Rosenthal: What's wrong with the Mariners? Turn for Yankees bullpen?

Rosenthal: What’s wrong with the Mariners? Turn for Yankees bullpen?

Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be the Mariners’ year? Actually no, according to Baseball Prospectus’ projection of 83 wins and Fangraphs’ projection of 79. But actually yes, according to what general manager Jerry Dipoto told a Seattle radio station after trading left-hander James Paxton to the Yankees for three prospects in Nov. 2018.

Based on Dipoto’s comment — “We are going to re-situate our roster and look toward 2020, 2021” — the Mariners already are a year late. And uh, the calendar carries particular meaning for a team that has not made the playoffs since 2001, the longest drought in North American professional sports. In year four of the Mariners’ rebuilding, re-imagining, whatever you want to call it, they are in last place in the AL West, percentage points behind the deliberately putrid A’s.

True, the Mariners went 90-72 last season, contending until the final weekend. But they did it with a minus-51 run differential that, according to Bill James’ Pythagorean expectation, should have left them with a record closer to 76-86. It was a magical season, fueled by a resourceful offense and over-achieving bullpen. But few in the game thought the run was sustainable unless the Mariners made improvements. And they did. Or so they thought.

Dipoto traded for second baseman Adam Frazier. He signed free-agent left-hander Robbie Ray for $115 million. And when he was unable to land Kris Bryant or Trevor Story on the open market, he swung a trade with the Reds for left fielder Jesse Winker and third baseman Eugenio Suárez that seemed to address the team’s offensive needs.

So, why the heck are the Mariners 18-27 after starting the season 11-6? Because unlike last season, when everything in the final four months seemed to go right — remember the Mariners’ major-league best 33-19 record in one-run games? — everything for the last four weeks has seemed to go wrong.

On April 26, the Mariners were tied for third in the majors in runs per game and fifth in ERA. Since then, they’re 26th in runs per game and 28th in ERA, which pretty much explains their 7-21 record in this span. Those dead balls you’ve been reading about all season? Evidently the Mariners’ pitchers are using a different batch. They’ve allowed a major-league high 61 homers in 45 games.

And yet, for all the Mariners’ troubles, they do not look all that different than the Red Sox did when the Sox were 10-19. The Seattle offense is not at the level of Boston’s. The Seattle team overall probably is not as good as Boston’s. But it was inevitable the Red Sox, now on an 11-4 roll, would show improvement. The Mariners ranked only 22nd in Opening Day payroll and face an uphill fight to make the postseason even in an expanded format. Yet they, too, surely are better than they’ve shown.

“We feel like the talent is here,” Dipoto said. “We thought we were in a position to contend, and we still do. I know our players thought that way. There were various members of the media who felt that way. I don’t think anybody looks at our team and sees anything but frankly a team that has underperformed its ability. And we have. We just haven’t played well.”

Want to rationalize? It’s easy to rationalize.

• Regression was expected. FanGraphs determined the Mariners’ offensive performance in high-leverage situations last season to be the most clutch since it started tracking the metric in 1974. Dipoto said the bullpen had a magical year, in large part because the relievers (as well as the starters) got ahead in counts better than they have this season.

• Young teams experience growing pains. The Mariners’ position-player group is the second youngest in the majors. The pitching staff is the eighth youngest. Some of the young players (Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Kyle Lewis) have produced fairly quickly. Others (Jarred Kelenic, Cal Raleigh, Evan White, Matt Brash) have not.

• Injuries depleted the lineup. Right fielder Mitch Haniger likely is out until July with a sprained right ankle. Catcher Tom Murphy is down with a dislocated left shoulder, infielder Abraham Toro with a left shoulder sprain. Still, as Dipoto put it, “We should be able to weather that storm. Other teams in the league are dealing with that, or more.”

Dipoto is a frenetic trader, and some of his past acquisitions (Haniger, J.P. Crawford, Ty France) were outright coups. At times he appears to be moving a lot of dirt without building anything. But the Mariners did not lose much off their 2021 roster, and their additions seemed reasonable enough. If the team did not appear as strong as the Angels and Astros, who ranked eighth and 10th, respectively, in Opening Day payroll, it certainly seemed poised to take another step forward.

So now what happens? Dipoto and manager Scott Servais received multi-year extensions last September. It’s difficult to justify firing hitting coaches from a team that, even after a month-long slide, is eighth in the majors in weighted runs created plus. And while the pitching has been disappointing, no one had a problem with pitching coach Pete Woodworth last season. As Dipoto put it, “We’ve performed poorly. That’s on all of us to try to solve it.”

