Pressure getting to Mariners? Fall to Jays 14-4

If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

- Winston Churchill

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Expectations are a double-edged sword. They are the foundation upon which successful teams are built. Without them, a team is just a collections of players. Without them, players are rarely able maximize their physical attributes. Good teams set and exceed expectations, whereas bad teams struggle to instill expectations into their culture.

For the Seattle Mariners’ fanbase, expectations have cratered over the past decade. By 2012, attendance had plummeted by half from a high in 2002, when the Mariners led the league. But it wasn’t just the fans that had tempered their expectations. When one-time prospect Jesus Montero reported to spring training visibly overweight, GM Jack Zduriencik stated, “I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero. Any expectations I had are gone”.

 

Seattle mariners attendance

As the losses accumulated over several seasons, expectations surrounding Montero and fellow prospects Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Nick Franklin faded. Was it possible that the Mariners’ had struck out on four top prospects? Even more ominous was that the excitement for the big three, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen had softened as injuries plagued each to some degree.

Indeed, expectations for the 2014 season from both inside and outside the team appeared mixed. And in part, that is why Zduriencik brought aboard second baseman Robinson Cano and manager Lloyd McClendon. Coming from the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers, Cano and McClendon represented an attempt to infuse winning baseball culture into the organization. The two brought with them expectations not of a team of developing young players, but of a team ready to compete every night in every stadium in the league.

Even before spring training had gotten into full swing, McClendon drew a line in the sand by defending Cano against criticism from Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. Besides demonstrating that he had his players back, McClendon was announcing that the Mariners were not going to back down from any team. They expected to compete.

It was quickly evident that those expectations were spreading throughout the team. Michael Saunders, who had suffered through some of the team’s darkest days, shared his new perspective before the season, “…we’re going to be fighting coming into September, and September games are going to be meaningful.”

And slowly, the Mariners began winning. They had developed an outstanding pitching staff and were scoring just enough to win their share of games. For the first time in years, the team remained in contention through the summer months. After a scorching August, the team cooled somewhat in September. However, the Oakland Athletics were in the middle of an historic swoon, and it appeared likely that the upstart team from Seattle could secure a wildcard spot.

But as summer turned to fall and the pressure of each series rose, the Mariners’ inexperience began to show. Unable to make up ground on the A’s or the equally green Kansas City Royals, the Mariners were running out of time. Entering the last two series of the year, the Mariners needed to make a move (see “It’s now or next year for the Mariners”). Luckily, they had an in-form James Paxton leading them into the series opener. Paxton, the flame-throwing left-handed rookie, had already pitched in some big games including the season home opener and the Lou Piniella Hall of Fame game.

But this was a different type of pressure. Or to be more exact, pressures.

First, it is relevant that the 25 year old Paxton is a Richmond, BC product selected in the first round of the 2009 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. After failing to come to terms with the team, however, Paxton opted to return to the University of Kentucky. Unfortunately, the NCAA ruled him ineligible due to his dealings with agent Scott Boras and he ended up playing for the Grand Prairie AirHogs.

Upon re-entering the 2010 draft, Paxton was subsequently chosen in the fourth round by the Seattle Mariners. It was his first trip to Toronto, playing in front of a team and fanbase that he felt he had everything to prove. There may not have been a worse place or situation for Paxton to pitch the biggest game of the season. In his post-game interview, both Paxton and McClendon suggested that he had indeed become too wound up about pitching in front of the team that originally drafted him.

A second pressure was rooted in the hype and expectation that had quickly built around the rookie. In the pre-game show, discussion centered around comments made by his previous opponent C.J. Wilson, who compared Paxton to fellow lefty superstars, Jon Lester and Clayton Kershaw. Suddenly managing expectations had become a real issue for a pitcher with 15 career starts.

But the major obstacle, one that faced every player on this young team was the pressure of a playoff race. The weight of the race and the associated expectations were painfully apparent in the opening game against the Jays. Paxton failed to throw consistent strikes and was generally throwing a little slower than usual at around 93 mph. The few times he did reach 96 mph, were were on pitches that lacked control. In the field, a passed ball by rookie Jesus Sucre, a throwing error by rookie Chris Taylor and balls not handled cleanly by Kyle Seager and Cano revealed a team that was feeling the pressure.

Seattle Mariners

This was in stark contrast to the Jays, who were clearly playing free and easy. Diving catches were made by Jose Bautista and Dalton Pompey followed by an outfield assist also by Bautista. Given a comfortable lead, J.A. Happ attacked the Mariners’ hitters directly all night. The Jays hitters were also swinging with purpose, getting homers  from Bautista, Kevin Pillar (his first of the season) and, Anthony Gose (his second of the season)

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So the Mariners are playing games in September that mean something. That is a big step from previous years and a sign of progress. However, this is still an inexperienced team learning how to manage the pressures of the stretch run. Although players like Seager, Ackley and Mike Zunino are vital contributors on the field, they are just now gaining their first big game experience. Maybe they will put it together in this last week, or maybe they won’t, but either way it is intriguing baseball to watch. Even though this loss leaves Seattle two games behind both Oakland and KC with six game to play, this team is playing hard and without the safety net of experience. That is among the most important reasons to cheer, emphatically, for this team.

