Flight of the Condor: Michael Saunders Enters Critical 2012 Season With a Shot at Redemption.

After years of failing to live up to expectations, Saunders knows he needs to make 2012 count. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Michael Saunders would like to forget that 2011 ever happened.

Would anyone blame him?

The Mariners centerfielder struggled all season long with Seattle, hitting .149 and striking out a whopping 56 times in just 161 at-bats for the big league club.

If the numbers weren’t bad enough, the way Saunders failed only exacerbated his, and Mariners’ fans, frustrations.

The bat rarely left his shoulder, and when it did, Saunders looked like he was swinging under water. Weak ground outs and pop ups, check swing strikeouts, and too many called third strikes to count.

He wasn’t just failing, he was imploding, and fans could see the young ballplayer unraveling at the seams. Little did they know the extent of Saunders struggles…

Off the field, his mother, Jane, was losing her 13-year battle with cancer. Michael had a special relationship with his mom, who was in attendance at Safeco Field on Mother’s Day 2010 when Saunders hit his first major league home run. Jane finally lost her battle with cancer in August, and Michael was granted an extended leave of absence by the Mariners to spend time with his family.

After six weeks away from baseball, Saunders returned to Triple-A Tacoma and hit well, posting a .864 OPS for the Rainiers. It looked like the Condor had finally turned a corner and was ready to take flight, but he came crashing back down to earth when he returned to the Mariners in September.

In 24 at-bats after being recalled by Seattle, Saunders collected just one hit (.042 BA) and struck out 11 times. There’s a difference between patience and passiveness at the plate, and Saunders was so timid that it looked like he didn’t even want to be there. Mariners fans yelled at their TVs, pleading with Saunders to swing, just swing, but nothing they said could clear his Ayers Rock-sized mental block.

Can Michael Saunders make Mariners fans forget about his tumultuous 2011 season? (Hannah Foslien/Getty)

The season ended, and Saunders struggles mercifully disappeared into the darkness of winter. Franklin Gutierrez would be back in 2012, and there was Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson too. He’d been given every chance to succeed with the Mariners, and squandered them all like the prodigal son. Saunders was destined to be forgotten; another failed Mariners prospect in an overflowing pile of unfulfilled expectations.

Spring rolled around and Saunders reported to camp with talk of a new swing. It didn’t matter much at the time; plenty of players show up to spring training with a “new approach at the plate” or in “the best shape of their life” and it usually it amounts to a hill of beans. Besides, he was buried on the depth chart and ticketed for another season in Tacoma; who cared what his swing looked like?

Then, as quickly as it had been dismissed, his new swing suddenly mattered a whole lot. Franklin Gutierrez, the surefire Opening Day starter, suffered a tear in his pectoral muscle and Saunders, the player who had appeared to run out of opportunities, was suddenly front and center.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! If confidence had a sound, it was the noise the ball made as it met Saunders’ suddenly potent bat. He was no longer on the defensive at the plate, he was in attack mode and lasering base hits to all fields. The browbeaten boy of 2011 was gone; in his place stood a self-assured man with something to prove.

As the Mariners travel to Japan to open the season against the Oakland Athletics on March 28th, Saunders isn’t just the starter in center by default, he’s earned it.

The Condor has risen from the ashes of seasons past and spread his wings, knowing this year might finally be his last chance.

He just can’t let this one go by like another called third strike…

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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.

Mariners Monthly Roundup: July “From Bad to Worse” Edition.

Michael Saunders is one of the few sources of hope in a dismal season.

Record: 6-22 (Overall 39-66)     

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

Top Hitter: With virtually the whole team slumping in the month it wasn’t difficult for second-year outfielder Michael Saunders to walk away as the best hitter in July. The 23-year-old began to show the potential that made him one of the Mariners most highly regarded prospects, hitting .279 with one HR and 6 RBI’s in the month. More importantly, Saunders flashed improved plate discipline with a 16/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading to a .380 OBP. He’s shown himself to be an above-average defensive player and if he can continue to develop as a hitter, Saunders should be a major part of Seattle’s rebuilding effort moving forward.     

