Hasta La Vista Viva Las Vargas: Mariners Swap Southpaw Jason Vargas for Angels’ Superflous Slugger Kendry Morales

Jason+Vargas+Seattle+Mariners+Photo+Day+-9ic30UeLq1lThe walls are moving in and Jason Vargas is moving out.

In a typical tight-lipped Jack Zduriencik move that developed seemingly out of thin air, the Seattle Mariners agreed today to ship their number two starter to the L.A. Angels in return for 1B/DH Kendry Morales.

Vargas has been a serviceable starter for the Mariners the last three seasons, averaging innings and posting ERA’s of 3.78, 4.25, and 3.85. He’s a gritty pitcher with good control, but his so-so stuff, gopheritis (35 home runs allowed in 2012), and increasing salary made him a likely target to be moved this off-season. Vargas has always been a pitcher who benefited from Safeco’s spacious dimensions (2.74 ERA at home vs. 4.78 ERA on the road last season) and with stadium alterations in place for the 2013 season, the Mariners likely sold Vargas while his value was at its peak.

Trading within the division isn’t a common occurrence, but the Angels needed a starting pitcher to round out their rotation and had a glut of 1B/DH players on their roster, making Morales expendable. The switch-hitting slugger posted a triple-slash of .273/.320/.467 in 2012 and added 26 2B, 22 HR, and 73 RBI in his first season back from a horrific injury suffered in 2012 against, you guessed it, the Seattle Mariners. Morales finished 5th in the AL MVP vote his last full season (2009) and finished 2012 strong, posting OPS’s of .900 in August and .829 in September/October.

While the trade makes sense for both sides (and both players are free agents after the season), it doesn’t come without some inherent risks. The Mariners are leaving a gaping void in their pitching staff behind Felix Hernandez, and will be counting on young players like Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beaven or James Paxton to produce at the big league level. Los Angeles is gambling that Vargas can produce away from the friendly confines of Safeco Field and that Morales won’t return to his pre-injury form.

Seattle’s net gain is somewhere close to zero in terms of WAR, but the team does add some desperately need offensive thump to the lineup, and may be setting themselves up for another move with Morales/Smoak/Montero all competing for plate appearance at first and DH.

The Mariners might not be a better team today than they were yesterday, but at least they’re a bit more interesting. That’s about all we can ask for…

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Visual Recap: Seattle Mariners vs. L.A. Angels May 24th-27th

Heaven Isn’t Too Far Away: The Authoritative 2010 Seattle Mariners Season Preview.

Are the Seattle Mariners bound for baseball heaven in 2010?

It was the year 1989 when Warrant penned their classic hair-metal ballad “Heaven”—a song that helped their album go platinum and pushed the band to the forefront of the rock-and-roll consciousness. That very same year another chart topper emerged into the national spotlight—a young ballplayer by the name of Ken Griffey Jr. who energized a sleepy city and brought direction to a long lost franchise.   

Now in the third decade of a storybook career, Griffey has one last, final last chance to bring a title to a championship-starved town and add the only thing missing from an otherwise spotless resume. Does he have enough left in his 40-year-old body to will the M’s across the finish line? Are his teammates up to the challenge?   

The Mariners took a major step forward last season, finishing with an 85-77 record on the strength of breakout stars like Felix Hernandez and Franklin Gutierrez. Seattle’s GM Jack Zduriencik sensed that 2010 could be a banner year for his team and he spent the offseason creating a championship caliber ballclub, headlined by the additions of former Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee and speedster Chone Figgins. Do the Mariners have enough ammunition to compete in a deep and talented division or are they once again destined for disappointment? Here’s what they’re bringing to the table in 2010:  

Starting Nine (Projected 2010 stats from ESPN.com)   

Rightfield: Ichiro Suzuki (.307-6 HR’s-49 RBI’s-29 SB’s-.350 OBP)   

Second Base: Chone Figgins (.281-4 HR’s-46 RBI’s-35 SB’s-.375 OBP)   

Leftfield: Milton Bradley (.285-15 HR’s-58 RBI’s-.394 OBP)   

Designated Hitter: Ken Griffey Jr. (.239-14 HR’s-41 RBI’s-.341 OBP)   

Third Base: Jose Lopez (.279-24 HR’s-90 RBI’s-.308 OBP)   

Centerfield: Franklin Gutierrez (.280-20 HR’s-68 RBI’s-14 SB’s-.333 OBP)   

First Base: Casey Kotchman (.274-9 HR’s-53 RBI’s-.342 OBP)   

Shortstop: Jack Wilson (.250-4 HR’s-40 RBI’s-.293 OBP)   

Catcher: Adam Moore/Rob Johnson (.250-6-22/.243-5-30)   

The Mariners need Griffey to hit like a kid again in 2010.

