The addition of the second Wild Card slot in both leagues has certainly increased the intrigue surrounding the playoff race as we enter the stretch drive in August. Plenty of teams still look like they have a shot at earning a chance to play a one-game playoff for a berth in the American League Division Series. Let’s take a look at how the race is shaping up in the American League. GB represents how many games the team is behind in the Wild Card race and does not represent where they sit in their respective division races. Los Angeles Angels | 68-49, +4.5 GB The Angels have a four-and-a-half game cushion for the first of two Wild Card slots, but got dealt a blow to their rotation on Sunday with news that Tyler Skaggs will require season-ending Tommy John surgery. The 23-year was enjoying his first full season of big league action and threw 118 innings across 18 starts. He ends his rookie campaign with a 4.30 ERA, 3.55 FIP, and 3.67 xFIP, and will be shelved for the entire 2015 season as well. LA is rumored to be in the market for a starting pitcher to take the place of Skaggs and will rely on Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago in the back of the rotation for the time being. Mike Trout and Erick Aybar have lead the majors’ second best offense with 550 runs scored and Albert Pujols has chipped in a solid season as well now that he’s healthy. Josh Hamilton still remains an x-factor in the Angels offense as he can be a difference-maker when he’s healthy and hitting the ball out of the park like he can, but his 30.5 percent strikeout rate is a problem, even by his standards. The Halos have closed the gap on the division leading Oakland Athletics, but may have to settle for a one-game playoff to stick around in the postseason. They shored up their bullpen prior to the Trade Deadline and aside from the loss of Skaggs, don’t have any significant holes at the moment. Kansas City Royals | 63-53, —- The Royals have been red hot of late and are winners of nine of their previous ten games. Although their offense has been below average, their pitching staff has a 3.58 ERA, good for tenth-best in baseball. Led by free-agent-to-be James Shields, the rotation has gotten excellent production out of Jason Vargas and the emerging Yordano Ventura. The Royals bullpen has also been outstanding with Wade Davis and Greg Holland playing key roles. Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez have lead the offense with some help from outfielder Lorenzo Cain who’s building on a solid 2013 season with a 106 wRC+ and 16 stolen bases. Kansas City made modest deals at the deadline picking up veteran relievers Jason Frasor and Scott Downs but could be in good shape if Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer are able to heat up offensively. The Royals can get by for now on their pitching, but the bats need to start carrying their weight or the postseason drought will continue for the club. [pullquote]The Cleveland Indians took two of three from the Yankees over the weekend and now find themselves five games back in the Wild Card chase, but could take the form of a long shot if they don’t go on a hot streak in the very near future.[/pullquote] Seattle Mariners | 62-55, 1.5 GB Lead by the best pitching staff in the majors, the Mariners have kept themselves in the race despite an offsense that doesn’t show up at least once a week. Felix Hernandez is in the midst of a Cy Young calibre season Hisashi Iwakuma has been as good a No.2 starter as any other team has to offer. The bullpen has also been unbelievable with a 2.33 ERA and the ever-erratic Fernando Rodney who is second in the American League in saves. The club also received a boost with the return of James Paxton to the rotation after he missed the bulk of the season with a lat injury. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager have been stalwarts in the lineup that received some much needed support on July 31st with the acquisitions of Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia. Dustin Ackley has been red hot the past several weeks and if Kendrys Morales wakes up from his slumber, the M’s could have a playoff-calibre one-through-five in their lineup. Michael Saunders should also return from injury within the next week and will push Endy Chavez, who’s played a regular role in the lineup, to the bench which will further improve the lineup. Seattle’s gotten a near-historic performance from their pitching staff and it would be a shame to see it wasted due to their offensive troubles. If they can keep up the solid play — they just took three of four from the Chicago White Sox — then it’s possible three AL West teams could qualify for playoff spots, but the offense is going to need to step it up for that to happen. Toronto Blue Jays | 63-56, 1.5 GB The Blue Jays were the team to beat heading into the 2013 season, but after a disappointing year lost to injuries, they’re now within arms reach of their first playoff appearance in two decades. The club had lead the AL East for most of the last month-plus, but the resurgent Baltimore Orioles have distances themselves from the pack with a five game lead. Toronto’s offense — fourth best in baseball with 532 runs scored — features a pair of premier sluggers in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but the latter hit the disabled list in early July and is just setting out on a rehab assignment. Jose Reyes has remained healthy this year and helped offset the lost contributions of Encarnacion, Adam Lind, and Brett Lawrie who’ve all spent significant time on the disabled list. Pitching has been the Jays weakness this year as the staff’s 4.08 ERA is the seventh worst in baseball. R.A. Dickey has been good, but not the ace he was two years ago. Mark Buehrle had an outstanding start to the season that netted him an All-Star selection, but has struggled in his last couple starts. Rookie Marcus Stroman has taken the reigns of the rotation and has been a huge plus for the Jays with his 3.02 FIP in 13 starts including a two-run nine inning performance on Saturday — he was not credited with a complete game since the contest went into extra innings. The bullpen has been steady but unspectacular. Toronto elected to stand pat at the trade deadline despite a clear need for a top of the rotation starter and possibly a middle infielder. They were reluctant to include their top prospects Aaron Sanchez, who’s pitching out of the bullpen, and Stroman and obviously were unwilling to meet the price tags of the elite starters that were available. The club will get a huge boost when Encarnacion returns, but it appears as though their pitching could end up being the reason they don’t reach the postseason. New York Yankees | 61-56, 2.5 GB If there’s one team that you can’t ever count out, it’s the Yankees. Despite having a rotation held together by duct tape — quite literally as Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda are on the disabled list — New York has gotten another solid season out of veteran starter Hiroki Kuroda and Brandon McCarthy, whom they acquired prior to the deadline, has also pitched well. Dellin Betances and David Robertson have shined in the bullpen while Shane Greene has been effective in his first taste of major league action as well. The Yankees spent big on their offense in the winter adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, but have still gotten below average run production on the year. Derek Jeter, now playing in the final months of his career, has had a decent season at the plate while Brett Gardner has been the team’s most productive batter with his 127 wRC+. Health has once again been a factor for Mark Teixeira who’s put together a decent season with 19 home runs, and the club has managed to patch holes around the infield with Stephen Drew and Chase Headley — both were acquired prior to the deadline. New York wasn’t going to pack it in for the Captain’s final season, but it’s difficult to see them making a serious push considering their lack of pitching depth and aging roster. That could change if Tanaka is able to return, but that’s no sure thing at the moment.Go!

The Los Angeles Dodgers find themselves in an enviable yet difficult position in which they have too many good outfielders. There’s an awful lot of talent between the trio of Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier but injuries have limited the playing time and effectives of all three over the last couple seasons and it’s been rare to see a time when a spot on the disabled list isn’t occupied by at least one of them. Add in superstar slugger Yasiel Puig and top prospect Joc Pederson who’s ready at Triple-A and you presumably have five guys for three spots — and that isn’t including one Scott Van Slyke who could be a useful pick up for a team like the Seattle Mariners. There’s no question that despite their seemingly limitless payroll the Dodgers would love to get out from one of Crawford, Kemp, or Ethier’s contracts. Not including what’s still owed for 2014, Crawford is due $62.25 million over the next three seasons, Kemp is owed $107 million through 2019, and Ethier is owed $56 million including a buyout of his vesting option for 2018. At one time or another all three of the outfielders were some of the best in baseball and would’ve garnered plenty of interest had they been available by trade. How quickly things change. Normally having overpaid former superstars occupying roster spots wouldn’t be a problem for the Dodgers, but they appear to be very interested in getting Pederson to the big league level, ideally before the end of the 2014 season. He’s currently destroying Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .327/.452/.584 line and his defensive abilities are very highly regarded. Pederson is still just 22-years old but is in his fourth minor league season and it looks as though he’s done verything Los Angeles could’ve hoped for in the minors. Obviously Puig isn’t going anywhere and manager Don Mattingly would be silly not to keep the enigmatic star in the lineup everyday, but that leaves two outfield spots between Crawford, Ethier, Kemp, and Van Slyke. At first glance that doesn’t appear to be such a problem considering the injury history of the aforementioned trio and the luxury of having a couple of very good bats on the bench late in the game, but it’d be very difficult to add Pederson to that mix and maintain much roster flexibility. Now there’s always the possibility that the Dodgers could pull off a trade for Kemp in the coming week, he’s said to be very open to going elsewhere, but this situation is far more likely to be resolved in the offseason. So, could that hypothetically make Van Slyke the most likely current Dodger outfielder to go if and when Pederson is summoned? He certainly seems like he’d be the easiest to move. [pullquote]This year the Dodgers have primarily employed Van Slyke in left field but he’s seen some action in center and has made five starts at first base where he’s logged just over 100 innings in his major league career.[/pullquote] The soon to be 28-year old Van Slyke has put together a decent 2014 campaign with a .259/.387/.504 triple slash line and eight home runs while playing slightly above average defence in right field and average defence in center according to UZR. The son of current Mariners first base coach Andy Van Slyke may not be the flashy big-name offensive addition M’s fans have hoped for, but on paper he certainly could plug some holes. He’s shown some home run power during his time in the minors and for his short major league career has 17 in 143 games played. His right-handed bat would also help balance the glut of left-handed hitters the M’s have near the top of the order. More importantly he’s handled left-handed pitching very well this year with a 214 wRC+ while seeing the majority of his at bats in the fifth and sixth spot in the lineup. Van Slyke excels in the on base department and boasts a 12.6 percent walk rate so far in his young career and a 15.3 percent mark in 2014 alone. Perhaps if he was able to hit for a higher batting average he’d be an excellent candidate to hit in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, but he’s the type of player that can fit practically anywhere in a lineup and his ability to get on base could play well for for the top of the order if he hit in the eighth or ninth spot. In a way Van Slyke is similar to Michael Saunders: he’s good in the outfield, has a decent arm and decent speed, and some home run power while hitting for a passable average — he basically does everything well, but he doesn’t excel in one particular area. Van Slyke is also three months Saunders’ senior. The pair could make a very interesting platoon as Saunders has had better success against right-handed pitching in his career. It’s also fair to say that the M’s already have a player like Van Slyke in Saunders based on the reasons above and there’s no reason to double up. Van Slyke would be an upgrade on Endy Chavez and Stefen Romero in right field and should have no problem taking at bats from Dustin Ackley in left. He doesn’t seem quite good enough in center to push incumbent James Jones to right field, but the outfield would definitely become more athletic. Depending on what’s happening with Corey Hart and Logan Morrison on any given day mostly depending on match ups, Van Slyke could hypothetically slot in at first and his bat is good enough to start as the team’s designated hitter. The big question, as with any potential trade target, is what’s he going to cost to bring in? While the Dodgers don’t have any glaring holes on their ball club they could definitely use some bullpen depth and another option for the infield. Hanley Ramirez is a free agent after this season and Alexander Guerrero isn’t quite ready to play everyday in the majors, which could makes Nick Franklin an enticing piece to work with given Dee Gordon‘s flexibility. The Dodgers could also have interest in one of Seattle’s relievers, be it Brandon Maurer, Dominic Leone, Tom Wilhelmsen, or whomever, as a potential return as well. The Dodgers are also in a position were they could take on a prospect with some serious upside but is still several years away from the majors like a Gabriel Guerrero for instance. Now Seattle is said to be pursing Marlon Byrd as an outfield upgrade but the major hitch in a potential deal is the Philadelphia Philles asking price for the veteran. Not to mention that 2016 vesting option Byrd wants guaranteed in exchange for waiving his no-trade clause to come to Seattle. Compared with Van Slyke, Byrd is the superior hitter and had a very impressive age-35 season in which he amassed 4.1 fWAR and a 143 wRC+ in 2013. The now 36-year old isn’t a great defender, but he’s not a complete liability in the outfield. He will be owed $8 million in 2015 and 2016 however, should his option be exercised. Van Slyke won’t be arbitration eligible until after the 2015 season so he’s a cost-controlled asset, and should the Mariners want to get really creative they could possibly explore using him in an offseason trade for a bigger fish should they acquire the 27-year old prior to the trade deadline. Or, they could really upgrade the offence and pick up both Van Slyke and Byrd. Again, they’re not perfect players, but they’re very usable within the M’s lineup. There’s no reason to believe that the Dodgers are ready to deal Van Slyke, Mattingly has recently described him as the team’s best defensive outfielder, but he’d definitely be the easiest outfielder to move should the club decide to do so. Reports indicate that Seattle has many conversations on the go about several outfielders, and should Van Slyke become available he could be a solid fit.Go!

