Going To Arizona? Here’s How To Check Out The Rainiers

February 23, 2017

The lure of watching baseball in the sun draws many Pacific Northwesterners to Arizona and spring training this time of year. I’m often asked for “spring training tips,” and aside from my secret rental car life hack, this is what  tell people: make sure you watch some of a minor league game.

Minor league spring training games are going on all over Arizona, usually on fields just a short walk from the Cactus League ballparks which are scattered all over the valley.

And they are all free.

Now for your free entry you won’t get much: a seat on an aluminum bleacher, possibly with a roof to shade you. There are no concession stands, so bring your own beverages, snacks, and sunscreen.

Most of your fellow fans will be player’s family members, scouts, front office personnel, and minor league pitchers who aren’t scheduled to throw that day.

You can catch an early preview of the Rainiers. Right now about 75% of the players who will begin the season in Tacoma are in major league camp, but that will change over the course of March as the Mariners gradually cut down their roster.

Oh yeah, one important thing. You can’t tell the players without a program, and nobody is selling programs, so make sure you stop by the lobby of the Mariners office and ask for a free minor league roster. It’s the second thing I do after getting to Arizona each year (longtime readers know the first thing I do is not baseball related).

Minor league games start in mid-March. You just walk into the group of fields – four fields adjacent to one another – and ask somebody which field the Triple-A game is on. Here is the Rainiers schedule – games usually start at 1:00.

March 18: Kansas City (Peoria).

March 19: at Chicago White Sox (Glendale).

March 20: at Texas (Surprise).

March 21: San Diego (Peoria).

March 22: at Kansas City (Surprise).

March 23: Texas (Peoria).

March 24: Kansas City (Peoria).

March 25: at Texas (Surprise).

March 26: Camp day.

March 27: Kansas City (Peoria).

March 28: at Texas (Surprise).

March 29: San Diego (Peoria).

March 30: at Los Angeles Dodgers (Glendale).

March 31: Milwaukee (Peoria).

April 1: at San Diego (Peoria).

When the Mariners play the Padres in Triple-A games (i.e. Tacoma vs. El Paso) and it says “at San Diego,” that means the game is on the Padres side of the Peoria complex. The same situation occurs in Surprise – you need to find the Rangers or the Royals side of the complex, which may always involves driving around in circles.

Links:


Full Squad Reports

February 21, 2017

Mariners spring training took another big step forward over President’s Weekend, with the position players reporting to camp. The full squad is in Peoria.

Soon we’ll have not just photos of guys stretching and playing catch, but actual games. The Mariners annual charity game against the Padres is Saturday, and that will start the Cactus League season.

There isn’t much to report on from the Rainiers perspective yet. Manager Pat Listach is in camp, helping out the major league staff at least until the Triple-A games get underway in mid-March. That means throwing batting practice, hitting lots of fungos, and working with the infielders on fielding technique.

Listach is probably already keeping an eye on the many new players in camp who could open the season in Tacoma, learning their strengths and weaknesses.

The many stories from over the weekend focused on the Mariners major league roster, and the key position players who reported to camp. There is one story on potential Rainiers reliever Nick Hagadone, who is trying to come back from a serious injury and a long layoff.

Links:

We’re getting closer!


One Billion Bullpen Candidates

February 16, 2017

Our final spring training preview group is the relief pitchers, and there is a huge group of possible Rainiers relievers.

The Mariners bullpen figures to include right-handers Edwin Diaz, Evan Scribner, Nick Vincent and Steve Cishek (if healthy by opening day). Lefthander Marc Rzepczynski will likely be joined by another southpaw – maybe Ariel Miranda, if the Mariners don’t want him starting games.

That’s six relievers, and there will be a seventh – so that’s going to be a competition. Dan Altavilla pitched well as a rookie at the end of last season, he figures to make a push for the big league club.

Here are some names of potential Tacoma relief pitchers, in no particular order:

RHP Ryan Weber – made MLB debut with Atlanta last year.

