Baseball BeatApril 23, 2007
The Mariners Ship is Taking on Water
By Rich Lederer

I went to the Mariners-Angels game on Sunday afternoon and watched Ervin Santana dominate Seattle for seven innings en route to a 6-1 victory to complete a three-game sweep. Los Angeles, which outscored the M's 21-11 in the series, improved its record to 9-9, good for a first-place tie with Oakland. Seattle lost its sixth consecutive game and is now at the bottom of the AL West with a 5-9 record.

Santana and the Angels have decisive home and road splits. The Halos are 8-2 in Anaheim and 1-7 in away games in the early going. For his career, Santana is 21-5 with a 3.01 ERA at home and 9-13, 6.73 on the road. The 24-year-old righthander has been one of the league's best hurlers at home and one of the worst on the road. Angel Stadium favors pitchers but not nearly to that extent. To Mike Scioscia's credit, Santana has thrown 52% more innings at home than on the road. As a result, Ervin's career ERA of 4.50 is much better than a simple average of his splits.

Mike Hargrove, on the other hand, doesn't deserve much credit for anything. Seattle sports a record of 152-186 (.450) since Hargrove took the reins in 2005. The Mariners finished last in each of the past two seasons and find themselves in familiar territory three weeks into the 2007 campaign.

After winning five straight division titles in Cleveland from 1995-1999, Hargrove's teams (including Baltimore in 2000-2003) have placed fourth with a winning percentage below .500 every year. I would be surprised if 2007 turns out any differently.

In short, the Mariners are a mess. Maybe I caught Seattle on a bad day. Perhaps the club's bats are just cold and will come to life soon. It's also possible that Jeff Weaver is not representative of the other starters and that I am being unfair in condemning the M's so early in the season.

More than anything else, I don't understand how Hargrove has failed to impart his approach at the plate as a player on the Mariners. Hargrove had 965 BB and 550 SO in approximately 7,000 at-bats during a 12-year career in the 1970s and 1980s. He drew over 100 walks in four separate seasons and compiled a .396 OBP in a park-adjusted league environment of .328. Oh, The Human Relay Delay was painful to watch but his plate discipline proved effective (121 OPS+).

I thought it would be instructive to look at Seattle's offensive numbers, which stand in stark contrast to Hargrove's approach. Here is the lineup that Mark created on Sunday, along with two everyday players who did not see action.

Lineup          AVG   OBP   SLG   |   PA   BB
Suzuki CF      .298  .333  .474       60    2
Bloomquist 2B  .100  .182  .100       11    1 
Vidro DH       .276  .323  .379       62    4 
Ibanez LF      .259  .288  .389       59    3
Sexson 1B      .170  .264  .468       53    6
Guillen RF     .217  .265  .326       49    1
Beltre 3B      .241  .323  .444       62    7
Betancourt SS  .222  .217  .400       46    0
Burke C        .429  .556  .714        9    1
Lopez 2B       .250  .267  .318       45    1
Johjima C      .368  .415  .526       41    1

Other than the catchers, there isn't a player with an OBP better than .333. Ichiro's ability to get on base is highly influenced by his batting average, which is unlikely to remain below .300. However, two walks in 60 plate appearances is unacceptable for a lead-off hitter. I'm left wondering whether the free agent-to-be is more interested in accumulating 200 or more hits for the seventh year in a row than anything else.

The team has drawn 27 walks (or fewer than two per game) in 510 plate appearances. This pace works out to 312 free passes over a 162-game season - or 33 below the lowest team total in a non-strike-shortened season since WWII.

                    YEAR     BB     
 1 Cardinals        1966     345   
 2 Mets             1964     353   
 3 Angels           1972     358   
 4 Mets             1967     362   
 5 Tigers           2002     363   
 6 A's              1957     363   
 7 Reds             1967     372   
 8 Pirates          1957     374   
 9 Cardinals        1968     378   
10 Mets             1968     379   

Seattle might be able to fix its woes if the problems were limited to an inept offense. Let's take a look at the club's starting pitchers.

               GS   W-L    ERA
Hernandez       3   2-1   1.56
Batista         3   1-2   8.83
Ramirez         2   1-1   6.30
Washburn        3   0-2   4.42
Weaver          3   0-3  13.91

Other than Felix Hernandez, every starter has given up at least one hit per inning. The four starters over the age of 21 have also allowed 22 walks while striking out just 32 in 56 2/3 IP. Horacio Ramirez has walked nine and struck out only two in 10 IP.

Seattle's bullpen isn't much better. In 48 innings, the relievers have put together an ERA of 4.31 (vs. an AL average of 4.14) with 19 BB and 20 SO.

I realize it doesn't help that King Felix is hurt. But these things happen and it is incumbent on management to prepare for such unfortunate developments. Seattle's opening day payroll was north of $106 million, essentially on par with the Angels and well above the Oakland A's and Texas Rangers. As a result, I don't believe it would be fair to blame owner Hiroshi Yamauchi for pinching pennies. Instead, I think it makes sense to question where the money has been spent.

Bill Bavasi replaced Pat Gillick in November 2003. After the 2004 season, he signed free agents Adrian Beltre (5 years/$64M) and Richie Sexson (4 years/$50M) to huge contracts. A year later, he inked Jarrod Washburn (4 years/$37.5M) and Kenji Johjima (3 years/$16.5M). Most recently, Bavasi signed Miguel Batista (3 years/$25M), Jeff Weaver (1 year/$8.325M), and Jose Guillen (1 year/$5.5M). He also acquired Jose Vidro in trade from Washington, adding a vesting option in 2009 in exchange for the 32-year-old designated hitter waiving his no-trade clause.

