SweetSpot: Jesus Montero

One of the more fascinating trades in recent years came in January of 2012 when the Mariners traded Michael Pineda, coming of a terrific rookie season, to the Yankees for Jesus Montero, regarded as one of top five or six prospects in the game.

It was the type of trade you never see: Your young guy for our young guy, an old-fashioned challenge trade. It wasn't about contracts or money or rebuilding, just talent for talent.

The trade, so interesting to break down at the time, has been a disaster for everyone involved. Montero was one of the players suspended for 50 games on Monday in the Biogenesis case, ending his terrible season in which he (A) Didn't hit in the majors; (B) Proved once and for all he'll never be a catcher; (C) Got injured.

In 164 games with the Mariners, Montero has hit .252/.293/.377, a huge disappointment for a player who was supposed to have a can't-miss bat. As Dave Cameron wrote today on the U.S.S. Mariner site:
Montero is no longer a catcher, his offensive potential is in question, and he’ll likely enter the 2014 season in Tacoma, trying to prove to everyone that he can actually hit well enough to justify a big league roster spot at some point. ... But his stock has probably fallen faster than anyone else in baseballs over the last few years. For the short term, you can basically forget about Jesus Montero.

The news hasn't been any better for Pineda, however. He missed all of 2012 following shoulder surgery and in February pleaded no contest to a DUI arrest from last August. Currently in Triple-A as he rehabs his shoulder, Pineda left his latest start on Friday after two innings due to shoulder stiffness. He'll visit team doctors but any hope of him appearing in the majors this year is probably over.

Does either team have a chance to ever "win" this trade? Shoulder injuries are notoriously difficult to come back from, more so than elbow injuries (or Tommy John surgery). But Montero showed little that would translate to big success at the major league level, with any power he did have undermined by a poor approach at the plate (just 37 walks in 663 plate appearances with Seattle).

At this point, the odds are long against either ever becoming a star. January of 2012 seems like a long time ago.
Eric Wedge Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesSeattle's failure to consistently develop prospects could soon cost manager Eric Wedge his job.
No, I'm not writing about Dustin Ackley again because I'm a Mariners fan. I'm writing about him because he was the second overall pick in the 2009 draft and got sent down to the minors over the weekend, the exclamation point on his quick demise from promising rookie in 2011 to .205-hitting replacement-level second baseman in 2013.

Actually, I'll save myself the pain and link to Dave Cameron's take over at the U.S.S. Mariner blog, including his reference to Mariners manager Eric Wedge's quote that blamed Ackley's struggles on sabermetrics. No, really. Here's what he said: "It's the new generation. It's all this sabermetrics stuff, for lack of a better term, you know what I mean? People who haven't played since they were 9 years old think they have it figured out. It gets in these kids' heads."

Read Dave's piece as he breaks down Wedge's quote with the lethal result of a Felix Hernandez changeup. He wraps up by saying that Wedge will probably be fired soon, which is probably true:
Everyone knows that the only people capable of offering any kind of intelligent analysis of baseball players are those who have Major League experience. You know, like Eric Wedge. That's what's made him such a successful Major League manager, with his career record of 725 wins and 784 losses. And, you know, clearly Wedge knows how to develop young talent, since he helped all those young players turn into superstars in Cleveland.

Oh, wait, Cleveland’s young players didn't develop as well as they were expected, and Wedge has had two winning seasons in 10 years as a big league manager. Hmm. Maybe experience isn't the only thing that matters after all?

Eric Wedge is going to be fired in the not too distant future. That move, in and of itself, won't turn around the Mariners franchise. But it won't hurt.

There's another piece on the U.S.S. Mariner site by Jeff Sullivan which compares Ackley to another former Mariner who was supposed to hit, Jeremy Reed. This points to the larger issue within the Mariners organization going back more than 10 years and three different front-office regimes: The complete inability to develop hitters (Kyle Seager, who was never a top prospect, being the exception).

Actually, they've developed three other real good ones in the past decade. Trouble is, they traded away Adam Jones, Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera. But the list of Mariners position players besides Jones and Choo once rated in Baseball America's top 100 prospects is a sad list:

    • Dustin Ackley: Second overall pick in the 2009 draft. Was Baseball America's 11th and then 12th-best prospect. Truth is, he didn't tear apart the minor leagues (.280), but did draw more walks than strikeouts, and his decent rookie performance (.273/.348/.417) suggested he'd develop into a decent hitter. Definitely the most difficult one here to explain.
    • Justin Smoak: No. 13 prospect in 2010. His 24 home runs in 702 minor league at-bats suggests his power potential was always overrated anyway. Maybe remaking himself as well ... he's drawing walks now but a .698 OPS from a first baseman isn't exactly middle-of-the-order material.
    • Jesus Montero: Minor league numbers were impressive for his age, but the fact that he hit worse his second year in Triple-A was probably a bad sign in retrospect. Remember, this guy was BA's No. 4, No. 3 and No. 6 prospect three years running based on his sure thing as a hitter.
    • Michael Saunders: A May 13 headline in the Seattle Times reads, "Michael Saunders has gone from flop to force at the plate." Since then he's hit .109 (5-for-46) and is down to .217 with a sub-.300 OBP. Was BA's No. 30 prospect heading into 2010. He now has over 1,300 major league PAs and owns a career .219/.283/.366 line. I thought he had a breakthrough last year but now all bets are off.
    • Carlos Triunfel: BA's No. 62 prospect after debuting in the States at age 17. Remained in the top 100 the next year. Power never developed, undoubtedly aided by his poor plate discipline (35 SO, 7 BB in Triple-A this year).
    • Adam Moore: No. 83 before 2010, his minor league numbers were good, not great, but he was a catcher. Hit .195 as a rookie. Then came a bunch of injuries.
    • Jeff Clement: Drafted third overall in the loaded 2005 draft, peaked at No. 33 on the BA prospect lists. Just a misfire. A costly one.
    • Jose Lopez: Peaked as Baseball America's No. 38 prospect and reached the majors at age 20 and even made the All-Star team his first full season. But his willingness to swing at pretty much anything (never walked 30 times in a season) ruined his career.
    • Jeremy Reed: Acquired from the White Sox in the Freddy Garcia trade, he had hit .373 with 70 walks and 36 strikeouts in 2003 between A and Double-A. But a .289 average in Triple-A in 2004, the year the Mariners acquired him, suggests a guy who was probably overrated as the No. 25 prospect.
    • Chris Snelling: Three-time top-100 prospect, as high as No. 39. Couldn't stay healthy. The one guy here who I'm convinced would have hit.

How does this happen? How can one organization fail so miserably? Certainly, there's been a system-wide failure -- again, through different regimes and thus different major and minor league coaches and instructors -- to develop hitters with the ability to control the strike zone. Is that just bad luck? Bad coaching? Bad Safeco Field karma?

I don't really know. A friend of mine posits that the Mariners continually emphasize how much pressure they're under in the major leagues, instead of just letting them hit instead of talking about their struggles all the time. Maybe bad hitting and bad approaches just feed off itself like the Ebola virus. Losing is a disease, right?

There is no answer here other than that there is no magic wand you can wave, no secret sauce, no hitting coach that can flip the switch. The new guys are arriving -- Nick Franklin is here to replace Ackley and Mike Zunino will be up soon.

They better be good.

This whole closer thing is a tough business. Perfection isn't just expected; it's demanded. Slip up once and it's a headline; slip up twice and fans are ready to trade you to Topeka. Slip up three times and your manager usually starts questioning your intestinal fortitude. As the late, great Dan Quisenberry once said, "A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six-shooter: He fires until it's empty then takes the gun and throws it at the villain."

The trouble with closers, and the decisions managers have to make when they start to struggle: When do you know if the chamber is empty?

