Shohei Otani and Three Magic Words

My junior year of undergrad I had a professor, we’ll call him Mr. Williams. He was in his early 30’s, energetic, passionate, and opinionated. His class at my small bible college was one on the Book of Revelations, the Bible’s lowkey signing off on recreational drug use.

A major topic in Revelations, one debated by scholars for centuries, is whether the Rapture, the event in which God calls his still living faithful from earth to heaven to create a new heaven and new earth, is to occur before or after The Great Tribulation, a period cataclysms and horrors set to wipe out a vast swatch of humanity, and signal The End Times.

The two camps of this argument are shorthanded in Evangelical scholarly circles as “Pre and Post-Trib”. Mr. Williams was Pre-Trib, and was to such a passionate degree that you could almost forget that brilliant men had been arguing over this, a prophesy written in a foreign language scribbled down by a guy most likely under the effect of hallucinogens while sitting around on a small Greek island, for hundreds of years. In all that time there has never been a consensus opinion to emerge, and that probably has something to do with the fact that Koine Greek is a bit of a bitch, and that the future is, per my experience, inherently unknowable.

Nonetheless Mr. Williams was unshakable in his belief that the only possible reality was that God would spare his Faithful the horrors of the Tribulation. It was in that class that the largely dormant, but very much alive, seeds of speculation in my mind began to grow, and has led to a philosophy of stubbornly resisting passionate argument, probably too much so.

It was in that class I formed the opinion that the best and most correct answer for something as unknowable as the Tribulation/Rapture debate was one Mr. Williams seemed unable to see, let alone arrive at:

“I don’t know”

***

Shohei Otani is a unique player, in a unique situation. The perplexing and shortsighted willingness of the MLBPA to negotiate away the earning power of future players has put a cap on what teams can pay international free agents. As such Otani, who has made it mostly clear that he intends to come to MLB during this offseason, will most likely make the decision on where to play based on factors that have little or nothing to do with the terms of his initial contract.

As financial compensation is traditionally motivating factors 1-10 for deciding where an athlete is going to play, the absence of it in Otani’s case leaves a vast, gaping, crater in which we can pour our speculations, dreams, and hopes. This is a natural instinct. Humans like to know, and when we can’t we grow uncomfortable and oftentimes try to shape reality to our will.

We have seen plenty of exactly that with Otani this week: “Seattle is close to Japan”, “The Mariners have a strong track record with Japanese players”, or “Otani doesn’t care about money”. The latter is particularly fraught, as it can lead to assigning a moral superiority to a player accepting less money than he can theoretically extract from cutthroat billionaires, where in fact it’s easy to posit that getting every last cent possible out of them in order to use it for the ease of the suffering of the impoverished is at least as, if not more in line, with a highly-aspiring moral code.

The reality with Shohei Otani is we do not know. It’s entirely plausible Otani himself doesn’t know. We have no reason to believe the Mariners are any more or less desirable to him than any of the other 29 major league baseball teams. We do not know how much money means to him, nor should we ascribe a sort of Sunday School Morality to the possibility that he is almost assuredly giving up short term financial gain with the timing of his arrival in MLB.

We should allow Otani the dignity and mystery inherent in all the wildly complex depths of each human soul, and admit that we do not know why he is coming to America at this exact moment, and we do not know where he will choose to play. To attempt to distill the human spirit into simple cultural and/or moral archetypes to fit our predispositions does him and us a disservice. This is the most honest appraisal of the situation, and as it is so often with honesty, the most freeing.

Shohei Otani could become a Mariner, and he most likely will not. While we can read whatever we like into how much money he lives off of in Japan, or channel a Western understanding of Japanese culture into motivations for him to feel honored/dishonored by this or that, doing so plays into many of our worst American/Western/Imperialistic instincts. Real information will come in due course. For now, the best course of action is to embrace the three magic words:

We don’t know.

