Season In Review

Let’s start with some honesty: this is a subject that we could break into multiple categories, and drag it out for two or three weeks. But this season wasn’t a very good one for our Tacoma Rainiers, so why spend weeks re-hashing it when we can knock it out in one long post?

In one sentence, the Rainiers 2012 season started out miserably, managed to actually get worse, improved to mediocre, and then finally showed some life down the stretch, perhaps giving us an indication that things will be better in 2013.

It all started on April 5th at Cheney Stadium, when Salt Lake’s Mike Trout stepped into the batters box to lead off the season against Tacoma opening day starter Matt Fox.

That match-up serves as a microcosm of the season: Trout got off to a roaring start, was called up by the Angels and is now a possible American League MVP candidate. Fox made three starts for Tacoma, got injured, spent months on the disabled list, and returned to Double-A Jackson where he was promptly released. Yikes!

Still, things weren’t a disaster at the start: Tacoma was 5-5 after ten games, but injuries were taking their toll. The Rainiers lost their opening day 4-5-6 hitters to the disabled list (Mike Wilson, Carlos Peguero, and Adam Moore).

All three players were out for 1-2 months. This is where the Mariners didn’t help: when you lose offensive players of this caliber in Triple-A, they need to be replaced by experienced players if you want to win. The Mariners moved up three players from Double-A Jackson who were Triple-A rookies, instead of going outside the organization to acquire an experienced hitter or two. Predictably, all three players struggled and were eventually sent back to the lower minors – and one of them, outfielder Mario Yepez, was released before season’s end.

When the three quality hitters went down, so did the Rainiers spot in the standings. Tacoma lost 18 of the next 24 games, dropping into the cellar with a 11-23 record on May 10.

However, the offense did not soak up the blame for this free-fall. The blame went to the starting pitchers, who struggled immensely during this time.

From April 20 to May 10, Tacoma starters managed to go an amazing 19 straight games without turning in a Quality Start (six or more innings pitched, allowing three or fewer runs). The streak finally ended with Andrew Carraway‘s electrifying Triple-A debut on May 11 at Cheney Stadium, when he carried a perfect game into the seventh inning and beat Albuquerque.

As manager Daren Brown pointed out in our season-ending radio show, “Of our five starters to open the season, none of them are here now, and none of them are in the majors. That should tell you something.”

In fact, the two who were moved back to Double-A – Forrest Snow and Mauricio Robles – were then moved into the Double-A bullpen. The other three were Fox (injured and released), Jeff Marquez (released), and Anthony Vasquez (injured).

To be fair to all involved, nobody knew this was going to happen. Go back to the pre-season blogs, I was bullishly optimistic on International League veterans Fox and Marquez leading the Rainiers rotation. Snow looked promising in 2011, and Vasquez was terrific for the Rainiers that year. The only one we could have expected to struggle was Robles, who has never thrown strikes consistently at the Triple-A level.

Things started to get better in early May. Erasmo Ramirez was optioned from Seattle and slotted into the rotation. Carraway provided a steady hand, and cagey strike-throwing veteran Brian Sweeney took a bigger role.

With the rotation stabilized, Tacoma went 12-5 over a 17-game stretch and pulled within five games of .500 in late May. We had hope!

Then came four games in Reno, and if there is one thing we know about a series in Reno, it is this: the Rainiers aren’t likely to win any games. Tacoma went 0-8 in Reno this year, has a 13-game active losing streak at Reno, and is 6-26 at Aces Ballpark since that hellhole it opened in 2009.

The sweep sent Tacoma into a tailspin in which it lost 12 out of 13 games. The offense went into the tank – the Rainiers were swept at home by Salt Lake in a series in which they allowed a total of 12 runs in four games, while the Rainiers could muster only five.

The two-week slide sent the Rainiers record to 24-40, effectively ending any hopes of playing their way into contention for the division tile.

Changes started to happen, as more youth was summoned from Double-A Jackson – mostly on the pitching staff.

Throughout the season, the Rainiers bullpen excelled. This continued even after a massive mid-season overhaul: veterans Oliver Perez and Josh Kinney were called up to Seattle, 31-year-old lefty Sean Henn opted to play in Korea for guaranteed money, and Rainiers stalwart Cesar Jimenez suffered an injury.

The Mariners were ready for these moves: help was on the way, and the young guys were in some regards better than their predecessors. Bobby LaFromboise, Brian Moran, Stephen Pryor, and Steven Hensley proved ready for Triple-A.

My experience is that young pitchers are far more likely to have immediate success in Triple-A than young hitters. Is this a real thing, or is it because the Mariners have better pitching prospects than hitting prospects? I’m not sure – all I know is that when rookie pitchers come up from Double-A Jackson, they perform much better right away than the hitters do.

Add to the bullpen Danny Farquhar and Shawn Kelley down the stretch, slide Sweeney out of the rotation and into the ‘pen, mix in a massively-improved-in-the-second-half Chance Ruffin, and Tacoma’s bullpen was stellar all season. Here is a telling statistic: for the season, Tacoma starting pitchers went 37-67 with a 5.65 ERA, and Tacoma relievers went 26-24 with a 4.00 ERA. The league ERA for all PCL pitchers this year was 4.65.

Another, even more telling statistic: Tacoma’s starting pitcher did not last six innings in 92 of 144 games. If Tacoma’s starter made it through six innings, the team was 34-18. When the starter got knocked out before the end of the sixth, the team was 29-63.

Things did get better late in the season, perhaps providing some hope for 2012.