Thoughts: While it’s not exactly Murderer’s Row, the M’s lineup should be an improvement over the squad that managed to score only 640 runs last season. Seattle might not have a single player top 30 home runs this year, but playing in spacious Safeco Field the team is better suited to rely on speed and gap power anyway, and it appears the M’s finally have a squad suited for that style of play with Ichiro and Figgins leading the way atop the lineup. The two combined for an astounding 408 hits, 202 runs and 68 stolen bases last year and should cause nightmares for opposing pitchers.

Bradley has the potential to be a solid #3 hitter with decent pop and good patience but he’s anything but a sure thing mentally or physically. Griffey is expected to be in better shape than 2009 after offseason knee surgery and Gutierrez should continue to mature as a hitter after showing marked improvement last year. Lopez wouldn’t draw a walk if you offered him $100,000 for each base on balls, but he’s at least adequate for Seattle at third base and will be an improvement over the injury-riddled Adrian Beltre of last year. The bottom third of the order is better suited for play in the deadball era and will need to exceed expectations in order to avoid letting the rest of the team down.  

Ryan Garko and Eric Byrnes should provide some energy off the bench and talented youngster Michael Saunders is waiting in the wings with the Tacoma Rainiers if Bradley gets stupid or injured (or both at the same time). Hopefully Seattle can avoid handing out too many at-bats to the offensively challenged Jack Hannahan and Ryan Langerhans (both of whom have more holes in their swings than the plot of an M. Night Shyamalan movie). Their lineup clearly isn’t going to carry the Mariners to the pennant, but it ought to be good enough to keep games close…and that’s all Seattle’s pitchers will need.  

Pitching Staff (Projected Stats from ESPN.com)   

1) Felix Hernandez (17 wins-2.95 ERA-1.21 WHIP-203 K’s)   

2) Cliff Lee (18 wins-3.33 ERA-1.22 WHIP-180 K’s)     

3) Ryan Rowland-Smith (10 wins-4.06 ERA-1.31 WHIP-111 K’s)   

4) Ian Snell (7 wins-5.05 ERA-1.59 WHIP-96 K’s)   

5) Jason Vargas/Doug Fister/Luke French (????)   

Can the Hyphenator build of his late season success and complement Felix and Cliff?

Thoughts: The pitching talent drops off precipitously after Hernandez and Lee, and if they could, the team would probably pitch those two every other day (Dr. James Andrews has advised against it). The Mariners have to hope that Erik Bedard makes a speedy recovery from offseason surgery or the club might have to pursue another arm at the trading deadline to stay in contention.  

King Felix will be hard pressed to improve upon his 2009 season, but at only 23-years-old (24 in April), nothing is out of the question for the talented Venezuelan (he’s the odds on favorite for the 2010 AL Cy Young Award). Lee should be able to thrive in a pitcher’s park with a strong defense up the middle, and his impending free agency at the end of the year should provide him with all the motivation he needs. Rowland-Smith is a serviceable number three starter who could turn some heads after a strong finish to 2009. After Rowland-Smith however, things get a little bit murky. 

Ian Snell was consistently inconsistent after being acquired from the Pirates last year and unless he drastically cuts down on walks he’ll never be anything but a headache for the Mariners. Fister, Vargas and French all had moments of brilliance in 2009, but none of them have taken the bull by the horns and grabbed the #5 spot with their performances in Spring Training. Seattle has the best 1-2 punch in all of baseball with Hernandez and Lee and they’ll need to lean heavily on them with question marks throughout the rest of the rotation. A healthy Bedard is paramount to a deep postseason run. 

Bullpen:   

Closer: David Aardsma   

Set-Up: Mark Lowe, Brandon League, Shawn Kelley, Kanekoa Texeira, etc.   

It's everything I always hoped it would be.

Thoughts:  Just like last year, the bullpen should be the real strength of the club. David Aardsma was one of the biggest surprises in baseball last year, and even with the expected regression in 2010, should be an above-average closer for the M’s. If he struggles, the newly acquired Brandon League has the stuff to close games, as does Mark Lowe. Texeira (thankfully no relation to the Yankees’ Mark) has looked sharp all spring and should help to bridge the gap in the 7th or 8th inning. If there is one facet of the team that I’m not worried about, it’s the bullpen.

