M’s Acquire Bullpen (P)Help(s)

David-Phelps

Before reading this, I apologize if I go full redundancy in here if you’ve listened to the latest podcast. Last night while recording, I jammed my stick in the mud and essentially advocated for the Mariners to stay put outside of making a move almost identical to the one they just made, trading for RH reliever David Phelps from the Miami Marlins. Phelps is a converted starter/swingman, spending the first four years of his career averaging 90mph on his heater, all while being a perfectly fine, but middling major league player. After his conversion, Phelps saw his average velocity jump into the 93-94 range, with the latter being his number this year. He’s throwing harder than ever, and while he’s taken a step back from his big 2016 breakout season, he’s still been a quality arm.

Phelps was outstanding in relief for the Marlins last year, and he even managed to duck back in and start five games for the Marlins in August, and they were pretty damn good starts too – allowing a .563 OPS against, but also averaging less than 5 innings a start. There was no real stretch period for his transition, and he hopped back into the bullpen in September and crushed it, only allowing 5 hits across his 8 innings while striking out 13.

This year, Phelps hasn’t been quite as good, though the results are still solid. He’s never been a man of great control, and that’s continued into this year. He’s still missing bats, but at a lesser rate (9.77 K/9, down from 11.84 in ‘16). The xFIP has landed at 3.74, and his resulting contribution to the Marlins has been a perfectly fine 0.3 WAR.

From a fit perspective, it’d be hard to find somebody who makes more sense than Phelps. He’s been durable during his career, and he’s shown the ability to get “rubbery”, i.e.  throw multiple innings when asked without much consequence immediately following. The velocity is still rising, and he’s under club control for 2018 as well. At 30, he’s right in that dry-aging meaty part of the curve. Phelps has no discernable red flags, and he comes to the Mariners filling their greatest (black) hole – people who can throw baseballs.

There will be clamoring that Phelps isn’t the starter the team needs, and while that’s true, the Mariners also cannot make a playoff push while throwing Edwin Diaz and Nick Vincent every single time they play a close game they’re on track to win. Diaz has thrown his damn arm off lately, and while he’s been Jekyll instead of Hyde lately (that’s the good one, right?), it’s more than likely that he’s going to hit another valley before the season is over, leaving the team void of quality late-inning options. Phelps is a classic late-inning power arm, and while he hasn’t been awesome this season, they paid a price that represents that dip.

The ol’ rumor mill stated that the Marlins weren’t in love with the Mariners farm system, and well, yeah. The centerpiece from the M’s teenage wasteland is Brayan Hernandez, that not-so-small Venezuelan child the Mariners paid a pretty penny for back in 2014. Hernandez is 19 now, and isn’t doing much of anything in Everett. He remains a long-term project with some amount of unknown upside, but at best he’s still three years away from contributing to a major league team in any fashion. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that even somebody Ben Gamel could be a free agent before Hernandez ever dons an MLB uniform. He is, kindly put, a project who hasn’t shown any signs of translating tools into production.

The other arms lost are Brandon Miller, Pablo Lopez, and Lukas Schiraldi. The latter two are having horrible seasons in Modesto and will be lucky to ever make an MLB roster, and while Miller is doing fine in Clinton, his odds are still poor at best. Lopez and Miller both appear in the middle of the Mariners top 30 prospect list on MLB.com, but make no mistake, these players would not be similarly placed in an average farm system. Their loss should not be deeply lamented – outside of some unforeseen breakout, which could happen to anyone, there isn’t an MLB arm in the bunch. They are, more than anything else, throw-ins and lottery tickets to complete this deal.

Maybe this is a tiny bit of an overpay considering Phelps’ step back and Hernandez’s unknown upside/tools combo, but it fits just fine into a win-now strategy without much damage to the limited farm system. Phelps’ 2018 control give the M’s a chance to try him as a starter again to see if the velocity sticks, or they can flip him right back around for their own batch of lottery tickets that Dipoto likes. We’ll see how this affects the rotation, but Gallardo could move back into the #5 slot and Sam Gaviglio, who is decidedly not a MLB pitcher, could head back to AAA. Either way, Phelps slots in nicely as a late-inning option, especially as a person who can throw two innings when the bullpen is gassed. The Mariners have to win a lot of games to make the playoffs, and they’ll need an arm like Phelps to help carry the load.

