Deal With the Devil: Will Seattle Regret Not Trading Cliff Lee to the Yankees and What Is Josh Lueke’s Future in Seattle?

Will Josh Lueke ever be allowed to pitch for the Mariners? Should he be?

If you haven’t been paying attention to the Mariners lately (instead choosing to enjoy life and not indulge in masochistic urges) it’s likely that you missed the latest controversy surrounding the team–and it has nothing to do with play on the field.        

Flashback to July, when the Mariners had a deal in place to trade Cliff Lee to the New York Yankees for a package of prospects including top-hitting catcher Jesus Montero, only to nix the trade at the last-minute in order to take a “better” offer from division rival Texas. At the time it seemed like a major coup for the Seattle front office, as they acquired powerful switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak and a former first round pick in pitcher Blake Beaven. However, after the initial euphoria lifted, things quickly began to unravel.        

One of the lesser known players in the trade, reliever Josh Lueke, had been convicted of a horrific crime–one that the front office was apparently clueless about (despite the fact that a simple Google search would bring up the information from Lueke’s case). Team president Chuck Armstrong and general manager Jack Zduriencik both claimed not to know the extent of Lueke’s criminal record, even though former pitching coach Rick Adair said he told the front office everything he knew about Lueke on and off the field. This set off a back and forth between the Seattle front office (who claimed to have been misled by the Rangers) and Texas (who stated that Lueke’s background was common knowledge and that they had offered to take him back) and eventually led to the firing of professional scouting director Carmen Fusco, a personal hire of Zdurinciek and a 35-year baseball veteran. Selling Fusco as the scapegoat didn’t quell the controversy though, and serious questions continue to linger about the M’s front office and the future of Jack Zdurienciek in Seattle.   

There’s no denying that Lueke is a talented pitcher (5-2, 1.86 ERA and 94 K’s in 63 innings at three minor league stops in 2010) but there are plenty of questions surrounding the Mariners’ decisions making in the process and what Lueke’s role with the organization will be moving forward. Seattle certainly needs help in the bullpen (apologies to Chris Seddon and Jamey Wright) but is bringing aboard a pitcher with Lueke’s history worth the potential damage to the organization’s reputation–especially an organization that has been so outspoken about domestic violence? The team had a chance to call-up Lueke when rosters expanded but balked at the opportunity, likely due to the outrage surrounding the “discovery” of his crimes. Will the response of fans be any different if the Mariners wait until next season to promote Lueke?  

Despite the fact that Lueke has paid his debt to society (spending 40 days in jail), it doesn’t change what he’s done and it won’t change how he’s viewed by fans and the community. If the organization knew about his past and still completed the trade with Texas it’s clear that the Mariners puts winning above all else, and if that’s the case,  they had better start winning (maybe we could become the baseball version of the Cincinnati Bengals). If Seattle truly didn’t know about Lueke’s criminal record (highly, highly unlikely) then the organization still has a responsibility to be upfront with their fan base about the situation and act accordingly, even if that means trading away or cutting Lueke. The Mariners made a colossal P.R. mistake by bringing aboard Lueke and the organization needs to act fast in order to save face–this isn’t an issue that will just go away if it’s ignored. 

No matter how this issue plays out, it’s clear that the Seattle front office isn’t the model of perfection we though it was, and that Jack Zduriencik might not be the man to lead the Mariners back to the playoffs. This whole firestorm could have been avoided if Seattle had just followed through on their trade with New York, but it appears that by trying to burn the Yankees, the Mariners torched themselves. 

Only time will tell…

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The Kids Aren’t Alright: What’s Wrong With Michael Saunders?

Michael Saunders has been more inconsistent than my bowel movements after eating a Double Down.

When Ken Griffey Jr “retired” earlier this season, young left fielder Michael Saunders became my favorite player on the woebegone squad. What can I say—I’ve got a thing for lefties who spend their summer days flirting with the Mendoza Line.    

Though he wasn’t a top draft pick (11th round of the 2004 draft) Saunders combination of power and speed allowed him to move steadily through the Mariners’ farm system, reaching the majors last season to fill the void left by Raul Ibanez. Saunders struggled mightily in his first chance in the show (.221-0 HR’s-4 RBI’s-6 walks/40 strikeouts) as his long swing was exposed by big league pitchers. Still, at only 22, there was still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Saunders heading into 2010.    

Saunders’ role with the team was temporarily in question when the Mariners acquired Milton Bradley in the offseason to play left field and DH, but it didn’t take long for him to get the call from Tacoma when Bradley was neutralized with a variety of injuries and mental instability. Despite continued contact issues, Saunders flashed the power that made him such a highly regarded prospect, hitting seven home runs in 106 May and June at-bats for a power starved Mariners’ team. He even went deep twice against southpaws, highlighted by a go-ahead home run against Red Sox ace Jon Lester. While his slugging dipped in July, Saunders showed improved plate discipline, drawing 11 walks against 16 strikeouts and posting a .380 OBP for the month. It seemed that the light had come on for Saunders and he was on the verge of a breakout season. But then, just as suddenly as he found his groove, Saunders hit a wall. Literally.   

