SweetSpot: Dustin Ackley

Mariners kids' arrival long since overdue

June, 2, 2014
6/02/14
11:54
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We’re a little more than a third of the way through the season, but let’s relish this tidbit as we head into the season’s middle months, when moves get made and buyers and sellers are supposed to start sorting themselves out: After beating the Yankees in a mismatch between Felix Hernandez and David Phelps, the Mariners are just a half-game back in the AL wild-card race. And a game over .500. Which means while there’s a whole lot of sorting left to be done, there’s no reason to take the Mariners any less seriously than they no doubt take themselves.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Mariners are getting the most value out of King Felix and Robinson Cano and a very few others -- Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders in the lineup, Chris Young in the rotation. Use WAR as a quick cheat, and that’s the extent of the guys who’ve been worth a win so far, several fewer than the A’s or Angels have to talk about. Not that WAR is the ultimate answer to anything, but it does give you the suggestion that there are more than a few people playing for the Mariners whose value is harder to define than what statistical words of praise might provide.

That’s in large part because the core of young talent in the Mariners lineup, which was supposed to have been ready to shine by now, has provided the statistical equivalent of dark matter: We know they’re there, we know they’re supposed to be important. But defining what Justin Smoak or Dustin Ackley or the shortstop tandem of Brad Miller and Nick Franklin or the center fielder du jour -- it’s James Jones this month -- have added challenges easy explanation.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesEven without getting much help from the Mariners' lineup, Robinson Cano has reason to smile: They're contenders!
The Mariners are getting less than a .700 OPS not just from defense-first positions such as short and center, where they’ve been testing their prospects, but also at power positions such as first base, left field and DH. That’s no way to back up a bid to contend, and it will be on Ackley and Smoak -- and also veterans Logan Morrison and Corey Hart when they come back from the DL -- to improve upon it.

But the time for excusing youth should be over. Smoak is in his fifth season and Ackley his fourth. They aren’t kids -- they’re long since young veterans. What you see is what you get. You can at least credit Smoak for hitting away from Safeco this season, with a .765 OPS on the road so far. That's almost exactly the average production for an AL first baseman this season (.764). Average is the new up, at least where Mariners prospects are concerned.

Now, it might seem a bit unfair to pile on the Mariners’ bevvy of prospects for what they haven’t been and might never be. The only teams running younger lineups than the Mariners’ 27.3-year-old average are the Astros and Cubs, both of whom have unapologetically touched bottom in their comprehensive rebuilds. On the other hand, that same average age ties with the homegrown talent-laden Braves, who labor under all sorts of expectations of right-now contention -- and seem to be doing just fine. Guys such as Smoak and Ackley were mentioned in the same breath as prospects such as Freddie Freeman (a consensus top-20 prospect) or Jason Heyward (a consensus top 10). And while we’re on the subject of young and disappointing, keep in mind that Ackley is only a few months younger than Justin Upton and was the second overall pick in 2009 to Upton’s first overall selection in 2005. As frustrating as Upton has been for those expecting reliable greatness from one of baseball’s best streak hitters, you won’t confuse that for Ackley’s exasperating inability to come close to his rookie season .766 OPS in any of the past three seasons.

Which is why, for as young as these Mariners might seem to be right now, their time is now. Everything can be forgiven, if not forgotten, if the Mariners make this season’s September meaningful. That would be a first for a franchise that has yet to top the 85 wins they got in Jack Zduriencik’s first season as GM back in 2009. This is essentially his team, a compilation of players he inherited and chose to keep (such as Erasmo Ramirez), guys he drafted (such as Ackley, both shortstops and James Paxton) or guys he signed (Cano, Young and Fernando Rodney). If it’s going to add up to anything, ever, there’s no time like now to find out.

For the Mariners to deliver on the opportunity of their present, their best hopes might rest on what Paxton and Taijuan Walker can add on the mound behind Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. It makes for that much more of a pitching-and-defense formula, while praying for Cano and Seager to plate enough runs, for Zunino to develop unlike all the other top touts of prospect lists past. Not to mention hoping against hope that Ackley or Smoak or Franklin or Miller finally turn into something. Realistically, what alternative is there? Trade them away to surround Cano with better goodies? No matter how much club control a team might have left over Ackley or Smoak or Franklin, whatever dollar figure you assign doesn’t amount to any value in trade if it doesn’t amount to anything on the field now. Guys who can’t play at 26 or 27 aren’t likely to play ever.

It’s easy to mock Zduriencik’s zipping from one master plan to another with all the hyperactive schemes for world domination of a Bond villain: He’s tried building a winner just about every way imaginable in his six seasons in Seattle, flitting from pitching and defense to a lineup overstuffed with veteran DHs, to trusting in his farm system, to finally, in that classic sign of late-stage, go-for-broke desperation, throwing boatloads of cash at somebody with star power when he inked Cano. In short, there is no tack he hasn’t tried. The irony is the Mariners might contend for at least a wild-card slot this season, after the former player-development guy made the big-market move and signed the superstar for a budget-busting $240 million. If it works, and if the kids contribute anything, you can bet he’ll be congratulated for it.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Keith Law will unveil his Top 100 prospects on Wednesday (you can find his organizational rankings here) so I thought I'd look at five former top-100 prospects who are entering crucial, make-or-break seasons.

Dustin Ackley, OF, Mariners
Age: 26 in February
2013: .253 AVG/.319 OBP/.341 SLG, 4 HR in 384 AB, 1.1 WAR
ZiPS projection: .253/.327/.365

The second overall pick in 2009, Ackley was hailed was one of the best pure hitters to come from the college ranks in years. He showed promise as a rookie in 2011, hitting .273, but fell apart in 2012, hitting .226; his confidence was perhaps shattered by Safeco Field. He tinkered with his swing for 2013 and that resulted in a slow start and a demotion to Triple-A, a move that also resulted in a switch back to the outfield (where he had played in college) as Nick Franklin replaced him at second base.

