16 Days To Go – A News Round-Up

January 30, 2018

We’re in the final two-and-a-half weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, and you can feel the baseball season approaching. It even stopped raining in my neighborhood for a while today in honor of the upcoming season.

Today we’ll do a news round-up, and on Thursday we’ll preview the candidates for Tacoma’s corner infield positions.

We’ve got some sad news stories right out of the gate.

  • Former Rainiers hitting coach Alonzo Powell is battling cancer – and as usual, he is going into it with the right mindset. We wish one of the kindest people in the game a speedy and complete recovery.
  • Longtime Mariners video coordinator Carl Hamilton passed away. He was a pioneer in the field.
  • Former Padres and Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers succumbed to thyroid cancer at the early age of 56. “K.T.” as we called him was one of the most instantly likable people I’ve ever met in the sport. As the broadcaster for the Padres Class-A affiliate in the late 1990s, I’ll never forget Towers visiting our team on a scouting trip yet being completely glued to every nuance of the major league game, which he was following on some sort of primitive baseball score-tracking device that looked like a pager.
  • Ryan Divish took a deep dive into Jerry Dipoto’s defense of the Mariners farm system. It really comes down to Dipoto’s philosophy: he’d rather trade risk (young prospects) for known quantities (current major league players).
  • Multiple-time former Rainiers reliever Mark Lowe is getting a shot with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are inviting him to major league spring training. Wouldn’t it be something if he followed the path of another ex-Rainiers pitcher, Brandon Morrow?
  • Ex-Rainiers and Mariners outfielder Nori Aoki is going back to Japan on a three-year deal with the Yakult Swallows. He played six seasons in the majors.
  • Art Thiel has a column on tanking in baseball.
  • Matt Calkins writes that Dee Gordon is going to bring some excitement to the Mariners.
  • Here’s a hot take for you: Jim Moore writes that it is time to end the “King’s Court.”
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From The M’s Media Luncheon

January 26, 2018

The Mariners held their annual Pre-Spring Training Media Luncheon yesterday, and as usual there was quite a bit of information to get us looking forward to the start of another baseball season.

This year’s event was geared more toward the major league team than recent years. Sometimes in the past they have brought a top prospect to speak, or there has been discussion about prospects who might be close to Seattle (and likely Tacoma players), but this year there was little of that.

The most discussed prospect was outfielder Kyle Lewis and his recovery from knee surgery, which has not gone as smoothly as hoped. The M’s 2016 first round draft pick’s status is kind of vague right now, with new Director of High Performance Lorena Martin reporting that Lewis is “undergoing lots of physical therapy,” and farm director Andy McKay only saying “I hope he gets to a position where he can play consistently this year.” That’s unlikely to be Tacoma, seeing how he hasn’t played a full season of Class-A ball yet.

There was little discussion of potential Rainiers players, with the exception of possible pitchers Andrew Moore and Ariel Miranda. General Manager Jerry Dipoto made it sound like four big league starting rotation spots are locked up (Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Mike Leake, and Erasmo Ramirez), with the No. 5 spot going to one of Marco Gonzales, Miranda, or Moore. Gonzales is out of minor league options which gives him a leg up.

Speaking of pitching, you couldn’t help but notice that there is the big difference in opinion of the Mariners starting rotation between Dipoto and the general public. Dipoto likes the rotation, he believes the excessive injuries from last season are in the past, and he believes it’s an above-average rotation by current MLB standards. Baseball fans I speak with around town have a very different opinion. Hopefully, Jerry is right.

Both McKay and Dipoto defended the Mariners farm system, which Baseball America recently ranked the worst in MLB.

McKay said that Mariners minor leaguers have been coveted by other organizations – as seen by all of the trades – and that his coaches are getting interviews for promotions with other teams. McKay added he doesn’t consider player rankings, preferring to look at every player as a prospect and help them improve on the field.

Dipoto pointed out that several players who would be ranked as prospects were forced into major league action last year and graduated from prospect lists (Moore, Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, Mitch Haniger). He added that trading prospects to bring in major league players has hurt the Mariners in the rankings.