The Seattle Mariners hit the halfway point of the 2014 season over the weekend. The club currently is a Wild Card leader, 1.5 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals. The M’s have done it with pitching, improved defense and timely hitting. We can talk for days about how the lineup needs a few upgrades, but the task at hand is assessing what’s occurred thus far. Grades do not reflect a player’s value to the team the way Wins Above Replacement is designed, but solely to place an appraisal on the player’s performance considering his role and expectations. Starting Pitching: B+ Despite the loss of James Paxton after just two starts, Hisashi Iwakuma for seven and Taijuan Walker not available for the entire first half, the Mariners’ rotation has been solid, ranking No. 9 in the league in FIP and No. 2 in innings pitched. The unit figures to get better with the return of Walker and getting Iwakuma a full slate of starts. If Paxton returns healthy, too, the Mariners will boast one of the top rotations in the circuit, led by the American League’s No. 1 ace King Felix Hernandez, a legit 1A in Iwakuma and three live arms in Paxton, Walker and Roenis Elias. There’s depth with Chris Young and the club is rumored to be seeking a mid-rotation veteran such as Jason Hammel or Brandon McCarthy. Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer can serve as emergency options, but both are better suited for the bullpen in the interim. Felix Hernandez: A+ Hernandez has never been better and not many have. He’s paced to top 10 fWAR for the first time in the American League since Pedro Martinez in 1999 and leads or is among the top 5 in innings, K/BB, FIP, strikeout percentage, batting average against, WHIP and ground ball percentage. Also, Hernandez leads the league in HR/9. He’s been ultra efficient, throwing fewer than 100 pitches per start (96.4) yet averaging more than seven innings per outing. He’s on a run through Sunday that includes nine straight starts going at least seven innings and yielding two runs or fewer and he ended June 3-1 with a 1.22 ERA and 54-6 K/BB in 44 1/3 innings. The M’s ace has had the great changeup and curveball in most starts, has commanded his fastball and sinker consistently and he’s used his slider in the right situations. Opposing batters have not figured out the right-hander, and that’s because he has to make a mistake to get hurt and he hasn’t made many at all. The King should be the starter in the All-Star game if the timing works out for him, with his only real competitor in terms of performance being Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees. As good as Hernandez was in 2010 when he won the Cy Young, he’s been better in 2014. Not many believed that was all that possible, but nobody that knows anything about King Felix is all that surprised, either. Hisashi Iwakuma: A- Iwakuma has been very good, sans his last two starts that could be partially blamed on a sore neck. He’s been efficient as usual, but his splitter is being challenged by left-handed batters; they’re laying off it and forcing Iwakuma to either throw it in the zone or use something else. Expect more fastballs and curveballs to lefty bats in the coming starts. Iwakuma’s the perfect No. 2 starter behind Hernandez, leading into Elias, Paxton and Walker, if the club gets healthy enough to see such a rotation. He’s as unique as any right-hander in baseball in terms of his delivery, deception and stuff and his slider has been a better weapon this season than last, explaining his dominance over right-handed batters — .209/.241/.351. He’ll get back to his usual eight-inning self soon enough, warranting many of his third-place Cy Young votes from a year ago. Roenis Elias: B+ Elias has been more consistent and effective than anyone could have expected. Despite his age — 25 — he’s inexperienced in the states but his athleticism shouts every start and his pithcability is well beyond that of most rookies. Elias may own one of top few left-handed curveballs in the American League and his changeup is better now than in April. Fastball command is a focal point for the second half, as is the Cuban’s workload, which currently is paced for nearly 210 innings. I’d imagine the M’s will try and suppress his innings after the All-Star break, perhaps even skipping a few starts and spreading out his innings and limiting Elias to 180-190 for the year. Chris Young: B Like Elias, Young has performed beyond all expectations considering his history of shoulder problems. He’s doing it with angles, mixing his pitches and above-average command of his two breaking balls. Young, too, may be a candidate for some workload relief at some point after taking the ball 15 consecutive times through the rotation while tallying 91 1/3 innings and 1465 pitches along the way. The right-hander hasn’t thrown more than 1847 pitches in any season since 2007 and hasn’t surpassed the 115-inning mark since the same season. Erasmo Ramirez: D- The only thing stopping Ramirez from getting a straight ‘F’ is his last four outings. In those starts he’s failed to go deep into games, but he’s allowed just two earned runs in those 20 innings and has surrendered just one home run. He’s lost his above-average control, however, issuing 16 bases on balls in that span, and I’m still concerned that his dropped arm slot is ultimately a problem. The stuff has returned but Ramirez has always been a strike thrower. Until now. James Paxton: INCTaijuan Walker: INC Paxton has made just two starts — two very good ones — and Walker did not see the majors in the first half. Walker’s return inserts a fairly fresh arm into the rotation — he’s totaled just 30 2/3 innings on rehab — and if he’s on his game will be an easy, significant upgrade over what the Mariners had been getting from Ramirez and Maurer. Paxton may be on his way back, too, but both remain INCOMPLETES until they make numerous starts. Bullpen: A+ The Mariners relief corps led all of the American League in ERA (2.59), holds (45) and FIP (3.16) through the first half. They ranked No. 3 in K/BB percentage, No. 2 in strikeout rate and led the AL in LOB percentage at 80.3, perhaps the most critical job of middle relievers and setup arms. With Maurer joining the unit, at least for the short term, the club has four wipeout options to go to after the fifth inning. Fernando Rodney: A At times it’s like a ride at the state fair, but Rodney has done the job and then some. Never mind the saves (23), just look at the strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and FIP (2.44), as well as a strong LOB rate of 78.8 percent. He’s avoided the home run ball and induced nearly 50 percent ground balls. Rodney has lengthened the Mariners bullpen and allowed the club to go other premium arms in high leverage roles while never burning their last option. Danny Farquhar: B+ Farquhar has been good, yet not quite as dominant as he was after being called up last season. He’s still punching out batters at better than one per inning — 9.87/9 to be exact — but the walks still are up and the ground balls are down. He’s been terrific, however, stranding runners — 80.1 percent — and has introduced during the first half a more two-seamer heavy arsenal that figures to be better for him in the long run. For the record, that’s why his average fastball is down to 93.4 mph from the 94.6 he posted a year ago. When he throws the fastball, it’s more often the two-seam variety than the four-seam. Fewer walk-driven appearances get Farquhar an ‘A’ by season’s end and we’re likely to see him mix in the changeup a little more than the 2.2 percent usage over the first half. Dom Leone: A- Leone, who is similar to Farquhar in that he’s a fastball-cutter reliever, differs in the breaking ball — slider versus Farquhar’s curveball — and in what he attempts to do with his fastball. He’s sat 93-95 mph with his heater, often keeping it down and generating some ground balls. He doesn’t use his cutter as much as Farquhar, instead opting for more four-seamers, often above the 95 mph mark and up in the zone. He’s throwing strikes and has adapted well to being used a little more often this season in the majors than he ever was in the minors. Leone never was used on back-to-back days before Lloyd McClendon went to him two straight days in Houston in early May, and again in Oakland on the same road trip. In all, he’s done so on five occasions, failing twice, then doing the job the final three times. Yoervis Medina: A- Medina’s season numbers don’t tell the story of his first half all that well. He walked 12 batters in 22 innings through May but has issued but two in June while striking out seven in 7 2/3 innings. The slider has been sharp and he’s throwing his changeup here and there over his last few appearances, flashing another plus pitch. If Medina is able to command his fastball this way on a regular basis, he’s no longer just a seventh-inning arm. If the changeup becomes a real weapon with consistency on top of that, and we’re talking about a solid eight-inning reliever who can occasionally close. Tom Wilhelmsen: C+ Wilhelmsen’s work on his fastball command is coming along well, but while the bite is mostly back on his once-devastating curveball, he’s still inconsistent with it at its release point. He’s thrown more two-seam fastballs since early May and has even toyed with a cutter-slider at 86-88 mph. His change still is a pitch he’s throwing more than he needs to, in my estimation, but despite his 4.52 BB/9, the former closer has been a useful piece in the Mariners’ bullpen, often covering multiple innings. At times he shows glimpses of his former self, but just as often he’s allowing baserunners and remains susceptible to the home run ball when behind in the count. Brandon Maurer: INC It’s two outings, so remember the qualifier here, but Maurer has sat 94-96 mph, touching as high as 99 and showing his put-away slider at 88-91 and a solid changeup in those three innings, which were very similar to his short stint out of the bullpen in Tacoma before being recalled. Maurer hasn’t walked a batter in his new role, has fanned six of the 10 he’s faced and it hasn’t come against the San Diego Padres. He gets an incomplete grade for obvious reasons — he’d get an ‘F’ as a starter — but there’s a chance he receives an ‘A’ coming out of the bullpen if the club keeps him up beyond his current stint and status level. Joe Beimel: B Beimel is such a perfect fit in the M’s bullpen it’s laughable to compare him to any of the other arms, including the other southpaw. The veteran doesn’t strike out a lot of batters — just 15.4 percent of the batters he’s faced — and actually Beimel is walking more batters than the club would prefer at 3.16 per nine innings. But he hides the ball well, gets ground balls — 49.3 percent) and strands runners at a rate that suggests he’s an elite reliever (87.5 percent). Beimel hasn’t allowed a home run to anyone and left-handed batters have just seven hits and a walk in 48 plate appearances (.183). Furthermore, Beimel has yielded but two extra-base hits to lefties. Right-handed batters have managed a .313/.403/.404 line against him, however, which has been fairly typical of his career splits. Charlie Furbush: B+ Furbush has recovered from a poor first five weeks of the season to return to the dominant lefty he was a year ago. Since May 5, Furbush has allowed 10 hits in 15 frames, striking out 16 batters and issuing just two bases on balls. Opponents are batting just .189 off him in that span, and left-handed batters are just 4-for-30 off him since May 13. Furbush gets the added “+” for holding righties to a .240/.327/.396 line, making him useful in the middle innings beyond the left-on-left matchups. Lineup — Offense | Defense: C+ The Mariners are scoring but four runs per game, which is No. 11 in the American League, but Safeco Field is responsible for a little of that and the trends suggest the club has at least a shot to improve at the plate organically, largely with Brad Miller’s June turnaround and the signs that Logan Morrison may be an upgrade to either Corey Hart or Justin Smoak, if not both. There’s also the chance that Hart and/or Smoak can contribute better than they were, with Hart the more likely candidate to do so, particularly versus left-handed pitching. But the half is over and the grades for it stand alone. James Jones: C+ Jones has sacrificed some of his natural power for a shorter swing more engineered for contact. It’s showing in his .275 average, but he’s not drawing walks — just nine in over 200 plate appearances — and the power is pretty much nonexistent as suggested by his IsoP of .064. He’s played a sound center field and is a plus on the bases, however, and combined with his contact rates that have helped him produce something remotely passable at the top of the lineup, earning him a passing grade overall. Michael Saunders: B- Saunders would receive a B+ if he were able to stay healthy, in rhythm and producing consistently. Some of that wasn’t his fault or even the bad luck of an injury as McClendon sat him for the better part of April. Still, the 27-year-old has been a solid defender and baserunner and his .266/.310/.424 triple-slash is the third-best on the roster. He’s been even better on the road — .298/.330/.447 — and brings lineup versatility, as he’s capable of performing at the top or the bottom of the order. Robinson Cano: A- Despite a lack of ideal power as is standard of Cano’s game, he’s producing at the plate, defending and leading, and the value of his presence in the lineup everyday cannot be understated. Cano isn’t Safeco proof thus far, but he’s hit three of his five long balls in Seattle and the more those around him in the lineup produce the more power he’ll display. Kyle Seager: A- Seager is becoming a verb. Yes, a verb. The third baseman is batting .357/.425/.657 at Safeco Field this season and .277/.347/.490 overall. He ranks No. 2 among American League third basemen in home runs with 12, RBI with 55 and is No. 3 in on-base percentage. If clutch is your thing, Seager is batting .319/.380/.611 with runners in scoring position and .309/.380/.680 after the sixth inning. The dude is deserving of an all-star nod, and the love affair fans have with big names such as Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria shouldn’t keep him away from Target Field next month. Justin Smoak: D- Smoak’s saved from an ‘F’ grade because he plays above-average defense and most of all because he tried to play hurt since late April. That isn’t to say he would have been ‘good’ if he didn’t get hurt, but for a big guy like Smoak, a pulled quad is quite restricting at the plate. I still believe his ceiling as a hitter is a .240/.320/.430 type bat who is a decent bet to perform decently as a platoon hitter versus right-handed pitching, but he has to be graded on what he’s done at the plate through the first 81 games and that isn’t much. Corey Hart: INC Hart was pretty solid in April, posting a .337 on-base percentage and .453 slugging, then scuffled in May before succumbing to a hamstring pull that forced him to the disabled list six weeks ago. There’s more hope for Hart than for Smoak, but he’ll have to stay healthy if the M’s are going to benefit from his abilities to hit for power, get on base some and stabilize the lineup after Cano. Logan Morrison: INC Like Hart, Morrison hasn’t played enough — just 26 games — to grade him fairly, but his recent emergence is promising. After starting the year 3-for-20 then hitting the disabled list, Morrison is batting .258/.309/.484 with four home runs. There’s a track record of production under his name and he appears unfazed by Safeco Field where he’s batting .265/.315/.469 for the year. Brad Miller: C- Miller has flipped the table on his season, batting .302 since May 29, cleaning up his defense at shortstop and getting to a few balls some shortstops can’t. His season numbers remain ugly but he’s been solid for four weeks now and his peripherals support his continuing to produce, including better contact rates, more hits to center field and left field and the maintaining of his power as he improves his average and on-base marks. Mike Zunino: A Zunino is the youngest regular catcher in all of baseball and has proven he can hit for power, call a game, receive, block and throw at above-average levels. He ranks No. 1 in baseball in stealing strikes and No. 8 in giving away the least number of strikes. Hes also thrown out 15 runners attempting to steal a base. Yes, he strikes out a lot — 33.2 percent of his PAs — and he doesn’t walk — 4.0 percent — but the pop is real and growing and he’s irreplaceable behind the plate. Dustin Ackley: F Ackley appears to have taken fairly well to left field after a rough first few weeks of this season, but with the exception of a few solid weeks in April, Ackley has been as bad as he’s ever been. He went .221/.287/.395 in May and in June he actually got worse, posting a .173/.244/.227 line. He’s making contact more than ever and still walking at an acceptable 7.3 percent rate, but his line drive percentage is down to 17.2 and he’s hitting more fly balls, including infield pop ups. It remains my belief that until he’s willing and/or able to avoid opening up his front side so early and with such torque, he will not hit with any consistency. Endy Chavez: INC Chavez hasn’t been up long enough to grade, really, but like Jones the acceptable batting average is empty — no on-base percentage and no power — and he doesn’t bring the speed and defense element in the same fashion. Bench: D+ This group includes the backup catcher, a pair of right-handed hitting outfielder who do not play with any sort of regularity or consistency and the club’s utility player. The ‘D+’ grade is mostly due to usage, but it does include the poor performances of the group as a whole. Willie Bloomquist: C- Bloomquist is batting .275/.292/.353 in limited duty and he’s actually played an adequate second base, shortstop and third base — and occasional outfield — when asked to do so. He’s had a great June (.348/.375/.435) after an awful May (.172/.167/.310) but is a useful piece on the roster and appears to be settling into McClendon’s preferred role for him. John Buck: C- I believe Buck needs to play a little more the second half of the year so the club doesn’t burn out Zunino. Buck has started just 17 games at catcher despite being a decent enough receiver. This lack of time certainly has impacted his offensive production, which has always been limited to power and nothing in terms of on-base percentage. He has, however, drawn eight walks in 84 plate appearances this season, where Zunino has 11 in 254 trips to the batter’s box. Stefen Romero: D+ Again, this grade is blamed on the club’s usage of him as much as anything else. It’s difficult for any hitter to get his timing down when he starts just 29 games in three months, let alone when it’s a rookie. Romero can hit — perhaps not quite enough to warrant regular time in a corner outfield spot on a contending team, but he can hit. The M’s just optioned him to Tacoma where he will play everyday and likely see the big club later in the summer. Romero did show he can handle left and right field, however, going from downright bad a year ago to passable in April to closing in on fringe-average the last 30 innings or so. Cole Gillespie: C+ Gillespie has used his experience to find a way to produce in the same role Romero has struggled. The 30-year-old is batting .257/.316/.329 in 33 games and has managed a .364 OBP versus left-handed pitching, which is when McClendon would like to use him most. He’s an above-average runner and average defender in left or right and is making contact — just 13 whiffs in 77 plate appearances. He’s even swiped two bags and is working the count well — 4.22 pitches per plate appearance. Lloyd McClendon | Field Staff: PASS While it’s impossible to truly evaluate the performance of a manager, bench coach, pitching coach, hitting coach, et al, it’s quite clear the staff has hit the right buttons more often than not. The depth of their teachings, leadership and decisions has reached the rotation (Young, Elias) bullpen (Wilhelmsen, Medina, Furbush), and the regular lineup where the one can argue Miller is hitting now partly because of the manner in which the staff chose to manage him during his slump. Furthermore, losing streaks do not appear to faze this roster, despite their relative inexperience and an overall lack of offensive talent and production. Front Office: INC The personnel folks made their mark signing Cano, Rodney and Hart and flipping Carter Capps for Logan Morrison. Some of those have worked, some haven’t, at least not yet. But the addition of Chris Young has been huge, as has the call-up of Dom Leone when the M’s decided it was no longer worth waiting out Hector Noesi. The grade remains incomplete for the season, however, since all but one of those moves was made before the season began. Jack Zduriencik and his staff will earn their grade over the next 60 days, as the non-waiver (July 31) and waiver (August 31) trade deadlines come and go. Overall: B- The team has pitched well from first pitch to final out, played very solid defense and has hit well with runners in scoring position (.266/.330/.434). They’re also one of the top five clubs in the league at getting in a runner from third base and fewer than two outs. Doing both of the aforementioned things well helps make up for the fact that they place fewer runners in scoring position and they get fewer runners to third base with less than two outs than do most other clubs. Whether or not they can keep up that pace remains to be seen, but the roster isn’t going to get worse from here on out, it’s going to get better, even if Zduriencik and his staff are unable to add a significant piece by the trade deadlines. Remember back in February and March when all fans wanted from the Seattle Mariners in 2014 was to avoid being virtually eliminated by the All-Star break and to have some meaningful games in August and perhaps even September? When the city just begged for jokes about the club being historically awful for a decade would subside for once and that the sun just shine down on the Emerald City Nine just a little bit? It’s all happening. And it may not stop there.Go!