And the reality is, the player who thrives on the pressure of expectation is up next. We are about to learn something about the make-up of Felix Hernandez.

 

 

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Are the Mariners’ days of future already past?

If the line is “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, then Seattle is truly a tale of two cities. Whereas the glow from the Seahawks’ Superbowl win still envelops the city, the Mariners have nearly exhausted any goodwill from their fanbase.

Mariners

70 wins. The Seattle Mariners have averaged 70 wins over the last five years. They have been long-term cellar-dwellers in the AL West until the arrival of the Houston Astros. What’s worse is that the despair of losing has at times given way to acts of absurdity.

  1. Outfielder Eric Byrnes’ failed squeeze attempt was amongst the strangest at bats ever by a Seattle Mariner.  So embarrassed after the gamer, Byrnes sped away on his bike through the clubhouse hallway past reporters and general manager Jack Zduriencik.
  2. Richie Sexson, who was unfortunately the last to know that his career was over, tried to spark the team by charging the mound on a pitch that was OUTSIDE. Bonus marks for throwing his helmet with the form of a 12 year old.
  3. When shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt wasn’t displaying a lack of discipline at the plate, he was ignoring his own outfielders calls on plays in the field. Let’s just say that his horrific collision with outfielder Endy Chavez was the worst, but not the only example of his defensive recklessness.
  4. The wife of outfielder Carlos Peguero was charged after defrauding Felix Hernandez’s wife of thousands of dollars at Saks Fifth Avenue.

This type of behavior is clearly not conducive to winning, but it also makes the team difficult for fans to rally behind. However, it wasn’t just the players that were sucked into this bipolar vortex.  A long line of managers have sacrificed a good measure of their physical and mental health during these times.

  1. Mike Hargrove thought so much of his lot that he quit during an eight game winning streak.
  2. His mild-mannered replacement John Mclaren was, well not so mild-mannered after months of losing. His public meltdown at a post-game presser was an instant classic.
  3. Chone Figgins took to actually fighting with manager Don Wakamatsu in the dugout.
  4. Poor Eric Wedge was subject not only to terrible play, but also suffered a stroke during the season!

Crazy behavior aside, the team’s losing on the field has led to dwindling crowGriffey_bannerds at the gate. During the most recent offseason, Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker penned an eye-opening piece that pointed to wide-spread dysfunction in the Mariners’ front office. The team of GM Jack Zduriencik, President Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincoln appear to be so flawed that players, managers and coaches are at a competitive disadvantage.

Even when opportunity presents itself, it is unclear that the Mariners are capable of capitalizing.  The team signed a new television deal that will provide far more financial flexibility. Not that money was ever the biggest problem, remember they were the first team to lose 100 games with a $100 million roster. Their biggest offseason acquisition was ex-Yankee Robinson Cano (31 years old) to a 10 year deal that is sure to create problems at its tail end. On its face, it is a bad deal, bit the Mariners needed legitimacy and had to overpay to get it.  They needed a veteran position player who could lead the youngsters and a bat in the middle of their order. Cano fits the bill, at least for the near future. For Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent, their WAR fell off a cliff between the ages of 34-35, so it is unlikely that Cano will be helping much at age 40.

Then there was the curious case of Randy Wolf. Brought in this spring to compete with Scott Baker to provide veteran depth as the fifth starter, Wolf won the spot, or so it appeared. With Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker due back by May, the team asked Wolf to sign a waiver that would allow the team to release him after 45 days. Wolf balked, contending that the two parties had not agreed to such an arrangement at the beginning of spring training. The move was curious considering: 1) Wolf would only make $1 million as their fifth starter and; 2) the Mariners will have at least three rookies in the starting rotation and will likely need someone to eat innings late in the season. Instead, Wolf left and the Mariners signed 34 year old Chris Young to a $1.25 million contract

Still, the fortunes of this team rest on its youth. The Mariners have committed to this rebuild but have yet to see any payoff. Entire coherts have yielded surprisingly little. Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders and Jesus Montero represented the first wave of talent, with only Seager developing into an everyday player. The poor results thus far give Seattle fans the sinking feeling that the future for these players may have already past. Bringing in veterans Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse, Jason Bay and Kendrys Morales as stopgap measures last year gave way to calling up an even younger set of players from AAA.