After a month in Triple-A purgatory, Ackley returned and hit much better: .285/.354/.404, including .301 from July 6 on. However, after he had turned into a solid defensive second baseman, Ackley looked out of place in center field, with poor reads and a mediocre arm. With Robinson Cano on board, Ackley is no longer a second baseman, at least in Seattle, but at this point his bat doesn't profile well for left field, where he'll probably end up in 2014.

What to expect: Mariners fans point to those second-half numbers and believe again in Ackley. Here's my concern: He hit .257 against fastballs in 2013 with no home runs. He did increase that to .314 in the second half. Still, that was with no power. If you can't punish fastballs, you're not going to be anything more than a marginal hitter. If Ackley doesn't hit this year, he's destined for a career as a utility man, playing second base and outfield. Kind of a younger version of Skip Schumaker.

Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs
Age: 24 in March
2013: .245/.284/.347, 10 HR in 666 AB, -0.6 WAR
ZiPS projection: .280/.319/.413

Ah, the enigma that is Starlin Castro. After hitting .300 as a rookie and .307 as a 21-year-old, he looked not just like a budding star, but a budding superstar. But his game has stalled. His power hasn't developed; he didn't run as much in 2013 (22 steals in 2011, down to nine in 2013); he still swings at too many pitches outside the strike zone; and he ranked first or second in the league in errors for the fourth year in a row. The fans got to him, and while he was out there every day once again (he has missed five games in three years), some question how much he really wants it.

Believe it or not, there's still some good news. Castro's line-drive percentage in 2013 was the same as it always was -- 22 percent, according to Baseball-Reference.com, versus a career mark of 21 percent. ESPN Stats & Information had him at 19 percent, but compared to a career mark of 19 percent. In other words, he pretty much hit as he always has. Line drives usually result in hits, but Castro's BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was well below his career norm. So it appears he hit into a lot of bad luck in 2013.

So he should improve in 2014 just based on that. But can he be something more than a .300 hitter with 12 home runs? Is there more power to come? This is the year we should find out.

What to expect: ZiPS is optimistic about a rebound, but not overly optimistic. In the end, Castro isn't a patient hitter so he's never going to draw many walks to boost his OBP. (Well, never say never.) Would a more patient approach help? Probably, but after four years in the league -- even at his age -- you wonder if he is what he is at this point.

SportsNation

Which player will improve the most in 2014?

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    19%
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Discuss (Total votes: 5,441)

Ike Davis, 1B, Mets
Age: 27 in March
2013: .205/.326/.334, 9 HR in 317 AB, 0.2 WAR
ZiPS projection: .232/.320/.424

Like Ackley, Davis got off to a horrible start and was hitting .161 in June when he was demoted to the minors. He straightened out his mechanics in Triple-A and hit .267/.429/.443 the rest of the way, until a strained oblique finished his season at the end of August.

After signing Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, the Mets will thankfully move Lucas Duda out of the outfield, setting up a spring training battle with Davis at first base. Duda hit .223, so this won't exactly be a McCovey-Cepeda situation going on here.

What to expect: I still like Davis, although it's probably time to admit he'll never hit lefties. As a platoon first baseman, his value rests in a good eye at the plate, which can give him a respectable on-base percentage despite a low batting average. Still, he's prone to long slumps, as in the first half of 2013 and the first half of 2012. The Mets are probably wary of Davis by now, so look for Duda to win the job and Davis to be shopped around. He'd be a good fit for the Pirates, who need somebody to platoon with Gaby Sanchez. Either way, if Davis doesn't win a regular job, he'll probably drift into a Russell Branyan-like vagabond career, going from team to team as a fill-in first baseman.

Desmond Jennings, CF, Rays
Age: 27
2013: .252/.334/.414, 14 HR in 527 AB, 3.0 WAR
ZiPS projection: .249/.326/.403

Jennings is a good player, as witnessed by his 3-WAR seasons the past two years. He does a little of everything -- some power, steals some bases, solid defender in center, draws some walks. The question isn't whether he's going to be a guy teams can count on, but whether he'll make a leap and become the All-Star once envisioned of him. He's entering his age-27 season and has two full seasons under his belt. Now is the time.

What to expect: Jennings has to improve against off-speed stuff. Among 140 qualified regulars, his .193 average against "soft" pitches ranked 125th. (The major league average was .242.) Twelve of his 14 home runs came against fastballs. ZiPS is projecting 2014 numbers that are similar to 2013; considering Jennings has nearly 1,500 PAs now in the majors, that's probably what to expect, although I wouldn't be surprised to see a breakout performance.

Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds
Age: 26 in June
2013: .238/.287/.362, 9 HR in 323 AB, 0.0 WAR
ZiPS projection: .251/.313/.421

Mesoraco's bat was supposed to be his calling card, but in his first chance at extended playing time he flopped with a sub-.300 OBP. Mesoraco doesn't have the service time of Ackley and Davis, and catchers can take longer to develop at the plate, so his leash is a little longer. Mesoraco's defense was better than expected in 2013, as he threw out 29 percent of runners (league average was 28 percent). Still, he'll turn 26 this season, so his time to turn into an above-average player or All-Star performer is starting to wane.

What to expect: Veteran Ryan Hanigan is gone, so the Reds have handed the keys to Mesoraco. Considering the Reds' lineup after Joey Votto and Jay Bruce is pretty spotty, they desperately need Mesoraco to improve his numbers. I have my doubts. He didn't hit righties at all last year (.212/.254/.322) and he walked even less in the second half. The ZiPS numbers may be optimistic, although it's possible he could crack 20 home runs playing in Great American Ball Park.

