Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Now Batting: WFB... Are You SERIOUS???

With Brad Wilkerson actually having a decent day, John McLaren decides to pinch-hit Willie Bloomquist for him in the 9th. Yes, the M's had just taken the lead on an Adrian Beltre 3-run bomb. And Richie walked ahead of him. McLaren put Cairo in to pinch run for Sexson, and then unexplicably pulled a heating-up Wilkerson for a woeful Willie Bloomquist. Seriously -- I realize Wilkerson's having a tough start to the season, and I'm on the bandwagon for replacing him sooner rather than later, but Bloomquist as a pinch hitter? At that moment in the game -- yeah, the M's had a 3-run lead already built up, and they still had outs to spare in the 9th -- with the way the 'pen has been shaky lately, a 3-run lead didn't feel comfortable. There were better options.

Greg Norton was on the bench, having just had a couple of successful games. He could've hit for Wilkerson if you REALLY want to ignore Wilkerson's reverse platoon splits. Then, with the lead, stick Willie in RF for defense.

You know things are bad when your manager pinch hits WFB for you. Vidro had some important hits, too, including an RBI double. Maybe the news that Clement and Balentien were not in the Tacoma lineup and that McLaren said they'd both be up "sooner than later" actually helped wake them up. I still think Wlad and Clement are better options, but whatever.

GS52 Watch:

Walked B.J. Upton, but got the save to push Baltimore into first place in the AL East.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hey -- LOOK! He CAN Bend His Brim!!!

This might very well be the first photo of George in an Orioles' uniform with his brim bent! Yeah, I know, it's only a spring training/batting practice cap, but hey -- it's a start.

I had the time of my life at the game. It was definitely bittersweet for me going to the enemy bullpen and seeing a friend. Thanks to the awesomeness of George Sherrill (and, of course, Sid too), I got to sit 22 rows up from home plate for his return to Safeco Field. I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- my fandom of George goes well beyond his status as a Mariner player (of course, now being a former Mariner).

It was an awesome game -- Guthrie matched Felix pretty well, and I was very very surprised to see Trembley leave him in there after 100 pitches. I turned to a family friend of the Sherrills (with whom I had the pleasure of spending most of the pre-game with, to which and gave a guided tour of Safeco) and said "Here comes Walker to face Ibanez -- he's terrible against lefties!"

Well, the decision to leave Guthrie in to intentionally walk Ibanez came back to haunt Trembley -- after walking Beltre to load the bases, I was the lone voice in a sea of Orioles friends and family members (okay, there were some M's fans to the side of me -- but I was sitting in the O's players' seats) chanting "Fra-ank Tho-mas (clap clap, clapclapclap)!" when Vidro came to the plate (in the spirit of good ol' Lookout Landing mockery).

Needless to say, I was quite happy that the M's didn't have to face George tonight in my presence. After all -- my cell phone LCD display got smashed somewhere along the way tonight, and I could barely dial Sid's number a few innings earlier. It would've been tough to try and put the "Hey -- don't call Sid when George is pitching" jinx, whether or not my cell phone actually was working.

And this night was even made more awesome by the fact that I was able to take my son along with me and share a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was fun for him being able to talk to George in the 'pen, I'm sure, and getting to hang out with one of Brian Roberts' relatives (a 4-year-old close enough to his age -- the only kid I've met that actually could keep up with my son's energy level and not be put off by his crazy silliness).

I heard in the post-game show that Felix had caught that nasty bug going around the clubhouse (and, well, my house, too). He got off to a slow start, but found the strike zone and while not nearly at full kingly strength. It was good enough and -- like Bedard's Opening Day start -- he showed his aceness by being able to pitch through adversity when he didn't have his greatest stuff.

I sure felt like a king being there...

Jeez. It's late. I'll have many more pictures in the coming days. I may not ever get to experience a baseball game like that one again. What a night!

