Rainiers Middle Infield Candidates

January 19, 2017

As we move closer to the start of spring training, let’s take a look at the middle infielders who will be battling to make the Rainiers opening day roster. Two returning players lead the way.

Tyler Smith spent the entire 2016 season with the Rainiers, and it appears he has a ticket for Tacoma to start the 2017 season. Smith, 25, appeared in 114 games for Tacoma last year, batting .268 with five home runs and 20 doubles. He played 55 games at shortstop, 48 at second base, and 12 at third base. It was his first Triple-A season, and to my eye he seemed to improve as the year went on.

Second baseman Mike Freeman is also a candidate to return to Tacoma. The Mariners acquired Freeman via a waiver claim right around July 31 last year, and he spent time with both Tacoma and Seattle. Freeman is a proven .300 hitter in the PCL, and he draws enough walks to keep his on-base percentage around .375. In addition to second base, Freeman can play shortstop and outfield in a pinch. Freeman will go to major league spring training camp trying to wrestle the utility infielder job away from Shawn O’Malley – which won’t be easy.

Another player eyeing O’Malley’s utility role is offseason pick-up Taylor Motter. A true multi-positionist, in each of the last four seasons Motter has played at least one game at second base, third base, shortstop, and each of the three outfield positions. The M’s acquired this swiss army knife in one of their many trades with the Tampa Bay Rays. Motter had a terrific season offensively in 2015 at Triple-A Durham, but he slipped quite a bit in 2016 when he hit .229 with a .297 OBP.

There isn’t anybody coming up from Double-A this year. Jackson had solid middle infield play last season, but both players are no longer in the organization. Second baseman Tim Lopes was traded, and shortstop Benji Gonzalez left as a minor league free agent.

Freeman, Motter, and O’Malley are all on the major league 40-man roster, and each has at least one minor league option year remaining. At this point it appears that Smith, Freeman and Motter will be in Tacoma in April – unless one of them swipes that big league utility man job from O’Malley. Or injuries – we can’t have injuries.

Three new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame were voted in yesterday: first baseman Jeff Bagwell, outfielder Tim Raines, and catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. Surprisingly, none of the three played in the Pacific Coast League. In fact, two of them never appeared in a Triple-A game.

Raines played Triple-A ball for the 1980 Denver Bears, who were members of the American Association in the pre-Colorado Rockies days. That franchise moved to New Orleans and is now the Baby Cakes, but let’s not digress. Raines hit .354 in 108 games for Denver, with more walks (61) than strikeouts (44), and he went 77-for-90 in stolen base attempts. That looks pretty Hall of Famey to me.

Pudge skipped Triple-A baseball. He jumped straight from Double-A Tulsa to the big leagues in the middle of the 1991 season, and never looked back. He was 19.

Bagwell had a big year for Double-A New Britain in 1990, hitting .333 with a .422 OBP, and was invited to Astros major league spring training camp the following year. He beat out the competition and won a starting job, batting .294 with 15 homers as a rookie.

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Triple-A All-Star Tickets On Sale Today

January 17, 2017

We’ve got some Rainiers news to pass along today.

First and foremost, individual tickets for the Triple-A All-Star Game and Home Run Derby are on sale now.

To get good seats, get your tickets right away – this is going to sell out. I just opened up the Ticketmaster seat map, and there are excellent locations available now.

The two events are bundled together. You get the Home Run Derby on Monday, July 10 and the All-Star Game on Wednesday, July 12.

Here’s the link to buy tickets.

On another note, we have changed the game time for Opening Night on April 11 to 7:05 pm. Early copies of the schedule had it listed at 6:05, but we realized that with all of the pregame ceremonies that didn’t seem right. 7:05 it is – mark your schedules accordingly.

In an important transaction for the Rainiers, on Friday afternoon the Mariners outrighted pitcher Cody Martin to Tacoma. Martin was removed from the 40-man roster earlier last week, cleared waivers, and remains in the Mariners organization.

Martin had a strong 2016 season and will enter spring training camp with a realistic chance to be the Rainiers opening day starting pitcher. Martin went 10-7 with a 3.62 ERA for the Rainiers last year, with an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 114.1 innings pitched, he struck out 114 batters while walking 33 – and he also allowed only six home runs.

Most importantly to your local blogger, Cody Martin is a radio guy’s best friend: he works quickly and throws strikes. He’s from the Brian “The PCL Dream” Sweeney school of pitching. I’ll be petitioning manager Pat Listach to schedule Martin for every getaway day start in 2017.

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We’ll resume the Rainiers pre-spring training positional previews on Thursday.


M’s Get Their Starter and How It Affects Tacoma

January 12, 2017

Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto completed his quest to add a starting pitcher yesterday, making two trades to acquire left-hander Drew Smyly from the Tampa Bay Rays.