Let's look at five pitchers on Wednesday.
In case you missed it, the White Sox recently released Lars Anderson, who was hitting .194/.302/.251 in 66 games at Triple-A Charlotte. You may remember him as a highly rated prospect with the Red Sox; after hitting .317 with 18 home runs between Class A and Double-A in 2008 -- reaching Double-A at age 20 -- Baseball America ranked the first baseman as the No. 18 prospect in the minors before the 2009 season.

Anderson never developed from there, and although he received a couple sips of decaffeinated tea with the Red Sox, his professional career is now in jeopardy at the age of 25. Former major leaguer Gabe Kapler, who managed Anderson at Class A Greenville in 2007, had an interesting article on WEEI, titled: "Understanding Lars Anderson: A study in baseball makeup."

While raving about Anderson's approach and swing plane, Kapler ultimately attributes Anderson's struggles to a lack of confidence and belief in his own abilities. He compared Anderson to Josh Reddick, a teammate on that Greenvile team:
Josh Reddick, who hit in front of or behind him in the lineup, had an athletic attitude that I’d seen in every clubhouse I’d occupied. Josh thought nobody could beat him and if that they did, he’d win the next time. His was a self-fulfilling prophecy advantageous for a baseball player. For Lars, it seemed to work in the opposite manner.

The Reddick/Anderson study has some implications beyond confidence and mental toughness. While there is no question that Josh was the most assertive hitter I had in Greenville that year, he didn’t have a traditionally "smart" approach to hitting. He walked up to the plate, identified a ball he thought he could drive -- which was a pitch anywhere in the general vicinity of the state of South Carolina and at any speed — and swung as hard as he could.


It's a terrific insight into a player and Anderson himself says in the piece that he now has more confidence in his fielding than his hitting. But I also wonder if there's something else going on here. In a recent excerpt in Sports Illustrated from David Epstein's new book, "The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance," Epstein writes how the best hitters in the major leagues weren't able to hit softball pitcher Jennie Finch -- even though her fastball took about the same time to reach home plate as a 95-mph fastball.

In explaining Albert Pujols' failure to hit her, Epstein writes, "Since Pujols had no mental database of Finch's body movements, her pitch tendencies or even the spin of a softball, he could not predict what was coming, and he was left reacting at the last moment. And Pujols's simple reaction speed is downright quotidian. When scientists at Washington University in St. Louis tested him, perhaps the greatest hitter of his era was in the 66th percentile for simple reaction time compared with a random sample of college students."

Basically, it's not reaction time that makes Pujols or other major league hitters so good, but their experience in facing certain pitches and ability to read on opponents' body language and thus better anticipate, for example, if the pitch is a fastball or curveball or whatever. It's what makes hitting Mariano Rivera's cutter so difficult: It breaks so late compared to what hitters are used to that they can't anticipate the ultimate location of the pitch. Same thing with facing Finch.

As Epstein writes, "No one is born with the anticipatory skills required of an elite athlete."

In the case of Anderson, I wonder if the separation between him and Reddick isn't just confidence but that ability to anticipate or predict pitch patterns. Anderson had the better swing, the better approach and similar raw bat speed and power, and that was enough to get him through Class A ball, against mediocre breaking balls and mediocre fastballs. At higher levels, it takes more than a pretty swing. Maybe some guys are just "better" at somehow reading what the pitch is going to be. Reddick may have a poor approach and swings at too many pitches out of the strike zone, but he learned to anticipate the correct pitch often enough to become a major leaguer.

I see the same thing going on right now with Dustin Ackley of the Mariners. The raw ability is there -- he was the second overall pick in the draft -- but he looks completely confused at the plate -- unable, apparently, to successfully discern what the pitch is going to be, leading to him taking fastballs down the middle and being labeled passive by his organization. Some guys learn and get better with experience. Some players just have "it'; Kapler refers to a Pudge Rodriguez incident where Pudge couldn't even tell you what pitch he hit. Somehow, though, Rodriguez knew what was coming.

You can't teach that. And while Anderson is no doubt suffering from a crisis in confidence it could be that his brain just doesn't work at the level needed to be a major league hitter.




Today's scrubs may be tomorrow's All-Stars

July, 11, 2013
7/11/13
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On Monday night, Carlos Gomez jumped, stuck his glove over Miller Park's center field fence, and pulled back what would have been a go-ahead home run from Reds first baseman Joey Votto. Instead, it was the third out in the ninth inning. Francisco Rodriguez got the save and the Brewers happily celebrated as Gomez jogged towards his teammates from the warning track.

According to FanGraphs, Gomez has been the National League's best player thus far, compiling 4.9 wins above replacement thanks to an .889 OPS, that great defense in center and 21 steals in 24 attempts. At one time, he was the No. 3 prospect in the Mets' system according to Baseball America, but the Mets included him in a package they sent to the Twins to acquire ace lefty Johan Santana.

Playing every day for the Twins in 2008 and '09, Gomez struggled at the plate. In 963 plate appearances, he posted a .645 OPS with a staggering 214 strikeouts and 47 walks, a ratio in excess of 4.5. His defense was great at times, but the Twins couldn't justify keeping his weak bat in the lineup. After the 2009 season, they traded Gomez to the Milwaukee Brewers for shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Though he missed some time between 2010-12 with injuries, Gomez still did not live up to the lofty expectations set for him when he ascended through the Mets' system. The Brewers used him as a fourth outfielder behind Nyjer Morgan in 2011, and splitting time with Norichika Aoki to start the 2012 season, primarily platooning him against left-handers. By the end of July, though, Gomez was back playing every day and he finally showed flashes of the player dominating the league presently. Between July 16 and the end of the 2012 regular season, Gomez posted an .812 OPS with 14 home runs in 273 plate appearances. He stole 26 stolen bases in 29 attempts.

