The Cleveland Indians head to Seattle tonight to wrap up their 10-day West Coast road trip with a three-game series against the Mariners. It’s been more than three months since we’ve seen this Seattle team, so I talked to not one, not three, but two M’s expects: Matthais Kullowatz and Joel Condreay, both from the superb Mariners blog SoDo Mojo. Matthais and Joel both took the time to offer their thoughts on the upcoming offseason, the Mariners’ quest to get back to the playoffs, and Felix Hernandez’ perfect game.
- What were your thoughts after Felix Hernandez‘ perfect game last week? Did you think he would ever throw one?
Matthias Kullowatz: I didn’t get to watch it live! I was teaching high school kids how to do math. Now I resent those kids.
Perfect games are exciting, but consider me one of the party poopers that doesn’t put as much weight on them. When the likes of Mark Buehrle (Jeez, try remembering how to spell that one), Armando Galarraga (basically) and Dallas Braden have thrown perfect games, it just doesn’t distinguish the King like other things do. How about this one: since 1980, only two AL pitchers with at least 600 innings have both a lower FIP and lower ERA than Felix–that would be Pedro and Johan Santana. Perhaps it’s the ballpark, you say, but Felix’s xFIP is actually lower than his FIP, suggesting that his skill set could work anywhere. In fact, among AL pitchers since 1980, again only two have performed better than Felix ON THE ROAD in ERA and FIP. It’s Pedro and Johan, again. Now that’s some elite company.
A perfect game is a small sample of obscene amazingness, but if our King had never thrown a perfecto, I would still feel the same way about him. He (along with Randy) is the best pitcher Seattle has ever seen, and one of the best of his era.
Joel Condreay: Obviously, I was thrilled. To be able to see history like that is pretty special, but for it to happen to your own team is indescribable. There hasn’t been a whole lot to celebrate here in Seattle for the last ten years, so to finally have something go our way made it even sweeter. The fans needed this. That is something I will be proud to tell my grandkids. The best part about it is that it has really revived interest in baseball in the community. All of the sudden, people are paying much more attention to the Mariners, and attendance has risen in the last couple days. Five days later, people are still talking about Felix and his perfect game. His performance has done a lot for the fanbase and the area as a whole.
I absolutely thought he would throw one; it was a matter of time. His stuff is so nasty that it seemed inevitable that one day he would finally put it all together, get a bit of luck (which is the biggest ingredient in perfect games), and toss a perfecto. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did it again in his career.
- The Mariners are 8.5 games out of a playoff spot and 13 games back in the AL West. Are there any specific players or storylines that will keep fans watching through the end of the season?
Matthias Kullowatz: Besides Felix? I think there are a million stories to follow, but I’m a baseball nerd. Here are a few…
1) The M’s are actually sort of in a playoff race. They are definitely on the outside looking in, trailing 6 other teams for just two playoff spots. But the ESPN simulator has their playoff chances at 2.1%. That is definitely low, but hell, I hit the green on a par three every once in while on my tee shot. Probably about 2% of the time. Maybe the M’s will hit the green this time
2) Ackley’s hitting is way down this season, and it’s mostly due to a 63-point BABIP drop. His walk and strikeout rates are similar enough, and despite a small dip in line drive rate, his groundballs are up. This indicates to me that A) his BABIP was a little inflated last year, but B) Nobody with Ackley’s skill set record BABIPs as low as .276, so C) Will he figure out what he needs to (and perhaps get a little more good fortune) to bring his BABIP back up over .300, and with it his average, OBP and slugging?
3) John Jaso. Sure he can’t hit lefties, but apparently he can hit righties and call perfect games. With two young, right-handed catchers (using “catcher” term loosely) around in Zunino and Montero, having an awesome lefty backup would be helpful next season. He’s arbitration eligible this off-season, and the M’s should be able to get 300-350 plate appearances out of him next season for something like $2-3 million.
So what I’m watching for is how much actual catching he gets to do, and if he learns to hit left-handed pitching.
Joel Condreay: I’m not betting on Seattle making a playoff run, but who knows, they have been playing really good baseball, so they could make things interesting. Unfortunately, Seattle just doesn’t have the rotation depth or offense to sustain a postseason birth.
Despite this, we still have some things to watch. The main story line M’s fans are watching is the progression of the youth. This team has a ton of young players that they will watch. Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders, Eric Thames, and the list goes on. Both Smoak and Ackley have had really disappointing years, and Smoak could be playing for his career in Seattle during the last month of the season.
A couple of September call-ups should keep fans interested as well. Everyone expects to see the promotion of 2011 2nd overall draft pick, Danny Hultzen. His MLB debut his highly anticipated.
- Looking ahead to the offseason, what should Seattle be looking to do? Are there any particular players you think the team should trade or free agents they should target?
Matthias Kullowatz: To really make a playoff run, Seattle needs upgrades in a number of positions. Starters 2-5, first base, at least one outfield position and catcher. As much as I love Felix, and as much as I know how good he is, I laid out my reasoning for why trading him might be a good idea. With so many positions to upgrade, a few cost-controlled players ready to fill in could open up funds for a few free agent pitchers to add depth to the staff. I like the idea of Chase Headley, though I’m not sure that the Padres want to pay a lot for a pitcher. It would be okay to get third base help, and then Seager would move to second, and Ackley can play both first and outfield. That shouldn’t be a problem. But I want to stress that I would only be down for trading Felix if cost-controlled, major-league ready talent came back.
Overall there’s lot of good news that open up Jackie Z’s options. Olivo has a club option (that will likely not be picked up), Figgins will likely be released, and Ichiro is now off the books. Vargas is trade-able, though his skillset fits into Safeco really well (lefty with flyball tendencies) and they can probably extract a lot of value out of that in his third year of arbitration (2013).