In response to a question about the slow major league offseason and all of the players still available as free agents, Dipoto delivered a whopper: “You could argue that there is more competition to get the No. 1 pick in the draft than there is to win World Series.”

That appears to be a true statement, and one that reflects on MLB’s biggest problem right now: too many teams are ‘tanking’ and starting four-year plans to lose in order to get top draft picks and try to become the next Cubs and Astros – winners of the last two World Series. Only major changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement can prevent this from being a permanent trend. The current CBA doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season, so get ready for more tanking.

To be clear, Dipoto and the Mariners are firmly in the “trying to win the World Series” group for now. The key will be finding a way to improve the team from middle-third of the 30 teams to upper-third under the current conditions.

Away from the majors, Mariners Chairman John Stanton announced a new community program called On BASE (Baseball And Softball Everywhere) with the goal of making baseball and softball accessible to all kids by providing fields and equipment. Included is a partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma supporting elementary school baseball and softball programs. They say the Tacoma arm of the program will reach about 2,400 kids. Good stuff!

Unfortunately, Edgar Martinez did not gain enough votes to be elected to the Hall of Fame this cycle. However, he made enough headway for us to be confident that he’ll achieve election next year in his tenth and final year on the ballot. That’s not a sure thing, but it looks promising.

Speaking with Mariners personnel yesterday, it was learned that the vote was close enough that both the Mariners and the Hall of Fame itself were prepared if he had received enough votes – including being ready for the media deluge and a quick flight to New York. However, he fell 20 votes shy and will have to hope for a better outcome next time.

Links:


Tacoma Middle Infielders: New and Old Faces

January 23, 2018

Next up in our positional previews series as spring training approaches is a look at the Tacoma Rainiers middle infield candidates.

The organization is not strong in upper-level middle infield prospects right now, so the Mariners went out and acquired some players to provide middle infield depth – and they also re-signed an experienced player from last year’s Tacoma squad.

Gordon Beckham is back on a minor league contract, after serving as Tacoma’s second baseman in 2017. A major league veteran who earned a September call-up to Seattle last year, Beckham hit .262 with nine homers in 83 games for the Rainiers in 2017. Beckham can play second base, third base, and in a pinch shortstop for Tacoma. He also provides strong clubhouse leadership skills in the (unlikely) event that there will be any young position players on the 2018 Rainiers.

The M’s acquired 26-year-old shortstop Zach Vincej from the Cincinnati Reds this winter, and if the reports on his strong glove are accurate he should handle shortstop for Tacoma. Vincej hit .270 with three homers in 110 games for Triple-A Louisville last season, and he made his MLB debut in September. Even if he turns out to be the Rainiers best defensive shortstop, the M’s may groom his for a utility role and move him around various defensive spots for the Rainiers.

Rey Navarro was signed from the minor league free agent list. A 28-year-old switch-hitter, Navarro batted .278-7-82 for Salt Lake last year. He has four years of Triple-A experience, and a little major league time with the 2015 Baltimore Orioles. Navarro can play shortstop, second base, and third base.

We can list him at just about any position, so we’ll stick him here: super-sub and everyone’s favorite Rainier Zach Shank should be back for his third season with Tacoma. Last season he appeared at every single position for Tacoma except for catcher – and there was even some talk about having him play all nine positions on the last day of the season, but that ended up not happening. Shank shot out of the gate hot at the plate last year, but ended up cooling off to a .215 average with two homers and 43 RBI – yet he does a lot of things very well, defensively and on the bases.

A wild card to watch in spring training is Taylor Motter, who runs the risk of being aced out of a roster spot with the Mariners, and he has minor league options remaining. Seattle acquired utility infielder Andrew Romine from Detroit and it appears he has the lead as a glove-oriented back-up with the Mariners. Motter can still make the big league team, with his ability to play outfield helping him, but if he were to get optioned to Tacoma… then say hello to the Rainiers No. 3 hitter in the lineup. He destroyed PCL pitching to the tune of a .350 batting average with seven homers in 100 at-bats in 2017.

The middle infielders are a veteran group. We’ll preview the corner infielders next week.