As we pass the midway mark of June, the Seattle Mariners still sit above the .500 mark despite a struggling offence and a pitching staff that’s held together by a couple of surprise performers. There should be some reinforcements on the way however, as Corey Hart and Michael Saunders appear close to being sent out on rehab assignments and Justin Smoak began his on Wednesday night. Starter Taijuan Walker looks like he’s nearly ready to make his season debut with the big club as well after being activated from the disabled list last week and sent to Tacoma. But, with every player activated from the disabled list or called up, another has to be removed from the active roster to make room. Let’s take a look at a few players who may find themselves on the outside looking in as others begin to make their returns. Stefen Romero — OF/DH The 25-year old outfielder seems like the most likely candidate to be sent down once Saunders returns now that Logan Morrison is back from injury. Romero is now the owner of a .197 batting average on the year after picking up a double on Tuesday, bringing his hit total up to 26. At times this year the right-hander has looked overmatched and considering the fact he only has 411 plate appearances at Triple-A under his belt, it could very well be true. Combine his lack of upper minor experience with the fact he’s mostly assumed the role of designated hitter when he’s been in the M’s lineup consistently, and there’s reason to believe he may simply be struggling with all the adjustments he’s had to make. As is the case with most young players, the chance to re-focus and play everyday at Triple-A for a while could be just what Romero needs, although he does possess the right-handed bat that manager Lloyd McClendon seems to covet for the M’s roster. Endy Chavez — OF The veteran joined Seattle for a second tour of duty this year, but probably hasn’t produced enough to justify keeping him on the roster for much longer. Perhaps the biggest factor in Chavez’s favour is that should the M’s decide he’s the odd man out, they would likely designate him for assignment and end up losing him unless he’s alright with being sent back down to Triple-A. Although letting the 36-year old go would hurt the M’s outfield depth slightly, they really wouldn’t be losing much. At this point in his career Chavez isn’t much more than a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch-runner, and his 47 wRC+ across 55 plate appearances this season provides clear evidence that his offensive abilities are all but gone. Not to take away from Chavez however, as he seems to be a fairly well respected guy in the clubhouse and has provided some timely contributions at the top of the lineup this year, but realistically his loss wouldn’t be decimating in the least. Jesus Montero — DH This could be an interesting case. We’ve all heard the drama that has surrounded Montero over the last year — from his Biogenesis suspension to his lack of conditioning entering Spring Training — but he has managed to put up a decent .270/.345/.455 line in 255 plate appearances with Tacoma and has already popped a home run since being recalled. He does have a career 134 wRC+ against left handed pitching, but he’s essentially limited to designated hitter duties and offers little if any value elsewhere. And does the team really want to carry two designated hitters once Hart is back on the roster? Well, at least the previous regime did. Nevertheless, Montero can still be optioned back to Tacoma and that appears to be a likely scenario barring an offensive outburst in the next week. Logan Morrison — 1B/OF/DH This is another interesting case as Morrison has only been back with the big league club for a week after a lengthy rehab assignment. He has 3 hits in 19 plate appearances since returning and his season line now sits at a paltry .146/.222/.244 but it’s hard to really make much of his 2014 season yet with only a 15 game sample size. I’d be surprised if LoMo was sent down to make room on the roster since he’s actually been hitting the ball fairly well in the past week — it seems like every night he’s hit a ball to the warning track — and it’s not as if Smoak and Romero have done enough to take all of the first base and DH at-bats away from Morrison. Erasmo Ramirez — SP It seems to be a forgone conclusion that once Walker is ready to make his return Ramirez will be sent back down to Triple-A. This much shouldn’t be a surprise however, as both Roenis Elias and Chris Young have done enough to hang on to their rotation spots at least until James Paxton is ready to return. Despite not giving up a run in his previous two starts, Ramirez’s ERA still sits at 5.27 and his FIP at 5.77 for the year. One could even argue that it was just by luck that Ramirez didn’t yield a run in those two starts as he walked a total of nine batters in the nine and two-thirds innings he pitched. Control issues have plagued the right-hander this season and he has only managed to last six or more innings in three of his nine starts. There’s still work to do for the 24-year old, and perhaps it’s not time to give up on him entirely, yet. For my money, Chavez and Romero will eventually find themselves as the odd ones out once Saunders and Smoak are back on the roster, and I’d also be willing to guess that it’ll be Montero getting sent down once Hart returns. I’m not convinced that the club has seen enough from Morrison yet and Cole Gillespie has actually been a decent fourth outfielder for the club this year. Although Gillespie hasn’t provided anything particularly special in his first year with Seattle, he does own an 81 wRC+ for the season and has been just slightly below average in the field and on the base paths according to FanGraphs. It’s probably in both parties’ best interest to have Romero see some time at Triple-A in the near future and like it was mentioned previously, losing Chavez isn’t all that big of a deal anyway. Romero does appear to have a skill set that could potentially become useful down the road or perhaps he could be a fill-in piece in a trade to acquire a bat or another starter. Whatever the case, sitting on the bench or going 0-for-4 when he does play isn’t beneficial for the young outfielder.Go!