The GM overpaid for Beltre and Sexson and these corner infielders are now absorbing 25% of the club's payroll. Washburn, Batista, and Weaver are making $8-10M per year, seemingly outrageous but perhaps defensible in a high-priced market for pitchers. The operative word is "perhaps" because this trio and Ramirez are incapable of missing many bats.

Why Weaver chose to accept a one-year deal with Seattle when he could have signed a longer-term contract with the Cardinals to keep working with pitching coach Dave Duncan is another question. But Weaver's baffling decision doesn't excuse the fact that Bavasi stepped up - even if just for a year - when it is an indisputable fact that the 30-year-old righthander was a disaster in 2006 with the Angels and 2003 with the Yankees in his last two attempts in the American League.

Weaver's stuff is below average and his body language is about as bad as I have ever seen, especially when things turn against him. He never sniffed the 90s on the radar gun Sunday, mostly working in the low-80s. Weaver's command is nothing special at this point and his breaking ball lacks the necessary bite to act as an out pitch. Furthermore, it looks as if he doesn't even want to be on the mound. His slow gait, slumping shoulders, and staring at fielders in disbelief combined with a silent "F-bomb" while backing up home plate after giving up a run do nothing to inspire the confidence of his manager, teammates, or M's fans.

The two players most likely to be around after Hargrove and Bavasi are Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez, both of whom were recently locked up to four-year deals with a club option for a fifth. However, these middle infielders epitomize Seattle's problems at the plate. Betancourt and Lopez have drawn a total of one walk combined in 91 plate appearances this season. Lopez, in fact, has averaged only 2.87 pitches per PA.

With respect to Betancourt and Lopez, put me in charge and I would have shown more patience in signing them to longer-term deals than what they have shown at the plate. Neither player projects to be a superstar, and I just don't see the need to commit to them so early in their careers. Shake a fruit or nut tree in Seattle and a dozen second basemen fall out.

The M's minor league system has a dearth of talent, ranking 24th in Baseball America's Prospect Handbook. Adam Jones, Jeff Clement, and Brandon Morrow are the organization's three highest-profile prospects. Jones, 21, played 32 games in the big leagues in 2006 and may be the heir to center field if Suzuki opts for greener (or more winning) pastures after the season. Clement, a 23-year-old catcher, was taken with the third overall pick in 2005 out of USC and signed to a team-record $3.4 million bonus. With only 45 professional games under his belt, Clement was promoted to Triple-A after undergoing operations on his knee and left elbow last May. He hit only .257 with 4 HR in 257 AB while striking out 53 times vs. just 16 BB.

Morrow, 22, was selected fifth in the 2006 amateur draft, ahead of Andrew Miller, Clayton Kershaw, and Seattle's own Tim Lincecum. He broke camp with the Mariners and has pitched five innings in relief thus far. Morrow appears to be another M's prospect who has been rushed to the majors in an era in which the club has become more dependent on signing international players than developing its own.

The M's season is far from sunk, but it is going to take a lot more than just rearranging the deck chairs to keep this vessel afloat.



I am a huge Mariners fan, and, after reading all the things you had to say about the M's, I have to argue are 100% correct.

I hate to admit this, but I am hoping that the team tanks this year. Seeing what Bavasi has done in the past few years, it is very clear that the club is not going to really take a step forward until Bavasi is gone. Hargrove is also a problem, but the real serious issues with the club start from the top. Bavasi is TERRIBLE at evaluating talent. His moves this offseason prove that. And don't even get me started with the way the club has handled Morrow, Clement, Matt Tuiasosopo, and a handful of other prospects in the organization. It is like they are intentionally trying to impede their development.

With all the 'hot seat' talk this year, it is likely that both will be gone soon: Grover in the next few months, and Bavasi after the season.

In my opinion, bringing both back this year was a serious serious error. The suits basically told Bavasi "win now or else", and now he is making decisions like a man who is focused on the short term. Putting a GM in that position is a recipe for disaster. He needs to be focused on the long term success of the organization, not trading good prospects for guys like Jose Vidro. The club has no plan, no direction.

I don't think that I am alone in hoping that the M's tank this year. It is a sad state of affairs to be rooting against your favorite team, but this club needs to hit rock bottom again before we see some real long-term changes for the better. A popular M's blog is already rooting for Chris Antonetti as Bavasi's successor. Perhaps the really bad baseball we are watching right now won't be for nothing, and that the M's can bring in a competent GM instead of another old-school retread.

i couldve told you that ship was sinking when they signed the dueling Jose's(Vidro, Guillen). Forget about the fact that King Felix is on the shelf.

Guillen as a reclaimation project was kinda defensible. The Vidro trade was a farce.

I wanted to chime in about Weaver, and you are right about the body language. I am a Red Sox fan, and his open-mouthed shocked expression in response to a J.D. Drew home run (even though it carried more than anyone would have thought) is youtube worthy.

Just an observation about Ervin Santana. While his career innings at home are 50%-plus greater than on the road, this is more a function of his inability to last many innings on the road than managerial genius. For his career, Santana has 31 starts at home and 26 on the road -- a differential of less than 20%.

Point well taken, Kevin.