Breakfast With Felix

March 31, 2010

There was a treat for the 20-or-so spectators this morning at the Mariners minor league camp: ace starter Felix Hernandez, pitching for the Mariners Double-A team against the Rainiers Triple-A group.

The Mariners had Felix pitch in the intersquad game rather than against the Texas Rangers in a Cactus League game.

And let’s just say that Felix may have been a bit surprised to see what happened when he fell behind in the count, 3-1, to the first hitter of the game: new Rainiers center fielder Ezequiel Carrera.

So, Felix threw him a fastball down the middle, and Carrera hammered a line drive home run to right field.

Carrera – like Felix a native of Venezuela – could barely contain his smile as rounded the bases. It must have been a thrill for the 22-year-old outfielder who led the Southern League with a .337 batting average last year – especially since he only hit two home runs a season ago, and has hit just 11 in his professional career.

After Carrera’s bomb, Felix settled down. He ended up pitching six innings (86 pitches, 54 strikes) and gave up three hits: a double to Ryan Langerhans, a double to Matt Mangini, and the homer.

Watching Felix Hernandez pitch in a minor league game was just part of what became a rather enjoyable morning for a die-hard Mariners fan. Most of the top prospects in the system played in this intersquad game, and I got to see several for the first time.

Some quick hits:

  • Luke French started for the Triple-A team. He was optioned to Tacoma before the game and may pitch in the Rainiers rotation. French is a finesse lefty who looked sharp, although he did allow an opposite-field home run to top hitting prospect Alex Liddi. French had a 2.98 ERA in 13 Triple-A starts for Toledo last year – numbers that Rainiers manager Daren Brown would love to see him duplicate.
  • Carlos Triunfel looked much better than I expected. The infielder missed nearly all of 2009 with a broken leg, and then came reports that he was overweight and out of shape in the Arizona Fall League. That report is now officially old news: Triunfel dedicated himself to physical conditioning over the winter, and he certainly doesn’t appear to be overweight. Today he showed decent speed legging out an opposite field triple.
  • I got my first look at Dustin Ackley, who is slated to open the season as the Double-A second baseman. Ackley is much slighter than most of his teammates, and he has a wiry frame. Heard a great second-hand quote attributed to Special Assistant John Boles: “You could lock him in a closet for a year, and he’d come out hitting.” However, he went 0-for-2 with a walk under my watch.
  • Garrett Olson relieved French and ended up allowing a mammoth home run to Double-A power prospect Carlos Peguero. The ball landed on a car in the Mariners parking lot (thankfully not my rental as I declined the insurance). While Peguero rounded the bases a Rainiers pitcher told me “this kid’s been dropping bombs all spring.”

I left after Peguero’s homer and ran into Rainiers manager Daren Brown and hitting coach Alonzo Powell, who were hopping in a car to drive to Surprise and assist coaching the big league team. Powell broke into a big smile when he heard about Carrera’s homer.

And thus concludes this year’s spring training trip. I’m off to the airport to catch a flight home on my favorite airline, and gear up for the season opener at Cheney Stadium next Thursday.

Tomorrow – or maybe Friday – I’ll post some thoughts on this year’s team as we move towards the opener. We should get an official opening day roster by Monday, the team will be in town, and we’ll be off-and-running.


Do You Have Any SPF-100?

March 30, 2010

I just got back to my pleasantly air conditioned hotel room after sitting in sweltering heat at the Maryvale complex watching the Mariners-Brewers Triple-A game.

It was cooking out there. Aluminum bleachers sitting on concrete, no shade, no breeze, no clouds – I managed to work up a sweat while doing nothing. Yuck. But… does that count as a workout?

The Rainiers lost. I think it was 6-4, but once again there was no scoreboard – although each of the half-innings had three outs, so that was nice. They played the bottom of the ninth inning, even though Nashville (the Brewers Triple-A team) had already won. This was so that Robert Rohrbaugh could get an extra inning of work.