Three playoff contenders suffered wrenching defeats this weekend when their closers blew multirun leads. Blown saves in one-run games are bad enough; blowing leads of two or three runs is generally unacceptable. The victims, or saboteurs if you prefer: Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles, Chris Perez of the Cleveland Indians, and Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here's what happened:
  • The Orioles led the Blue Jays 5-2 on Sunday entering the bottom of the ninth, but Edwin Encarnacion doubled, Adam Lind grounded a single up the middle and J.P. Arencibia lined a base hit to right. A fly out, walk and fielder's choice made it 5-4 with runners at the corners and two outs. Light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki was at the plate. Johnson threw Kawasaki six consecutive fastballs -- six of his signature mid-90s sinker -- but the sixth one didn't sink much. The pitch hung out over the middle of the plate, and Kawasaki lined it into left center for a game-winning two-run double. The Orioles lost just one game last season they led heading into the ninth inning; they already have five such defeats in 2013. Johnson has lost three of those, and he has two other defeats, as well.
  • The Indians also led 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, ready to salvage a split of a four-game series at Fenway Park. Dustin Pedroia walked to lead off, and, as you can probably guess, bad things happen when you walk the leadoff batter with a three-run lead. David Ortiz doubled. A groundout scored a run, Ortiz stole third and then another groundout made it 5-4. But now the bases were empty and Perez had two outs. He walked Jonny Gomes, who is hitting .200 without a homer against right-handed pitchers; Stephen Drew lined a base hit to right; and Perez walked light-hitting Jose Iglesias. Terry Francona had finally had enough and brought in Joe Smith to face Jacoby Ellsbury, who won it with a double to left center. It was the first game Cleveland lost entering the ninth inning and just the second loss for the bullpen, but Perez has been shaky of late. Last week, he blew a two-run lead in the ninth to Seattle only to get the win, and two days later, he gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth only to be rescued again as Cleveland won in extra innings. That's seven runs his past three outings.
  • Rodney blew his fifth save on Saturday night, a 3-1 lead against the Yankees, who won in 11 innings. The Rays have now lost three games they led entering the ninth (and five they led entering the eighth). Last season, when Rodney allowed just nine runs all season and the entire pen was stellar, those figures were two and three.

So that's the play-by-play of disaster. That all three are struggling isn't necessarily a big surprise. Their Proven Closer labels were a little dubious entering the season, especially for Johnson and Rodney, who each had just one full season as a closer under the belt. In fact, it's time we take the magic out of the whole "closer mystique" nonsense that everybody likes to pretend exists. The fact that guys like Jason Grilli of the Pirates and Edward Mujica of the Cardinals are doing just fine is another indication that closers are often lucked into, not made.

There are few great ones -- Mariano Rivera, of course, and Craig Kimbrel (although even he has three blown saves) -- but the truth is that for most of these guys there's a slender margin between invincibility and Tom Niedenfuer. That's exactly what we're seeing with Johnson, Rodney and Perez this season.

Johnson is a pitch-to-contact closer whom sabermetric analysts predicted would be hard-pressed to match his big 2012 campaign when he saved 51 games. His strikeout rate is up, but that's because he's throwing more pitches up in the zone; a sinker up in the zone is a bad pitch. Last season, Johnson's ground ball rate was 62 percent; this season, it's 42 percent. Thus, he's getting hit more.

Perez was an All-Star the past two seasons, but his 3.45 ERA during that span is hardly elite material for a closer. He's always been a guy who lives on the edge, a decent reliever who got the ninth-inning role. His heat map shows a lot more pitches up in the zone this season, as well -- he's already allowed five doubles, four home runs and 10 walks in 16⅔ innings.

Rodney's implosion is probably the least surprising of the three. From 2007 to 2011, his ERA was more than 4.00 each season. Last season, he suddenly developed the perfect feel for his changeup to go along with fastball command, and batters hit .071 off it with 55 Ks and five walks. This season, the fastball command hasn't been there, and neither has the dominance on the changeup. He's already walked 18 batters (including 10 on changeups) after walking 15 all of last season. After giving up four extra-base hits in 2012, that total is already at nine. In other words, instead of getting Dennis Eckersley in his prime, the Rays are back to getting Fernando Rodney.

The managers of these clubs have some difficult decisions. Because all three have the Proven Closer label, how many chances do they get? And just shuffling them into the eighth-inning role and promoting the setup guy to closer doesn't necessarily solve anything; they can blow games just as easily in the eighth as in the ninth. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has the best options, as relievers Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz have all pitched well.

"We should be getting on the plane with three wins here, but I can't hang my head too long," Johnson said after the game. "It's going to hurt for a little bit, and it should."

For now, it appears Johnson will keep his job despite four blown saves in his past five appearances. But no matter what happens the rest of the season, the ninth inning has already been a disaster for the Orioles. Last season, the average team lost 3.7 games it lead heading into the ninth. As mentioned, that's already five such defeats for the O's this season. And each one has hurt a little bit.



Which closer should lose his job?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,919)

Three stars

1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez lost his no-hit bid on Friday when Joe Mauer singled with one out in the ninth. After Detroit acquired Sanchez from the Marlins last season, his strong performance in the playoffs led the Tigers to sign him to an $80 million contract that seemed a little ambitious considering his 3.65 career ERA and the fact that he'd never pitched 200 innings in a season. So far, however, Sanchez has been much better than a midrotation starter, as he's increased his strikeout rate from 20.4 percent a season ago to 30.6 percent now. While he's getting more strikeouts with all four of his pitches, the biggest increase has been with his fastball, which had a strikeout rate of 13.8 percent on plate appearances ending with the pitch in 2012 but 28 percent this season. The command of his fastball -- especially on the outside corner to righties -- has made his other pitches even more effective.

2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals. For a guy who is "struggling," Strasburg has looked pretty good of late. He allowed just one run in eight innings against the Phillies on Sunday. In his past three starts, he's allowed four runs and just 13 hits in 23 innings. He's recorded 39 groundouts and 15 fly outs over those three starts. He's still seeking his first double-digit strikeout game of the season but still has 71 Ks in 72⅓ innings. While his ERA of 2.49 is a little misleading -- he's allowed nine unearned runs -- his recent outings should alleviate the minor concerns about his early performance.

3. Pete Kozma, Cardinals. How to beat Clayton Kershaw? The Cardinals shortstop went 4-for-4 on Sunday with three doubles; three of those hits came off Kershaw, including a three-run double and rally-starting two-base hit, as the Cardinals won 5-3.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Of our many walk-off heroes, how about Chris Young of the A's? The A's trailed the Astros 5-3 on Friday. Jose Veras walked John Jaso and Coco Crisp on 3-2 pitches, setting the stage for Young with two outs. Young did this on a 1-1 curveball. The A's are now five games over .500 -- thanks in large part to a 9-0 record against the Astros, who they've outscored 68 to 31. Hey, if they go 19-0 against the Astros, it's going to be hard to deny them another trip to the playoffs.

Best game
The Giants fell behind 4-0 to the Rockies on Saturday but chipped away and tied the game in the seventh. Manager Bruce Bochy got ejected in the eighth when Marco Scutaro was thrown out at third base, and the Giants escaped a two-on, nobody-out jam in the ninth. Troy Tulowitzki homered off a Sergio Romo slider in the 10th. But then, after the usually steady Rafael Betancourt walked Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan lofted a deep fly to right center that kicked off the wall … and, well, Pagan ran 360 feet around the bases, helped a bit by a lazy relay throw from Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler.

Hitter on the rise: Matt Dominguez, Astros
When the Astros acquired Dominguez last season from the Marlins for Carlos Lee, everyone knew he had a major league caliber glove at third base. After going homerless in his first 33 games, doubts began increasing about his bat. Dominguez, however, has now popped seven homers in his past 13 games. His season line still needs some work, especially in the on-base department (.279), but he's starting to look like a positive in this dismal Astros season.

Pitcher on the rise: Jason Vargas, Angels
Don't look now, but the Angels have won eight in a row and are a respectable 23-27. Did they start too late, just like last season? Vargas is 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA in May, allowing nine runs in five starts. The Angels' next 10 games are against the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs. If they're a couple games over .500 at the end of those 10 games, they'll be back in the wild-card race.

Team on the rise: White Sox
Besides the Angels and Pirates (last week's team on the rise), the hottest club is the White Sox. We keep wanting to count out the South Siders, but, somehow, they find a way to hang in there. They don't score much, but they've won nine of 12 the old-fashioned way: with starting pitching. The starters have a 3.25 ERA over those 12 games, and that despite ace Chris Sale missing his last start with mild tendinitis in his shoulder. He's scheduled to start Tuesday against the Cubs.

Team on the fall: Mariners
They pulled out an extra-inning victory over the Rangers on Sunday, but that ended an eight-game losing streak. Starters not named Hernandez or Iwakuma have combined for a 6.78 ERA, which essentially means three-fifths of the Seattle rotation is below replacement level. The Jesus Montero catching experiment was finally, mercifully, brought to an end as he was demoted to Triple-A to see if he can rediscover the supposed hitting prowess that once made him a top-10 prospect (and play some first base). Dustin Ackley continues to be awful and Michael Saunders is three for his past 37. Things are so bad that Mariners fans are excited about Justin Smoak and his .698 OPS.

The Seattle Mariners are in that frustrating purgatory of baseball existence: Not good enough to contend, not bad enough to formulate a rebuilding strategy that makes sense.