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Rohrbaugh, Jimenez dominate

It's early in the year, but the Rainiers rotation certainly looks impressive so far. Robert Rohrbaugh got his first start of the new season last night and threw 6 shut-out innings, allowing only 3 hits, no walks and getting 5 Ks. A fly-ball pitcher, Rohrbaugh might be expected to do well in April in the spacious confines of Cheney Stadium. But the wind was blowing out last night (or out to right center), but the Grizzlies simply couldn't get solid contact off of him.

Even the outfield fly balls were pop-ups, with Wlad calling off Chen for one and Hulett making the catch in front of Brent Johnson on another.
Ivan Ochoa was the only Grizzly who had a couple of good swings - he picked up a couple of singles on the night. Scott McClain squared up a couple of pitches on Rohrbaugh, but had a line-out and a fly out for his efforts.

Rohrbaugh is basically Ryan Feierabend if you take away 3 MPH on his fastball. As Feierabend's 'stuff' is not exactly eye-popping, that should tell you something about Rohrbaugh. The guy isn't just another in the long line of Jamie Moyer clones the M's drafted, he's trying to get guys out with Jamie's arsenal. Seriously. His FB was varied last night, but he threw one of them at 82 MPH. Moyer himself might throw faster than that in the 8th inning. He generally worked between 84-86, but got up in the high 80s occasionally and hit 90 one time.

All of this is to say that the reason Rohrbaugh is not well thought of in prospect circles is... valid. If Feierabend has little room for error, Rohrbaugh has none. And yet, the guy's been successful at every stop so far. My guess is that if he wants a real shot at the majors, he'll have to improve his command a bit. It's tough - get too much of the plate with an 84MPH fastball, and you'll get annihilated. Walk too many with an 84MPH fastball, and people will encourage you to explore different career options. He's been in the 2.5-3BB/9IP range historically, but last night's no-walk performance may be a great harbinger of improved command as he settles in at the AAA level.

A lot of people like to make fun of the Grizzlies line-up, and given that these are the guys who couldn't make the SF Giants MLB roster, there's a grain of truth there. But while the line-up isn't exactly littered with great MLB prospects, it's clearly not a bad AAA line-up. Scott McClain hit 31 HRs at this level last year, and hit at least 28 HRs in AAA five times (for four teams). He also hit 39 HRs for the Seibu Lions in NPB. You all know that Justin Leone's a quality AAA slugger, and OF John Bowker's coming off a year of .307/.363/.523 in the Eastern League last year (he's the closest they've got to a prospect). On paper, they may be a better AAA line-up than the Rainiers. The best on the Rainiers are better than the best on the Grizzlies, and clearly have better MLB prospects, but the Grizzlies have fairly impressive depth.

Cesar Jimenez - Seattle Mariners Desktop Wallpaper SeriesI mention this to give added context for Cesar Jimenez's jaw-dropping performance. Jimenez came in to start the seventh and promptly struck out the side on 12 pitches. He faced the heart of the order, and got Leone, McClain and Brett Harper (.296/.350/.500 last year in the eastern league) easily. He started the eighth by striking out Eliezer Alfonzo, then K'ing Bowker. Bowker was the only player to work the count and foul off a couple of pitches, but in the end he couldn't lay off a nasty change. Julio Cordido was the last man to face Jimenez, and actually managed to put the ball in play... a meek pop-up to 1B Bryan LaHair.

The left-handed Jimenez faced 4 righties and 2 lefties - the fact that his change-up is as tough on righties as lefties may actually hurt his chances of making a return to the majors; Jimenez isn't a LOOGY. He's done fine versus lefties so far, but he's not a George Sherrill or Arthur Rhodes type of pitcher. If he makes it, it'll have to be as a set-up guy who can get righties or lefties (sort of the role Ryan Rowland-Smith finds himself in...finally... for Seattle). With Eric O'Flaherty struggling, he may get a chance this year. Arthur Rhodes may be one place ahead in the queue, but Rhodes' health at this stage is always a question.

Jon Huber finished the game out by allowing a run on a hit, a walk and a wild pitch.

The offensive 'star' of this 2-1 victory was Wlad Balentien, who followed up his grand slam on Wednesday with a 2-4 performance last night. He knocked in the first run with a line drive smash double to left. He actually hit the ball so hard that he was very nearly thrown out at second; a neat slide helped him avoid the tag, but the ball beat him to the base handily. Wlad's going to be fine, and his slow start wasn't all that concerning to the R's.