The Condor will have to continue to develop at the plate if he wants to help the Mariners back to the playoffs.

In an August game against the Texas Rangers, Saunders collided with the left field wall trying to keep a home run in the park, and injured the same shoulder that he had labrum surgery on earlier in his career. Though the injury wasn’t serious, Saunders was shelved for around two weeks before returning to the lineup on August 31st. Since that time, the Condor just hasn’t been able to take flight, hitting a paltry .161 in September with just one extra base hit in the month (he hasn’t hit a home run since July). Reports from the clubhouse seem to indicate that Saunders’ shoulder is feeling fine, so what does he have to do in order to stay an important piece in the Mariners’ rebuilding effort?   

Part of Saunders’ regression is due to bad luck, as he carries a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .267 on the season (last season his BABIP was .329, the league average is around .300). Saunders has the wheels to leg out base hits, but he hits too many pop ups (16% of his flyballs don’t leave the infield) and flyballs (0.57 groundballs for every 1 flyball) to utilize his speed. While part of the low BABIP is out of  Saunders’ control, he would benefit from a shorter, compact swing which would allow him to make more consistent, solid contact (his 16 percent career linedrive rate is well below the MLB average of 19%). A shorter swing would also allow Saunders more time to react to pitches, neutralizing his two biggest weaknesses (fastballs inside and breaking balls away) and giving him a better chance to hang in against lefties. 

Saunders certainly has the talent to become an above average left fielder (think .270-20 HR’s-70 RBI’s-20 SB’s) and I hope that the Mariners give him a chance to play full-time in 2011, because let’s face it, they probably won’t be contending for the AL West title anyway. Saunders needs to make some adjustments in order to raise his average and provide value to the Mariners at the plate (he’s already a solid defensive player), and the best way to do that is to get at-bats at the major league level (especially against left handers, so they won’t have to platoon him in the future). If the Mariners want to climb out of the cellar next season, it will be on the strength of young players like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Saunders–the days of overpriced free-agents in Seattle are over. 

Mark my words, the Condor (and the M’s) will soar. Just not in 2010…

Redemption Song: Long Forgotten Prospects Find Niche in MLB.

Jose Bautista has hit more home runs by himself than the entire Seattle Mariners team.

One of the reasons I’m such a big baseball fan today is that I collected cards growing up  (and yes, I still do). There was nothing more exciting than pulling a rookie card of the next hot-shot prospect, sticking it in a hard case, and knowing that it would help put you through college. Well, the following players certainly didn’t help me through school while they struggled to live up to their top prospect status, but after years of anonymity, they might at least keep my knees safe from college loan sharks. Here are five long-awaited players finally marking their mark in Major League Baseball: 

Jose Bautista: While 29-year-old Jose Bautista is no spring chicken (and his defense at the hot corner makes Russ Davis look like a Gold Glover) the Pirates still have egg on their face for trading away this year’s most surprising slugger. After struggling to hold down in full-time gig in Pittsburgh, Bautista was traded to the Blue Jays in 2009 for prospect Robinson Diaz in the hopes that a change of scenery would allow the third baseman to tap into his batting potential. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what happened. Bautista was as ordinary as Drew Barrymore in his first year with the Jays, but he’s been a revelation this season, leading the American League with 43 HR’s and ranking second in walks and RBI’s (105) and third in OPS (.992) and slugging. It’s a testament to Bautista’s work ethic and skill set that he’s been able to achieve this level of success at such an advanced age, and also another sign that the Pirates just don’t get it. Like we needed another of those.    

Bryan Bullington: So Bryan Bullington hasn’t exactly been killing it since joining the Kansas City Royals (1-4, 6.11 ERA), but it’s still inspiring to see the number one overall pick from the 2002 draft (picked by, you guessed it, the Pirates) get his first Major League win at age 29. Bullington struggled for years with inconsistency and injuries after being drafted out of Ball State, but he put it all together in a start against the hated Yankees on August 15th, throwing eight innings of two-hit baseball in a 1-0 Royals victory. It’s not quite as inspiring as The Rookie, but it’s close.   

Neil Walker: It’s hard to believe that Neil Walker is just 24 because it seems like he’s been in the Pirates’ system forever. Drafted out of high school as a catcher, Walker was shifted to second base to accelerate his ascent to the bigs, and while it took longer than expected, he’s making the most of his opportunity this season. Since being called up in May, Walker has hit .310 with 10 HR’s and 51 RBI’s while posting an .842 OPS and playing adequate defense at second. If the Pirates plan on contending in the next decade or so, they’ll need Walker to keep showing that he was worthy of the number 11 overall pick in 2004. They’ll also need a first baseman, shortstop, right fielder and about twenty more pitchers…but that’s a story for another day.   

Aren't you glad you held on to that Colby Lewis rookie card for over a decade?

