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August 16, 2010

On the Beat

Picking Up the Pieces

by John Perrotto

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The Mariners prefer to look ahead rather than back on what has been a disastrous season. And who can really blame them? The Mariners went to spring training as the trendy pick to win the American League West by such national publications as Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine. Instead, a season-long soap opera has ensued.

It started when temperamental left fielder Milton Bradley had another infamous in-game meltdown and wound up being placed on the restricted list while he underwent counseling. Then word leaked that future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., who had lost his starting designated hitter job a few days earlier, had been found sleeping in the clubhouse when manager Don Wakamatsu was looking for him to pinch hit. Griffey retired a few weeks later.

On the Friday before the All-Star break, the Mariners officially ran up the white flag on 2010 when they traded left-hander Cliff Lee to the Rangers for rookie first baseman Justin Smoak and three minor-leaguers. The Mariners acquired Lee from the Phillies in December in a trade for three minor-leaguers with the idea that they would make a serious run at their first playoff berth since 2001.

A few weeks later, second baseman Chone Figgins went after manager Don Wakamatsu in the dugout after being removed from the game for a lack of hustle. Finally, Wakamatsu was fired last Monday as general manager Jack Zduriencik candidly admitted he had lost faith in the second-year skipper's ability to lead the team.

Zduriencik, despite all the tumult in his second year on the job, remains surprisingly upbeat about the future of the Mariners. He is optimistic even though the Mariners are 46-72 for the third-worst record in the major leagues behind the Pirates and Orioles, a year after winning 85 games, which was a stunning 24-game improvement over the a dreadful 2008 season that cost GM Bill Bavasi his job.

"We certainly had higher expectations than this coming into the season and it's very disappointing that things have turned out the way they have," Zduriencik said. "That's the way things work in baseball, though. You're going to have seasons like this some years. They're tough to take but you just have to keep moving forward. Very rarely do you progress in a straight line as an organization. You're going to have ups and downs on your way to becoming a championship organization. We had our ups last year and we've had our downs this year. But the thing I stress is that we're just a little over a year and a half into this thing. When you look at the overall picture, we have made quite a fair amount of progress from where this organization was prior to last season."

Run prevention, which was such a key to the Mariners' turnaround last season, has been the strong suit again in 2010. However, the pitching and defense has not been to the level of 2009 when the Mariners gave up the fewest runs in the major leagues. The Mariners are allowing 4.27 runs per game this season, which ranks seventh in the AL and 14th in the major leagues. Their .701 Defensive Efficiency is fifth in the AL and eighth in the majors.

Right-hander Felix Hernandez has again been outstanding, even if his record is 8-9 this season compared to 19-5 a year ago. He leads the AL with 6.1 SNLVAR and his .629 SNWP ranks fifth. Changeup king Jason Vargas is also having a breakout year with as he is fifth in the league with 4.7 SNLVAR.

However, it is hard to find many positives beyond that duo. The Mariners are last in the major leagues with a Dead Ball Era-like 3.26 runs a game, and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki (.283) is the only regular with a True Average above .266 as the lineup includes such drags as catcher Adam Moore (.158), third baseman Jose Lopez (.222), and first baseman Casey Kotchman (.232), though two other offensive minuses, shortstop Jack Wilson (.225) and Bradley (.243), are likely done for the season because of a broken hand and torn knee cartilage, respectively.

"There are positives, they've just been obscured by all the negatives," Zduriencik said. "We've got some good things going on in the minor leagues but, understandably, people don't see that because the focus is understandably on the major-league club."

Daren Brown is finishing the season as interim manager and the Mariners have gone 4-2 under his guidance. His ascension to fill-in duty is a nice story as the 43-year-old is a hardcore baseball man, who spent six seasons as a pitcher/manager in the independent Texas-Louisiana League then 10 years as a minor-league skipper with the Mariners. Brown, though, realizes there is only so much he can do given the situation.

"Basically, we want to use these last six weeks to evaluate what we have, especially some of our young players," Brown said, specifically mentioning Moore, left fielder Michael Saunders, and infielder/outfielder Matt Tuiasosopo. "And I think we'd certainly like to finish the season up on a good note and build some positive momentum for next year."

Zduriencik does not plan to overhaul the roster in the offseason despite the awful record, saying, "We don't need to blow the whole thing up because we have some pretty good pieces in place." Zduriencik's first order of business will be finding a permanent manager, though team president Chuck Armstrong is expected to have a big say, and the GM is giving no hints to whether he will lean toward hiring an experienced manager this time or give another chance to a first-timer like Wakamatsu. "I really don't know what path it's going to take at this point. Right now, we just wanted to concentrate on finish this season on a good note."

If nothing, at least the clubhouse mood has lightened since the dismissal of Wakamatsu, according to Mariners designated hitter Russell Branyan.

"There was some speculation, and I'm sure it bothered some guys," Branyan said. "It's hard not to think about those things. Now, I guess you can say there's resolution. We've got our coaching staff in place. We've got our players here. Now, let's go out and play baseball. There are no excuses from here on out."

---

Chuck Greenberg's first order of business as the Rangers' CEO was to cut prices on concessions and parking at Rangers Ballpark. Those moves are designed to make things more fan-friendly.

However, what ultimately should be the most fan-friendly initiative is that Greenberg said that the Rangers will increase their payroll in 2011 over this season's $55 million that is 27th among the 30 major-league teams. That means the Rangers will make an aggressive bid to retain left-hander Cliff Lee, who is a free agent at the end of the season. Now the Rangers will be able to do more than try to sell Lee on the advantage of Texas being close to his native Arkansas but also offer the nine-figure contract he figures to command on the open market.