Fearless Forecast: Call me hopelessly optimistic, but something about this Mariners’ squad has me more excited for Opening Day than I can ever remember. The team has a good mix of veterans and rising stars and a boatload of positive momentum after a surprising 2009 season. The clubhouse chemistry should remain intact with Griffey still aboard, although it may suffer some with the loss of Carlos Silva (aka Felix’s BFF).

The Mariners aren’t great in any one area of the game, but they are solid across the board and should be able to take advantage of a down year for the Los Angeles Angels and capture the AL West in a hard fought battle. With King Felix, Cliff Lee and Erik Bedard leading the rotation Seattle would be unstoppable in a postseason series, because as is proven year after year, pitching wins championships. And finally, after all these years and countless tears, Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners will bring a World Series title home to Seattle.

For once Mariners’ fans, heaven isn’t too far away.

Torii Hunter Channels Jimmy the Greek, Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh: Angels Outfielder Calls Latin Players “Imposters”.

Though Torii Hunter may have been on to something, he picked a poor way to tackle a taboo subject.

In what may have been a rare case of an athlete’s comments actually being taken out of context, Torii Hunter repeatedly put his foot in his mouth in a recent interview with USA Today about racial diversity in baseball. Hunter was discussing the number of African-American players in baseball when he made the following comments:   

“People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they’re African-American. They’re not us. They’re impostors. Even people I know come up and say: ‘Hey, what color is Vladimir Guerrero? Is he a black player?’ I say, ‘Come on, he’s Dominican. He’s not black.”   

But unfortunately, he wasn’t done there:   

“As African-American players, we have a theory that baseball can go get an imitator and pass them off as us. It’s like they had to get some kind of dark faces, so they go to the Dominican or Venezuela because you can get them cheaper. It’s like, ‘Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?’ … I’m telling you, it’s sad.”   

Needless to say Hunter’s comments created a media firestorm that caused him to backtrack from what he said and apologize profusely. But amidst his unfortunate choice of words in regards to Latin players, was Hunter addressing a real issue in baseball?   

Yes and no.   

Just to be clear, Vladimir Guerrero is Dominican, not African-American.

Hunter’s one salient point in the interview concerned the fact that fans have the tendency to lump all dark-skinned players into the same category, which is unfair to all parties involved. Clearly the ethnic experience of an African-American player is going to be different from that of a player from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, and those differences need to be recognized. Baseball is the most international of any American sport and it benefits from having the best players from all around the globe. The unique fusion of different cultures makes baseball a melting pot very representative of American society as a whole. What Hunter was likely trying to say is that the differences between African-American players and Dominican players should be acknowledged and celebrated by fans, rather than trying to create a homogenous sport. 

If Hunter had stopped at that point and used a different word than imposters his comments probably wouldn’t have generated such a backlash, but saying that baseball is trying to pass of Latin players as African-Americans is a bit paranoid and completely off-base. Baseball doesn’t care about the color of skin its players have, but it does want the most talented players, and for the past few decades a steady stream of superstars has been coming out of Venezuela (Felix Hernandez, Johan Santana, etc.), Puerto Rico (Carlos Beltran, Ivan Rodriguez, etc.), Cuba (Aroldis Chapman) and the Dominican Republic (Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero, etc). Hunter seems concerned and maybe even jealous about the lack of African-American players in baseball (just over 10% in 2008–the most in over a decade) but the simple truth is that for quite some time African-Americans have been drawn to football and basketball, which offer quick money and more glamorous lifestyles without having to toil away in the obscurity of the minor leagues. A lack of African-American players in baseball does not make the sport racist anymore than the lack of white players makes basketball racist.  It’s a matter of talent, not race.

Hopefully Torii Hunter sticks to talking about what he knows from now on…baseball.

Topics That Should Have Been Tackled Months Ago: Should Baseball Expand Instant Replay Beyond Home Runs?

Would more instant replay help the boys in blue?