Where are they? What is the master plan? Is there life after Felix?

There wasn't Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, when Felix Hernandez dueled CC Sabathia in a battle of aces. Hernandez outpitched Sabathia, but a collision at first base in the fifth inning might have shaken him up a bit. He labored through the sixth, allowing his only run and leaving after 97 pitches with a 3-1 lead.

The Mariners bullpen, stellar for most of the season, couldn't hold the lead; the Yankees received some good luck from the baseball gods and then Mariano Rivera closed out the 4-3 victory. The Mariners can cry about the 3-2 pitch to Brett Gardner in the seventh that looked like strike three, or moan about Justin Smoak's liner in the eighth with two on that doubled Dustin Ackley off second base. But they also failed to capitalize on 10 hits off Sabathia, and Michael Saunders couldn't get a bunt down in the eighth. These are the games that good teams pull out and mediocre teams don't pull out often enough.

[+] EnlargeSeattle's Dustin Ackley
Photo by Elsa/Getty ImagesGetting doubled off second to end a late Mariners threat was just the latest lowlight for Dustin Ackley.
The Mariners aren't a terrible team -- they're 18-21, they have a terrific 1-2 pitching combo in Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, they have some good arms in the bullpen and the offense, while still bad, is at least not historically bad anymore.

But ... where are they? That's harder to peg. They're not the Astros or Cubs. They're kind of in that Pirates/Royals territory of maybe if everything breaks right, except those two clubs are playing better right now. Their offseason moves -- signing veterans Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay and trading for Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales -- suggested a "win now" strategy. Those guys are short-term investments, with Ibanez and Bay simply one-year placeholders and part-time players, and Morse and Morales both free agents after the season.

Essentially, those guys were just roster filler anyway, and for all the angst among Mariners fans over Ibanez or Bay stealing a job from Casper Wells, the Mariners' present and future didn't rest in the bat of Casper Wells. No, it rested in the continued improvement of Kyle Seager and Saunders, plus the hopeful development of one-time top prospects Ackley, Smoak and Jesus Montero.

That takes us to mid-May, and it's time for Mariners management to make some difficult decisions. Seager and Saunders, building upon last season's success, have been fine; they're good players, guys who can be key components of a playoff team. But it's the other three -- all once rated as top-20 prospects in the game -- that have again disappointed.

Ackley is hitting .231/.273/.281, and as Jeff Sullivan of the U.S.S. Mariner blog pointed out, his walk rate has plummeted to Miguel Olivo levels. That's not good, in case you're wondering. Smoak is drawing walks but not doing much of anything else, hitting .235/.355/.311 with one home run. Montero is hitting .200/.250/.341 and the catching experiment is working out as well as anything labeled "experiment" usually does.

As I said, it's only mid-May, and you never want to jump to snap conclusions. But smart organizations do make conclusions. Back in the day, a manager like Whitey Herzog might look at a player for two weeks and determine if he's a major league player. Maybe he wasn't always right, but he believed in his convictions.

Do the Mariners still believe in these three? Ackley is now 25 years old and getting worse, much worse than he was as a rookie in 2011. Smoak is 26 and has a career .225 average. Montero is only 23 but is looking like a bat-only player who doesn't have enough of a bat.


Which Mariner do you still believe in?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,560)

Manager Eric Wedge hasn't exactly proven himself to be a great judge of talent -- not playing John Jaso and Iwakuma early on last season, for example -- but he certainly made his convictions clear with Tuesday's lineup: Ackley, Smoak and Montero all started the game on the bench. In their places were Robert Andino, Ibanez and Kelly Shoppach. Ackley, the can't-miss second pick in the draft, is now being benched against left-handers for a guy hitting .169. Smoak sat for a guy who has hit .207 against left-handers since 2011. Montero sat because he isn't good.

Smart organizations properly evaluate their own talent. They know when not to re-sign Josh Hamilton, know which prospects to hold and know when to walk away. It's time for general manager Jack Zduriencik to make some calls. If the Mariners think Ackley can play then play him, even against Sabathia, and certainly don't bench him for Robert Freakin' Andino. If Smoak can play, then play him. If Montero can't catch, then send him down to Triple-A to see if he can actually develop an idea of how to approach an at-bat.

Because even if those guys play a little better the rest of the season, what have you learned? You'd be back in the same position next year, counting on them simply because they were once highly-rated minor leaguers.

I think the Mariners are close to knowing some answers. They're not contenders. Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino are down in Triple-A, perhaps ready to replace Ackley and Montero, the new new things to get excited about.

It's time to Whitey Herzog it and man up. It's judgment day in Seattle.

Yankees fans must learn meaning of hope

March, 28, 2013
New York Yankees fans don't often use the word "hope." It's not that we have an issue with undue optimism; it's just that in the last 18 seasons there's rarely been a need to rely on hope as our sustenance. When your team finishes in first year after year, you stop hoping and you start expecting. Anything less than a World Series championship is a failed season. Fail to make the playoffs, and the year becomes an utter abomination. How lucky have we been over this time? In the only season in which the Yankees did not play October baseball (2008), the team still finished with 89 wins, which would have been enough to secure a postseason berth in other divisions.

Every year we hear it -- the team is old, the players are in decline, the other teams in the division are younger and therefore better -- and every year the Yankees stave off the worst consequences. This season, though, confidence does not run as high. It's not just that Derek Jeter's ankle is bothering him or that Mark Teixeira has a wrist injury or that Alex Rodriguez won't play at least until the All-Star break or that Curtis Granderson will miss at least a month or that the team replaced Nick Swisher with the much-maligned Vernon Wells. It's that all of these things have happened together, leaving the Yankees with an Opening Day lineup that includes just one of their star infielders (Robinson Cano).

A feeling of frustration predominates. If the team, despite its best efforts, just wasn't good enough because it was too young or was too hampered by being a small-market team with a limited payroll, that would be one thing, but that's not the feeling here. The Yankees aren't a small-market team and they aren't inexperienced. If the Yankees struggle, it's because the wounds are self-inflicted.

Most teams might be able to get under a $189 million payroll without making any tremendous sacrifice, but the Yankees can't suddenly pretend that the contracts of Rodriguez and Teixeira (among others) don't exist. The front office built a team that offered little roster flexibility and would be dependent on the successes of their big-money acquisitions. It worked in 2009, but that's now four years ago, and happened in that time.

Four years ago, Jesus Montero was the poster child for a revamped farm system. Now Montero is playing for the Mariners -- part of a trade from which the Yankees have yet to benefit. Four years ago the idea that Francisco Cervelli would be an Opening Day catcher would have been laughable. Today it's a reality. The frustration isn't so much that Montero isn't a Yankee -- at the time the trade was made, the Yankees were in desperate need of pitching help -- but that the team could have re-signed Russell Martin for $9-10 million, or less than they'll be paying Wells this season.

So there's a very real possibility that we Yankees fans, especially those born in the mid-'80s or later, will have to learn what it's like to rely on hope instead of expectations. The best part of baseball, of course, is that no matter what's predicted on paper, the games still have to be played, and a lot can happen over the course of a season six months long. Who knows, maybe Wells will turn into a more than adequate replacement for Swisher. Stranger things have happened.

Rebecca Glass writes for the You Can't Predict Baseball blog, with nightly roundups during the season. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccapbp.
Every team seems to have that position -- you know, that one that is always a problem, perennially plagued by a past-his-prime vet or soon-to-be failed prospect. For the Seattle Mariners, they've had two positions like that in their franchise history. Left field has historically been a problem -- especially during the Ken Griffey Jr. years when there was a new left fielder almost every year (Greg Briley, Kevin Mitchell, Mike Felder, Eric Anthony, Darren Bragg, Rich Amaral, Glenallen Hill, John Mabry), but the M's did get some good seasons from Phil Bradley in the '80s and Raul Ibanez in the 2000s.

But catcher has also been a big issue, in part because of some investments gone wrong through the years. That's why the Mariners are counting on Mike Zunino to develop into a big star.

The Mariners did receive some good seasons from Dan Wilson (he even made the All-Star team in 1996), who started nine consecutive Opening Days. They brought in Kenji Johjima from Japan and he gave them two decent seasons and two awful ones.

