Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving.

This post was written ahead of time, so if you were expecting to find commentary on how well the Bay Bridge handled last night’s earthquake, you’re about to be disappointed.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? If you’re reading this post, it means there wasn’t a quake large enough to affect the bridge. Anything else up to and including an asteroid impact, Google giving away self-driving cars, or bacon being found to prevent heart attacks, will have to wait until Tuesday.

Moving on.

As usual, I have many things to be thankful for–family, friends, health, the opportunity to pursue a career I love, etc., etc.–none of which I’m going to talk about beyond this paragraph. Instead, I’m going to blather on for a while about my newest reason to be thankful. If those of you who normally flee screaming from baseball posts will give me a moment…OK, my earplugs are in. You may begin screaming.

This off-season the Mariners have a new General Manager who has, of course, brought in a new philosophy of roster construction. I’m thankful because, to be blunt, the previous approach wasn’t working.

That’s not to say I’m totally thrilled with the new focus, but at least it’s different. For the past several years, the previous GM, Jack Zduriencik, seemed to be on an endless quest to find the one bat that would put the team over the top. Unfortunately, the Mariners live under a curse. With the notable exception of Nelson Cruz, players brought in specifically to provide offense mysteriously fall on their faces. The extreme example: more than a decade after his departure, the mere mention of Jeff Cirillo can reduce Seattle fans to tears.

So now we have Jerry Dipoto. His goal for the Mariners? “We see ourselves as a run-prevention club. You can create a lot of advantage playing good defense. We also see our overall team defense as our biggest area in need of improvement. We want to get more athletic and more defensive-oriented in the positions where we can.”

I can’t argue with that. Better run prevention, especially in the late innings, could have made a huge difference in the Ms’ record last year. They lost 27 games on their opponents’ last at-bat. Had they won six of those games–less than a quarter of them–they would have finished the year at 82-80. (Granted, that’s worse than 2014 and would still have only been good for fourth in their division, but finishing over .500 at least gives a veneer of respectability.)


Jerry, please don’t forget about the offense while you’re beefing up the defense, huh? As I’ve said more than once, defense doesn’t win games, it just prevents you from losing them. To win, you have to score runs. Ask the Mets about their World Series performance. So, yeah, can we hold on to some of the bats that are producing? Thanks in advance.

Oh, and Jerry? It’s OK to take the day off. No need to pull off a Thanksgiving Day trade. Just kick back, eat some turkey, watch a little MST3K, listen to Alice’s Restaurant, give the Backyard Bunch a treat, and chill*. You can find us the right fielder of our dreams tomorrow.

* Yeah, that’s actually my plan for the day. So? I highly recommend it to everyone.


Is it time to panic yet?

Apparently the Mariners think so. But let me back up a little.

We’re about a third of the way through the season. As usual, there have been a few surprises. Of course there have. Who would want to watch if everything could be predicted before the season started.

Among the surprises:

  • Houston, widely expected to underwhelm their remaining fans again, is 34-20–the second-best record in baseball.
  • Alex Rodriguez [spit], widely expected to literally fall apart, shedding bits of anatomy every time he swung the bat, has eleven home runs in 178 at-bats*.
  • Seattle, widely expected to do more or less what Houston has been doing, hasn’t been over .500 since the third day of the season, and is currently at 24-29–the eighth-worst record in baseball.

* That gives him 665 home runs for his career. If there’s any justice in the way the universe works, the next time he hits one over the fence, a bottomless pit will open under his feet as he rounds third. Not only will his resulting eternal plummet prevent him from touching home, thereby resulting in his being called out, but the unfillable pit will force the Yankees to play the remainder of their games on the road.

Kudos to the Astros–and I think I’ve made my feelings about A-Rod [spit] clear–but as you might have guessed, I’m here to talk about the Mariners.

It’s around this time of the year that teams start deciding whether they have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. That’s a decision that will determine what they do as the Non-Waiver Trading Deadline approaches–will they be trading away prospects to fill a few gaps in the roster, or trading away current players to improve their position in the future.

What are the Mariners thinking about their chances? I don’t have a clue, and quite honestly, I don’t think they do either.

