Jason Bay

The Mariners think they’re getting better, but probably aren’t

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In Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik’s defense, he did aim high, pulling off a deal for Arizona’s Justin Upton that was negated by the right fielder’s no-trade clause. However, the moves that he’s actually completed this winter to aid the offense don’t bode particularly well for the Mariners’ 2013 hopes.

– Traded OF Trayvon Robinson to the Orioles for INF Robert Andino

– Traded LHP Jason Vargas to the Angels for DH/1B Kendrys Morales

– Signed DH/LF Jason Bay to a one-year, $500,000 contract

– Signed DH/LF/1B Raul Ibanez to a one-year, $2.75 million contract

– Traded C John Jaso to the Athletics for DH/1B/LF Michael Morse in a three-team deal with the Nationals

These transactions completely contradict the defense-first strategy that made Franklin Gutierrez a prized early addition for Zduriencik and has led to Brendan Ryan’s continued employment. Ibanez and Morse are two of the game’s very worst outfielders, and Morales has played 28 games at first base since suffering his devastating leg injury in 2010.

Also an issue: none of these guys are particularly outstanding hitters. Morales is certainly pretty good and Morse did have the big 2011. However, in 2012, all of these guys finished with OPSs under .800 (Morales and Morse just barely). Jaso outhit all of them by batting .276/.394/.456 in his 294 at-bats as a platoon player last season.

It’s also worth noting that none of these guys are necessarily long-termers. Morales and Morse are both free agents next winter. Morales turns 30 in June, while Morse turns 31 in March. Neither is exactly over the hill, but the risk would outweigh the potential reward in giving either a multiyear extension.

Jaso, on the other hand, is three years away from free agency.

But this isn’t really about Jaso, who likely played over his head last year and is a pretty poor defensive catcher. It’s about the Mariners seemingly playing next season at the expense of the long haul without really improving themselves for 2013.

– With Morales, Morse, Ibanez and possibly Bay cluttering up the first base, left field and DH spots, there’s no room for Justin Smoak, Mike Carp or Eric Thames anywhere. Now, Smoak has had his chances, Carp has struggled to stay healthy and can’t help defensively and Thames probably isn’t going to hit enough to overcome his poor glove. But there’s still some upside there. Morse didn’t have his first promising half-season until 28. For Ibanez, it came at 29. Smoak, Carp and Thames are all 26 at the moment.

– The presence of those veterans also figures to put Jesus Montero back behind the plate fairly regularly, even though it’s obvious now that 2012 first-round pick Mike Zunino is the team’s catcher of the future. The Mariners are just delaying the inevitable, which is that Montero is going to end up as a first baseman or a DH. And they’re going to have a crappy defensive catcher while they’re at it. Worse, they’ll probably end up signing a non-entity like Rod Barajas to pair with Montero.

– The pitching has gotten worse with Vargas’ departure. The Mariners did manage to re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma to a club-friendly two-year deal, so they dodged that bullet. Still, he’s not an ideal No. 2 starter behind Felix Hernandez, and behind him are promising sophomore Erasmo Ramirez and the homer-prone Blake Beavan. None of the team’s top pitching prospects figure to be ready to make an impact early on this season. If the season started tomorrow, Hector Noesi would likely be the fifth starter.

Of course, the winter isn’t done. The Mariners could still sign Michael Bourn to replace Gutierrez (not recommended) or maybe Kyle Lohse to serve as the No. 2 starter. They could try another trade to improve the offense (Jacoby Ellsbury? David DeJesus?). As is, it’s hard to imagine them contending in an AL West with a top three that averaged 92 wins last year (the Mariners were 75-87). And if they don’t, it doesn’t seem at all likely that Zduriencik will get another chance in 2013.

Video: Nelson Cruz hits second-longest home run of 2016

ANAHEIM, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Nelson Cruz #23 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his solo homerun with Daniel Vogelbach #20 of the Seattle Mariners to take a 2-1 lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the seventh inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 14, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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There’s certainly never a bad time to hit a home run, but when you get the opportunity to crush a triple-deck, 493-foot shot off of Tyler Duffey, you should take it. With the Mariners down 2-0 to the Twins in the fourth inning, Cruz hammered a fastball to deep left field for his 39th long ball of the season — and the second-longest home run hit in 2016, to boot.

It doesn’t hurt that the Mariners are 1.5 games back of a playoff spot, although they’ll have to oust the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Tigers to get a wild card. They’ve gone 3-3 in the last week, dropping two consecutive series to the Astros and Blue Jays and taking their series opener against Minnesota 10-1 on Friday night.

Cruz, for his part, entered Saturday’s game with a .299/.337/.610 batting line and six home runs in September. According to ESPN.com’s Home Run Tracker, Cruz sits behind Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli with 13 “no-doubt” home runs in 2016, third-most among major league sluggers. It’s safe to say he can add Saturday’s moonshot to that list.

Marlins’ outfielder and undisputed home run king Giancarlo Stanton remains untouched at the top of the Statcast leaderboard with a 504-ft. home run, and it’s difficult to envision any slugger reaching beyond that before the end of the season. Even so, Cruz won’t need to clear 500 feet to extend an impressive hitting record. One more home run will put the 36-year-old at 40 on the year, making 2016 his third consecutive season with at least 40 homers, and his second such season doing so in Seattle.

Report: John Farrell won’t rule out a postseason return for Pablo Sandoval

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - APRIL 11:  Pablo Sandoval #48 of the Boston Red Sox looks on from the dugout before the Red Sox home opener against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on April 11, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Orioles defeat the Red Sox 9-7.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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It’s been a strange season for Red Sox’ third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost his starting role in spring training, went 0-for-6 in three regular season appearances, and underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May. That was the last the Red Sox were supposed to hear about Sandoval until spring 2017, when he was expected to rejoin the team after a lengthy rehab stint in Florida.

On Saturday, manager John Farrell was telling a different story. Per MLB.com’s Sam Blum, Farrell hinted that Sandoval could return to the team as soon as October, albeit in a very limited capacity.

At the time of the surgery, it was all looking at the start of next Spring Training,” Farrell said. “We’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves here, but at the same time, we compliment him for the work he’s put in, the way he’s responded to the rehab, the way he’s worked himself into better condition. We’re staying open-minded.

If the 30-year-old does return in 2016, don’t expect him to look like the three-home run hitter of the 2012 World Series. Should the Red Sox lose another player to injury, Sandoval might be called on as a backup option, but he’s unlikely to see substantial playing time under any other circumstances. Despite making two appearances at DH in the instructional league, Sandoval has not started at third base since undergoing surgery, though Farrell noted that a return to third base would be the next logical step in his recovery process.

Sandoval has yet to hit his stride within the Red Sox’ organization after hitting career-worst numbers in 2015. According to FanGraphs, his Offensive Runs Above Average (Off) plummeted to -20.2, contributing approximately two wins fewer than the average offensive player in 2015. (The Diamondbacks’ Chris Owings held the lowest Off mark in 2015, with -26.3 runs below average.) Sandoval has not appeared in a postseason race since the Giants’ championship run in 2014.

Heading into Saturday evening, the Red Sox could clinch their spot in the postseason with a win over the Rays and an Orioles’ loss.