Cameron: Mariners place Cesar Jimenez on waivers

*Yawn.

If George Sherrill is already in, this leaves Lucas Luetge and Charlie Furbush fighting for the role of second lefty.

More importantly, there are now two 40-man roster spots open.  One figures to go to infielder Munenori Kawasaki with the other going to either Kevin Millwood or Erasmo Ramirez.

With Jimenez gone, the Mariners no longer have any obvious cut candidates should they decide to make more room on the roster.

Mariners Release Hong-Chih Kuo

About a week and a half ago I wrote that, given his track record, Hong-Chih Kuo’s guaranteed contract meant little in terms of a guaranteed roster spot.  And in that week and a half Kuo has done nothing to help himself make the team.  Kuo’s stuff has reportedly been down and he was getting lit up in Cactus League play, leading the Mariners to cut him loose.

This leaves Lucas Luetge, Cesar Jimenez and Charlie Furbush competing for Kuo’s spot, assuming the Mariners want two lefties in the bullpen. It’s do or die for Luetge and Jimenez; Luetge is a Rule 5 pick and Jimenez is out of minor league options.

Furbush could serve as the second lefty and longman, opening up a spots for each of Steve Delabar and Chance Ruffin.  If a right-hander is tabbed as the long reliever and the Mariners go with two lefties, Delabar and Ruffin are competing for one opening.

40-Man, Player by Player: Charlie Furbush

While a number of pitchers have been in the news this spring, some for strong performances, others for less encouraging reasons, Charlie Furbush has remained under the radar. The lack of attention on Furbush is fitting for a pitcher coming off a nondescript rookie season.  Though he tossed an occasional gem while the M’s played out the string last summer, 2011 was mostly a struggle for Furbush. He had job security in the form of Anthony Vasquez, but the results in and of themselves were fairly discouraging and consequently, he had only a slim chance of cracking the 2012 rotation out of Spring Training.

Right now, Furbush sits behind Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Kevin Millwood on the depth chart for the rotation. Furbush has four appearances this spring, all of which have been in relief. Eric Wedge has hinted that Furbush has the versatility to be used in both roles, but his usage pattern suggests that, at least initially, Furbush is ticketed for the bullpen. In the long run, the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation out of the spring is meaningless, as it isn’t unusual for the lion’s share of the summer’s starts to be taken by pitchers left out of the opening day rotation. That’s good news as it applies to Furbush, because he’s one of the more intriguing arms in the upper levels of the system and he deserves another opportunity to start.

Let’s begin with the obvious: Furbush was a replacement level starter last year. He conceded sixteen homers in only eighty-five innings and 15% of the fly balls he allowed sailed over the fence, one of the very highest rates in the league. HR/FB% is controversial to use in this context, as it can be seen as an indication of luck more than skill. However, it could also mean that Furbush served up plenty of good pitches to hit. Considering that he allowed five homers in six appearances at Safeco Field (four of which were hit to the ballpark’s murderous left field,) I feel comfortable assuming that Furbush conceded more than his share of hard contact.

Furthermore, Matthew Carruth of Lookout Landing has also noted that Furbush allows an unusual amount of pulled contact: 67% of balls in play against Furbush were pulled, the fourth highest rate among major league pitchers since 2007 (albeit in a tiny sample.) Logically, pulled balls are driven harder than contact hit the other way, so this could explain some of Furbush’s abnormal HR/FB%. I’m not sure if this is a problem that can be solved with better command, or if Furbush’s best bet is regression, but make no mistake: Furbush can’t start in the big leagues with such a high homer rate.