Joy

joy

My awakening with baseball came a decade ago, when I read Baseball Between the Numbers, a veritable textbook on analysis collated by Jonah Keri. The subline of the book, Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong, struck me. I’ve long been a person who thrives on challenging convention. A contrarian by nature, I often follow a path of dissent to a fault. Whether in writing, debate, taste – I have been fueled by having a unique opinion. This existed within me until right around the same time I read the aforementioned book. I remember the moment, listening to whatever metal-mathcore bullshit I was pretending to love at the time. “Do I even like the Dillinger Escape Plan?” I thought, driving in my car, wearing my Dillinger Escape Plan hoodie.

Learning that many of the narratives people pass around about baseball are inherently false changed my perspective on the game in a permanent fashion. It shaped my voice when I wrote about baseball, it opened my eyes when I watched the game. It taught me to view a season from 10,000 feet instead of living and dying by every moment. A 12:40 game on a Wednesday in August has the same impact as opening night. Baseball is cruel, it is emotional, it is beautiful. It is also, above anything else, exactly linear for 162 games. I viewed, and still view, baseball with the mind of an analyst, formed by that book and everything I consumed immediately after. Sometimes that comes across as people thinking I don’t enjoy the game, or that I’m a pessimist. It’s not the case.

I met my wife in 2005, during the time I was spreading my fair share of controversial takes around the music industry as an album reviewer. She is a radiant woman with a smile and laugh that consumes your soul and warms your heart. I fell in love immediately, as does virtually everyone else who spends more than 30 seconds with her. At the time, my analytical mind manifested itself in the form of practicality. Part of this was being a broke college student, part of this was a comfort in my own bubble. My wife is a woman of adventure. I was a man of familiarity. I didn’t want to travel, I didn’t want to eat out. I liked what I liked. Comfort was contentment, and contentment was happiness. I didn’t realize how wrong that kind of happy was until she broke me down.

Over the years of our relationship, I now find joy in more aspects of life than I ever imagined possible. I’ll eat anything, travel anywhere, and take any opportunity to celebrate. It doesn’t always come easy, as there’s still remnants at my core that push back with anxiety. I fight through them, and the result is an unbridled, relentless sense of self-worth and content, with my wife at the core of it all. My job, my friends, my travel, my friendships. My brothers here at Dome and Bedlam. These words. In it all, joy.

I choose joy because the opposite is horrific. I have seen my closest friends shattered by life events. Marriages failed, families wrenched apart. I have watched my wife lie next to her best friend, whispering goodbye days before her death from an inoperable brain tumor at age 27. Still, I have experienced a fraction of the tormented sadness and depression that many have. Sadness is devastating and unavoidable.

And yet, we carry on, rooting for a baseball team that has playoff potential, which means they have World Series potential. For some, they find their joy in hoping that potential becomes a reality. I, with them, share the same sentiment. It may manifest differently, as I view the team with an analytical eye and see outcomes a little worse than many of my friends and peers. I will root with every fiber of my being to be wrong about the 2017 Mariners. I want them to be better than the .500 team I currently project them as. I want so deeply to add success from the Mariners to my ever-growing sources of joy. I will experience it, along with everyone else, in waves throughout this year. There is no schadenfreude when the Mariners fail. It is simply familiar and comfortable. I am sick of it. I want adventure, and I want exuberance.  I want it in more than bursts. I want from the Mariners what I get from my wife. Together, we’ll lament, complain, and languish. We will laugh about the failures. We will celebrate the success. We will choose to be happy, because to do otherwise is too easy, and makes life too hard.