After a postseason filled with inexplicable mistakes (not the least of which was the Yankees winning the World Series) Major League Baseball and its umpires came under intense and deserved scrutiny for their handling of crucial calls in the playoffs. No series was exempt from questionable rulings, including the one-game playoff between the Twins and Tigers, but the biggest gaffe came in Game Two of the ALDS between New York and Minnesota. With the score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the 11th Joltin’ Joe Mauer stepped up to the plate and laced an apparent double down the leftfield line. Though replays clearly showed that the ball glanced off outfielder Melky Cabrera’s glove and landed in fair territory, umpire Phil “Beer” Cuzzi ruled the ball foul and effectively handed the game to the Yankees, who scored in the bottom of the inning to take a commanding 2-0 series lead. Would the course of history been changed if baseball had used instant replay to make the correct call? Is the Yankees’ title forever tainted? Does MLB need to expand instant replay beyond homeruns in order to avoid further embarrassment?  

No, no and no. As much as it pains me to say it, the Yankees were the best team in baseball last season (and will presumably be in 2010) and would have won the World Series with or without help from the umpires (though some have speculated that A-Rod sold his soul to the devil for one good postseason). As for expanding replay beyond just homeruns, it might help baseball’s image in the short-term, but a knee-jerk reaction to one postseason would undoubtedly hurt the sport more than it would help it. 

We might not like 'em, but umpires are an important part of the game.

Despite the findings of a recent study which showed that there is more live action in a MLB game than there is in an NFL game (12:22 vs 12:08 minutes with the ball in play), baseball is viewed by and large as a “slow” sport. By adding replays to calls at the bases and along the foul-lines, baseball would further alienate fans who prefer the fast paced action of basketball or football. If baseball is intent on adding more replays (Bud Selig is not keen on the idea but he might not be the commissioner for much longer) the sport will have to find additional ways to speed the game up (less trips to the mound, less chances for a batter to step out of the box, etc.) to compensate for the extra time added with each replay. 

In addition to making baseball games longer expanding replay would also take away the unique place in sports occupied by umpires. In baseball, more than any other professional sport, umpires are intertwined with the game and its players. While they might not quite rival Leslie Nielson’s portrayal in the Naked Gun, each umpires signature “strike” or “out” call add an element to baseball that help to make it America’s pastime. Mistakes by umpires are an inherent part of the game, and reviewing every questionable call with replay would turn baseball from something organic into something mechanical—further distancing the sport from its origins. More often than not, umpires make the correct calls, and one bad postseason doesn’t warrant tearing apart the fabric of the game to appease a few offended parties.

Let’s leave replay to football and keep baseball from making a change it will inevitably regret. After all, if we don’t have umpires to blame for losing games, who are we going to point the finger at? Ourselves?

Ken Griffey Jr. is the Most Important Player in Baseball. Here’s Why.

At 40-years-old, Ken Griffey Jr. is primed for the most important season of his career.

Ken Griffey Jr. is no longer “the Kid”. He won’t be climbing walls and stealing would-be home runs or depositing 40+ souvenirs into the outfield stands in 2010. Junior will huff and puff trying to score from second on a single, struggle to catch up with above-average fastballs and will likely spend more time on the bench than he does on the field. Yet, despite all the shortcomings of his 40-year-old body, Ken Griffey Jr. has never meant more to the Seattle Mariners or the sport of baseball than he will in 2010.

The Mariners enter the season as a threat to win the AL West and a dark horse (though that term is forever soiled by the latest Nickleback album) to make a deep postseason run. The roster has been completely overhauled by new GM Jack Zduriencik and the additions of Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley give Seattle an even more talented roster than the one that went 85-77 last year. However, no offseason move was more important to the Mariners and their fans than bringing back Griffey for the 2010 season.

Junior completely transformed the Mariners last year, turning a dugout that looked like a crypt into somewhere more fun than an episode of MXC. For the first time in years Seattle players looked like they were having fun in 2009 (heck even Ichiro smiled, and he was diagnosed with a rare condition that makes it extremely painful to show any emotion) and it’s impossible to overstate how important chemistry was to the Mariners’ success last season.

Ken Griffey Jr. makes me want to be a better man.

Griffey will once again be counted on as the unquestioned leader of the Mariners in 2010, and will have his work cut out for him with the addition of the mercurial Bradley, a talented but troubled player who needs to perform at a high level if Seattle is to succeed in a competitive AL West. If the Mariners do manage to win their division (because the Wild Card will come out of the AL East), Junior is one of just a handful of players on the team with any prior postseason experience and the only remaining link to the Mariners’ magical 1995 season.

Griffey is part player, part coach and part class clown—and Seattle needs him to fulfill all three roles if the team hopes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Junior is integral to the success or failure of the Mariners in 2010, but he is even more important as a symbol of hope for the still tarnished sport of baseball.