Break down the roster construction, and nothing stands out as particularly egregious. But Mariners fans can be forgiven if they’re fed up with the overall performance, in year four of the rebuild, year seven under Dipoto and year 21 since the team’s last postseason appearance. Things were supposed to be better by now. And they’re not.

For Yankees, a sudden turn

On May 4, a Blue Jays official lamented that the Yankees used two dominant relievers, Michael King and Clay Holmes, in a game they trailed and ultimately lost, 2-1. King and Holmes combined for four no-hit innings, looking like the types of relievers who pitch when their team is ahead, not behind.

The excellence of the Yankees’ bullpen was a primary reason for the team’s 28-9 start; their relievers ranked first with a 2.74 ERA and .617 opponents’ OPS during that run. But the events of the past week demonstrated how fleeting the health of a bullpen can be.

On Sunday, the Yankees announced Chad Green would need Tommy John surgery. On Tuesday, after Aroldis Chapman had given up earned runs in five straight appearances, they placed him on the injured list with left Achilles tendinitis. On Wednesday, they sent Jonathan Loáisiga to the IL with right shoulder inflammation.

Jonathan Loáisiga (Jay Biggerstaff / USA Today Sports)

The Yankees hardly warrant pity. The top five in their rotation have made all but two starts this season (Luis Gil, who made one of the other starts, also recently underwent Tommy John surgery). Their bullpen, meanwhile, still is quite strong; Holmes, who has struck out 24, walked two and allowed only one earned run in 23 2/3 innings, is the new closer. And Zack Britton, recovering from a reconstructive procedure to repair the UCL in his throwing elbow, is on track to return later in the season.

Then again, pitching in relief is a mental challenge as well. Consider the example of Loáisiga, who was one of the best relievers in the majors last season, but has a 7.02 ERA thus far. Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake said Loáisiga might have been unnerved on a solo homer he allowed to the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on April 13 (the third of Guerrero’s three homers that night) and a three-run shot he allowed to the Orioles’ Austin Hays on April 26.

“I think he got spooked out of the zone a little bit when Vladdy got him that one night, and then Hays hit a slider out,” Blake said. “All of a sudden, he was a little more tentative. You just forget how precarious these guys’ mental situations are in this league. You just remind them, ‘Hey, you are really good. I know it doesn’t feel like it right now. But you need to trust your stuff, keep attacking the zone. Things are going to get better.’”

Blake said he expected a slower start to the season from Loáisiga, not knowing whether the pitcher had sufficient resources to train in his native Nicaragua for a shortened spring training; the league prohibited teams from staying in touch with their players during the owners’ lockout. The next step is for Loáisiga to get healthy, so the Yankees can resume their efforts to restore his confidence.

Evan Longoria, Hall of Famer?

When Giants manager Gabe Kapler suggested to the Fox broadcasters last week that third baseman Evan Longoria needed perhaps two more good seasons to become a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate, my initial reaction was, “Nah.” But Longoria’s case is actually better than I thought.

Hall of Fame worthy? Probably not. But with two more good seasons — hardly a sure thing for Longoria, who is 36 and has made at least one trip to the injured list in every season since 2018 — the discussion certainly would turn more interesting. An All-Star selection and/or postseason success would help Longoria, too.

As it stands, Longoria is in some ways comparable to Scott Rolen, who last year received 63.2 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America last year, with 75 percent required for induction. Rolen hit 316 career homers with an OPS-plus of 122, or 22 percent above league average. Longoria has hit 319 homers with an OPS-plus of 120.

Rolen, though, is the more decorated player. His resumé for Cooperstown includes eight Gold Gloves (five more than Longoria), seven All-Star selections (four more) and the 1997 National League Rookie of the Year award (Longoria won the AL honor in 2008). Rolen had one top-five MVP finish, Longoria none.

Longoria certainly appeared on a Hall of Fame track during his 10 seasons with the Rays, especially considering that third base is the most under-represented position in the Hall, with only 17 inductees. Since joining the Giants in 2018, he has missed more than a full season’s worth of games. But according to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric, which is perhaps the most objective standard for judging Hall of Fame candidates, he is not that far off of the average third baseman in Cooperstown.

Blackmon, the Rockies‘ iron man

I wrote the other day about Manny Machado’s durability, but Charlie Blackmon’s run with the Rockies might be even more impressive, considering that he plays half his games at altitude.

