Quietly, Triple-A Free Agency Begins

October 17, 2018

We haven’t had any news to write about here on the blog the last two weeks, as all is quiet in baseball while the major league playoffs continue.

The current League Championship Series have been entertaining and close, which is nice to see after a (mostly) drama-free round in the Division Series. My sure-to-be-wrong playoff predictions might be mistitled this year, as I actually got three of the four LCS teams correct, and I’m drawing live on my World Series pick.

As soon as the World Series ends, we’ll be diving right into the free agency period and the roster reshaping that we expect Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to do with both the major league team, and our team in Tacoma.

Many of the players who finished the season with the Rainiers are eligible to become minor league free agents, and some have officially declared. So far, I can find records of pitchers Ross Detwiler, Christian Bergman, Mike Morin and infielder Zach Vincej choosing free agency.

These players can still come back. Christian Bergman finished the 2017 season with Tacoma, declared free agency, looked around for a while, and ultimately signed back with the Mariners and was a valuable member of the organization in 2018.

Another transaction that has been reported: the organization released catcher Garrett Kennedy. Kennedy was the Rainiers surprise opening day catcher last year, and he spent quite a bit of the season with the club appearing in 31 games.

We’ll follow all of the minor league moves that impact the Tacoma Rainiers here on the blog.

A friend called it quits earlier this week, as Bob Robertson retired from Washington State football broadcasts on Monday. I’m sure this was a difficult decision for my Sunday partner, who has been the voice of WSU football for 52 years. More in the first link below, which has a secret code buried in it just for fun.

Links:

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Former Rainiers On Postseason Rosters & Some Terrible Predictions

October 5, 2018

It’s a baseball smorgasboard today, with four straight major league playoff games being televised with very little overlap.

With that, let’s find out who the former Rainiers players are in the postseason this year – and then I’ll make my annual incorrect predictions.

First off, there are not many former Tacoma players on the postseason rosters this year. To really load up on ex-Rainiers, we need one of Jerry Dipoto’s trading buddies to make the playoffs – but both Tampa and Arizona came up short.

American League

Boston Red Sox: no active players have Tacoma ties. Two ex-Rainiers are on the coaching staff: Andy Barkett and Ramon Vazquez.

Cleveland Indians: the bullpen includes Oliver Perez, the veteran lefty who re-started his career as a reliever with the Rainiers in 2012. Also in the bullpen: sidearming Adam Cimber, who never pitched for Tacoma but is a graduate of Puyallup High School (Class of 2009). Ex-Rainiers pitchers from long ago Brian Sweeney and Scott Atchison are both on the Indians coaching staff.

Houston Astros: there are no former Rainiers on the active roster, but if you come to Cheney Stadium a lot you have probably seen about half their team suit up for Fresno on the visiting side. Here’s a deep pull for you: first base coach Alex Cintron played brifly for Tacoma in 2009.

New York Yankees: another team with no ex-Rainiers on the roster. Bench coach Josh Bard caught for the Rainiers toward the end of his career, in 2010 and 2011.

National League

Atlanta Braves: ageless catcher Rene Rivera is on the playoff roster. He played for Tacoma parts of three seasons: 2004 to 2006. The coaching staff includes 2010 Tacoma interim manager (and PCL Championship winner) Jose Castro, former Tacoma Tigers infielder Walt Weiss, and trivia question answer* Jose Yepez who caught for the Rainiers in 2010 and 2011.

Colorado Rockies: like the Astros, the Rockies don’t have any former Tacoma players but do have a lot of familiar names from the opposing roster when Albuquerque has been in town the last few years.

Los Angeles Dodgers: super utility man Chris Taylor played for Tacoma extensively from 2014 to 2016. Third base coach Chris Woodward was a regular infielder for the Rainiers in 2009 and 2010.

Milwaukee Brewers: catcher Erik Kratz was with Tacoma briefly in 2015.

That’s it, that’s all we’ve got. Four active ex-Rainiers players, one local guy, and ten coaches.

Now for the predictions, which are always wrong, so don’t even bother reading the next part. Why am I even typing them? I could be taking a nap right now. Anyway, here we go.

NL Division Series: Braves over Dodgers in five games, and Brewers over Rockies in four.

AL Division Series: Astros beat Indians in four, and Red Sox defeat Yankees in four.

NL Championship Series: Brewers take it over the Braves in six games.

AL Championship Series: Red Sox edge Astros in seven

World Series: Red Sox 4, Brewers 1.

So that’s not going to happen.