The Seattle Mariners have suffered from the loss of three starting pitchers for large chunks of the 2014 season. Hisashi Iwakuma missed all of April, James Paxton made two starts and then hit the disabled list with no return in sight and Taijuan Walker has yet to appear in a big-league game due to shoulder issues. Left-hander Danny Hultzen, who would have been a candidate for a rotation spot in March, had shoulder surgery and will miss all of 2014. Still, the M’s are 28-28 for the year and while many are singing the praises of right-hander Chris Young, and the veteran has been very solid in filling a spot in the rotation, the same praises can be bestowed upon rookie left-hander Roenis Elias. The 25-year-old skipped Triple-A Tacoma and has been able to adjust to major-league hitters and sustain some early-season success through his first 12 starts. In nine of those 12 outings he’s yielded three earned runs or fewer and allowed just four baserunners in Sunday’s complete-game, three-hit shutout versus the Detroit Tigers. He walked just one and struck out eight in what was his best performance yet. After the game manager Lloyd McClendon was quoted as saying Elias “has as good a stuff as any left-hander in the league,” and while there is some assumed hyperbole attached to that in the eyes on many, the skipper isn’t all that wrong. Yes, I know, ‘wrong’ is an absolute. Managers, however, often speak in a way in which the listener has to realize the level of hyperbole. McClendon may not have intended for any hypberole, but he’s not that far off no matter which way one analyzes it. Elias, versus the other left-handed starters in the American League, has comparable stuff to most. The few that stand out above Elias are just that — few. Chris Sale comes to mind as one whose stuff is a tick above, as does 2012 Cy Young winner David Price. That may be it. Derek Holland? Elias’ stuff is comparable, if not flat out better. C.J. Wilson? Same story. Mark Buehrle gets by with guile, smarts and command. Elias’ ‘stuff’ ranks above. There is a nice group of lefties with good stuff. But only the aforementioned two go beyond Elias’ to fare incomparable. Not CC Sabathia, not Tyler Skaggs. Not Martin Perez, pre-injury, not Jason Vargas, not Jose Quintana, Tommy Milone, Drew Pomeranz or Hector Santiago, not John Danks or Wei-Yin Chen. Dallas Keuchel? Nope. He has better command, for sure, which sets him apart. Elias is comparable in stuff to Jon Lester. Scott Kazmir, too. Both have better command and more consistent third pitches, but in terms of pure stuff, Elias is right there. The Cuban is living 90-93 with the four-seam fastball, occasionally mixing in a 90-91 mph two-seamer. He throws an average slurve-like breaking ball to left-handers but the curveball is plus — sometimes plus-plus — and his changeup, which began the year as a very inconsistent 35-grade offering, is flashing plus and more often is traveling to toward the plate as an average or better pitch. He showed that Sunday to the Tigers’ right-handed dominant lineup. Essentially, Elias has given the Mariners as much or more than they could have expected, not only from him, but from Paxton, Walker or Hultzen, too. He’s rocking a below league-average FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is averaging more than six innings per start and ranks in the Top 25 in the AL in fWAR among starting pitchers, No. 4 among rookie starters. Saunders Soaring Outfielder Michael Saunders just finished the second-best full month of his career when he ended May with a .318/.357/.477 triple-slash, including four doubles, two triples and two home runs. He drove in 18 runs, drew seven walks and struck out 18 times in 100 plate appearances. For the year, Saunders is batting .275/.327/.435, all of which rank above the league-average for right fielders, the position Saunders is charged with more often than not. What’s one month mean, you ask? Not a whole lot. Hitters have good months often, yet to don’t back it up with more months of production. But Saunders isn’t a one-month wonder, really. In April, McClendon used Saunders sparingly — 36 sporadic at-bats. Throw that month away and add his May performance to his production the final three months of 2013 and what do you get? A .277 average .342 OBP and .455 slugging percentage. That’s a player, especially considering Saunders plays solid corner-outfield defense and runs the bases well. Among AL outfielders with 140 plate appearances or more, Saunders ranks No. 15 in fWAR and only one player ranked above him has fewer PAs — all others have 68 to 109 more trips to the plate. Sometimes players figure it out in their mid-to-late 20s. Jose Bautista didn’t better those numbers until 2010 at age 29. Carlos Gomez was 27 before he broke out at the plate. I’m not claiming Saunders is an all-star, but the 27-year-old has been productive when in the lineup for more than a half-season of plate appearances. That .277/.342/.455 line over nearly 350 PAs is comparable to what Adam Jones and Shane Victorino put up last season. It’s better than what Starling Marte and Alex Rios posted — the latter in significantly better lineups and home ballparks — and it’s also better than the likes of Andre Ethier, Nick Markakis and Torii Hunter. Michael Saunders is showing he’s a big leaguer.Go!

We’re starting a new feature here at Prospect Insider where we recognize a couple of outstanding performances by Seattle Mariner players in the previous month: one pitcher and one hitter. Without further ado, let’s take a look at a pair who’ve stood out among their teammates over the last 31 days, not that their excellence should be a surprise to anyone. Felix Hernandez, SP — 6 GS, 4-0, 42 2/3 IP, 2.74 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 2.90 xFIP, 36 K, 9 BB The King continued to be the crown jewel of the American League West after another solid month on the hill. Hernandez got off to a shaky start in May and it has since been discovered that he was dealing with an illness that likely hindered his performance to some degree. After giving up three runs, two earned, in five innings against the Houston Astros on May 2 — his shortest appearance of 2014 so far — Hernandez failed to record a strikeout during his 6 1/3 innings of work against the Oakland Athletics on May 7; the first time he started a game and didn’t strikeout a batter since August 19, 2008. It’s been uphill since for King Felix as he regained his health and won his next four starts while giving up just eight earned runs across 31 1/3 innings, and only one of those appearances was shorter than eight innings. In total Hernandez managed 36 strikeouts compared to just nine walks, and did not give up a home run. After a fabulous May, Felix has brought his production up to a 2.8 fWAR on the season, and is well on his way to matching or possibly exceeding last year’s 6.0 fWAR mark. Runner-UpHisashi Iwakuma, SP — 6 GS, 3-2, 43 2/3 IP, 3.09 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 3.11 xFIP, 29 K, 4 BB Robinson Cano, 2B — 117 PA, .355/.393/.458, 131 wRC+, 6 2B, 1 HR, 19 RBI Despite missing the last couple games of the month with a hand injury, Cano was a few home runs away from a spectacular performance across the board for the month of May. Dating back to April, the M’s prize free agent signee saw his 31-game streak of safely reaching base end on May 25 against the Astros. The second baseman was his usual self on the field and in the batter’s box, and even managed 14 multi-hit games over the past 31 days. If there was a knock on Cano’s May, it’d be the same one we’ve been hearing all year: the power hasn’t been there, yet. Of his 38 May hits, 30 of them were singles and just one was a home run — which brought his homer total on the year to a lofty two. Provided Cano is able to return to the lineup in the next couple days — he was a scratch in this afternoon’s victory as well — there’s no reason to have any concerns about Cano’s lack of power, especially when he’s getting on base at a near .400 clip. He’s also had no problem driving in runners either, and with Corey Hart on the disabled list and Justin Smoak being his usual self, he’s been a cornerstone of the Mariners’ offence; which is exactly what was expected of him when he was signed. Runner-UpMichael Saunders, OF — 100 PA, .318/.357/.477, 130 wRC+, 4 2B, 2 HR, 18 RBIGo!

Nearly one month after being sent down to Triple-A after a brief stint with the big league club, Nick Franklin finds himself back in a Seattle Mariner uniform once again after Corey Hart hit the disabled list. The top prospect has already managed to make his presence felt in the lineup during Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Texas Rangers, going 2-3 with a run scored and a run batted in. The right-hander was also hit by a pitch and stole a base while taking Hart’s place as the designated hitter role. As we heard the last time Franklin was called up, if he’s going to stick around in the majors, he’s going to be playing often and sitting on the bench as little as possible. This time around, there probably won’t be much of a problem with slotting the youngster in the lineup everyday so long as he’s producing. Hart was officially placed on the disabled list Tuesday with a grade-two hamstring strain and is expected to be out for four to six weeks. It’s an unfortunate case for the right-hander who has seen some struggles so far during his tenure as a Mariner, but barring a setback, he should be able to return to the lineup by the All-Star break. Perhaps the optimist’s approach to the injury is that it finally allows Seattle an opportunity to bring up the the owner of a .376/.481/.633 minor league line this year and immediately place him into the lineup –more on Brad Miller and the shortstop situation shortly. Franklin is expected to see some time at shortstop, outfield, DH, and possibly second base if Robinson Cano is assuming designated hitter duties. Much has been made of Miller’s struggles so far in 2014, and many have called for Franklin’s call-up and a demotion for the incumbent to come in short order. The M’s seem willing to let their struggling shortstop try and work his way out of it — at least for a little while longer — but there’s no doubt that having Franklin on the active roster makes the possibility of Miller seeing less playing time and a possible demotion all that more realistic should the struggles continue. Certainly there’s the potential that Franklin’s presence alone could help Miller snap out of his funk considering his everyday job could be on the line here, and that’d be especially true of Franklin continues to hit. Miller currently has just two hits alongside five walks in his last seven games which should be considered a positive, but there’s no doubt that the pressure is rising as each day passes. How much longer Miller will hold on to the starting job is unknown at this point, but one has to wonder when the club’s breaking point is with him will be. He’s reportedly been doing all the right things as far as most can tell — extra batting practice, one-on-one time with hitting coach Howard Johnson, and taking extra reps at short — but things simply haven’t translated into on-field production. If it’s a case where the problem is between the ears, it only gets more difficult to diagnose the problem and find some sort of solution. But, it is easy to forget that the calendar has yet to strike June so there’s certainly plenty of time for Miller to figure things out and start playing like he was expected to when he won the job in the spring. Although the M’s have downplayed the possibility of transitioning Franklin into an everyday outfield role the same way they did with Dustin Ackley, it may be the most realistic long term solution if the club plans to keep him in blue and teal beyond this season. The 23-year old Franklin has made a handful of minor league appearances in the outfield this season and started a game in his previous big league cameo, so it’s likely he’ll have an opportunity to start there in the next week. There’s no reason to break up the combination of James Jones and Michael Saunders at the top of the order unless necessary — the pair are also the club’s best defensive outfielders — which makes it possible that Franklin could start in left field with Ackley taking designated hitter duties for the game. The M’s are starting a stretch of 16 consecutive games, so it’s definitely possible that Saunders or Jones could receive an off-day during that period in which Franklin could slot in. The last time Franklin was with the big league club he saw a start at second base with Cano as the club’s designated hitter so we can assume that’s a possibility over the next two weeks as well should the club wish to give their superstar a day off in the field. It’s also worth noting that the club still has Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie on the roster so finding them some at bats here and there could be factors in how often Franklin plays as well. Of course Gillespie, 29, is essentially nothing more than organizational depth at this point and hasn’t produce very much in the opportunities he has gotten. Romero on the other hand has seen fairly regular playing time up to this point in the season and will likely get some time at DH during Hart’s absence as well given the glut of outfielders currently on the roster. In 29 games this season Romero owns a 67 wRC+ and has a pair of home runs under his belt, so his presence in the lineup isn’t likely a priority at this point. Whatever the case may be, it’ll be an interesting next couple of weeks as the M’s lineup sees more fluctuation than usual. Considering Miller reached base twice and scored a run on Tuesday his odds of starting on Wednesday  have probably increased — although nothing is certain just yet — but it’s conceivable that he makes a start in the infield within the next week. Manager Lloyd McClendon described Franklin as “not a typical DH” so penciling him in as the regular designated hitter at the moment would be premature, although it would cause the least disruption to the lineup. I would expect to see some sort of informal rotation through the DH spot over the next week or so as LMC feels out the best way to use his assortment of players and integrate Franklin into the lineup regularly. But it doesn’t appear to be as difficult to find the youngster plenty of opportunities to play this time around. It’s worth mentioning that Logan Morrison could be sent out on a rehab assignment as early as the end of the week and his impending return stands to crowd the roster further.Go!