A couple of paragraphs back, I mentioned they haven’t been above .500 since their record fell to 1-2. They have gotten to .500, most recently last week at 24-24, but they’ve followed each approach to respectability with a losing streak.

Apparently the latest losing streak (five games and counting) convinced them it was time to make a change. Shortly after they were swept by the Yankees (now four games over .500 thanks largely to those three wins), they traded their backup catcher*, a relief pitcher who’s had rough outings lately, and two prospects for a bag of magic beansMark “Big Trombone” Trumbo and a competent pitcher few people outside of Arizona have heard of.

* Poor Welington Castillo. The Mariners just picked him up in a trade a couple of weeks ago. All he wants to do is play baseball, and here he is spending more time packing and unpacking his suitcase than he is in games.

It’s a perplexing deal–and believe me, the professional commentators are just as perplexed as the fans. The Mariners’ biggest problems recently have been in getting runners on base* and holding leads when they manage to get them.

* You can only do so much with solo home runs. Generally speaking, you need to string a few hits and walks together, get men on base, and then either bring them in one at a time with a few more hits and walks or all at once with a home run. The Mariners have been trying–unsuccessfully–to disprove the general rule. They’ve hit 62 home runs, fifth best in baseball, and have scored 192 runs, third worst in baseball.

What do their new acquisitions bring? Well, the pitcher, Nuno, might help them hold leads. By all accounts, he’s been reasonably effective in limited action. Even average would be an upgrade over the recent performance of the man he’s replacing, so there’s that. But Trumbo’s only baseball skills seem to be hitting home runs and striking out*. Add his nine HRs so far this year to the Mariners’ total, and they’d move up to number three on the list instead of number five, but those nine additional runs–because, the way the Ms haven’t been getting men on base would mean they would likely have all been solo shots–would only move them up from twenty-eighth to twenty-sixth in runs scored. That’s a negligible difference.

* It’s not true that he got his nickname because he fields the ball as though he was using a trombone instead of a glove, but it’s an almost-plausible bit of folk etymology.

So, getting back to my original question, is it time to panic? Honestly, I don’t think so. There are still more than enough games left for the Ms to turn it around and squeak into the playoffs. But I’m not sure their management agrees. To me, the Trumbo deal smells like a “doing anything is better than nothing” move. It may not be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but it’s at least on par with repainting the Bay Bridge.

That’s the Way We Do It

I went to a baseball game and no history happened. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

We’ve arrived at the All-Star Break. Last year, I marked the occasion with a pair of posts. I’ll keep it to one this year.

I pointed out that this is the time of year when fans of the under-performing teams begin obsessively watching trade rumors, waiting for the one that will give them hope for next year. What I didn’t mention is that fans of the teams on the edge of making the playoffs are obsessively watching trade rumors, waiting for the one that will give them hope for this year.

So far this year, both groups are still waiting. The only trade with potential major impact was between the As (currently the best record in baseball and the runaway favorite to make the playoffs) and the Cubs (currently the fifth worst record in baseball).* Things should be heating up this week before the frenzy next week leading to the trade deadline.

* Yes, the Cubs are in the first group–under-performing teams–and their fans did get some hope in their acquisition of Addison Russell. However, he’s now their second top prospect at shortstop, a position where they already have a good player. That means if they get a significant boost from Russell, it’s because both of the others flamed out–hardly desirable. More likely, the actual gain will be from a future trade, either of Russell himself, or one of the other two when Russell becomes the full-time shortstop. Either way, there’s a modicum of hope, but it’s a deferred hope, and likely deferred beyond next year.

I also wrote about the joys of the Home Run Derby. It’s not so much the home run hitters, it’s the kids chasing the balls that provide most of the fun and excitement. Last year’s Derby was good in that respect. This year was amusing, but not as good as last year. I think the kids had a touch of World Cup Fever. A lot of flops and slides on the wet-thanks-to-rain grass, but not much “will the ball be caught?” drama.

The Derby isn’t baseball, but it helps get through the lack of meaningful games. The actual All-Star game is tonight. That is baseball. Meaningless, like preseason games, but at least the quality of play is (usually) better than any random preseason game. Tomorrow and Thursday are off days, and the season resumes Friday. So what do we do for baseball Wednesday and Thursday? Well, there are always the minor leagues.