 

Jerry Dipoto presents: Return of Erasmo

It’s late-July and I’ve started to do that thing where I’m worrying about Summer someday ending. The same is true for MLB teams all over this nation, and for their respective executives and managers. It’s high-time for big moves to make a splash, one last chance at summer romance, and maybe by the end of the whole thing we’ll have some great memories to embellish and share with our friends when school starts back up again. In a transaction that is sure to move the “swoon” barometer approximately one tick towards “hard swoon” and then another tick back towards “hard pass”, Jerry Dipoto traded Steve Cishek for former-now-again Mariner Erasmo Ramirez. I always hate when I start thinking about Fall again.

Acquiring Erasmo Ramirez has a million different angles that I can think of but let’s start with the obvious one. If the Seattle Mariners are going to Do The Damn Thing they need live arms that can throw strikes that are not in turn hit over a fence. This is not necessarily what Erasmo Ramirez is in 2017, but he has run out a GB% slightly above league-average this year in 69 nicely pitched innings. Ground balls are something the Mariners are rather good at dealing with. This site would like to put itself forward as a pro-grounders blog. Erasmo is, however, also running HR/9 and HR/FB numbers that are both slightly above league-average, so really what the M’s received is someone who is a bit better than league-average (his FIP agrees). But just barely.

What has to be said is that the acquisition of David Phelps clearly made Jerry feel comfortable in giving up a ~late-inning bullpen piece to potentially stabilize an often frightening rotation. This may or may not prove to be prudent, but this was certainly not a case of dealing from a position of strength. The bullpen has recently felt more stable, but the idea of Phelps-Cishek-Diaz as all potential shutdown arms at the back end of a close game felt a lot better, stuff-wise, than Phelps-(insert like four names)-Diaz does now. The Mariners are a bat-first team and it is 2017. Wake up, Sheeple.

It’s also hard to say, and I’m sure by the time I hit ‘publish’ this will be foolish because some quote will have come out from the front office, exactly how Ramirez fits into the 25-man. Does he straight swap out Moore or Gallardo? Does he immediately move to the bullpen as a three-inning swing arm? Does he convert to an 8th inning guy and blow 99 mph fastballs under the chin? I’d bet against at least one of those.

It feels mostly like a lateral move for this season. While Erasmo has eight starts in 2017, he certainly isn’t a massive upgrade over Moore or Gallardo. The same problems are there, really. Stuff that can be thrown for strikes, but maybe too many strikes. The Big Inning being the downfall, or being bled to death by spreading four dingers over six innings. While the cost is relatively low in giving up a bullpen arm with only three months left on his contract (plus $1M), in exchange for an arm with 2.5 years of club-control, it has to be said that the Mariners kinda already had this arm before 2017 began in the form of Vidal Nuno. Vidal was, of course, flipped for Carlos Ruiz to shore up a backup catcher position after Jerry decided to let Chris Iannetta walk. It all just feels lateral, maybe almost revisionist, to go get a league-average swing arm in late-July.

There is another angle here that expands beyond 2017, though. With acquisitions like this and David Phelps, Dipoto could be pre-empting a 2018 trade market that should value swing arms. Erasmo’s 2015 season is well-behind him at this point, and maybe he is a guy that steals a couple wins by locking down the 6th and 7th for the Mariners in August, but this could also be a play to acquire future value for the 2018 season. It could also just really do nothing.

It’s Summer – go have some fun, you knuckleheads.

A muted and quiet look at the Tyler O’Neill and Marco Gonzales trade

The Mariners traded Tyler O’Neill for Marco Gonzales. Is this good or bad?

Just before lunch on Friday, July 21, the Mariners shook their very foundation to the core, trading uber-prospect Tyler O’Neill for the St. Louis Cardinals’ leftover trash starting pitcher Marco Gonzales.

Or, as to be expected, this is how much of the fandom reacted, because that is what fans do, they react.

But now that we have had a little bit of time to do things, like breathe, eat, breathe some more, maybe even drink, we can take a look at the trade that Jerry Dipoto, self-proclaimed wildest of the wild out in the west, just processed.