After an 8-7 victory over the Houston Astros on Sunday, the Seattle Mariners suddenly find themselves with a 14-15 record and are just four games back in the American League West after winning seven of their last nine games. This is great news for the club after they were the losers of eight consecutive games leading up to the current stretch. In fact, the past ten days have in some ways been reminiscent of how the M’s started off the season with solid starting pitching and timely hitting. Third baseman Kyle Seager has been on a tear of late and brought his hit streak up to eight games after Sunday’s contest — a stretch in which he has hit all five of his home runs this season. Let’s take a look at what’s been going right for the Mariners of late. More Saunders, less Almonte It would appear that Seattle has found a new leadoff hitter, at least for the time being, as Michael Saunders made his fourth consecutive start on Sunday. The Condor has eight hits in 19 at-bats over those four games including a pair of doubles and four runs batted in. It’s been a strange season for Saunders who figured to have a starting job locked up prior to Spring Training but instead had been a spot starter and late inning defensive replacement heading into this past week. That appears to be a thing of the past however, as the now suddenly displaced Abraham Almonte has been sent down to Triple-A Tacoma. Almonte optioned to Tacoma. No corresponding move yet — Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) May 4, 2014 James Jones is not in the line-up for Game 1 of the Rainiers doubleheader. Odds are that he joins the Mariners. — Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) May 4, 2014 It’s been easy to knock on Almonte so far this season as he’s done little to prove he belongs in the big leagues, let alone be the starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter for the club. His .198/.248/.292 line with 40 strikeouts in 113 plate appearances was hardly an inspiring performance, but could suggest he was either trying too hard to produce or was simply overmatched in his position, or likely a combination of both. Still just 24, it’s easy to forget that Almonte only has 396 plate appearances at Triple-A under his belt, and a quick look at his minor league strikeout rates would suggest that this season’s 35.4 percent rate is slightly uncharacteristic. My thought would be that he simply needs a little more seasoning at the lower level to gain some confidence before facing major league pitching again. There is a train of thought that hitting Almonte near the bottom of the order could be a potential solution, but manager Lloyd McClendon didn’t seem terribly fond of that idea and if Almonte truly is overmatched right now, it isn’t really going to help much. Truth be told, Saunders still appears to be the best defensive outfielder on the roster and with Stefen Romero and Cole Gillespie still around, it’s easy to see how Almonte become the odd man out. Whatever the case may be, you can’t dislike the energy and enthusiasm the young outfielder brings to the table on a regular basis, and this definitely won’t be the last you hear of him. Iwakuma returns to the rotation After missing the first month of the season and nearly the entirety of Spring Training, Hisashi Iwakuma made his return to action on Saturday against the Astros. The right-hander lasted 6 2/3 innings and threw 81 pitches — 56 were for strikes. He did surrender four runs, all of which were earned, on six hits and one walk, but only two of those runs came prior to the seventh inning when Seattle began to unravel a little bit as a whole. He also struck out three Astros on the night, but more importantly, didn’t show too many signs of rust. Considering he made only one minor league start before rejoining the M’s, that has to be a positive take away moving forward. Iwakuma appeared poised on the mound and the only real defect I noticed was that his fastball was clocking in a few ticks lower than he averaged in 2013, but there’s minimal need to worry about that. Getting back into his regular routine and putting a few more starts under his belt will help get his arm strength back up to where it needs to be. One of the biggest positives from his first start is the fact that he was able to complete nearly seven innings of work in just 81 pitches. That sounds like a pitcher who hasn’t missed a beat. Cano continuing his pace Although he’s stuck at just one home run this season, Robinson Cano has been his regular self otherwise and has six runs batted in over his last four games. There is reason for some concern over his low power numbers at the moment — his 2014 ISO is just .081 while his career mark is .193 — but he could go on a Seager-like hot streak at any time and be sitting comfortably again statistically. Certainly playing 81 games at Safeco Field will hurt his overall power numbers to some degree, but until we have a few more months of information available, it’s tough to say just how much of a home field disadvantage is in play here. Even though he’s already made three errors this season, he’s made ten or more in five different seasons with the New York Yankees so it’s hardly a cause for concern. Instead, enjoy watching the best second baseman in baseball make almost any defensive play look routine. Young, Elias help steady rotation It may be a little surprising at first, but late spring pickup Chris Young has quietly put together a decent start to his first major league campaign since 2012. In his four starts this year, he’s gone at least 5 2/3 innings in three of them, and sports a 3.04 ERA across 23 2/3 innings pitched. His peripherals — a 5.47 FIP and a 6.28 xFIP — disagree with his low earned run average however, and it’s likely that his 14 walks compared to 13 strikeouts has something to do with that. A low strikeout rate and a high walk rate has been typical of Young throughout his career, although his 5.32 walks per nine innings pitched this year is well above his 3.50 career mark. Regardless, Seattle has won the last two games he’s started, and he’s yet to be credited with a loss this season. He’s finding a way to eat innings and giving the M’s chances to win games — that’s all you can ask for from the veteran. If you weren’t familiar with the name Roenis Elias prior to the 2014 season, you’re likely in the majority. The 25-year old left-hander has come almost out of nowhere, more specifically from the Double-A Jackson Generals, and has been rock solid in his first six major league starts. He’s pitched at least five innings in all of them and has allowed more than two runs just twice. In 35 innings overall, Elias owns a 3.09 ERA with a 3.94 FIP and a 3.83 xFIP. Like Young, he has struggled with the walk at times and has given out 16 free passes thus far, but he’s also managed to strike out 31 batters as well. It’ll be exciting to watch the rest of the season unfold for the promising young starter and just how much potential is still to be unlocked. Seattle heads to Oakland for three days including a double-header on Wednesday to make up for the game that was postponed on April 4. Young and Elias will take the hill for Monday and Tuesday’s games while Felix Hernandez will start one of Wednesday’s games and it’s believed Erasmo Ramirez will be called up to start the other.Go!

James Jones was called up a few weeks back to give the club versatility and depth during their trip to Miami, but his recall Sunday is likely to mean a longer stay in the big leagues. Abraham Almonte was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to get right. For the record, I prefer Almonte to Jones in the short term, but have no issue with Almonte being shipped out to clear his head, find his swing and gain some confidence. In the end, he’s still one of the best 25 players in the organization and certainly one of the best four outfield options. Jones, 25, was No. 18 on my M’s Top Prospects List in the 2014 Prospect Insider Handbook. He’s performed well in Triple-A, posting a .313/.382/.450 triple-slash, including six extra-base hits and five stolen bases. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Jones is similar to Michael Saunders; left-handed with some power, runs well, throws well — Jones pitched at Long Island during his draft year — and his athleticism makes him adequate in center field. Adequate does not equal ‘average,’ however, as he’ll occasionally pause before starting his route to the ball. Ultimately, like Saunders, he profiles better in a corner. As for what to expect from him right now, it depends on how he’s used by Lloyd McClendon. Sitting and playing once a week is always a bad idea, in my opinion, but for Jones I do not like the idea of throwing him to the wolves, playing him regularly in center and high in the batting order where he may press or change what he is as a hitter, and I wouldn’t let him face a lot of left-handers. He’s held hiss own against lefties in the minors, however, so I’d also avoid tagging him as a pure platoon option. His swing is a bit long, but its path to the ball is relatively short and engineered for line drives and contact. Despite being the size of a power bat, Jones profiles better as a Jacque Jones clone; medium power, some speed, some defense and baserunning. It’s imperative, however, that he’s put in a position to succeed. If he can get comfortable he can be useful, and with athletes like Jones there is no telling what the ceiling truly is. Not suggesting he’s a future star of any kind, but he does possess all five tools and if the hit tool pops he could be a regular option down the road. For now, it’s about his role and how the club handles his mindset during the positive and negative results alike. He should NOT start regularly, period, which means he should NOT start ahead of Michael Saunders on a regular basis. If he churns out replacement-level performances, it’s a significant upgrade to Almonte, and there’s no reason Jones can’t do so. Here is what I wrote about Jones in the handbook: Jones, an athletic, rangy outfielder with a solid left-handed swing, but while it may seem time is running out — Jones is now 25 — he was mostly an arm at Long Island before the M’s tabbed him in round 5 in 2009. If Jones is to play regularly in the big leagues, he needs to show more power than the 32 extra-base hits he produced a year ago in 422 plate appearances, including just six home runs. He did make better contact in 2013, tallying just 74 strikeouts, and could be ready to turn another corner in 2014. Jones has a slightly-long swing, but good bat speed and a chance to hit .270 with 20 homers. Defensively the arm is plus and then some, and he’s fringe-average in center while showing well above average in right field. Saunders has earned the right to start for this team with his recent surge at the plate. Doesn’t matter a whole lot if it’s in center field or right field, but he’s deserving of regular play. He’s the top option to lead off at present and not even Lloyd McClendon can dispute that barring a liar-liar-pants-on-fire convention coming to town.Go!