Top Pitcher: Felix Hernandez picked up right where Cliff Lee left off in June, although thanks to an anemic Mariners’ offense, the King only won a single game in July despite a 2.54 ERA and 33 strikeouts against only 9 walks. Besides Erik Bedard Luke French Ryan Rowland-Smith Justin Vargas, Felix is the only sure thing on the Mariners’ staff right now, and the team will have plenty of holes to fill heading into 2010. This team would be completely unwatchable if not for the presence of King Felix.  

Biggest Surprise: Left for dead with the acquisitions of Justin Smoak and Russell Branyan, Casey Kotchman finally decided it was time to play like a big leaguer, hitting .318 with 4 HR’s and 10 RBI’s in the month. With Smoak currently in Triple-A and Branyan manning DH duties, Kotchman should see some significant playing time moving forward. He’s not part of the team’s future, but it would be nice to see him get a chance to play for another team–preferably in the division.    

Biggest Disappointment: Every player on the team not named Felix Hernandez. Also, I wish that Don Wakamatsu and Chone Figgins’ fight had escalated in a full-blown dugout brawl with Rob Johnson’s leg getting broken in the scrum. It’s little things like that which help keep interest up in a long season. And it’s been a loooooooooong season…   

Injuries: Erik Bedard (out for season–hypochondria); Milton Bradley (15-day DL–patellar tendonitis); Shawn Kelley (15-day DL–elbow inflammation); Ryan-Rowland Smith (15-day DL–overall awfulness–set to meet with Men at Work on Monday).   

Lingering Questions: Will the Mariners finish with the worst record in baseball? Will Ichiro be the only Mariner to finish the season hitting over .250? How long before the pitchers and hitters engage in a bloody civil war? Why do I keep watching if they bring me nothing but pain? Can Adam Moore possibly be worse than Rob Johnson? Should fans start showing up at the games with bags on their heads? 

August Schedule: 1 @ Minnesota; 3 vs. Texas; 3 vs. Kansas City; 3 vs. Oakland; 3 @ Cleveland; 3 @ Baltimore; 3 @ New York; 3 @ Boston; 3 vs. Minnesota; 2 vs. Los Angeles.     

Overall Grade: (F) I’m out of words to describe the abomination that is the Mariners, so this picture will have to do.

Mariners Monthly Roundup: June “If Only We Played in the NL Central” Edition.

Cliff Lee's tremendous month of June won't make it any easier to say goodbye.

Record: 14-13  (Overall 33-44)

AL West Standings: Texas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle.

 

Top Hitter: It’s almost by default that Ichiro claims his place as the team’s top hitter because no one else on the Mariners seemed to know what they were doing at the plate in June. The ageless Suzuki just kept plugging along, hitting .321 in the month with 2 HR’s, 14 RBI’s and 8 stolen bases. Considering that Seattle has a team batting average of .239, Ichiro might be more valuable to the Mariners than he ever has been. Whatever he’s getting paid, he’s worth it. Can you imagine this offense with Ichiro?

Top Pitcher: If June truly was Cliff Lee’s last month as a Mariner he made the most of it. The most coveted trade chip in all of baseball posted a 4-1 record with a 1.76 ERA and an unbelievable four complete games (his 36/2 strikeout-to-walk ration wasn’t too shabby either). Though Lee won’t be able to lead the Mariners back to the playoffs (not single-handedly at least), he should bring in a hearty bounty of prospects from whichever contender acquires his services (Minnesota, St. Louis and the New York Mets are all in the mix). Thanks for the memories Cliff; maybe someday we’ll be reunited once again. Maybe…

Biggest Surprise: Finally given a chance to play everyday, Michael “the Condor” Saunders has shown why he was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the Mariners’ organization, connecting for a team-high five home runs in the month of June. The 23-year-old is still struggling to find consistency at the plate and needs to cut down on the K’s (37 in 112 AB’s) but he provides some hope that the M’s might not be terrible forever.

Biggest Disappointment: Rob Johnson (.200 BA) and Sean White (7.58 ERA) are not major league caliber players. Not today, not ever. Don’t tell me that there are no players in our farm system capable of what those two bumbling idiots are doing at the big league level. Please do something about them Seattle front office. Please?

Griffey Watch: N/A…insert sad face here.