Baseball America released its annual Seattle Mariners Top Prospects package on Friday, and it’s not a pretty sight. The publication has the Mariners ranked last in baseball in terms of talent on the farm.

Most of the quality content is behind the subscription paywall, but here is the free stuff: the list of the Mariners Top Ten along with a couple of notes, and a chat with the author of the Mariners section. (Edit: looks like the chat is now behind the paywall).

Big week ahead: tomorrow we learn if Edgar Martinez is voted into the Hall of Fame, and on Thursday the Mariners host their annual pre-spring training media luncheon. New blog post coming Friday, with all of the Tacoma-related news that emerges from the Mariners media event.

Links:

  • The Mariners claimed right-handed reliever Chasen Bradford off waivers from the New York Mets. He’s been with his hometown team Las Vegas for all or parts of the last four seasons, posting a 4.18 ERA in 176 Triple-A games – which is not a bad ERA for a Vegas pitcher (if you are new here, Las Vegas’s home ballpark is a launching pad). A solid pick-up for the Rainiers, but he’ll be in the mix to compete for the major league bullpen, too.
  • Ryan Divish has a story on Baseball America’s rankings, with a bit of information on each of the Mariners Top Ten Prospects. In addition to the M’s list, Baseball America released its Top 100 Prospects for 2018, with the lone Mariner Kyle Lewis checking in at No. 67.
  • USS Mariner has a commentary on the Baseball America prospect rankings. As a fan of grim humor, I chuckled at the headline.
  • Prospect analyst John Sickels filed his annual Mariners report, with brief write-ups on twenty players.
  • Sometime on Wednesday, Edgar Martinez might get a phone call informing him he’s been elected into the Hall of Fame. Or maybe he won’t – this election is too close to call, Larry Stone writes.
  • In this week’s Minor League Transactions we learn that former Rainiers pitcher Forrest Snow has signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.

2018 Spring Previews: Catchers

January 18, 2018

Yesterday the Seattle Mariners announced their preliminary list of non-roster spring training invitees, which is often made up of eventual Tacoma Rainiers players.

The list includes 22 players this year, plus the members of the 40-man roster who are required to come to camp. That’s 62 players – already too many for the MLB and Triple-A 25-man opening day rosters.

One area where the organization invited players from the lower levels to spring training is in the catching corps. There are a lot of pitchers in spring training – 31 invited so far – and someone has to catch all of these guys. Lower level catching prospects get invited to camp to handle this.

So far, there have been six catchers invited to major league spring training. Three are on the 40-man roster, and three are on minor league contracts. From this pool we will get two – or possibly three – catchers on the Tacoma Rainiers opening day roster.

Tacoma’s catchers will be the “losers” of one of the few true roster battles in spring training: the fight to be Mike Zunino‘s back-up.

There are two catchers on the 40-man roster who have about one month of major league experience, and are the leaders in the competition simply because of their roster status: Dave Frietas and Mike Marjama.

Freitas was claimed off waivers from the Atlanta Braves in November, shortly after making his big league debut. His reputation is that of a defensive catcher who doesn’t hit a whole lot – he went 4-for-17 in his first taste of the majors, and batted .263 with three homers in 263 at-bats for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Marjama is his opposite, a better hitting prospect who is still relatively new to catching. Marjama was acquired in a late-season trade with Tampa last August 6th, and spent a month with the Rainiers before making his major league debut as a September call-up. Marjama has power, hitting 13 homers in 350 at-bats last year including his first big league dinger.

Those two are the leaders in the Battle to Back Up Zunino, but there is another, more experienced candidate. Tuffy Gosewisch re-signed a minor league deal with the Mariners, and he could go into camp and win the back-up job. Gosewisch has more experience (nearly three full years of big league time) and a better defensive reputation than both Freitas and Marjama, particularly in the areas of game planning and pitch selection. However, he did not hit much in 2017 – even in Tacoma (.229-4-33 in 85 games).

Manager Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto are going to decide during spring training if they want their once-a-week catcher to be an offensive threat or a defensive stalwart. At this point we don’t really know what they are thinking.