Then a second wave of Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino and Abraham Almonte was brought in late last year making the Mariners a very young team indeed. The most alarming fact is that the players in Seattle’s system rarely develop. Is this a consequence of poor talent evaluation or poor coaching? It is difficult to say, but with two cohorts of young players without any breakout performances (and more commonly significant regression), the likelihood is that player development throughout the system could stand for some improvement.

All the same, there do exist some glimmers of hope.

Justin Smoak has always possessed an above average eye at the plate while providing steller defense at first. However, Smoak has struggled when he presses to much elevating his strikeout totals.  Last year Smoak seemed to turn the corner at the plate, hitting for decent average, but lacking enough power for first base (only 6 homeruns by July). New manager Lloyd McClendon has wisely encouraged him to hit more doubles, which should allow him to play to his strengths. Could 30 homeruns be within reach for Smoak this year? If so, a switching hitting first baseman with power and a good glove will be of great value.

For all the turmoil that Dustin Ackley has been through, it appears that he is settling in to his major league role. Ackley and Seager came up together after being drafted in 2009. After their first offseason, Seager gained considerable weight, while Ackley remained quite light. Seager immediately showed much more authority at the plate, while Ackley started adopting a slap-hitting approach. Losing his confidence, Ackley bottomed out last year when Wedge questioned his aggressiveness and demoted him to AAA. Note: my favorite Ackley picture below after going down two strikes on balls he couldn’t hit (and were outside). This year, Ackley looks like he has gained some weight and is swinging much more aggressively to all fields.

Dustin  Ackley
Ackley with 2 strikes in ninth

Shortstop Brad Miller (24) and catcher Mike Zunino (23) have both looked good early this spring. Gaining consistency will be their challenge in 2014, but they have both flashed a level of genuine talent at the big league level.

James Paxton is expected to hold a starting spot throughout the season. He excelled during his call up last September and continued that success early this year. As the graph below illustrates, Paxton was able to vary the speed of his pitches very well in his first start. He stuck out nine over seven innings and looked like he belongs.

James  Paxton April 2, 2014

The success of the team in the spring will also depend on the patchwork pitching staff. The starting rotation needs to find a way to bridge to May when the regulars return. The Mariners are taking a risk by asking pitchers that are returning from injury (Chris Young) or exceedingly inexperienced (Roenis Elias) to carry the load. The bullpen may be strained early in the season, so depth right down to AAA will be a pressing issue. Blake Beavan, Brandon Maurer or Lucas Luetge may be called into action before too long.  There is a pathway to success, but the margin of error is vanishingly small for this fragile team. We’ll see if McClendon can install enough belief in these players to weather the storm.

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Red Sox bring Boston championship and healing

To some degree, most of us are fascinated by violence. Contact sports, horror movies and the agony of defeat all garner our attention for various reasons. Paired with the spectacle of violence, however, is a fascination with those who perpetrate the most violent of acts (see Mindy Kaling’s interest in serial killers). Unfortunately, infamous is still famous.

Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden remain larger than life figures. We seek to learn what motivates individuals that commit acts we cannot understand. The “Boston Bomber”, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is the latest of these “natural born celebrities”. Although the victims are the ones that deserve to be remembered, they rarely remain in the national spotlight. Part of this stems from friends and families of the deceased deserving privacy as they work through their grief. The victims never wanted to be famous and to sift through their lives, even in tribute feels like a gross violation. ‘Rest in Peace’ is what we wish for each of them. So there is an asymmetry. The victims are laid to rest whereas the killers remain in our collective consciousness. Killers remain a mystery because they do not fit our understanding of normal and we cannot predict their behavior. This uncertainty stokes our fear and as a result, these perpetrators have inflicted a form of terror upon us all.

This is where sports enters the conversation. Some argue that sports has no place during these times, that sports are insignificant when we talk of lives lost. They are correct of course. However, sports has a very real place in the process of healing as the spectacle of sports excels at crafting modern mythology. Jesse Owens performance at the 1936 Olympics was a strong rebuke of Hitler’s Aryan superiority. The 1980 US Olympic hockey team renewed national pride for a country battered by economic and political malaise. Jason McElwain, scored 20 points in 4 minutes and taught us that autistic children dream big too.

The Boston Marathon bombing was a clear act of violence and terror. In the days following, the Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox all provided a public forum for remembrance and healing.

David Ortiz, in particular, gave an emotional address proclaiming that, “nobody gonna dictate our freedom”. The same Ortiz that carried the Red Sox and Boston to a World Series Championship. The team provided the city with something to rally around, something to focus on. Everyone wanted to forget about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev while leaving those lost to rest. Six months later, the Red Sox gave Boston one way to move forward in a positive light.

Sports can’t bring back those that have been lost. Championships can’t distract us from the immensity of last spring’s events. Teams, however, can rally a city and ensure that its spirit remains strong. Boston Strong.