Here was today’s starting line-up – by position; I didn’t write down the exact batting order:

  •                   C – Eliezor Alfonzo
  •                 1B – Tommy Everidge
  •                 2B – Leury Bonilla
  •                 SS – Travis Denker
  •                 3B – Matt Mangini
  •                 LF – Michael Saunders
  •                 CF – Ezequiel Carrera
  •                 RF – Mike Wilson
  •                 DH – Brad Nelson
  •                 P – Chris Seddon

While the outfield might be exactly what we see on April 8, the infield is still in a state of flux. The Mariners still have Matt Tuiasosopo, Chris Woodward, and Josh Wilson in major league camp. Two of those three are likely to be sent to Tacoma before Monday.

Some quick hits from a steamy afternoon:

  • Chris Seddon started and allowed three runs in the first inning, and he ended up leaving after five, trailing 5-4. There was some chatter that he has a little extra bite to his slider this season.
  • Mike Koplove pitched a scoreless sixth inning. I know he didn’t allow a run in major league camp – it’s possible he’s working on a shutout spring training. He’s going to be a very nice bullpen piece for Tacoma, and he’s a guy who can certainly help the major league team in a pinch.
  • Mumba Rivera pitched the seventh, giving up a run. I’m hearing that Rivera has been told he is going to Class-AA West Tennessee to start the season.
  • Rohrbaugh pitched two scoreless innings, mixing his deceptive mid-80s fastball with a super-slow change-up and a slider. He’ll open the season in AA but might return to Tacoma during the season.
  • Brad Nelson is batting 1.000 this spring when I am watching. He singled when I saw him yesterday, and today I saw him a ground a base hit up the middle, and later he yanked a rocket down the right field line for a double.
  • Ryan Feierabend was behind home plate, charting pitches. He’s returning from ‘Tommy John’ surgery on his left elbow, and we’ll see him in Tacoma this year. He’s still building up strength and says that his command has come back quicker than his velocity – which is a bit unusual for pitchers returning from this surgery. He feels great, he crossed the 40-pitch barrier in his last start, and he looks forward to joining the Rainiers soon.
  • I chatted briefly with new pitching coach Jaime Navarro – I needed to pronounce his name right. His fellow coaches are using the Americanized version of his first name, ‘Jamie.’ However I remember from his playing days (he won 116 major league games) that his name was pronounced in the Spanish way – ‘Hi-me.’ He said either pronunciation is fine with him, but ESPN always called him ‘Hi-me.’ Since ESPN is The Worldwide Leader In Sports, I’m going with that pronunciation on the air this year. But if you see him at the ballpark, he answers to both. The Navarro’s are from Puerto Rico – Jaime’s father Julio pitched for the Tacoma Giants in 1961 and 1962.
  •  A dark cloud passed over the field when Natural Born Rainiers Killer Trent Oeltjen came to the plate for Nashville. Nobody did more damage against the Rainiers last year than Oeltjen – he played for Reno, and in 15 games against Tacoma he had 22 hits, 4 triples, 4 homers, and 16 RBI. Manager Daren Brown saw him, crossed himself, looked to the sky and said “thank goodness we only play Nashville four times this season.”

That’s it for today. There will be intersquad games tomorrow, and rumor has it that Felix Hernandez is going to pitch in the Triple-A game. That will be fun – an opportunity to see one of the best players in the world, pitching on what is essentially a well-groomed high school field. And anyone who walks up will be able to watch it, for free, from the closest seats you can possibly imagine.

Top Relief Pitcher of the Decade

March 30, 2010

We’ll take a quick detour from the spring training updates to provide some information on the candidates for top relief pitcher of the decade in our ongoing “Team of the Decade” polling over at the Rainiers homepage.

After relievers we’ll vote for the manager, and next week we’ll reveal the final, official, fan-voted Tacoma Rainiers Team of the Decade.

As for spring training, the Rainiers-Nashville game is on for today, I’m going and I’ll write about it late this afternoon.