As for Tacoma, barring spring injuries or further roster moves we’ll end up with two of those three catchers on the opening day roster.

The two other catchers invited to major league spring training are John Odom and Joe DeCarlo. The recently acquired Odom (another former Braves minor leaguer) appears on paper to be slated for Double-A, although that could change if he impresses once the Mariners see him in person this spring. DeCarlo is a former Mariners second-round draft pick as an infielder who the organization converted to catcher; he played at Class-A Modesto last season and is not quite in the Triple-A picture yet.

That’s the Tacoma catching situation going into spring training, and it appears to be pretty set: two from the group of Freitas, Gosewisch, and Marjama.

I do this post every year in the position previews, and for the first time in several seasons there is no mention of Steven Baron, Marcus Littlewood, or Tyler Marlette. These three Mariners draft picks each timed out of the organization, reaching free agency and leaving with only Baron seeing significant time at the Triple-A level. In terms of player development, catchers are slow to boil.

Next week we’ll look at potential Tacoma Rainiers middle infielders.

Links:

  • Larry Stone caught up with our Sunday broadcaster Bob Robertson in the wake of Keith Jackson‘s passing, and includes an embedded emotional interview the duo did in 2014.
  • Ryan Divish runs through the Mariners non-roster spring training invitees.
  • If you have been a close follower of the M’s and their farm system since 2001, you will enjoy marc w’s praise of catcher Rene Rivera over at USS Mariner. And yes, despite how the story starts, it is a praise.

 


Looking At The Rainiers 2018 Schedule

January 16, 2018

With the season starting in just a couple of months, it’s time to take a look at the 2018 Tacoma Rainiers schedule.

This is the first year of the 140-game era for the Pacific Coast League.  The league has been working off a 144-game schedule since the 1980s, but Major League Baseball wants all of its full-season minor leagues to play no more than 140 games. 2017 was an in-between year, with the league shortening from 144 to 142 games, and now 2018 is the first season of the 140-game schedule.

Surprisingly, the league cut the four games off from the cross-conference portion of the schedule, and not the opposing division. It is not known why they elected to do this, but it creates a competitive imbalance which could easily be resolved.

The basics are still the same: Tacoma will play its three Pacific-North Division rivals (Reno, Sacramento, Fresno) 16 times each, eight games home and eight away.

The Rainiers will play each of the Pacific-South Division clubs 16 times, eight home and eight away.

The imbalance comes in the cross-conference play. This season the American-North teams will visit Tacoma: Iowa and Colorado Springs will play four games in Tacoma, while Oklahoma City and Omaha will play three games each. Tacoma does not visit those cities this year.

We travel to the American-South division: Memphis and Round Rock for three games, and Nashville and New Orleans for four games.

It’s an opposite situation for Tacoma’s travel partner and division rival, Reno. Let’s say Tacoma and Reno are neck-and-neck in a pennant race the last week of July, when the two teams do the New Orleans – Round Rock road trip. Tacoma plays four at New Orleans and three at Round Rock – while Reno plays four games at Round Rock and three at New Orleans. If one of those teams is terrible and the other is really good, the imbalance of games could sway the race.

The simple solution would be to continue playing the American Conference teams in a four-game series, and play one game fewer against the Pacific-South teams. If the Pac-North played 16 games against its own division, 15 against the Pac-South, and four each against the American Conference we would have 140 games and a competitively balanced schedule.

Again, not sure why they did this – the travel cost washes out as the same either way. And it seems kind of silly for, say, Reno to fly all the way to New Orleans for just three games.