However, it's mostly been a tortured history of catching stories for the Mariners. Witness:

  • Before the 1984 season, the Mariners traded Bill Caudill (a pretty good relief pitcher) and Darrel Akerfelds (the seventh pick in the 1983 draft) to Oakland for Bob Kearney. Think about that: Akerfelds never panned out, but the Mariners had just drafted this kid -- ahead of Roger Clemens, mind you -- and a few months later traded him for a mediocre catcher. Kearney had a .265 OBP in four seasons with Seattle.
  • In 1983, they had another first-round pick and selected a catcher from Old Dominion named Terry Bell. Clemens was still on the board. He went two picks later.
  • In 1986, they brought in veteran Steve Yeager, who was more washed up than your oldest pair of jeans. He and Kearney were so bad they ended up trading highly regarded outfielder Ivan Calderon (who had posted a 134 OPS+ as a rookie in 1985) for backup catcher Scott Bradley. Calderon never became a star, although he had a few nice seasons and made an All-Star team. Again, the point isn't even what Calderon became but what he was when traded.
  • Dave Valle was so bad one year a local bar made the cost of a pint the same as his batting average (which ended up at .194).
  • In 1994, the Mariners drafted Jason Varitek in the first round out of Georgia Tech. Good pick. Except in 1997 they traded him and Derek Lowe to the Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb.
  • In 1999, they spent the 11th pick in the draft on high school catcher Ryan Christianson. He never reached the majors.
  • With Wilson getting older, they acquired Ben Davis from the Padres in 2002. Remember him? Second overall pick in the 1995 draft? He lasted two years in Seattle.
  • In 2005, they made one of the most ill-fated draft picks in recent years, selecting USC backstop Jeff Clement with the third pick -- just ahead of Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, Troy Tulowitzki, Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce.
  • The Rob Johnson years.
  • Finally, last year, the Mariners cashed in Michael Pineda -- coming off an outstanding rookie season -- for Jesus Montero to help solve what I'll call the Miguel Olivo Situation. Despite an unmentionable .239 OBP, Olivo still received the bulk of the playing time behind the plate. Of course, Montero probably won't stick long-term at catcher (and his rookie season left some doubts about his ability to hit), so the Mariners drafted Zunino.

Which will hopefully work out for Seattle. That Dan Wilson All-Star season seems like a long time ago.

Which teams are taking big chances on D?

February, 3, 2013
As the Hot Stove League burns itself out and we near pitchers and catchers reporting, it’s clear that some teams are making wishcasts about their rosters. Spring training might dispel how unrealistic expectations are for some winter lineup designs and defensive alignments. But right here, right now and entirely on paper, it’s clear there are certain risks on defense that a few teams are willing to take.

We’ll see whether these teams decide to really take those risks once the games begin to count, or whether they’ll lose patience early in the season. So far, these risks fall into a few broad categories:

Let’s see if this DH can handle an outfield corner: The Phillies’ decision to sign Delmon Young and return him to regular outfield play ought to make them the instant winner in this category. Young made just 20 outfield starts for the Tigers last year when the DH slot was available (and just 29 outfield starts total), "good" for minus-7 runs according to Total Zone on Baseball-Reference.com. Spin that forward, and that prorates to minus-38 runs on defense in 1,200 innings if Young had been a regular in the outfield. That’s bad, but it’s also fairly consistent with Young’s career, which has seen him put up full seasons of minus-10 and minus-22 in seasons when he was younger and lighter afoot.

[+] EnlargeDelmon Young
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhDelmon Young, Detroit's primary DH last season, will be back in the outfield for the Phillies in 2013.
Working from that small 2012 sample, you might wonder, could a full-season outfielder really cost his team 40 runs over a season, or almost the equivalent of four wins? Those of you who remember Dave Kingman or Dante Bichette can put your hands back down; I’m sure it seemed that bad, but it really wasn’t. How bad could this get for the Phillies?

Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, the single worst season for an outfielder with 100 or more games played was Matt Kemp in 2010 (minus-37 in the defensive component of WAR); for you few Fonzie fans, Bichette’s 1999 season was next-worst at minus-34. That’s the most damage done in center and left; the worst ever for a regular right fielder was the Rockies’ Brad Hawpe in 2008, at minus-28. For the sake of comparison, if we switch over to Baseball Info Solutions’ Plus/Minus data for last year, nobody was as low as minus-20 in 2012.

Even if you’re unwilling to concede that Kemp or Bichette or Hawpe produced the single worst seasons ever for a regular outfielder at their positions, the broad suggestion is that the most damage a bad defender in the outfield might do is somewhere around 30 runs. That seems reasonable, especially in today’s high-strikeout era with fewer balls in play than ever before.

Does that theoretical ceiling for how much damage Young might do cheer Phillies fans up any? Probably not. However, the one funny thing is that back in 2007 when Young was playing right field for the Rays, he was useful, netting eight or nine runs of value on his arm alone (using Total Zone and Plus/Minus), and +5 overall. Maybe Young will accept the challenge of wearing a glove regularly and reclaim that bit of distant promise; the guy is just 27 years old, after all. I just wouldn’t place any bets.

For a dishonorable mention, the Red Sox signed Jonny Gomes to play a whole lot of left field, even though Gomes has been reliably terrible with the Rays, Reds and Athletics, generally bouncing around -20 in Total Zone and usually in the red in Plus/Minus. As consistently bad as Gomes has been, will playing in front of the Green Monster make matters worse? Or will the Red Sox do him the favor of finding him a platoon partner who can also pick him up on defense, considering Gomes has slugged less than .400 against right-handed pitching over the past three years?

We need a center fielder and a leadoff man; can you please be both? The Reds and the Cubs head into 2013 hoping to get good-enough fielding in center from the guys they’ll be batting leadoff: Shin-Soo Choo for Cincinnati, and David DeJesus in Wrigleyville. DeJesus’ numbers in the field weren’t great while playing center for the Cubs last year (minus-4 in a partial season in Plus/Minus), consistent with a generally negative trend over his career. But with a poor arm for right while providing a lot less power than you expect from a corner outfielder, he’s been an odd fit for a few years now.

[+] EnlargeShin-Soo Choo
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Reds acquired outfielder Shin-Soo Choo for his productive bat, not his defense.
That’s still miles ahead of Choo’s experience as a center fielder, though. His last start in center was in 2009, for all of one game; the last time Choo spent any serious time in center field was back in 2002 in the Low-A Midwest League as a 19-year-old. Reds GM Walt Jocketty made the expected polite noises about the prospect of playing Choo in center regularly. But Jocketty wound up sounding an awful lot like former Cubs GM Jim Hendry did while talking wishfully before the 2007 season about Alfonso Soriano as his team’s new possible center fielder after the Cubs had signed Soriano to his ginormous deal.

To make matters worse for the Reds, Choo’s defensive numbers cratered to a career-worst minus-12 in Plus/Minus and minus-15 in Total Zone last season, a big change after bouncing around adequacy over his career. Assuming there’s no underlying problem, you might have expected Choo to come back to adequacy as a right fielder, but putting him in center will be sporadically ugly, inviting plenty of late-game substitutions if Dusty Baker elects to get aggressive on that point. Considering the huge boost the Reds should get on offense (perhaps netting as much as five wins with Choo leading off instead of Zack Cozart), we’ll see if Dusty can really live with the in-game lineup card challenge and the odd extra triple.

The Cubs experimented with DeJesus in the leadoff/center field role in 2012, giving him 36 starts in center when they weren’t despairing over the feeble contributions of first Marlon Byrd, then Tony Campana and finally the unreadiness of Brett Jackson. At least initially, they might open with DeJesus leading off and playing center, but signing lukewarm bodies like Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston to play right field should not present Jackson with an insurmountable challenge from reclaiming a job, pushing DeJesus back to right field at some point.

This shortstop can handle the transition from the Japanese leagues. Confronted by a weak market for shortstops this winter, the A’s decided to expand their options, reaching for an extra-market solution by signing Japan’s three-time Gold Glove winner Hiroyuki Nakajima. Seems creative enough, except does anybody remember how well three-time Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Gold Glover winner Tsuyoshi Nishioka handled the move from the NPB’s artificial surfaces for the Twins? He was a thorough disaster, washing out faster than the Mississippi in March. How about Kazuo Matsui, a four-time Gold Glove shortstop in Japan? Again, he promptly flopped at short for the Mets, although he wound up an adequate placeholder at second base for a few years.

In the case of both Nishioka and Matsui, we were assured that this was the shortstop who could handle the transition, and both times those predictions turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Maybe the third time is the charm, but Nakajima’s arrival isn’t accompanied by any plugs for his fielding prowess. How about his contributions at the plate? Clay Davenport’s translations of his hitting performances in Japan suggest he’s a guy who will OPS around .700 -- right around last year’s average major league shortstop (.688), so there’s no big payoff to expect there either. Oakland’s challenge of repeating as AL West champion isn’t going to get any easier with at least three infield positions in doubt.