* Jose Yepez was called up by the Seattle Mariners and spent a few days in the big leagues without ever appearing in a game. The only other Rainiers player in the last twenty years to do this was pitcher Ryne Harper in 2017. 


M’s Season Ends With Questions About How To Move Forward

October 3, 2018

The Mariners finished the season by taking three-of-four from the Texas Rangers, wrapping up the season with a record of 89-73. It was the most wins by a Mariners team since 2003.

Seattle drew 2,299,489 fans to Safeco Field, averaging 28,388 per game. It was the team’s largest attendance total since 2008.

Most wins since 2003. Biggest crowds since 2008. These are things that should please the Mariners owners, management, and fans. Yet the season is looked at as a disappointment, because a second half fade saw the Mariners miss the playoffs for the 17th straight season.

Take a second and go back six months. If someone had told me on opening night that the Mariners would win 89 games and not be in contention for a playoff spot during the final two weeks of the season, I would have told them they are crazy. Eighty-nine wins and not in contention? Really? Which five teams are going to blow past 90 wins? OK, we’ve got the Red Sox, Astros, Indians, probably the Yankees… uhhhh… I’m not seeing the other one. Angels, maybe?

Not many saw it coming, but Oakland finished with 97 wins, and even Tampa reached 90.

Now the Mariners front office has to decide how to proceed this offseason – which is the subject of many of the links down below.

Several key Mariners had seasons well below their expected level of play: Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano (due to suspension), Mike Zunino, Felix Hernandez… can they improve in 2019?

Only a few players had what you might call “career best” seasons that seem unlikely to be replicated. Edwin Diaz, Wade LeBlanc, maybe Marco Gonzales (but this could be his actual level of ability).

Do you do a casual reset, hope for return to something close to normal levels by the disappointing players, and hope the A’s don’t win 97 freakin’ games again? Or do you do a major shakeup?

From the second story below, it sounds like the Mariners themselves aren’t sure which path to take. It’s going to be an interesting offseason.

Links:

We’ll be back on Friday with some sure-to-be-incorrect playoff predictions, and any ex-Tacoma players in the postseason.


Tacoma’s Ashley Schutt Wins PCL Woman Executive Of The Year Award

September 28, 2018

It is with great pride that today’s post focuses on a prestigious award won by one of the Tacoma Rainiers front office members.

Ashley Schutt – the Tacoma Rainiers Director of Baseball Operations and Merchandise – has been named the Pacific Coast League’s Woman Executive of the Year. That puts her in the running for the Rawlings Woman Executive of the Year award which covers all of Minor League Baseball, and will be announced at the Baseball Winter Meetings in December.

Ashley is part of the glue of the organization, a behind-the-scenes person who works extremely hard to make the Tacoma Rainiers a smooth operation.

She oversees and operates the entirety of the Rainiers day-to-day dealing with the Seattle Mariners, including player transfers and all baseball-related expenses. She is in charge of the Rainiers employees who work in baseball operations, all the way down to the bat boys.

Schutt takes full responsibility of the Tacoma Rainiers team travel throughout the expansive and sometimes difficult-to-navigate PCL, which is a major project in itself. This role became even larger when Tacoma hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game in 2017, and she coordinated the arrival and departure of over 100 All-Stars and Triple-A executives.

Ashley has greeted Mariners prospects coming up from Double-A for their first time, helping them get assimilated in a new city. On the flip side, she has stood by as a released player cleans out his locker, and then driven him to the airport.

She is a one-woman welcoming committee for the Rainiers opponents when they arrive in Tacoma – and the umpires, too. Ashley makes sure the visiting team gets from the airport to the hotel, gets checked in, is able to make their flight out of town after the series, and she handles any difficulties along the way.

Ashley coordinates the Rainiers player appearances in the community, lining up guys to visit the children’s hospital, or the Boy and Girls Club, or one of the many other community outreach programs the Rainiers and Mariners participate in.

A Tacoma native and lifelong Mariners fan, Ashley gets some fun perks with her job. She knows who is going up to the big leagues (and who is coming down) before any of us do – and often before the player himself knows. She is really, really good at keeping a secret.

The majority of front office jobs in baseball are revenue-producing roles, and Ashley excels there too. She oversees the Rainiers merchandise operations, including the Cheney Stadium Team store. Tacoma has ranked in the Top 25 of MiLB merchandise sales for each of the last three years.