Some thoughts on the Rainiers schedule, from a guy who has gets to travel it:

  • Tacoma opens at home on Thursday, April 5th against Sacramento, and finishes the season on Labor Day (September 3) at El Paso. The final road trip is a seven-gamer – Tacoma’s last home game falls on August 27.
  • It’s 140 games in 152 days, including the three-day all-star break in July. The added off-days created by contracting to 140 games should help with the league-wide fatigue problem.
  • There is only one off-day in April, and one in May. This is good, in my opinion. We always have a couple of rain outs (home and away) early in the season, and everyone is invigorated and ready to play at the beginning. The remaining ten off-days are scattered over the final three months of the season – when we actually need them. Well done, PCL.
  • The first thing I always look at is to see if we play El Paso and Albuquerque on the same road trip. Both are long flights – El Paso in particular, because there is zero chance of a direct flight from SeaTac – and flying on the game day is a challenge. It’s a three-hour bus trip from El Paso to Albuquerque, so you really want to knock ’em out in one road trip… but this year we do not visit both cities on the same road trip.
  • Tacoma plays one long road trip: a 12-game, three-city jaunt that starts in Reno for four games, moves to El Paso for four, and then finishes with four games in Sacramento. Thanks to a well-placed getaway afternoon game on a Monday in Reno, I’m told this is not the travel nightmare I originally thought it would be.
  • On the flip side, the Rainiers have a wonderful 11-game, 12-day homestand in late August when the weather should be fantastic. The August 16-27 run features two weekends, a pair of Sunday afternoon games, and eight potentially key match-ups against division rivals Fresno and Reno.
  • As usual we are home on July 3rd, and hit the road (to Albuquerque) on the Fourth of July. The Rainiers prefer this, thanks to our long-standing tradition of July 3rd Fireworks at Cheney Stadium.
  • For the first time in decades the all-star break in the Triple-A leagues does not match up with the major league all-star break. We’re off July 9-11, with the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 11 in Columbus. But the MLB all-star break is July 16-19, with their All-Star Game in Washington, DC on July 17th. I have no idea how this happened, but it definitely is a bummer that the Triple-A All-Star Game will be competing with a full slate of major league regular season games on July 11, instead of having the baseball exclusive on that date as in the past. Could negatively impact the national TV situation, too.
  • The PCL needs to implement a rule that they have in the major leagues: teams must schedule a day game on the Sunday before the all-star break.
  • Fun stuff: we have a day game on a Sunday followed by a Monday night game in both New Orleans and Las Vegas, meaning we get Sunday evening off for fine dining in the Big Easy and fun & games in Vegas. No such luck on the Memphis trip, though – you can really eat well there after a day game.
  • Our first Vegas trip is the same weekend as the Punk Rock Bowling festival next door to our hotel. A very different crowd than the time we were there during the Electric Daisy Carnival, to be sure. Maybe I can catch At The Drive In…

This post made me start to get excited about the season. We’ll continue on Thursday with the first edition of our pre-spring training positional breakdown of potential Rainiers players.

Links:

  • Bad news: Mariners prospect Eric Filia has been suspended for the first 50 games of the 2018 season after testing positive for ‘drugs of abuse.’ In Minor League Baseball, ‘drugs of abuse’ include substances that are legal in most of the western United States. Still, everyone knows the rules, and he’s gonna sit out 50.  Filia was slotted to start the season at Double-A Arkansas.
  • Good news: John McGrath writes that Mike Zunino is trending in the right direction.
  • Pitcher Tyler Cloyd – a member of the 2017 Rainiers – signed as a free agent with the Miami Marlins.
  • Former Rainiers first baseman Ji-Man Choi signed a minor league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, meaning he’ll probably be back in the PCL playing for Colorado Springs.
  • The Mariners are really average, Matt Calkins writes.

The Return Of The Staff

January 11, 2018

The Seattle Mariners announced their 2018 minor league coaching staffs on Wednesday afternoon, including the Tacoma Rainiers returning trio.

Pat Listach is back for his fourth year as manager of the Rainiers, and his sixth year managing in the Pacific Coast League. He’ll be joined by third-year pitching coach Lance Painter, and second-year hitting coach David Berg.

Listach took the helm of the Rainiers in 2015, going 68-76 in his first season. Year two saw a huge improvement: an 81-62 record, a division title and Tacoma’s first playoff appearance since 2010.

Last year the Rainiers fell to 66-76 due to a revolving-door roster that was out of Listach’s control. Tacoma had a winning record for much of the season before the incessant roster moves and the lack of any sort of true “team” caught up with us in the end.