Matt Tuiasosopo, on the other hand, continues to look a bit overmatched. He went 0-3, and is now 1-19 on the year. He struck out twice and popped up on the infield. I know Churchill at Prospect Insider is still high on him, so perhaps there's no need for panic, but as someone who's been a bit circumspect on Tui for years, uh, yeah, I'm a little worried. He's still young, but without some power, and without a better showing against high minors righties, it's going to be tough to stick as a corner defender. One thing he's shown in his MiLB career is a willingness to listen to coaching and a real aptitude for learning and improving. He's not someone who's gotten frustrated by some seriously frustrating spells in AA, and he's improved each year (particularly in plate discipline). I'm sure he'll get better, but he's got a long way to go.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Four for Four...

The last three coming against our beloved Mariners.

See -- We told you George was good!

But it's not because of the brim. Bend it, dude, bend it!

(Photo from MLB.com -- Rob Carr/AP)

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Friday, April 04, 2008

So...Ryan Feierabend?

Ryan Feierabend pitched one of his best games at the AAA level in yesterday's opening day game. 6IP, 0R, 4H, 3BB and 7Ks. Where'd this come from?

Well, it's not from any new pitches. He was his normal three-pitch self last night, with his FB just the same as it was last year - from 85 to touching 90, but mostly 87-88 or so. His change-up was around 78, which is what the pitchfx data shows.

So how does a guy with standard platoon splits shut down a decent line-up stacked with righties?

First, it looked like he used the change-up much more than the curve. That's actually pretty similar to his M.O. vs. righties in the big leagues, but it was noticeable that the curve was a show-me pitch that he'd leave off the plate. That willingness to work off the plate showed up both in his higher than normal walk total and in his very low SLG percentage against. Remember, this is the same guy who allowed righties to slug over .600 in the majors, and who allowed PCL righties to slug .463 against him in Tacoma last year.

So clearly, he was able to improve the deception on the change-up last night. It's either that or he's willing to use it a lot more. Ryan's pitchfx data show something interesting - he got swinging strikes (the type most likely to stay consistent from year to year) on 13.6% of his change-ups last year, and gave up a home run on only 1 of 206 pitches thrown. His fastball induced swinging strikes only 3.5% of the time, and he gave up 4 HRs in 352 pitches. He was in the strike zone about the same with both pitches - he threw called balls on roughly 34-35% of both FBs and Changes.

From these data, and from his experience giving up 9HRs in less than 50 IP, I'd say Ryan may be learning to trust his change-up a lot more, and to avoid giving the hitter a hitter's pitch even in 2-0, 3-1 counts. His FB isn't good enough to blow by people, and if he wants to be successful, he's going to have to use the change-up a ton, and he's going to have to put the FB on the corners. Sure, this is true for every pitcher. But Feierabend's start last night showed that he doesn't have to be a 2 BB/9IP pitcher to succeed; that approach may actually PREVENT him from succeeding. This isn't a case where he wasn't mixing his pitches before - he was. But the Cha Seung Baek path to (FIP) success isn't going to work here, so he's got to make a change (ha!). So far, so good.

The hitting star was Yung-Chi Chen, who put a charge into a Greg Smith pitch and pulled a double pretty high off the wall in left center. He also had a single and a successful-if-uneventful night in the field. I'm pulling for the guy. Nice photo of him in the Tribune's photo slide show here, and stay tuned here or at Prospect Insider for photos from last night - Positive Paul got some great shots.

Matt Tuiasosopo apparently looked great in BP, but looked absolutely lost in his first AAA AB (a strikeout). He came back with a couple of better ABs, but still looked a bit overmatched. I'm sure there was a lot of pressure on him as his parents and numerous siblings were in attendance - gotta be nice to play in Washington again for the first time since he was at Everett.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

2008 Rainiers Season Preview

I know, I know, we're all watching King Felix's 2008 debut, but since Opening Day at Cheney is fast approaching, it seems like a decent time to get to know the team this year.