The entire Tacoma Rainiers organization is proud of Ashley today. In her honor, here are five Ashley Schutt Fun Facts:

  1. Ashley started her Rainiers career on summer break as a student, working on the Fun Squad. A former Stadium High School softball player, she first gained attention for her strong arm throwing softy balls and t-shirts into the crowd.
  2. A University of Oregon graduate, Ashley is only mildly annoying during College Football season.
  3. Her ability to construct and devour enormous breakfast burritos from the clubhouse spread prior to Sunday day games has earned the respect and awe of Rainiers players and coaches alike.
  4. It is likely that there is nobody in the Puget Sound region happier than Ashley Schutt to hear that Alaska Airlines announced a nonstop SeaTac-to-El Paso flight earlier this week*.
  5. Just this morning, Ashley and her husband Ryan welcomed their first child into the world.

Congratulations, Ashley!

Links:

  • Marco Gonzales had a strong start, but the M’s lost to Texas on Thursday night and will head into the final weekend with 86 wins. The development of Gonzales has been one of the highlights of the 2018 season.
  • The Mariners announced their organizational minor league awards.
  • Interesting story from Fangraphs on Rainiers and Mariners reliever Justin Grimm, and the changes he has made this season.

*I am a close second.


New Baseballs, Copa To Tacoma, More…

September 25, 2018

We’ve got some news items to pass along as the major league regular season is in its final week, so let’s get to them.

Baseball America has reported that the Triple-A leagues are going to be using Major League baseballs in games starting in 2019. The new PCL baseballs will come from the same factory as the major league baseballs, and will be made to the same specifications as the big league baseballs.

Up until this year, baseballs used in minor league games were made by a different company. This caused quite a difference. The minor league baseball was more of a “pitchers baseball” and didn’t fly as far when hit as a major league baseball.

Now we will be using the same baseball as the big leagues, although it will be stamped Pacific Coast League and have the signature of league president Branch B. Rickey on it.

Baseball America’s story suggests that we will have substantially higher scoring games in the PCL as a result of this change. We’ll see about that.

Minor League Baseball announced new teams which will participate in the Copa de la Diversion in 2019, and we are pleased to say that the Tacoma Rainiers will be one of them.

The Copa is Minor League Baseball’s latino community outreach program, and it was a big hit in many cities in 2017. Part of the program involves changing the team name during the season for a couple of single games, which brought us some great monikers last year such as the Mariachis de Nueva Mexico, the San Antonio Flying Chanclas, and the Brooklyn Jefes.

We’ll get a lot more information on this as we draw nearer to the season – including the Tacoma Rainiers Copa alter-ego, and the dates we’ll be using it.

The Mariners announced a new Player Development Contract at the Low-A level, linking up with the West Virginia Power of the South Atlantic League. This affiliate will replace the M’s former Low-A team, the Clinton LumberKings.

The Power play in Charleston West Virginia in the historic “Sally League.” The Mariners have never had an affiliate in that league before.

It’s a two-year deal, lasting through the 2020 season. The Power had previously been affiliated for the last ten seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

This was the only affiliation change in the Mariners farm system. Here’s how it looks now:

  • Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers
  • Double-A Arkansas Travelers
  • Advanced-A Modesto Nuts
  • Low-A West Virginia Power
  • Short-Season Everett Aqua Sox
  • Rookie Level Peoria-AZL Mariners
  • Dominican Summer League Mariners

Links:


Surprise! New PCL Affiliations Don’t Go As Expected

September 20, 2018

The affiliation news came fast and furious in the late afternoon on Tuesday, as major league teams quickly forged new agreements with Triple-A clubs to solidify their farm systems.

We knew that there were going to be some affiliate changes in the PCL, but what we got in the end was quite surprising.

To review before we begin, every Triple-A team is guaranteed a major league affiliate. The MLB teams try to secure an affiliate that has a) modern baseball facilities, b) a good location, and c) an easy front office to work with.

Tacoma’s affiliation with the Seattle Mariners has been constant since 1995, and was extended four more years through the 2022 season.

Other teams aren’t as fortunate – take Fresno, for example. After a long association with the nearby San Francisco Giants that began in 1998, the Giants jumped to Sacramento in 2015. Other MLB clubs in California either had solid Triple-A agreements already in place (Angels, Dodgers, Padres) or weren’t interested in going to Fresno (A’s). Ultimately, Fresno ended up with an unlikely four-year affiliate with the Houston Astros.

That type of thing can happen, and it isn’t always a disaster. Fresno won a Triple-A National Championship with the Astros in 2015, and had two playoff teams in four years with Houston. But it can be a tough sell from a marketing standpoint: “Come see the future stars of the Houston Astros!” doesn’t generate a lot of excitement in Fresno, CA.