Maybe he just has to catch to hit: The Mariners’ decision to trade John Jaso puts Jesus Montero on the spot as the club’s likely regular catcher. This comes after Montero failed to hit well enough as a rookie to be their DH in 2012, producing an awful .226/.265/.309 when he was DH, against the .310/.343/.498 he delivered when he was catching.

Given that Montero is just 23, you don’t want to get too upset with him. Nevertheless, his failure last season came on the heels of years of touts that Montero’s best position was hitter, accompanied by stacks of indictments from scouts regarding his ability to make it as a catcher at any level, going all the way back to his arrival stateside as a Venezuelan teen. His problems behind the plate are legion: He’s bulky for a backstop and stiff as a receiver. He also struggles to contain the running game because of a long, slow throwing motion and poor footwork, producing a 21 percent career caught-stealing rate in the minors and 17 percent in his big-league career so far.

The Mariners know all of this, and manager Eric Wedge was understandably being protective of his player when he asserted that he -- perhaps drawing on his days as a lead-gloved big-league backstop -- has no doubt about Montero’s ability as a receiver. Unfortunately, numbers like Plus/Minus suggest that Montero’s 2012 performance stretched across a full season would have tied him with Rod Barajas for an MLB-worst minus-12 Defensive Runs Saved behind the plate. Various metrics evaluating receiving skill suggest that, barring any improvement, Montero will be about as bad at blocking pitches as offense-first backstops like Carlos Santana and A.J. Pierzynski -- among the worst. (But still better than Colorado's Wilin Rosario, who has the remarkable ability to treat baseballs the way a toreador treats bulls. Ole!)

We’ll see how much damage Montero can do, splitting time with the recently signed Kelly Shoppach, but it’s worth noting that despite all of the ground-breaking analysis regarding a catcher's impact on the running game and blocking pitches, the Mariners have consistently employed some pretty weak catchers in recent years: Kenji Johjima, Rob Johnson and Miguel Olivo. Montero’s numbers in limited playing time were bad as well, but you can’t help but wonder if this is one area where the Mariners have simply elected to punt on the value of contemporary analysis.

Oops, we’ll do that again: The Rockies’ fascination with Chris Nelson is one of those things that can happen to any organization when evaluating one of its own prospects. But can you really blame them? Nelson was a toolsy high school shortstop they picked with the ninth overall selection in the 2004 draft, and expectations go with the territory.

Once it turned out that Nelson couldn’t play short (not just because somebody named Troy Tulowitzki was atop the depth chart), figuring out what Nelson's best position is has defied the organization’s best efforts. They drifted into employing him as their most-regular third baseman in 2012, and for their trouble got one of the most spectacularly awful defensive seasons at the hot corner in baseball history. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Nelson’s 2012 season afield, at minus-22 in Defensive Runs in WAR, was seventh worst among third basemen with more than 100 games played.

That really took some doing, since Nelson only managed 377 plate appearances. The only other non-batting title qualifier to do worse was Ryan Braun in 2007, and the only player to do almost as badly in as little playing time at third was ex-catcher Johnny Bench in 1982. It was Bench's next-to-last season, and his only year as a near-regular third baseman.

Playing Nelson isn’t the worst tragedy for the Rockies, but their lack of a ready alternative might be. Because guess who finished with the second-worst tally of Defensive Runs Saved at third base in 2012? Jordan Pacheco with minus-13, in even less playing time than Nelson. And guess which two guys are at the top of the Rockies’ depth chart heading into camp in 2013? If those two combined to hit like Harmon Killebrew in Coors Field, that would be one thing, but they don’t.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Angels miss golden opportunity

September, 27, 2012
Knowing the Oakland A's were down big to the Texas Rangers (and would eventually lose), all the Los Angeles Angels had to do was beat the last-place Seattle Mariners, a team they had defeated 10 times in 15 games this season.

This is why only crazy people bet on baseball. The night before, the Angels had defeated the Mariners for the fourth time in a game started by Felix Hernandez (although the win came in the ninth against the Seattle bullpen, with help from catcher Miguel Olivo's inability to block a pitch in the dirt). On this day, Mariners bats erupted for a 9-4 victory, although most of those runs came late against the Angels bullpen.

Seattle led 3-2 in the seventh behind another solid performance from the underrated Hisashi Iwakuma, who ranks fourth in the American League in ERA since the All-Star break at 2.67. Franklin Gutierrez had crashed into the wall making a fantastic catch of Mike Trout's long drive with a runner on, a key play to help keep the lead. Mike Scioscia pulled starter Dan Haren in the sixth after just 80 pitches. Haren has actually fared better of late, with a 2.45 ERA over his past six starts entering the game, but whether because of Haren's balky back or other issues, Scioscia doesn't trust him to go deep into the game. He's pitched into the seventh inning just twice in his past 14 starts.

[+] EnlargeFranklin Gutierrez
AP Photo/Reed SaxonFranklin Gutierrez's running, crashing catch in the fifth kept the Angels at bay.
Anyway, the game's key decision came when the Mariners had runners at second and third with one out and Garrett Richards pitching. Scioscia elected to intentionally walk Dustin Ackley to face Trayvon Robinson. I hate this move, hate it, especially with a guy like Richards, who isn't exactly Greg Maddux when it comes to his ability to throw strikes. Look, Robinson stinks and strikes out a ton, but Ackley isn't exactly Edgar Martinez. The problem with the move is it makes Robinson a better hitter, forces Richards to throw strikes, and increases the likelihood of a big inning.

Sure enough, Robinson walked to force in a run, Kyle Seager singled in two runs and Jesus Montero hit a sacrifice fly. Maybe the big inning still happens if you pitch to Ackley, but Scioscia's move made it more likely.

So the Angels remain two games behind the A's. The Angels have never missed the playoffs three consecutive years under Scioscia, but it might happen, despite all the money spent in the offseason to sign Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, plus the in-season acquisition of Zack Greinke and the emergence of Trout.

"The momentum is crazy this time of year," Scioscia said. "We need to get right back on the horse tomorrow. These guys have played well, especially in the last month. They know what's going on. They know the fine line we have to walk."

Many have pointed to the Angels' middle relief as a key problem. While the bullpen didn't pick up the loss on Thursday (Haren left trailing 3-2), it certainly helped wrecked the chances of a comeback. One way to look at middle is to compare the Angels' record in the middle innings to the top American League teams.

Leading after five innings
Rangers 74-6, .925 (9-10 when tied)
Rays 65-9, .878 (12-13 when tied)
Athletics 6-10, .859 (18-6 when tied)
Yankees 66-11, .857 (9-5 when tied)
Orioles 57-10, .851 (16-8 when tied)
Angels 67-14, .827 (10-9 when tied)

Leading after six innings
Rangers 75-4, .949 (9-9 when tied)
Orioles 62-4, .939 (11-7 when tied)
Yankees 70-8, .897 (9-5 when tied)
Rays 69-8, .896 (7-8 when tied)
Athletics 66-8, .892 (12-6 when tied)
Angels 70-12, .854 (10-6 when tied)

Leading after seven innings
Orioles 70-0, 1.000 (10-5 when tied)
Rangers 77-1, .987 (9-10 when tied)
Rays 71-3, .959 (6-8 when tied)
Yankees 75-5, .938 (6-4 when tied)
Athletics 68-6, .919 (13-7 when tied)
Angels 70-8, .897 (12-6 when tied)

So, yes, middle has been a major issue, even though Angels relievers have thrown the second-fewest innings in the AL (only the Yankees have thrown fewer). It's funny how you spend hundreds of millions on the big names and it's the guys making $600,000 who can decide your fate.

Just another reason we love this game.
Felix HernandezStephen Brashear/Getty ImagesSince 2009, Felix Hernandez has the third-best ERA in the majors behind Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw.
Felix Hernandez made his debut for the Seattle Marines when he was 19 years old. It’s easy to fall in love with the kids, of course, especially ones who throw fastballs from heaven and curveballs that opposing hitters would suggest were from hell.

He was so good, so young, so dynamic in those first few starts in 2005, a gift from the baseball gods for a bad team. I watched him blow away the Royals in his third career start, pitching eight innings with 11 strikeouts, still pumping 96-mph fastballs in his final inning. He was already King Felix, Mariners fans lining up "KKKKKKKKKKKing Felix" placards in the outfield. After that game, Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said, "I am trying not to go over the deep end bragging about this guy. I would love to sit here and tell you all the flowery, beautiful things that I am feeling, but common sense tells me I should not go down that road."

I went down that road. At the time, I wrote, "I had to watch Monday night because maybe -- just maybe -- he really is the King who can save my baseball team."