LHP Dean Kiekhefer – has been very effective against left-handed batters in Triple-A.

RHP Peter Tago – hard thrower trying to improve command.

LHP Nick Hagadone – former major leaguer from Sumner who has not pitched in two years due to arm woes; reportedly healthy now.

SHP Pat Venditte – the switch-pitcher is still in the mix.

RHP Jonathan Aro – was very good at times for Tacoma last year before getting hurt.

LHP Zac Curtis – former Diamondbacks reliever holds a spot on the M’s 40-man roster

RHP Casey Fien – ex-Twins reliever was signed as a free agent, has an option remaining.

LHP Paul Fry – improved in second half of Rainiers 2016 season, which was his first at the Triple-A level.

RHP Tony Zych – if healthy can help the major league team.

LHP James Pazos – made major league debut with Yankees last year; acquired in a trade.

RHP Shae Simmons – Hard thrower has legit chance to make Mariners roster; we’ll take him if he doesn’t.

RHP Emilio Pagan – should return to Tacoma after promising Triple-A debut last year.

RHP Guido Knudsen – mid-season acquisition finished last year at Double-A but has plenty of Triple-A and a bit of MLB experience.

RHP Matt Anderson – a 3.65 ERA with 56-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Double-A last year looks pretty good.

LHP Brandon Sisk – 31-year-old was recently re-signed; he helped Double-A Jackson down the stretch last year.

RHP Josh Judy – former Indians reliever was recently signed out of the independent Atlantic League.

As you can see, that is a ton of relievers – and I may have missed a name or two. Pat Listach ain’t going with an 18-man bullpen, so we’ll have to wait and see how this shakes out during spring training.

Links:


Pitchers & Catchers Report

February 14, 2017

It has begun.

Mariners pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Peoria, Arizona today. The 2017 baseball season is upon us.

For the first few days, it will be just pitchers throwing bullpen sessions with catchers. The rest of the team is due to report on Sunday.

Everything in spring training is happening a little earlier this year, because the World Baseball Classic is occurring in March and the participating players need to be ready. Actual Cactus League games start on February 25th – usually they don’t begin until March 1 or 2.

Personally, I’ll be headed to Arizona at the end of March. It’s important for me to go toward the end of camp, when we have a clearer picture of who is going to be on the Rainiers roster. As always, we’ll have daily blog reports during my visit.

In the meantime, you should grab your Rainiers opening weekend tickets tomorrow. If you aren’t a season ticket holder, Wednesday is your opportunity to grab the best seats for the opening homestand – including the home opener on April 11.

Opening homestand tickets go on sale at 10:00 AM on Wednesday, with online sales via TacomaRainiers.com.

Lots of links from the past few days:

New post coming Thursday with our final Rainiers spring training positional preview: the relief pitchers.


Rainiers To Have Experienced Rotation

February 9, 2017

Today we preview the Rainiers starting rotation candidates, but first we have to cover a little bit of news.

Yesterday the Mariners traded Rainiers catcher Jesus Sucre to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for a player to be named later or cash.

Sucre has played for both Tacoma and Seattle over the last four seasons. The defensive specialist has spent a lot of time at Cheney Stadium; he’s a class act and we wish him well with the Rays.

The Mariners were able to make this trade because they have cast their lot with recently acquired Tuffy Gosewisch, who is now the No. 3 catcher in the organization behind Mike Zunino and Carlos Ruiz.

The advantage Gosewisch holds is his option year. He has one remaining, which means the Mariners can freely move him back-and-forth between Tacoma and Seattle all season long, if needed. Sucre is out of options, so any injury to either Zunino or Ruiz would have created roster complications.

Barring injury, the Rainiers catchers on opening day should be Gosewisch and Triple-A veteran Nevin Ashley, with Marcus Littlewood also a possibility.

OK, today is supposed to be the Rainiers rotation preview, not a catching summary, so let’s get to it.