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Ken Griffey Junior was Seattle’s biggest star, still is.

 

Ken Griffey Jr

Seattle loves Ken Griffey Jr.

Ken Griffey Jr. entered the Mariners Hall of Fame Saturday and now awaits his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. 46,027 fans filled Safeco Field in a season where fans have rarely filled Safeco Field. The city’s  longstanding love affair with Junior serves as a reminder of the gulf between the glory of the past versus the struggles of the present.

Fans lined up around block to get in for Griffey's Hall of Fame night

Fans lined up around block to get in for Griffey’s Hall of Fame night

Growing up in Canada I watched many of the Seattle Mariners prospects play for their AAA affiliate, the Calgary Cannons. Edgar Martínez, Tino Martinez, Jay Buhner, Danny Tartabull and even a young Alex Rodriguez all made stops on their way to the big club. However, the one player who never made the trip north was Griffey Jr. Too talented for AAA, “the Kid” jumped directly from AA to the majors as a teenager. So, like everyone else, I watched and admired the growing talent that was Ken Griffey Jr. through his Sportcenter highlights. Before long, he joined the short list of the world’s best athletes, Bo, Gretzky, Jordan, Montana and Griffey.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle in 2005 that I realized just how much Griffey meant to Seattle. Year after year, the Mariners were awful and at home games, they replayed clips of “The Double” repeatedly. The glow from Junior, an aging Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson clearly hung over the new Mariners teams. As an outsider, the video tributes seemed strange and a little sad. Here was a team with so little history, that it was celebrating a divisional series as its golden era. Can you imagine the Yankees waxing poetic about the accomplishments of the 2004 team? Seattle was still in love with Griffey and no Alex Rodriguez, John Olerud or Adrian Beltre was going to make them forget their adopted son.

That love was on full display in the summer of 2007 when Junior returned to Safeco Field, known affectionately as “the house that Griffey built”. 46,340 fans came out, the sixth largest crowd at the time, to catch a glimpse of the 37 year old “Kid”. Standing ovations, ceremonies and an outpouring of appreciation marked the occasion. Again, the whole weekend was a little uncomfortable to an outsider as the Mariners lost 16-1 amid cheers for an opponent. The whole scene was in stark contrast to the venom surrounding A-Rod’s return after signing for more money on a lesser team within the division.

No, Griffey was different. He left to play on the team he grew up with. He left to be closer to his family in Florida. He left for less money. The move was logical and understood, but for Seattle fans it didn’t hurt any less. He was their first superstar and indeed the city’s biggest sports star. Steve Largent, Cortez Kennedy and Walter Jones were (or will be) Hall of Famers, but never ignited imaginations the way Junior did. Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Sean Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck made it deeper into the playoffs, but weren’t the face of their sports.

Junior grew up as a player in Seattle just as baseball grew up as a major league attraction in Seattle. Indeed, Griffey was so revered because he led the first wave of Mariners success in the 90’s. In sports, like life, the first time is always special. A 25 year old Griffey led a talented 1995 Mariners team that included Buhner, Martinez, Johnson, and catcher Dan Wilson. The “Refuse to Lose” crew caught the imagination of a city that had waited two decades for a contender. The Mariners staged a thrilling come from behind pennant before beating the Yankees in the playoffs to cement the teams place in Seattle lore. Later an aging 2000 Mariners team (including a 41 year old Rickey Henderson?) also made it to the ALCS, led by Rodriguez’s amazing 40/40 season, but that team is largely forgotten. No, the first time is always the most exhilarating, and the shame of it all is that the 1995 core was never able to advance to the World Series. Losing Johnson and then Griffey slammed the window shut, reminding Seattle how rare such talents were.

Mariners for Griffey

During his 2007 speech to the Seattle faithful, Griffey made a not-so subtle reference to his return. It was strange considering that he was playing for the Reds at the time, but the circle was completed when Griffey made his return home in 2009. He was the one star that loved Settle as much as they loved him. Randy was theirs, but he was discontent and traded too early. A-Rod was theirs, but he left them for money and fame. The Sonics were theirs, but left for a city that would build an arena. Griffey left for the right reasons and returned to the city when it was all over. Old girlfriends don’t return years later saying “I always remembered you”. Griffey did just that. He was the original Mariners star showing the current star, Ichiro how to let the team and city love him. Ichiro, for his part, was ecstatic to play with his childhood hero and it made for a happy ending.

So, the Griffey memories begin to fade together – the backwards hat, the Spiderman catch at the wall, home runs in eight straight games, the all-star homerun off the warehouse in Baltimore and the slide into home. Until the team can provide new memories of success, the images of Griffey will remain frozen in time, a reminder of an electrifying past when the present is so non-descript. The torch has passed to ARod, Ichiro Suzuki and now Felix Hernandez, but the stature of each lacks the added value of team success that can be shared with the city. For now, Griffey is a symbol the very best of the Mariners and the Seattle sports and that is why he is so loved here.

