MARINERS SIFTING THROUGH POSSIBILITIES AMID CANO FALLOUT

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — It’s been a few days now since the bombshell news surfaced regarding Robinson Cano’s 80-game suspension for violation of Major League Baseball’s drug policy.

   As the dust settles…what happens now?

   The Mariners are without their All-Star second baseman until Aug. 14 and, should they reach postseason for the first time since 2001, Cano will be ineligible to participate.

   Center fielder Dee Gordon is now taking ground balls at second base, his old position, and general manager Jerry Dipoto is vowing to “definitely look outside” the organization “to augment the team” at second base or center field.

   *****

   If Jerry is on the prowl, that effectively makes some sort of trade/signing/waiver claim a matter of time. He is widely regarded as the game’s most prolific wheeler-dealer. It’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t come up with something.

   *****

   Cano’s suspension came two days after he suffered a broken bone in his right hand when hit by a pitch in Detroit. That injury, apparently, wasn’t as bad as initially feared. Dipoto said Cano was expected to return in two-to-four weeks.

   To bridge that gap, the Mariners summoned veteran infielder Gordon Beckham from Triple-A Tacoma to serve as Cano’s primary replacement. There were no plans, at that time, to return Gordon to the infield.

   “I think for the long-term future of this ballclub,” manager Scott Servais said prior to Cano’s suspension, “Dee Gordon is our center fielder.”

   Servais now says Gordon will return to the infield at some point during this weekend’s series against Detroit.

   *****

   For what it’s worth, barring a trade that nets an impact center fielder, I think the Mariners should leave Gordon where he is unless they plan to keep him at second base once Cano returns. (And I don’t see how they can do that.)

   The difference between an outfield in which Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia draw regular duty doesn’t seem a significant upgrade over one in which those two split time in left while Beckham and utilityman Andrew Romine play second base.

   It’s a debatable point, certainly, and I know others, including the Mariners, believe it’s a no-brainer to move Gordon back to second base. They believe he’ll have no trouble returning in a few months to center field, and they might be right.

   For me, though, Gordon shows a growing comfort level in center field. I wouldn’t mess with that development at this point given the lineup alternatives, particularly if the plan is to put Gordon back in center in mid-August.

   *****

   One aspect of Dipoto’s trade history is he specializes in out-of-the-box thinking.

   Getting Gordon with the idea of shifting him to center field is just one example. The previous year, acquiring Jean Segura, then a second baseman, to fill a hole at shortstop is another one.

   Trying to guess Dipoto’s targets is a fool’s game, which of course means I can’t resist it. I did a quick survey among a handful of scouts and front-office contacts regarding which second basemen and outfielders might be available.

   Let’s be clear: These are players who MIGHT be available. Whispers and rumors, and pretty thin at that, coming weeks before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. There is NOTHING at this point to connect any of them to the Mariners.

   With those qualifiers, here’s what I heard:

   The most intriguing name is the longest shot in the group and a player whose mention still pains Mariners fans: Adam Jones, a five-time All-Star whom the Mariners selected in the 2003 MLB Draft before trading him away to Baltimore.

   A couple of sources told me they believe Jones might be available because he’s in the final year of his contract (making $17.3 million) and the Orioles are in a rebuilding mode. 

   Jones, 32, would be a rental and isn’t the player he once was, but the cost might still be a better high-level prospect than the Mariners currently have available.

   One point in the Mariners’ favor is they now have nearly $12 million in available payroll because Cano forfeits his salary during his suspension.   

   Other outfield possibilities that surfaced from sources include Billy Hamilton (Cincinnati), Denard Span (Tampa Bay) and Jon Jay (Kansas City).

   As for second basemen, two drew a mention from multiple sources: Scooter Gennett (Cincinnati) and Whit Merrifield (Kansas City). If available, Merrifield is an interesting possibility because he can play other positions.

   My best guess? I fully expect Dipoto to come up with someone who wasn’t mentioned by anyone I surveyed.

CANO’S INJURY HURTS BUT MARINERS MIGHT A HAVE BIGGER PROBLEM

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — There’s no getting around it. Losing perennial All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, for however long, creates a cavern in the middle of the Mariners’ lineup.

   Cano suffered a broken bone in the pinky finger of his right hand Sunday when hit by a pitch from Detroit lefty Blaine Hardy. The early guess is Cano will be sidelined for weeks and perhaps months.

   The Mariners have no good replacement options. (What club would?) It probably means more playing time for utilityman Andrew Romine with Taylor Motter (or perhaps Gordon Beckham) being summoned from Triple-A Tacoma.

   UPDATED: The Mariners promoted Beckham prior to Monday's game at Minnesota after placing Cano on the disabled list. The move came one day before Beckham had the option of becoming a free agent if not on the big-league roster.

   Manager Scott Servais said the Mariners, at least initially, will stick to internal options, which makes sense. This year’s club is better built to absorb a major injury to their lineup than in previous years.

   The club previously weathered disabled-list stays for designated hitter Nelson Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino, first baseman Ryon Healy and outfielder Ben Gamel. Losing Cano will be the biggest test yet, but this remains a deep lineup.

   In fact, let’s get ahead of ourselves for a moment and make this assumption: The Mariners will be looking to bolster their roster when clubs begin to separate themselves into contenders and pretenders.

   That sorting process, and accompanying personnel moves, typically begins about a month from now and gathers steam as the calendar approaches the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31.

   Projecting the Mariners as buyers is just that, a projection, but this is a veteran club constructed to compete now. Even a key injury — like Cano’s broken hand — or a bad stretch of play isn’t likely to shift their focus.

   It’s tempting to look at the rotation’s 4.99 ERA through Sunday and see the need for an upgrade, but adding an impact starting pitcher during the season nearly always comes at an enormous cost in prospects.

   And that, effectively, puts the Mariners at a sharp disadvantage because their system lacks the ready-now, impact, upper-level prospects to execute such a deal.

   Even club officials acknowledge that targeting additional bullpen help is the more-likely option. In part, that’s because the price for relievers is much lower than starting pitchers. But there are also more of them, which depresses the market.

   Most important is the Mariners’ bullpen, a supposed strength entering the season, is currently throwing oil is all directions. Primary setup man Juan Nicasio melted down again in Sunday’s 5-4 walk-off loss to the Tigers and now sports a 6.16 ERA.

   The unit’s other primary right-hander setup man, Nick Vincent, has been better lately, which has his ERA down to 4.02, but lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski has a 10.13 ERA in 13 appearances.

   While closer Edwin Diaz has been great, these Mariners, with their five-and-dive rotation, aren’t going anywhere with a leaky bullpen bridge to the ninth inning. They ought to be looking to add two relievers — a lefty and a righty.

   Wondering who might be available?

   It’s all guesswork at this point, but Jon Heyman of the Fan Rag Sports Network recently compiled a list of potential mid-season trade candidates that included six relievers among the top 17 possibilities.

   Let’s be clear: These are relievers who only MIGHT be available, and there’s NOTHING at this point to connect them to the Mariners. For now, we’re just gathering names — and this is not an all-inclusive list.

   Even so, take a look:

   ***Kansas City right-hander Kelvin Herrera has been lights out. He’s probably the best candidate on this list, but he’s a short-term fix since he’ll be a free agent after the season. He is making $7.9375 million.

   ***Baltimore lefty Zach Britton is still recovering from December surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles' tendon. He could be back in action by the end of the month. If he’s healthy, he’s dynamite. Britton had a 1.61 ERA in 242 games from 2014-17. He’s also a pending free agent — and a pricey one: He’s making $12 million.

   ***San Diego lefty Brad Hand, who is signed through 2020 with a club option for 2021. He’s making about $4 million this season but that jumps to a combined $15.5 million guarantee over the next two years.

   ***Cincinnati righty Raisel Iglesias continues to put up terrific numbers in a hitters’ ballpark. He is a Cuban defector whose original seven-year, $27 million deal is backloaded and runs through 2020.

   ***Baltimore right-hander Brad Brach is serving as the Orioles’ closer in Britton’s absence, but he’s struggling after a series of strong seasons — although his strikeout numbers remain superb. He is a pending free agent who is making $5.165 million.

   ***Tampa Bay righty Alex Colomes performance is down after leading the majors last season with 47 saves and compiling a 1.91 ERA in 2016. He is making $5.3 million and is under club control for two more years through arbitration.

 

IS THIS PAXTON’S BREAKTHROUGH? ONLY TIME WILL TELL

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — It’s no small temptation to look at James Paxton’s last two starts and declare the big lefty has, finally, validated his long-touted potential as a staff ace.

   How about you? Is that how you see it?

   Paxton pitched a no-hitter Monday in a 5-0 victory at Toronto after registering 16 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings in his previous start on May 2 against Oakland at Safeco Field.