As Mike Curto noted, the Rainiers (and new minor league director Greg Hunter) have signed a number of pretty solid minor league veterans in an effort to avoid 'rushing' prospects quite as much and to help the farm clubs actually win some games. This means that the Rainiers (and other teams) won't quite be the team that prospecters love (and everyone else hates); it means they're going to try and win a bit more.

Perhaps the best example is Kevin Witt, the long-time MiLB slugger who figures to split time at 1B with long-time Rainiers farmhand Bryan LaHair. Witt hit 36 HRs in back-to-back seasons in the Rays and Cards systems a few years ago, and made it up to Tampa for a cup of coffee in 2006. In 2007, he opted to try NPB and set out for Japan. Sadly for Witt, Japan kicked his ass. After 40 games of .174/.267/.348, it was back to the states to regroup. So: he's not exactly 'hot' right now, and he's got a lifetime .267 OBP in 146 MLB games. That said, he's a far sight better than the random MiLB first basemen the Rainiers have found in years past - Aaron Rifkin, Todd Sears, Andy Barkett, those guys. All in all, he's got a decent shot to equal AJ Zapp's production from 2004 and an outside shot to become the next Bucky Jacobsen-style quasi-prospect/folk hero.
Witt hits lefty, so he can't really platoon with LaHair. There's no doubt Witt is the more productive hitter, so either the R's want Witt to DH or they're starting to give up on LaHair and his brutal platoon splits.

The 2B slot should be manned by Yung-Chi Chen, the Taiwanese prospect who lost almost all of 2007 to injury. Given his performance in the Arizona Fall League, it's easy to be bullish about Chen's 2008. He's got gap power, makes contact and can play several positions on the infield. Many label him Willie Bloomquist's asian twin for his 'good at a few things, but not good enough to be, y'know, a GOOD player' style of game, but I think he could be poised to make a leap to MLB-quality hitter. Dave Cameron and others worry that his 2B defense won't be good enough to carry a so-so bat, and that's something to watch. Either he improves and becomes a .300/.340/.460 hitter in AAA, or Cameron's right and he's a future 24th-25th man on someone's bench.

The shortstop position was a killer for the Rainiers last year, and the step down from Asdrubal Cabrera to Oswaldo Navarro continues to be piss me off. Not only is Navarro's defense much worse than Cabrera's (I'm hoping it gets better this year, and some of his incompetence was bad luck. C'mon regression to the mean!), but he struggled to a .632 OPS at the plate. Not only that, but his OPS came UP to .632 thanks to a half-decent July and August. To push Navarro, the Rainiers went out and signed Mark Kiger who had been in the Mets org last year. Kiger isn't a big-time slugger, so don't expect an Andy Green-style breakout, but he's an extremely patient hitter whose ISO-patience is over .100 in 6 minor league seasons. That's key, as the Rainiers didn't figure to get too many walks from Chen/Navarro/LaHair or even Witt. Kiger also plays 3B, which leads us to the hot corner....

3B is a position in flux, as Matt Tuiasosopo figures to take over in the not-too-distant future. If Tui doesn't make the club to begin with, the Rainiers will go with a combination of Kiger and org vets Ronnie Prettyman and Brant Ust. The latter two have zero prospect value, but Ust is handy as a super-sub to play 1B, 2B or 3B as needed, and Prettyman has a funny name.