The rotation improved substantially in August, with the addition of D.J. Mitchell (in the Ichiro trade) and Hector Noesi (from Seattle). Danny Hultzen showed flashes of brilliance amidst bouts of youthful wildness. Carraway showed an ability to get deep into games with low pitch counts.

The Rainiers put up a remarkable team ERA of 3.66 in the month of August, leading to a 16-14 record for the club’s only winning month of the season.

The good news is these August starting pitchers are the guys we may see open next season. At this point, it’s reasonable to think that Carraway, Hultzen, and Mitchell will be in the rotation – and then we have James Paxton and Brandon Maurer from Double-A Jackson, with Taijuan Walker looming as a possible mid-season addition. The rotation could be a real strength next year.

Another positive came with the arrival of infielder Nick Franklin from Jackson on June 20. While his arrival didn’t immediately help the team – he bumped veteran Luis Rodriguez from the starting lineup, and Rodriguez was one of Tacoma’s top hitters and defensive players all season – Franklin showed a lot of promise as a power-hitting infielder.

There is some question about the 21-year-old Franklin’s future position. Carlos Triunfel showed far superior range and arm strength at shortstop. However, Franklin is very young and could get a lot better. It’s sometimes easy to forget that young and talented players can work hard and improve – so I’m not pushing Franklin off shortstop yet.

The season ended with two of the Rainiers season-long veteran stalwarts earning deserved call-ups to the majors.

Slugger Luis Jimenez batted .310 with 20 home runs and 81 RBI, earning the team’s Hitter of the Year award. He received his first career call up to the majors at age 30, and hopefully he’ll get in the lineup a few times this month.

Catcher Guillermo Quiroz hit .278 with 15 home runs and 52 RBI while posting an OPS of 846 in his best offensive season since 2003. He was rewarded with a trade to the Red Sox, who immediately called him up to the majors for the final month of the season.

2012 Rainiers Fun (And Not-So-Fun) Facts

  • finished 63-81, the most losses by a Tacoma team since the 1994 Tacoma Tigers also lost 81 games.
  • no Seattle Mariners Triple-A affiliate has finished more games under .500 since 1981 (Spokane Indians, 56-84 or 28 games under .500).
  • the season was Tacoma’s 24th losing campaign out of 53 since joining the league in 1960. Since affiliating with the Mariners in 1995, Tacoma has ten winning seasons and eight losing seasons, with four playoff appearances and two PCL titles.
  • Tacoma finished the season ranked 12th in the PCL in ERA (4.97), 11th in runs scored (709), 14th in batting average (.264), and third in home runs (152).
  • defense was a season-long concern. Tacoma finished with the most errors in the PCL (139), and the league’s worst fielding percentage (.974).
  • manager Daren Brown became the winningest manager in Tacoma franchise history. He passed Dan Rohn (375) in late May and closed the season with 416 Tacoma wins.
  • the biggest home crowd of the year appeared June 28, when an overflow crowd of 7,435 came out to see Danny Hultzen battle Las Vegas and their starting pitcher, Jamie Moyer. Score one for old age: Moyer beat the kid.
  • Tacoma’s final attendance of 352,032 was the third-highest in franchise history.
  • slugger Mike Carp hit his 67th career Tacoma home run, snapping a tie with Tom Kelly and taking sole possession of second place on the all-time Tacoma home run list. Rick Renick (Tacoma Twins, 1973-76) is the leader with 72.
  • reliever Cesar Jimenez moved up to fourth on the Tacoma all-time games pitched list, with 147 career appearances. He’s only four games behind all-time co-leaders Bruce Walton and Scott Atchison.
  • Cesar Jimenez also became the first player in Tacoma baseball history to appear in at least one game in seven different seasons.

Links:

  • Geoff Baker wrote an outstanding feature on Rainiers slugger Luis Jimenez, his big league call-up, where he has been and why he keeps going.
  • The Mariners are going to use a seven-man starting rotation down the stretch – but don’t fret, Felix Hernandez will still start every fifth day as he makes a push to win the Cy Young Award. The other guys will get shuffled around Felix’s schedule.

In the PCL playoffs, both series were knotted up yesterday:

  • Sacramento squeaked out a tense 1-0 win over Reno as starting pitcher Jesse Chavez was absolutely dealing. Chavez is brand new to the River Cats – Oakland purchased his contract from Las Vegas in late August to help Sacramento in the playoffs, and it worked, sort of like a successful trade deadline deal in the majors.
  • Sacramento scored its only run on a Jemile Weeks homer in the third inning. Weeks still thinks he will be a major league star, Ailene Voisin writes. Here is a photo gallery from Game Two.
  • Reno earned a split at Sacramento, and now the series moves to Reno for the final three games.
  • Albuquerque earned the road split of the first two games by beating Omaha in the American Conference finals, 5-3. Stephen Fife recovered from an early deficit to turn in a quality start for the ‘Topes. From that link: Josh Bard is having a big series for Albuquerque, and the Isotopes figure to have a big home-field advantage for the final three games.
  • Meanwhile, Albuquerque and the Dodgers extended their Player Development Contract two more years, through 2014. This comes as no surprise; the Dodgers really seem to appreciate their long history in the Duke City.

Don’t forget, the Rainiers D.I.N.E. event is Saturday at Cheney Stadium, from 5:00 to 10:00 PM. The six most popular food trucks from The Moveable Feast will be parked on the infield, craft beers will be available for $5, local bands… it all sounds pretty cool. Tickets are cheap, too – ten bucks get you in, and it includes parking. But leave the kids at home, this one is for the 21-and-over crowd.

I’ll try to post quick PCL playoff links over the weekend – have a great one!

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