Griffey_banner

Not everyone is so loved by Mariners fans

Griffey bigscreen

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Why NHL relocation is looking to Seattle

Key Arena

Does it seem strange to anyone that Seattle is being touted as the #1 landing spot for the Phoenix Coyotes? There is an arena plan, but no actual arena or plan to build it. There is a potential NBA co-tenant, but likely no plans for further basketball relocation/expansion discussion until David Stern retires. The question doesn’t really center on whether Seattle can support an NHL team or not, but rather, why now?

As we speak, Quebec City is building a hockey arena. You can literally watch them pour every once of concrete on one of the city’s three arena construction webcams. Note: 3 out of 7 of Quebec City’s municipal webcams are pointed on Quebecor Arena’s construction site. Think they miss the NHL? The Canadian winter is dark and full of terrors.

And then there’s Hamilton, Ontario. If Chris Hansen wants an example of why you shouldn’t cross a league’s commissioner, he needs only to look to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie’s efforts to relocate a team to Hamilton. The former Blackberry CEO tried unsuccessfully to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006, the Nashville Predators in 2007 and the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009.

In the Phoenix case, Balsillie actually offered then owner Jerry Moyes $212.5 million to purchase the team after it went into bankruptcy. However, the NHL had previously extended Moyes $38 million to stay afloat in return for proxy control of the team by the commissioner Gary Bettman. Just hours after the sale agreement to Balsillie, the NHL stepped in and removed Moyes from any form of team control. The case eventually went to court and the NHL retained ownership of the Coyotes. Balsillie likely sunk any future chance of securing a team in Hamilton, though an anonymous bid was made for the Buffalo Sabres in 2011. That bid was to relocate the team and amounted to $259 million, significantly more than the $189 million price the team was eventually sold for to remain in Buffalo.

So, there is clearly a rabid appetite for new teams in Canada. Why then is Seattle an assumed front runner? The most obvious explanation is that Seattle is being used as leverage to squeeze the city of Glendale for a better deal in much the same way the NBA did with the Sacramento Kings. Indeed, with so much effort already invested in Arizona, it would be surprising to see the team move until all other options have been exhausted. However, there are some key differences between the NBA and NHL landscapes that contribute to Seattle’s inclusion as the top relocation destination for a hockey team.

For the NBA, owners aren’t keen on expansion because it would dilute their share of the upcoming TV deal. Once that deal is in place, expansion becomes much more likely. For the NHL, however, there is little revenue from their national TV deal, so owners are eager to expand while collecting those expansion fees. Would an ownership group from Seattle be willing to pay a hefty expansion fee, probably not. Could the NHL collect higher fees from applicants from Quebec City or Hamilton? Just follow the dollars.

Ultimately, the NHL wants a team in Seattle as much as Seattle wants a team. The Emerald City is a lucrative market with a significant corporate presence (Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks headquarters). It is also the 12th largest TV market, something to consider if a team is moving out of Phoenix, which is the 13th largest TV market. Neither Quebec City, nor Hamilton can offer similar numbers.

If Phoenix is not viable, then the best strategy for the NHL is to address the situation by landing a team in a place such as Seattle. The goal would be to get a foothold in the region with potential rivals in Vancouver and San Jose. Large expansion fees from Seattle are unlikely and ultimately not that important. Replacing a league-owned, hemorrhaging team in Phoenix with a privately owned, functional team in Seattle would be considered a win.

After Phoenix comes off the NHL books, a new round of expansion to Quebec City and/or Hamilton can proceed. NHL owners will be rewarded with a fresh stream of expansion fees from eager Canadian applicants.

This all makes sense, but the most glaring risk in the plan is the lack of an NHL-caliber arena in Seattle. Teams can play in small venues for a several years, but a suitable arena must eventually be built for a team to be anywhere close to profitable. Right now, new ownership would have to assume a large part of the risk for building a new arena if they bring a team to Seattle. Chris Hansen has an arena plan, but the city isn’t going to move forward without an NBA team to fill it. New owners will have to convince Hansen and the city that they are viable partners that can help fund the development of a new arena. If they succeed, Key Arena can suffice in the meantime.

As I explained in a previous article - “However, many teams have made small venues work on a temporary basis. Before the Shark Tank was built, the San Jose Sharks played in the Cow Palace (1991-1993), an arena that seated just over 11,000. Likewise, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their first year (1992) in the 11,000-seat Expo Hall before moving to the much larger Thunderdome.  The Carolina Hurricanes played two years (1997-1999) at Greensboro Coliseum (23,000 seats), where they averaged just 8,637 fans. So, there does seem to be a precedent for arenas of this size, but the question depends largely on the magnitude of financial loss that the new owners are willing to absorb while a new venue is built.”