The Mariners starting five is set, if everybody gets through spring training (and the World Baseball Classic) unscathed. Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly, Yovani Gallardo.

The top remaining starting pitchers on the 40-man roster in terms of major league experience are RHP Chris Heston (32 major league starts) and LHP Ariel Miranda (ten MLB starts). Either (or both, I suppose) of these guys could make the Mariners opening day roster as long relievers, but it would probably be better from an organizational depth perspective to have them in the starting rotation in Triple-A. At least one of them, anyway.

The Rainiers hope to have one, or both, of Heston and Miranda in the rotation. After that, we have more players with MLB experience and track records of success in Triple-A.

Leading the way is Cody Martin, who is my early odds-on favorite to be the Rainiers opening day starter. He went 10-7 with a 3.62 ERA for Tacoma last year, making 20 starts and five relief appearances. Martin was a “swing man” last year: he mostly started games in Tacoma, but when called up by Seattle he was a long reliever and spot starter. He had a 3.86 ERA in 25.2 IP for the Mariners last year.

Tacoma has added lefthander Dillon Overton, who was a big winner for Nashville in his first Triple-A season last year. Overton went 13-5 with a 3.29 ERA for the Sounds, and he should easily claim a Rainiers starting rotation spot.

One of the younger Rainiers starters should be Rob Whalen, acquired in an offseason trade with the Atlanta Braves. The 23-year-old moved up quickly through the Braves system last year: 18 starts in Double-A, three in Triple-A, and five in the majors. He’s reportedly a good major league prospect and we should get to see him in Tacoma.

The organization signed former Rockies starter Christian Bergman to a minor league contract. He’s made 55 major league appearances, 15 of which are starts, but the fact that he isn’t on the Mariners 40-man roster is going to make it more difficult for him to make the big league club. He should be quite good if he’s with the Rainiers: he has a career 3.87 ERA in 27 PCL starts, all coming while pitching for high-elevation Albuquerque and Colorado Springs. Welcome to sea level, Christian!

Sam Gaviglio is in the mix to return to the Rainiers in 2017. He’s made 26 starts for Tacoma over the past two seasons. Last year he began the year at Double-A Jackson, then came to Tacoma for the stretch run and went 3-2, 3.71 in ten appearances (nine starts). Gaviglio is pitching for Team Italy (my guys!) in the World Baseball Classic next month.

There are two prospects in the mix for the Tacoma starting rotation, although I think they will open the season with the new Double-A Arkansas affiliate and be in line for midseason promotions. One is Andrew Moore, the Oregon State product who had a tremendous 2016 season (12-4, 2.65 between Class-A and AA). The other is Max Povse, who came from the Braves with Whalen. Povse also split 2016 between Class-A and AA, going 9-6 with a 3.36 ERA.

Two others with Double-A experience who could pitch their way to Tacoma at some point in 2017 are RHP Brett Ash (12-8, 4.46 in AA last year) and RHP Dylan Unsworth (3-1, 1.16 in just nine starts last year at Double-A, was injured most of season).

I like this group from the Rainiers perspective: a nice mix of experienced arms with some intriguing prospects waiting in the wings. Starting pitching should be a positive for the Rainiers this year – as long as we can avoid those pesky injuries!

Links:

Spring training starts next week!


Super Bowl Ends, Spring Training Begins

February 7, 2017

The Super Bowl has come and gone, and for many fans that marks the start of baseball season*. Spring training starts next week.

For proof that baseball is starting soon, I ordered my scorebook today. I wrote a post about this a few years ago and it (very surprisingly to me) remains one of the most visited on this site – here it is.

We’ve got quite a few interesting links today, especially if you want to read about the Mariners and get hyped for spring training. Those stories are down below.

Here in Tacoma we’re prepping for an All-Star season, so let’s do another… Triple-A All-Star Flashback!

Tacoma is hosting the 30th annual Triple-A All-Star Game at Cheney Stadium on July 12. We’ll spend the winter looking back at the previous years, to give fans an idea what they can expect in Tacoma this summer.