In an article for Sports On Earth, Howard Megdal noted how Gomez himself decided to make a change. He discarded years of advice from the plethora of coaches and decided to try to hit home runs, rather than put the ball on the ground. "I always expected myself to be a three-hole hitter," Gomez said. "Thirty-plus home runs. That's how I saw myself ... But all the people wanted [was] to take advantage of was my speed. I mean, better late than never."

Gomez, still just 27 years old, is just the latest in a surprisingly long line of players who are now at the top of the game after having been given up on by their former teams. Jose Bautista went from club to club, never finding the kind of success that parlays into a starting role. He went to the Blue Jays in 2008, changed his swing, and the rest is history. Edwin Encarnacion has a similar story; he hovered around the league average offensively, came to the Blue Jays in 2009, and turned into one of the game's premier power hitters. Domonic Brown was nearly given up on by the Phillies organization just a few years after they refused to include him in a trade for Roy Halladay, and now he sits with the second-most home runs in the National League.

Perhaps the best example is Chris Davis. Davis tore up opposing pitching while in the minors with the Rangers between 2006-08. In 2008, he reached Triple-A at the age of 22, and he hit 23 home runs in 329 trips to the plate while posting a 1.029 OPS. He earned a call up to the majors at the end of June, and hit 17 home runs with an .880 OPS.

He was asked to replicate that in 2009 at the big league level, but he couldn't. Opposing pitchers had a book on him and his approach at the plate wasn't major league quality. While he was able to muscle out 21 home runs, he struck out 150 times and walked only 24 times in 391 plate appearances. The Rangers kept him in Triple-A for most of 2010 and he performed well; in three different stints in the majors that year, however, he looked completely lost.

At the trade deadline in 2011, the Rangers needed to add some pieces for a postseason run so they traded Davis to the down-and-out Baltimore Orioles with Tommy Hunter for reliever Koji Uehara and a small amount of cash. The Rangers lost the World Series in seven games and, they would eventually find out, they also lost an impact bat.

Davis flourished with the Orioles. Last season, he hit 33 home runs with a .827 OPS. This year, were it not for Miguel Cabrera hitting at an historic level, Davis would be baseball's best hitter. He has hit the most home runs in baseball thus far with 33 and he has the highest slugging percentage with a Bondsian .690. He is walking more, striking out less, and making good contact on seemingly everything. And he's only 27 years old.

The moral of the story is not to give up on players with a surfeit of talent but a deficit of results. Patience is often rewarded in baseball. And it is a never-ending cycle. Right now, there are struggling players who have yet to live up to expectations who will eventually be discarded by an impatient, unsatisfied team and picked up by an optimistic team hoping to strike lightning in a bottle.

SportsNation

Which of these young players is the best bet to develop into a future All-Star?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,307)

Mike Moustakas may be one such player. After hitting 20 home runs last year but posting overall below-average offensive numbers, he has been among the five worst-hitting American Leaguers this year, with only six home runs and a .213 average to his name entering Thursday's game against the Yankees. The Royals are 43-45 and just seven games out of the second wild-card spot. Their offseason trade of Wil Myers to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis was a public admission they wanted to compete for the postseason, so it wouldn't be surprising to see them use Moustakas in a trade to bolster the roster for a late-season run.

Lonnie Chisenhall is another. The 24-year-old has posted tremendous minor league numbers and was ranked as the No. 39 overall prospect by Keith Law before the 2011 season. In 542 PAs in the majors, though, he hasn't shown much. The power and plate discipline he showcased in the minors seems to disappear when he faces major league pitching, but the potential is there nonetheless. Since being recalled on June 18, Chisenhall has posted a .772 OPS. That is certainly a small sample, but also a glimmer of hope as well.

Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley was ranked No. 7 by Law before the 2011 season, but like Chisenhall, has not been able to translate minor league success into major league success. In 1,249 PAs in the big leagues, he has a .650 OPS, including a paltry .533 this year that includes a .209 average. With Triple-A Tacoma -- after getting sent down -- he posted a .947 OPS with more walks (19) than strikeouts (14). He's back with Seattle and now playing outfield.

You can look at Mets first baseman Ike Davis through the same prism. And to the Mets' credit, they have been incredibly patient with him and have been exhausting their options to get him to be an above-average major league contributor. In fact, Davis has a lot in common with Davis, including the tremendous raw power and the high strikeout rate.

As odd as it sounds, some of tomorrow's All-Stars may be found at the bottom of this year's offensive leaderboards. At the same time two years ago, you would never have expected us to be talking about Chris Davis and Gomez as their league's respective most valuable players, but here we are in 2013 doing exactly that. Baseball, it's a funny game that way.

Bill Baer is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog. He runs the Crashburn Alley blog on the Phillies.
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.

 
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.

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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.

Will Dustin Ackley ever hit?

April, 17, 2013
4/17/13
4:30
PM ET
One thing everybody was sure about when Dustin Ackley was drafted out of North Carolina: He would hit. Everybody knew he would hit. He could run, he'd hit 22 home runs his junior season and while it wasn't clear what his professional position would be (he'd played center field before Tommy John surgery moved him to first base as a junior), everyone knew he would hit as a professional.

