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Mariners

Churchill: M’s Mid-Season Report Card

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon has led the club to a successful first half. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon has led the club to a successful first half. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

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The Seattle Mariners hit the halfway point of the 2014 season over the weekend. The club currently is a Wild Card leader, 1.5 games ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals.

The M’s have done it with pitching, improved defense and timely hitting. We can talk for days about how the lineup needs a few upgrades, but the task at hand is assessing what’s occurred thus far.

Grades do not reflect a player’s value to the team the way Wins Above Replacement is designed, but solely to place an appraisal on the player’s performance considering his role and expectations.

Starting Pitching: B+
Despite the loss of James Paxton after just two starts, Hisashi Iwakuma for seven and Taijuan Walker not available for the entire first half, the Mariners’ rotation has been solid, ranking No. 9 in the league in FIP and No. 2 in innings pitched.

The unit figures to get better with the return of Walker and getting Iwakuma a full slate of starts. If Paxton returns healthy, too, the Mariners will boast one of the top rotations in the circuit, led by the American League’s No. 1 ace King Felix Hernandez, a legit 1A in Iwakuma and three live arms in Paxton, Walker and Roenis Elias. There’s depth with Chris Young and the club is rumored to be seeking a mid-rotation veteran such as Jason Hammel or Brandon McCarthy.

Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer can serve as emergency options, but both are better suited for the bullpen in the interim.

Felix Hernandez: A+
Hernandez has never been better and not many have. He’s paced to top 10 fWAR for the first time in the American League since Pedro Martinez in 1999 and leads or is among the top 5 in innings, K/BB, FIP, strikeout percentage, batting average against, WHIP and ground ball percentage. Also, Hernandez leads the league in HR/9.

He’s been ultra efficient, throwing fewer than 100 pitches per start (96.4) yet averaging more than seven innings per outing. He’s on a run through Sunday that includes nine straight starts going at least seven innings and yielding two runs or fewer and he ended June 3-1 with a 1.22 ERA and 54-6 K/BB in 44 1/3 innings.

The M’s ace has had the great changeup and curveball in most starts, has commanded his fastball and sinker consistently and he’s used his slider in the right situations. Opposing batters have not figured out the right-hander, and that’s because he has to make a mistake to get hurt and he hasn’t made many at all. The King should be the starter in the All-Star game if the timing works out for him, with his only real competitor in terms of performance being Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees.

As good as Hernandez was in 2010 when he won the Cy Young, he’s been better in 2014. Not many believed that was all that possible, but nobody that knows anything about King Felix is all that surprised, either.

Hisashi Iwakuma: A-
Iwakuma has been very good, sans his last two starts that could be partially blamed on a sore neck. He’s been efficient as usual, but his splitter is being challenged by left-handed batters; they’re laying off it and forcing Iwakuma to either throw it in the zone or use something else. Expect more fastballs and curveballs to lefty bats in the coming starts.

Iwakuma’s the perfect No. 2 starter behind Hernandez, leading into Elias, Paxton and Walker, if the club gets healthy enough to see such a rotation. He’s as unique as any right-hander in baseball in terms of his delivery, deception and stuff and his slider has been a better weapon this season than last, explaining his dominance over right-handed batters — .209/.241/.351.

He’ll get back to his usual eight-inning self soon enough, warranting many of his third-place Cy Young votes from a year ago.

Roenis Elias: B+
Elias has been more consistent and effective than anyone could have expected. Despite his age — 25 — he’s inexperienced in the states but his athleticism shouts every start and his pithcability is well beyond that of most rookies.

Elias may own one of top few left-handed curveballs in the American League and his changeup is better now than in April. Fastball command is a focal point for the second half, as is the Cuban’s workload, which currently is paced for nearly 210 innings. I’d imagine the M’s will try and suppress his innings after the All-Star break, perhaps even skipping a few starts and spreading out his innings and limiting Elias to 180-190 for the year.