Conversely, if a team moves to Seattle and no arena is built, does the team have any better chance of succeeding than in Glendale? Not likely. Would the NHL really relocate a team without an arena, or even an agreement for building one? Well, if the losses in Phoenix are large enough, then selling to new owners might be preferred to holding or folding the team. Having credible owners such as Raymond Bartoszek and Anthony Lanza could bring much needed stability to the franchise in a potentially lucrative market. At worst, the financial losses would be someone else’s problem, and at best the NHL gains a strong foothold in a valuable market.

Read related article: “The NHL in Seattle: Can Key Arena provide a temporary home?”

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Yankees still loom large over Mariners

Marinano Rivera YankeesThe Yankees are having a mediocre year. The Yankees are lacking star power. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez all missing. Still, they had more than enough to eclipse the Seattle Mariners both on and off the field Saturday afternoon. Pitcher Andy Pettitte struck out six batters over 7 1/3 strong innings on the same day his son was drafted by the Yankees. The victory was Pettitte’s 250th of his career, earned just before he turns 41.

Mariners’ pitcher Joe Saunders had a good outing as well, especially considering that he was working for the first time with a rookie catcher in his first big-league game. Unfortunately, Seattle’s offense simply couldn’t provide enough support to capitalize on the pitching effort.

Another of NY’s veterans, Ichiro Suzuki still casts a formidable shadow over Seattle’s right field. The Japanese star may be in the twilight of his career, but he still scored the winning run while patrolling his old turf with style. While statistically the Mariners may not miss Suzuki, his presence was a reminder that the void he left has yet to be filled by any of the team’s young talent.

Ichiro  Suzuki

The Yankees’ player of the present, however, is  Robinson Cano, who drove in the first game’s run. Once on board, Cano stole second, taking advantage of rookie catcher Brandon Bantz. Cano is the type of game-changing talent that Seattle has been desperately searching for at second base without success.

The Yankees true star showed up in the ninth inning in the form of Mariano Rivera. Making his final visit to Safeco Field, Rivera is still performing as an elite-level closer. With the Mariners down two runs, there was little doubt that Rivera would lock the game down for the Yankees. The save was Rivera’s 630 of his career, or about the same as the top eight closers in Mariners history.

While the Mariners wait for the rewards of their rebuild to truly take hold, Saturday at Safeco Field the Yankees provided a reminder of what true stars look like.

 

 

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Mariners in extra innings: A bit of everything

Seattle Mariners extra innings

This was a game. Gratification was not instantaneous and only the patient fan was rewarded. But that is part of what makes baseball so unique.

For nine innings at SafeIwakumaco Field, neither team could score. Seattle Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma and his Chicago White Sox counterpart Dylan Axelrod kept batters off-balance and guessing. In addition, strong defense on both sides helped maintain the scoreless tie. Alex Rios cut down Kyle Seager with a strong throw from right field to home plate. Nick Franklin made a diving stop on a grounder up the middle and in the eighth, Kendry Morales made an amazing juggling catch that landed him two rows into the stands.

Extra innings saw more of the same until the top of the 14th, when the White Sox strung together a series of hits that opened the floodgates. Five runs later, it seemed like a simple mop up job for Addison Reed. Indeed, many of the fans were headed to the exits.

Kyle  SeagerBut then the Mariners got a series of singles that saw them down 5-1 with the bases loaded for Kyle Seager. With 2 outs, 2 strikes and after fouling a ball off his foot, Seager did the unthinkable. A grand slam shot that tied the game.

It was the first extra-innings grand slam to tie a game in MLB history. It was the biggest comeback in the 14th inning and set the table for the longest game in Mariners history.

 Two innings later, the Sox rallied with Alejandro De Aza, Gordon Beckham and Rios singling in two more runs. This time, the Mariners could not reply and the Sox salvaged a win in the three-game series.

The game was the most entertaining of the season, and perhaps of the past few seasons. The Mariners showed some real fight with a developing combination of youthful energy and veteran leadership. Before the wins can come, the team needs to serve notice to the league that Safeco is a hard place to play. This game is a small step in that direction.

Nick Franklin was a force on the basepaths. Here is the first of his two steals.

 

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Mariners return to Safeco and top White Sox 4-2

Monday night the Mariners returned to Seattle to kick off a 10 game homestand starting with the Chicago White Sox. Joe Saunders continued his dominance at Safeco Field pitching 6 1/3 innings and allowing just one run. The defense was also solid, with shortstop Brendan Ryan and new second baseman Nick Franklin teaming up for a nifty double play in the sixth inning.

Second baseman Nick  Franklin

Second baseman Nick Franklin

On offense, Franklin and catcher Jesus Sucre got the Mariners on the board with a pair of singles in the second inning.

