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…

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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.

Bad News Bear: Cubs’ Manager Lou Piniella to Retire at Season’s End.

Apparently Sweet Lou has had just about enough of sour Chicago and the calamity-stricken Cubs’ losing ways.

According to a statement from the veteran skipper, 2010 will be his final year as manager of the Cubs, as he plans to retire at the end of the season and pursue a role in the front office.

Piniella was brought to Chicago to do what hadn’t been done in over 100 years–win a World Series with the Cubs.

But like many others before him Piniella wasn’t able to climb that seemingly insurmountable peak, and it became apparent this season that Chicago wasn’t likely to contend with him at the helm. While announcing his decision before the season ends might seem strange, it gives the Cubs time to find a suitable replacement from among the likes of Ryne Sandberg, Joe Torre and Fredi Gonzalez.

Piniella’s time in Chicago wasn’t all bad. He has a 308-272 record (.531) with the Cubs and won the National League Manager of the Year Award in 2008 when the North Siders won a league high 97 games. But back-to-back postseason flops and run-ins with Milton Bradley and Carlos Zambrano obscured the regular season success, and helped make it easy for Piniella to say goodbye to baseball’s most cursed and critiqued franchise.

While Piniella’s time in Chicago has been forgettable, his career as a manager was anything but. When Lou wasn’t busy entertaining fans with his memorable tirades, the cagy skipper was guiding the Cincinnati Reds, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Chicago Cubs to a record of 1827-1692 (.519). He led the Reds to a World Series title in his first year as manager (1990) and also steered the 2001 Seattle Mariners to a Major League record 116 wins. Whether his accomplishments as a manager are enough to secure Piniella a place in Cooperstown remains to be seen, but one thing is clear:

Baseball will never forget Sweet Lou.

Sobering Stats from the First Half of Seattle’s Subpar Season.

Brandon League has been so bad in Seattle, that no photos exist of him as a Mariner.

The Mariners are so bad they don’t even deserve an introductory paragraph. Here’s a look at some of their craptastic numbers from the first half: 

–>At 35-53, the Mariners are 15 games behind Texas in the AL West. 

–> The Mariners’ opponents have outscored them by 79 runs–putting them in the same company as Baltimore, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Arizona. Misery loves company… 

–> Seattle is hitting .238 as a team (only .225 if you don’t include Ichiro). Let that sink in; or try not to think about it at all. 

–> By himself, Ichiro is responsible for 16.9% of the Mariners’ hits. Sure he’s the leadoff hitter, but still… 

–> Jose Lopez, the team leader in RBI’s, is on pace for 68 total. Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers already has 77. 

–> Seattle catchers have combined for more passed balls than hits. It’s not true, but the fact that is seems feasible tells you everything you need to know about the Mariners’ 2010. Where’s Tom Lampkin when you need him? 

–> The Mariners are 28th in batting average, 28th in home runs, 29th in runs and 29th in hits…out of 14 teams. 

–> Ryan-Rowland Smith, Ian Snell and David Aarsdma have a combined record of 1-20. 1 and 20. 

–> Despite the fact that the M’s sit at 35-53, which is a palindrome, Major League Baseball will not allow Seattle to flip their record. 

–> Cliff Lee is gone and he’s never coming back! 

Well, I guess the numbers don’t lie, the Mariners really do suck. Enjoy the All-Star break–which is really just a break from watching the Mariners play. 

And we all need that…

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…

Must Be Something in the Water: While Seattle’s Season Circles the Drain, Former Mariners Find Success in New Environments.

Carlos Silva was an unmitigated disaster in Seattle. In Chicago, the hefty sinker-baller is a star.

If you had told me before the 2010 season began that by the middle of June the Mariners would be 10 games out in the division and Carlos Silva would be a top contender for the NL Cy Young award, I would have thought you were crazier than Michael Lohan and Amy Winehouse –combined. 

Unfortunately, you would have been right. 