Chris Young: B
Like Elias, Young has performed beyond all expectations considering his history of shoulder problems. He’s doing it with angles, mixing his pitches and above-average command of his two breaking balls.

Young, too, may be a candidate for some workload relief at some point after taking the ball 15 consecutive times through the rotation while tallying 91 1/3 innings and 1465 pitches along the way.

The right-hander hasn’t thrown more than 1847 pitches in any season since 2007 and hasn’t surpassed the 115-inning mark since the same season.

Erasmo Ramirez: D-
The only thing stopping Ramirez from getting a straight ‘F’ is his last four outings. In those starts he’s failed to go deep into games, but he’s allowed just two earned runs in those 20 innings and has surrendered just one home run.

He’s lost his above-average control, however, issuing 16 bases on balls in that span, and I’m still concerned that his dropped arm slot is ultimately a problem. The stuff has returned but Ramirez has always been a strike thrower. Until now.

James Paxton: INC
Taijuan Walker: INC
Paxton has made just two starts — two very good ones — and Walker did not see the majors in the first half. Walker’s return inserts a fairly fresh arm into the rotation — he’s totaled just 30 2/3 innings on rehab — and if he’s on his game will be an easy, significant upgrade over what the Mariners had been getting from Ramirez and Maurer.

Paxton may be on his way back, too, but both remain INCOMPLETES until they make numerous starts.

Bullpen: A+
The Mariners relief corps led all of the American League in ERA (2.59), holds (45) and FIP (3.16) through the first half. They ranked No. 3 in K/BB percentage, No. 2 in strikeout rate and led the AL in LOB percentage at 80.3, perhaps the most critical job of middle relievers and setup arms.

With Maurer joining the unit, at least for the short term, the club has four wipeout options to go to after the fifth inning.

Fernando Rodney: A
At times it’s like a ride at the state fair, but Rodney has done the job and then some. Never mind the saves (23), just look at the strikeout rate (27.1 percent) and FIP (2.44), as well as a strong LOB rate of 78.8 percent.

He’s avoided the home run ball and induced nearly 50 percent ground balls. Rodney has lengthened the Mariners bullpen and allowed the club to go other premium arms in high leverage roles while never burning their last option.

Danny Farquhar: B+
Farquhar has been good, yet not quite as dominant as he was after being called up last season. He’s still punching out batters at better than one per inning — 9.87/9 to be exact — but the walks still are up and the ground balls
are down. He’s been terrific, however, stranding runners — 80.1 percent — and has introduced during the first half a more two-seamer heavy arsenal that figures to be better for him in the long run.

For the record, that’s why his average fastball is down to 93.4 mph from the 94.6 he posted a year ago. When he throws the fastball, it’s more often the two-seam variety than the four-seam.

Fewer walk-driven appearances get Farquhar an ‘A’ by season’s end and we’re likely to see him mix in the changeup a little more than the 2.2 percent usage over the first half.

Dom Leone: A-
Leone, who is similar to Farquhar in that he’s a fastball-cutter reliever, differs in the breaking ball — slider versus Farquhar’s curveball — and in what he attempts to do with his fastball.

He’s sat 93-95 mph with his heater, often keeping it down and generating some ground balls. He doesn’t use his cutter as much as Farquhar, instead opting for more four-seamers, often above the 95 mph mark and up in the zone.

He’s throwing strikes and has adapted well to being used a little more often this season in the majors than he ever was in the minors. Leone never was used on back-to-back days before Lloyd McClendon went to him two straight days in Houston in early May, and again in Oakland on the same road trip. In all, he’s done so on five occasions, failing twice, then doing the job the final three times.

Yoervis Medina: A-
Medina’s season numbers don’t tell the story of his first half all that well. He walked 12 batters in 22 innings through May but has issued but two in June while striking out seven in 7 2/3 innings. The slider has been sharp and he’s throwing his changeup here and there over his last few appearances, flashing another plus pitch.