Here's a story by Larry Stone of The Seattle Times after the Mariners drafted Ackley second overall in 2009, after the Nationals selected Stephen Strasburg:
Here's a partial list of left-handed hitters to whom Dustin Ackley, the Great New Mariner Hope, has been compared by various scouts, coaches and analysts:

Johnny Damon. Chase Utley. Darin Erstad. Jacoby Ellsbury. Tony Gwynn. Wade Boggs. George Brett.

Ackley didn't tear up the minors (.280, 16 home runs in 200 games) and while he did hit well as a rookie in 2011 (.273/.348/.417), he was terrible last year (.226/.294/.328). He only hit two home runs at Safeco Field, and while he hit 10 home runs on the road, he hit just .224. He hit .255 against fastballs, which put him in the 15th percentile of all major league regulars, and if you can't hit fastballs, good luck.

He struck out 124 times -- an 18.6 percent strikeout rate that ranked 73rd among qualified regulars, putting him right in the middle of the pack. He's a very patient hitter and his swing percentage (39.5 percent) tied for 10th-lowest among regulars, an approach similar to hitters like Ben Zobrist (37.4 percent), Martin Prado (37.8 percent), Mike Trout (40.1 percent) and Jimmy Rollins (40.5 percent), to name a few. When he did swing, his contact rate was pretty good -- he ranked 31st. He struck out looking in 31 percent of those 124 strikeouts, above the average for regular players of 23 percent.

So there's your profile. Good approach, pretty good contact hitter, maybe too passive at times.

In 2013, the results are even worse. In 47 plate appearances, he's hitting .114/.170/.114; the slugging percentage is the same as his batting average, which means he doesn't have an extra-base hit. At least his defense at second base -- once a question mark -- is good.

Ackley had changed his swing in the offseason, but now comes this story from Ryan Divish of the Tacoma News Tribune that he's going back to something more like last year.
All that has changed is the movement. Ackley still has a wider base in his feet than last season and a slightly open stance. He still gets to the same hitting position. There just isn't all the movement in front of it.

"What I was doing (Saturday), it felt like the same thing without having to do a bunch of the timing before it," Ackley said. "It’s still trying to accomplish the same things. It's really not that big of a difference. It might be 6 inches from where I started before. It's not like I’m changing my swing. It's still the same swing, but I just don't have the timing of getting it started."

That story makes a point that Ackley had a hard-hit single on Saturday and another on Sunday (for his first RBI of the season).

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On Tuesday he went 0-for-3. Two singles were big news for the kid once compared to George Brett.

Ackley is now 25 years old. Time is running out on the likelihood of him becoming a star, although positive thinkers will point out Ackley's solid 2011, a foot injury that may have sapped his power last year and how Chase Utley didn't have his breakout season until he was 26.

It's only 13 games. Ackley has five hits and three were infield singles. It's too early to make any conclusions about 2013, but the concerns are legitimate. He looked like a .300 hitter coming out of college, but at this point I'm not sure he'll last the season as the Mariners' starting second baseman.

Sunday's day of aces turned more into a game of Crazy Eights -- there were some crooked numbers put up against several of baseball's top pitchers and none of the anticipated showdowns materialized into a pitcher's duel.

One of the disappointing matchups was the Stephen Strasburg-Johnny Cueto game in Cincinnati. There's really not much at stake in early April, but this game had that little extra taste of powerhouse teams trying to get a little early bragging rights. The Reds had wiped out the Nationals 15-0 on Friday and the Nationals won 7-6 on Saturday, blowing a four-run lead only to win in 11 innings, so this game would determine the series winner.

Cueto gave up a three-run homer to Kurt Suzuki in the second inning, but did settle down and didn't allow anything else through his six frames. Strasburg's final line -- 5.1 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 4 BB, 5 Ks -- looked liked he got knocked around, but that wasn't really the case. On the other hand, he wasn't the dominant Strasburg we unfairly expect to see every start.

In the first inning, the Reds scored three runs with only one hit out of the infield:

-- With one out, Xavier Paul weakly chopped an 0-2 curveball off Strasburg's glove for an infield hit.
-- Joey Votto does what Joey Votto does: he walked on five pitches. Strasburg tried to bust him twice inside but was way off the plate on both pitches.
-- Brandon Phillips hit a first-pitch fastball hard to third that Ryan Zimmerman put a nice diving stop on but lost the ball on the transfer.
-- With the bases loaded, Jay Bruce lined a 2-2 curve to left-center for a two-run double.
-- Todd Frazier's infield grounder plated the third run.

The curveball to Bruce wasn't in a bad location -- low and away -- but was a bit lazy without a sharp break, and Bruce was clearly sitting on it. Until Strasburg gets better at commanding his fastball inside to lefties, it's going to be easier for hitters to lean over the plate with two strikes -- or at least anticipate that outside curveball. Here, check out Strasburg's fastballs to Cincinnati's left-handers on Sunday:

Stephen Strasburg heat mapESPN Stats & Information Stephen Strasburg didn't throw many inside fastballs for strikes against lefties on Sunday.
In the sixth, the Reds scored three more runs. Speedy pinch hitter Derrick Robinson slapped a base hit past a drawn-in Zimmerman for his first major league hit. Shin-Soo Choo then lined a 1-2 high fastball into center to push Robinson to third. With the infield halfway, Paul hit a hard grounder to second baseman Danny Espinosa, who threw home instead of turning two. Everybody was safe. Davey Johnson said Espinosa should have turned two. Espinosa said, "The way I thought was, we were playing halfway because we were trying to cut that run down." After Votto grounded out, Phillips hit a 2-2 changeup into left for an RBI single, knocking Strasburg from the game. The final run scored on Bruce's infield hit.