Happy Trails: The Ian Snell Experiment (0-5, 6.41 ERA) wasn’t anymore successful in 2010 than it was last year. The Mariners showed amazing patience with the struggling pitcher, but finally had enough after Snell showed no signs of turning things around, and designated him for assignment. Shockingly, no other team was willing to take a chance on him. Color me surprised…

Injuries: Erik Bedard (shoulder surgery, 60-day DL–early July return); Mark Lowe (lower back inflammation, 15-day DL); Shawn Kelley (right elbow inflammation, 15-day DL); Mike Sweeney (old age, 15-day DL): Rob Johnson (inability to catch balls thrown his way, no known cure).

Lingering Questions: Will Russell Branyan lead the Mariners in home runs for the season despite not joining the team until late June? Will King Felix continue to pitch at a high level once Cliff Lee is traded? Should fans continue to show up to Safeco Field if Rob Johnson is still the starting catcher? What’s Ken Griffey Jr. up to?

July Schedule: 4 @ Detroit, 3 vs. Kansas City, 4 vs. New York, All Star Break, 4 @ Los Angeles, 3 vs. Chicago, 4 vs. Boston, 4 @ Chicago, 2 @ Minnesota.

Overall Grade: (B) It only took until June, but the Mariners finally posted their first winning month of the season–one game over .500!! Despite a strong finish to the month, Seattle actually lost ground in the division as Texas was hotter than, well, Texas on a summer’s day. The 1-2 punch of Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez finally lived up to the hype, but not even dominating performances from those two aces could obscure just how badly the offense has performed all season. With virtually no chance to catch the Rangers in the division, it will be interesting to see what big names the Mariners consider moving at the trade deadline, and what pieces they can acquire to build for 2011 and beyond. This is Jack Zdrunciek’s best shot to prove that he is not Bill Bavasi part deux. No pressure though…

They Are Who We Thought They Were: Why the Mariners’ Continued Struggles Shouldn’t Surprise Anyone.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

Watching the Seattle Mariners is like getting drilled by a fastball. It hurts.

After yesterday’s excruciating loss to the lowly Orioles it’s time to face the facts–the Seattle Mariners season is over.    

Yes it’s only May, and no they aren’t mathematically eliminated, but have the Mariners given us any reason to believe that they are capable of going on a tear and catching Texas in the AL West? Have they given us any reason to believe they won’t finish in the cellar of the division?   

The first month and a half of  the season has been filled with bullpen meltdowns, fielding miscues and a lineup that would have trouble scoring runs at Double A. Not only are the Mariners losing at an alarming rate, but they aren’t even fun to watch (unless you are a big fan of failed suicide squeeze bunts–happy trails Eric Byrnes). For a team that came into 2010 with such great expectations, Seattle might be the most frustrating and disappointing team in baseball.   

The offseason was filled with talk of a World Series run and a storybook ending to the career of Ken Griffey Jr. New additions like Chone Figgins, Casey Kotchman and Cliff Lee were supposed to help Seattle return to the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade. All that speculation looks like a pipe dream now, as the Mariners sit at 12-21, already 6 1/2 games out in a weak division.    

The team is so boring to watch that Mariners players are falling asleep during games (allegedly) and besides recent call-up Michael Saunders there is little reason to believe things will change. The magic that was supposed to surround this team is nowhere to be found and not all the Mike Sweeney hugs in the world can do anything to change that.    

The Mariners looked like a contender on paper but have turned out to be the biggest frauds in baseball. Should we have seen this coming?    

Unfortunately yes. Despite all the optimism surrounding the team heading into 2010, the Mariners were a fatally flawed team. Here’s why:   

1) Mike Brumley’s IQ<60: Seriously, if there is one single person responsible for the M’s poor start, it’s the third base coach. If he isn’t on the payroll of the Athletics, Rangers and Angels, he should be. Brumley has looked clueless all season, sending runners who get thrown out my 15 feet, waving his arms around like a mad man and generally killing any chance the team has of scoring runs. Seattle is a team built with zero margin for error and yet they’ve run themselves out of more innings than I can count. Please fire him Mariners. Please?  

It would take approximately 100,000 Mike Brumley cards to buy a loaf of bread in Slovenia.