If Medina is able to command his fastball this way on a regular basis, he’s no longer just a seventh-inning arm. If the changeup becomes a real weapon with consistency on top of that, and we’re talking about a solid eight-inning reliever who can occasionally close.

Tom Wilhelmsen: C+
Wilhelmsen’s work on his fastball command is coming along well, but while the bite is mostly back on his once-devastating curveball, he’s still inconsistent with it at its release point.

He’s thrown more two-seam fastballs since early May and has even toyed with a cutter-slider at 86-88 mph. His change still is a pitch he’s throwing more than he needs to, in my estimation, but despite his 4.52 BB/9, the former closer has been a useful piece in the Mariners’ bullpen, often covering multiple innings.

At times he shows glimpses of his former self, but just as often he’s allowing baserunners and remains susceptible to the home run ball when behind in the count.

Brandon Maurer: INC
It’s two outings, so remember the qualifier here, but Maurer has sat 94-96 mph, touching as high as 99 and showing his put-away slider at 88-91 and a solid changeup in those three innings, which were very similar to his short stint out of the bullpen in Tacoma before being recalled.

Maurer hasn’t walked a batter in his new role, has fanned six of the 10 he’s faced and it hasn’t come against the San Diego Padres. He gets an incomplete grade for obvious reasons — he’d get an ‘F’ as a starter — but there’s a chance he receives an ‘A’ coming out of the bullpen if the club keeps him up beyond his current stint and status level.

Joe Beimel: B
Beimel is such a perfect fit in the M’s bullpen it’s laughable to compare him to any of the other arms, including the other southpaw.

The veteran doesn’t strike out a lot of batters — just 15.4 percent of the batters he’s faced — and actually Beimel is walking more batters than the club would prefer at 3.16 per nine innings. But he hides the ball well, gets ground balls — 49.3 percent) and strands runners at a rate that suggests he’s an elite reliever (87.5 percent).

Beimel hasn’t allowed a home run to anyone and left-handed batters have just seven hits and a walk in 48 plate appearances (.183). Furthermore, Beimel has yielded but two extra-base hits to lefties.

Right-handed batters have managed a .313/.403/.404 line against him, however, which has been fairly typical of his career splits.

Charlie Furbush: B+
Furbush has recovered from a poor first five weeks of the season to return to the dominant lefty he was a year ago. Since May 5, Furbush has allowed 10 hits in 15 frames, striking out 16 batters and issuing just two bases on balls.

Opponents are batting just .189 off him in that span, and left-handed batters are just 4-for-30 off him since May 13. Furbush gets the added “+” for holding righties to a .240/.327/.396 line, making him useful in the middle innings beyond the left-on-left matchups.

Lineup — Offense | Defense: C+
The Mariners are scoring but four runs per game, which is No. 11 in the American League, but Safeco Field is responsible for a little of that and the trends suggest the club has at least a shot to improve at the plate organically, largely with Brad Miller’s June turnaround and the signs that Logan Morrison may be an upgrade to either Corey Hart or Justin Smoak, if not both.

There’s also the chance that Hart and/or Smoak can contribute better than they were, with Hart the more likely candidate to do so, particularly versus left-handed pitching. But the half is over and the grades for it stand alone.

James Jones: C+
Jones has sacrificed some of his natural power for a shorter swing more engineered for contact. It’s showing in his .275 average, but he’s not drawing walks — just nine in over 200 plate appearances — and the power is pretty much nonexistent as suggested by his IsoP of .064.

He’s played a sound center field and is a plus on the bases, however, and combined with his contact rates that have helped him produce something remotely passable at the top of the lineup, earning him a passing grade overall.

Michael Saunders: B-
Saunders would receive a B+ if he were able to stay healthy, in rhythm and producing consistently. Some of that wasn’t his fault or even the bad luck of an injury as McClendon sat him for the better part of April.

Still, the 27-year-old has been a solid defender and baserunner and his .266/.310/.424 triple-slash is the third-best on the roster. He’s been even better on the road — .298/.330/.447 — and brings lineup versatility, as he’s capable of performing at the top or the bottom of the order.