   Some perspective on how rare that is: The last American League pitcher to throw a no-hitter and have a 16-strikeout game in the same season was the one and only Nolan Ryan, at age 44, in 1991.

   Ryan did it in the same game: May 1 against Toronto at Texas. (If anything, it strikes me that Paxton’s double is more impressive because he flashed such complete domination in two separate games.)

   As Paxton approaches his next start, Sunday at Detroit, and, with a few days of separation for perspective…I’m not completely sold on coronation narrative. I want to be. Paxton is an easy guy to root for. But I’m not sold. Not yet.

   Paxton has been dominant before for extended stretches. Not 16-strikeouts or no-hitter dominant, but he began last season by going 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA in his first six starts while piling up 51 strikeouts in 43 innings.

   (Self-disclosure: I was convinced then that long-time ace Felix Hernandez had passed the torch to Paxton as the rotation’s undisputed leader. So maybe that’s why I’m more cautious this time around.)

   Because what happened next? Paxton gave up 20 earned runs over 25 innings in his next five starts. 

   Paxton closed the 2016 season by going 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA in nine starts. A year earlier, he was 3-2 with a 2.68 ERA in one stretch over eight starts.  

   We’ve seen this before.

   Paxton enters Sunday’s game at Comerica Park at 2-1 with a 3.40 ERA this season in eight starts. Even throw out his March 31 start against Cleveland as a mulligan, and his numbers are 2-0 with a 2.51 ERA in seven starts.

   Good. But not as good as last year at the start.

   With many pitchers who flash strong stretches, particularly hard throwers, the problem is one of inconsistency. On nights when they can command an off-speed pitch, they resemble a Cy Young winner. (Remember Taijuan Walker?)

   But the issue with Paxton, as any Mariners fan knows, has never been one of consistency but rather his inability to stay healthy. Now in his sixth big-league season, he has never made more than 24 starts or pitched more than 136 innings.

   I must admit that as I watched the Mariners piling on Paxton after the final out Monday in Toronto, I was thinking: Careful, this is the guy who once injured both arms when he fell during a routine agility drill in spring training.

   Paxton’s injuries have always tended to be off-beat. Not just torn fingernails and blisters, but…well, he missed four weeks last year when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle on a pitch.

   How does that happen?

   Note, too, that Paxton had won his seven previous starts while compiling a 1.59 ERA. That torn pec was the tipping point in the Mariners’ quest to overcome a flood a injuries, particularly to their rotation, and bull their way into postseason.

   The Mariners were 59-56 prior to Paxton’s injury and held the American League’s final wild-card berth. They finished 78-84 and seven games back in the wild-card chase. The postseason drought now stands at 16 years.

   Various injuries forced Paxton to the disabled list in each of the four previous years for a combined absence of roughly 44 weeks — an astonishing average of 11 weeks per season.

   To be fair, Paxton realizes his potato-chip reputation, hates it with a passion, and has worked diligently in recent years on his conditioning through yoga and other programs. He’s in far better shape now than he was just a few years ago.

   Maybe we’re seeing the result of that work.

   *****

   An aside: Those of us on the Mariners’ beat in recent years spent, it seemed, an inordinate amount of time talking to Paxton as he worked his way thorough one rehab program after another.

   How’d he feel after a 20-pitch bullpen workout? Was it encouraging to face hitters again in live batting practice? Etc. Paxton was unfailingly polite, and I never heard him whine about bad luck surrounding his injuries.

   So when I saw him holding up his right arm to display his maple leaf tattoo to friends and fans after Monday’s game, I thought, “Here’s one moment to weigh against all of those crushing disappointments.”

   ***** 

   It’s quite possible that, at some point in the future, we’ll look back at Paxton’s last two starts and identify them as the moment when he made the leap from marvelous potential to being one of the game’s top pitchers.

   But we can’t say that yet. We won’t be able to say it Sunday no matter what happens in Detroit. Even if Paxton stays healthy and delivers a breakout season that includes 30 or more starts, that’s only a step. A big step but only a step.

   The question then shifts: Can he do it again? And then again and again?

   What we know now is what we’ve always known: James Paxton could — could! — be that special. He has the tools to be a staff ace and one of the best pitchers in the game.

   We’ve seen that potential before, and we’re seeing it again. Now we need to see the rest.

    

 

MARINERS CAN AFFORD TO WAIT ON TALKS WITH CRUZ

   SEATTLE — It’s a short leap from the buzz surrounding Ichiro Suzuki’s recent not-quite retirement to examining the Mariners’ looming (though by no means imminent) roster decision regarding designated hitter Nelson Cruz.

   It figures to be an interesting dance because while Cruz remains a productive cleanup hitter as he plays through the final season of a four-year contract, he also turns 38 on July 1.

   And this is business.

   “I want to play as long as my body lets me play,” Cruz said. “Your body will tell you when you can’t play anymore. Right now, I feel good. I work hard to keep my body in the best shape I can.”

   That’s a constant battle.

   Cruz missed nine games last month because of a sprained right ankle and has long battled various leg ailments. For all of that, he’s been a lot more durable than you might imagine: averaging more than 154 games over the last three seasons.

   Why bring this up now?

   The Mariners have no other major in-house personnel matter on their plate. Every key member of their current roster except Cruz is under club control through next year; several are under club control for several seasons.

   Nor does the club have a ready in-house replacement for Cruz, who was chosen as an All-Star last season for the fourth time in five years before winning his second Silver Slugger award in three seasons.

   Cruz said he’s not heard from the Mariners regarding a new contract, which isn’t surprising at this point, but let’s assume the club has interest.

   Why wouldn’t the Mariners be interested in retaining a big run-production bat in the middle of their lineup when they lack a viable alternative?

   Well...it’s not as simple as it sounds, although the length of a new contract shouldn’t be a stumbling block since it’s hard to envision the Mariners, or any club, going longer than two years when doing so would push the deal into Cruz’s 40s.

   Further, power hitters found the market to be tight last winter, which figures to continue, and, worse for Cruz, the pending list of free agents offers a lot of options. So, again, figure two years; at most, maybe two years and a vesting option.

   The crunch in any upcoming negotiations figures to be dollars.

   This is likely to be Cruz’s last major contract and, not only will he be seeking a big payday, he probably feels he’s been underpaid over the length of his current deal — and, if so, he’s probably right about that.   

   A belief that Cruz’s power wouldn’t translate to Safeco Field depressed his value when he previously became a free agent after a breakout 2014 season at Baltimore that included a then-career-best 40 homers.

   Former Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, when Cruz signed, pointed to 25-30 homers as a reasonable expectation. Zduriencik wasn’t alone, and it wasn’t a knock. Zduriencik was delighted to add that sort of production to the lineup.

    Cruz responded by by hammering 126 homers over his first three years in Seattle, an average of 42 a season, and currently has seven this year in in 24 games.

   Some perspective: Alex Rodriguez hit 41 homers in 2000 — Safeco’s first full season — and no Mariner reached 40 again until Cruz hit a career-high 44 in 2015.

   It isn’t just homers.

   Cruz has a .290/.365/.555 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) since arriving in the Northwest. All three slashes are significantly higher than his pre-Mariners’ production of .268/.328/.501 over 11 seasons.

   In short, the Mariners are getting Cruz’s prime years, and the industry’s dollar value assigned to the wins above replacement (WAR) metric suggests the club has been getting a bargain.

   None of that is likely to matter in upcoming talks.

   Clubs once typically used past performance as a negotiating cornerstone in the apparent Boras-fueled fiction that players would continue to perform at peak levels even as they aged. Analytics now offer hard proof that such a belief is nonsense.

   That means the Mariners (and any other club) will push for a deal in line with Cruz’s projected production going forward. Further, those analytic projections typically lean more heavily on the latest year.

   That means Cruz needs to avoid a statistical decline this season just to match (or approach) his current $14 million salary. It also means the Mariners likely want to see a significant portion of this season play out before entering serious talks.

   Yes, some major deals get done during the season.

   The Mariners reached an agreement last June with Jean Segura on a five-year extension. In doing so, they gained cost certainty by buying out two years of arbitration on a shortstop, then 27, entering what figured to be his peak seasons.

   None of that applies with Cruz.

   The Mariners have no reason not to wait and see whether he remains healthy and productive as the season unfolds. Even if he plays to form, the pending market might offer younger players with similar skills in roughly the same price range.

   So Cruz waits.

   “I’d like to stay here,” he said, “but it’s a business. So you never know.”

 

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

KLAY FARM REPORT: APRIL AWARDS GO TO BRIGMAN AND ROMERO

   TACOMA, WA. —  Shortstop Bryson Brigman entered the season with a ceiling pegged as a marginal prospect, according to Baseball America in its annual Prospect Handbook.

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   Small wonder.

   Brigman, 22, batted just .240 over 188 games in his first two pro seasons after the Mariners selected him in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft.