The good news is that the rest of Furbush’s peripherals leave plenty of room for optimism. His K% and BB% were roughly league average over the entire season, but his walk totals actually nosedived once he was traded to Seattle. His BB% was just 2.72 for the M’s last season, more than a full point better than his mark as a Tiger. Furbush’s ERA was hindered by a relatively low percentage of runners stranded and his xFIP (4.25) was actually pretty decent. More importantly, and unlike some of the other contestants for the slots in the back of the rotation, Furbush is capable of missing bats. His strike out rate, swinging strike rate, and outside the zone contact percentage all compare well with Beavan and Millwood:

 

K/9

Swinging Strike %

O-Contact %

Charlie Furbush

7.07

8.6%

66.3 %

Blake Beavan

3.9

5.9%

84.4%

Kevin Millwood

5.96

6.8%

77.9%

 

(A high % of contact on pitches outside of the strike zone is actually a bad thing, as it indicates that the pitcher in question is hittable and that even the pitches he uses to try and induce swings and misses aren’t fooling hitters.)

 

Lefties who can throw ninety miles per hour are valuable commodities and Furbush should be given opportunities to succeed at the big league level. While his HR/FB% was quite high last year, a combination of experience, regression, and better fortune could drop that number significantly and in turn lead to a bounceback season. I’m actually having a little trouble understanding why Furbush was brushed aside so quickly for Beavan and Millwood. The two righties can pound the zone, but without any ability to generate swinging strikes, they will be at the mercy of luck and their defense.

Taking a broader look, even if Furbush can’t start for the M’s long term, he should be useful as a reliever. Most relievers gain a few ticks of velocity after a conversion to the bullpen, which would only help generate more weak contact and swinging strikes. He would also be capable of throwing in long relief, or in shorter situations against lefties (Furbush has a significant but not debilitating platoon split.) Still, at this point relief work is a worst-case scenario. More so than with Beavan, there are reasons to be optimistic about Furbush as a starter. He won’t ever win a Cy Young, but with improved command and a better performance on fly balls, Furbush has the ability to be a good back end of the rotation starter.

Mariners Assign Seven More to Minor League Camp

The Mariners have sent seven more players to minor league camp. They include pitchers Matt Fox, Sean Henn, Oliver Perez, Aaron Heilman, Josh Kinney, and Jeff Marquez as well as outfielder Trayvon Robinson. The re-assignments trim the current Spring Training roster to forty players. The Mariners need to cut ten more by Thursday, when the club travels to Japan to prepare for their opening series with Oakland.

There aren’t any shocking cuts in the list above. I’m mildly surprised that Aaron Heilman got cut this early in the same way that I’m mildly surprised when I run out of cereal. All of the pitchers were long shots once the M’s signed George Sherrill and Shawn Camp, while Robinson’s opportunity to head north was all but over once Michael Saunders did something interesting.

Mariners baseball: eleven days away.

40-Man, Player by Player: John Jaso

Without really crowdsourcing at all, I would imagine that a majority of tuned in Mariner fans were pleased with the John Jaso trade. As the M’s and their supporters are all too aware, finding a decent big league catcher isn’t easy, and the acquisition came with the added bonus of sending Josh Lueke out the door.

If there was any facet of the deal that made fans pause, it was the ease in which Jaso was acquired. We’re talking about a catcher who posted a 116 wRC+ in 2010 and has four years of team control left on his contract. Why did the Rays give him away for a marginally effective reliever with a well documented off field history?

The easy answer is that the Rays simply didn’t think Jaso was going to be effective going forward. Jaso was dealt to the M’s on November 27th, and considering that Jose Molina signed a deal with the club one day later, I’ll just go ahead and assume that they weighed the pros and cons of each and went with Molina. As to why the Rays opted for a career backup over a guy like Jaso who should, at least in theory, be in his prime, I think there were three main reasons.

First, Jaso’s defense isn’t very good. Catcher defense is difficult to quantify, but from what research has been done, Jaso doesn’t stack up well with the competition and he compares particularly poorly with Molina. Molina is one of the best in the business at throwing out runners (40% caught stealing rate for his career) while Jaso’s meager 19% CS rate doesn’t really deter anyone from trying to take an extra base.

Additionally, saberist Mike Fast (now employed by the Houston Astros) has done some research on pitch framing, and while defensive numbers should always be viewed with a hefty dose of skepticism, he found that Molina was the best in baseball at framing pitches. By contrast, Jaso was a below average receiver. If Fast’s estimates are correct, Molina is more than a win better than Jaso due to pitch framing alone.