Let’s start with the good:

Marco Gonzales went to Gonzaga. I also went to Gonzaga. This is a good thing.

Now the legitimately good, Gonzales can throw many pitches decently, and he can throw a change-up rather well. He is a high-volume strike-throwing kind of guy, which he tends to both feast and famine on. His numbers are completely unremarkable in AAA, but he has the potential to be an end-of-the-rotation kind of guy. Perhaps even a No. 3 in a horrible year where everyone gets injured (and then your team is bad so who cares). Gonzales gives up quite a few fly balls and infield fly balls. He will probably be alright in Safeco Field, particularly if ol’ Manfred siphons the juice out of the baseball

Perhaps the most important piece of this puzzle is Gonzales is not a short-term rental. Gonzales was drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft. He is under team-control for eons.

Of course, nothing the Mariners do is ever good, and there are some definitive bads to look at. Let us take a look.

Tyler O’Neill was one of the more exciting prospects in a farm system that is as exciting as the proposed idea of a sequel to Suicide Squad. Most recently, O’Neill has been on an absolute tear in the minors, hitting /330/.432/.723 with 11 home runs in 94 at bats. He is still striking out as if his life depended on it, but there was at least enough offensive firepower to help offset all of that. O’Neill is only 22 years old, and overall has (had) one of the higher ceilings in the farm system.

So at the end of the day, it looks like the Mariners traded a high ceiling outfielder for a low ceiling pitcher. This has the makings for a bad trade, and people were quick to condemn Dipoto for it. That said, maybe making a boring ass trade is exactly what this squad needs.

The Mariners have a very limited window to make the playoffs with the pieces in play they have at the moment. Eventually, Felix Hernandez’s arm is going to fall off. Eventually, Robinson Cano will no longer be worth the $124 million he is due each year. Eventually, Nelson Cruz will regress to some version of Nelson Cruz where he is not worth the money. Eventually, Kyle Seager will be worth more as a bargaining chip on a flailing team than the starting third baseman. If you are looking at what area of the current squad the Mariners need to bolster to make any semblance of a playoff run, it is starting pitching. Gonzales fits that bill.

Secondly, perhaps we view this trade in two ways: 1) Jerry Dipoto and a lot of other GMs don’t have much faith in O’Neill, and this is all the Mariners would get for him; 2) Jerry Dipoto really believes that the current Mariners outfield is sufficiently established enough to compliment the rest of the pieces of the team. In both cases, O’Neill becomes a highly expendable player.

There is valid criticism in saying that just because he is a highly expendable player doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be traded. The trade becomes a bit more confusing because Gonzales will start his Mariners career with the Tacoma Rainiers, and if that was always going to be the case, why not wait 10 days to pull the trigger on this? Maybe you can get something else out of the No. 2 prospect in the M’s farm system.

What the trade, for me, seems to establish is Dipoto views the window of opportunity to win as something worth pursuing, and pursuing quickly. Time is never on your side in these sorts of scenarios, and having Gonzales as a back end rotation guy bolsters the Mariners for next season much more quickly than having O’Neill loiter around the farm system does.

The timing of this trade is odd, there is no getting around that. This would be a classic trading from an area of strength for an area of need if it wasn’t a 22-year-old exciting outfielder for a 25-year-old rather bland pitcher. There is a chance that this trade bites the Mariners in the ass later in life, but this will probably not go down in the history books as “worst trade the Mariners made in the 2000s.” That list is too long to even crack.

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.

Gee Yair Mo

An uncomfortable truth is that, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s fun to play favorites. Watching someone, or something we’ve anointed with our favor succeed results in an intoxicating bouquet of pride, joy, and, truthfully, superiority. It’s easy to love your team’s greatest players, and we almost all do; Junior, Edgar, Felix, Ichiro, etc. But there is something special about picking a player before greatness, catching them before their rise. It’s personal, in a way rooting for superstars is not.

