And That Happened: Sunday's Scores and Highlights

21 Comments

Mariners 4, Red Sox 2: I went down to West Virginia to see old friends
over the weekend. I went without my wife and kids, so I had a lot of
time to wander around my old hometown, drive some crazy country back
roads, do a little hiking in the middle of nowhere and generally get
lost in my own head for a little bit. Highly enjoyable, but I gotta say: both the 20 year-old memories stirred
by meeting up with friends and being removed from civilization for a day
or two was a bit disorienting. Dreamilike, in some ways, really. You know how in “Inception” Leo DiCaprio had that little spinny top thing? Well, I use boring and inefficient Dice-K starts in which he throws 110 pitches in six innings while walking five dudes to let me know when I am out of dream land and back to reality.

Astros 4, Reds 0: Seven innings of one-hit ball for Wandy Rodriguez
against a Reds team that seems like it had one foot on the charter to
Milwaukee from the time this one got going. I listened to this game on
the radio on my way back from West Virginia yesterday. Well, part of it.
After spending the better part of two days touring the coal fields, I
didn’t have a lot of patience for Reds’ color man Jeff Brantley telling
us that pinch hitting was “the hardest job in America.” It was 1-0 at
that point, though, so I guess I didn’t miss anything that truly
impacted game’s outcome. 

Rangers 6, Angels 4: Josh Hamilton continues to be ridiculous and the Rangers take three of four from Anaheim, extending their lead to seven games. Dan Haren is nice, Angels fans, but I really can’t see him being a difference maker right now.

Giants 3, Diamondbacks 2: Buster Posey smacks four hits to extend his hitting streak. He’s at .469/.511/.815 in July and at .371/.407/.579 on the year.  This is the man that Brian Sabean said “wasn’t ready” back in April. Sure, dude. Whatever.

Tigers 6, Blue Jays 5; Blue Jays 5, Tigers 3: When teams split a double header do the players go to bed that night thinking that the day was totally wasted? I’d probably feel that way.

Dodgers 1, Mets 0: Clayton Kershaw threw eight shutout innings a day after Joe Torre emptied the bullpen to win Saturday’s 13-inning affair. For the second day in a row Jerry Manuel refuses to use K-Rod in an ultra-tight game. Does he simply not trust his putative relief ace? Does he only care about saves?  How do you lose two games like the Mets’ Saturday and Sunday games without once getting your relief ace into the action?

Cardinals 4, Cubs 3: Felipe Lopez homers in the eleventh and Dennys
Reyes closes the door in the bottom half of the inning. Why Dennys Reyes
and not Ryan Franklin? Because Tony La Russa thought it would be a good
idea to use his best relief pitcher in a close game rather than have
him sit around and wait for a save situation, Jerry Manuel.

Brewers 8, Nationals 3: The Brewers sweep the Nats thanks to some terrible defense by Washington. Note to Jim Riggleman: Just because a guy has played a little third base in the past doesn’t mean he should play third base now.

Athletics 6, White Sox 4: Dallas Braden gets his first win since his perfecto nearly three months ago. Braden after the game: “I can finally quit answering calls from the Oakland Zoo looking for
their monkey. He’s off my back and I’ll be sending him home.” Hmm . . . was it the Vervet or the Squirrel Monkey?

Padres 6, Pirates 3: San Diego sweeps Pittsburgh in what is shaping up to be the Pirates’ worst season in 25 years. Which is saying something given that they’ve been wandering in the desert for a good 22 of those years.

Twins 10, Orioles 4: The Twins cruise despite having a number of regulars out of the starting lineup due to the effects of an unbearably steamy weekend in Baltimore. Jim Thome tied George Brett on the career RBI list. Remember when Thome used to play third base? Yeah, that was pretty hilarious.

Phillies 4, Rockies 3: Jimmy Rollins stole third and then came home on a wild pitch to score what turned out to be the winning run in seventh. If he would have reached on catcher’s interference and made it to second on a balk it would have been the run of the year. The Rockies have lost five in a row on what is turning out to be a nightmare east coast swing.

Marlins 5, Braves 4: The Braves had the bases loaded in the top of the eleventh with one out. Nate McLouth grounded into a double play. He was terrible before his concussion, the Braves won like crazy when he was gone and he’s been terrible since he came back. He adds absolutely nothing to this team. Wes Helms used to be talked about in similar unflattering terms when he played for the Braves but he got the game-winning hit in the bottom half of the inning for Florida. I think I’d rather have him playing centerfield than McLouth right now.