Felix didn’t save the Mariners, no fault of his own, of course. He's been terrific, his best pitch now a lethal changeup, but since he made his first start on Aug. 4, 2005, the Mariners are 502-618, a .448 winning percentage. Twice they lost 101 games. Two other seasons they lost 90-plus. They’re on pace to lose 94 this season.

It’s time to say the once unthinkable words: It’s time to trade Felix Hernandez.

* * * *

In a nutshell:

1. The Mariners’ best chance of becoming relevant before Albert Pujols' contract expires lies in pitching prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton.

2. If you have three good starting pitchers, you can afford to trade Hernandez.

3. Under contract through 2014, Hernandez’s trade value is as high as ever right now.

4. The Mariners are not going to be competitive in the next two seasons.

5. He has thrown a lot of innings at a young age. He's a pitcher. Pitchers get hurt.

What the Mariners need, of course, are hitters. Now is the time to acquire them. The 2012 season is wide open, especially in the National League. The addition of a second wild-card team may make teams even more aggressive on the trade market as the July 31 deadline approaches. With aces Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke possibly available, the Mariners would offer the biggest prize of all. Those two are rentals, impending free agents; if you trade for Felix, you get him for the rest of this season and two more. Now that’s a difference-maker.

Look where the Mariners stand. They’re competing against the Rangers and Angels, two franchises deep in talent and financial resources. Trying to build an 85-win club and hope you catch a few breaks isn’t going to cut it. You have to aim bigger.

How many championship-level starters are in the Mariners' current lineup? At the start of the season, the Mariners were banking on Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero to develop into a playoff-caliber core. All have been bitter disappointments. Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders have been pleasant surprises, showing enough promise to develop into solid contributors.

To be fair, something weird is going on at Safeco Field, making it a little more difficult to evaluate these players. The Mariners are hitting just .196 at home (opponents are hitting just .221). Of the 12 players with the lowest home OPS in the American League (minimum 100 plate appearances), seven are Mariners. On the road, the Mariners rank sixth in the AL in OPS and 11th in on-base percentage. That road OBP indicates this is an offense still in need of major help.

* * * *

Reasons why the Mariners shouldn’t make a trade.

1. These trades never work out.

True, the Indians, Phillies and Mariners all traded Cliff Lee and basically got nothing of value yet in return. The Indians traded CC Sabathia and have only Michael Brantley to show for it. But none of those trades involved a player with two-plus seasons of control left. When the Royals traded Zack Greinke to the Brewers, he had just two seasons remaining; they did a little better, with Alcides Escobar and Jake Odorizzi. And sometimes they do work out, as when the Rangers acquired Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz (plus Jarrod Saltalamacchia) for Mark Teixeira. With Felix having two-plus years under control, the Mariners can demand more in return than those trades.

2. The Mariners will lose their fan base.

[+] EnlargeKings Court Fans
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe King's Court section at Safeco always brings out Hernandez's most loyal fans.
They’ve already lost much of it. The Mariners led the AL in attendance in 2001 and 2002. Even in 2005 when they lost 93 games, they still ranked fourth in the league. This year, attendance will decline for the fifth straight season, and they rank 11th in the league, averaging 22,286 per game, barely half of what they averaged a decade ago.

And, no, I don’t want to hear that Felix packs them in. Players don’t draw fans; winning teams draw fans. This year, the Mariners have averaged 25,616 when Hernandez pitches, 21,307 when he doesn’t. But Felix’s starts include the home opener and Father’s Day; take out those games and the M’s average 23,348 when he pitches. Last year they averaged 24,392 for Felix, 22,181 for everyone else. The Felix attendance boost is minor.

3. Felix loves Seattle and says he wants to pitch there forever.

Seattle fans have an irrational obsession over whether their athletes like Seattle or not. This goes way back to the 1970s; it used to be a huge deal whether local athletes lived in Seattle in the offseason. Anyway, after being spurned by Ken Griffey Jr. (who did return), Alex Rodriguez and an entire NBA franchise, Mariners fans went overboard when Hernandez said this. OK, can you guarantee he’ll re-sign with the Mariners after 2014? You can't … not when the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and, yes, Rangers and Angels, will be ready to pay him a fortune.

Here’s another consideration. Factoring in Safeco Field’s pitcher-friendly reputation, it’s difficult for the Mariners to sign free-agent hitters. The Mariners have signed five significant free agents since moving to Safeco: John Olerud (a Seattle native), Bret Boone (coming off a terrible season), Ichiro Suzuki (via Japan), Richie Sexson (a Washington state native), Adrian Beltre (coming off his monster season with the Dodgers to a deal many thought was an overpaid) and Chone Figgins (no comment). And when Beltre signed, Safeco didn’t have nearly the Death Valley reputation it has now.

Pitchers are more likely to head to Safeco. Plus, it’s also easier to fill out the back end of a pitching staff than a lineup, especially in a pitcher’s park. Considering the Mariners' farm system is thin in hitting prospects, trading Felix is the best way to acquire an impact bat.

So who do the Mariners call? There is one team that clearly matches up: the St. Louis Cardinals. They have depth and prospects; they are in win-now mode, they need Hernandez and they can afford to take on the $39.5 million owed to him in 2013 and 2014 with some high-priced players coming off the books. The Mariners ask for:

  • Outfielder Oscar Taveras, Keith Law’s No. 8 midseason prospect, is a 20-year-old hitting .332/.381/.593 in Double-A with just 46 strikeouts in 334 at-bats. As Keith wrote, "His bat still profiles as star caliber in right."
  • The Cardinals don’t have room for Matt Adams with Lance Berkman and Allen Craig. Adams is a 23-year-old lefty masher hitting .362/.390/.684 with 14 home runs in 174 at-bats at Triple-A Memphis (although just .244/.286/.384 in 27 games with the Cards). Alternatively, include Craig -- hitting .296/.364/.577 with the Cardinals -- instead of Adams.
  • Shelby Miller was one of the top pitching prospects entering the season but has struggled in Triple-A. Keith still ranked him No. 17 overall on his update. Take a chance on that arm.
  • Tyrell Jenkins is another power righty with big upside, a guy who just missed Keith’s top 50 list. OK, maybe that's getting a little greedy.

  • This trade doesn't completely gut the Cardinals' farm system, which would still have Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong, but it’s a no-brainer for them. Yes, as with any prospect deal, the risk would belong to Seattle.

    In 2014, the Mariners perhaps look like this:

    2B Dustin Ackley
    SS Nick Franklin (No. 40 on Keith’s list)
    RF Oscar Taveras
    1B Matt Adams
    DH Jesus Montero
    C Mike Zunino (Seattle’s 2012 top draft pick)
    3B Kyle Seager
    LF Casper Wells
    CF Michael Saunders

    P Taijuan Walker
    P Danny Hultzen
    P James Paxton
    P Shelby Miller
    P Erasmo Ramirez/Hector Noesi/free agent

    Throw in high draft picks from the 2013 and 2014 drafts and suddenly the Mariners are loaded with premium young talent at the big league level and in the minors. That roster would be dirt cheap, with Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez off the payroll, leaving plenty of room for free-agent reinforcements or trades for veteran players. It's a team that would be ready to compete with the Rangers and Angels.

    Think big.

    And then when Felix becomes a free agent after 2014 ... bring him home.
OK, the first round of the second annual Franchise Player Draft is in the books.

Like last year, we thought it would be to conduct a second round, where we make the picks for a distinguished panel. Eric starts with pick No. 31 and makes all the odd-numbered choices and Dave makes the even-numbered ones, which means we get to select for each other.

We used a snake-draft format with each participant's first-round pick in parenthesis. Remember, these picks are from Karabell and Schoenfield, so yell at us if you disagree!

31. Jonah Keri (Jason Heyward): Jose Bautista. Hey, Jonah took him last year.

32. Mark Simon (Miguel Cabrera): Mark already has Cabrera, but we're moving him to first base and giving him David Wright of his beloved New York Mets.

33. Jerry Crasnick (Yu Darvish): Dylan Bundy. You can never have enough young pitching, and really, Darvish isn't all that young.

34. Amanda Rykoff (Carlos Gonzalez): Matt Moore may win two or three Cy Youngs in the next 10 years. I'll take him to headline a pitching staff.

35. Rick Sutcliffe (Jeff Samardzija): Josh Hamilton should still be hitting for major power the next few seasons.

36. Chris Singleton (David Price): Adam Jones. If the power surge is for real, we have an MVP candidate. And Jones is still just 26 years old. He'll be running down fly balls for years to come.