1997

The 1997 Triple-A All-Star Game was the final one played in the original format, due to an overhaul of Triple-A baseball as a whole.

With three Triple-A leagues, the first ten Triple-A All-Star Games were played as American League affiliates against National League affiliates.

After the 1997 season, the three Triple-A leagues condensed into two circuits, with the PCL and the International League swallowing up the American Association. The PCL grabbed six American Association clubs, and increased from ten teams to 16.

So from 1998 to now, the Triple-A All-Star Game has pitted the PCL against the IL. The 1997 game was the last one to divide up the teams by major league affiliations.

The 1997 game was filled with really good future major leaguers.

A crowd of 11,183 fans filled Iowa’s Sec Taylor Stadium (now called Principal Park – it’s the same stadium) to see longtime big league stars Paul Konerko, Magglio Ordonez, Todd Helton, and Richie Sexson before they made their mark on the major leagues.

Representing the Albuquerque Dukes (Dodgers), Konerko started at third base (!) and went 1-for-2. He won the PCL Most Valuable Player award in 1997, batting .323 with 37 homers and 127 RBI. He went on to hit 439 major league homers, most coming for the Chicago White Sox after he was traded twice before his career got going.

Magglio Ordonez was a career .309 hitter in the majors, with four 30+ home run seasons and 294 career dingers, but he went 0-for-2 representing Nashville in this all-star game.

Helton was wearing a Colorado Springs Sky Sox uniform, and he started at first base and went 0-for-2 in the game. He made his major league debut three weeks later and ended up batting .316 over 17 big league seasons, with 369 homers.

As for Sexson, you know him as a former Mariner. He got called up by Cleveland that September, and eventually hit 306 major league homers – 105 in a Mariners uniform. In the 1997 all-star game he was representing Buffalo, and he came off the bench and went 0-for-1.

Those four players combined to hit 1,408 major league homers.

The American League won the game, 5-3, as another future major leaguer homered during a three-run second inning. That was Frank Catalanotto of Toledo (Detroit), who went 2-for-4 with the homer, a double, two runs scored, and two RBI.

1997 Triple-A All-Star Fun Facts

  • Managers were Gary Jones (Edmonton) and Tim Johnson (Iowa).
  • The Rainiers new hitting coach played in the game. Dave Berg was a Triple-A All-Star representing Charlotte, he started at shortstop, and went 0-for-1.
  • In addition to the players mentioned above, other longtime major leaguers who appeared in this game included Aaron Boone (Indianapolis), Craig Counsell (Colorado Springs), and John Halama (New Orleans).
  • Halama pitched two scoreless innings. Four years later he was a member of the 116-win Mariners starting rotation, and during a brief three-start interval with Tacoma he pitched the first nine-inning perfect game in PCL history.
  • The Rainiers had two all-stars: infielder Brian Raabe and catcher Alan Zinter. Zinter started and went 0-for-1, Raabe came off the bench and singled in his only at-bat. Raabe batted .352 for Tacoma that year, which marked the highest average in franchise history until Jesus Montero hit .355 in 2015.
  • Helton navigated an eleven-slugger field to win the Home Run Derby. Other participants included Konerko, Boone, and future Rainiers outfielder Ryan Radmanovich.
  • Current PCL broadcasters Deene Ehlis (Iowa) and Dan Karcher (Colorado Springs) teamed up on the national radio broadcast.

Links:

Check back Thursday when we preview the Tacoma Rainiers starting rotation candidates.

*Not for me. As a college basketball junkie, baseball season officially starts for me when Cal loses in either a) the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament, or b) the second or third round of the NIT, or c) on the first day of Pac-12 Tournament. Hoping for option A this year.


Rainiers Outfield To Feature Speed & Power

February 2, 2017

We turn our spring training positional previews toward the outfield today – three positions which should be manned by some of the more interesting Rainiers players.

