Thursday, March 30, 2006

Hail to the King

So alot is being said lately about the star power of the phenom that Mariners' fans know simply as "The King". Of course, referring to 19-year-old righthander, Felix Hernandez.

With a special talent like Hernandez's, it is truly difficult to predict what exactly he will do throughout his career. News services such as Fox Sports and CBS Sportsline have had such rave reviews as, "M’s fans can savor every pitch from Felix Hernandez—one of the best pitching prospects in the annals of the game." and "The reason to go see Seattle play, of course, is Felix Hernandez — the greatest pitching prospect the game has seen in a very long time." These types of reviews are not thrown out very often, and are a sure indication that King Felix Hernandez has the stuff, the makeup and the ability to become that special player that all of Mariner Nation hopes he can become.

With tremendous upside also comes the huge expectations, and so many times, a failure to launch into superstardom. All one has to do is look over at the lowly Chicago Cub's roster to see a prime example of how huge arms can quickly become a major hindrance to the franchise.

Kerry Wood, who burst onto the scene in 1998 becoming one of only two pitchers at the time to strike out 20 batters in a single game... and he did it as a rookie. Yes, things were looking up for Kerry Wood in '98, but what has happened since then? A multitude of injuries, re-aggravations of injuries, and other setbacks has derailed the train that once seemed destined to drive Kerry Wood right to the top of the list of all-time greats.

Right behind Wood on the list of potential "once in a generation" arms is fellow Cubs righty, Mark Prior. Prior joined the major league club in 2002 when he started 19 games for the Cubs, the next season, Prior started 30 games for the Cub's as it looked like they were finally starting to take care of their young pitchers. However, towards the end of the 2003 season, Prior began to come up with elbow problems. In spring training for the 2004 season, Prior once again was forced out of action due to elbow problems as well as a lingering leg injury. Spring training 2005? Yep, injuries forced Prior to miss significant time. This just serves as a constant reminder that you can never truly get too high on a player just by looking at what he has done early in his career. Whew, that was long.

Now, for the fun stuff. Felix Hernandez, King Felix or K-K-K-K-King Felix looks ready to absolutely explode onto the baseball scene in Seattle and may just become the savior to a Seattle franchise that is in desperate need of one. Last season, Hernandez only started 12 games for the Mariners, but in those 12 games something magical happened. If you look below to the post on VORP to see exactly what that means, then this number will mean something very special to you... In those 12 starts, the VORP for Hernandez, a staggering 28.1. I will let you take a moment to let that sink in. Ok. 28.1 VORP for Hernandez in only 12 starts, if you prorate that number out to an average year of 35 starts, the full season VORP for Hernandez is an 82, compare that with the Cy Young Award winner, Bartolo Colon of the Angels who had a VORP of 49.1 in 33 starts. Chris Carpenter, the Cy Young winner in the National League? His VORP was a 67.8 in 33 starts as well.

Keeping with the stat-head mentality, I offer to you one more nugget of fun information on Hernandez. Baseball Prospectus, the organization that comes up with the formula for many of the statistics that I use here, has another interesting way of rating players. This system is called "similarity index". Similarity index is described as "a gauge of a player's historical uniqueness", basically it assigns a number for a player that describes the ability to compare him to past players in baseball. The lower the number, the more extraordinary the talent of that player. Baseball Prospectus says a number below 20 is historically unusual. Albert Pujols, one of the best young hitters in all of baseball has a similarity index of 16. Randy Johnson, one of the premier pitchers throughout his career has a similarity index of 4... Impressive huh? Well, looking at the similarity index of Hernandez is enough to send chills down the spine of any baseball historian. 1. That is not a typo, it is a ONE! No explanation of that is necessary except to say that Hernandez is without a doubt a once in a lifetime type of talent.

It is truly difficult to get very excited about the talent that Hernandez has, just for the sheer fact that the Seattle franchise has had very little luck in the last few years with talented pitchers. However, I am encouraged with how management is handling this young pitcher in particular. From limits on the innings he will pitch this year (his age multiplied by 10 which equals 190) in both spring training and the full season combined, to the way they handle small injuries such as Hernandez's shin splints which have caused him now to miss his last start of spring.