Which brings us back to that baseball game I mentioned in the first paragraph.

The San Jose Giants are, as you could probably have guessed, a minor league team in the San Francisco Giants’ system. They’re a “Class A Advanced” team*, meaning that they’re several steps away from the majors.

* The current classifications are, in descending order of presumed skill and readiness for the majors, Triple-A, Double-A, Class A Advanced, Class A, Class A short season, and Rookie. In the past there were fewer types of “A” teams, and there were “B,” “C”, and “D” leagues. I’ll just note that baseball reflects the society around it, and as such, grade inflation and peer promotion are inescapable.

There is an element of truth in that joke, but it is, as with most of baseball’s long and checkered history, more complicated than that. Maybe I’ll do a post on the Great Minor League Reorganization of ’63 one of these days.

As an A league team, the SJ Giants are not playing in a fancy park like the parent club’s. San Jose Municipal Stadium seats less than 6,000 people, and it looks about half that big. Ignore the small video screen over the right field fence, and it could almost be a small-town stadium from an old movie: small dimensions, painted advertisements on the fences, and an outfield that hasn’t been sculpted to millimetric tolerances.

Since the players are young, the quality of play sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. “Sure” double-play balls aren’t sure at all, flies that look eminently catchable to the eye accustomed to big league play fall untouched, and errant pitches fly past catchers with alarming regularity.

But the teams make up for it in other ways. The small size of the stadium means that even the cheap seats* are closer to the field than 95% of the seats at a major league park.

* And they are cheap. Non-discounted seats for tomorrow’s game start at $11. The major league club changes prices depending on who the opponent is and how far in advance you buy. As of this writing, the cheapest seats for the SF Giants’ first home game after the break are $56.25.

Even in the last row of seats, you’re close enough to really hear the action: the sound of bat hitting ball, ball hitting glove, and–when sufficiently provoked by a bad call–chin hitting ground in disbelief.

And the team takes advantage of the intimate nature of the venue to do things that couldn’t be done at a major league park. In the big leagues, video screens keep attendees occupied between innings by showing “fan cams,” “dot races,” and highlights of other games–sometimes even other sports. The San Jose club is strictly analog in its between-inning distraction. They drive a truck onto the field, and let players throw baseballs at it: any player who breaks a headlight gets $20.00 and a pre-selected fan wins a coupon for auto parts. Four spectators are invited onto the field to play Musical Chairs, with the winner getting movie tickets. A fan throws rolls of toilet paper at the team mascot, who is seated in a Porta-Potty (I never did hear what the fan won).

OK, maybe some of the activities aren’t in the greatest of taste, but they’re still doing better than “Captain Morgan” and a bevy of half-dressed young women throwing T-shirts into the stands while a video urges spectators to drink responsibly. (Yes, this really happened at an As’ game–and, I’ve heard, several other major league parks–a couple of years ago.)

As you move up the ranks from A to AA to AAA, the quality of play improves, and the off-field “product” and ticket prices start to look more like the majors as well. But that just means you can choose your level. There are teams affiliated with one of the MLB clubs in 42 American states (and one in British Columbia: the Vancouver Canadians, a Class A short season affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays). If you need a baseball fix to get you through the next two days, you could do far, far worse than to check out the closest minor league team.

I should note that the game itself, as you might expect, wasn’t a highly-polished performance by either team, but the Giants beat their arch-nemesis*, Stockton, 8-4. The Giants built a 7-0 lead before giving up four runs in the eighth inning: thrills and chills; we wondered if that eighth was ever going to end.

* In Class A, every opposing team is your arch-nemesis, standing between you and the development of the skills you need to move up to the next level.

A good time was had by all. Well, except for Stockton and its supporters, but since they won the other three games that weekend, they can’t complain too much. It was a pleasant evening in the sun with an exciting game. No history was made, but how much history does one need in any given season? Baseball is its own compensation.

Waive Bye-Bye

I promised you all another baseball post “towards the end of the month” and here it is, just in time. Happy July 32nd, everyone!

Jokes aside, I wanted to hold the post until after the so-called “Trading Deadline” so I could try and put the activity in some kind of context.