The Mariners have been awful in 2010, just awful. Despite the fact that there are only four teams in the AL West the Mariners find themselves sitting 5th in the division. They’re that bad. But, while Seattle battles for the number one overall pick in the 2011 draft, former Mariners are finding success in new places. Here’s a few key examples:

Carlos Silva (Chicago Cubs): After signing a four-year, $48 million dollar contract with the Mariners before the 2008 season, Carlos Silva set out to create a show called “Man vs. Food” in which he took on eating challenges throughout the country, only to discover such a program already existed. Undeterred, Silva devoured record amounts of food any chance he was afforded in the hope that one day, he too would have a shot at fame on the Food Network. Unfortunately, his increased focus on eating came at the expense of his pitching, and Silva went 5-18 in his two years with the Mariners before the team traded him to the Cubs for Milton Bradley. Since moving to the National League, Silva has rediscovered his mojo, posting an 8-2 record and 3.01 ERA. He returns to Seattle when the Cubs face off against the Mariners next week and fans are encouraged to throw hamburgers and hotdogs in Silva’s direction. It’s only fair. 

Adrian Beltre (Boston Red Sox): Adrian Beltre joined the Mariners in 2005 after hitting a career-high 48 home runs for the Dodgers the year before (he finished 2nd in MVP voting). In his five seasons with the M’s, Beltre averaged just over 20 home runs per year and never posted a batting average above .276. Beltre wasn’t a total bust because he played through injuries and was one of the best defensive third baseman in baseball, but he certainly didn’t live up to the bloated contract Bill Bavasi handed him. Now, healthy and in a new environment, Beltre is once again a force at the plate, hitting .338 with 10 HR’s and 48 RBI’s in his first 66 games with the Boston Red Sox. It’s not surprising, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. 

Since leaving Seattle, Adrian Beltre has regained the form that made him an MVP candidate.

Mike Morse (Washington Nationals): Mike Morse might not be as well-known as some of the other names on this list (he had just 300 AB’s with the Mariners between 2005-08) his ability to hit the ball away from the other team’s defense would be a welcome addition to one of the major’s worst offenses. Morse struggled with injuries during his tenure in Seattle and was traded away last season for Ryan Langerhans (who, as you would suspect, is playing sparsely because of injuries). Finally getting some playing time with Washington, the 28-year-old Morse is hitting .395 with 2 HR’s and 5 RBI’s in 38 AB’s (a small sample size I realize, but he is a .303 career hitter). In Seattle’s defense, Morse looks like a dirtbag, so there’s that. Yeah. 

R.A. Dickey (New York Mets): The knuckle-balling Dickey was part of the Mariners’ historically bad 2008 campaign (61-101)–a year in which he went 5-8 with a 5.21 ERA. Apparently whatever his knuckleball was supposed to do, it didn’t, because Dickey was battered around all season. Flash forward to 2010 and Dickey is pitching like an ace for the New York Mets. Through his first six starts of the year Dickey is 5-0 with a 2.82 ERA  (31 strikeouts in 37 innings) and his knuckleball is dancing like Jessica Alba in Honey. I think the Mariners need to defect to the National League. The NL makes everyone look good. Even R.A. Dickey.

Rafael Soriano (Tampa Bay Rays): Despite posting a 2.25 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning in 2006, Bill Bavasi traded Rafael Soriano to the Braves for the illustrious Horacio Ramirez (who won 8 games in 2007 despite posting a 7.16 ERA and 1.84 WHIP). Soriano was an outstanding relief pitcher for the Braves and has been even better since joining the Rays in 2010 where he is 16 for 16 in save opportunities with a 1.52 ERA. Who could have seen that coming? Oh wait, everyone but Bill Bavasi. I hate that man…I really do.

Mariners Monthly Roundup: May “It’s Like Watching a Loved One Slowly Pass Away” Edition

Someone made Mike Sweeney mad and pitchers all over baseball are paying the price in a big way.