We expect the organization’s top hitting prospect to open the season in right field for Tacoma. That would be power-hitting Canadian Tyler O’Neill.

O’Neill won the Double-A Southern League MVP award last year, batting .293 with 24 home runs and 102 RBI in a pitcher’s league. In 492 at-bats he drew 62 walks (great!) and struck out 150 times (uh-oh).

He reportedly has top-flight power to all fields. That strikeout-to-walk ratio above was a big improvement last year and we’ll see if he can keep trending the right direction in 2017.

Tacoma should also get either Guillermo Heredia or Ben Gamel at the start of the season. In one of the Mariners few major league spring training roster battles, these two will be competing for the role of the M’s 5th outfielder (behind Jarrod Dyson, Leonys Martin, Mitch Haniger, and Nelson Cruz (who will also DH a lot)). There doesn’t appear to be room for both on Seattle’s roster, so we’ll get one of them in Tacoma.

Heredia and Gamel are kind of similar players, high-average slashers who use their speed to hit singles and doubles. Both have minor league options remaining.

Are you ready for the return of Boog Powell? The Rainiers starting centerfielder for the first half of the 2016 season is set to return from a suspension in early April. Powell hit .270 with a .326 OBP for the Rainiers last year.

James Ramsey was acquired by Seattle late in the 2016 season and finished the year with Tacoma, appearing in 27 games for the Rainiers. Combined between Oklahoma City and Tacoma, Ramsey batted .265 with nine homers and a .342 OBP in the PCL.

The Mariners signed Kyle Waldrop to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training. He hit .252 for Triple-A Louisville last year, and then went 5-for-22 in 15 major league games for Cincinnati. Waldrop had a big 2014 season in the minors and was considered an interesting prospect at that time, but he hasn’t hit much at the Triple-A level. The M’s are trying to get him back to his 2014 form.

That’s five outfielders right there. Some other names:

Dario Pizzano had a strong 2015 season at Double-A Jackson, earning a promotion to Tacoma in 2016, but he struggled to post his usual high on-base percentage at the Triple-A level and eventually was returned to AA. I’m not sure where the organization feels he fits this season.

A player unlikely to begin the season in Tacoma, but one to watch, is speedster Ian Miller. Miller went 49-for-52 in stolen base attempts at Double-A Jackson last year, but his .253 batting average and .331 on-base percentage probably means he’ll start the season with the new Arkansas affiliate. If he improves his offense we’ll eventually see him at Cheney.

All told, this is a strong position group. The Rainiers should have an excellent outfield this season.

The Mariners announced that both Jesus Sucre and Jonathan Aro cleared waivers and were outrighted to Tacoma. You can expect to see both players at Cheney Stadium on opening day.

Sucre’s outright really thickens the plot at the catcher position for Tacoma. Assuming that Mike Zunino and Carlos Ruiz are the two Mariners catchers, that leaves Sucre, Tuffy Gosewisch, Nevin Ashley, Marcus Littlewood, and Sebastian Valle all duking it out to see who makes the Triple-A roster. Add Steve Baron to that list if he is healthy in spring training.

Links:

  • Here’s the story on Jesus Sucre and Jonathan Aro clearing waivers and being outrighted to Tacoma.
  • The Times has started previewing spring training, leading off with an article on Mike Zunino‘s expectations for 2017. Also, the paper has a guide for people visiting Peoria for spring training.
  • For ESPN Insiders, Keith Law has his Mariners top prospects list with commentary on the players. Warning: he’s not very bullish on the M’s prospects.
  • Popular former Rainiers super utilityman Leury Bonilla got a job coaching in the Minnesota Twins farm system. Bonilla got caught in a vortex with the Mariners: his final season as a player was the final season of GM Jack Zduriencik and farm director Chris Gwynn. Gwynn would have immediately made Bonilla a coach, but he was gone… and the new player development staff (Andy McKay and his guys) had no familiarity with Bonilla. I’m glad Bonilla found coaching work elsewhere.