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Mariners blog

Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

July 16, 2007 at 9:12 AM

M’s need to get better

And a good Monday morning to all of you. The Baltimore Orioles are in town and what better way to cure a weekend hangover than a healthy dose of the AL East to pad one’s record? Seattle is 15-7 against the AL East this season, by far its best mark against any one division. The M’s would do well to take this series, as expected, given the series split against Detroit.
First, to answer a couple of statements from the previous post. Yes “Ursa” there were little Tandy portable computers — or laptops as we now call them — that writers used to file from the pressbox in 1989. No, they did not have Internet, which had yet to be invented. They were more like word processors that could transmit from a remote location.
Second, to “Will”, what Richard Griffin meant back in 2003 was that Jackie Robinson’s sub-.100 on-base percentage in college and his “tools” designation made it unlikely the all-computer, no-scouts set would have selected Robinson ahead of other draft-worthy players. Go back and read Moneyball, check out the disdain to which scouts who try to project performance based on “tools” are viewed and you’ll see the argument makes perfect sense. The “new view” expressed in Moneyball wasn’t about projecting future performance based on raw skills, “tools” or the gut instinct of scouts. It was about projecting future performance based on computing past numbers, which Robinson did not have in college. Yes, Robinson turned out to be great as a pro. But would the numbers-crunching types have known that before the fact based on the non-tools approach? Would they have gambled a first-round pick on him? Certainly a point worthy of debate, even if you don’t agree with it. And by the way, Griffin, an avid baseball historian, had written an exhaustive, multi-part series on Robinson a few years earlier, has met his widow and knew more about the man than 99 percent of those in the baseball media. He was championing Jackie Robinson long before it became trendy for MLB to do so on “Jackie Robinson Day”.
OK, now that we have that out of the way, let’s focus on present-day reality and the Mariners. This was an important weekend series for them in that it provided a litmus test as to where the club stands going forward. The M’s just split a four-gamer with the best road team in MLB, which establishes that this Seattle squad should at least be able to contend for the post-season well beyond this month. But can the Mariners make the playoffs with this group?
The one message this team should take out of the Tigers series is that it still has room to improve. And not just a minor tweak here and there. Real improvement. The offense had trouble generating runs in all but one of the four games — it had scored four or less in three of the four contests before tacking on three meaningless markers in yesterday’s ninth inning. There are internal moves that can be made and we’ve discussed them here ad nauseum already. The team knows what they are and is likely now trying to pinpoint exactly where and when the first domino should drop.
More pressing concerns?
J.J. Putz continues to carry the bullpen, but he cannot do it alone for the entire season. The need for a more dominant eighth-inning set-up man still appears to be there. As we’ve mentioned countless times on this blog, the M’s may have to decide that a late-inning reliever who can get through the eighth, like Scot Shields does in Anaheim, is more important than adding another back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. Shields, by the way, had a rare blown save in yesterday’s eighth inning as the Angels lost and allowed Seattle to remain three games back in the AL West race.
Putz was forced to work a multi-inning save on Saturday because the bullpen began coughing up a 6-1 lead. That cannot happen. Putz is arguably the MVP of this entire team — and would indisputably be if Ichiro took a sabbatical — and his health cannot be put at risk needlessly. The best bullpens often feature a set-up man just as dominant, or better, than the guy closing. Think Francisco Rodriguez to Troy Percival for the Angels in the 2002 playoffs. Or Mariano Rivera to John Wetteland in 1996 for the Yankees. Mike Timlin to Keith Foulke for the Red Sox in 2004. The Mariners are not going to outdistance their fellow contenders through starting pitching. It’s pretty obvious that the main weapon in Seattle’s arsenal is going to be the bullpen. If so, that bullpen has to maximize its strength, it says here, to make every night a six-inning game.
What does that mean?
It means get starters through six innings with the lead and the game is over. That is what truly dominant bullpens can do. And with the rotation the M’s have, making it a six-inning game, rather than a seven-inning affair, can make all the difference. How many times did Seattle starters go seven innings against the Tigers? That’s right, zero. How many times did they go six innings? Three of the four.
Perhaps it’s a matter of allowing George Sherrill to become that set-up man, facing righties as well as lefties? I think his ability to do both is a true asset to this team. But would I like to see him take over as the set-up man? No, I would not. I don’t think sacrificing the best situational lefty in baseball makes the Mariners a more dominant bullpen. The ideal scenario, in my mind, would be to find a legitimate eighth-inning flamethrower — sort of what Brandon Morrow was early on, or Rafael Soriano was last year — to get through the eighth. Then, you could have him and Sherrill’s trememndous numbers against lefties to fall back on night after night. Is that a luxury? Of course it is.
This isn’t meant to be an attack on Chris Reitsma, who just made it back off the DL. Reitsma may yet turn out to be the answer in the eighth, but he has not shown that this year, largely because of injury. He is also coming off elbow surgery. When you take a run at the playoffs, you want to have a sure thing to rely on. In the two weeks leading up to the trade deadline, Reitsma likely won’t have the time to prove he is that sure thing.
Would the M’s be better off going after another starting pitcher? Not if they want guarantees beyond this season. Other than Dontrelle Willis, a bridge more or less burned by the front office verbal sparring between the Mariners and Marlins last week, there are no other starters offering the potential for upside and the guarantee of staying beyond this season that he does. And he will cost big-time in terms of prospects.
Should the M’s go after Jose Contreras of the White Sox? What does he offer that the current M’s starters don’t? Ditto on Javier Vazquez. Are the Mariners hoping to see Horacio Ramirez turn things around tonight? Of course they are. But let’s get real. Even at the top of his game, the best he is going to provide is six solid innings, maybe seven on occasion. Sort of what Jeff Weaver now provides. Weaver is not a Cy Young Award threat. But he is at least keeping the team in games to an adequate degree. And that is the best of what this depth-heavy, “stuff” short rotation (outside of Felix Hernandez) is going to bring you.
And unless, in my opinion, you bring in another “stuff” heavy arm (read: Willis) your best bet for improving the Mariners via trade may be strengthening an already-tough bullpen, thus reducing the load on Putz and the starters and making everyone, by extension, seem that much better.

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