The Seattle Mariners continued to tinker with their roster on Thursday after optioning Erasmo Ramirez and Nick Franklin to the minor leagues and selecting the contract of outfielder Cole Gillespie. Franklin’s demotion to Triple-A was essentially procedural as he saw just 18 plate appearances since being called up on April 16th, while Ramirez is set to start in his regularly scheduled spot on Sunday, but for the Hi-A High Desert Mavericks instead after struggling in his last three starts. The interesting piece to this puzzle is Gillespie who joins Dustin Ackley, Abraham Almonte, Stefen Romero, and Michael Saunders in what’s quickly turning into a crowded Mariner outfield. Gillespie, 29, was drafted in the third round of the 2006 amateur draft by the Milwaukee Brewers, whom GM Jack Zduriencik was employed by at the time of the selection, and has since been a part of the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants, and Chicago Cubs organizations. In 189 plate appearances between 2010 and 2013, the journeyman has put together a .225/.293/.337 line and a 65 wRC+. Although his major league stats are less than inspiring, he’s hit .364 with five home runs in his first 17 games of the year in Tacoma. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill had recently suggested Gillespie be called up, and the M’s could certainly use his hot bat right now. Where his bat will fit in the lineup however, is the tougher question. Gillespie is a RHB who doesn’t have a track record of mashing LHP. More of a reverse split guy. So, LMC will probably start him v LHP only — Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) April 24, 2014 Gillespie not a candidate for center field. — Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) April 24, 2014 Without the possibility of Gillespie starting in center field, it’s conceivable to suggest that he’ll split some time in right field with Romero and likely spell Ackley once in left field every now and then. He also fits the mould of a late inning pinch runner or defensive replacement in a game where Corey Hart starts in right field, for example. Like Jason said, he doesn’t hit left-handed pitching especially well — he’s hit at a .189 clip in 98 major league plate appearances — and owns a .266 average against right-handed pitching in 91 plate appearances. Both Romero and Gillespie are right-handed bats so the M’s quest for a balanced lineup continues. With Ackley firmly entrenched in left field as the everyday starter and manager Lloyd McClendon content to let Almonte play everyday in center, the combination of Romero, Gillespie, and Saunders will cover the right field duties unless Hart is able to step in. The club is still going slow with Hart’s return to the outfield, as they should, so the point of having that extra outfielder is far from moot. Either Gillespie or Romero could presumably DH if Hart is the starter on a given night with Saunders on the bench as a potential late inning replacement. It’s also possible that this current arrangement is simply temporary, especially if Hart is able to put another couple solid starts in the field together. Logan Morrison‘s return from the disabled list at the end of the month could require even further roster shuffling as well unless the club decides to send him down to Triple-A for a period of time. Perhaps the real point of contention is the fact that a player not named Almonte has yet to make a start in center field for the club this year. Obviously his status as the team’s leadoff hitter and lack of other alternatives has played some role in this, but the young outfielder has done very little to prove that he belongs in his given role just yet. He has just 19 hits and five walks in 94 plate appearances — good for a .213 batting average — and his 34.1 percent strikeout rate is the fourth highest in all of baseball. Aside from being awful leadoff hitter numbers, they really aren’t that good numbers for anywhere in the lineup unless the player is a defensive wizard, although the 24-year old does handle the outfield well enough. The seemingly obvious candidate to spell Almonte would be Saunders given his experience in center field, but he hasn’t produced much of anything so far this year and certainly not enough to spark the conversation of which one of the pair should be playing everyday. McClendon has gone on record saying that he believes the only way for Almonte to improve is to play everyday — that much is true — but is there anything wrong with sitting him once in a while and giving someone else the start? LMC was willing to sit Brad Miller when he was struggling and hasn’t shown this long of a leash with other players — look no further than Ramirez being sent down for a start — so there’s really no reason not to give this outfield logjam a little more fluidity by sitting Almonte here and there. There’s been little to suggest that Ackley should be the one to see less playing time since he’s hit the ball well this year and shown some encouraging signs that his bat has finally come around even though he has been hitless in his last four games. It’s possible that Gillespie will see a couple starts in left and spell the former second baseman in the coming week, but a return to the No. 8 spot in the batting order — a place he’s been comfortable in so far this season — could provide the spark needed to get the 26-year old producing like he was a few short weeks ago. Like Saunders, Romero hasn’t seen enough game action for us to really make an accurate determination on what his role with the club should be at this point in time; although I’m in the camp that believes he’d be best served playing everyday in Triple-A than sitting on the major league bench. He has five hits and one walk in 24 plate appearances and has started in seven of the club’s first 21 games. He’s a candidate to start at designated hitter on a day where Hart starts in right field as Saunders and possibly Gillespie would provide better defensive replacements for the late innings. One of the benefits of having a journeyman-type of player like Gillespie on the roster is that unlike a Nick Franklin, he doesn’t necessarily need to see regular at bats. The team also doesn’t have to worry about his development as a player that much either since he no longer falls under the description of a prospect and he’s shown essentially all that he has to offer a big league club. The 29-year old knows the type of role he’s entering with Seattle and will likely already have the right type of mindset to handle it. It will certainly be interesting to see how McClendon decides to balance his group of outfielders over the next week or two. The situation will only become murkier if Hart is in fact able to man right field regularly, but given the logjam of players available for the position, there’s absolutely no reason to rush it. Acquiring another bat is still a possibility but it appears unlikely at this point as the M’s don’t appear  interested in Kendrys Morales at the moment, and he seems content to wait until after the draft to sign his next contract. It appears that the only certainty in the Mariners’ outfield can be found in left and center field at the moment with the right field situation very up in the air. Hart does represent somewhat of an x-factor, but at the moment it wouldn’t be surprising to see the club go with whichever one of Saunders, Romero, and Gillespie that’s producing. And that’s exactly what they should be doing anyways. Seattle managed to end their losing streak with a win on Wednesday and will open a new series against the Texas Rangers on Friday night with Roenis Elias set to take the mound.Go!

It’s no secret that the Seattle Mariners have been stuck in a rut recently and after being swept this weekend by the Miami Marlins, it may be time to shake things up a little bit. Certainly the M’s would be in a better position at the moment if their rotation wasn’t decimated by injuries, but their .225 team batting average is the third worst in all of baseball and is nearly an equal cause for concern. Yes, there’s an awful lot of season to be played, but if Seattle still fancies themselves as contenders this year, now is as good a time as any to get the lineup some help while the rotation recovers. And that could still come in the form of a familiar face; Kendrys Morales. Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill outlined several possible moves the Mariners could make to help the club in the immediate future and one of those suggestions was to option Logan Morrison to Triple-A, and sign Morales who remains a free agent. Of course this comes with two very important caveats: Corey Hart must be able to man right field four times a week and Morales must be willing to sign a one-year deal. Both factors are relative unknowns at this point, but one would have to think that the possibilities of both occurring do have some life. Hart started in right field this past Thursday and Sunday and after starting at first base on Friday, shifted to right field after Michael Saunders was pinch hit for. The 16 2/3 innings of action he’s seen in the outfield aren’t near enough to draw any legitimate conclusions from, but the fact that he’s actually looked decent out there is definitely an encouraging sign. Realistically it could take the M’s another month if not longer to make a determination on whether or not Hart’s knees can handle the outfield, and there’s no reason to take any course of action other than easing him back in slowly. After all, he was signed for his ability to hit a baseball, not necessarily his ability to catch one. With Hart seeing outfield time and Morrison not on the big league club like Jason suggested, there would be plenty of at-bats available for Morales who could DH when Hart plays the field and possibly see some time at first base when Hart is the designated hitter. As it stands Morrison is on the disabled list with a hamstring injury so the club would have to wait until after he’s activated to send him down anyways. His contributions have obviously been limited, but a quick comparison of his results after 18 team games this year to Morales’ first 18 last year show that there’s a strong likelihood than an upgrade could be made. Justin Smoak has cooled off of late, but thanks to a hot start has his overall numbers don’t look too bad and are relatively comparable to what Morales produced in last year’s sample. It’s unlikely to suggest that he would be removed from everyday duties anytime soon. In some ways Morales could conceivably replace Morrison, but of course it’s not quite a simple trade off since LoMo hasn’t been an everyday player and he’d be taking at-bats from other players as well. But it is easy to see the potential offensive upgrade that would come with bringing the free agent back into the fold and taking at-bats from players like LoMo. The second impediment to potentially signing Morales is what it has been all along; his agent, Scott Boras. Obviously an agent wants to get their client the best deal they can, but what the best possible deal is varies from player to player of course. The trend with Boras though, has been the bottom line dollar playing the most significant part of any deal so nobody should’ve been surprised when the party announced they were content to wait in order to get that best possible deal. But perhaps as the calendar turns to May, Morales gets a little anxious about getting back into a team’s everyday lineup and the concept of a “bridge” contract becomes more palpable. After all, he’s already guaranteed that he won’t be tied to draft pick compensation next winter since he will have signed after the season started. It really is unfortunate that Morales, and another Boras client Stephen Drew, are still without contracts since the draft pick compensation has seriously diminished their value to any interested club, especially since there are more than a few teams who could benefit from the addition of one or the other. However, now that the Pittsburgh Pirates have acquired Ike Davis — the Pirates were rumored to be a moderately serious suitor for the first baseman/designated hitter — would Boras really be able to get a multi-year deal for Morales even if he waits until after this June’s draft and is freed of draft pick compensation? It’s been reported that the Mariners had offered Morales a three-year deal worth $30 million last summer, and at the time it probably seemed likely he could top that offer once he hit the open market. But, considering the fact he’s all but limited to designated hitter duties, did Boras really anticipate a bidding war to break out for his services? Sure, Morales has been a capable defender at first base in the past and he is another year removed from the broken leg he suffered at the beginning of the 2010 season, but a team is could be taking a lot of risk if they are signing him to be their everyday first baseman. It’s really no different than the Mariners signing Hart to be their everyday right fielder, but they didn’t sign him for that purpose; the fact he may actually be able to play in the field is pure gravy at this point. Teams would be lining up to give David Ortiz a multi-year deal to be their designated hitter since he’s a legitimate game changer; Morales is not at that level. Throughout the offseason, and even after the Hart signing and Morrison trade, Seattle was considered to be the most logical landing spot for Morales. Perhaps they became even better suitors after adding the pair considering the team’s affinity for stockpiling designated hitter types and then deploying them regularly in the field. But after the Baltimore Orioles agreed to sign Nelson Cruz to a one-year deal worth just $8 million — remember, both he and Morales had rejected the one-year $14.1 million qualifying offer — many figured that a potential Morales deal would probably be of the same term but with a slightly higher dollar amount. And with the Orioles and now Pirates out of the picture, are there really any other options outside of Seattle? Barring an unforeseen injury, probably not. The question that has to follow pertains to whether or not the Mariners even have room for Morales on their roster at the moment. Let’s say Morales is reluctantly willing to accept a one-year deal worth the pro-rated portion of the $14.1 million qualifying offer to spend another year in the Pacific Northwest. Of course there’s still the question of whether or not ownership would allow the club to take on further payroll since this could all be a moot point if they say there’s no more cash to spend, but let’s remove that hurdle for right now. Although he has been working out regularly, he’ll need to spend at least a couple of weeks in extended spring training to get close to game speed, and will likely require an adjustment period at the major league level as well. Even if Morales was signed today, he’s probably three or four weeks away from actually producing something tangible for the club. If it’s in fact determined Hart can regularly spend time in the outfield, Morales should be able to slide nicely into the regular designated hitter slot. The next question to be asked is who takes the hit as the 25-man roster casualty? Jason suggested sending Morrison down to Tacoma and I’d agree with that since letting him get back to basics and gain some confidence could be beneficial and he still does have an option available. As does Stefen Romero who’s been used sparingly thus far and has seen little success at the major league level. The 25-year old would definitely benefit more by playing everyday in Tacoma instead of seeing pinch-hit duty and the occasional start. Another suggestion of Churchill’s was to send down Romero and call up Cole Gillespie, a 29-year old journeyman, who could fill Romero’s role of right-handed hitting outfielder and would have minimal downside. It would appear that both Romero and Morrison would be better served playing everyday in Triple-A as opposed to sitting on the bench and pinch-hitting late in games. Sending down Romero and calling up Gillespie doesn’t solve the 25-man roster issue however, so even if the pair were to trade places, adding Morales would require another roster move. Perhaps Michael Saunders, who’s become the odd man out in the outfield, could be dealt for pitching help. It’s very surprising to hear that Saunders has found himself in the fourth outfielder role after appearing to be a near lock to play everyday in the outfield just a few months ago. He hasn’t hit well in limited action this year, but does represent an upgrade defensively and on the base paths compared to what Romero and Abraham Almonte provide. That’s pure speculation on my part however and there’s no real benefit to selling low on Saunders right now. The club also doesn’t have the necessary depth to deal an outfielder right now anyways. Certainly there’s a scenario in which the club could fit Morales into the everyday lineup and there’s little doubt that he does represent an upgrade over some of what’s there now. His .280 career batting average would fit quite nicely in a lineup in dire need of a boost. Any kind of a boost. Players like Brad Miller and Kyle Seager will see their averages come around eventually and others will see their lines even out as the plate appearances add up, but the club is failing to score runs and that presents a huge problem when there’s only one proven starter currently in the rotation. A lot of stars will have to align for Morales to wear blue and teal again, and by stars I mean Hart’s knees and Boras’ contract demands, but it could still happen. The roster moves will likely sort them out — LoMo or Romero being sent down make the most sense — so it really is just a matter of patience on the Mariners’ part and seeing whether or not things might work out in the favour for once. A few more weeks and we should have an idea what the extent of Hart’s outfield abilities will this year and Morales’ camp might get a little more anxious about getting him playing time sooner rather than later. The 2014 Seattle Mariners can still be a .500 team as-is, but that extra bat would push the scales further in their favour and they could really use that right about now.Go!

