Category Archives: Sports

Pitch Perfect Crew: Felix back with help this year.

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As the Seattle Mariners embark on a new season, they look to build on the progress made in 2014. Last year, the team welcomed the addition of free agents Robinson Cano and Fernando Rodney, who brought stability to the batting lineup, middle infield and bullpen. Cano also provided valuable leadership to a young team that lacked any recent touchstones for success. Not surprisingly, the Mariners had to pay a steep price to entice Cano to sign, both in dollars (see new TV deal) and number of years. Although Cano will almost certainly not be able to perform at a high level through the end of his contract (until age 40; see figure below), the Mariners desperately needed to infuse a winning philosophy into the locker-room for its young players to develop. After one year, it looks like that is exactly what is happening.

secondbase WARIn 2014, the youth movement that the Mariners set in motion was finally showing signs of paying dividends. After a rough start to a stuttering rebuild, youngsters Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton provide hope that a young, developing core is now in place. The youngsters progressed under the steady hand of manager Lloyd McClendon, who set high team expectations for the present, while developing young players for the future. Coming into 2015, the team’s prospects appear to be in better shape than they had been in many years.

The Mariners pitching staff was stellar for much of last season, was paired with an anemic offense that was clearly an area in need of improvement. The addition of Nelson Cruz was the most obvious upgrade during the off-season and should provide an element of power that has been missing from the lineup for the past few seasons (Mariners DHs hit under 0.200 last year). In addition, improved hitting may be expected to emerge from the natural development of Zunino, Ackley and shortstop Brad Miller. The expectation is that the offense needs only minor improvement for the team to succeed given its strengths in pitching and defense.

The Mariners starting rotation is once again led by staff ace, Félix Hernandez. Together with Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Walker (who unleashed a new, devastating slider this spring) and JA Happ, the rotation looks like a potential juggernaught if the youngsters can deliver on their promise. Although everyone outside of Felix is somewhat of a question mark, the Mariners have some insurance against injuries/poor performance, with last year’s 10 game winner Roenis Elías waiting in the minors. Reliever performance from year to year is difficult to predict, but the Mariners return a collection of strong arms, while also working in spring training revelations Tyler Olson and Carson Smith. Moreover, it is difficult to predict the bullpen until we see them in high pressure situations (e.g., can the high wire act of the Fernando Rodney Experience be replicated)? Still, if the Mariners expect to compete in September and October, they will be looking for Felix to lead the way.

Hernandez possesses a wide repertoire of pitches and thus, has several options to get hitters out. Although he has yet to hit 30 years of age, Felix has been in the majors for a full decade. He has logged heavy innings in many of those seasons and has seen his velocity drop significantly from the MLB-best 96.3 MPH he averaged in 2007. Looking forward, it is interesting to ask whether this trend anything to be alarmed by. How much does Felix still have in the tank and given the array of pitches he employs, how important might future losses of velocity be?

Using data from PitchF/x, one can see that Felix is experiencing a loss of velocity as he ages that is similar to what other pitchers have experienced. For comparison, the figures below present maximum fastball velocity as a function of age or cumulative innings pitched for Bartolo Colon, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, C.C. Sabathia, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Adam Wainwright, Tim Hudson, C.J. Wilson, and Justin Verlander. The question is, how many quality innings are left in the arm of Felix Hernandez?  By age, it looks like there could be another decade of similar velocity, but by cumulative innings, the horizon could be far closer.

 

Pitch velocityEven with diminished velocity, however, Hernandez has continued to adjust, now showcasing various levels of movement on several versions of his change-up. Felix has continued to maintain his effectiveness (WAR in the figure below) even with diminishing velocity as he ages. In fact, it is clear that Felix has made adjustments throughout his career as his WAR has peaked twice, once as a high-velocity flame thrower and again as a slower throwing, but more seasoned pitcher. It appears that Hernandez has actually been at his most effective in recent years employing more movement and control to set batters up. From the figure below, the closest comparison appears to be Roy Halladay, who continued to add to his repertoire and remained effective through the latter parts of his career.

pitch speed vs WARSo for now, it looks as though Felix remains at the height of his powers. Last year was one of his best, which included a streak of 16 games with two or fewer runs over at least seven innings, and legitimate consideration for the Cy Young. How long he can keep performing at this level remains unclear, but this year he must deliver for the Mariners to reach the post-season. In addition to his own performance though, it will be equally compelling to see how Felix’s influence helps Paxton and Walker. Starting rotations cannot survive with only one or two pitchers, and ultimately the success of these two young pitchers will go a long way in determining overall team success. Although the season opens with a much potential and many unknowns, one thing is different this year.

The King finally has a team to lead.

King FelixThanks for reading!

 

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Mariners fantasy outlook 2015

Robinson CanoGuest post by Matt Stevens

There is a renewed buzz surrounding the Seattle Mariners in 2015, as many people feel like they will be able to get back to the playoffs for the 1st time in a while. After making a pretty decent run last year and coming up just short, the team went out and added more pieces to make them even more competitive. The American League west might be the toughest division in the game, but Seattle feels like they are up to the task.

When people think about drafting in fantasy baseball leagues 2015, they obviously look at the biggest stars on the roster. Right now, Seattle has 3 major stars they will be counting on to carry a significant chunk of the load. Felix Hernandez has been a very consistent pitcher since coming to the majors, and he gives them a true ace to count on in big games. He’s looking for another outstanding season, and so far he has been able to avoid the injury bug.

Robinson Cano signed as a free agent before the 2014 season, and he instantly turned into their most productive hitter. His homerun total frustrated people last year, but people in fantasy baseball leagues 2015 are hoping for a bit of a turnaround this year. He was able to showcase his ability to be an on-base machine, and that is certainly going to help the offense.

Finally, Nelson Cruz is the main acquisition and the 3rd guy among their stars. He is coming off a very strong year with the Baltimore Orioles, as he led the majors with 40 home runs. He might not be able to hit for that much power at Safeco Field, but he certainly will provide protection in the lineup.

If Seattle wants to pass Los Angeles and Oakland, they will need others to contribute at a high level. Young pitchers like James Paxton and Taijuan Walker will be looking to take that next step in 2015 as productive arms. Not only that, but Kyle Seager will be looking to live up to expectations now that he assigned a lucrative new deal to stay with the team for years to come.

With no playoff experience, there are still going to be plenty of people doubting Seattle entering the 2015 season. However, on paper they look like one of the best teams in the American League. It might be time for people in the Pacific Northwest to get ready for October baseball once again.

 

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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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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.

 

[caption id="attachment_1576" align="alignright" width="640"]Ken Griffey Jr Seattle loves Ken Griffey Jr.[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_1582" align="alignright" width="150"]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[/caption]

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.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="421"]Griffey_banner Not everyone is so loved by Mariners fans[/caption]

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 ounce 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 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.

[caption id="attachment_1488" align="alignright" width="1535"]Second baseman Nick  Franklin Second baseman Nick Franklin[/caption]

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).

[caption id="attachment_1489" align="alignright" width="1462"]Michael  Saunders called out looking twice Michael Saunders called out looking twice[/caption]

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.

[caption id="attachment_1088" align="alignleft" width="700"]Nick  Franklin Nick Franklin[/caption]

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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