Dipoto had to pull some strings. He knew Tampa wanted Atlanta Braves outfielder Mallex Smith, and apparently the Rays couldn’t work out their own trade to get Smith.

So Dipoto traded two young left-handed pitching prospects to Atlanta in order to acquire Smith. Pitchers Luiz Gohara and Thomas Burrows went to the Braves, with the Mariners getting Smith and pitcher Shae Simmons.

Then Dipoto flipped Smith, expected Rainiers starter Ryan Yarbrough, and teenage infield prospect Carlos Vargas to Tampa to get Drew Smyly.

Smyly is established in the American League, and in the articles linked below Dipoto says he has been targeting him all winter.

To get Smyly, the M’s gave up a top prospect in Gohara, who is very talented but a long way away from the major leagues. Carlos Vargas received a huge signing bonus and hit for power in the Dominican Summer League, but he’s even farther from the majors. We had Yarbrough inked into the Rainiers rotation, but now he’s gone – he’s a polished lefty who was really good at Double-A in 2016. Burrows is a relief prospect.

The M’s also added Simmons, who is a potential major league reliever this season. Simmons reached the majors in 2014, hurt his elbow and required Tommy John surgery, and made his comeback last year. Simmons could pitch for Tacoma or Seattle (or both) in 2017.

In all of this shuffling, the Mariners removed Cody Martin from the 40-man roster and he is currently on waivers. If he doesn’t get claimed by another team, the Mariners will outright him to Tacoma. Martin was terrific for the Rainiers last year, and he is a PCL dream: he works quickly and throws strikes.

Despite the loss of Yarbrough and the potential loss of Martin, the moves don’t do too much damage to the Rainiers starting rotation. By adding Smyly, others got pushed down a spot on the ladder. Suddenly pitchers who looked like major league rotation candidates are now Tacoma possibilities. Ariel Miranda and Chris Heston are two pitchers with recent major league starting experience who might find themselves in Tacoma in April. A lot of it will depend on team health coming out of spring training.

The Mariners rotation (not in order) is looking like Felix, Iwakuma, Paxton, Gallardo, Smyly. Tacoma will probably have Heston, Miranda (if he’s not in the Seattle bullpen), Rob Whalen, Christian Bergman, Sam Gaviglio, and maybe one of the prospecty-guys like Andrew Moore or Max Povse.

I was planning to preview the potential Rainiers middle infielders today but that subject deserves its own post. We’ll look at Tacoma’s middle infielders next week.

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Recent Trades, and Derek Jeter’s AAA All-Star Game

January 10, 2017

We’ve got a few things to cover today: the recent trades and a flashback.

On Friday, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto made two major league trades involving veteran players. He sent outfielder Seth Smith to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo, and then he traded pitcher Nathan Karns to the Kansas City Royals for outfielder Jarrod Dyson.

Add them together, and they replaced Karns with Gallardo, and Smith with Dyson.

Gallardo has been a pretty good starting pitcher for a long time, but his 2016 season was a nightmare. If he bounces back to his career norm, the M’s will probably be pleased with this trade.

Dyson and Smith are both left-hand hitting outfielders, and the similarity ends right about there. Dyson is a speed player, he can be electrifying on the bases, and he plays good defense. Dyson is two years younger than Smith. But he does not possess the plate discipline and power of Seth Smith.

Dipoto cited outfield defense as a key reason for the trade. The team should have some terrific glovework, with Dyson, Leonys Martin, Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel, and Guillermo Heredia each capable of playing center field.

There is some serious analysis of the trade from USS Mariner in the links below.

It’s been a while since we had a Triple-A All-Star Flashback, so let’s do one!

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.

1995

Today, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is the home of the New York Yankees Triple-A affiliate. But in 1995, when Scranton hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game, the Red Barons were the Philadelphia Phillies affiliate.

That didn’t stop them from hosting one of the most famous New York Yankees of all time.

Derek Jeter was the starting shortstop for the American League in the 1995 Triple-A All-Star Game, representing the Columbus Clippers. He went 2-for-3 at the plate, including a double, and scored a run before being replaced by New Orleans shortstop Mark Loretta.

Jeter had recently made his major league debut for the Yankees, but was sent back to Triple-A and made the all-star team. The 21-year-old hit .317 with two homers in 486 at-bats for Columbus in 1995. He took over as the Yankees starting shortstop in 1996 and won the Rookie of the Year award.

Despite his strong performance in the all-star game, Derek Jeter was not the MVP. Buffalo first baseman Luis Lopez had three hits, including a double and a homer, and drove in four runs to take home the trophy.