Here are the reliever candidates:

  • Todd Williams – spent just one full season with the Rainiers, but it was memorable. Williams broke the Pacific Coast League single-season record with 32 saves in 2000, while posting a 2.98 ERA in 50 games.  The side-arming righthander made a rare late-career breakthrough, establishing himself as a major leaguer in Baltimore in 2005 – when he was 35 years old.
  • Brian Fuentes – the four-time National League All-Star pitched for Tacoma in 2001, striking out 70 batters in 52 innings with a 2.94 ERA. Has had great success as a major league closer despite scrapping his signature minor league move: the second base pickoff. He could wipe any runner off second base with his trick pickoff move, but to my knowledge he doesn’t use it in the majors. December 16, 2001: Denny Stark, Brian Fuentes and Jose Paniagua to Colorado for Jeff Cirillo. Ouch!
  • Justin Kaye – the slider machine with the descriptive last name, Kaye struck out a whopping 107 batters in just 77 innings in 2001 – a season in which he was often ranked in the Top-5 in PCL strikeouts despite not starting a game! Went 3-2, 2.92 for the PCL champs; returned in 2002 but was not as impressive, going 3-7, 4.04 with 66 K’s in 62 innings – although he did get a brief call-up to Seattle. Retired after the 2005 season.
  • George Sherrill – discovered by super-scout Charlie Kerfeld after toiling for five years in independent leagues, Sherrill has overcome a lot to have major league success. Sherrill reached Tacoma in 2004 and put up a 2.32 ERA in 36 games, notching 13 saves. Returned to Tacoma for 22 games in 2005, recording a 2.28 ERA before the Mariners called him up. Traded to Baltimore in the Adam Jones trade, Sherrill was an AL All-Star in 2008 when he saved 31 games. Currently with the Dodgers.
  • Randy Messenger – recorded 25 saves for the 2009 Rainiers – a total which stands as the third-highest in Tacoma franchise history. Messenger joined the Rainiers in 2008 and appeared in 12 games, going 6-0 with a 2.28 ERA. Returned in 2009 to go 0-2, 2.86 with those 25 saves in 52 games. Messenger spent time with the Mariners both seasons, but decided to try his luck in Japan for 2010.

Those are the candidates for reliever of the decade – make sure you vote!

An Afternoon At Field 3

March 29, 2010

One of the first rules of minor league spring training is “Don’t Trust The Schedule.”

I wrote yesterday that the Rainiers were set to host Oklahoma City in a Triple-A game today.

Well, after I filed that post I spent some time with a number of Mariners minor league coaches and found out that the Rangers had cancelled today’s minor league games. So instead, the M’s had their Triple-A and Double-A teams play one another on Field 3 – one of four fields on the minor league side of the Peoria sports complex.

This intersquad game really featured players from all levels of the farm system. Several major league players got work in, and some younger prospects appeared, too.

The game itself was typical for minor league camp, but might confuse some fans. First, there is no scoreboard. Don’t ask me who won. Second, not all innings had three outs. If a pitcher got three fast outs, he was sometimes asked to face another hitter or two. And if a pitcher had trouble getting the third out, a coach would wave his arms and the teams would change sides before three outs were recorded.

OK, here’s what I saw:

  • Doug Fister started for the Triple-A group and pitched four innings, allowing nothing but a solo long home run to power-hitting prospect Carlos Peguero (and it should be noted that Peguero was batting after three outs had already been recorded in the “inning.”). Fister is still likely to make the Mariners rotation, but he pitched in the intersquad game so the M’s could take advantage of a more controlled environment.
  • Mariners outfielder Ryan Langerhans batted in every half-inning. It was certainly odd to see hitters approach the plate from two different dugouts during the same half-inning.
  • M’s reliever Shawn Kelly also got work in, pitching for the Class-AA group.
  • Third base is going to be interesting for the Rainiers – especially if Matt Tuiasosopo ends up making the Mariners. Matt Mangini, who had a strong finish at Class-AA West Tennessee last year, played third base with the Triple-A group today. Alex Liddi, the M’s minor league player of the year at Class-A High Desert last year, played for the AA group.
  • There were some interesting match-ups that you just never see. For example, top pitching prospect Michael Pineda faced Liddi in a couple of at-bats. Give the win to Pineda – he got Liddi on a fly to center, and a weak grounder to short.
  • Travis Denker has a chance to make the Rainiers roster. Playing second base, Denker made a diving catch to rob 2009 first round pick Nick Franklin of a base hit.
  • Johan Limonta played for the AA group and executed a perfect hit-and-run, grounding a single through the open right side of the infield.
  • Yusmeiro Petit looked sharp for three innings. In one inning he recorded outs so rapidly that he retired five batters before the teams changed sides.
  • Andy Baldwin excelled in his role of ball boy. Baldwin pitched yesterday and has been working as a starter with the Triple-A group so far this spring.
  • Chris Seddon and Steven Shell charted pitches in the direct sunlight sitting behind home plate. Both have been working as starters alongside Baldwin this spring. Shell enjoyed his winter in Venezuela, where he was glad to get some innings in after injury ended his 2009 season.
  • Former Rainiers pitcher Robert Rohrbaugh is working with the Class-AA group. He said his shoulder feels better than it has in the last two years, and he might be a reliever this year.
  • While walking around the complex I saw Ken Griffey Jr.’s practical joke on catching instructor Roger Hansen – which was detailed and photographed by Ryan Divish of The News Tribune here. It really has to be seen to be believed – a larger-than-life “tribute” to one of the most hilariously profane people I have ever met.