For the record, I spent a chunk of time writing this post in the context of a holiday, but it just didn’t work. The Trading Deadline isn’t a holiday, it’s just a mile-marker somewhere between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Chronologically, it’s probably closest to Labor Day, but let’s face it, Labor Day isn’t really much of a holiday these days (though that may change around here depending on what happens with BART and the Bay Bridge; that’s a topic for another day, though).

So what is the Trading Deadline, anyway? From the name, you might think that it’s the last chance for teams to trade players. You would be wrong. Oddly enough though, this isn’t one of those “religious weirdities” like the timing of the All-Star Break. It’s actually a symptom of peoples’ inherent laziness. July 31 is really the “Non-Waiver Trading Deadline”. Up until 4:30 Eastern time yesterday, if teams wanted to trade players, they could just work out the details of a deal and do it. From now until the end of the season, though, the players have to clear waivers.

Um, what?

Waivers basically means that every team in baseball gets to meddle in the dealmaking. This gets ugly to talk about in the abstract, so let’s use an example to make it concrete.

The Mariners desperately need a pitcher. In a fit of insanity, they call up the Giants and say they’re interested in Barry Zito*. The Giants, no fools they, agree that sounds pretty good. They’d love to get rid of him and get something in return, but since it’s July 32, they can’t just cut a deal. Instead, they put Barry on waivers. Now every team in the major leagues (including the Mariners) can say “Sure, we’ll take him.” In this case, since the Mariners and Giants are in different leagues, all 14 National League teams and five American League teams would have a chance to speak up before it got to the Mariners. The Mariners are probably out of luck; even if nobody in the National League wanted him, somebody would probably claim him just to prevent the Giants from getting something good in trade. The Rockies are division rivals with the Giants, and they’re thinking that if the Giants get rid of Zito and possibly pick up a decent hitter, they’re going to be serious trouble. So the Rockies make a claim on him.

Now the Rockies have two days to arrange a trade. They’re not really interested in Zito, and they’re certainly not interested in picking up the rest of his contract (around $7,000,000 for the rest of this year and $18,000,000 for next year, or $7,000,000 to make him go away). So they don’t offer much, and the Giants say “screw it.” They can either pull him back off waivers, or they can wash their hands of him. If they wash their hands, the Rockies pay the Giants a nominal fee ($20,000) and they’re stuck with Zito. If they pull him back, they can always put him on waivers again–but if they do, they can’t pull him back a second time: they have to either work out a trade with the claiming team or just give him up.

* In reality, the Giants would be more likely to just put Zito on waivers to see if there’s any interest, rather than waiting for someone to come to them with a deal. But it’s funnier this way. And “it makes a better story is why.

As I said, that’s a mess. You can see why people just call July 31 the trade deadline and let it go at that. Surprisingly enough, trades do happen after the non-waiver deadline, but they’re not as common as before. Incidentally, there’s another trade deadline as well: any player traded after August 31 cannot play in the playoffs. Naturally, trades are even rarer in September than in August.

So what did all of this mean for Our Team (the Mariners)? Absolutely nothing. The Mariners are apparently following Polonius’ advice (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…to thine own self be true”). They neither traded away Rauuuuuuuul (or anyone else) for prospects nor sacrificed prospects for a player who might help them now.  Well, OK, they traded Robert Andino to the Pirates for the famous “Player To Be Named Later” or cash.  But that hardly counts as Andino has been in the minors since late May and most people had forgotten he was even with the Mariners.

That discussion of hope from a couple of weeks ago still applies. Where are we with that? Well, they came up a little short on continuing the hot streak after the All-Star Break; rather than being no worse than four games under .500 at the end of July, they’re actually seven under and will need to go 31 and 24 the rest of the way to reach respectability. Not impossible, but not likely either. So what do we hope for now?

Well, we can watch Rauuuuuuuul go after that over-40 home run record (though it should be noted that he hasn’t hit one since the All-Star Break). We can continue to enjoy the development of their infield; their hot bats may have cooled off a little, and they’re having a few off days here and there, but still a big step up from recent memory. We continue to keep our fingers crossed for the young pitchers developing in the minors. We start thinking about possible trades next winter. And we keep waiting for a miracle.