Seven American League pitchers combined to toss a two-hit shutout as the AL won the game, 9-0.

1995 All-Star Fun Facts:

  • Fans of a certain age will remember the hype surrounding the New York Mets “Generation K” pitching prospects: Bill Pulsipher, Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen. Isringhausen was the starting pitcher for the NL, representing Norfolk, and get this: a top prospect at the time, Isringhausen was notified that he would be making his MLB debut after the all-star break – and the Mets let him start the Triple-A All-Star Game anyway. That would never happen today! Isringhausen had the best career of the trio, collecting exactly 300 major league saves.
  • The starting pitcher for the AL was Toledo’s Pat Ahearn, who would later pitch (quite well) for the Tacoma Rainiers in 2000.
  • Managers were Grady Little of Richmond and Chris Bando of New Orleans. Little became manager of the Boston Red Sox, and, well… you know what happened.
  • The 1995 season marked the first year of our Mariners affiliation and our new name, the Tacoma Rainiers. The first Rainiers all-star was relief pitcher Jeff Darwin. He worked a scoreless inning.
  • Albuquerque’s Ron Coomer topped a field of five to win the Home Run Derby. Slugger Brooks Kieschnick was a runner-up.
  • Player who had long careers in the majors included Derek Jeter, Mark Loretta, Jeromy Burnitz, Ron Coomer, John Marzano, Eric Owens, Eddie Perez, and Mark Sweeney.
  • Two current PCL broadcasters worked the game: Iowa’s Deene Ehlis and Phoenix’s Russ Langer (now with Las Vegas).
  • The television broadcast aired on ESPN2, with current MLB Network host Matt Vasgersian on the call.

Our Usual Links:

Check back Thursday for a 2017 Rainiers pre-spring training position preview.


An Early Look: 2017 Tacoma Catchers

January 5, 2017

Today we start our annual spring training positional previews, in which we take a look at the players who head into spring training with a chance to break camp as members of the Tacoma Rainiers.

We start with the catchers.

So much of the Rainiers roster depends on who makes the big league club, but in the case of catchers there is another huge factor: injuries.

Catchers are so much more injury prone than the other position players, strictly because of the nature of the position (unpredictable foul tips! Baseballs flying at you at all times! A grown man swinging a large stick right in front of your face! All of that squatting!).

We expect the Mariners to carry two catchers on the opening day roster, and if there are no injuries in the Cactus League they will be Mike Zunino and Carlos Ruiz.

Here in Tacoma, we’ll have two or three catchers when the season starts on April 6.

Seattle re-signed Jesus Sucre to a complicated contract which pays him a lot of money (by Triple-A standards) if he is in the minor leagues. This was a strategic play by the Mariners: they value Sucre and want to keep him, but he is out of minor league options. The hope is that the high Triple-A salary will prevent other teams from claiming him off waivers if the M’s have to send him to Tacoma. So, Sucre is a possible Rainiers catcher on Opening Day.

Another likely Tacoma catcher is Marcus Littlewood, who had a strong 2016 season at Double-A Jackson and finished the year with a three-week stint in Tacoma, including the playoffs. A switch-hitter, Littlewood batted .307 with a .404 OBP for Jackson last year, albeit in just 192 at-bats. He was a second round draft pick as a high school infielder in 2010, and the M’s converted him to catcher knowing it would be a slow development path.

Steve Baron is also in the mix, but there are injury concerns. His 2016 season ended in August with shoulder surgery, and at this time I’m not sure what his health situation is going into spring training. I’ll let you know when I learn anything.

The Mariners signed former Phillies prospect Sebastian Valle to a minor league contract, and he can slot in at either Double-A or Triple-A. Valle has Triple-A experience with Lehigh Valley in 2012 and 2014, but mostly has been playing at the Double-A level recently. His profile looks like that of a good defensive catcher – you just kind of assume it, since he hasn’t hit much.

One other player to add here: midway through last season, the Rockies released Ryan Casteel and the M’s signed him and sent him to Jackson for the stretch run. Seattle recently re-signed him for 2017. Casteel caught 51 games for Albuquerque over the last two seasons, but after Seattle acquired him last year he played strictly first base for Jackson.

A late acquisition at the catcher position is always a possibility – especially if one of the top three (Zunino, Ruiz, Sucre) gets injured in spring training. Last year, the M’s acquired Rob Brantly at the very end of March, and he spent the entire season in Tacoma and was a key contributor on a playoff team.

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New Year, New Rainiers Outfielder

January 3, 2017

Hey guys, we’re back!

I hope you had a good holiday season, and are ready to get on with 2017. We expect to have a super-fun season at Cheney Stadium this year, highlighted by the defending division champion Rainiers, and the Triple-A All-Star Game in July.