Though Major League Baseball would like to continue to sweep the issue of steroids under the carpet, Mark McGwire’s return to the game has once again brought the taboo topic to the forefront of fans’ minds. Nearly every prolific home run hitter from the last two decades (Barry Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, etc.) has been linked in some way to steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs…but not Ken Griffey Jr.

He stands above the fray as a man who played the game of baseball the right way, and by not aging gracefully, Griffey in fact aged gracefully. Junior’s head didn’t grow while he was in his 30’s and he peaked when he was 28 or 29, not 38 or 39 (cough Barry Bonds cough). Ken Griffey Jr. is the lone source of light in the darkness that envelops the steroids era and has shown other players and the young kids that look up to him that success can be found without the help of a needle. Griffey took the responsibility of being a role model seriously, and if there is anything that baseball can salvage from the past twenty years, it’s thanks to Junior.

Hopefully baseball fans give Griffey the farewell he deserves this season. He’s done more for the game than we may ever know.

Changing of the Guard: Do the Red Sox Recent Acquisitions Make Them the Team to Beat in the AL East for 2010?

John Lackey has the heart of a warrior. Will it be enough to propel Boston past New York?

The Boston Red Sox came into this offseason in a foul mood. Not only were they swept from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Angels, but their bitter rivals, the New York Yankees, returned to baseball’s limelight by capturing the World Series on the strength of stars Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia—players that Boston had at one time targeted through free agency or trades. To make matters worse, the Yankees had already pulled off one of the biggest moves of the offseason, acquiring talented center fielder Curtis Granderson in a trade with the Tigers. Clearly Boston was feeling the heat in a never-ending arms race with New York, and it didn’t take long for the Red Sox to respond in turn. In the span of two days they acquired John Lackey, the best free-agent pitcher on the market, and Mike Cameron, a defensive virtuoso, to fill the void in left field. Both players will play important roles for Boston in 2009, but will they make the Red Sox the best team in the AL East?   

The addition of Lackey gives Boston one of the deepest pitching rotations in all of baseball, with a talented trio at the top and a number of serviceable arms at the back of the rotation. Lackey received staff ace money from the Red Sox (5 years/$82.5 million) but will probably be the third starting pitcher in the rotation behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester (Killer J’s? J-Cubed?). Though hampered by injuries in 2009, Lackey still went 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA and 139 strikeouts against only 47 walks. He is mainly a groundball pitcher but can be susceptible to the longball (he allowed 26 home runs in 2008), which may prove to be an issue with the Green Monster out in left field. Despite the fact that Lackey might not be in the same class as pitchers like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, he has a strong postseason track record (3.12 career playoff ERA) and past success against AL East foes (25-15, 3.62 ERA vs. New York, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay). After getting burned last year by the John Smoltz experiment the Red Sox were eager to acquire a dependable arm (Lackey has a .590 career winning percentage) and now have one of the most formidable starting fives with Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Clay Bucholz (though be may be traded for an additional bat) and either Dice-K or Tim Wakefield. In terms of pitching, Boston certainly has the talent to compete with the Yankees; do they on offense?  

Mike Cameron has some big shoes to fill in left field.

While Mike Cameron will be an upgrade defensively over Jason Bay in left field (or centerfield, depending on where Terry Francona decides to play Jacoby Ellsbury), he will be hard pressed to match Bay’s 36 home runs and 119 RBI’s. The 36-year-old Cameron hit .250 with 24 HR’s and 70 RBI’s last season, but also chipped in 32 doubles and 75 walks which led to a .342 OBP (vs. Bay’s .384 OBP). With the perpetually disappointing J.D. Drew in right, Boston won’t exactly have a murderer’s row in the outfield, and may lose even more ground to the Yankees’ big bats (New York outscored Boston by 43 runs in 2009). As questions continue to swirl around the health of Mike Lowell, and David Ortiz continues to age at the speed of light, the Red Sox are still at least another bat away from usurping the Bronx Bombers, and that’s assuming that New York doesn’t make any more moves (they did).

So, while the signings of Lackey and Cameron have improved the Red Sox’s pitching and defense, New York is still clearly the team to beat in the AL East. The Yankees have done nothing but improve this offseason after winning 102 games in 2009, and with a healthy A-Rod and the newly acquired Granderson the team could be a juggernaut in 2010. Boston is moving in the right direction, but unless they want to spend another postseason watching the Yankees raise a World Series trophy, general manager Theo Epstein had better continue to work the phones…New York isn’t going anywhere soon.