37. Jorge Arangure (Jurickson Profar): Terrific first-rounder, and Carlos Santana could be the best catcher in the game for years, so lock up the up-the-middle spots.

38. Jim Bowden (Buster Posey): Nice pick with Santana. He was next on my board, except Bowden already has a catcher. Let's go with Posey's Giants teammate Matt Cain, still just 27 years old and he's never missed a start in the big leagues.

39. Enrique Rojas (Neftali Feliz): Well, as if anyone was really concerned, Albert Pujols is hitting now and we know he'll be around another what, eight years.

40. Jayson Stark (Robinson Cano): Cano is a little older, so with this team we may be thinking of the next five years as opposed to 10. So let's go with Cole Hamels, arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now.

41. Mark Mulder (Ryan Zimmerman): Ah! How did Hamels not go in the first round? Well, I think Madison Bumgarner has a pretty bright future himself, so let's go there.

42. Doug Glanville (Matt Wieters): Austin Jackson is maybe the best defensive center fielder in baseball and he looks much improved at the plate this year. Potential stud leadoff hitter for a long time.

43. David Schoenfield (Eric Hosmer): I think Emmanuel Burriss is a terrific pick for Dave here. Whatta ya think, Dave? OK, we'll give you Jay Bruce. First-rounder last season and he hasn't exactly regressed.

44. Keith Law (Andrew McCutchen): #freetrevorbauer

45. Molly Knight (Prince Fielder): Elvis Andrus. A Gold Glove-caliber shortstop showing improving on-base skills? Thank you very much. Plus, we need some defense on this team.

46. Steve Berthiaume (Brett Lawrie): Steve is a closet Red Sox fan. Give him Dustin Pedroia, although we hear he's very high on this Scott Podsednik kid.

47. Christina Kahrl (Giancarlo Stanton): What, I thought it was Marlon Byrd. OK, Christina can't pass up Adrian Gonzalez. Tremendous value here; what a start for her offense.

48. Jim Caple (Mike Trout): We know Caple would definitely take a West Coast player. And definitely not a closer. Let's a big risk here and go with Dustin Ackley and hope he learns to hit left-handed pitching.

49. Tim Kurkjian (Bryce Harper): He's closing these days, but Aroldis Chapman is a future ace, and Tim will love the numbers he'll put up.

50. Mike Golic (Ryan Braun): Chapman! Ehh, who wants a guy who throws 100 mph. Joining Braun will be up-and-coming third baseman/masher Mike Moustakas.

51. Mike Greenberg (Felix Hernandez): Curtis Granderson has some flaws, but had a terrific 2011 and should be good for years.

52. Aaron Boone (Starlin Castro): Continuing the up-the-middle theme, we'll give Boone 25-year-old catcher Alex Avila. If he can come close to 2011's .895 OPS the next seven years, he's an extremely valuable player.

53. Dave Cameron (Joey Votto): Zack Greinke is nearing a monster contract. An ace slips deep into round 2.

54. Barry Larkin (Justin Upton): Speaking of aces, Gio Gonzalez's improved command has turned him into one. And at 26, he's two years younger than Greinke.

55. Karl Ravech (Stephen Strasburg): We're not expecting Gold Gloves from Jesus Montero, but man, can the guy hit. Decent building block.

56. Eric Karabell (Evan Longoria): Let's see, tough call here: Do we go Utley, Howard, Rollins or Wigginton? OK, we know Karabell loves hitters ... Jason Kipnis will look good in that infield with Longoria.

57. Orel Hershiser (Justin Verlander): Former ace already has added an ace, and another ace is sitting there in Jered Weaver. Can't pass that up.

58. Kevin Goldstein (Clayton Kershaw): We have to give Goldstein a prospect so let's go with Royals outfielder Wil Myers, who has bashed his way through Double-A and just got promoted to Triple-A, and may be in Kansas City before long.

59. Buster Olney (Troy Tulowitzki): Pretty strong middle infield if we give him Ian Kinsler as well, so let's do exactly that.

60. Terry Francona (Matt Kemp): We need a pitcher. So many good ones left to choose from. He's a health risk, but if he's on he's as good anybody in the game: Josh Johnson.

Wow ... no Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes. Tim Lincecum's slow start scares us off. Joe Mauer and Brian McCann left on the board. Jordan Zimmermann, Brandon Morrow, not to mention top prospects like Manny Machado or Taijuan Walker. What do you think?

Clearing the Bases: Wild, wild Wests

May, 31, 2012
First base: Carlos Gonzalez ripped a trio of home runs against the Astros in Coors Field. There’s no snark or punchline, just simple facts: The dude can rake, Coors is where he plays and the Astros aren’t the joke that people made them out to be in March.

So on a basic level, it looks like CarGo’s back on track to be that MVP candidate he looked like in 2010, when he won a batting title while cranking out 351 total bases (just two less than Matt Kemp had last year). But one odd or interesting thing about CarGo’s splits is that he’s generating longer at-bats but also swinging and missing a little more often. His unintentional walk rate -- the walks he draws himself, as opposed to the freebies he’s handed intentionally -- has slowly inched up year over year as a regular, going from 5.1 percent in 2010 to 7.5 percent in 2011 to 8.5 percent. Predictably enough, his at-bats are averaging more pitches, finally topping the league average this year (3.86 pitches per PA before Wednesday night).

Yet his rate of swinging strikes has also moved up, from a career average of 20 percent of his strikes to 23 percent. What’s that supposed to mean? The interesting thing there is that CarGo’s a fastball hitter, and a guy who offers -- and misses -- on off-speed stuff fairly often. But longer at-bats generally mean more hitter’s counts, and CarGo’s getting into hitter’s counts a little more often (40 percent of the time, versus 36 percent in 2011), and doing more damage in those counts, slugging .746 against .605 last year.

Having fun with numbers aside, what does it mean? I’d take these as symptoms of a still-young hitter coming into his own. CarGo’s just 26 years old, after all. And did I mention the dude can rake?

Second base: The Mariners scored 21 runs. No, wait, that’s not a punchline either, and it was off the Texas Rangers, the best team in the league. Every starter in Seattle’s lineup had a hit, so nobody was left out of the party. Third baseman Kyle Seager had four hits, and he didn’t even come close to having the best day at the office: Justin Smoak ripped a pair of bombs and a double while boosting his RBI season tally from 21 to 27, while Jesus Montero scored and plated four runs and hit a bomb of his own.

All sorts of stupid stuff comes out of this on the pitching side, like Hisashi Iwakuma being awarded a save for pitching the last three innings. Rule 10.20 says you award a save for a three-inning relief appearance for pitching “effectively,” but maybe his three runs allowed in three frames for the Mariners looked so effective compared to Yoshinori Tateyama’s night (two outs, eight runs allowed) that the official scorer was feeling especially generous to see this bloodbath brought to a merciful conclusion. At least Rangers starter Derek Holland can take some solace from the notion that he could only lose this game once.

But the notion of losing or winning this game just once is where the numbers get really silly. The Mariners were scoring just 3.79 runs per game beforehand, and can now point to this one ballgame representing almost 10 percent of their season runs scored tally, almost a third of the way through their season. How silly is that? Well, considering that the Mariners were already seen as doing three games worse than their expected record before this game -- using the Bill James-inspired Pythagenpat projection of team records per their runs scored and allowed, the Mariners were “supposed” to be 25-27 through their first 52, and now, after their big win, they’re supposed to be 27-26, or four games better than their actual 23-30. So by scoring 21 runs in one game, they now look like they’ve been even more “unlucky,” which is ridiculous, but that’s how these things work out.

Third base: Carlos Quentin’s making up for lost time at the plate. In his first three games back from the DL, the new Padre is 7-for-12 with three doubles and three homers, including Wednesday’s two-homer game against the Cubs. If the deadline market in the new two wild-card setup is likely to feature more buyers than sellers, you can bet that a franchise as out of it as the Padres franchise will be able to convert the free agent to be for top talent in July, especially if Quentin keeps thumping like this.

Home plate: The tweet of the night goes to well-monikered @SessileFielder, who noted of the new Brewers backup backstop, Martin Maldonado
Alcides EscobarDavid Richard/US PresswireBird? Plane? Or just Alcides Escobar levitating as he turns a deuce against the Indians?
Both young and old players were on our minds as Keith Law and I gathered for Thursday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1. Brett Lawrie gets four games for his outburst and helmet throw, but is it enough? And what should happen to the umpire? Plus, are the Blue Jays collecting young players with reputations like Lawrie?

2. From young to old, Jamie Moyer continues to set marks each time he pitches, but isn’t that getting, ahem, a bit old? Plus, is WAR more valuable than wins?