So it was a bit of a bad-luck outing for Strasburg, as he walked four and was unable to punch out Bruce and Phillips in key situations. He apparently had some problems pitching out of the stretch in spring training as well. "I have to look at video and see what I'm doing out there," Strasburg told MLB.com. "Some days, you kind of give up a lot of singles, and when they all get on base, they seem to come up with the clutch hits. You have to tip your cap and move forward."

I think there's another issue brewing here. Let's see Strasburg become a great pitcher before we declare him the greatest pitcher. In Vegas, he was the betting favorite to win the NL Cy Young Award over Clayton Kershaw. He and Kershaw received the most Cy Young predictions on the ESPN staff balloting. Sure, that's somewhat understandable considering his dominant strikeout rate from last season (30.2 percent, highest in the majors for any pitcher with 150 innings since Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez in 2002).

So, yes, there's no denying Strasburg's potential. But let's keep in mind he's never pitched more than seven innings in a game, let alone 200 innings in a season. He's not quite a polished pitcher yet, especially against left-handed batters, who hit a respectable .271/.326/.387 off him last year, including .323 off his fastball. Kershaw -- only a few months older than Strasburg, mind you -- is at the peak of his powers, a guy who could easily be gunning for his third straight Cy Young Award (he finished second to R.A. Dickey last year).

After an Opening Day shutout against the Giants, Kershaw was brilliant again on Saturday, allowing two hits in seven scoreless innings against the Pirates. He's thrown 94 and 97 pitches in his two outings, whereas as Strasburg labored through 114 on Sunday.

I do think Strasburg will get to that next level. He may reel off 15 brilliant starts in a row. But he's not Kershaw just yet. The hype is a product of today's world, but how about if the man pitches eight innings in a game before we say he's as good as Kershaw.

REST OF THE WEEKEND

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Three stars
1. Justin Upton, Braves. How cool was Saturday night? B.J. Upton tied the game in the bottom of the ninth with a home run off the Cubs' Carlos Marmol, and then one out later, his brother Justin won it with his second homer of the game and fifth of the season.

2. Kershaw, Dodgers. Through two starts he's allowed no runs, one walk and no extra-base hits. Next up: At Arizona on Friday.

3. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks. Went 6-for-13 with a homer, three doubles, five runs and five RBIs as the D-backs swept the Brewers in Milwaukee.

Clutch performance of the weekend
CC Sabathia, Yankees. With the Yankees off to a 1-4 start, on Sunday they had to face Justin Verlander, who was looking to go 2-0 for the first time in his career. He still is, as Sabathia tossed seven scoreless innings. Hold off on that Yankee funeral march -- at least for another week.

Best game
Nationals 7, Reds 6 (Saturday). The Nationals led 5-1 but scored twice in the eighth (with the help of some sloppy defense) and twice in the ninth off proven closer Rafael Soriano to tie it (Choo homered and Votto tripled and scored on wild pitch). Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth homered in the 11th only to see the Reds score on Votto's walk and Phillips' double -- but Craig Stammen finally struck out Bruce on an 0-2 curveball.

Hitter on the rise: Chris Davis, Orioles.
Davis went RBI-less on Sunday, but still has 17 in Baltimore's first six games (fantasy owners everywhere thank you, Chris). As John Fisher of ESPN and Stats Info pointed out, Davis has been crushing outside pitches, going back to late last September. In his last 11 regular-season games since Sept. 26, Davis has six home runs on the outside part of the plate (or off it), largely because he's been staying back and going the opposite way or to center field.

ESPN colleague Curt Schilling said (via email) to watch very closely how Davis is pitched moving forward. Schilling says the smart teams will start pounding Davis with hard stuff inside. "If he has matured as a hitter," Curt wrote, "he will draw a significant number of walks this week because only top of the rotation guys (A) have consistent command in; (B) get the consistent call in from umpires."

Pitcher on the rise: Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
Thanks to Carlos Marmol's implosions in the ninth inning, Fujikawa will take over as the Cubs' closer, even though Fujikawa also had a rough outing on Saturday prior to Marmol's Upton affair, giving up three runs in the eighth.

Lineup move I can't understand
Eric Wedge, I don't understand you. And I'm not even talking about your various outfield arrangements so far. If the Mariners have any chance to win this year, a primary reason will be because Dustin Ackley develops into the hitter everyone thought the was going to develop into a couple years ago. But Wedge has already sat Ackley twice in seven games against left-handers. For Robert Andino. I get it, Chris Sale is tough on lefties. But we know Andino can't hit. What the Mariners have to find out is if Ackley can hit. He needs to play every day.

Team on the rise: Rockies
Hey, they're 5-1 and tied for the best record in baseball. They also have the best run differential in the majors at +21 -- an amazing 47 runs better than the Padres after just six games. Ahh, first-week stats!

Team on the fall: Brewers
Where do I even begin? The Brewers lost 8-7 in 11 innings on Sunday -- the final out coming when pitcher Kyle Lohse had to pinch hit and struck out looking with runners on first and third. But the more egregious strikeout looking came with the previous batter, when Rickie Weeks took a called third strike, KNOWING THE PITCHER WAS ON DECK AND THE BREWERS HAD NO BENCH PLAYERS LEFT.

How did the Brewers get there? Well, Ryan Braun was unavailable and Jean Segura got hurt earlier in the game, but the Brewers are only carrying 12 position players on the roster to begin with, meaning they had 11 guys minus Braun. I know the Brewers' bullpen is bad, but carrying 13 pitchers is about the dumbest kind of roster management you can have. The Brewers deserved to lose that game and deserve to be 1-5 right now.

Angels miss golden opportunity

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
10:39
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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.
From my friends at ESPN Playbook: Seattle hasn't had a drop of rain in 45 days and is approaching its record drought of 51 days, set in 1951. Coincidentally -- or not! -- the drought began the day Ichiro Suzuki was traded to the Yankees.