By rule, all agreements are either for two years or four years. That way adjustments can be made if a team is not happy with its affiliate, or a minor league team relocates.

Which brings us to the Affiliation Dance of September, 2018.

HOW WE GOT HERE

Two big pieces of news from over a year ago let us know early that we were going to have changes as soon as the 2018 season ended.

The New York Mets purchased the Syracuse franchise in the International League. The Mets were affiliated with Las Vegas, but they would link up with Syracuse at the first opportunity: the 2019 season.

Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan left his executive position with the Texas Rangers and took one with the Houston Astros. Nolan and his family own the Round Rock Express, which had been the Texas Rangers affiliate. They were going to switch to the Houston Astros as soon as the contract with the Rangers expired after the 2018 season.

The Astros were out of Fresno, going to a much closer home in Round Rock, Texas. And Las Vegas needed a new team – just as it was opening up a brand new state-of-the-art ballpark, making a very lucrative affiliate for MLB teams.

We had another moving part in the PCL, quite literally in this case: the Colorado Springs franchise is relocating to San Antonio for the 2019 season. The Milwaukee Brewers agreement with the franchise was up for renewal, and it seemed to all observers that the suddenly homeless Texas Rangers would be a perfect match in San Antonio.

WHAT HAPPENED

Facing an expired agreement and a geographically unnatural association with the Nashville Sounds, the Oakland A’s called the Las Vegas 51s president Don Logan first thing in the morning when the negotiation period opened on Monday and struck a deal. The A’s will move into the brand new ballpark in Las Vegas this year.

Round Rock and the Houston Astros inked their deal, as everyone expected.

On the other side of the country, all of the International League teams re-upped with their existing affiliate… except for Syracuse, which brought in the Mets as planned. That left their previous affiliate the Washington Nationals needing a new Triple-A home. There were no IL openings, so the Nats were coming to the PCL.

Nashville, San Antonio and Fresno were the open PCL teams. The Nationals, Rangers, and Milwaukee Brewers were looking for a partner – and everyone thought the Rangers were going to San Antonio.

At this point the Nashville Sounds were by far the most attractive Triple-A team. They have a terrific four-year-old ballpark in a great city with a major airport for easy player movement. The person who runs the baseball side of the organization just won a minor league baseball executive of the year award, which should satisfy the easy-to-work with front office requirement. They are at or near the top of the PCL in attendance annually.

The Texas Rangers looked at the 25-year-old Double-A ballpark in San Antonio that the league is moving into, the current plan to build a new park in San Antonio (or lack thereof – there is no publicly revealed plan), and said “nope.” Read more about this in the first link down below.

The Colorado Springs/San Antonio management has had a good relationship with the Brewers, so they re-signed with them. It will be the Milwaukee Brewers in San Antonio in 2019.

That left Nashville to decide between the Texas Rangers and the Washington Nationals, with the un-chosen team going to a more difficult location and older ballpark in Fresno.

Again, the trend was bucked. It would appear on the surface that the Nationals would be a much better fit in Nashville, but… the Sounds took the Texas Rangers.

So that left the Washington Nationals in a bizarre forced marriage with the Fresno Grizzlies.

WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE NOW

Here are your new PCL divisions for 2019. New affiliates in italics.

Pacific North

  • Fresno (Washington Nationals)
  • Reno (Arizona Diamondbacks)
  • Sacramento (San Francisco Giants)
  • Tacoma (Seattle Mariners)

Pacific South

  • Albuquerque (Colorado Rockies)
  • El Paso (San Diego Padres)
  • Las Vegas (Oakland A’s)
  • Salt Lake (Los Angeles Angels)

American North

  • Iowa (Chicago Cubs)
  • Memphis (St. Louis Cardinals)
  • Nashville (Texas Rangers)
  • Omaha (Kansas City Royals)

American South

  • New Orleans (Miami Marlins)
  • Oklahoma City (Los Angeles Dodgers)
  • Round Rock (Houston Astros)
  • San Antonio (Milwaukee Brewers)

A few thoughts on it all:

Tacoma plays its Pacific Conference foes 16 times each season, and only one series (three or four games) against each American Conference team. From a Mariners perspective, the Rainiers will see M’s AL West rivals affiliate 40 times in 2019: 16 games against the A’s and Angels, and four against Astros and Rangers.

Getting the Astros out of the Rainiers division can only be seen as a positive right now. The Astros have had really good Triple-A teams the past few seasons, and it looks like that will continue into the immediate future. The Washington Nationals Triple-A teams in the International League have finished well under .500 in each of the last four years.