Second, Jaso was never an impact prospect, and his major league breakout was something of a surprise. The Rays have a reputation for moving players through their farm system slowly, but Jaso’s pace through the minors was glacial. He was only an eighth round pick, but even the low picks that reach the majors tend to show their skills early and are promoted quickly. Jaso spent six and a half seasons in the minors before getting called up for good in 2010 and he repeated a level on three separate occasions. His minor league career is a lesson in perseverance but also serves as an indication that the Rays never thought terribly highly of him as a major league catcher. I’m not saying the Rays are right or wrong about Jaso: only that a quick review of his career suggests that the Tampa Bay brass still haven’t bought into his breakout from two years ago.

Finally, the biggest reason Jaso was available on the cheap is because he had a lousy year in 2011. Oftentimes a poor season  is a great buy-low opportunity, particularly when a player’s performance is hindered by injuries or extenuating circumstances, or when his peripherals suggest a rebound is likely. None of those appear to be at play with Jaso. Yes, he did visit the disabled list with an oblique strain, but he was already well on his way to a bad year at the plate when he went down in July.

Worse, a glance at Jaso’s peripherals indicate some concerning trends. A calling card of Jaso’s game is his selectivity at the plate: he walked in nearly 15% of his plate appearances in 2010 and that figure is backed by several similar percentages when he was a minor leaguer. He complemented his ability to take a walk with good bat control: he only struck out in 9% of his PA’s in 2010, and again, posted similar minor league figures. Those numbers flipped in 2011. In and of itself, that kind of a switch in both BB% and K% is unusual. For Jaso, it’s also unfortunate, because without any power, he needs to walk and give himself plenty of chances to get on via a base hit. Less walks and more strikeouts defeat both both objectives. And while it’s true that his numbers in 2011 were deflated by a lousy BABIP, a slow catcher who hits a lot of ground balls is a bad candidate to post a high figure in that department going forward.

Ultimately, Jaso seems more like a very good backup catcher and decent pinch hitter than a big league starter. In addition to his struggles last year, he’s neutered by lefties (.188 career batting average) and at age twenty-eight isn’t likely to get a whole lot better. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t worth acquiring: not by a longshot. He does hit righties pretty well (career 104 wRC+) and his defense is probably a little better than what Miguel Olivo and Jesus Montero can provide. If Jaso can prove that 2010 was no fluke, and that he can be a solid big league regular, Jack Z will have swindled another victim. But even if Jaso doesn’t have that kind of projection, he still can be effective in a platoon, and his bat off the bench can pay dividends for years to come.

40-man, Player by Player: Chone Figgins


More this, less swinging.

“I HATE that guy!”

“You @$#% get off my team!”

“I am longing for the days of Jeff Cirillo”

The above quotes are just a small sampling of things I screamed at my television in an attempt to impart to Chone Figgins how much I detested watching him in 2011.  My rage over a 10th consecutive losing season spilled over and being a simple minded/emotionally controlled being found an easy target in the diminutive 3B.  Chone Figgins in many ways is too easy to hate.  Big contract? Check. Disappointing performance? Check. Publicly perceived attitude/hussle issues? Check.  I’m sure many of us would have enjoyed trading places with big Russ Branyan in 2010 when he separated Figgins and Don Wakamatsu.  There has been just so much to dislike.

A way to look at how bad Figgins has been: His net total bWAR in a Mariners uniform is 0.6 (1.1 in 2010 and -0.5 in 2011).  If he continued that rate of production for the next 11 YEARS he would equal his value to the Angels in 2009.  Put another way: By a respected measure of performance Chone Figgins has produced in two seasons as a Mariner 9% of the worth he provided in his last season in Anaheim.  That is….. a very good example of awfulness.  Chone Figgins has done almost zero in his career in baseball to make me do anything but dislike watching him play.  But through careful meditation and thought I have changed.  I’ve learned to stop worrying and maybe even love Chone Figgins.  Okay not love.  Tolerate.  Conform my worldview to his existence is probably the best way to put it.