2) The Law of Averages: In 2009 the Mariners compiled an 85-77 record despite a negative run differential. The last time that Seattle had a winning record with a negative run differential was 2007; the following season they lost 101 games. The Mariners thrived in one run games last year, but they can’t catch a break in 2010, and are finally experiencing the regression they should have in 2009. Baseball is a game of averages and right now those averages are bitch slapping the Mariners. The team almost certainly won’t lose over 100 games again (I think…I hope…I just don’t know) but they also aren’t going to post a winning record. Happy trails Cliff Lee!   

3) Milton Bradley=Crazy: I won’t second guess the Mariners for trading away Carlos Silva (even as he thrives with the Cubs) but expecting Milton Bradley to play left field and hit cleanup all season long was doomed to fail from the start. There’s no doubt that Bradley is a talented hitter, but there is also little doubt that he has more bats in the belfry than Lady Gaga. I’m pulling for him to turn it around and have a strong year at the dish, but I certainly wouldn’t bet a gem mint 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card on it. The Mariners’ had less of a contingency plan going into 2010 than John Hammond did for Jurassic Park and they are paying dearly for it now.    

4) Catchers Who Can’t Catch (or Hit): How bad is the combination of Rob Johnson and Adam Moore behind the plate? Bad enough that I’m dreaming of the glory days of Kenji Johjima, Ben Davis and Tom Lampkin. Neither Johnson nor Moore has shown the ability to consistently hit major league pitching so they combine for a black hole in the lineup, which might be okay if they were stellar defensively—they’re not. The Mariners lead the majors in passed balls which have led to numerous unearned runs we can ill afford to spare. 

5) Clubhouse Chemistry Does Not Win Divisions: The impetus for the Mariners bringing in both Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney for 2010 was that good vibes and practical jokes would help Seattle return to the playoffs. Nevermind that both Griffey and Sweeney are one-dimensional at best and occupy two roster spots that are virtually worthless to the team right now because they’re great guys! And while manager Don Wakamatsu may be loved by the players, his handling of the bullpen this year makes Dusty Baker look like the Einstein of baseball, and it would be nice to see him show a little emotion from time to time (he’s quickly becoming baseball’s Art Shell). The Mariners roster was built to fail because it hinged on a mythical thing called chemistry rather than a very real thing called talent. Let’s hope the Mariners front office learn from their mistakes in 2010 and puts a product on the field in 2011 that resembles a major league baseball team, because the Mariners are anything but right now.  

Remember when Seattle was 9-7 and looking like a legitimate contender. Yeah, me either…

Mariners Monthly Roundup: April “Who Needs to Hit to Win the West” Edition

 

Franklin Gutierrez carried the Mariners offense in April. Can he keep it up all season?

Record: 11-12

AL West Standings: Oakland, Texas, Seattle, Los Angeles

Top Hitter: Well, being the top hitter for the Mariners is kind of like being the best Hinder cover band, but that shouldn’t take away from what Franklin Gutierrez did at the plate in April. The constantly improving 27-year-old hit .326 for the month with 2 HR’s and 13 RBI’s and was Seattle’s only real threat in the lineup. Guti came through with a number of clutch hits and is a major reason why the M’s are hovering around .500 instead of being in the AL West cellar after a dreadful offensive showing as a team in April.

Top Pitcher: Dazzling Doug Fister may have had to battle for a spot in the rotation during Spring Training, but he looked like a seasoned vet on the mound in April. The 6′ 8″ righty made the most of his home ballpark and defense with a 2-1 record and stellar 1.67 ERA. Though Fister doesn’t throw hard (high 80’s) he pounds the strike zone (only 5 walks in 27 innings) and makes opposing hitters beat him; they weren’t able to do so in the season’s first month (.208 batting average against). Fister took a no-hitter into the 7th inning against the Orioles on April 19th and gives the M’s a surplus of starting pitching if he can keep up his strong start.

Biggest Surprise: See above.

Biggest Disappointment: Milton Bradley was supposed to the Mariners’ cleanup hitter in 2010 but responded by hitting only .211 in April and continuing to act like a 12-year-old. Something tells me he is due for a big blowup after watching a called third strike with the bases loaded against Tampa Bay; just a hunch I guess.

Doug Fister looked like an ace in April. But can the offense keep pace with the M's staff?