   “There are still plenty of questions about Brigman’s future,” Baseball America declared, “but the biggest one is whether he’ll get strong enough to reach his ceiling as a utility bench bat.”

   That could be changing after Brigman opened the season by batting .405 and racking up 50 total bases over 22 games in April at Hi-A Modesto.

   Even so, it’s a close call here at KLAY in choosing Brigman as Mariners’ minor-league player of the month for April. Double-A Arkansas first baseman Joey Curletta batted .323 in 21 games with five homers and 13 RBIs.

   Curletta, 24, actually had a higher OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) at 1.098 to Brigman’s 1.080, but Brigman had a similarly slender edge in on-base percentage (.485 to .482) and plays the tougher defensive position.

   KLAY will pick a player and pitcher of the month throughout the season for each of the Mariners’ affiliates and an overall player and pitcher of the month for the entire farm system.

   Lo-A Clinton right-hander Tommy Romero, 20, is KLAY’s pitcher of the month for April after going 2-1 with a 1.29 ERA over four starts in the Midwest League. He also had 28 strikeouts while allowing just four walks and 11 hits in 21 innings.

   Romero was a 15th-round pick in last year’s draft after being cited as a first-team juco All-American at Eastern Florida State College. He then went 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 13 games at Peoria in the Arizona Rookie League.

   Baseball America cited Romero’s pitchability and fastball command while citing him as the organization’s No. 26 prospect — just ahead of Brigman — in its Prospect Handbook.

   But the praise for Romero, like Brigman, was muted.

   “There’s not a lot of projection in Romero’s body,” Baseball America reported, “but his pitching smarts should allow him to thrive in the lower levels of the system as he develops.”

   Romero certainly thrived in April.

   *****

   Two unsolicited plugs: Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook remains the industry standard. Yes, its ratings and evaluations are highly subjective, but that’s also true within each club’s player-development system.

   If you’re interested in tracking the Mariners’ prospects, you’ve got to follow @MiLBMariners on twitter. It’s the best source, by far, for up-to-date happenings within the club’s minor-league system.

   *****

   Onto the April individual affiliate selections:

   ***Triple-A Tacoma: Outfielder/first baseman Cameron Perkins, 27, (.356/.431/.522 slash with two homers and 17 RBIs in 23 games. Right-handed closer Erik Goeddel, 29, (1-0, four saves and a 0.00 ERA in eight appearances).

   Both are recent depth-building additions. The Mariners acquired Perkins from Philadelphia in a Dec. 11 waiver claim and signed Goeddel on March 20 after he was released by Texas.

   UPDATE: The Mariners promoted Goeddel to the big-league club Thursday after clearing space by removing outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from the roster.

   ***Arkansas: Curletta and right-hander Andrew Moore, 23, (1-1 with a 2.96 ERA in five starts). The Mariners acquired Curletta in a March 12, 2017 trade that sent switch-pitcher Pat Venditte to Philadelphia and chose Moore in the second round of the 2015 draft.

   ***Modesto: Brigman and right-handed closer Wyatt Mills (2-0 with two saves and a 1.64 ERA in nine outings). Mills, 22, was a third-round pick in last year’s draft.

   ***Clinton: Outfielder Jack Larsen (.288/.405/.530 with three homers and 19 RBIs in 19 games) and Romero. Larsen, 22, was signed last June as a non-drafted free agent before posting a .312/.472/.541 slash in 34 games at Peoria.

 

APRIL REPORT CARD: SOLID GRADES FOR MARINERS WITH POTENTIAL FOR MORE

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — It was a good weekend, a good road trip and, really, a good first month. The Mariners are 16-11 after completing a three-city trip Sunday by winning for the third time in four games at Cleveland.

   The weekend series against the Indians marked the first time this season that manager Scott Servais had his regular lineup available, and the Mariners responded by scoring 32 runs in four games at Progressive Field.

   “We’ve got a lot of potential — one through nine (in the lineup),” second baseman Robinson Cano crowed after’s Sunday 10-4 victory. “Our nine hitter (first baseman Ryon Healy) hit two homers. He was the player of the game.

   “That’s the thing. It’s not one guy. You can compare this lineup with any team right now in the league. What’s the best one? We can compete with anyone.”

   It’s no surprise that confidence is soaring. The Mariners just raked the Indians’ strong staff, which entered the series with the second-best ERA among MLB’s 30 teams, for 10 homers over the series’ final 21 innings.

   The Mariners hit four homers each in the final two games.

   The last time that happened in back-to-back road games was June 8-9, 1999 in Colorado, where general manager Jerry Dipoto was then a member of the Rockies’ bullpen. (No, he didn’t give up any of those homers.)

   If the season ended Sunday, the Mariners would be preparing for a Wild Card game against the Yankees in New York. Their playoff drought, which dates to 2001, would be over.

   Instead, they’ll settle for an open date before opening a three-game series Tuesday against Oakland at Safeco Field. The six-game homestand concludes this weekend with three games against the Los Angeles Angels.

   “I’m looking forward to what’s ahead of us,” Servais said. “It was a really good month of April and it was important for us to get off to a good start. I’m looking forward to May.”

   First, though, let’s hand out the April grades. Not surprisingly, they’re pretty good.

   ROTATION: By traditional standards, the rotation, which has a 5.62 ERA, was awful. Maintained over a full season, that would be the second-worst mark in franchise history (topped only by the 5.70 ERA in 1996).

   Further, each member of the unit had at least one dreadful outing. Felix Hernandez, at 4.96, is the only starter with a sub-5.00 ERA. So, you can stop here, if you want, and reasonably give the unit an F. 

   Not so fast.

   The Mariners subscribe to baseball’s emerging paradigm, which sets five competitive innings as the benchmark. A quality start (three or fewer earned runs over six or more innings) now generates high praise.

   So let’s recalibrate after first skipping over Erasmo Ramirez, who opened the season on the disabled list. While he’s been pummeled in two starts, he probably deserves an incomplete.

   Hernandez, James Paxton, Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales each made six starts. They combined for 10 quality starts and pitched through the fifth inning on 17 of 24 occasions.

   Low bar or not, that’s pretty much what the Mariners are looking for. GRADE: C.

   BULLPEN: A lockdown closer elevates any relief corps, and Edwin Diaz has allowed one run and two hits while striking out 27 in 14 1/3 innings over 14 outings while saving 11 games and compiling an 0.63 ERA. High-grade Sugar.

   Primary setup man Juan Nicasio had a few early wobbles but has 10 holds in bridging leads to Diaz. Nicasio also closed out the month with six straight scoreless outings.

   With those two at the back end, it’s easy to see why the Mariners are 13-0 when holding the lead after seven innings. But the rest of the bullpen is a mixed bag.

   James Pazos and Chasen Bradford have been a plus. Each has allowed two runs over 10 2/3 innings, while Dan Altavilla has been mostly good with nine clean sheets in 13 outings.

    But veterans Nick Vincent (seven earned runs and 12 hits in 10 1/3 innings), and Marc Rzepczynski (five earned runs and 10 hits in five innings) are struggling. That’s a problem because the bullpen often needs to cover nine-to-12 outs. GRADE: B.       

   CATCHER: Mike Zunino is back after opening the season on the disabled list and has three homers in nine games. But he’s either rusty or slipping back into bad habits with a .206 on-base percentage and 11 strikeouts in 33 at-bats.

   After just nine games, it’s too early to tell which. GRADE: INCOMPLETE.

   INFIELD: Cano, now 35, seems to have shucked the pull-happy tendencies he exhibited in recent years. The result, as least so far, is a return to elite status, including a .422 on-base percentage.

   Shortstop Jean Segura remains a catalyst who, somehow, tends to go underappreciated — even here in the Northwest. He’s often in the middle of everything with a .298 average, 21 runs, nine doubles and 21 RBIs. 

   Few players, typically, are happier at seeing May arrive than third baseman Kyle Seager, a notoriously slow starter. While he’s batting just .236, he has four homers and 15 RBIs. That’s a 24-homer, 90-RBI pace — and history says he’ll heat up.

   Healy is 6-for-16 with three homers in four games since returning from the disabled list. He sure looks like the 25-30 homer guy the Mariners envisioned when they acquired him last winter from Oakland. And, yes, he’s batting ninth.

   GRADE: B with a bullet because there’s potential for so much more if Seager and Healy play to expectations.   

   OUTFIELD: How good has right fielder Mitch Haniger been? Well, he’s only the second player in franchise history to reach 10 homers and 27 RBIs prior to May. Ken Griffey Jr. did it in 1997 and 1998, and there’s a statue of him at the front gate.

   Converted Gold Glove infielder Dee Gordon’s defense in center field has exceeded all expectations, but it’s no surprise that he’s provided the lineup with a effective table-setter as its leadoff hitter.