Spring training opens in just six weeks. To build up to spring training, we’ll start a weekly series of blog posts looking at which players are going to camp with a chance to open the season in Tacoma. The first post will come on Thursday.

The Mariners were very quiet over winter break, and still need to acquire a starting pitcher (or two) for the big league club.

On the minor league front, the M’s signed free agent outfielder Kyle Waldrop, who is kind of interesting.

A 25-year-old outfielder, Waldrop has hit in the lower-level minor leagues but struggled with Triple-A Louisville in 2016, batting .252 with five homers and a .300 on-base percentage. What’s interesting is that he put up much better numbers in Double-A, and he is young enough to improve.

In 133 Double-A games for Pensacola of the Southern League, Waldrop has hit .295 with 14 homers and a .473 slugging percentage, while keeping his strikeouts at reasonable levels. He’s a left-handed batter.

Waldrop appeared in 15 major league games for the Reds last year, going 5-for-22, but was removed from the 40-man roster after the season and became a free agent. He’ll be a player to keep an eye on this season for Tacoma.

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Triple-A All-Star Flashback: 1994

December 22, 2016

It’s been a slow week for baseball news involving the Mariners and Rainiers, so let’s do another… 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.

1994

Nashville’s Greer Stadium was the site of the 1994 Triple-A All-Star Game, which serves as a reminder of where we are on the timeline.

Greer Stadium is no longer in play – Nashville built a new ballpark for the 2015 season.

Nashville wasn’t even in the PCL in 1994, it was an American Association city. The Triple-A merger and expansion of the PCL didn’t come until after the 1997 season.

And 1994 was the final season of the Tacoma Tigers and the Oakland A’s affiliation. After that season, the Seattle Mariners affiliated with Tacoma and we changed the name to the Rainiers.

The final Tacoma Tigers player to appear in a Triple-A All-Star Game was outfielder Scott Lydy, who came off the bench to go 0-for-2 for the American League in an 8-5 NL victory.

The game opened up when the National League sent its leadoff man to the plate, Tucson Toros outfielder Brian Hunter, and… wait a minute, that’s our new coach for 2017! We were just talking about him on Tuesday. He went 1-for-3 with a double and a run scored in the game.

Future superstars were in short supply in the 1994 contest. I suppose outfielder Garrett Anderson was the biggest future star, or maybe second baseman Ray Durham. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez had a long career after breaking in with Toronto. Carl Everett played in the game, he was pretty good for a while before things went south.

Polar opposites served as the starting pitchers. The NL started 34-year-old veteran Craig McMurtry of Tucson, who was trying to get back to the big leagues. He had finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting way back in 1983! The AL starter was 21-year-old Julian Tavarez of Charlotte. Tavarez was a big Indians prospect at the time, and while he did not reach stardom he did pitch in the majors until 2009.

1994 Triple-A All-Star Game Fun Facts:

  • The AL manager was Nashville skipper Rick Renick, who is Tacoma’s all-time home run leader. He hit 72 homers for the Tacoma Twins over a four-season span, 1973-1976.
  • Rick Sweet managed the NL, representing Tucson. This was the first of a record three Triple-A All-Star managing assignments for Sweet, who served as the Colorado Springs Sky Sox skipper last year.
  • Friend Of The Blog and former Rainiers pitcher Andrew Lorraine made his first Triple-A All-Star appearance, working two innings for the NL. A White Sox prospect at the time, Lorraine represented Vancouver of the PCL.
  • Richmond’s Terry Clark pitched a scoreless inning. He was a Mariners minor league pitching coach during the Jack Zduriencik era.
  • Playing in front of a hometown crowd, Ray Durham went 3-for-3 and won the MVP award.
  • Louisville’s Scott Coolbaugh won a shortened version of the Home Run Derby. Not sure what happened that year, but only four players participated and none were from the PCL. We’ll do a little better at Cheney Stadium this summer, I promise.
  • One of the announcers on the national radio broadcast was Edmonton’s Al Coates. He was an unforgettable character.

After a couple of all-star games featuring future Hall of Famers, the 1994 game was a little light on future household names. That would change in a big way with the 1995 game, which we’ll get to after the holidays.

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  • Rainiers reliever David Rollins was claimed off waivers for the fourth time this winter yesterday. The Texas Ranger claimed him again – they had him a few weeks ago, and tried to sneak him off the roster only to have Philadelphia grab him.

That’s it, one link. It’s the slowest time of the year for baseball news. In fact, many teams – including the Rainiers – close their front offices for the week between Christmas and New Year. Along those lines, we won’t have any blog updates until the new year – unless Dealin’ Dipoto makes a big move. Which he might. Anyway, happy holidays and we’ll see you in January!