Griffey Watch: Far be it from me to second guess one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, but it looks like Ken Griffey Jr. should have left while he was ahead after the 2009 season. Through the first month of the year Junior was hitting just .228 with only one extra-base hit (a double) and 4 RBI’s in 57 AB’s. He can’t catch up to even pedestrian fastballs and spends most of his time looking lost at the plate. Jack Zdurinciek and manager Don Wakamatsu will have a tough choice to make with Griffey if he doesn’t start hitting, and soon.

Home Run Tracker: Nine (9). That’s not a typo. The entire team hit nine home runs in one month. Somebody better call Avista because the power is out in Seattle.

Injuries: Erik Bedard (shoulder surgery, 15-day DL–possible late May return); Jack Hannahan (strained groin, 15-day DL–Triple A rehab)

Lingering Questions: Will Cliff Lee’s return energize the Mariners? Will anyone besides Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro hit? How long will it be before Mike Sweeney’s hugs lose their charm? Can someone please hit a home run? Just one?

May Schedule: 2 vs. Texas, 3 vs. Tampa Bay, 3 vs. Los Angeles, 3 @ Baltimore, 3 @ Tampa Bay, 2 @ Oakland, 2 @ Toronto, 3 vs. San Diego, 2 vs. Detroit, 3 @ Los Angeles, 1 vs. Minnesota.

Overall Grade: (B-) The Mariners should be thanking their lucky stars that the rest of the AL West struggled through April because Seattle did not look like a playoff team in the first month of 2010. Their pitching is once again among the game’s best but the offense looks even worse than last season–and they were bad in 2009. The return of Cliff Lee should help the M’s, but unless the team starts hitting they’ll find themselves out of contention by the end of May. Seattle needs to regroup fast in order to live up to their lofty expectations. Things could get ugly in hurry if they don’t…

Viva La Vidro Visits Safeco Field: Scenes from a Seattle Mariners Home Opener

Despite the pleadings of my closest advisors and body guards that I stay in my underground bunker with Tupac, I ignored their advice and decided to attend the Mariners’ home opener on Monday knowing full well that I would be mobbed by adoring fans at every turn. When you reach the level of fame that I have as a two-time A.S.B. President and the second best 14-15 year-old swimmer in Central Washington, you become accustomed to countless autograph and photo requests. While I realize that it comes with the territory, the constant attention can make going out in public quite difficult, and with over 40,000 people in attendance at Safeco it seemed destined to be a long day.

As it turns out the fans were much more interested in the game than they were in the author of a mildly popular blog and I was able to enjoy the game in relative peace. The M’s really rose to the occasion with a total of two hits as a team and were blanked by the Athletics 4-0. The highlight of an otherwise dull game was Randy Johnson throwing out the first pitch (the Big Unit was well received despite his tumultuous exit from the team) and then being joined on the field by Seattle legends Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson and Edgar Martinez. An otherwise reliable camera wasn’t able to capture any photos from the pre-game pageantry but I did manage to snap a few shots of the game action. They are as follows:

Ichiro’s slow start to the season has been a major source of the Mariners scoring troubles. He went 0-4 in this game and blamed the alignment of the planets for the hitless home opener, cursing Mercury for ever being born.

Ryan Rowland-Smith had a no-hitter through 5 innings, but the Hypenator struggled with his control all day, and was eventually undone by his own wildness. Seattle will need more consistency from him moving forward, although he made it up to the fans with an acoustic version of “Down Under” after the game.

Ken Griffey Jr. was understandably nervous with me in the stands and it showed as he struck out in his first two at-bats. I apologized after the game for being a distraction and Junior promised he would never let me down again. After that we went to Dave and Buster’s to play ski-ball…he won.

It only took one game for the Safeco Field faithful to start booing Milton Bradley for his play in left field. Thankfully, he didn’t respond with a middle finger as he did in Texas, though I’m sure he wanted to. Has there ever been a player in sports whose name is a worse fit for their personality? When I think Milton Bradley I think fun. When I see the Milton Bradley that plays baseball I think dark and troubled. If his name was Gregory Grumppot it would be a total non-issue.

 Junior thought about stealing home but his hamstrings decided against it.

The game ended on a long fly ball that was just a little short. Let’s hope that’s not a harbinger of what’s to come or my World Series prediction will look awful silly.

Th-th-tha-that’s all folks! Hope to head out to a few more games this summer. Stay tuned to Viva la Vidro for all things not worth being published elsewhere.