The intersquad game led to an early finish today, so now it’s time to enjoy Arizona for an evening. Tomorrow I’ll be trekking to some place called “Maryvale,” where I’ll drive around aimlessly until I find the minor league complex. The Rainiers are supposed to be playing Nashville out there at 1:00… if the schedule doesn’t change!

It’s Always Sunny In Arizona

March 28, 2010

When the alarm went off at 5 am at my North End townhouse, the rain was pounding on my window.

When I stepped off the plane at 10:30 am in Phoenix, it was 82 degrees with nary a cloud in sight.

It’s one of my favorite trips of the year – the annual four-day pilgrimage to Peoria, Arizona to check out Mariners spring training.

People always ask me if I am looking forward to the season starting. I’m usually pretty ambivalent about it – until I get to Arizona. For me, this is the trip that signifies the start of the new season, and that the six months of fun has begun.

This trip started the same way the last ten did: I got off the plane, rented a car, and it automatically drove me straight to In ‘N’ Out Burger. I don’t know what it is about the rental cars at Sky Harbor Airport, but they are all programmed to go straight to In ‘N’ Out.

I obliged by crushing a Double-Double – but not before taking a photo of the burger and picture-mailing it to a few friends back home. Mean-spirited? Yeah, a little.

I typically spend my time at the minor league fields, in the back of the Peoria complex. But this year the only major league home game while I am here was today, so I am typing this from the press box during the Cubs-Mariners major league game. I think the players are ready to go home – the game is not one hour old, and they’ve completed five innings! It’s like the last game of the PCL season out there; everybody’s hacking.

I did get a chance to corner Mariners PR Guru (and former Rainiers intern) Jeff Evans to try to straighten out the Yusmeiro Petit situation. To summarize, the former Diamondbacks pitcher was claimed on waivers during the winter, spent some time on the Mariners 40-man roster, then was outrighted to the minors, clearing waivers. This was before spring training – he was then invited to major league camp.

Earlier this month, the Mariners announced that they released Petit from his contract. Petit spent a little bit of time as a free agent, but then re-upped with the Mariners on a Triple-A deal.

So, that’s all a very confusing way of saying that it seems likely Petit will break camp with the Rainiers next Thursday.

After the game I’ll catch up with manager Daren Brown, and see if he’s willing to share any news. He might not have much yet – he’s still working with the major league team! Triple-A games have been going on for 10 days, but Brown has not yet been asked to go out there and actually manage his team.

This is a good thing for Brown – Wakamatsu and the major league staff like having him around – but soon he’ll have to head out to the back fields and see his own team play. There are going to be some tough decisions; there are too many Triple-A players in this camp right now.

And that’s where I’ll be the next three days. The Rainiers will play Oklahoma City out on one of the back diamonds tomorrow, and I’ll be sitting in the bleachers getting a look at some of the new guys like Petit, Tommy Everidge, Ezequiel Carrera, Eliezer Alfonzo, and Levale Speigner, while getting caught up with some of the returning players.