Listach is good for the fans at Cheney: during his three years in Tacoma, Listach has amassed a 123-92 (.572) home won/loss record, which is the best of any PCL team over that time.

Personally, I happily welcome back all three. This is a fun staff to work with, and each of the trio gives interesting insight when interviewed on the radio show.

In 2017 the Rainiers had four coaches, but apparently the Mariners have backed away from that. The fourth coach last season was Denny Hocking, who yesterday was named the manager of the Mariners Low-A Clinton (Iowa) affiliate.

The Rainiers training and medical staff has not yet been revealed.

Links:

  • SB Nation reporter Chris Cotillo says that the Mariners have re-signed Christian Bergman on a minor league deal. Bergman was very good for Tacoma last year, posting a 9-4 won-loss record and pitching a complete-game shutout – although his ERA ballooned to 5.34 due to a couple of very rough starts toward the end of the season (he was 8-1 with a 3.34 ERA on July 26). He also filled in for the Mariners last year, pitching in 13 major league games.
  • The Seattle Times has a post on the Mariners minor league staffs, along with Ryan Divish’s comments on the assignments.
  • Hall of Famer and member of the original 1960 Tacoma Giants Willie McCovey celebrated his 80th birthday recently, and he reminisced about his career.
  • Longtime Mariners scout Wayne Norton passed away at age 75. He was a Canadian scout who also covered other international areas. Baseball America covered his career.
  • Congratulations to Friend Of The Blog Dave Cameron, who is now a former baseball writer because he was hired by the San Diego Padres front office.

Povse Back To Starting Role

January 5, 2018

A recent story on the Mariners website brought some clarity to the role of potential Rainiers pitcher Max Povse.

Povse had a tumultuous 2017 season, which saw him struggle amid role changes at the upper levels but also make his Major League debut.

Some background:

A 6-foot-8 right-hander, Povse was acquired from the Atlanta Braves on November 28, 2016 in a rare prospect-for-prospect trade. The M’s gave up their 2014 first round draft pick Alex Jackson in the deal.

Always a starter in the Braves system, Povse opened the 2017 season in the rotation for the M’s Double-A Arkansas affiliate in April. After his eighth start he hit the disabled list with a hamstring injury.

Upon returning from the disabled list Povse was moved to the bullpen. He made one relief appearance and was immediately called straight up to the major leagues, with general manager Jerry Dipoto saying that he hoped Povse could become a multiple-inning super-reliever like the Houston Astros’ Chris Devenski.

That put a lot of pressure on Povse, who in addition to the nerves of being a rookie had essentially zero experience working in a relief role.

The results weren’t good. Povse was hit around in his (very brief) major league tenure, then was optioned to Tacoma where he struggled with his fastball command while being used as both a starter and a reliever, without really knowing his role.

Things changed with an assignment to the Arizona Fall League. Povse was used as a starter there, building up to five-inning stints and improving as the season went on.

In the story on the Mariners site (first link below), Dipoto admits that in hindsight making Povse a reliever was a mistake. He said that Povse will come to spring training this year and compete for a job as a starter.

Let’s go ahead and pencil Max Povse into the Rainiers starting rotation. This will be a good one to watch every fifth day. He has the stuff to be a quality major leaguer in the future and it will be fun to watch him develop.

We have news that two former Rainiers players have new teams.

Infielder Shawn O’Malley has signed with the Colorado Rockies, and catcher Steven Baron inked a deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. Both are minor league contracts.

These are two high quality people and we wish them well.

Links:

  • Here’s the original story on Max Povse and his return to the starting rotation, reported by Greg Johns.
  • Veteran News Tribune columnist John McGrath made his Hall of Fame ballot public and wrote a column about how he voted.
  • Since the Buffalo Bills made the playoffs in the NFL, the Mariners now have the longest playoff drought in professional sports. Baseball writer Ryan Divish displays an alarming amount of knowledge of poor teams in other sports in this Seattle Times story.
  • In the PCL, the Colorado Springs franchise is moving to San Antonio after this coming season, and San Antonio needs a new ballpark.

We’ll be back next week with a look at the 2018 schedule.