It may be time to usher in a new era of Mariner baseball, and I for one am ready to "Hail to the King" and welcome Felix Hernandez with open arms to the hall of future greats in Major League Baseball. If statistics, details and makeup of this 19-year-old phenom have anything to say, Hernandez may be ready to enter that hall with no delay.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Bullpen for 2006

I tried to enter links but everytime I did it gave me an error message... not sure why? EDIT: The links worked when I re-entered them at 2:30 this morning.

So in the last post, I discussed the starting rotation for the Mariners including the strength and weaknesses of each of the slots in the rotation as well as darkhorse candidates for making the rotation. Well, as of right now, there is about two weeks left in spring training, and the final rotation is looking like this: Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro, Jarrod Washburn, Gil Meche, Felix Hernandez. So with the rotation out the way, it is time to delve into the pitchers at the end of the game. It is time to look at the bullpen for 2006.

One of my biggest fears this offseason was having to go into another season with Matt Thornton as the left-handed specialist in the bullpen. No more do I need to worry about that, as Thornton was just recently traded to the world champions. The Chicago White Sox and the Mariners came up with a deal to trade former first-round draft picks that never quite made it with either team. Joe Borchard, 27, is the guy coming over to Seattle from Chicago. My opinion? When you get rid of a guy like Thornton, right there you save at least 10 wins; or at least give yourself a chance to. Manager Mike Hargrove has come out and said that he is prepared to go with no southpaws in the bullpen, HUGE mistake. (What is a southpaw? Well when stadiums were first being built, they were mostly built on an E-W plane so when a left-handed pitcher would face the batter, his pitching arm would be on the south side of the stadium... fun fact.)

So if Thornton was the last available option in the bullpen, then Hargrove is basically forced to go with no left-handers out of the bullpen right? Wrong. George Sherill,28, is now the leading candidate to fill the void at left-handed specialist and although he is having a rather rough spring training, in his short career he is holding left-handed hitters to a mere .198 batting average. Along with Sherill, Hargrove also has an option in Luis E. Gonzalez. Gonzalez,23, is a near lock to be on the opening day roster if only for the fact that he is a "Rule V(5) Draftee".

The rule 5 draft is a major league/minor league draft that happens each winter at the GM meetings. The way it works is this: Each of the 30 major league teams has a 40-man roster (25 in the majors and 15 in the minors), and every person NOT on that 40-man roster in the organization is eligible to be drafted in the rule 5. However, if you pick a player in the draft, that player is required to be on the major league 25-man roster the entire season after he is drafted. So, if you draft a player that has no experience above, say, single-A ball, then you are essentially wasting a roster slot to keep him on your team. If you take him off of your roster, he is returned to his former team for a nominal fee.

Now, back to the bullpen issues... So if Luis Gonzalez makes the team, that would possibly give Hargrove three lefties in the bullpen (two if you don't count Eddie Guardado, the closer). So with the left-handed pitchers out of the way, we can now look at the strength of the 2006 Mariners. With Guardado, Rafael Soriano, JJ Putz, Clint Nageotte, Julio Mateo, and possibly Jesse Foppert, the back end of the bullpen is looking very strong.

Soriano, when healthy, is one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game. He has a high-90's fastball, a killer slider, and has a workable changeup. The key phrase however, is, WHEN HEALTHY. Soriano has always had injury problems with his shoulder and his elbow, but has now been healthy for a few months and after a year-long rehabiliatation assignment, is ready to come back to the Mariners strong.

JJ Putz has the possibility to be the next Matt Thornton in the Mariners bullpen, or the next stud reliever. He has a very good fastball, but so did Thornton... He has a very good sinker, something that Thornton did not have, but he does have problems controlling it at times, ding ding ding! Thornton anyone? I will be the first to admit that Putz has the look, the build and the stuff to be a big league closer, but I just never feel too confident in him coming in the bullpen, hopefully this season he can put it all together and strengthen an already dominant back end of the bullpen.

Clint Nageotte is as big a question mark as anybody on the major league roster for the Mariners, his slider is maybe the second-best slider in the organization (behind King Felix) but he has some control issues that have kept him from stardom in the major leagues. If new pitching coach, Rafael Chaves can help Nageotte to keep his slider and decent fastball under control, he has a chance to be something special.