Yankees fans would probably suggest Ichiro has cursed the Yankees. Since Ichiro's first game in pinstripes on July 23, the Yankees are 19-21 and have seen their lead fall from seven games to zero.

The Mariners have had an interesting second half, going 30-20, tied with Tampa Bay for the third-best record in the AL since the All-Star break, behind Oakland and Baltimore. Are they potentially a team on the rise? They still don't score many runs -- only Toronto and Cleveland have scored fewer in the second half and they're still last in the AL in runs scored on the season. But Hisashi Iwakuma has provided a big boost to the rotation alongside Felix Hernandez and the bullpen has been stellar.

Of course, some of the run-scoring deficiency is due to Safeco Field's extreme park effects this season. The Mariners are hitting .216/.289/.322 at Safeco, but .246/.298/.399 on the road. Mariners pitchers allowed a .224/.283/.331 line at Safeco, but .266/.327/.448 on the road.

This makes it difficult for the Seattle front office to evaluate its talent. Jason Vargas, for example, has a respectable overall line of 14-9, 3.80, but the splits break down to 2.52 at Safeco, 4.84 on the road (with 25 home runs allowed). He's an ace at home, where his fly balls go to die, and nearly unusable on the road. Dustin Ackley has an unimpressive line of .232/.301/.333. He actually hasn't for average at home or on the road, but eight of his 10 home runs have come away from Safeco. Kyle Seager is slugging .502 on the road and a miserable .298 at home (13 of his 16 home runs are on the road). Even Felix Hernandez has a sizable split -- 2.18 ERA at Safeco (.528 OPS allowed), 2.92 ERA on the road (.648 OPS allowed).

While Safeco has always been a pitcher's park, it's never played so extreme. Seattle did get unseasonably wet and cold weather early in the season, at a time when much of the country was setting record or near-record temperatures. Even in July, every state except Washington experienced warmer-than-average temperatures, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the chart to the right, you see the Mariners' home and road OPS total (B-h and B-r) and their OPS totals allowed (P-h and P-r). While Mariners pitchers have allowed a lower OPS at home every year of Safeco's existence, there were actually a couple seasons where Mariners hitters performed better at home. In 2008, the Mariners' road OPS was nearly identical to what it is this year -- .695 versus .697 -- but their home OPS that season was 110 points higher than it is now.

I don't know if the Mariners will move the fences in for 2013. I do think it makes sense for a few reasons: For one thing, fans are bored with low-scoring game after low-scoring game (well, except when King Felix is pitching); also, it makes difficult to attract free-agent hitters; and I mentioned the difficulty in evaluating your players. Even with all our Sabermetric knowledge, extreme park effects can do weird things to hitters. Maybe Ackley and Seager have been psyched out by Safeco; or maybe there's sort of a reverse Coors effect that goes on (Vargas is worse than he should be on the road, because he can get away with certain pitches at home).

Aside from all that, it's at least been a fun second half for Mariners fans. If they can find a way to add a couple bats (a first baseman and corner outfielder, to start with) and find another arm for the rotation next year as they wait for Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to develop, maybe they can turn into the 2013 version of the A's or Orioles.
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.
ESPN Insider contributor Dave Cameron had an analysis of Dustin Ackley over at his USS Mariner site, attempting to ask: Why does Ackley strike out so much?

Now, Ackley's strikeout rate isn't in Adam Dunn or Pedro Alvarez territory, but 55 strikeouts in 58 games is certainly a lot for a hitter who is supposed to have good bat control and was drafted second overall for his ability to hit for average. In part because of the strikeouts, Ackley is hitting just .248.

As Cameron writes,
Ackley’s career major league strikeout rate is 21.1%, higher than the 19.1% league average during his time in the big leagues, and his batting average is just .263. Batting average isn’t a great way to evaluate a hitter, but mid-level power guys generally need to hit for a higher average to offset the lack of bombs. Ackley is just not getting as many base hits as was expected, and it’s pretty much entirely due to the fact that he’s striking out far more than he has previously.

What's odd about Ackley's strikeout rate is that he actually has a good contact rate when he does swing. Cameron found 52 other hitters with a similar contact rate and they struck out an average of 15.2 percent of their plate appearances; Ackley's rate was the highest in the group.

Anyway, read his piece. Cameron is still optimistic about Ackley's potential. I'm a little more lukewarm. Ackley's had 636 career plate appearances, about one full season, so it's time to see the production improve. What concerns me about his star potential is that he doesn't do any one thing well -- the batting average, his supposed strength, hasn't been there. He walks at a decent clip, but he's not Edgar Martinez or anything. He has speed but he's not a big base stealer. He has a moderate power for a middle infielder (he's on pace for 31 doubles and 10 home runs), but not the power you want from a middle-of-the-order hitter. He's transitioned well to second base, but isn't going to be a Gold Glover.

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Also remember, he's not a kid as he's 24 years old. As the second pick in the draft, he was expected to be more of a polished college hitter. Heck, his less-heralded North Carolina teammate, Kyle Seager (drafted the same year in the third round by the Mariners) has been more impressive this season, hitting the ball much harder and striking out less.

Of course, picking on Ackley for the Mariners' problems is like pointing out Gisele's nose is too big. Still, the Mariners need Ackley to be a star, not a complementary player.

Here's a question for you: Is the best second-year second baseman in the American League actually Cleveland's Jason Kipnis and not the more-hyped Ackley? Kipnis was also drafted in 2009, in the second round. Like Ackley, he was a college outfielder moved to the infield. He is a year older than Ackley, but he's hitting .284/.343/.457, with a .359 wOBA compared to Ackley's .305. He also leads the AL with 15 steals (in 16 attempts).