Let’s consider 2011.  Over the course of 313 plate appearances a semi-healthy Chone Figgins OPS’d .484.  Going into that year his OPS over 4777 plate appearances was .736.  That represents a 35% drop from career norms and a 25% drop from even his crappy 2010.  It stands out screaming as a career worst outlier in much the same way Franklin Gutierrez’s 2009 stands out as a career best outlier (Note: Pray for Guti).  I feel like there is at least one Mariner a year that this statement applies to but unless Chone Figgins is completely finished as a major league baseball player we have reason to believe his numbers will markedly rise from 2011.  Now as Mariner fans we know there is no floor.  But would it be beyond reason to have someone attach some sort of net across the bottomless elevator shaft? Perhaps even pull it taught enough for Chone to bounce upward a bit? Please?

In the entirely possible occurrence that Figgins continues to suck worse than any player ever I still won’t be mad. Why? Because the Mariners don’t need him to be good.  In fact I think it’s reasonable to say that Chone Figgins needs the Mariners at this point far more than they need him.   Without Figgins on the roster the Mariners are free to explore with any of the Liddi/Seager/Catricala/Martinez/Franklin pile and begin to lock down another position down for the future.  From Figgins’ perspective the Mariners are allowing him one final chance to showcase his abilities.  Can he still be an effective multi-position defender? Can he still bat leadoff and draw walks? The M’s are giving him every opportunity to show his next team that he deserves to be a regular contributor.  And make no mistake about it.  Barring a miraculous rejuvenation 2012 will be Chone Figgins’ last year in Seattle. There is a very good chance he won’t even last until July.  There should be no more shots of him in the dugout sitting by himself and depressing the hell out of everyone.

Finally, it’s 2012.  The sins of the past are past.  In 2002 and 2004 Paul Konerko OPS+’d 124 and 127, respectively.  In 2003 his OPS+ was 84. That same year Pat Burrell saw his slugging percentage go from .544 to .404. Wild performance fluctuations happen, both for good and for ill.  Chone Figgins will probably not be very good.  He hasn’t been good for two years.  But right now, he’s got the same numbers as everybody else.  Let’s see what happens.

Luis Rodríguez has a chance thanks to Franklin Gutiérrez

C: Miguel Olivo
1B: Justin Smoak†
2B: Dustin Ackley*
3B: Chone Figgins†
SS: Brendan Ryan
LF: Mike Carp*
CF: Michael Saunders*
RF: Ichiro Suzuki*
DH: Jesús Montero

C: John Jaso*
OF: Casper Wells
INF: Munenori Kawasaki*
INF:

† = bats switch
* = bats left

If the Mariners go with a 12-man pitching staff and give a roster spot to Kawasaki as the best defensive shortstop behind Ryan, Kyle Seager and Luis Rodríguez figure to duke it out for the bench opening left by Carlos Guillén.  This isn’t the typical 25th man race, however.  The winner figures to get a number of starts at third base when Figgins plays the outfield or is parked on the pine.

Seager is seen as the frontrunner.  He’s a solid hitting prospect, shouldn’t embarrass himself in the field and has the advantage of already being on the 40-man roster.  Rodríguez isn’t far behind him value-wise if at all, but there isn’t as much upside there.  However, Rodriguez has one thing going for him that Seager does not.

Rodriguez is a switch-hitter, giving the Mariners a right-handed option off the bench.  This might not have been as important with a healthy Franklin Gutiérrez but could be meaningful in his absence.

Manager Eric Wedge has said that he’s not a big fan of platooning hitters but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for him to keep his options open.  Before the Gutiérrez injury he could have chosen to roll out the following lineup against left-handed pitchers:

CF: Gutiérrez
LF: Wells
3B: Figgins†

But Gutiérrez’s injury mucks it all up as Saunders, a lefty, is expected to replace him on the roster.  With a tough southpaw on the hill, Wells can’t very well be in both left and center field.  So maybe Figgins joins him in the outfield.