Team Of The Decade – Starting Pitchers

March 26, 2010

This one isn’t going to be easy. Trying to narrow about 40 starting pitchers down to just five to vote on – and then select one “Pitcher of the Decade” – is a difficult task.

Anyway, these are the candidates I came up with. You can vote here.

Note: For some reason Bucky Jacobsen is an option on the pitcher’s ballot – and I can’t fix it. So, any votes for him will be tossed out. Your opportunity to vote Bucky was in the DH poll this past week!

 Joel Pineiro – pitched for Tacoma in 2000 and 2001, having tremendous success. Pineiro made a total of 19 starts for Tacoma in those two seasons, going 13-4 with a 3.26 ERA. Of all of the much-hyped Mariners pitching prospects of the early part of the decade, Pineiro ended up having more major league success than guys like Ryan Anderson, Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, and Rhett Johnson.

Denny Stark – the last Tacoma Rainier to win the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year award, Stark went 14-2, with a 2.37 ERA in 2001. The unquestioned ace of the championship team, Stark was traded to the Rockies and went 11-4 as a rookie before two elbow surgeries slowed his career. Stark returned as a reliever with the Rainiers in 2008 and 2009.

Felix Hernandez – he was pretty good. Felix went 9-4, 2.25 over 19 starts in 2005, striking out 100 in 88 innings.*

Cha Seung Baek – a mainstay of the Rainiers starting rotation from 2004 to 2007, starting 65 games during that time. Baek has 26 career Tacoma wins, ranking 13th on the All-Time list – a list mostly comprised of pitchers from the 1960s and 1970s, before pitch counts became vogue. A native of South Korea, Baek ended up making his permanent home in Olympia.

Jorge Campillo – a classic Mexican League junkballer, Campillo changed speeds and had pinpoint command. Campillo pitched for the Rainiers in 2005 and 2007, having great success. Campillo led the PCL in ERA with a 3.07 mark in 2007, and he was 13-7, 2.97 overall with the Rainiers. His 2.97 career Tacoma ERA ranks 16th on the career list. Campillo had an outstanding season for the Atlanta Braves in 2008, but last year he was on the disabled list.

Head to the Rainiers home page and vote!

*at some point this season I’ll post my Felix Hernandez major league call-up story, starring Felix, Bill Bavasi, Dan Rohn, a couple stadium employees, and me.

Team Of The Decade – Designated Hitters

March 25, 2010

I have a feeling this is going to be a two-horse race, but I decided to allow Victor Diaz to try to drum up some support. It’s going to be a tough one for him – he’s facing two of the most popular Rainiers of all time!

The designated hitters of the decade are below – make sure to vote here.

  • Juan “The Large Human” Thomas – one of the most memorable Rainiers of all-time, Thomas was a 300+ pound DH/1B. When he connected, it was gone. Thomas batted .300 with 23 home runs and 95 RBI for the 2001 championship team, and then he added 17 more homers in 2002. Hit a home run at Edmonton that their PR director and I stepped off at 505 feet. Thomas also pitched three times – manager Dan Rohn sent him to the mound when the team was getting blown out, to add some levity to the situation.
  • Bucky Jacobsen – he was healthy for just three months while playing in Tacoma, but everybody loved Bucky – mostly because he seemed like a regular guy. Big, overweight, and bald, Bucky had one major league skill: power. Played in 81 games in 2004 and hit .312 with 26 homers and 86 RBI. Was on pace to challenge franchise records when he was promoted to Seattle. Hit nine more homers in the majors – including bombs off CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, and Mark Mulder – but knee injuries ended his career right when it was getting started.
  • Victor Diaz – Diaz was one of two players this decade to collect 100 RBIs in a single season for the Rainiers (AJ Zapp in 2004). Diaz joined the Rainiers in the first week of May 2008 – and he managed to hit .280 with 24 home runs and 100 RBI in just four months. Diaz was a big part of the Rainiers late surge in 2008, when the team won 11 of the last 12 games.

These are your designated hitters – I can’t wait to see how this one ends. Get out there and vote!