The 2017 Mariners are not a great team, but they are replete with fun players to root for. You could pick one of a group of 6-7 guys to ride with. I’ve made my choice, and it’s an intense, scrappy outfielder from the island of Cuba.

Guillermo Heredia

Experiencing Guillermo Heredia playing baseball is like watching George Bailey wildly running around Bedford Falls at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, telling everyone and everything Merry Christmas. He possesses the emotional equivalent of an exoskeleton, and watching everything he feels and experiences portrayed so visibly, at all times, is riveting.

Earlier this week, when Heredia saved Nick Vincent’s ass with a fantastic running grab in Los Angeles I announced, with my usual lack of thought or research, that of all the Mariners sudden bounty of quality outfielders, he is the one I would take for the next five years. That was a moment of mildly inebriated hubris, and as we now have this nice new place to serve for investigation, I went searching for some ACTUAL DATA, to determine just how dumb I was and am.

I can do a decent Fangraphs/BRef search like a normal baseball blogger, but for a player I love as much as Guillermo Heredia, I wanted to find some good stuff. As such I consulted with good friend Eric Blankenship, formerly of Lookout Landing, and as sharp a baseball mind as I personally know. Eric disappeared into the Matrix for a while and came back with an exhaustive look at how Heredia’s offensive profile comps with major leaguers past and present:

Well well, there are some might fine baseball players on this list. Angel Pagan would be a terrific career for Guillermo. Ditto, David DeJesus and few others. Heredia’s combination of quality plate control, and contact ability has worked very well for some very good players over the years. However, for Heredia to separate himself from the Timo Perez and Augie Ojedas of this list he needs to do two, mostly interconnected things better: He needs to hit the ball in the air more, and improve that ISO slugging.

Players like Heredia walk a very narrow path with their offensive profile. Little power and absolutely no power is one of the key differences between 2009 and 2010 Chone Figgins. The total absence of power means pitchers regard you with a total absence of fear, and you really want major league pitchers to feel some fear.

Guillermo’s slight frame, tendency to dive over the plate, and, to this author’s marginally trained eye, below average lower body torque limits his ability to hit home runs, even with the nonsense rabbit ball MLB is currently using. Still, the swing and contact ability are there for more than a singles slap hitter. A player with Heredia’s well-rounded skillset, speed, and defensive ability can be a quality starting outfielder on a good major league roster if he can hit 30+ doubles, and with his speed a few of those can be triples. That kind of contact should be, and I’d imagine is, the goal he and the team have set for him moving forward.

The offensive side of the game needs only to reach average to slightly above average levels, because by most accounts and data Heredia is a very good defensive outfielder. Fangraphs currently has him at +5 runs saved defensively, whereas the Total Zone Rating used by baseball-reference has him accruing 0.9 wins with glove alone in 2017. This serves as a good excuse to say hey holy shit y’all remember that time Guillermo Heredia sprinted backwards and, in the span of approximately a half second turned, found the ball, leaped, crashed into the wall, and robbed Andrelton Simmons of a home run?

ENHANCE

BASEBALL SHOCKED COBRA

BASEBALL SURRENDER COBRA

Guillermo Heredia’s story of defection, quality defense, and electrifyingly energetic playing style has made him one of my favorite 2017 Seattle Mariners. The path to a long, productive major league career exists, but more than likely he projects as a quality 4th outfielder, a role that easily makes him a Jerry Dipoto success story. However if I’m honest, from a front office perspective I would not, in fact, take him over all the Mariners other young outfielders. The road to stardom is simply too long and winding for a player with such a low offensive ceiling.

As a fan, however, I can do whatever I want, and that is this: I want to sit down, turn on my tv, and let this earnest, skilled, passionate man from Matanzas make me care about what he does every second he’s in the game. He’ll do that, as long as he wears a Mariners uniform, and probably well after.

(I am extremely grateful and indebted, again, to Eric Blankenship for his assistance in researching and compiling the data for this post, and talking through it with me.)