It will be fun seeing a new organization, the Washington Nationals. I know close to nothing about their farm system and prospects, so it will be something to read up on during the offseason. We haven’t had a new major league team affiliate in the PCL since the Mets came to Vegas in 2013.

Fresno-to-Washington DC is going to be a tough travel obstacle for quick call-ups. Even more difficult is their Double-A to Triple-A transfer, from Harrisburg (PA) to Fresno. Look for the Nats to alleviate these concerns by carrying two or three extra Triple-A players in Fresno all season, shuffling them on and off the active roster. Several PCL teams were doing this already in 2018 – it costs more in terms of Triple-A salaries, but the team saves money by not flying in players from other affiliates every time a need arises (these costs all fall on the major league budget). It also eliminates a lot of headaches and midnight phone calls.

Given the choice between a two- and four-year deal, the Las Vegas – Oakland agreement was for only two years. This is interesting. There is no doubt that the ideal affiliate of the Las Vegas ball club is the Dodgers. But the Dodgers currently share ownership of the Oklahoma City franchise, locking them in. I can’t help but wonder if Las Vegas wants to take it slow with Oakland, in case the ownership situation changes down the road in Oklahoma City.

All told, this offseason featured one franchise relocation, a realignment of the American Conference divisions, and 25% of the league affiliates changing. That’s a lot of stuff!

The Mariners extended their affiliation with Short-Season Everett two more years, through 2022. It’s the longest running affiliate in the Northwest League, at 24 seasons.

Seattle has renewed its affiliation with all minor league teams except for Low-A Clinton in the Midwest League. There are a few other openings at that level, so if there is going to be any change in the Mariners farm system it will be at Low-A.

Links:

  • Story from the San Antonio newspaper on the Texas Rangers turning down the affiliate due to ballpark concerns.
  • The Washington Post has an article on the Nationals new affiliate, which includes the fact that there are no direct flights to Washington, DC from Fresno-Yosemite Airport.
  • Round Rock and the Houston Astros make perfect sense, according to the Austin Statesman.
  • From The Tennessean, some facts about the Nashville Sounds – Texas Rangers partnership.
  • The Mariners wiped out the Astros on Wednesday night, 9-0. Seattle won the season series against Houston, 10-9. I think that is both a sign of progress and an indicator of how frustrating this season has been.
  • Bob Dutton has a post on sunk costs and the final year of Felix Hernandez‘s contract.
  • Baseball America’s Top 20 PCL Prospects appears today. Here’s a link to the introduction, and you’ll need a subscription to advance from there.

Memphis Wins It All

September 19, 2018

Congratulations, again, to the Memphis Redbirds – this time for winning the Triple-A National Championship.

Memphis took down the Durham Bulls on Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio. They won the Triple-A National Championship Game in a blowout, 14-4.

Redbirds infielder Alex Mejia took home the MVP award, going 5-for-5 with five RBI and three runs scored. Just a few days ago he had a walkoff squeeze bunt in the 11th inning of Game Three of the PCL Championship Series against Fresno.

Outfielder Lane Thomas provided the power, going 3-for-5 with a triple, a homer, and five RBI. Tommy Edman and Rangel Ravelo each scored three runs for the Redbirds.

Reliever Giovanny Gallegos pitched a scoreless ninth inning to end the game, and was promoted to the big leagues during the post game celebration.

Thus ends the 2018 Triple-A season.

The final affiliation switches revealed themselves yesterday, and there were some surprises. I’ll have a longer post about it later this week – probably Thursday afternoon. Until then, here are the final results:

  • Las Vegas – Oakland A’s
  • Round Rock – Houston Astros
  • Nashville – Texas Rangers
  • Fresno – Washington Nationals (!!!)
  • San Antonio – Milwaukee Brewers

More on this later.

Links:

  • Story (with videos and photos) on the Triple-A National Championship Game from MiLB.com.
  • Baseball America’s JJ Cooper was at the game and filed this story.
  • Here’s a story from the Memphis paper on the Redbirds championship season.
  • The Mariners were shut out by Josh James and the Houston Astros on Tuesday night, eliminating the M’s from AL West contention. They are still mathematically in the Wild Card hunt, for now.
  • The Houston Astros fired Triple-A Fresno manager Rodney Linares, which is somewhat shocking. Fresno had a great season, and Linares was an Astros lifer with 22 years in the organization.
  • I didn’t know this streak existed: the National League won interleague play this year – something it had not done since 2003. The AL had won 14 straight seasons. Story from Jeff Sullivan.