgery, who has started 368 major league games (about 12 years worth). If he’s 100% healthy, he’ll have a real good shot at making the Mariners rotation. He is in camp on a minor league deal, so we must consider the possibility he could be with the Rainiers. But a veteran of his status certainly has a contract opt-out if he doesn’t make the big league club, so nobody is stitching his name on the back of a Rainiers jersey yet.

That’s a long list, eh? Sixteen players, for eight open spots.

Three of the above players are going to make the Mariners rotation. Five are going to make the Tacoma rotation. The rest? Some might slide to the bullpen, either in Tacoma or Seattle. Others might get their walking papers. One or two might get sent to Double-A to start the season.

Prediction? You want a prediction? I’ll make one prediction: if I had to pick a single name off the above list to open the 2014 season in the Tacoma Rainiers starting rotation, I would select Brandon Maurer. But I wouldn’t ink him in – I’m using erasable pencil, in case he makes the big club.


Stearns Down – Not Out

February 25, 2014

This morning we received some rather unexpected injury information from the Seattle Mariners: third base coach John Stearns is out, having had surgery for a hiatal hernia.

Stearns, of course, was the Rainiers manager last season after Daren Brown was promoted to Mariners third base coach. After the season, the entire major league staff was either fired or reassigned, and Stearns was promoted to Seattle to coach third.

The Mariners release says that Stearns is not going to be doing any baseball-related activities for 4-6 weeks. Hopefully this process isn’t too painful for Stearns, and we wish him a speedy recovery.

In the meantime, the Mariners need a third base coach for spring training games and, in all likelihood, the start of the regular season. Here’s where things get interesting.

New Rainiers manager Rich Donnelly has been a major league third base coach for decades. He has more experience at that post than anyone in the Mariners organization. What if he is asked to fill in for Stearns?

On top of that, Brown is still in the organization as a roving instructor. He has experience at both spots: MLB third base coach, and Triple-A manager. He could be summoned for one of these two jobs, if Stearns is out for more than a month.

Stay tuned…

Links:

  • Here are the details on John Stearns and his health.
  • Manager Lloyd McClendon is trying to change the tone. < this is a good feature story.
  • Here is Bob Dutton’s notebook from spring training camp. In the intersquad game today, Stefen Romero hit the first home run of Mariners spring training.
  • Larry Stone has a column on new Mariner Logan Morrison.
  • Rumors! You can always count on the New York media to churn out some rumors. Like, for example, Nick Franklin getting traded to the Mets.
  • After a controversial shakeup, former Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer has joined the Philadelphia Phillies TV team.
  • This “Face of MLB” thing on Twitter is kind of funny. Even funnier is that a player who has no clear MLB job and might open the season in the PCL could win the thing. “Now batting for Sacramento, the face of Major League Baseball, Eric Sogard!”

We’ll look at potential Tacoma starting pitchers tomorrow.


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