After the offense exploded for 18 runs in the first series of the season, the Seattle Mariners’ bats have cooled of late scoring only 25 runs since, including three seperate occasions in which they were shut out. We’re barely halfway through April, and you’ve heard this a million and a half times by now, but it’s still early. The club is now 7-6 after Tuesday night’s loss to the Texas Rangers and remain second in the wide open American League West. There is some change in the air however, as Nick Franklin and James Jones have been called up from Triple-A Tacoma after Blake Beavan and Logan Morrison were placed on the disabled list. On the injury front, Beavan hits the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his shoulder and will fly back to Seattle to receive further treatment. The right-hander made his first start of the season on Tuesday but was limited to just four innings of work before being lifted. Apparently mentioned before the game that he was having trouble “getting loose” and struggled with maintaining his velocity last night. Morrison on the other hand, left Monday night’s game before the second inning after feeling tightness in his right hamstring. Prior to Tuesday night’s game, LoMo told manager Lloyd McClendon that he was able to hit but unable to run, so his 15-day DL stint is simply a matter of giving him time to return to 100 percent. There’s no doubt that the big news of the day is Franklin’s call up, and he’ll see game action tonight against the Rangers as the designated hitter. The top prospect is red hot at the moment — he’s put together a slash line of .395/.469/.744 in 11 games at Triple-A — and should provide a spark to the Seattle lineup that could use a bit of a boost right. As PI’s Jason A Churchill alluded to last night, it’s entirely possible Franklin could get regular at bats without taking away from the club’s regulars. Otherwise, as Jason and others have said, it’s a waste of time to have the youngster sitting on the major league bench when he could be playing everyday in the minor leagues. McClendon says Franklin will “move around.” Probably play second tomorrow with Cano at DH. Will play some SS, 3B and OF. — Bob Dutton (@ByBobDutton) April 16, 2014 After a hot start to the year, Brad Miller has cooled of late and has seen his average dip down to a .214 mark. It’s not as though Miller has completely fallen off the map however since he does have hits in four of the last five games. But the fact he has struck out in all but two of the club’s thirteen games this season and has only one walk to his name aren’t overly encouraging. Again, it’s still early, but if Franklin comes out hitting and the team is winning games with him in the lineup, it’s not inconceivable to suggest he could displace the incumbent Miller at shortstop if his struggles continue, but that’s jumping to too many conclusions far too fast. McClendon said Franklin could play some OF. He wasn’t too concerned about the lack of game experience — Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) April 16, 2014 Although he didn’t see any time in the outfield in the minors this year, it seems as though the club is willing to throw him and out and see what happens. But so long as Michael Saunders isn’t starting regularly, the club could take advantage of Franklin’s bat for the first two thirds of the game before inserting Saunders to shore up the defensive side of things; similar to what they’ve done so far with Stefen Romero. Many have deemed Franklin’s future as a Mariner to be in the outfield, which is certainly still a possibility, but he still represents a very attractive trade piece. It’s unlikely it’s played a factor in the M’s decision to promote the young infielder, but maybe, and just maybe, the call-up could be a showcase of sorts for the top prospect considering the dire straits the rotation has found itself in. It’s no secret that the pitching staff could use some help now that James Paxton has joined Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker on the disabled list, and Franklin could still potentially net a quality young arm. That’s purely speculation on my part though based on what we were hearing in the spring. The trade rumor front has been quiet as it typically is this time of year, and it doesn’t sound as though there’s been much moving in the young infielder’s market. He definitely won’t immediately garner as much attention as Franklin will, but Jones could be one to watch as it’s expected he’ll be more of a situational player than a regular while he gets his first taste of major league action. McClendon said they called up Jones to use him in several ways – defense, pinch running and pinch hitting – with games in a NL park. — Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) April 16, 2014 The outfielder has also had a solid start to the year hitting .310/.370/.405 in 11 games and provides another real option in center field. It’s no secret that Abraham Almonte hasn’t had the best of times so far in the season, remember he’s still just 24, but the Mariners seem married to the idea that he should be the club’s leadoff hitter for the conceivable future and it’s unlikely his status will change just yet. It’ll be an interesting next couple of weeks as the club works with several moving parts in the lineup, but for tonight, King Felix Hernandez goes up for his fourth straight win to start the 2014 campaign against Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers. Happy Felix Day!Go!

The Seattle Mariners signed or acquired via trade three new lineup pieces over the offseason and while I think most agree that more is needed — whether that be Kendrys Morales in March or April or a pre-summer trade — the offense is better, on paper at least, than it was a year ago. While there are a lot of scenarios that makes sense, such as Kyle Seager batting anywhere from second to fourth or fifth, to the leadoff spot where Brad Miller and Abraham Almonte could both make some sense, here is one potential lineup versus right-handed starters and one versus left-handed starters. Almonte, who by no means has a roster spot sewn up just yet, could get some starts versus right-handed pitching — he’s a much stronger hitter from the left side — and there will likely be games, mostly versus southpaws where Corey Hart remains in right field, Almonte starts in center and Saunders plays left for Ackley or Saunders sits in favor of Ackley. That could occur just as much as Saunders in center versus lefties, with Almonte sitting and Ackley playing left. It’s truly a mix-and-match four-man rotation where ultimately the top performers earn the most starts. I like Seager in the No. 2 spot, but it could make some sense to use him down a few spots, too, depending on how well Ackley, Almonte and Saunders — the other candidates to bat in the top two spots — are swinging the bat. From the outset, it should be Miller-Seager batting 1-2, but Lloyd McClendon and Trent Jewett may decide otherwise. Projected M’s Lineup vs. RHP No. Player 1 Brad Miller, SS 2 Kyle Seager, 3B 3 Robinson Cano, 2B 4 Corey Hart, RF 5 Justin Smoak, 1B 6 Logan Morrison, DH 7 Michael Saunders, CF 8 Mike Zunino/John Buck C 9 Dustin Ackley, LF Projected M’s Lineup vs. LHP No. Player 1 Brad Miller, SS 2 Abraham Almonte, CF 3 Robinson Cano, 2B 4 Corey Hart, DH 5 Kyle Seager, 3B 6 Justin Smoak/Logan Morrison, 1B 7 Michael Saunders, RF 8 Mike Zunino/John Buck C 9 Dustin Ackley, LF As you can see, I’m by no means ready to anoint Almonte a regular and there’s no chance I pigeonhole Miller as a hitter that needs to be platooned, at least in terms of where he bats in the order, versus left-handed pitching. He was terrific versus southpaws in Tacoma last year and posted a better batting average and on-base percentage against them in the bigs than he did versus right-handers. Prior to 2013, he’s more than held his own versus lefties, and Almonte hasn’t had much success as a right-handed batter, anyway, suggesting that swap is rather insane. As I stated above, there are a lot of ways this can go, especially if Nick Franklin is traded for a piece the big club can use right away, or if Stefen Romero makes the 25-man roster somehow and is used versus left-handed pitching.Go!

Spring Training 2014 is officially under way in Peoria, Arizona as the Seattle Mariners have begun their first sets of workouts. We’re still about ten days out from official Cactus League games taking place, but the anticipation for the start of the regular season has can officially begin as all thirty clubs start with a clean slate and visions of October baseball filling their heads. The Mariners are no different. Pitchers Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker threw their first bullpens of the spring today; Felix tossed around 30 pitches while Walker threw 25. The Mariners’ top prospect said his shoulder felt fine after the session, alleviating most of the concern over the soreness he felt in the first few days of camp. As it stands, Walker will throw his next session on Thursday and won’t require any more precautionary work as he’s back on schedule. Pitching coach Rick Waits praised the young righty’s composure so far in camp, mentioning that he hasn’t had to ask Walker to slow himself down so far. The Mariners avoided arbitration with Justin Smoak who agreed to terms on a one-year deal on Saturday. The first baseman will earn $2.63 million in the upcoming season and has a vesting option worth $3.65 million for 2015 that becomes guaranteed at 525 plate appearances on the year. If that plateau isn’t reached, Seattle can still exercise it, or buy the option out for $150 thousand. It’s a little unusual for a player to have an option year with a buyout attached while he is still arbitration eligible, so the deal did raise a few eyebrows. Smoak had 521 plate appearances in 2013 and 535 in 2013 so it’s entirely possible that regular play could cause his option to vest. The first baseman considers the starting job, “his to lose” despite the acquisitions of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison this offseason. Seattle has now agreed to terms with all of their arbitration eligible players. Former No. 2 overall pick Dustin Ackley is set to become a full-time outfielder this year now that Robinson Cano has second base claimed for the foreseeable future. After starting 54 games in the outfield in 2013, 46 in center field, the soon to be 26-year old has spent much of the offseason preparing to be the team’s everyday leftfielder. Ackley struggled with consistency agian this past year and finished with a .253/.319/.341 line in 427 plate appearances. Since Franklin Gutierrez will be out for the entirety of the season, Ackley and Michael Saunders appear to be locks for starting jobs in the outfield to start the year at least. Hart and Morrison are also likely to see a little bit of time in the outfield if their bodies can handle it; currently Hart is the most likely to spend time in right field. Nick Franklin figures to see significant time at shortstop this spring as manager Lloyd McClendon stated he’ll be competing with the incumbent Brad Miller for the starting job. McClendon says Nick Franklin and Brad Miller will compete at SS. Not looking at moving either elsewhere. “That’s a good problem to have.” — Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) February 17, 2014 Over at LookoutLanding, Scott Weber questioned how legitimate this “battle” at shortstop really is. Weber argues that Miller deserves to be the starting shortstop in 2014, but if the organization emphasizes small sample sizes, Franklin may be a solid spring away from getting serious consideration for the job. Miller could be a fixture at short for the next several years instead of Franklin struggling to be average defensively at the position. Many thought Nick would find himself shipped to another organization in a trade for a starting pitcher or an outfielder, but nothing of the sort has materialized yet. It’s possible McClendon is simply posturing to some extent in order to play up the club’s desire to keep the displaced second baseman who appears more likely to start the year with Tacoma than on Seattle’s bench. Also, it’s not uncommon to see coaches play up position battles in order to push players that extra little bit. There’s very little reason to think Saunders won’t have a starting outfield job, but of course McClendon is going to say there’s plenty of talent that could potentially fill the positions. We know Saunders is the closest thing on the roster to an actual everyday outfielder at the moment, although Abraham Almonte and Ackley could possibly change that, and McClendon knows that too. The remaining big name free agents are slowly starting to find themselves new homes as Ubaldo Jimenez  agreed to terms with the Baltimore Orioles today. The deal is still pending a physical, which is far from a sure thing in Baltimore these days, and stands to be worth $50 million over four years with some money deferred. Jimenez was believed to be looking for a deal in the five year, $75 million range at the start of the offseason, but that quickly became unlikely as his market was incredibly slow to materialize and Matt Garza signed a similar contract last month with the Milwaukee Brewers and didn’t require his new club to give up a pick. Jimenez will cost the Orioles their 17th overall pick in this year’s draft, which Prospect Insider will provide plenty of coverage on in the upcoming months. With Jimenez and Garza both off the market now, Ervin Santana finds himself standing alone on the free agent starting pitching market. The Orioles were believed to have some interest in Santana previously, but it’s likely that has evaporated now that they’ve signed Jimenez; provided of course, that his physical is successfully passed… Seattle may still be interested in Santana’s services, although given the contracts given to his two free agent counterparts, it’s likely he’ll also receive a fourth guaranteed year on a deal. The Toronto Blue Jays were allegedly willing to offer three-year contracts worth $27 million to Santana and Jimenez, but those reports haven’t been confirmed. It’s hard to see Santana signing for that little considering the deal Ubaldo received, but anything is truly possibly at this point in time. At four years and $40 million Santana would make an excellent No. 3 in the Mariners’ rotation. Heck, he would still look pretty good at four years and $50 million for what it’s worth. When asked about Taijuan Walker and James Paxton making the rotation, Felix Hernandez replied, “They’re in.” — Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) February 17, 2014 #Mariners expect all players in camp when full workouts begin tomorrow except RHP Ramon Ramirez, who is having visa issue in Dom. Republic. — Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) February 17, 2014  Go!