The outfield is where things get more interesting. Obviously, the big star and now one of the M's best prospects is Wladimir Balentien. The Curacao native figures to get some time at all three OF positions now that Adam Jones isn't patrolling CF, and since Charlton Jimerson is frozen in amber on the M's bench. Wlad's played CF before, and played some in spring training this season. This is obviously a huge year for Balentien professionally; most expect him to make the M's roster at some point this year, much like Jones last year. Balentien has cut his K rate dramatically thanks to improved pitch recognition. The days of 1K per 3ABs are long gone, and if Wlad's improvement continues, he make M's fans forget about losing Adam Jones.... a bit. Next to Wlad will be former Yankees prospect Bronson Sardinha. I've said it before, but Sardinha is what Matt Tuiasosopo sees in his nightmares - both were highly regarded prep shortstops, and both started out great in the low minors, flashing some power to balance out poor glove work. Sardinha moved to 3B in 2004, but promptly made 43 errors between A+ and AA, which necessitated a move to the outfield. While he's OK out there, the power that was so evident in the short-season NYPL never really translated to the high minors, at least not regularly. If I sound pessimistic about Tui, and I suppose I am compared to many, it's because I'm worried he may be a slightly larger Sardinha. Of course, Sardinha's only 25, so he's got time to get back on track. He clearly needed to get out of the Yankees org, where he's been bouncing between AA and AAA for 2 years.
Finally, there's the tragic figure of Jeremy Reed. We all know the story - lauded prospect, amazing plate discipline, sizzling MLB call-up in 2004.... and then a combination of meh batspeed, injuries and what have to be some confidence issues conspired to leave him as a potential bust struggling to revive his career at age 26-27. Reed played quite well in 2007, at least away from Cheney. If he's able to either improve his play at home or versus lefties, he'll still have a modicum of value. If not, well, welcome to the life of itinerant minor league free agent.

The catching spot is basically unchanged - uber-prospect Jeff Clement and org-fave Rob Johnson figure to split time behind the plate. Clement's down to work on his defense, but he's still got a bit to prove at the plate as well. Clement was very slow to start last year and had trouble with some pitchers, leading many scouts to doubt his batspeed. He appeared to assuage those concerns with his second half (and his away splits), but he'd make me a lot more comfortable if he can get his SLG comfortably over .500 and/or prove that his freakish reverse platoon splits weren't just a fluke. If he's really a dominant hitter versus lefties, and just got unlucky versus righties last year, look out. The entire M's fanbase is rooting for you, Jeff. Let's put ANY doubts about your hitting prowess to rest.

The pitching staff is a mix of old and new, but one thing the Rainiers *always* seem to have room for is the MLB vet who hasn't pitched in a while who's trying to make it back to the show. A few years ago, it was Kevin Appier. Last year, it was Jim Parque. Though the track record isn't any better for these guys than it was for Jesse Foppert, the Rainiers decided to make room for Denny Stark, who last pitched competitively in 2005 (and 'competitively' may be a bit generous, given his stats that year). Long-time Rainiers/M's fans may remember Stark from his 2001 season when he went 14-2 with a 2.37 ERA for the Rainiers (jeebus was that 2001 team good). The next season, he and Brian Fuentes were traded to Colorado for...Jeff Cirillo. Stark pitched quite well for the Rockies in 2002, going 11-4, though his poor command and lack of an out-pitch were clear red flags. Well, those peripherals matter, and Stark never really had success again, though injuries clearly did their part as well. We shall see.

The fan favorite will probably be R.A. Dickey, the rule 5 pick-up from the Twins. After trading Jair Fernandez for him to avoid losing Dickey when they couldn't find room on the MLB roster, the knuckleballer is back to the PCL, where he's the reigning pitcher of the year. He's been very good at this level and now moves to a severe pitcher's park. Clearly, he's someone the M's may look to if the big club suffers some injuries.

Ryan Feierabend is back again to try to learn an outpitch; he was solid for Tacoma last year, but was demolished in a major league call-up. He'll have to either reduce his BBs even more to try to have a Carlos Silva-style career or avoid the centered pitches and lower his HRs allowed. He'd be facing something of a make or break year if he wasn't so damned young (22).

Robert Rohrbaugh is another in a long line of soft-tossing control artists, but is slightly different in that he's a righty. Ergo, he's in the Jorge Campillo class of pitchers as opposed to the Moyer/Livingston/Feierabend group. The ex-Clemson tiger impressed in his half-season last year, though his BB/9 and K/9 are damned close to Feierabend, meaning the same sorts of caveats that apply to Ryan's arsenal apply to Rohrbaugh. Robert is also 2 years older than Feierabend, so...