What do you think? Will Ackley adjust and become the .300 hitter scouts projected? Is Kipnis going to be the better player, with more power and more stolen bases? Place your vote and discuss below.

Mariners' offensive outburst overdue

June, 3, 2012
6/03/12
1:00
AM ET


Another game, another double-digit Mariners outburst on the scoreboard? This makes it three in their past four games, and while it’s way too soon to talk about the Mariners offense terrorizing anybody, after scoring 31 runs in their last two games in Texas and then 14 in their first two in Chicago, things are certainly taking a turn for the better in terms of Mariners offense.

In Saturday's 10-8 victory over the White Sox, Ichiro Suzuki ripped two home runs, Michael Saunders avenged his Friday night game-losing error to rap out four hits (including a homer) and Justin Smoak’d his team-leading 10th shot into the cheap seats.

Has sad-sack Seattle suddenly busted out to become a slugging powerhouse? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. After all, one of the benefits of breaking out on offense is that you get the twin benefits of getting to take your chances against the bottom of a bullpen -- giving your batters more opportunities to hit against guys who aren’t the best starters, relievers or anything in between -- and you force opposing managers to use multiple relievers on consecutive days ... and not every fireman has his A-game working without rest. If anything, in the age of the seven-man bullpen, your chances of catching a reliever at less than his best improve, as busy skippers run through every guy they’ve got.

So how are the Mariners doing it? It isn’t simply a matter of finally coaxing Ichiro out of the third slot and having him bat leadoff, although getting his limited power output out of a slot usually associated with cashing in baserunners with extra-base sock can’t hurt. His reputation for incomparable batsmanship aside, Ichiro has only plated 11.9 percent of his baserunners, behind four other regulars plus Alex Liddi, John Jaso and Casper Wells. This isn’t a recent development -- last year, Ichiro ranked behind six other regulars, not to mention Milton Bradley and Jack Cust, both of whom didn’t last the year in Seattle because they didn’t do enough on offense to outstrip their assorted liabilities.

It also isn’t a matter of putting Chone Figgins back on the bench or getting Mike Carp and Miguel Olivo back from the disabled list, or even of riding the hot hand and sticking Kyle Seager in the No. 3 hole, although all of those are good things. Certainly, the Mariners are also enjoying the benefit of seeing Smoak and Dustin Ackley get on track and deliver the way that they’re expected to, especially relative to expectations for a pair of former top prospects. All of these things are helpful, all worthwhile, but perhaps not all crucial, not by themselves.

Instead, perhaps the Mariners are benefiting most lately from the three of the most important words in performance: location, location and location. That’s because getting away from Safeco Field is important, not least this year. Exacerbated by early-season injuries? Perhaps. And what about the Mariners getting dragooned into yet another MLB junket to cash in on the bounty of letting Opening Day occur in Japan -- which, considering MLB’s nine-digit payoff from licensing and more from Japan, has its incentives? Whatever the reasons, the Mariners' hitting rates at home are beyond awful: just .193/.278/.305 in their triple-slash stats.

After Saturday’s four-pack of clouts off Gavin Floyd in the Cell, the Mariners have hit 39 homers on the road in 33 games to the 12 they’ve managed in their 22 contests in front of the home folks. They’re now slugging .423 on the road, better than 100 points higher than at Safeco.

How unlikely, improbably, and unsustainably awful is the Mariners’ .584 team OPS at home? It would be the lowest home OPS in the era of divisional play (1969 to the present) if it lasted. Only two teams have ever finished a full season below .600 in OPS, the 1972 Padres (.586) and the ’72 Rangers (.595) -- not a Padres team playing in Petco, and no Astros team playing in the infamous old Astrodome managed it. These are raw and unadjusted OPS marks, of course, and both the Pads and the Rangers were pre-designated hitter.

However, unlike this year’s early-season pleas for fence-shifting in Miami, that’s just the way it is: The Mariners play in a pitcher’s park, and they’ve long since gotten used to it, because it has been true, year after year. Inevitably, they’re going to go home, and the bats will cool off -- somewhat, but not all the way down to a sub-.600 OPS. The Mariners’ home woes are unsustainably awful, unless they decide to put Figgins back in the everyday lineup or the like.

When the Mariners get back to Seattle on Friday to host the Dodgers, Padres and Giants in the latest spin with interleague entertainment, we’ll see if they bring their hitting gloves back with them. But even with Safeco’s well-earned rep as a pitcher’s park, if one thing is sure, you can probably bet that they will.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Yoenis CespedesJohn Rieger/US PresswireNow that he's back, Yoenis Cespedes must be happy to see third base, right?
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?
When is Opening Day not really Opening Day? And why is a baseball game that counts pushed to the back burner by a bigger story on this fine Wednesday? Keith Law and I (with help) explain on Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast!

1. Excellent ESPN The Magazine writer Molly Knight joins us to discuss the stunning $2 billion deal involving the Los Angeles Dodgers. Molly tells us why Dodgers fans should be very pleased.

2. Meanwhile, the Mariners and Athletics played a baseball game that will be reflected in the relevant standings, but not many people saw it. Well, I did! Keith tells us what to expect from Dustin Ackley.

3. What can Mariano Rivera do this season to break his personal best in Wins Above Replacement? Well, he can’t do it. Not in 60 innings. We relate this to the Braves' bullpen.

4. Keith tells us what’s new with Royals pitching prospect Noel Arguelles, and explains the luxury tax system.

5. What’s the difference in "power" and "raw power"? An emailer asks and our scout answers.

So download and listen to Wednesday’s fun-filled Baseball Today podcast, and then follow the gang on Twitter (@karabellespn, @keithlaw, @therealpodvader)!

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