A View Far Removed

Tampa Bay Rays at Seattle Mariners

Like most kids in junior high, my life’s ambition was narrow. I wanted to be famous, and I wanted to talk about sports. I was a comically skinny kid who played everything but wasn’t particularly good at anything. My talent was knowledge, reciting the stats of a Chris Mullin card or explaining the infield fly rule to my friends. I spent my pre-driving years huddled up next to my Sanyo boombox to listen to whatever was on KJR for hours upon hours. The rotating hosts of the evening would fire out take after take, and listeners would follow suit. Eventually I got the courage to call in, swiping the house’s cordless phone to wait for an hour on hold, all to squeak out my opinion on Sonics basketball to surprisingly patient and courteous hosts. I’d dutifully turn my Sanyo down while on the air, but record the segment on a cassette tape and listen to it over and over again as soon as I hung up. I would cringe over my mistakes, my voice, and what I knew was a two-minute long eye roll from the thousands that heard me wax not-so-poetic on Hersey Hawkins. A week later, I’d sit on hold again, vowing to be better.

Fifteen years later, it’s the summer of 2013, and I’m staring at my inbox. I’d been in charge of Lookout Landing for a few months, and a radio station in Oregon wants me to go on the air as a guest and talk about the Mariners. They came to me, a perceived lifetime after I wanted them. Maybe they think I’m an expert, or maybe they’re desperate to fill time. It doesn’t really matter to me. I look up the station online. It’s a tiny building in a tiny town in the middle of the state. I try to find a way to record the segment, but there’s no way to listen online. I call in, listening to commercials about agriculture fairs and high school pancake feeds before it’s my time to play the professional. My eyes are wide.

There’s been a few radio spots now, and the format and line of questioning becomes familiar. There’s a hot take mentality brewing inside me, and one day Eric Wedge says something I find to be very silly. I feel a wave of passion take over me and feel it is my very duty to unleash my takes all over LL. I pound the keyboard for an hour, skewering Wedge with what I can now only surmise was a decidedly arrogant tone. All I can think about is giving readers what they want, finally winning them over. I scan over what I’ve written. It’s the piece I wanted. Forceful, clear. I hit publish and wait. Within an hour I feel a deep, sickening sense of regret. Half of what I’ve published is a gross exaggeration, an indignant and arrogant chest-thumping pile of shit. I swallow down my lump and stand behind it with as much bravado as I pumped into it.

My staff at Lookout Landing is growing, and now there’s a contingent of eight to ten writers who contribute on a regular basis. Communication is good, everyone fills a role, and I start to let some of the weight of responsibility fade off my shoulders. I don’t have to write every day. I trust every staff member implicitly and allow everyone to publish without approval. My management approach is to let everyone write whatever they are most passionate about, whatever that might be. I’ll fill in the gaps. The directive is to be inspired, and the very best work will come of it. Content is good. The readers seem at peace with a new direction of many different voices. I’m starting to settle in. I’ve also started down a path of forgetting my own advice regarding inspiration.

Months later, it’s now a much larger group of writers, and the management side is becoming harder than the commitment of writing. There’s a tough moment in which a change in staff has to occur, and the reaction is ugly. I sit back helplessly and watch my tiny corner of the world burn for a night or two as laundry is aired. It haunts me for months. I come to grips with not being able to universally win with Lookout Landing, ever. It’s a fate I choose to accept and move on. Scars are left.

It’s the first offseason as managing editor, and I’m settled into a role of gap-filler, riffing off trade rumors and free agent ideas. There’s an expectation of content that comes from many sources. The expectation becoming a requirement is primarily a product of guilt. There’s mornings when I stare at a blank screen for ten minutes, wondering what’s worth saying. I crack my knuckles and bang something out, time and time again. Sometimes I’m proud of what I write. Sometimes I am not. The latter grows with alarming frequency. I realize just how difficult offseasons are.

Year two is underway, and I take a vacation to Chicago to see a game at Wrigley Field. I write an article about the beauty and simplicity of a game at Wrigley, and it makes a few rounds. A friend texts me and says he heard my article referenced on the Mariners broadcast that night. I get to a computer, pull up the archives, and navigate around until I find the moment. Rick Rizzs is talking about Wrigley. Aaron Goldsmith mentions an article on Lookout Landing about it, and ties it into the conversation. I’m smiling from ear to ear. He then mentions me by name.