The final spot in the rotation is most likely going to be filled by Philip Barzilla, the ex-Rice Owls closer who started 18 games for Round Rock last year. Barzilla's another guy who doesn't really get strike-outs, but walks a few more than Rohrbaugh and Feierabend, so... yeah. He's roster filler.

Still, he's somewhat valuable in that he'll allow Cesar Jimenez to move back to the bullpen, a role that he's had some success in both in the Venezuelan Winter League and in the low-minors. The M's tried him as a starter, but something about the longer outings didn't work so well for him. Not only were his strikeouts down significantly (along with his velocity), he was also much more of a fly ball pitcher. As a reliever, the lefty can increase his FB velo from 88 or so to 90, and hopefully use a moderately tricky delivery and a solid change-up to be a very poor man's George Sherrill for Tacoma. Despite being around for many years, he'll be 23 this season.

Sean White also pitched well in Venezuela, and figures to be a very solid right hander out of the bullpen. His velocity's a bit better than Jimenez's, and he's also a *severe* GB pitcher, so he's one to watch this year. If Sean Green ever goes down, the M's have his similarly-named twin in AAA. That said, White turns 27 this month, so if he wants to have an impact with the M's, he needs to take a step forward now - he can start by cutting down on the walks.

Thanks for reading this far. Watch as the M's shake up the minor league rosters and render this useless tomorrow....
I'll be at the game sitting right behind the plate, and my coblogger will be taking photos, so stay tuned!

[edited 4/2/08]
Churchill's got the official roster here, so I better add something about a couple of other players...

First, Andy Baldwin will move up from AA and pitch in the rotation for Tacoma. Baldwin was acquired in the Jamie Moyer deal from Philadelphia, and pitched at Oregon State back in 2004. He's not had the best success in either org, but his walk totals are so low that they constitute a real skill. Similar to Cha Seung Baek, Baldwin's the kind of pitcher who won't wow anyone with his stuff, and he's given up a ton of hits both in the Florida State League and Southern League. In this ballpark, with this team, look for his stats (ERA, W/L) to take a step forward. He'll still be the same pitcher, and he's not that young (this'll be his age 25 season), but given the park and defense, his numbers *should* be better.

Mark Kiger is apparently NOT on the roster, so forget about his delicious OBP and replace that with Tug Hulett (who I really should've talked about before). Acquired for Ben Broussard from Texas, Hulett is basically the exact same guy as Kiger. He's got great patience and thus he's got a career MiLB career OBP of .398, but has no power (thus his career MiLB SLG of .384). If he can man the SS position competently, he'll add the on-base skills that the line-up needs.

Roy Corcoran will be the closer, or one of them, once he returns from taking JJ Putz's roster spot while Putz recovers from Costochondritis.
Corcoran closed for Albuquerque last year in the PCL, and though he gets more Ks than most of the other Tacoma relievers, isn't that special. He's got poor command, as evidenced by his 1:1 K/BB ratio in the majors. The best thing about the guy is his extreme GB ratio, which results in his freakishly low HR/9 ratio despite pitching in the bandbox that is Albuquerque. At nearly 61% GBs last year, Corcoran is another Sean Green clone - and another GB pitcher that Bill Bavasi simply couldn't say no to.

There shall be no waiting period at 3B, as Matt Tuiasosopo will be the third baseman for Tacoma. Tui is a great athlete, and was only 21 last year, but his lack of contact and power bodes.... poorly as of right now. Who know, maybe the guy will take a leap forward and put it all together. It's also possible that his home park will obscure even moderate progress. The M's spent big on Tui in the draft, and scouts still love everything about him from his physical frame to his approach. We'll see.

One more notable player - Joe Woerman will try and figure out what the organization wants him to do. Woerman, originally from Everett, was a great (if old for his league) reliever in the midwest league with K rates over 14, and manageable walk rates. The M's shifted him to the rotation at AA last year, and while he limits hits and can miss a bat or two, the results weren't great. I'd guess the M's are shifting him back to the pen, which makes a lot more sense. His arsenal is suited more to closing, and he may get a chance to close a bit with Corcoran in Seattle for the near future.

That's it - see you at the ballpark tomorrow.