If the left-handed hitting Seager is the backup third baseman, Wedge has no choice but to give up the platoon advantage at either center field, left field or third base.  However, Rodríguez would allow the following lineup:

CF: Wells
LF: Figgins†
3B: Rodríguez†

How important this is to Wedge remains to be seen, but just keep this in mind as Seager and Rodríguez state their respective cases.

Cuts, Round 2: The Prospects

The Mariners sent 15 players to minor league camp today:

LHSP Danny Hultzen
RHSP Yoervis Medina
RHRP Scott Patterson
LHSP James Paxton
LHSP Mauricio Robles
RHSP Forrest Snow
RHSP Taijuan Walker

C Ralph Henriquez

MIF Nick Franklin
3B Francisco Martinez
INF Carlos Triunfel

OF Chih-Hsien Chiang
OF Joherymn Chavez
OF Darren Ford

DH Luis Jimenez

There was some buzz earlier in the offseason that Hultzen could make the club out of Spring Training, but the team made the right move here.  None of the players sent down were ever legitimate contenders for an Opening Day roster spot.

Interestingly, Erasmo Ramirez survives the cut.  Can he muscle his way into a crowded starting rotation?

The Mariners now have 33 roster players (including the injured Franklin Gutierrez and Adam Moore) and 15 non-roster players competing for 25 spots.

Mariners pitching prospects get some press

After Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker breezed through a big leaguer-heavy Arizona Diamondbacks lineup yesterday, people are talking.

40-man, Player by Player: Hong-Chih Kuo

FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris, October 2011:

In the dog-bites-man story of the week, the Dodgers announced that lefty Hong-Chih Kuo will have surgery on Friday. This time, the surgery is not major: arthroscopic surgery designed to remove some loose bodies. Nevertheless, the unique reliever has mentioned retirement as a possibility. That would be a shame — no pitcher has ever overcome so much before his 30th birthday.

Read the rest of Eno’s article.  Kuo’s path to the Seattle Mariners’ 40-man roster has been a winding one, full of setbacks, twists and triumphs.  But signing a Major League contract with the Mariners after minor surgery and a disastrous 2011 doesn’t necessarily have him on solid footing.

There hasn’t been much talk about the Mariner bullpen competition.  The perception is that Chance Ruffin, Steve Delabar and the field are duking it out for the last middle relief spot while a starting rotation outcast will land the role of longman.  Brandon League and George Sherrill are assumed to be locks while Kuo, Tom Wilhelmsen and Shawn Kelley are seen as very safe bets.

But is Kuo actually safe?  He was garbage last season, handing out walks and home runs like Halloween candy.  He’s been off to a rocky Cactus League start (3 walks and 3 dingers in 3 innings) and will have to quickly right the ship if he wants his name included on the list of players heading to Japan at month’s end.  Jack Zduriencik has shown in his time with the Mariners that a guaranteed salary doesn’t mean much in terms of a guaranteed roster spot.  Kuo still needs to prove himself.

On January 6, 2009 the Mariners signed reliever Tyler Walker to a guaranteed Major League contract.  The closer role was wide open at the time and Walker was expected to be right in the thick of the competition.  At the time of his signing the other closing candidates were Mark Lowe, Miguel Batista and Aaron Heilman.  He looked like a lock.

Walker was unexpectedly released on March 29th.  He had missed some Cactus League time with a minor injury but was still expected to be one of the Mariners’ better relievers, even with Brandon Morrow rejoining the bullpen and David Aardsma establishing himself as a late inning option.  Walker was as surprised as anyone.  He had just signed a lease for a place in Seattle.

I don’t think we ever found out why the Mariners cut Walker loose.  He still had something left.  In 2009 and 2010 he posted a 3.31 ERA over 53.1 Major League innings, striking out 57 and walking just 17.  The Mariners simply didn’t want him and were willing to eat his six figure salary.

Walker was signed for $750,000.  Kuo is guaranteed $500,000.  Ryan Garko is another recent example of a Major League signing who we assumed would make the roster.

We’ve got Kuo penciled in for now but he still has a lot to prove.  There is no shortage of arms gunning for his spot.

And I hope he does prove it.  His 2008 and 2010 seasons were off the charts.

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