So what I think should happen: add some short-term pitching depth. Who’s available? Zach Duke. Duke does not blow anyone away. His 87mph fastball and low walk rates remind of another soft-tossing lefty that made Safeco his home for parts of 11 seasons, Jamie Moyer. He has been pitching all season for the National’s AAA affiliate, and will likely come on the cheap. But I think he can produce.
Then, for a slightly bigger free agent splash, make a run at Francisco Liriano. These guys will be 30 and 29, respectively, and can produce a lot of value for 2013 and 2014. They would hopefully join two of Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton, along with Felix Hernandez assuming he’s not traded, to round out a high-quality, low-cost pitching staff.
Now with that money, let’s not be too rash in free agency. This year’s class is not eye-popping. The primo talent can be found in Josh Hamilton (too old, will want too many years), Curtis Granderson (same thing), Shane Victorino (ditto). But here are two guys that interest me—one because it makes sense, and the other for completely irrational reasons. Conor Jackson (remember him) and B.J. Upton.
Jackson has a career .351 OBP, but has been stuck in AAA all season for the white sox (with an. 821 OPS in 340 plate appearances, mind you). He’s a righty–not usually good for Safeco–but his value is not derived from power, but rather contact and patience. He’ll be 31, but won’t demand a long, expensive, stupid contract.
And B.J. Upton mostly because I traded for him in MLB 2K11, and now he’s an MVP candidate for my 2013 Mariners squad. I love Franchise Mode. But otherwise, he’s not a great fit.
Joel Condreay: Well the Mariners have money this offseason since they will get Ichiro’s $18 million off of the books. Considering the poor free agent class, I wouldn’t expect them to do too much though. Most of the big free agents won’t be as impactful once the Mariners actually become a playoff caliber team, so there is no point in signing a Josh Hamilton.
The one big name I would think about is thirty-year-old David Wright if the Mets don’t pick up his option, but that is a long shot. I know Mariner fans dread righty bats, but if Wright can hit at Citi Field, he can hit at Safeco.
Despite the steroid use, Melky Cabrera could also be a decent fit in Seattle considering they could they use a leadoff hitter. The suspension could also drop his value.
Although not a quite as big of a name, Mark Reynolds could be interesting in Seattle, and he could be pretty affordable after a poor contract year. 200 strikeouts is not what the Mariners need though.
- When do you expect the Mariners to get back to the playoffs?
Matthias Kullowatz: Oh boy. Without some luck, not until 2014 or 2015. We are waiting on Zunino, and the three top pitching prospects, Walker, Hultzen and Paxton (any two will do). I know a lot of people wanted to make a splash with Fielder, and many will want to with Hamilton, but that’s just not sustainable improvement.
Joel Condreay: We aren’t too far off. My projection would be 2014 or 2015. We have three phenomenal young pitchers in the upper levels of the farm system right now, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton, each of which is a member of the top 100 MLB prospects list. Give these kids a few years to make the majors and settle in and this could be the best rotation in baseball. We have the potential to have 3 or 4 aces on this staff assuming that these guys don’t become huge busts and Felix resigns after the 2014 season.
With a couple years to mature offensively and a few additions from the free agent market, this lineup could be average enough to support the superb pitching staff of the future. Seattle won’t need to score 750 runs a year if their pitchers are only giving up 600.
- Give us a scouting report on the pitchers the Indians will see this week.
Millwood has been around. We know him. You know him, having him around for his ERA crown in 2005. He doesn’t match up well with your Indians–who happen to hit righties hard thanks mostly to Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana (didn’t we give you two of those guys?).
Felix is Felix. His stuff moves all over the place, and he gets a lot of ground balls. It will be interesting to see if he recovers from his perfect game. I’m sure he’ll be fine psychologically, but adrenaline had him pumping his fastballs faster and faster as the perfect game went on.
Iwakuma should have been starting all year, but he faces an equally underrated pitcher (at least, underrated in my eyes) in Zach McAllister.
Joel Condreay: Game 1 is Kevin Millwood, and everybody who has played MLB has faced Kevin Millwood. He has struggled lately, and the Indians are pretty well suited to hit him. The thing is, Safeco field can turn an average pitcher into a good one. If you don’t believe me, just look at Jason Vargas. I’m not saying Millwood will beat Jimenez, but it makes things a bit more interesting considering that Cleveland depends on doubles and homeruns more than Seattle, and Safeco Field is not a good place for extra-base hits.
You guys get King Felix for game 2, and no team matches up well to Felix.
As for Iwakuma in game 3, he is a bizarre pitcher. He has a strange delivery and throws with average velocity with a pretty good splitter and slider when he keeps them down in the zone. The problem arises when he leaves them up in the zone. Thankfully, the spacious outfield of Safeco Field bails Iwakuma out pretty often, but the lefty-heavy lineup of Cleveland may not be so forgiving.
- What’s your prediction for the series?
Matthias Kullowatz: With the Indians getting three righty matchups, I think they take the series 2 -1.
Joel Condreay: When using straight-forward logic, Millwood will drop game 1, Felix will dominate game 2, and Iwakuma will live or die by his ability to keep the ball down in the zone in game 3. Considering he took a perfect game into the fifth inning last start, I would tend to say that Iwakuma will give Seattle a series win, but that is not reliable.
However, the Mariners have won 12 of their last 13 home games, and with continually increasing crowds, Safeco Field is actually providing some home-field advantage. Considering this, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a second straight series sweep for Seattle. Despite this optimism, the realistic side of me says that Millwood will get out-dueled in game 1, and Seattle will take 2 of 3.