   OK, left field remains a mess. Ben Gamel is batting just .121 in 12 games since returning from the disabled list, and Ichiro Suzuki’s skills have declined to the point where club officials now tout his clubhouse presence.

   Roster issues prompted the Mariners to send Guillermo Heredia to Tacoma even though he’s the organization’s best defensive outfielder and was batting .310 with a .416 OBP in 16 games.

   Heredia figures to return soon even if it’s only to serve as the right-handed portion of a platoon. That means the Mariners must make a decision between Suzuki, a franchise icon, and Gamel, who has an option remaining.

   GRADE: A-MINUS. If the Mariners were getting anything out of left field, this would be an A-PLUS. 

   DH/BENCH: Nelson Cruz missed nine games because of an ankle injury. He still can’t run, but he can still mash. Cruz owns a .563 slugging percentage that exceeds his career average and ranks second on the club to Haniger’s Junior-esque .701.

   The catching tandem of David Freitas and Mike Marjama held the fort in Zunino’s absence, and Freitas is emerging as a capable backup now that Marjama is back at Tacoma.

   Utilityman Andrew Romine is hitless in 14 at-bats, but he’s out of options, which is one reason why Taylor Motter (4-for-15) is back at Tacoma. First baseman/DH Daniel Vogelbach, also back at Tacoma, showed flashes while Cruz and Healy recovered from injuries.

   GRADE: B. Cruz, at 37, is the best DH in the game. The only issue is whether he can stay in the lineup.

   OVERALL: The Mariners weathered a blizzard of injuries in spring training and the season’s early weeks. For that, Dipoto and his staff deserve credit for building the organizational depth that didn’t previously exist.

   The lineup, as Cano noted, is potent top to bottom. The defense seems major-league average or a tick better at all positions. If Diaz remains dominant, the bullpen will, depending on others, range from solid to superior.

   The question remains a rotation that, through April, met modest expectations. One plus in having a low bar is that sufficient depth exists at Tacoma to prevent an injury, or even two, from torpedoing the unit.

   The only real issue, at this point, is deciding what to do in left field.

   Bottom line, though, is the Mariners are 16-11, have lost only one of their nine series and enter May at five games over .500 for the first time since 2003. It’s been a good start. GRADE: B.

   

 

DIPOTO’S VOW TO BUILD ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH PAYS A BENEFIT

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — We’re about to get a look at the club that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and his staff envisioned before a series of injuries scrambled their plans in spring training and through the season’s early weeks.

   First baseman Ryon Healy, out since April 7 because of a sprained ankle, was activated early Thursday from the disabled list and expected to be in the lineup for the start of a four-game series at Cleveland.

   That pretty much clears out an injury ward that that previously included designated hitter Nelson Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Ben Gamel and right-handed pitcher Erasmo Ramirez.

   The lone remaining absentee is reliever David Phelps, who is out for the season after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery — Tommy John surgery — in late March.

   Even so, the Mariners are now as healthy as they can hope to be, which begs the question: Are they good enough to position themselves over the next five months as a postseason contender? 

   There are loads of skeptics even among true-blue believers.

   That’s fine. And deserved. A club that owns the longest postseason drought among the four major North American professional leagues doesn’t really deserve any benefit of doubt. 

   But no matter what happens now, Dipoto deserves credit for having sufficient replacement parts in place to weather this early storm. He placed a high priority on building such organizational depth when he arrived in September 2015.

   What followed was a blizzard of trades, signings and roster claims over the last 2 1/2 years. Much of it generated far more yawns than buzz, but the moves that supplement organizational depth are rarely flashy.

   Organizational depth is what keeps you from cratering when injuries hit. It gets you through. Much is made in these analytic days of a player’s WAR (wins above replacement) rating. Well…organizational depth is replacement-level talent.

   Regarding that, I once had a general manager, whose club was battling injuries, point out: “Everybody says a replacement-level player is better than the guy we called up because of injuries.

   “That’s great if you have a replacement-level player in your organization as an alternative. They’re not as easy to find as you people seem to think.”

   (By “you people,” I like to think he meant talk-radio folks, but he was looking at me. So I’m not sure.)

   The Mariners made due through the first four weeks with a combination of David Freitas and Mike Marjama while Zunino recovered from a strained oblique. They had Ariel Miranda in place while Ramirez nursed a strained back muscle.

   Gamel’s extended absence because of a strained oblique prompted the signing of free-agent Ichiro Suzuki as a replacement left-handed bat. Daniel Vogelbach, after a strong spring, showed some promising flashes while replacing Cruz and Healy.

   That’s organizational depth, and it helped bring the Mariners to Cleveland at 13-10, which matches their best record through 23 games in 10 years.

   The Mariners are also 5-1-2 in their eight series and, notably, responded to a spanking by the Astros, when they lost three straight at home after winning the opener, by winning road series at Texas and Chicago.

   Unless they get swept this weekend in Cleveland, the Mariners will enter May with a winning record for only the second time in the last nine years.

   That’s not to paint what amounts to modest success as a cause for celebration but rather to observe the Mariners didn’t bury themselves when forced to apply several patches to their roster. That’s no small thing.

   Remember last season? They lost 10 of their first 15 games, and five of their first eight series. They never really recovered.

   The Mariners might yet fall apart and flounder through another disappointing summer, but, through Wednesday, they trailed first-place Houston by just 2 1/2 games in the American League West Division.

   Further, they were only one game back in the AL wild-card standings.

   Yes-yes-yes, it’s too early (about four months too early) to be mentioning the wild-card standings but — cliche alert — while you can’t win a race in April, you can lose one.

   The Mariners did that last year. Too many times over the last 15 years, actually.

   That didn’t happen this year, and organizational depth is a big reason. The Mariners have the sort of organizational depth now that they didn’t possess when Dipoto arrived.

   That’s worth noting.

 

KEEPING SUZUKI AROUND, FOR NOW, REALLY DOES MAKE SENSE

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — Surprise over Sunday’s decision to keep franchise icon Ichiro Suzuki on the roster by demoting outfielder Guillermo Heredia to Triple-A Tacoma continues to percolate throughout Marinerland.

   Even general manager Jerry Dipoto acknowledges it was an unpopular move to make when the club needed to clear space in order to activate right-handed pitcher Erasmo Ramirez from the disabled list.

   “Based on the reaction,” Dipoto told MLB.com, “if it was about (public relations), we probably would have done it the other way.”

   He gave two reasons for the move.

   One was a hazy comment regarding Suzuki’s clubhouse presence. Let’s ignore that. Suzuki is indeed a presence, but this is a veteran clubhouse, not one filled with impressionable kids requiring direction.

   But Dipoto also characterized the move as a temporary fix while noting the Mariners are expected to face few left-handers over the next 10 days. Heredia’s role is that of a right-handed platoon player and late-inning defensive replacement.

Ichiro Suzuki reaches base four times on two hits and two walks in the Mariners' 7-4 loss to the Rangers

   As such, Heredia wasn’t likely to play much over the next 10 days, which is the minimum required stay for a player optioned to the minors unless he is recalled to replace a player placed on the disabled list.

   “Right now,” Dipoto said, “we're just doing our best to work through some choppy waters with the roster...Our thought is to give Guillermo the chance to play regularly and my assumption is he'll be back in 10 days.”

   That frames the move as a baseball decision — and a reasonable one.

   For now. And not because Suzuki reached base four times in Sunday’s 7-4 loss at Texas.

   Let’s dig into this: While Suzuki is a left-handed hitter, he isn’t likely to play much over the next 10 days, despite that steady diet of right-handed pitchers from opposing teams. Ben Gamel figures to be the regular left fielder.

   That means Suzuki, as would have been the case with Heredia, is essentially a spare part. But by keeping Suzuki and sending Heredia to the minors, the Mariners retain both as a hedge against an injury.

   And after the last two seasons, if any club needs a hedge against injuries, it’s the Mariners.

   Now add this: Had the Mariners released Suzuki in order to keep Heredia on the roster, an injury to another outfielder would have left utilityman Taylor Motter as the likely replacement.

   That’s because no outfielder at Tacoma (other than Heredia now) is currently on the club’s 40-man roster. That means promoting anyone else would require a corresponding space-clearing move for what might be a temporary fix.

   Clubs are loathe to make such moves to fill a temporary at any point but especially early in the season when player inventory is particularly valued.

   Want to argue that you’d prefer Motter over Suzuki? Fine. Even so, that, too, reduces inventory.

   By keeping Suzuki over Heredia for the short term, when neither was expected to play much, the Mariners keep all of their current pieces in play.

   The key element in that reasoning, however, is “for the short term.” 

   When the schedule shifts back, and the Mariners are again facing a typical mix of right- and left-handed pitchers, then Heredia becomes a much more valuable part of the mix as a right-handed complement to Gamel.

   Keeping Suzuki over Heredia at that point will be far harder to understand.