Julio Mateo is one of those guys that you can pencil in for just about the same performance each year, he is not a guy that is going to come in for the pressure situations, but he is able to do just about anything else. A few wins each season, a 3.50 ERA or so, and able to pitch just about everyday, Mateo is a very valuable piece to an already stacked bullpen lot.

'Everyday Eddie' is the left-handed closer that so many Mariner fans have come to love. He does not have the greatest stuff, he only throws in the high-80's, nor does he have the best talent, but one thing he does have is heart, he believes he is the best closer in baseball, and his performance since joining the Mariners has shown that as well (54 saves, 2.74 ERA).

The bullpen for the most part is set, and I do not think Jesse Foppert will be able to crack the crew, but the darkhorses to make the bullpen are: Luis E. Gonzalez, Travis Blackley, Jesse Foppert, Scott Atchison... Not exactly compelling names, which is the main reason why the bullpen is primarily set in stone.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Pitching in 2006

So in the last post on this blog I covered the potential offensive lineup, as well as the main positional battle (second-base). Now, the real problem with the 2006 Mariners team begins, and that of course, is the pitching. Throughout the years, the minor-league system for the Mariners has been filled with prospects in the pitching arena; Ryan Anderson, Jeff Heaverlo, Cha Sueng Baek, Clint Nageotte and many more. Oh, you say you have never heard of these pitchers? Exactly. The minor league pitching in Seattle has been destroyed by poor managing of the young arms, and injuries that ravaged the team.

The few bright spots coming from the farm system are Felix Hernandez, Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro. Both Meche and Pineiro have been the picture of unfulfilled promise since their inception into the major leagues. They also comprise the second half of the 2006 Mariners rotation.

Due to the lack of impact prospects, besides Felix Hernandez, the front office was forced in this past offseason to overpay for the likes of former Angels lefthander, Jarrod Washburn.

The Mariners pitching staff is where the wins will come from this year. The bullpen, one of the few strengths in last season's nightmare, will once again be extremely strong with the return from injury of Rafael Soriano, and the return of Eddie Guardado, one of the best closers in all of baseball, J.J. Putz will be back with his high-90's fastball.

The starting rotation looks like this
Jamie Moyer
Jarrod Washburn
Felix Hernandez
Gil Meche
Joel Pineiro

Darkhorse candidates for the rotation include: Clint Nageotte, Rafael Soriano, Jesse Foppert.

Analysis of the rotation: The top three of the rotation are just about locks to win 12-15 games in an average season, 15-19 in a really good season, and of course, you can never count out King Felix to go beyond those numbers. So the real question marks come in the back end, on the arms of Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro.

Meche has been way too dependant on his four-seam fastball, a fast pitch, but a very flat and hittable pitch. To remedy this situation, new pitching coach, Rafael Chaves has taught Meche a two-seam fastball. The two-seamer is a pitch that gives up limited speed (one or two MPH) but that gives the ball a lot of late sink. The thought with this is that Meche will be able to induce more ground balls and keep his pitch count down.

Pineiro is a little more of a problem for the Mariners coaching staff. While he has had spectacular seasons in the past (2001, 2002, 2003) something has changed with him. In 2004, Pineiro's ERA went up nearly a full run from his 2003 stats, and he won 10 fewer games (16-to-6). Last season was very similar, Pineiro once again saw his ERA rise another run, finishing with a career high 5.62 ERA. Some have blamed Pineiro's demise on injuries, but pitchers who are injured do not throw nearly 200 innings in 3 of the last 4 years.

Pineiro had a major problem missing bats last season, that is where his real problems mount. Last season saw Pineiro's strikeout-per-nine-inning ration fall by two full strikeouts from 7.10 to 5.10, opponents hit .300 against Pineiro and he gave up his highest opponents slugging percentage, at .458. So for Pineiro to return to form of his highlight seasons of 2001-2003, he really needs to get some more movement on his pitches, depend on his great curveball a little more, and most of all, get a little bit lucky and get momentum on his side.

In the next installment of 2006 Mariners, the final piece of the team (the bullpen) will be looked at.

A new season means new commercials as well... Here is one of my favorites from the past

Late addition: In the first Cactus League game today, a charity game with the San Diego Padres with whome they share their spring training complex in Peoria, the Mariners and Padres tied 2-2 in 10 innings. Felix Hernandez started the game and struck out all three batters he faced in the first inning, using only 13 pitches... Long live King Felix!