Colby Lewis: This time last year, Colby Lewis was playing for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s Central League. Now, the burly right-hander is one of the major reasons why the Texas Rangers are on the verge of capturing the AL West title. First drafted by the Rangers way back in 1999, Lewis bounced around in the majors and minors before finally discovering the secret to pitching while playing in Japan (its Red Bull if you’re wondering). Lewis has been a mainstay of the revived Rangers pitching staff, posting a 10-12 record (a lack of run support is the main culprit of his 12 losses) with a 3.86 ERA and 173 K’s in 177 innings. Not too bad for a pitcher who came into the season with a career ERA on the wrong side of seven.

Andres Torres: Just like Nelly, I’m a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes (this portion of Viva La Vidro is brought to you by Nelly’s new hit single “Just a Dream”) and while Andres Torres has neither, I still can’t help but think over and over again how amazing it is that it took Torres until age 32 (he was drafted by the Tigers in 1998) to get his first chance at a starting role. Torres had just over 400 career at-bats before 2010 but he’s looked like a seasoned vet this season, posting a line of .273-14 HR’s-60 RBI’s-23 SB’s as the leadoff hitter for the San Francisco Giants. In addition to setting the table for Los Gigantes’ offense, Torres has also played stellar defense in centerfield, leading to a WAR (wins above replacement player) rating of 4.0 (nearly twice as good as any Mariners’ offensive player). Torres’ value to the Giants can’t be overstated–without him, the Padres would be running away with the division. Who ever said old people can’t contribute positively to society…and pennant races?

Mariners Monthly Roundup: August “Mediocrity Reigns” Edition.

 

Despite being surrounded by a bunch of yea-hoos, Ichiro has continued his indomitable march towards history.

Record: 12-14 (Overall 51-80)       

A.L. West Standings: Texas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle       

Top Hitter: After slumping below .250 in July, Ichiro rebounded to post a .307 average in August including a two home run game at Yankee Stadium (they were against Javier Vasquez however, so they don’t really count). Though Ichiro’s had a down season by his standards (on pace for career lows in HR’s, runs, triples and his second lowest OPS) the Mariners top-of-the-order mainstay is still on pace for a record 10th straight 200 hit season. In a season so wrought with disappointment, it’s nice to have someone to look forward to. Bless you Ichiro. Bless you.  

Top Pitcher: Who’d you think it was gonna be, Sean White? Felix Hernandez continued a dominant season with his best month of the year, posting a 3-2 record with 0.82 ERA, .137 batting average against and 51 strikeouts in 43 2/3 innings. Despite suffering through some of the worst run support in baseball, King Felix has planted himself firmly in the Cy Young discussion by ranking 1st in innings, 2nd in ERA, 1st in K’s, 4th in WHIP and 3rd in complete games. Felix’s value to this team can’t be overstated–without him they would be utterly unwatchable. As is they’re just mostly unwatchable…  

Biggest Surprise:  Brandon League arrived in Seattle during the offseason in a controversial trade that sent talented but erratic starting pitcher Brandon Morrow to Toronto. The hard-throwing Hawaiian was supposed to be one of the best set-up men in all of baseball, but in the first half of the season he posted a 3.86 ERA and was responsible for many of the Mariners’ most painful defeats (“Oh, we’ve got a three run lead? I guess I’ll walk the bases loaded and then cough up a gopher ball). Since the All-Star break though, League has been in the zone, including August where he posted a 0.60 ERA in 15 innings. I’m not saying it was a good idea to trade Brandon Morrow, but it is nice to know that we weren’t entirely fleeced. Right? Right?  

Biggest Disappointment: Jose Lopez brings less to the table than Bob Cratchit. Why the Mariners are still giving at-bats to someone with a .605 OPS is beyond me, because Lopez has been a black hole all season long. There’s little doubt that he’ll be gone at the end of the season; why wait till then to give Matt Mangini or Matt Tuiasosopo a chance?  

Injuries: Erik Bedard (out for season–hypochondria); Milton Bradley (15-day DL–patellar tendonitis–underwent surgery August 17th); Shawn Kelley (15-day DL–elbow inflammation–appears headed for Tommy John surgery); Jack Wilson (out for season–hand surgery).  

Lingering Questions: If the Mariners win a game, and no one is watching, does it still count? Can Felix win a Cy Young with a losing record? Adam Moore can’t possibly be as bad as Rob Johnson, can he? What medication should I take for Mariners’ Season(al) Depression? 

September Schedule: 1 vs. Los Angeles, 4 vs. Cleveland, 3 @ Oakland, 3 @ Los Angeles, 3 vs. Boston, 3 vs. Texas, 3 @ Toronto, 3 @ Tampa Bay, 3 @ Texas, 1 vs. Oakland.  

Overall Grade: (C+) With new manager Darren Brown at the helm the Mariners weren’t completely awful in August, winning four series in a row before sputtering at the end of the month. Still, while the offense was marginally better than it had been, it was still the worst in baseball and made me question why I even bother to watch the M’s play.

Dave Niehaus, that’s why.