Yankees 12, Royals 6: Yankees in a laugher on the strength of two Curtis Granderson jacks and three RBI from Alex Rodriguez. Or at least it was a laugher until A-Rod got smacked with a ball in the eighth inning. It hit and bruised his left hand pretty good. “I was more fearful of the ball coming toward my face,” A-Rod said after the game. “My beautiful, beautiful face,” he did not add.

Rays 4, Indians 2Pretty spiffy play by Reid Brignac in the seventh, taking what could have easily been a game-tying hit away from Carlos Santana. I’m not a big fan of extreme defensive shifts like that, but I’ll admit it, they’re pretty satisfying when they result in a play like that.

2017 Preview: Seattle Mariners

Getty Images
1 Comment

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Seattle Mariners.

The first rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts. The second rule of snapping playoff droughts is: You do not talk about snapping playoff droughts.

For the uninitiated, we’re now up to 15 years in which the Mariners have failed to contend for a championship title. The highlight reel of their 1995 and 2001 playoff runs has worn thin; so, too, have the slogans and promises of the nine managers and four general managers who have cycled through the franchise during their 15-year drought.

That all could change under the direction of general manager Jerry Dipoto, who is approaching his third year at the helm of the Mariners’ organization after making the most single-year offseason trades in club history. In February, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince estimated Dipoto’s totals had reached 13 trades involving 36 players since the start of the 2016-17 offseason. “Go back to when [Dipoto] arrived in Seattle at the tail end of the 2015 season,” Castrovince writes, “and it’s 37 swaps involving 95 players.”

That’s an insane number of players to be moving around, especially when a team is leaning toward playoff contention rather than a fire sale, and you have to hope that Dipoto has a reason for the high-stakes shuffling.

One possible reason? There’s an expiration date on Seattle’s most treasured veterans, including Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, even Hisashi Iwakuma. Hernandez hasn’t received a Cy Young award in seven years, hasn’t tossed a perfect game in five years, and hasn’t maintained an ERA below 3.00 in three years. Iwakuma nearly crested 200 innings for the second time in his career, but his good health and durability was punished by a career-worst 1.3 HR/9, 6.6 SO/9 and 4.12 ERA. As expected, Cano, Cruz and Seager all turned out solid performance at the plate, and but it’s the hazards that come with aging and inevitable decline that exert pressure on Dipoto and the rest of the Mariners to deliver a postseason finish sooner rather than later.

Dipoto’s machinations have, for the most part, been both team- and fan-friendly this offseason. He didn’t move any major contracts or trade away any familiar faces on the Mariners roster, choosing instead to excise fringe players and adding short-term depth where it was needed. He reinforced a rotation of Hernandez, Iwakuma and James Paxton with right-handers Yovani Gallardo, Chris Heston, Max Povse and Rob Whalen and left-hander Drew Smyly. The bullpen received right-handers Shae Simmons, Dan Altavilla and lefty Marc Rzepczynski, the latter of whom inked a two-year, $11 million deal, while Carlos Ruiz gave the Mariners another option behind the plate. Jarrod Dyson was thrown into the outfield mix alongside Leonys Martin and Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura took over for Ketel Marte at short, and infielder/outfielder Danny Valencia lined up behind Dan Vogelbach at first base, where he later won the starting role.

It’s enough to make your head spin, but the takeaway is simple enough. Investing in younger, cheaper players provides the Mariners with enough defense and athleticism to compete for a postseason berth without the drawbacks of weighty contracts and long-term commitments. If the experiment doesn’t pan out as expected, there’s nothing to stop Dipoto from making another dozen trades during next year’s offseason and restarting the whole process.

As with any roster overhaul, there’s no predicting how much the Mariners of 2017 will improve on their 2016 counterparts. The starting rotation still leaves much to be desired, and without productive turnarounds from Hernandez and Iwakuma, even the cavernous maw of Safeco Field won’t be able to stave off another collapse. James Paxton and Drew Smyly, while not rotation headliners, project to be the most stable of the bunch so far.

The bullpen profiles a little better, notwithstanding Steve Cishek’s lengthy recovery from hip surgery this winter, Ariel Miranda’s demotion to Triple-A Tacoma and the unexpected forearm issues that cropped up in Shae SImmons’ right arm. At one point, manager Scott Servais said he was considering an eight-man bullpen featuring Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, Casey Fien, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner, though the details have yet to be worked out before the team opens their season on Monday.

While some kinks still need to be worked out among the Mariners’ pitching staff, their offense and defense look sharper than they have in years. According to FanGraphs, Dipoto invested in some pretty sizable upgrades with Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and backup outfielder Ben Gamel, enough to make them the most improved outfield defense in the league.