I break down in front of my wife.

The summer rolls on, and the weekly cycle of running Lookout Landing is relentless. The wiki document staff uses to plan out content for the week is full of days that are void of anything but recaps. Writers come and go with a quicker frequency than ever before, and there’s a pattern I grow accustomed to. Hire, train, #content, fade, remind, #content, fade, disappear. My management style of allowing artistic freedom often results in brilliance from a group of talented writers, but it also results in large gaps of dead space when inspiration is low. I consider setting requirements on posts, but the thought of playing bad cop makes my scars burn red. I vent my frustrations privately. I feel pressure to churn out better content, but I’ve been writing nothing but spin pieces on bullpen roles shifting and utility outfielders getting demoted that my voice and identity has faded into the ether. Who am I, as a writer? Am I just a manager now? Is what I’m doing giving me any fulfillment?

I’m asked to go on 710 ESPN in Seattle twice, and I self-record both of them. I listen back time and time again, and have only mild criticisms. Radio hits are a relative breeze now, and I feel little to no nerves, even on a large stage. Trade reactions and hot takes are what get the appearances, and I’m loving the attention. My role at the site is now almost completely opinion-based articles and behind-the-scenes management, which is often hands-off until things go south. I’m tired, but feel pride that I haven’t sank the ship.

The Mariners are making a push for the playoffs, and I go to Europe for three weeks. Nathan handles my duties while I’m gone, and is in for a surprise at the amount of planning, organizing, and writing that goes into running Lookout Landing. I check out completely. I don’t miss it even a little.

The next six months are full of extended stints of sleepwalking. I often feel like I’m going through the motions, and I rarely write anything I’m happy with. We do several collaborative projects that staff works hard on, and they fall flat on the site. It feels like the great content, the things we are truly proud of, gets buried while my spin pieces, full of opinions I’m not entirely confident in, get all the comments and clicks. I’m essentially writing nothing but the latter, and I’m on the radio every week. My career changes, and I’m no longer working from home. I’m standing outside my office in freezing weather, live on the air in Spokane at 10am, trying to suppress my chattering teeth.

There’s a deep sense of conflict. I’m so very proud of what I’ve managed to patch together over the years, and my ego is still thriving off a steady diet of moderate notoriety. I know I’ll never have a bigger stage to write at. I know this is as close as I’ll ever get to living out my childhood dream. I’m not close to the most talented writer on my staff, and I don’t have ambitions to make writing a full-time career, so I’m not doing the necessary Twitter engagement and hobnobbing to carve the path. I’m two years in, and I’m burned out. I know the amount of work that it takes to get the opportunities I crave is more than I’m willing to give. I know that the level of effort I put in from 2013-2014 is as much as I’ll ever be able to offer. I write up a resignation letter to the powers that be. It sits, saved as a draft for six months.

I couldn’t just walk away from this platform, could I? People would kill for the stage I’d been given, and I knew I was very fortunate to land in the spot that I did when there were hundreds more deserving. But my conflict started to turn to peace, and my worries about meeting expectations morphed into a sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t an opportunity anymore. It was a real thing, a thing I did to the best of my abilities and a thing I was tired of doing. I knew the best days were behind me. I was done. And so I left. I left after I was 100% sure. I said I would still be around on the site when I posted my resignation, but I didn’t believe it when I wrote it. And close to two years later, I haven’t been around at all.

I didn’t know how done I was until I stopped. I didn’t read much of Lookout Landing for the rest of 2015, even though the writers were, and are, close friends who will be a part of my life forever. I didn’t watch much baseball. The weight of responsibility was lifted off my mind, but the imprint still sat like memory foam. I wanted to come back and write, but I had nothing to say. I thought it would return in 2016, but it didn’t. Over the years, I lost my voice in the sea of news stories, trade rumors, and recaps. I only wanted to write again if inspiration returned. I wasn’t sure if it ever would. I don’t know if it will come again.

Today, inspiration is here. Tomorrow is tomorrow.