   

 

MARINERS MUST SOLVE THEIR MUDDLE IN THE MIDDLE

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — The biggest concern emerging this week for the Mariners isn’t their ongoing inability to match up with Houston. That was a known deficiency — although the gap seems wider than ever after losing three of four at Safeco Field.

   A bigger issue looms in a bullpen that remains spotty despite a dominant Edwin Diaz at the back end. The relief corps has a 4.59 ERA through 17 games after Thursday’s 9-2 loss to the Astros in the series finale.

   Yes, it’s early, and small sample sizes can be notoriously misleading, but the Mariners’ top three set-up relievers —Juan Nicasio, Nick Vincent and Marc Rzepczynski — all have ERAs higher than 5.00.

   For now, forget challenging Houston in the American League West race. Those bullpen numbers will torpedo any chance the Mariners have at making a legitimate run for a wild-card spot in their quest to end a 16-year postseason drought.

   Let’s reset.

   Recall that general manager Jerry Dipoto, after losing out in the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, made no move to bolster the rotation. Dipoto said he addressed that need last year by adding Mike Leake, Marco Gonzales and Erasmo Ramirez in the season’s second half.

   Dipoto instead supplemented what was already viewed as a solid bullpen by signing Nicasio and adding depth through a series of smaller-print moves such as Chasen Bradford, Mike Morin, Shawn Armstrong and Dario Alvarez.

   But it was deeper than that.

Juan Nicasio gets Jorge Soler to hit into a fielder's choice to retire the side and make it out of the 8th inning unscathed.

   The Mariners’ approach represented a step toward an emerging industry trend to rely more heavily on the bullpen. They sought to build a deep stable of arms who, to some extent, could be shuttled between the big leagues and Triple-A Tacoma.

   Last year provided the Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and the entire Baseball Operations staff  a forced (and unwelcome) blueprint when injuries devastated their rotation.

   This year, though, THIS is the plan, and it underscores another cultural shift within the game.

   It wasn’t that long ago that clubs saw 1,000 combined innings from their rotation as a benchmark. No longer. A year ago, Washington led the majors with 973 innings from its starters. The Mariners, ravaged by injuries, only managed 870 2/3.

   This is a growing trend. No club reached 1,000 innings from its rotation in 2016, and only two clubs hit that target in 2015.

   Similarly, a true staff workhorse was, until recently, someone who pitched at least 200 innings, while anything less than 180 innings prompted concern regarding a starter’s durability as well as his reliability.

   Felix Hernandez posted eight straight seasons of 200-plus innings from 2008-15 but, a year ago, only 15 starters throughout baseball logged 200 innings, and none reached 215.

   Further, only 34 pitchers made it to 180 innings in a starting role — barely one per club. Ariel Miranda led the Mariners with 158.

   That widespread decline in workload among starting pitchers is prompting debate regarding whether the 162-inning standard to qualify for the ERA title needs to be adjusted.

   Starting pitchers are now judged, increasingly, on whether they make it twice through the opposing lineup while keeping their club in the game. Being called a five-and-diver used to be a slur. Now, it’s a goal.

   That declining bar makes old-timers (and some no-so-old-timers) shudder, but the point here isn’t to dismiss the new standards. Doing so is pointless since they stem from from analytics, the bloodless science that increasingly rules the game.

   There are those who still rage against defensive shifts, but the numbers conform those shifts work far more often than they don’t. So, they’re not going away. Neither is the trend toward a higher reliance on the bullpen.

   No, the point here for the Mariners is much simpler. 

   In an era when bullpens are more important than ever, their relief corps is underperforming. Sure, we’re barely 10 percent into the season. And, yes, it could turn around. Fact is, though, it needs to turn around. Because right now, the Mariners’ bullpen is a concern. A growing one.

   

 

INEVITABLE ICHIRO DECISION IS FAST APPROACHING FOR MARINERS

   SEATTLE — The season is not yet three weeks old, but the Mariners, with roster space becoming a premium as their crowded disabled list begins to thin, are approaching a crossroads with outfielder and franchise icon Ichiro Suzuki.

   It’s a small sample size at this point, just 13 games, but it’s hard to watch Suzuki, now 44, without noting the significant decline in his once-magnificent skills.

   That he has just six hits in 29 at-bats tells only part of the story. More notable is that fact said contact is noodle weak — his average, his on-base percentage and his slugging percentage are identical: .207.

   Even that isn’t the most telling indictment.

   That comes from watching Suzuki, a 10-time Gold Glove recipient, flounder in the outfield. Two astounding misplays recently at Minnesota, more than anything, signified the end is near.

   This won’t be easy.

   Suzuki is a surefire Hall of Famer who has amassed 3,085 hits over 18 big-league seasons since leaving Japan at age 27 after nine star-studded years with the Orix Blue Wave.

   His first 11 1/2 big-league seasons came with the Mariners, and it was here, in Seattle, that he became not just a star but a phenomenon.

   Suzuki is still revered here — listen to the cheers when he’s introduced — and it amounts to second-guessing to question the Mariners’ decision to bring him back on a one-year deal that marginally exceeds the major-league minimum salary.

   Club officials knew outfielder Ben Gamel would open the season on the disabled list because of a strained right oblique muscle and, at the time, outfielder Guillermo Heredia was still battling to return from off-season shoulder surgery.

   Suzuki was a reasonable fit as an interim replacement. He batted .255 with a .311 on-base percentage last season in a supporting role for Miami. Note that Gamel (.275 and .322) and Heredia (.249 and .315) weren’t notably better.

   When Suzuki made a homer-robbing catch in the season’s second game, it seemed — to paraphrase Toby Keith — he might not be as good as he once was but could be good, on occasion, as he ever was.

   That’s getting harder to believe.

   Plus, Heredia is now healthy and, further, he is the Mariners’ best defensive outfielder. Even when Suzuki starts, he is generally replaced by Heredia in the later innings.

   Gamel also appears fully recovered, although he is still spending time on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Tacoma to sharpen his skills after missing virtually all of spring training. The best guess is he returns Tuesday.

   General manager Jerry Dipoto said the current plan, whenever Gamel returns, is to operate with five outfielders.

   That seems unsustainable, particularly if the Mariners, as seems likely, continue to operate with an eight-man bullpen.

   Do the math. Eight relievers and five starting pitchers (once Ariel Miranda is added Tuesday) leaves room for 12 position players. Nine starting players, a backup catcher, a utility infielder…and room for only one backup outfielder.

   Sooner or later, the odd-man out figures to be Suzuki because it’s hard to envision the harsh science of baseball analytics, which increasingly guides all decisions, pointing to any other option.

   The obvious rub is this is Ichiro Suzuki exiting the Mariners. For many fans, even those who acknowledge the analytics, it will be a sad time. Whether his departure turns into a public-relations fiasco pretty much depends on Suzuki.

   Yes, he still wants to play, but…

   As a free agent in the off-season, Suzuki drew no perceptible interest from other clubs until the Mariners, prompted by injuries, saw a fit. It hard to envision increased interest now after what we’ve seen in the season’s early days.

   Here’s hoping for a graceful exit as a prelude to the celebration in five years (or so) when Suzuki gets the call we know is coming. From Cooperstown.

  

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

Familiar name making a push for consideration in the Mariners’ rotation plans

   SEATTLE — It’s all but certain that lefty Ariel Miranda will get the call next week from Triple-A Tacoma when the Mariners (finally) require a fifth pitcher for their rotation.

   It’s the logical move.

   Not only did Miranda, 29, actually lead the Mariners last year in starts and innings pitched, he was pretty good through the season’s first three months: 7-4 with a 3.82 ERA in 17 starts.

   Miranda is also on the club’s 40-man roster, which is no small consideration because whomever the Mariners summon to serve as their fifth starter might be no more than a placeholder. 

   Erasmo Ramirez should be ready to return from the disabled list by the end of the month. Since Miranda still has options, he can simply be sent back to Tacoma without being sent through waivers.

   For all that, there’s another veteran starter at Tacoma, a familiar name, who bears watching: right-hander Christian Bergman, 29, has not allowed a run over 12 2/3 innings in his first two starts for the Rainiers.

   It was much the same last year, when Bergman, seemingly a retread signed to serve as organizational depth, opened the season by winning his first five starts at Tacoma while compiling a 2.17 ERA in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

   That earned Bergman an early May promotion when the Mariners sent out an APB for help to their injury-ravaged rotation. He responded by providing serviceable duty for nearly two months.

   Bergman permitted three or fewer earned runs in six of his eight starts. Those other two starts? They were disastrous and wrecked his ERA, which ended at 5.00 for 13 appearances — eight starts and five relief outings.

   Take away those two bad starts, and Bergman’s ERA drops to 2.09. (Yes, that’s playing with numbers, but the point is Bergman was very effective most of the time.)