3. The Angels switch hitting coaches, and of course Albert Pujols and Vernon Wells hit home runs. Do hitting coaches have much effect?

4. Seattle Mariners catcher Jesus Montero isn’t Gold Glove-caliber behind the plate, but what does KLaw think of his overall future, both offensively and defensively?

5. Thursday features a full slate of games, including the major league ERA leader on the mound, but will he continue his surprising success?

So download and listen to Thursday’s fun Baseball Today podcast and get ready for Friday’s show!

Forget Albert Pujols. There's another reason to watch the Los Angeles Angels, and his name is Mike Trout.

For all the hype Bryce Harper has rightfully received, it's time to start giving a few headlines to another rookie phenom, time to give the Left Coast a little love. Trout went 3-for-4 with a home run, a stolen base and three runs scored in the Angels' 4-0 victory over the A's on Tuesday. In 15 games since getting recalled from Triple-A, Trout is hitting .316 BA/.369 OBP/.561 SLG, reminding Angels fans what an All-Star batting line is supposed to look like and why a homegrown, five-tool rookie with young, fresh legs is a player to get more pumped about watching than a money-for-hire Hall of Famer you purchased on the free-agent market.

So while we wait for Pujols to get untracked, maybe the Angels' answer to their offensive prayers -- they've been shut out an MLB-leading eight times -- is a kid who doesn't turn 21 until August.

Against Bartolo Colon, he took a middle-in fastball and crushed it just to the right of center field, off the back wall behind the center-field fence in Anaheim. There aren't many leadoff hitters who can mash a pitch with that type of authority. The other day, he showcased his quick, compact swing, yanking a 2-1 fastball from Yu Darvish well over the left-field fence in Texas. His first home run came on a 1-0 fastball off Toronto's Kyle Drabek, a 93 mph heater low in the zone that Trout hit to left-center.

I think those returns are pretty clear: Trout can do some serious damage when he gets into a fastball count.

Trout is even faster than Harper and much more advanced defensively (although he lacks Harper's arm). And for all the awe for Harper's quick rise, Trout is only a year older. Like Harper, he debuted in the majors while still 19 years old. Like the previous two 19-year-old center-field phenoms -- a couple of guys named Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey Jr. -- Trout has that broad range of skills that should make him a franchise player as he matures.

My favorite aspect of the Trout/Harper comparisons is that the two will always be linked, even though they play in different leagues and cities three time zones apart. Just like we debated Rodriguez and Jeter and Garciaparra back in the late '90s, or like New Yorkers debated Mays and Mantle and Snider in the 1950s, I'm sure we'll be endlessly debating Trout and Harper for years to come.

The other highly rated prospects entering the season were Tampa Bay Rays lefty Matt Moore and Mariners catcher/designed hitter Jesus Montero. They aren't off to impressive starts like Trout and Harper, but let's take a closer look at them as well.

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
I'll make this one brief. We've seen Harper's lightning-quick bat speed and raw power with his home runs in back-to-back games -- one blast to dead center and the one Tuesday to deep right-center. We've also seen a few misplays in the field, however, from losing a ball in the darkened skies Sunday to dropping a fly ball Monday.


Of these four, who will end up with the best season?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,303)

And of course, we've seen the rocket arm and the top-grade athleticism. There's no reason to believe he can't be a superb fielder with more experience. I think the biggest positive is his strikeout rate hasn't been excessive, with 11 in 60 at-bats. Along with his ability to hit left-handers, that was the big concern of his premature call-up. While there were initial thoughts that his time in the majors would be temporary, his play and the Nationals' injuries mean he's here to stay.

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays
When I polled the SweetSpot network bloggers before the season for their American League rookie of the year predictions, Moore came out on top, outpointing Darvish. I wasn't quite as optimistic, as I believed Moore's spectacular playoff performance against the Rangers raised expectations to unrealistic levels. The only rookie starter since 2000 to pitch at least 162 innings with an ERA less than 3.00 was Jeremy Hellickson, and his flukey .224 average on balls in play had something to do with that. With Moore, I still wanted to see a guy who had the consistent command needed to dominate in the majors.

That's been a big issue with him so far, as he's walked 22 batters in 39 innings, a rate of 5.1 walks per nine. As Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Info points out, Moore also has struggled with runners on base:

Justin also writes that Moore "continues to leave entirely too many balls up in the zone, ranking sixth out of 115 pitchers in percentage of total pitches 'up' in the zone." This ties into Moore having the third-highest walk rate (12.4 percent) among starters, behind only Ubaldo Jimenez and Drabek, and six home runs allowed in seven starts.

There are no major issues here, other than pointing out that most young pitchers do go through a learning curve. Hellickson -- who doesn't have the raw stuff Moore owns -- set the bar high with his own rookie campaign, but that type of season is the exception.

Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners
It's also a mixed bag so far with Montero. With five home runs, he's displayed the power stroke scouts projected. His overall batting line of .256/.285/.411, however, isn't much to get excited about, as the occasional long ball is marred by a poor 29/6 strikeout/walk ratio.

There are a few things going on here. He has expanded the strike zone, swinging at 36.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That's not necessarily a career-killing attribute (Josh Hamilton currently has the second-highest rate in the majors), but it's among the 30 worst percentages so far. The bigger problem is he isn't making contract on those pitches and certainly not good contact. He's swinging and missing at those pitches 56.6 percent of the time, which again places him among the 30 worst rates.

When you dig deeper into the numbers, it's pretty clear what's happening. Check out the heat maps below. On the left, Montero against "hard" stuff, and on the right, Montero against "soft" stuff.

Jesus MonteroESPN Stats & InformationMontero has been hitting the hard stuff (left), but struggling against offspeed pitches.

Against "hard" stuff, he's hitting .362 (25-for-69) with four home runs and five doubles. Against "soft" stuff, he's hitting .133 (8-for-60) with one home run and no doubles. So if pitchers get ahead in the count, they can get Montero to chase the offspeed stuff out of the zone.

A final issue is Montero's ability -- or lack of it -- to pull the ball. While he's known for his opposite-field power, I'm not sure you can live off that trait alone. Of Montero's five home runs, two have gone to right-center, one to center and two to left-center. His hit chart is littered with fly balls to right field and the right-field line. Frankly, he just hasn't shown the ability to pull the ball with any authority. To me, this reads like a guy who can be jammed inside and will chase pitches outside. Look, the pitch recognition should improve, but he's going to have to figure out how to do more damage to all fields.

The injury to Miguel Olivo also forced the Mariners to play Montero more regularly behind the plate. I haven't seen the defensive butcher advertised, but he's clearly a work in progress. A couple of starts ago, Kevin Millwood was constantly shaking him off. However, the two were on the same page in Millwood's win over the Yankees on Sunday. Opponents are 8-for-10 stealing bases off him.

Asdrubal CabreraHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesFred Astaire might have been light on his feet, but could he do what Asdrubal Cabrera has to?
SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield and I gathered for Monday’s Baseball Today podcast with our big top-10 lists of best teams and much more!

1. Seattle Mariners announcer Dave Sims talked about the Mariners, whether Ichiro will be in a Mariners uniform next season, Jesus Montero, cheering for the home team, the many young players on the horizon and ... hats.

2. Power Rankings day! Dave, Mark Simon and I each submitted our lists, with some similarities but alas, not all division leaders made it. And which NL team is best?

3. How do you pitch to Texas Rangers superstar Josh Hamilton? And how good are the Rangers? We discuss.

4. What has Detroit Tigers lefty Drew Smyly done that hadn’t been done ... ever?

5. We take a closer look at Monday’s schedule, from ESPN’s Cubs-Cardinals tilt to an important series for last season’s NL West champs!

So download and listen to Monday’s Baseball Today podcast and come right back with us Tuesday for me and Keith Law!
Matt MooreAP Photo/Tony GutierrezMatt Moore's dominant playoff performance last fall has set up high expectations for 2012.
I polled the SweetSpot blog network writers for all of their preseason award predictions. We'll start today with the AL rookie of the year voting results. Our cast of bloggers sees Tampa Bay's Matt Moore the favorite in a three-way race with Rangers' right-hander Yu Darvish and Mariners designated hitter Jesus Montero. Throw in Angels outfielder Mike Trout and a slew other rookies who may start the season in the majors or appear later in the year -- Yoenis Cespedes, Addison Reed, Danny Hultzen, Jarrod Parker, Jacob Turner among others -- and this has the potential to be one of the best rookie crops in years.

(Five points for first-place vote, three for second, one for third.)