The Oakland Athletics finally seem to be on track after stumbling out of the gate in 2014. After sweeping the Twins in Minnesota, the A's stand at 6-3. They are in sole possession of first place, they're the only American League team with six wins, and they are one off the MLB-lead (Washington and Milwaukee each have seven victories). No A's starter has given up more than three runs in a game yet, and the bullpen has been lights-out except for now-former-closer Jim Johnson. The team claims that it will go with a closer-by-committee now that Johnson has been pulled from the role. Meanwhile, the lineup is scoring and Josh Donaldson hit his first home run of the season on Thursday. Craig Gentry should return from the disabled list during this series.
These are the expected pitching match-ups for the series:
Fri: Tommy Milone vs. Felix Hernandez
Sat: Sonny Gray vs. Erasmo Ramirez
Sun: Scott Kazmir vs. Chris Young
When facing Felix, it's always safest to assume that you're going to lose and then chalk it up as a bonus if you pull out a win. Therefore, it will be important for Gray and Kazmir to shake off their early-season wobbles and give the team a chance to win the series -- yeah, their stat-lines look solid, but the eye-test says that they've been missing locations and working into (and, fortunately, out of) jams throughout their appearances. The Mariners start the weekend just a half-game behind Oakland in the standings, so this is essentially a battle for first place in the West.
1. Justin Smoak is off to a hot start. Do you think he can keep it up and finally put together a strong season? Why or why not?
LD: I've never really been a Justin Smoak believer, and a week of good hitting isn't going to change my mind. While his first 35 plate appearances have been impressive results-wise, they've been fueled by his abnormally high ISO and BABIP, and nothing in the quicker-to-stabilize peripherals looks substantially new and different. He's still the same high-walk, high-strikeout, low-BABIP, mediocre-power hitter that he's always been. Hitting between Robinson Cano and Corey Hart probably can't hurt, and I suppose his budding friendship with the Mariners' new $240 million man might result in an improved swing, but I'm ... skeptical.
That said, the Mariners (and other analysts with access to HitF/X) seem to see something encouraging in Smoak, so who knows? The upside is that the net drill Cano brought over from New York teaches him to stop selling out for warning-track power, thereby increasing his LD%, dropping his IFFB%, and bumping his true-talent BABIP up to ~.300. More likely, though, is that he's just what ZiPS and Steamer think he is: a 1 to 1.5 WAR first baseman and a placeholder for incoming top prospect D.J. Peterson.
2. After ranking 29th in bullpen ERA last year, Seattle's relievers have been lights out so far in 2014. Who has stepped up to turn this unit around, and can it last?
LD: I wouldn't say there's been any one unexpected breakout reliever in the Mariners' bullpen. The improvements mostly seem to be coming from the addition of Fernando Rodney and the subtraction of a whole bunch of hot garbage. Hector Noesi is finally gone after allowing the walkoff home run in the Sean Barber game, and there hasn't been a Kameron Loe around to allow six home runs in six innings pitched. No, these relievers are pretty much who we thought they were coming into the season.
Rodney alternates between looking like the worst closer ever and the best, which is predictably sometimes scary but sometimes fun. Danny Farquhar and Charlie Furbush are still excellent relievers (Farquhar's 2013 ERA, which was 2.34 more than his stellar 1.86 FIP, is perhaps a source of positive regression). Tom Wilhelmsen still has the fantastic stuff that made him a closer for almost a full year, even if his makeup issues make him occasionally unreliable. Yoervis Medina still gets just enough strikeouts and ground balls to make up for his atrocious command. On the downside, Joe Beimel and Lucas Luetge are "meh" LOOGYs and Dominic Leone is a big question mark. Obviously the 1.75 ERA won't last, and I wouldn't be shocked if Rodney imploded, but this should be an above-average unit, especially after insane groundballing relief prospect Carson Smith hits the bigs.
Fernando Rodney, seen here being just the worst.
3. Now that you've seen Robinson Cano in action for a full week, what are your first impressions of him? Did the Mariners get what they paid for?
LD: Robinson Cano is a fantastic player, and in the early years of his contract I fully expect him to be worth more than what the Mariners are paying him. He's looked great on defense, and though the power hasn't come yet, I'm not worried. Obviously the end of his contract will be something of a nightmare, but honestly, the more I look around at the rest of the big contracts handed out in recent years, the more I think Robinson Cano was the right man to splurge on. Would I rather have seen the Mariners give ten years to Miguel Cabrera? To Albert Pujols, or Prince Fielder? Five for Josh Hamilton? Seven for Shin-Soo Choo? Nope. If the M's were going to blow the market out of the water to acquire one superstar position player, I'm glad they got a guy who plays plus defense at a premium position while hitting extremely well and having a history of durability.