Record: 8-19  (Overall 19-31) 

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

Top Hitter: Ichiro has done his part all year to get the Mariners’ offense started but the team has been unable to cash in on the opportunities when he reaches base. Suzuki was as consistent as ever in May, hitting .336 with one HR, 7 RBI’s and 7 SB’s (but only 10 runs scored). At 36-years-old, Ichiro has shown no signs of slowing down, and gives M’s fans something to look forward to (a 10th straight 200-hit season) in an otherwise dismal year. 

Top Pitcher:  Hopefully Mariners’ fans enjoyed watching Cliff Lee pitch in May because it’s doubtful that the crafty lefty will be in Seattle much longer. In his first full month with the team Lee went 3-2 with a 3.82 ERA and 34 strikeouts against only 3 walks. Not only did the Mariners slow start eliminate them from playoff contention, but it also probably eliminated whatever small chance they had of resigning Lee after the season. Thanks Seattle. Thanks a lot.

Biggest Surprise: Mike “the Bat” Sweeney awoke from an early season slumber with a vengeance in May (.310-6 HR’s-14 RBI’s) providing fans with a bevy of souvenirs in the outfield stands and injecting some much-needed life into the Mariners’ lineup. Unfortunately, the Mariners’ best hitter is on the wrong side of 40, and had to miss numerous games due to a bad back (apparently it was “barking” at him. Is that an actual medical condition? Because I’ve never heard about it on Grey’s Anatomy. Is there a doctor in the building?) Can we catch a break? Just one, that’s all I ask for. Let Sweeney use steroids and not get caught, he’s just using them to help keep him on the field…I promise. 

Biggest Disappointment: Chone Figgins was supposed to be the spark plug that helped Seattle’s offense get to the next level and give the Mariners’ tremendous pitching staff some run support. Two months through the season Figgins is hitting just .211 and is on pace for over 150 strikeouts, which would be okay if he was going to hit 45 home runs but he is currently sitting on zero, so 45 seems a bit bullish…just a little.

Chone Figgins' poor play has been a major factor in the Mariners terrible start.

Griffey Watch: May 2010 is a month that Ken Griffey Jr. can’t forget soon enough. He made national headlines with “napgate”, was rumored to be on the verge of being released by Seattle and looked like a dinosaur at the plate (.122-0 HR’s-3 RBI’s). No matter how much he brings to the clubhouse, the Griffey experiment part 2 has been an unmitigated disaster. Let’s hope he hits one last home run and rides peacefully off into the sunset. 

Home Run Tracker: After hitting just nine home runs in the season’s first month the M’s exploded for 20 in May, which sadly, stills leave them last in all of baseball.

Happy Trails: Struggling relievers Kanekoa Teixeira and Jesus Colome were both designated for assignment after an implosion against the Angels that cost the Mariners a chance at a rare victory. I don’t think they’ll be sorely missed…or at all. 

Injuries: Erik Bedard (shoulder surgery, 60-day DL–return looking increasingly unlikely–shocker); Mark Lowe (lower back inflammation, 15-day DL); Josh Bard (strained calf, 15-day DL); Adam Moore (heel, 15-day DL); Jack Wilson (hamstring strain, 15-day DL–early June return). 

Lingering Questions: How many games does Seattle have to fall behind in the division before the team starts shopping Cliff Lee? Why didn’t someone get Griffey a coffee or 5-hour energy? Will King Felix regain the form that made him dominant in 2009? Did Carlos Silva really strike out 11 batters in a game? Will Chone Figgins really hit .200 all season? Is Don Wakamatsu on the hot seat? 

June Schedule: 3 vs. Minnesota, 3 vs. L.A., 4 @ Texas, 3 @ San Diego, 3 @ St. Louis, 3 vs. Cincinnati, 3 vs. Chicago (NL), 3 @Milwaukee, 2 @ New York 

Overall Grade: (F-)  The Mariners were simply awful in May. They can’t hit, they can’t field and they can’t run the bases. On the rare occasion when they do those things, and have a lead, the bullpen implodes and Seattle loses in the most painful ways possible. The Mariners are the most disappointing team in all of baseball and 2011 can’t get here soon enough. I’ve got to find something else to do this summer. Suggestions?