Robinson Cano: A-
Despite a lack of ideal power as is standard of Cano’s game, he’s producing at the plate, defending and leading, and the value of his presence in the lineup everyday cannot be understated.

Cano isn’t Safeco proof thus far, but he’s hit three of his five long balls in Seattle and the more those around him in the lineup produce the more power he’ll display.

Kyle Seager: A-
Seager is becoming a verb. Yes, a verb. The third baseman is batting .357/.425/.657 at Safeco Field this season and .277/.347/.490 overall. He ranks No. 2 among American League third basemen in home runs with 12, RBI with 55 and is No. 3 in on-base percentage.

If clutch is your thing, Seager is batting .319/.380/.611 with runners in scoring position and .309/.380/.680 after the sixth inning.

The dude is deserving of an all-star nod, and the love affair fans have with big names such as Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria shouldn’t keep him away from Target Field next month.

Justin Smoak: D-
Smoak’s saved from an ‘F’ grade because he plays above-average defense and most of all because he tried to play hurt since late April. That isn’t to say he would have been ‘good’ if he didn’t get hurt, but for a big guy like Smoak, a pulled quad is quite restricting at the plate.

I still believe his ceiling as a hitter is a .240/.320/.430 type bat who is a decent bet to perform decently as a platoon hitter versus right-handed pitching, but he has to be graded on what he’s done at the plate through the first 81 games and that isn’t much.

Corey Hart: INC
Hart was pretty solid in April, posting a .337 on-base percentage and .453 slugging, then scuffled in May before succumbing to a hamstring pull that forced him to the disabled list six weeks ago.

There’s more hope for Hart than for Smoak, but he’ll have to stay healthy if the M’s are going to benefit from his abilities to hit for power, get on base some and stabilize the lineup after Cano.

Logan Morrison: INC
Like Hart, Morrison hasn’t played enough — just 26 games — to grade him fairly, but his recent emergence is promising.

After starting the year 3-for-20 then hitting the disabled list, Morrison is batting .258/.309/.484 with four home runs. There’s a track record of production under his name and he appears unfazed by Safeco Field where he’s batting .265/.315/.469 for the year.

Brad Miller: C-
Miller has flipped the table on his season, batting .302 since May 29, cleaning up his defense at shortstop and getting to a few balls some shortstops can’t.

His season numbers remain ugly but he’s been solid for four weeks now and his peripherals support his continuing to produce, including better contact rates, more hits to center field and left field and the maintaining of his power as he improves his average and on-base marks.

Mike Zunino: A
Zunino is the youngest regular catcher in all of baseball and has proven he can hit for power, call a game, receive, block and throw at above-average levels.

He ranks No. 1 in baseball in stealing strikes and No. 8 in giving away the least number of strikes. Hes also thrown out 15 runners attempting to steal a base.

Yes, he strikes out a lot — 33.2 percent of his PAs — and he doesn’t walk — 4.0 percent — but the pop is real and growing and he’s irreplaceable behind the plate.

Dustin Ackley: F
Ackley appears to have taken fairly well to left field after a rough first few weeks of this season, but with the exception of a few solid weeks in April, Ackley has been as bad as he’s ever been.

He went .221/.287/.395 in May and in June he actually got worse, posting a .173/.244/.227 line. He’s making contact more than ever and still walking at an acceptable 7.3 percent rate, but his line drive percentage is down to 17.2 and he’s hitting more fly balls, including infield pop ups.

It remains my belief that until he’s willing and/or able to avoid opening up his front side so early and with such torque, he will not hit with any consistency.

Endy Chavez: INC
Chavez hasn’t been up long enough to grade, really, but like Jones the acceptable batting average is empty — no on-base percentage and no power — and he doesn’t bring the speed and defense element in the same fashion.