   Here’s the catch: Bergman is not on the Mariners’ 40-man roster, which makes him a poor short-term fit — i.e., why use a roster spot if you’re just going to send the player back to the minors in a few days?

   So for now, Bergman remains organizational depth. Miranda is ready and Ramirez is on the way. But things change, and Bergman is again positioning himself as a viable option if (or, more likely, when) the need arises.

   *****

   The name of infielder Cesar Izturis will ring a bell with many fans. He played for nine clubs over a 13-year career from 2001-13.

   The Mariners weren’t one of those nine clubs, but they signed his son, Cesar Jr., then 16, for $550,000 in 2016. The younger Izturis made his pro debut last season by batting .269 over 63 games in the Dominican Summer League.

   “He’s polished and has good instincts,” Baseball America reported earlier this season in rating him as the No. 31 prospect in the Mariners’ system. “He’s an adept situational hitter with outstanding bat control and plate discipline.”

   Even so, it was something of a surprise when Izturis got the call last week to report to Tacoma to fill a roster vacancy that resulted when the Mariners recalled utilityman Taylor Motter to the big leagues.

   Now, Izturis is a legitimate prospect, but going from the DSL to the PCL amounts to a six-step jump. 

   Farm director Andy McKay acknowledged the decision resulted mostly from a desire to avoid disrupting the Mariners’ other full-season affiliates, who were just starting their seasons, with a temporary series of “domino moves.”

   A quick eye-test earlier this week on Izturis (5 feet 11 and 145 pounds) in pregame drills suggests he’s a fundamentally solid defensive player who needs to get stronger to hold his own at the plate.

   Again, a legitimate prospect.

   Still, it’s no surprise that, through Wednesday, Izturis had yet to play for the Rainiers, although it’s likely manager Pat Listach will find a late-inning spot for him at some point before he heads back to extended spring training.

   *****

   The Rainiers scored 11 runs in the ninth inning Tuesday in a 13-0 victory at Fresno (Astros). That’s notable, but big rallies are nothing new in the PCL. Heck, the Rainiers blew a six-run lead Wednesday in a 13-9 loss to those same Grizzlies.

   What made Tuesday remarkable is the Rainiers’ rally benefited from eight walks, including six in a row — five with the bases loaded.

   The last time a PCL team drew eight walks in an inning was Sept. 4, 1931 when the Hollywood Stars did it against the Los Angeles Angels. Herbert Hoover was president, and Babe Ruth had yet to call his shot.

   The six consecutive walks fell one shy of the PCL record.

   The San Francisco Seals drew seven straight walks in a 1905 game against the Seattle Siwashes, which was when the PCL was in its third year and clubs played a 225-game schedule. 

   Rainiers broadcaster Mike Curto revealed most of these stats on his twitter account (@CurtoWorld), which is a must-follow for Rainiers and Mariners fans. His daily blog is also full of fun stuff. 

 

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS (AND EARLY GRADES) ON THE MARINERS

   SEATTLE — The decision to postpone Sunday’s game in Minneapolis projects as a plus for the Mariners — and not just because Twin Cities’ forecast (accurately it turns out) called for snow in addition to sub-freezing temperatures.

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   Two reasons stand out.

   ***The May 14 makeup date isn’t onerous. The Mariners will be coming to Minnesota from Detroit, a short hop, before heading back to Seattle after the game.

   Nor does it create a killer run of games. The Mariners still have open dates on May 7 and May 21, and they will be home for six games after their stopover against the Twins.

   That’s as gentle as it gets when a postponement requires a trip back to town.

   ***Who knows what the club’s disabled list will look like by May 14. Heck, first baseman Ryon Healy was in a walking boot Sunday after suffering a sprained right ankle Saturday while doing plyometric exercises in a postgame workout.

   Take a moment to shake your head.

   “It’s hard to even fathom the things that have happened,” manager Scott Servais told reporters. “They're not getting hit by pitches and things that are common baseball injuries. These are walking down steps, workout rooms, stuff like that.”

   UPDATE: The Mariners placed Healy on the 10-day disabled list prior to Monday's game at Kansas City. They replaced Healy on the roster by recalling right-handed reliever Chasen Bradford from Triple-A Tacoma. 

   Even so…at this point, the Mariners should have designated hitter Nelson Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Ben Gamel back on their active roster when they return to Target Field. Healy, too, presumably.   

   That should be a plus.

   The postponement also provides the opportunity to pass out some early-takeaway grades as the Mariners, injury-cursed as they seem to be, open a three-game series Monday at Kansas City.

   ***TREADING WATER: A 4-3 record is no cause for celebration until you recall last season, when the Mariners lost six of their first seven games and spent the rest of the season in catch-up mode.

   They also lost six of their first eight in 2016, and seven of their first 10 in 2015. Treading water through the first week, with all of those injuries, suddenly doesn’t look so bad, does it? GRADE: B.

   ***AS THE ROTATION TURNS: The top three starters each pitched twice, and Mike Leake rates an early plus with two solid outings. Felix Hernandez and James Paxton show mixed results with one good and one bad.

   This could be what the Mariners get from Felix throughout the season. Some good and some bad, although his two starts were extreme: 5 1/3 shutout innings, and then eight runs in four innings.

   They need better and more consistency from Paxton if they hope to contend for postseason, although it’s a positive that he rebounded from a rough first start to pitch well last Friday at Minnesota despite an unexpected pre-game greeting from a bald eagle.

   Lefty Marco Gonzales had an encouraging first start and will pitch Monday against the Royals. Sunday’s postponement means the Mariners won’t require a fifth starter until April 17. GRADE: C.

   ***BULLPEN BULLETS: Closer Edwin Diaz is perfect in three save opportunities, although he wobbled through a Fernando Rodney-style escape in the season opener against Cleveland.

   Newcomer and chief setup reliever Juan Nicasio is good early bet to lead the league in appearances and has holds in all four of his outings — although his work included some wobbles.

   But Nicasio was dominant Saturday after replacing an ineffective Nick Vincent in a tight game against the Twins before the Mariners pulled away for an 11-4 victory.

   Vincent and lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski have been shaky, which bears watching. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but both are projected to pitch a lot in later innings with the game on the line. GRADE: C-PLUS.

   ***USING THE WHOLE FIELD: It’s foolish to draw conclusions after seven games, but Robinson Cano, at 35, looks like he’s back in his prime. Not because he’s got 11 hits in his first 25 at-bats but because he’s hitting the ball to all fields.

   “Last year, I was hooking everything,” he admitted to MLB.com. “I went home and focused on going back to myself, the guy that when I came up was using the whole field. That's what I'm doing right now.”

   Who knows if he keeps it up. But for now…GRADE: A.

   ***ICHI WATCH: Prodigal icon Ichiro Suzuki, now 44, amounts to Felix in the outfield — a once generational talent running ever harder to stay ahead of a relentless (and unbeaten) clock.

   Every so often the brilliance flickers as if by muscle memory: Felix by pitching shutout ball into the sixth inning in the season opener; Suzuki with a marvelous homer-robbing catch in the season’s second game.

   When it happens, it can’t help but stir any Mariners fan on an emotional level. And it will happen again. How often and for how long before the inevitable reckoning is the great unknown.

   Fact: Suzuki is battling .263, and it’s an ultra-soft .263. His on-base percentage (because he still doesn’t walk) is also .263. His OPS+ is 51 (100 is average). Again, we’re talking small sample sizes, but Suzuki’s early performance pretty much matches industry expectations. GRADE: C-MINUS. 

   ***LINING UP THE REST: What grates the most for the Mariners from the season’s first week, aside from the injuries, was going 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position last Friday in a 4-2 loss to the Twins.

   That’s a lot of wasted opportunities and, really, the difference between being 4-3 and 5-2. Nonetheless, the early returns show lots of positives — in addition to a resurgent Cano. 

   Dee Gordon continues to impress in his transition to center field, and his .406 on-base percentage is a welcome addition. Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger are also off to good starts, although Kyle Seager is wading through his typical April blues.

   Healy was also struggling prior to his injury, although he and Seager each had key hits in Saturday’s victory. 

   Once the Mariners clear their disabled list — for now, let’s assume that’s going to happen — there’s every reason to expect this to be a potent lineup. GRADE: B.

  

 

BUMMED BY MARINERS’ LACK OF PROSPECTS AT TACOMA? WELL…

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   TACOMA — Take a hard look at the Triple-A Tacoma roster as the Rainiers head into their season opener Thursday night* against Sacramento (Giants) at Cheney Stadium.

   (* — weather permitting, which is always the case for early-season games in Tacoma. The forecast for the entire five-game series is less than promising. Not-so-fun fact: Cheney Stadium opened in 1960…with a rainout.)

   UPDATE: The Rainiers, after a rain delay lasting nearly 90 minutes, opened their season Thursday with a 5-0 victory over Sacramento. The forecast still remains iffy for the rest of the weekend.