Although Kyle Seager got things started with a bunt in the third inning, once again, it was the veterans who supplied the fireworks. Kendry Morales doubled, missing a home run by a few feet. A dafter his 41rst birthday, Raul Ibanez followed with a two-run homerun. The homerun was all the more impressive because it came after a 13 pitch at bat where Ibanez fell behind 0-2. Once again, Raul showed his teammates how to grind out a professional at bat.

Mariners skipper Eric Wedge on Ibanez, “That was one of the best at-bats I’ve ever seen up there”.

White Sox starter John Danks was also left more than impressed, “I just ran out of ideas”.

Not everything was clicking for the Mariners though. Outfielder Michael Saunders continued to struggle at the plate getting called out on strike not once, but twice. With Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero in Tacoma, Justin Smoak recovering from injury and Ryan righting his ship, the focus is now on Saunders to get thing in order (see this article about Saunders by JJ Keller over on SodoMojo).

Michael  Saunders called out looking twice

Michael Saunders called out looking twice

Notes: A paltry 13,491 were in attendance at Safeco Field on Monday.

Read this related article – The Seattle Mariners: Into Darkness

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The Seattle Mariners: Into Darkness

The Mariners season has consisted of equal parts of the good, the bad and the ugly. Well, maybe not equal, but fans have certainly witnessed a bit of each.  After a rough first month that saw the team sink to a familiar 9-16, veterans Jason Bay, Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez helped stabilize the season by pulling the team back to 20-21 and second place in the AL West. For the first time in years the team possessed an experienced backbone, relieving much of the pressure hanging over the youngsters. They didn’t need to be saviors, just contributors. The veterans could hold the fort while the high-end prospects came into their own. Sounds like a plan right?

Batting averagesUnfortunately, the evidence suggests that the young players have regressed sharply. Jesus Montero opened the season throwing 0-15 baserunners out and had significant holes in his swing that were regularly being exploited by opposing pitchers. Dustin Ackley was constantly down two strikes at the plate and was not leveraging his speed on the basepaths. Justin Smoak’s value as a switch hitter was minimized because he wasn’t hitting from either side and lacked anything that approximated power. Rookie pitcher Brandon Maurer was taking the team out of games early by getting lit up by major league hitters.

The weight of these underperformances finally became too much to bear and Montero, Ackley and Maurer were all sent to AAA Tacoma to work themselves out. Painfully, the next wave of prospects (Nick Franklin and Carlos Triunfel) were promoted to the big club, leaving many to wonder if Seattle has whiffed on an entire cohort of players. As part of the ugly sideshow, Eric Wedge conducted a series of interviews where he appeared to lash out at the fans, the media and sabermetrics in general as contributing to the struggles of his players. Not surprisingly, the calls for heads to roll have become louder and now include Wedge, GM Jack Zduriencik, front office fixtures Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong and the Mariner Moose.

An interesting point that has been lost in all of the noise was Wedge’s call to stay the course, “You just can’t keep changing. They did that here for a lot of years — didn’t work. You gotta stick with the program”

Fans want change and immediate results. Good teams compete while implementing a consistent philosophy that provides continuity. An interesting idea that has been making the rounds in Seattle is that only one manager has lasted through four years for the Mariners, Sweet Lou Pinella. And it’s true, the likes of Dick Williams, Mike Hargrove, Don Wakamastu and Jim Lefebvre were all out after less than four years. However, another commonality is that none of them had winning percentages above .500. So, the question is, do good teams keep their managers, thus providing continuity, or are good managers kept because they win? A quick look at the tenure of MLB managers this year shows us that most managers have been hired very recently with a smaller number retained for five or more years. Among the teams that have long-serving managers are the Twins, Angels, Phillies, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, Giants, Padres, Yankees and Reds. Padres notwithstanding, these are all teams that have experienced recent success.

MLB managers

So, regardless of causality or the specifics of this Seattle team, history suggests that third year manager Eric Wedge needs to get this team winning if he hopes to make it to year five.

Into Darkness

The future of the Mariners has not looked this uncertain for some time. Although the minor league system is stocked, translating such talent into MLB success is anything but assured. Positive examples exist, such as the Tampa Rays, who have used their farm system to maintain a competitive major league club for many years. On the other hand, two years ago the top two farm systems were the Kansas City Royals and the Toronto Jays. Today, both teams sit in last place in their divisions (winning % = 0.420 and 0.434 respectively), even though they got there through widely divergent paths.

KC took a slow approach, pairing their young core of Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas with a veteran starting rotation secured by trading some of their prospects. Toronto went a different route, using most of their prospects to trade for veterans R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. Both teams have struck out thus far and serve as a warning for Seattle fans that minor league strength alone is insufficient to guarantee success.