4. Which Mariner has surprised you the most so far, and which one has been the most disappointing in the early going?
LD: Dustin Ackley (**knock on wood**) looks legitimately fixed. After coming back up from Triple-A late last summer, he finished the season strong and kicked spring training's butt this year. Visually, he's been doing a much better job of covering the outside half of the plate since Lloyd McClendon and his staff took over. He's doing well enough for himself that Fangraphs author and ex-Mariner AGM Tony Blengino (who I've talked to at length about Ackley's rise and fall, and who probably knows Ackley better than anyone not currently working for the Mariners) pointed out in a recent article how much better Ackley's already seeming.
The process improvements have yet to show up in his wRC+, mostly due to a BABIP in the .220s, but Ackley's O-Swing% is through the floor and his Z-Swing% is through the ceiling. He's been hitting the ball with authority to all fields, and I think it's a matter of time before it translates into above-average offensive production. It's almost a shame that the Mariners brought in Cano, because Ackley's a plus defender at 2B, and a good-hitting version of him could've been worth 5 WAR/600 PA there. Instead, he's trapped in the outfield, where his defense is improving but still no great shakes.
A Mariner that I haven't been real pleased with is Michael Saunders -- not because he's been bad, but because Lloyd McClendon is staunchly refusing to let him start in the outfield. Even if Ackley's fixed, Saunders is at least the team's second best outfielder, and there's no reason he should be sitting in favor of Logan Morrison. It makes sense to get Stefen Romero some playing time against left-handed pitching, but some of that time should come at the expense of the dynamic but extremely raw Abraham Almonte.
5. Rookie pitcher James Paxton left his start on Tuesday with a lat strain and is expected to miss his start on Sunday against the A's. How serious is this injury, and how long do you think he'll be out for?
LD: Paxton's injury is worrisome, but it could've been a lot worse. Last April, Mariners relief stud Stephen Pryor went down with a "lat strain" that turned out to be a lat tear, and he's not expected back until next month. Generic lat strains like Paxton's usually take pitchers between two and four weeks to recover fully from. That said, Paxton has been injury-prone in the past, so I'd err towards the high side of that 2-4 week window. On the other hand, perhaps this is a blessing in disguise: Paxton and fellow injured top prospect Taijuan Walker are both on innings limits, and their early-season injuries could actually end up enabling them to pitch deeper into the season.
6. Speaking of pitcher injuries, how close are Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker to returning?
LD: Walker is already making minor league rehab starts. On Wednesday he detonated a Double-A team to the tune of 10 strikeouts against 1 walk, three hits, and no runs in five innings (85 pitches). The Mariners could keep him down for one more start to get his pitch counts up to 100 before bringing him up to Seattle, but it's also possible that he'll be back to start on Jackie Robinson Day next Monday in Texas. Team representatives say they haven't made up their minds yet.
On a more disappointing note, Hisashi Iwakuma only yesterday got back onto a pitching mound for the first time since the finger injury that ended his spring. He's projected to return late in April or early in May, by which time the whole gang (Felix, Kuma, Paxton, Walker and Erasmo) should all be together in Seattle. When healthy, it should hopefully be a pretty lethal rotation.
7. With three starters on the shelf, the Mariners' depth is getting tested early. We've already seen Roenis Elias and Chris Young move up to the rotation, but who are the next couple guys in line if the team needs to reach down for more help?
LD: Er. Um. Uh.
If you ask me, the Mariners' biggest failing this offseason was their failure to add starting pitching depth. A lot of fans called for them to do so; the Lookout Landing offseason plan suggested signing Masahiro Tanaka and Scott Baker, while Dave Cameron argued that the team should bring in Chris Capuano and Roberto Hernandez. There were rumors all winter long that the team was trying to bring in an ace -- names like David Price and Jeff Samardzija were bandied about -- and then ... nothing.
I understand the team not wanting to outbid the Yankees for Tanaka after having already outbid them for Cano, and they did OK in bringing in back-of-rotation guys like Chris Young and the noble-but-failed experiment Baker, but even if no one wanted to deal a No. 2 starting pitcher for Nick Franklin, there's no way the team couldn't have afforded to snag Bartolo Colon or Ervin Santana on a short deal.
As it stands, the depth situation is nightmarish. Right now the No. 6 starter is Blake Beavan, who is the prototypical replacement-level pitcher. Behind him, there's no one, really. Brandon Maurer was last year's Roenis Elias, but he imploded and is now a reliever. The rest of the Triple-A rotation is terrible, even for Triple-A. It's good that Walker is coming back soon, because the other options are total no-names. (I'm leaving aside for now the fact that Roenis Elias belongs in Double-A, not anywhere near a major-league rotation. He's way too raw, and it shows in the K/BB ratios, but the Mariners seem to like rushing their prospects ... harrumph.)
8. Last time, I asked Matt for a haiku about Felix Hernandez. Can I please have one from you as well?
LD: Are you joking?
You ask me to praise
Felix in haiku format,
but there aren't enough -
Thank you, Logan, for participating in the Q&A!
The series starts tonight. First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m., Milone vs. Felix. After this, the A's don't play the Mariners again until early May, so we won't have to see this team again for a while. Fortunately, A's/Mariners games are no longer boring like they were for so many sad, scoreless years.