   Back to the roster.

   What jumps out is what you don’t see: Prospects.

   The Rainiers are, essentially, a taxi squad for the big-league club. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for fans in Tacoma, and it could even prove to be a short-term plus for the Mariners.

   We’ll get to that in a moment.

   As for prospects, though, it’s pretty thin.

   The issue isn’t merely the lack of high-ceiling talent at Tacoma, although that, in itself, underscores an industry-wide consensus that views the Mariners as having the game’s worst farm system.

   It’s the lack of prospects, period.

   The Rainiers have just three players who, even with a generous interpretation, can be classified as prospects: outfielder Ian Miller and right-handed pitchers Max Povse and Rob Whalen.

   Miller, 26, is a plus defender with plus-plus speed who produced a breakout season a year ago when he set career highs by batting .307 with a .355 on-base percentage in 124 games at Tacoma and Double-A Arkansas.

   Scouts now see him as a reasonable projection to reach the majors as a fourth outfielder, but another solid offensive season could prompt a further upward reevaluation. He's worth watching.

   Povse, 24, and Whalen, 24, each spent a brief tour last season in the majors but are actually embarking on comeback efforts.

   Whalen candidly revealed that he’s long battled depression, which finally prompted him last year to walk away from the game to receive treatment. He now appears rejuvenated, and his spring work revived his status as a prospect.

   Povse has intimidating size at 6 feet 8, but he missed a month because of an injured hamstring. The Mariners then tried to convert him into a Chris Devenski-type, multi-inning reliever. 

  When that experiment failed to produce the desired uptick in stuff, Povse shifted back this spring to starting duty. That seems a better fit. He possesses a three-pitch mix that makes him a reasonable back-of-the-rotation projection.

   Whalen and Povse also represent a step by the Mariners to fulfill general manager Jerry Dipoto’s goal to bolster organizational depth — particularly pitching depth.

   "Not every guy is going to be a marquee drive-by name,” Dipoto said. “These are guys who have a chance to take the three-four spots in a rotation and get you through the long season as strike-throwers who know how to manage at-bats.”

   And sometimes… 

   “Lo and behold,” Dipoto said, “one day you look up and Kyle Hendricks turns into Kyle Hendricks.”

   Once lightly regarded, Hendricks is 38-22 with a 2.93 ERA for the Chicago Cubs over the last four-plus years. Just saying.

   It’s worth noting, too, that Tacoma’s projected rotation for its first series consists of five guys with big-league experience: Christian Bergman, Ariel Miranda, Erasmo Ramirez (on a rehab assignment), Povse and Whalen.

 UPDATE: The Mariners, fearing rain in Tacoma, made a late decision to shift Miranda to Double-A Arkansas for a Friday start against San Antonio (Padres). That keeps him in line to start April 11 in Kansas City, when the Mariners will need a fifth starter for the first time.

   Ramirez is slotted for just three innings in his first game action since recovering from a strained back muscle.

   Unimpressed? Hold on…

   No club is brimming with good options if/when injuries tear through their rotation, but the Mariners, at least, will be sifting through guys at Tacoma who previously logged big-league time.

   That’s no small thing.

   It’s a similar story in the Rainiers’ bullpen, where Mike Morin, Erik Goeddel, Dario Alvarez, Ryan Cook, Shawn Armstrong and Chasen Bradford all have big-league experience.

   (Side note: Goeddel is a good bet to open the season as the Rainiers’ closer.)

   Dipoto and manager Scott Servais placed a premium last season (somewhat out of necessity) on keeping fresh arms in the Mariners’ bullpen. It would be surprising if the bullpen shuttle doesn’t again make regular runs between Cheney and Safeco.

   The rest of the roster is also packed with big-league experience, including infielder Gordon Beckham and outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Further, whenever veteran outfielder Jayson Werth is deemed game-ready, he’ll report to Tacoma.

   The roster’s taxi-squad nature offers a definite benefit for Rainiers fans: The emphasis for manager Pat Listach and his staff will be on winning instead of development. There’s a big difference.

   Example: The Mariners, under a previous administration, had a rule that no prospect could bat lower than sixth in the lineup. If that player was struggling, and killing rallies, it mattered little. Development was paramount.

   That’s fine. Many clubs have similar guidelines aimed at fostering development. Another example: Pitch counts for prospects are stringently monitored, which also makes sense — even if it often doesn’t pay off in the standings.

   This year’s Rainiers should have few such restraints, which is not to say there won’t be challenges. Listach will see his roster raided whenever the Mariners need help. That’s just how it works.

   But if the Rainiers lose because a hanging curve gets belted into the gap, it won’t be because the pitcher threw that curve under a development mandate. Having few prospects means Tacoma’s record should reflect its talent and performance.

RANKING THE MARINERS’ PROSPECTS: KLAY TOP 10

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — Triple-A Tacoma and other full-season affiliates open their seasons this week, which makes it a good time to examine and rank the top prospects throughout the Mariners’ system.

   That it’s a notably thin system has been well-publicized. Baseball America, ESPN and others contend the Mariners have the game’s worst farm system, which seems to be the consensus view.

   The Mariners, not surprisingly, bristle a bit at the criticism, although general manager Jerry Dipoto is somewhat philosophical in noting: “We have traded prospects for players who, in some cases, are on our big-league club.”

   That’s a fair point. System rankings only examine the prospects currently on hand. There is no adjustment for talent acquired by trading prospects.

   The Mariners would, no doubt, be viewed more positively in player-development circles if Jean Segura, Dee Gordon, Mitch Haniger, Ryon Healy, Ben Gamel, Mike Leake and others had been homegrown rather than arriving through trades.

   Even so, it’s telling that outfielder Kyle Lewis remains the system’s top-rated prospect despite continuing problems over the last two seasons in recovering from major surgery on his right knee.

   Lewis, 22, underwent a second surgery earlier this year. Expectations are that he could be ready for game action by early May, but he’s played just 79 games since being selected in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft.

   The organization’s second- and third-rated top three prospects, first baseman Evan White and right-hander Sam Carlson, also ended last season on the disabled list because of minor injuries.

2018 MLB.com Top Prospects: Evan White manages the strike zone well, usually focusing on hitting line drives from gap to gap

   The No. 4 prospect, outfielder Julio Rodriguez, has yet to play a game. He’s an 17-year-old Dominican who signed last July.

   For the last four years, while at the Tacoma News Tribune, I put together a Top 10 ranking of the organization’s prospect prior the season along with a list of others to watch.

   That list moves this year to KLAY1180.com.

   Eligibility is limited to those players who still qualify as rookies, which means some players currently on the big-league roster, such as catcher Mike Marjama, are included.

   The rankings resulted from discussions with scouts and other talent evaluators from within and beyond the Mariners’ organization. They reflect a mix of high-end potential and the likelihood to impact the big-league club in the near future. 

The KLAY TOP 10

  1. Outfielder Kyle Lewis (age 22, bats right, throws right, 6-feet-4 and 205 pounds). All the tools are there for Lewis to be an impact big-league player — if he stays healthy. Good bat speed with a lofting line-drive swing. Could move quickly.
  2. First baseman Evan White (21, R-L, 6-3, 180). Last year’s first-round pick battled quadriceps problems. A strained groin will delay his season for about a week but, assuming he recovers quickly, he could also move quickly. A plus defensive player with speed. A line-drive hitter who could develop power. 
  3. Right-handed pitcher Sam Carlson (19, R-R, 6-3, 200). Still growing into his body, so the Mariners will likely take a conservative approach this season with him. But he already shows a promising three-pitch mix that includes a heavy fastball with late sink that reaches the mid-90s.
  4. Outfielder Julio Rodriguez (17, R-R, 6-3, 180) Loads of potential but a few years away. Scouts says he has the best raw power in the system and a plus arm but caution his so-so speed could be an issue in spacious Safeco Field.
  5. Catcher Mike Marjama (28, R-R, 6-2, 205). A backup who will see extra big-league playing time while starting catcher Mike Zunino recovers from a strained oblique. Showed solid on-base numbers throughout minor-league career.
  6. First baseman Daniel Vogelbach (25, L-R, 6-0, 250). Strong spring reignited his prospect status and earned him a spot on the big-league club. Likely headed back to Triple-A Tacoma at some point, and his suspect defense still makes it hard to see him as a long-term fit at first base. But a DH in a post-Nelson Cruz world? Maybe. 
  7. Right-hander pitcher Max Povse (24, R-R, 6-8, 220). Could be an under-the-radar talent ready to click. Has all the tools to be an effective middle-of-the-rotation starter. The question with anyone his size is whether he can keep all of the moving parts in sync and maintain command.
  8. Outfielder Braden Bishop (24, R-R, 6-1, 190). A breakout year last season has many scouts revising their projections. Always seen as a plus runner and defensive player, he surprised many last season by making major strides at the plate. Now viewed as a legit fourth-outfielder type. But another solid offensive season could force a further reevaluation.Will open the season at Double-A Arkansas.
  9. Right-handed pitcher Wyatt Mills (22, R-R, 6-4, 190). Draws comparisons to ex-Mariners reliever Steve Cishek because of his lanky build and sidearm motion. His fastball/slider mix is particularly tough on right-handed hitters. He will open at Hi-A Modesto, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see him in the majors at some point this season.
  10. Shortstop Juan Querecuto (17, R-R, 6-2, 175). Like Rodriguez, he was signed last year as a 16-year-old and has yet to play professionally. And like Rodriguez, he’s a few years away. But he’s already regarded as the organization’s top middle-infield prospect.