The Seattle Mariners held their 16th annual FanFest this past weekend and set a record with an attendance of 21,019 combined for the two days. The event offers a chance for fans to rub elbows with the players, wonder Safeco Field, and take part in various activities (zip line!). In keeping up with the trends, the Mariners had several players hit the social media booth to take questions from fans via Twitter. Newcomer Corey Hart was one of them, and offered an interesting answer to a question sent his way by yours truly.   @tylercarmont They remind me a lot of the ’08 Milwaukee team. Young and exciting. #MarinersFF — Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) January 26, 2014 Hart’s comparison has some validity on the surface since the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers were relatively young and an exciting team to watch considering the explosive offence they put together. This year’s incarnation of the Mariners would be similar based solely on the fact there’s plenty of youth ready to break out, and any team that has the potential to lead the league in home runs and will send Felix Hernandez to the mound every fifth day is bound to bear some excitement. While the ’14 Mariners aren’t coming off of an 83-win season and probably need another year to see what some of their young guys can do, perhaps there’s more validity to Hart’s comment than meets the eye. The ’08 Brewers lineup featured two of today’s premier hitters entering their age 24 seasons, Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, and the pair would combine for 71 home runs and 208 runs batted in on the year. Joining them in the lineup were Hart, JJ Hardy, and Mike Cameron, who all belted 20 or more dingers as well. Collectively the team finished third in the National League with 198 home runs, but finished twelfth in the NL with a combined .252 batting average. Braun would finish third in NL MVP voting that year and led the Brew Crew with his .285/.335/.553 line, although he has since admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, clouding his stats slightly to say the least. Perhaps Hart just might be on to something as the Mariners finished second in the American League with 188 home runs in 2013 led by Raul Ibanez (29 HR), Kendrys Morales (23), Kyle Seager (22), and Justin Smoak (20). However the team’s .237 batting average was last in the league and Morales’ .277 average led the team. Gone are Ibanez and Morales, but if Hart and fellow newcomer Logan Morrison are both able to stay healthy the entire year, it’s possible they could replace the production lost from the departed sluggers. Robinson Cano brings his career .309/.355/.504 line to the team as well as four consecutive finishes in the top six AL MVP voting. Currently the 2014 M’s are projected to hit 218 home runs according to Steamer, six more than the major league leading Baltimore Orioles hit last year, so the lineup will remain homer-heavy, which always carries some excitement. Cano, Hart, and Smoak are all projected to hit more than 20 long balls this year, and five others are projected to be over the thirteen mark as well. Having a homer-heavy lineup is obviously much more effective when a team can capitalize with runners on base; 19 of Ibanez’s 29 home runs last year were solo shots. The ’08 Brewers drove in 722 batters as a team compared to just 597 driven in by the ’13 Mariners. Steamer projects 683 runs batted in for this year, not only a marked improvement from last year but also a number that would’ve placed Seattle among the top ten teams in baseball last season. While the home run production is comparable between the two clubs, a key difference was that Milwaukee didn’t pay for their long ball with defence. Without dwelling on the misadventures of Ibanez, Mike Morse et all, UZR gave Seattle a defensive rating of -73.0. Ouch. The Brewers on the other hand, received a 15.9 UZR rating in 2008. Cano will help in this department, but the outfield looks almost abysmal defensively; especially if Michael Saunders spends much time in center. For what it’s worth, Seattle only stole 49 bases compared to 108 stolen by Milwaukee and Steamer only projects Saunders  and Brad Miller to steal more than ten bases in the upcoming year. How important steals are is debatable, but the point being made is that the ’08 Brewers featured a much more rounded offensive than the ’14 Mariners project to field. The Brew Crew featured a steady yet unspectacular rotation until they acquired CC Sabathia in a July trade with the Indians that year. After the 22-year old Yovani Gallardo went down with injury, the staff anchored by Ben Sheets, Dave Bush, and Jeff Suppan helped combine for the National League’s second lowest ERA at 3.85. This was actually a very productive year for Sheets who had missed parts of 2007 and 2006 with injuries. In 198 1/3 innings pitched he posted a 3.09 ERA with a 3.38 FIP and 3.88 xFIP; good for 4.3 fWAR and bWAR. Sabathia was the real game changer for the rotation however, posting a sparkling 1.65 ERA in 17 starts, seven of which were complete games. His performance with the Brewers even garnered some National League Cy Young and MVP attention despite pitching half his season in the American League. Now, one would like to think that a pitching staff highlighted by King Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma wouldn’t have one of the worst earned run averages in the AL, but that was the case in 2013. Only the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros had worse results than Seattle’s 4.32 ERA. Although Felix and Kuma only represented about 30 percent of the innings pitched by the staff, the other 70 percent was pretty ugly. Youngsters Taijuan Walker and James Paxton impressed in their September cameo appearances, and Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Charlie Furbush, and Oliver Perez  were effective out of the bullpen. As it stands, the Mariners’ rotation features nearly zero certainty after the top two spots. Some incarnation of Walker, Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez, and the newly signed Scott Baker figure to fill out the remaining three rotation spots. Much has been made about the height of Walker’s ceiling, and there’s a good chance Paxton becomes a productive starter down the line, but both are almost complete question marks for 2014 and probably best served starting the year at Triple-A. Maurer and Ramirez  are still young and could develop into useful pieces, but unless they’ve improved tremendously this winter, there’s no reason to pencil them in for any more than a bullpen gig. A healthy Baker is a legitimate back end rotation guy, but that’s still to be determined as well. The Brewers did get something resembling a breakout year from Manny Parra in his first full big league season. After nine appearances in 2007, the then 25-year old posted a 4.39 ERA, 4.16 FIP, and 3.81 xFIP over 29 starts and 32 appearances. That would turn out to be his the most productive season of his career thus far, but at the cost of a league minimum salary, nobody was complaining about his performance in 2008. For what it’s worth, Paxton is entering his age 25 season and if he can contribute something resembling Parra’s 1.9 fWAR and contribute over the course of the entire season, that’d be huge for the club. Even when Gallardo went down with injury, the Brew Crew were able to get a decent result out of ten Seth McClung starts. If Walker or Paxton are unable to go for whatever reason, the Mariners’ rotation once again hinges on guys like Ramirez. I’d rather have McClung, thanks. Outside of Sabathia, Milwaukee’s rotation was regarded as far from flashy heading into the 2008 season. There was still some notable hype surrounding Gallardo who was the Brewers’ second round choice in the 2004 draft, though it was less than that associated with Walker currently. Sheets had dealt with injuries the previous two campaigns and Suppan and Bush had yet to established much consistency in their respective games. But, Milwaukee did enter the year with a set of fairly dependable arms and got a little bit of luck aside from the Gallardo injury. The Mariners’ projected 2014 rotation isn’t just a little bit of luck and health away from being Wild Card calibre. Obviously Hart comparing the 2014 Seattle Mariners to the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers wasn’t meant to be analyzed this much. His reasoning could be as simple as the fact that the Mariners are going to hit a lot of home runs this year and will feature several young players with the ability to be difference makers; both are attributes of exciting baseball. The Brewers would go on to lose in the National League Division Series in four games to the Philadelphia Phillies in ’08, a result that seems too far out of the Mariners’ reach at this point. Acquiring David Price would certainly help, but maybe the M’s should allocate most of their available resources to help the outfield and attempt to bring in a Bush or Suppan circa 2008 type of starter instead. Felix and Kuma offer enough star power at the top of the rotation to allow for a Bronson Arroyo to fit in the three spot until Walker or Paxton claim it as their own. Unless Ervin Santana falls into their lap, there’s not much left for free agent starters. All in all, the Mariners may just be in a similar position to where the Brewers were six years ago. A lot will have to go right for the club to be a legitimate playoff contender this year, but a strong step towards fielding a contending team in 2015 may be just as good of a result.Go!

It’s that time of the year again when the Hot Stove cools to barely a broil, despite the fact plenty of top free agents still remain unsigned.  That should change soon however, as a Masahiro Tanaka decision is expected by Tuesday or Wednesday. It doesn’t appear that the Seattle Mariners are finalists for the Japanese ace at the moment after being labelled as favourites earlier this month. Of course a lot can change over the next 48 hours, but considering the Mariners didn’t meet up with Tanaka and his representatives when they were in Los Angeles recently, they can be considered a long shot. In front office news, talk has cooled on Tony La Russa possibly taking over for Chuck Armstrong as president of the club. The former manager of the St. Louis Cardinals doesn’t think he’ll even get an interview for the job. It appears that the Mariners prefer utilizing an internal option for the role, and Geoff Baker suggests Bob Aylward and Kevin Mather as the most likely candidates. Michael Saunders avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract worth $2.3 million plus incentives in his first year of eligibility. I recently took a look at the 27-year old’s career to date and how he projects in 2014. While center field has hurt Saunders’ defensive value and his bat cooled after a 20 home run 2012 season, he could still be an above average contributor in a corner outfield spot. As it stands, the Canadian could be in line to start the year in center field, but that will depend on Franklin Gutierrez‘s health, and whether or not Dustin Ackley has improved over the offseason. The Mariners’ other two arbitration-eligible players, Logan Morrison and Justin Smoak, have filed their numbers and could see a hearing sometime in February if they can’t come to terms. Morrison is seeking $2.5 million and the Mariners countered at $1.1 million; Smoak is looking for $3.25 million and Seattle countered at $2.025 million. The Mariners did make a splash in free agency this week when they agreed to terms with veteran catcher John Buck. Not only does he represent an upgrade over the other backup catching options on the roster, he’s been great defensively (pitch framing talk aside) throughout his career, and has shown an ability to hit for power. Should Mike Zunino struggle this year, Buck is a viable option to play more than just once or twice a week. The deal is for one year and a million bucks, no reported incentives or options, so there’s very few scenarios where this deal could backfire on Seattle. Outfielder Carlos Peguero was designated for assignment to make room for Buck on the 40-man roster. Elsewhere in free agency, PI’s Chris Moran took a look at some quality buy-low options for the Mariners. He notes Chris Capuano as an interesting veteran to add to the bottom half of the rotation after the 35-year old spent the past two season with the Los Angeles Dodgers where he started 55 games. With Joe Saunders unlikely to return, it would do the M’s some good to add another innings eater to the rotation given the uncertainty surrounding some of the younger pitchers. Chris also notes Grant Balfour and Chad Gaudin as some potential relief options. I also took a look at several available free agent relief options. Sticking with the bullpen, Jason Churchill recently had a conversation with reliever Danny Farquhar in which the righty revealed he’s been looking to add a change-up and an improved two-seam fastball to his repertoire. As it stands, the 26-year old is the most likely in-house option to start 2014 in the closers role. He saved 16 games after taking over the role from Tom Wilhelmsen, who also remains in the mix moving froward. The addition of a proven closer such as Balfour could change that though. In another piece, Jason argues that only Taijuan Walker and Zunino should be untouchable in trade talks. He gets the feeling that the Mariners might be valuing James Paxton the same way they are Walker given the lack on inactivity on the trade front. Given the Mariners’ team looks fairly similar heading into 2014 aside from swapping Kendrys Morales for Robinson Cano in the batting order, there’s no reason for Seattle to sit on their prospect stash and wait. Especially since the $24 million annual instalments set to enter Cano’s bank account begin in a little over two month’s time. Nick Franklin has been a topic of trade debate ever since Cano’s signature was printed on his massive contract. Considering Franklin plays a premium position and will be very cost effective for the next several seasons, Chris suggests he could be the main piece in a deal for a young starter like Jordan Zimmermann or an affordable outfielder like Jay Bruce. There hasn’t been much reported for trade talks surrounding Franklin, but that’s partially because an obvious match such as the Toronto Blue Jays simply don’t have the right pieces to offer in return. Letting Franklin rake in Triple-A to start the year wouldn’t be the worst possible scenario. Perhaps a contending team’s starting baseman goes down early in the season and would be willing to pay more to acquire a player like Franklin. PI’s Rob Balboni gives us an update on the MLB Rule IV Draft order for the upcoming year. The Mariners will pick sixth in the first round, and should Morales sign with another team before the draft, will sacrifice their Competitive Balance Round A pick for Signing Cano who had decline a qualifying offer from the New York Yankees. If Morales doesn’t sign before the draft, the Mariners will forfeit their second-round draft pick as compensation.Go!