It’s plausible that the 2017 Mariners have improved as a whole. It’s also plausible that all of Dipoto’s frenzied offseason moves were more focused and premeditated than they appeared. It’s even plausible that the tinkering and trimming and restructuring of the Mariners’ defense could attract a heftier win-loss record and a participation trophy — heck, even a championship title — in this year’s postseason.

But you didn’t hear it here. The first rule of playoff droughts, after all, is that we don’t talk about them until they’re finally, mercifully snapped.

Prediction: 2nd place in AL West.*

(Note from Craig: I did the Rangers preview and picked them to be in second place. I did so without coordinating with Ashley on where she’d place the M’s because, let’s face it, details are not my strong suit. Upon reading the preview above and thinking harder I’m probably leaning more toward the Rangers coming in third to be honest, but I won’t change either preview because taking predictions seriously is pointless. We’ll all just check back in October and see who was right. Ashley was probably right). 

2017 Preview: Houston Astros

Getty Images
5 Comments

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Houston Astros.

Every preview of the 2017 Astros is obligated to mention that, back in 2014, Sports Illustrated projected them to win it all this year. It got a lot of laughs at the time, but that was actually sort of bearish given that they pushed the eventual World Series champs to five games in the 2015 ALDS, which suggested 2016 could’ve even been a step beyond that. Houston faltered last year, however, and in their latest baseball preview, SI didn’t repeat that World Series claim from three years ago. They’re picking the Dodgers. So sad to see such lack of courage in one’s convictions.

I’m not sure I’d pick them to win it all this year either, but it should be a better year for the men in orange.

It all starts with their core. Jose Altuve, is a batting champ and MVP contender. 2015 Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa was just 21 last season and still put up a line of .274/.364/.451 in his first full season, fighting through some nagging injuries to do it. George Springer isn’t as good those two but he’s talented enough to feature as a key supporting player on a championship-caliber club. Alex Bregman had a nice debut season last year and will now look to consolidate success at multiple minor league levels into a solid full season in the bigs.

While last year the hope was that success would be be ensured by the young players progressing, the front office decided this past winter to beef up the roster by adding some quality veterans. In comes Josh Reddick and Carlos Beltran via free agency, and in comes Brian McCann via a trade. Reddick will slot in right field, Beltran will take over at DH and McCann becomes the starting catcher. Those additions make the Astros lineup one of the best in the American League. And that’s before you allow for the possibility that young guys like Correa and Bregman could break out in a big way. It’s also before you realize that Evan Gattis — who hit 32 homers last year — is now basically a bench bat. It’s a deep offensive attack that gives A.J. Hinch a lot of options, both to play the best matchups and to rest veterans.

Things aren’t perfect, however. The rotation is a problem.

2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel had a profoundly disappointing 2016 campaign. As did just about everyone else to whom Hinch gave the ball. Only Lance McCullers had an ERA+ over 100, but he only started 14 games. Jeff Luhnow went out and got Charlie Morton, but that’s not a big get. Otherwise the rotation is going to be fairly similar to last year: Keuchel, McCullers, Morton, Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove. Collin McHugh will likely start the year on the DL and contribute eventually.

Keuchel had shoulder problems. Morton is coming off a big hamstring injury. McCullers was hurt last year and McHugh has dead arm now. It’s not a pretty picture. A bounceback season from Keuchel or a full season of health from McCullers would go a long way toward solidifying things. As of now, though, Houston may score a ton of runs, but they are going to have some trouble preventing them. There’s a reason why they are still rumored to be in on Jose Quintana. They could use him.

Thankfully the bullpen was a clear strength last year and it should look pretty similar this year, personnel-wise. Ken Giles will close with Luke Gregerson and Will Harris setting up with Tony Sipp, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz contributing. It’s a nice group that, while not featuring any Andrew Miller-type relief aces, was the most valuable bullpen in baseball as measured by WAR. Even if WAR is not your favorite stat, it’s still a super solid group.

What does a a great lineup, a solid bullpen and a rotation full of question marks amount to? In the AL West I think it amounts to a good bit, actually, as no contender is perfect. If you do a bit of wishcasting with the rotation, it’s not hard to find a ton of separation between it and Texas’ overall. If Jeff Luhnow goes out and gets a starter, which I think he will, it could easily be better. That doesn’t make the Astros a runaway favorite, but I think it gives them a shot at a win total in the high-80s to low-90s, and I think that amounts to . . .

Prediction: First Place, American League West. But they’ll be battling for it all year in what I think will be a close division.