Bench: D+
This group includes the backup catcher, a pair of right-handed hitting outfielder who do not play with any sort of regularity or consistency and the club’s utility player. The ‘D+’ grade is mostly due to usage, but it does include the poor performances of the group as a whole.

Willie Bloomquist: C-
Bloomquist is batting .275/.292/.353 in limited duty and he’s actually played an adequate second base, shortstop and third base — and occasional outfield — when asked to do so.

He’s had a great June (.348/.375/.435) after an awful May (.172/.167/.310) but is a useful piece on the roster and appears to be settling into McClendon’s preferred role for him.

John Buck: C-
I believe Buck needs to play a little more the second half of the year so the club doesn’t burn out Zunino. Buck has started just 17 games at catcher despite being a decent enough receiver.

This lack of time certainly has impacted his offensive production, which has always been limited to power and nothing in terms of on-base percentage. He has, however, drawn eight walks in 84 plate appearances this season, where Zunino has 11 in 254 trips to the batter’s box.

Stefen Romero: D+
Again, this grade is blamed on the club’s usage of him as much as anything else. It’s difficult for any hitter to get his timing down when he starts just 29 games in three months, let alone when it’s a rookie.

Romero can hit — perhaps not quite enough to warrant regular time in a corner outfield spot on a contending team, but he can hit. The M’s just optioned him to Tacoma where he will play everyday and likely see the big club later in the summer.

Romero did show he can handle left and right field, however, going from downright bad a year ago to passable in April to closing in on fringe-average the last 30 innings or so.

Cole Gillespie: C+
Gillespie has used his experience to find a way to produce in the same role Romero has struggled. The 30-year-old is batting .257/.316/.329 in 33 games and has managed a .364 OBP versus left-handed pitching, which is when McClendon would like to use him most.

He’s an above-average runner and average defender in left or right and is making contact — just 13 whiffs in 77 plate appearances. He’s even swiped two bags and is working the count well — 4.22 pitches per plate appearance.

Lloyd McClendon | Field Staff: PASS
While it’s impossible to truly evaluate the performance of a manager, bench coach, pitching coach, hitting coach, et al, it’s quite clear the staff has hit the right buttons more often than not.

The depth of their teachings, leadership and decisions has reached the rotation (Young, Elias) bullpen (Wilhelmsen, Medina, Furbush), and the regular lineup where the one can argue Miller is hitting now partly because of the manner in which the staff chose to manage him during his slump.

Furthermore, losing streaks do not appear to faze this roster, despite their relative inexperience and an overall lack of offensive talent and production.

Front Office: INC
The personnel folks made their mark signing Cano, Rodney and Hart and flipping Carter Capps for Logan Morrison. Some of those have worked, some haven’t, at least not yet. But the addition of Chris Young has been huge, as has the call-up of Dom Leone when the M’s decided it was no longer worth waiting out Hector Noesi.

The grade remains incomplete for the season, however, since all but one of those moves was made before the season began.

Jack Zduriencik and his staff will earn their grade over the next 60 days, as the non-waiver (July 31) and waiver (August 31) trade deadlines come and go.

Overall: B-
The team has pitched well from first pitch to final out, played very solid defense and has hit well with runners in scoring position (.266/.330/.434). They’re also one of the top five clubs in the league at getting in a runner from third base and fewer than two outs. Doing both of the aforementioned things well helps make up for the fact that they place fewer runners in scoring position and they get fewer runners to third base with less than two outs than do most other clubs.

Whether or not they can keep up that pace remains to be seen, but the roster isn’t going to get worse from here on out, it’s going to get better, even if Zduriencik and his staff are unable to add a significant piece by the trade deadlines.

Remember back in February and March when all fans wanted from the Seattle Mariners in 2014 was to avoid being virtually eliminated by the All-Star break and to have some meaningful games in August and perhaps even September? When the city just begged for jokes about the club being historically awful for a decade would subside for once and that the sun just shine down on the Emerald City Nine just a little bit?

It’s all happening. And it may not stop there.

- Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

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