Team Of The Decade – Right Field

March 22, 2010

The poll just went up on the Rainiers home page. Up next is the DH, and then starting pitcher, relief pitcher, and manager.

Only three candidates this time around, and all three are post-2005. Here are the candidates:

Shin-Soo Choo – the Korean outfielder spent two seasons with the Rainiers and made huge improvements. Choo joined the Rainiers in 2005 and hit .282 with 11 home runs and 20 stolen bases. In 2006 he improved to .323 with 13 home runs before being traded to Cleveland for Ben Broussard (yet another Bill Bavasi winner!). Had a breakout season with the Indians last year. Choo holds the Tacoma franchise record for most outfield assists in a season (24 in 2005).

Wladimir Balentien – power, power, power. Balentien hit 42 home runs over a season and a half with Tacoma in 2007 and 2008. After launching 24 bombs in 2007, Balentien had 18 home runs in just 62 games in 2008. Hit three home runs in one game at Cheney in 2008, including an inside-the-parker on a ball that rolled along the base of the center field wall. Currently hoping to break camp with the Cincinnati Reds.

Prentice Redman – Redman joined the Rainiers late in 2007 before finishing the decade in Tacoma. Redman hit 42 home runs with the Rainiers, and the most memorable one had to be his bottom of the ninth, two out, game-winner on the last day of the 2008 season. Redman had a career Tacoma OPS (on base + slugging) over .900. Redman is currently in Dodgers camp and is likely to open the season in Albuquerque – where he’ll probably hit a lot of home runs.

Vote for your right fielder here. We’ll do the designated hitters later this week, and then I’m off to spring training on Sunday and I’ll be blogging daily from the desert.

Team Of The Decade – Center Field

March 19, 2010

This battle in the Tacoma Rainiers Team of the Decade voting is going to be interesting. The Rainiers have been fortunate to have excellent center fielders over the last ten years.

Center field at Cheney Stadium is a very difficult position to play. There is the deep center field fence – 425 feet from home plate, and 32 feet tall. Then there are the 20-foot-tall left and right field fences angling in to meet the wall in center – causing some crazy bounces on deep drives.

With all of the added outfield territory caused by the deep wall, speed is needed at Cheney. A great arm helps, too.

All four of our candidates for Center Fielder of the Decade were outstanding defensive players.

  • Scott Podsednik – patrolled center in 2001 and 2002 before finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers in 2003. Podsednik’s best Tacoma season was 2002, when he batted .279 with 9 home runs and 35 stolen bases. Podsednik led the majors with 70 stolen bases in 2004, and he ripped a walk-off home run for the Chicago White Sox in game two of the 2005 World Series. No list of Podsednik’s accomplishments would be complete without mentioning that he is married to former Playboy Playmate Lisa Dergan.
  • Jamal Strong – Was the Rainiers leadoff man and CF in 2003, 2004, and 2005. Strong ranks fifth on the Tacoma all-time career stolen bases list with 70 (Del Alston is #1 with 92 from 1978-80). Strong batted .324 in 2004 and .293 in 2005. His on-base percentages in his three seasons with Tacoma were .390, .421, and .371 yet he only had a couple of brief call-ups to Seattle.
  • TJ Bohn – a truly talented defensive outfielder, Bohn got great jumps on fly balls and had a strong and accurate arm. Bohn joined the Rainiers late in 2005 and was with the club during the playoffs, and he returned as the starting center fielder in 2006. Bohn hit .283 with 9 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 2006 that year, and he received a September call-up to Seattle.
  • Adam Jones – the only true power hitting center fielder the Rainiers have had in the last ten years, Jones played for Tacoma in 2006 and 2007. He launched 41 homers over those two seasons, increasing his single-season total from 16 to 25. He also increased his batting average from .287 to .314 before he left town in a trade that – because we do not want to upset you, the loyal reader – we will not be recounting in this space.

These are your center field candidates – head to the Rainiers home page and vote!

Quick Link – Scott Atchison

March 16, 2010

Here’s a short interview from Baseball Prospectus with former Tacoma Rainiers pitcher Scott Atchison on life in the minors. After two years in Japan, Atchison is now in Red Sox camp.