Although it is clear that many of Seattle’s prospects are struggling, we don’t know if this is due to poor talent evaluation, player development or a combination of both. What is more important is predicting whether these are minor bumps for young players or early indications that they may never fulfill those lofty expectations.

Let’s start with Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick who was widely regarded as the best hitting prospect in his year. With a record of success in college, Ackley moved to second base and shot (perhaps too quickly) through the minor league system. Since arriving in Seattle, Ackley has played a solid second base, but has regressed as a hitter. A quick look around the league shows that the elite second basemen (Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, Howie Kendrick) experienced early success at the plate, usually within the first two years of reaching the majors. The player who most closely mirrors Ackley’s career thus far is Gordon Beckham of the Chicago White Sox (that’s the sound of a thousand Mariners fans poking their left eye out). Drafted high in the first round, both Beckham and Ackley batted .270 in their first seasons followed by regression over their next few. Ackley’s future now depends somewhat on the performance of Nick Franklin, who just hit two home runs in his fourth game with the Mariners. A move to the outfield could be possible before he returns to Seattle.

Justin Smoak was a highly regarded, switch-hitting prospect at first base. Since arriving in Seattle, Smoak has performed well defensively and has shown a remarkable eye at the plate. However, his situational hitting has remained inconsistent and this year his power seems lost. Smoak is somewhat older and so time is clearly running out for him to make an impact. Top first basemen Joey Votto, Mark Trumbo, Adrian Gonzalez all produced results early in their careers. Even younger prospects like Anthony Rizzo (23), Paul Goldschmidt (25), and Freddie Freeman (23) are showing more progress than Smoak (26). The one player that Seattle fans can look to is Chris Davis, who took several years before finally becoming an impact first baseman.

Finally, Jesus Montero is the onetime catcher of the future who has struggled to, well catch (that’s the sound of a thousand Mariners fans poking out their other eye). With remarkably slow feet, Montero has demonstrated a limited ability to hold runners or stretch out hits. Behind the plate, Montero appears to struggle receiving, specifically framing pitches. On offense, Montero has flashed power, especially to right-center which makes him ideal for Safeco Field. However, hitting a curveball has been increasingly problematic and in 2013 he is hitting a weak .119 on curveballs

Although some elite catchers (i.e., Buster Posey, Salvador Perez, Joe Mauer) are seemingly hatched to succeed at the position, others have taken more time to develop. Many good catchers were inconsistent at the plate in their first three years, with wide variation in their batting averages (Matt Wieters, .249 to .288; Yadier Molina .216 to .267; Carlos Santana .239 to .260). Montero is the youngest of the Marines prospects at 23 years and so it is far too soon to close the book on his career, though his catching days may be finished.

Once returned to AAA, the prospects helped the Tacoma Rainiers to a 25 run outburst. These players may have underperformed for the Mariners, but they are clearly close. They all hit in spring training and in AAA, now the tough question is how to translate this into success to Safeco Field. Are these the Mariners of the future or do they give way to the next wave of prospects? Will Wedge and Jack be here to see the rebuild through, or will there be a regime change in 2013?

Read also: Mariners in extra innings: A bit of everything

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The Mountain West, PAC-12 and perceptions in the NCAA tournament

No conference has more on the line in this year’s NCAA tournament than the Mountain West Conference. With a number of teams making the big show, there are grumblings that the MWC is getting seeded higher than deserved.

Much of the criticism centers on the fact that some teams in the Mountain West have scheduled games against division II teams, which does not affect their RPI’s, and thus their ranking. In the end, these teams still have to beat good teams, but their RPI boost may contribute to securing higher seeds in the tournament. What’s most intriguing is that these teams are not well covered by the national media, so it is unclear what type of respect the conference merits.

Against this backdrop, all eyes are on the MWC teams. If they don’t live up to their rankings, future selection committees may remember. The stunning losses for UNLV (5) and New Mexico (3) this week have certainly hurt the conference, but a deep run by the likes of San Diego could even things out. .

All of this talk brings up an old analysis (see: Things we already knew about the NCAA tournament) of first round winning percentages from a couple of years ago. I thought I would update that analysis to see how perception and performance differ in the tournament. First, I calculate “perceived” conference strength”, which combines the number of teams from each conference in the tournament and the seeding of each of those teams. Then, I related those weightings to first round winning percentages. As I stated last time, this is obviously a limited approach, but still fun to look at. Conferences that have elite teams that make deep runs aren’t accounted for here. So here is the data from 2010-2013.

NCAA

From 2010-2013 seasons

The PAC-12 is clearly seeded lower than their performance. This is not hard to see as many of these teams have upset higher seeds in recent years. The PAC-12 has not been highly regarded for years, and was predicted to go 0 for 5 in the tournament this year.

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