Greenberg and Rangers president Nolan Ryan led a group of 18 investors that bought the Rangers from Tom Hicks at auction in bankruptcy court. During the bankruptcy proceedings it became public that management was budgeting $77 million for player payroll in 2011 and $84 million in 2012.

"The original model we had has been discarded," Greenberg said. "Our payroll projections are much more aggressive."

It seems the Rangers will probably need a payroll of around $90 million to both keep together the team that is leading the American League West and retain Lee. Greenberg declined to say exactly what the payroll figure will be in 2011.

"Everything that we do is going to be very well thought through," he said. "What I can promise is that it will be thoughtful based on both the near- and long-term abilities to contend. We think we can do that and keep this team together."

---

Major League Baseball has made enough progress with the idea of opening next season with a two-game series between the Diamondbacks and Giants in Taiwan that it has all but negotiated an agreement with both teams on how revenues from the trip would be split.

The Diamondbacks would forfeit two home games to make the series work from a financial standpoint while the Giants would keep their 81-game home schedule intact. The only way MLB believe it can break even on the trip would be to reimburse the Diamondbacks for the two home games lost as they have an average attendance of 24,807 this season while the Giants are drawing 37,357 a game. The Giants' ticket prices are also higher.

"I would prefer to split the home games but certainly understand that making us (the home team for both games) is less costly at this time than the Giants and will mean more money for the players," Diamondbacks president/CEO Derrick Hall told FoxSportsArizona.com. "We are willing to cooperate if MLB believes this is best for the branding and goodwill of our game."

The Diamondbacks expect to make up for the lost revenue of the two games and then some by hosting next season's All-Star Game at Chase Field on July 12.

Players from both teams must vote to give their approval to the series. Each player from the Red Sox and Athletics received $40,000 to play a two-game series in Japan to begin the 2008 season.

---

Numerous baseball executives have confirmed that numerous players have been getting blocked on waivers this month. Thus, that reduces the chances of many significant trades being made before the August 31 deadline for acquiring players and having them eligible to be placed on the post-season roster.

"It' a tough environment to makes deals," Zduriencik said.

Pirates GM Neal Huntington gets the sense that the vast majority of waiver claims are being made to keep competitors from dealing for players.

"A team simply doesn't want you to trade the player to somebody better than they are," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. "That eliminates some trade possibilities. And the other issue, even if you have somebody who clears, there still has to be a true interest in trading for that player, and the ability to get a deal done. Trades are unpredictable in general. Once you get into the waiver part of it, it becomes really unpredictable."

---

MLB Rumors & Rumblings: The Blue Jays were quiet at the non-waiver deadline but might be active before the end of the month as reliever Brian Tallet, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, and center fielder Vernon Wells have cleared waivers, though closer Kevin Gregg got claimed. … The Red Sox and Phillies have at least cursory interest in Dodgers left-handed reliever George Sherrill, who has cleared waivers. … The Rays plan to use Rocco Baldelli, who is now at Triple-A Durham, as a first baseman and designated hitter if he is a September callup as he is not completely recovered from shoulder surgery. … The Rockies are leaning toward exercising left-hander Jeff Francis' $7.5 million club option for next season.

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Scouts' views on various major-league players:

Mariners designated hitter Russell Branyan: "You can tell his back is bothering him because he's not getting full extension in his swing. He could still help someone next year but you've got to spot him against hard-throwing right-handers to get the most out of him."

Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia: "He really looks like he is running out of gas, which is understandable since he didn't pitch much last season. He's done a good job, but I don't know how much the Cardinals can count on him from here on out."

Athletics left-hander Gio Gonzalez: "The one thing that keeps him from being a premier pitcher is he walks too many guys. However, when he gets ahead, he's really tough to hit because he can put you away with that great curveball."

Astros third baseman Chris Johnson: "He's hitting way over his head and it's not going to last. Once he gets around the league a little bit more and pitchers figure out that he'll chase everything, he'll never see another strike."

Rays left-hander David Price: "Only one thing stands between him becoming a No. 1 starter and that's pitch efficiency. He needs to throw more strikes and get quicker outs to keep his pitch count down. Once he does that, the sky is the limit."

Angels right-hander Jered Weaver: "He's always had good stuff, but what's really caused him to step up among the elite this season is that he is pounding the strike zone and getting ahead of the hitters. He is constantly in attack mode and has the hitters on the defensive."

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Three series to watch with probable pitching matchups and all times Eastern:

Rangers (67-49) at Rays (71-46), Monday-Wednesday August 16-18
Cliff Lee vs. David Price, 7:10 p.m.; Scott Feldman vs. Matt Garza, 7:10 p.m.; Tommy Hunter vs. James Shields, 1:10 p.m.

Giants (67-52) at Phillies (66-51), Tuesday-Thursday August 17-19
Barry Zito vs. Roy Oswalt, 7:05 p.m.; Matt Cain vs. Joe Blanton, 7:05 p.m.; Jonathan Sanchez vs. Cole Hamels, 7:05 p.m.

White Sox (65-53) at Twins (68-50), Tuesday-Thursday August 17-19
John Danks vs. Scott Baker, 8:10 p.m.; Gavin Floyd vs. Francisco Liriano, 8:10 p.m.; Mark Buehrle vs. Carl Pavano, 8:10 p.m.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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