   Others to watch: Outfielder Ian Miller, who will open at Tacoma, has plus-plus speed and is regarded as an above-average defensive player. A year ago, he showed offensive skills not seen in his four previous pro seasons. Can he do it again?…third baseman Joe Rizzo, a second-round pick in 2016, generally draws high grades for his bat, although his numbers last year didn’t back that up. He’ll start the year at Modesto.

   Right-hander Rob Whalen, who will open at Tacoma, is a potential feel-good story after openly acknowledging past problems with depression. He pitched well enough in spring training to put himself back on the club’s radar…outfielder Eric Filia was fast-tracking and projected to start at Tacoma before failing a drug test. He’ll miss 50 games but bears watching once he returns.

   Several relievers are worth tracking — in large part because the Mariners figure to shuttle pieces in their bullpen to keep fresh arms available. Right-handers Art Warren and Matt Festa each performed well last season in helping Modesto win the California League crown. Right-hander Nick Rumblelow arrived in a trade from the Yankees after posting an 0.62 ERA last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

 

WHAT CAN THE MARINERS EXPECT THIS YEAR FROM THE KING?

   SEATTLE — It’s generally seen as a feel-good story throughout Marinerland that Felix Hernandez recovered sufficiently this spring from a bruised forearm in time to start the season opener Thursday against Cleveland at Safeco Field.

   It will be the King’s 10th straight start on Opening Day, a distinction matched by just six other pitchers in major-league history: Steve Carlton, Roy Halladay, Walter Johnson, Jack Morris, Robin Roberts and Tom Seaver.

   All but Halladay are in the Hall of Fame — and he seems a good bet to win election once he becomes eligible.

   “Ten straight, one team is really a great honor for me,” Hernandez told reporters after learning he’d been picked to start the opener. “I love to be in front of the big crowds and the big stage. I love that. It’s special. It’s special for me.”

   History shows Hernandez typically rises to the occasion when the lights go on. He is 6-2 with a 1.64 ERA in openers, but history is just that — history.

   What about now? What can the Mariners reasonably expect not only Thursday but throughout the season from their long-time ace?

   For me, the answer came last summer in talking to an opposing scout, who said Felix, at this point in his career, is Pedro Martinez with the New York Mets: a once-great pitcher now surviving on guile, reputation and self-belief,

   Martinez was 33 and entering his 14th big-league season when he joined the Mets in 2005. He spent four years in New York, but throw out 2007, when injuries limited him to five starts.

   For the other three seasons, Pedro averaged roughly 153 innings over 25 starts while going 10-7 with a 3.96 ERA. That can help a club, but it’s a middle-of-the-rotation guy. Not an ace.

   The Mariners seem to understand this.

   “At some point the player adapts,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “and I really do think that what we saw last year from Felix is he started to adapt. He’s still confident in himself and he knows what to do.”

   You judge if the Martinez comparison holds up.

   Hernandez will turn 32 on April 8 and is embarking on his 14th big-league season. A year ago, recurring bursitis in his throwing shoulder limited him to just 16 starts.

   When he did pitch, he wasn’t particularly effective.

   Hernandez’s 4.36 ERA was his worst mark in more than a decade. He gave up homers at a career-high rate (1.8 per nine innings) and his FIP (fielding independent pitching) mark was a career-worst 5.02.

   Further, he no longer functioned as a workhorse. Hernandez averaged fewer than six innings per start — actually just over 5 1/3 innings — for the first time in his career.

   It’s possible, of course, those dismal numbers stem solely from his shoulder injury, but that’s hardly a comfort since the general suspicion throughout the game is Hernandez’s shoulder consists of string, duct tape and a fierce will.

   “He’s not King Felix anymore,” a front-office analyst for a rival club said. “His days of 200-plus innings and 30-some starts are over. If he gives them 150 innings over 25 starts with a sub-4.00 ERA, that’s a plus.”

   That’s Pedro with the Mets.

   A sampling of statistical projections reveals greater skepticism.

   The Zips model by Dan Szymborski has Felix at 8-8 with a 4.21 ERA in just 124 innings over 22 starts. Steamerprojections.com computes a heavier workload, at 162 innings over 28 starts, but has him finishing 9-10 with a 4.39 ERA.

   The simpler Marcels projection system, which uses the last three seasons in descending weight, predicts Hernandez at 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA in just 118 innings.

   Such analytical projections aren’t always right. Sometimes, actually, they’re spectacularly wrong. But here they paint a similar picture regarding the King that accurately captures the industry’s expectations.   

   That Felix insists he’s fine is only reassuring in underscoring his ultra-competitive nature. Analysts often scoff at intangibles, which are hard to measure, but, even if you don’t, they only count for so much.

   It hard to find anyone who believes Hernandez can still pitch with the same high-octane macho approach that long engendered the frenzied “K” chant from the King’s Court.

   For this much is certain: that shoulder has a lot of miles on it — and it shows. Hernandez’s velocity slipped notably in recent years, and the surge in homers allowed suggests that opponents who sit on his fastball often punish it.

   “There used to be a fear factor in facing Felix,” another opposing scout noted. “Not a fear that he could get you out, but a fear that he could embarrass you doing it. Not anymore.”

   Whether that’s true might depend on Felix himself. His fastball is still good enough to set up a killer changeup, which can leave hitters corkscrewing in a Bugs Bunny swing.

   So we’ll see. Felix beat the odds in recovering this spring in recovering from that bruised forearm and then crowed: “I told you!” Maybe he’ll be chirping again in October. 

   But today, with April still on the horizon, the Mariners, privately anyway, would likely welcome those Pedro-with-the-Mets numbers: 10-7 with a 3.96 ERA over 153 innings in 25 starts.   

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

INTERESTED IN THE MARINERS AND RAINIERS? GREAT. LET’S TALK

   I can hear it now: I thought you retired.

   I’ve heard that a lot over the last six months and, let me tell you, retirement isn’t an easily defined term.

   When I accepted a buyout last October from the Tacoma News Tribune, I generally characterized the act as one of retirement. I was in my 60s after a 46-year career as a sportswriter that included 30 years as a baseball beat reporter.

   Sure, I remained somewhat active on Twitter and continued to serve as the Mariners correspondent for Baseball America. I also kept doing a weekly radio spot with my pal Mike Franco on KLAY (1180 AM).

   You know…fun stuff.

   Now, I’m adding a sports blog on the KLAY website thanks, again, to Mike and also some hard work by the KLAY team in providing the necessary technical expertise to make this blog a reality.

   I hope you’ll bookmark this site and become a regular visitor. I’ll post a link on Twitter at @ByBobDutton whenever there’s an update or new material. I’d also encourage you to check out the other elements in KLAY’s revised website.

   Here’s the thing, though: I still feel retired.

   The job of being a baseball beat reporter is the highest calling in the history of upright man. You might see that as hyperbole (I don’t), but this much is indisputable: If you can cover ball, you can do anything in journalism.

   It’s a lot of work though.

   The point of this blog is to post some thoughts and, hopefully, lend some perspective to what the Mariners and Rainiers are doing. In short, not really work. More fun stuff.

   I see this blog as merely an extension of those weekly chats with Mike, which amount to a conversation you’d have with a friend at lunch. The blog will offer the chance for others to join the conversation.

   Plans call for the blog to be heavy on the Mariners and Rainiers for now but, if it clicks like we hope, it could expand to other areas.

   Let’s be clear, though: This blog isn’t a first stop for breaking news.

   I’m hoping to provide some material and a perspective you won’t see anywhere else. I’m also planning to be a regular at Safeco Field and Cheney Stadium, but I’ll be following the club’s beat writers for the latest news.

   You should do the same, and Mariners fans are fortunate to have three of the best.

   TJ Cotterill (@TJCotterill) replaced me at The News Tribune, while Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) of the Seattle Times and Greg Johns (@GregJohnMLB) of MLB.com are must-follows.

   I’ll leave the daily grind to them. I’ll be having fun blogging away here at KLAY. Retirement (or whatever you want to call it) is great.