Consider the leaders in games played since 2014:

“Charlie is a beast!” Rockies manager Bud Black wrote in a text message. “He’s as committed to total body fitness as any player I’ve ever had. Tremendous work ethic and work capacity. So obviously that helps him in altitude.”

Blackmon, who turns 36 on July 1, was the Rockies’ regular center fielder through 2018, adding to the toll on his body. The introduction of the designated hitter in the National League this season has eased his burden; Blackmon has started 23 games in right field and 14 as a DH while missing six. “He had always wanted to play the field even in interleague games, but he has given in a bit now,” Black said.

In recent years people around the game have gained an appreciation for the sheer physical difficulty of playing in Colorado, a factor that should only enhance Todd Helton’s Hall of Fame case (Helton received 52 percent of the vote last year). Blackmon is second on the Rockies’ all-time list in games played with 1,307. Helton, who appeared in 2,247, is first by almost a thousand games.

Latest on head protection for pitchers

One of my podcast listeners asked last week about pitchers wearing head protection inside their caps. I did not think many did, and The Athletic’s Jayson Stark volunteered to check with Willie Weinbaum, who has reported on the subject extensively for ESPN.

Weinbaum consulted with Safer Sports Technologies (SST), which designs and manufactures state-of-the-art lightweight composites that fit inside pitchers’ caps. SST told him it was certain of only one current major-league pitcher wearing protection — the Braves’ Collin McHugh. The Red Sox’s Ryan Brasier was wearing it, too, before his demotion to the minors on May 19.

Collin McHugh (Brett Davis / USA Today Sports)

McHugh said he has worn SST protection inside his cap since 2014, and is surprised more pitchers do not do the same. Major League Baseball introduced PitchCom this season, and pitchers who use the communication system wear six-inch rubber receivers inside their caps. Maybe another unobtrusive insert will become less objectionable to some of those pitchers now, McHugh said.

The SST website says, “SST guards weigh a little more than one ounce, compared to a standard baseball hat that can usually weigh between three and four ounces. They are designed to be worn inside the hat, unnoticeable in appearance and comfortable. Our main objective is to help prevent skull fracture.”

McHugh said while he has had some close calls with balls hit at his face, he has not been struck by one in the head. “Mostly it was for peace of mind,” he said of his choice to wear head protection. “They make coaches wear helmets down the lines and we’re closer than they are in most cases.”

Around the horn

• Consistency, thy name is Freddie Freeman. The Dodgers’ first baseman had an OPS-plus of 139 before he jumped it to 152 by going 4-for-5 with two doubles and a homer against the D-Backs Thursday night. He was also 30 to 40 percent above league average in 2018, 2019 and 2021. The outlier for Freeman was the pandemic-shortened, 60-game 2020 campaign, when his OPS-plus was 87 percent above league average.

Freeman’s replacement at first base with the Braves, Matt Olson, is sporting an OPS-plus of 125, and has not been as steady year to year. But Olson’s OPS-plus of 166 in 2017 was higher than Freeman’s best mark over a full season — 157 in 2016. Olson also popped a 153 in 2021.

• Before going 0-for-4 Thursday night, Royals first baseman Carlos Santana was 7-for-20 with two doubles and a homer during a modest five-game hitting streak that raised his batting average from .122 to .167. The Royals need that trend to continue. Santana, earning $10.5 million this season, will become a more realistic trade candidate if he gets hot, and the team has two first basemen in waiting, Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino.

Internally, the Royals view Pratto as a potential Gold Glover, a defender reminiscent of Don Mattingly at first. Pratto, however, also is above-average in left field, potentially providing a path for Pasquantino, who is perhaps the more advanced hitter. However it shakes out, the two could prove part of the Royals’ next core of position players, along with shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and catcher MJ Melendez.

• And finally, the pitching Rogers twins — Taylor of the Padres, Tyler of the Giants — got together last weekend when their teams met in San Francisco. Prior to this season, they had never competed against each other, and their initial reunion in early April was short-lived; Tyler went on paternity leave the next day to be with his wife, Jennifer, when she gave birth to their son, Jack.

Last Friday morning, Taylor visited Tyler and his family, prompting Tyler to joke, “I tried to tire out the Padres’ closer by giving him the baby.” Jennifer took photos of the twins later in the day at Oracle Park, and Taylor also offered his brother a tip on something he noticed in his delivery.

Some things, it seems, are stronger than even division rivalries.

“I gotta tell him, even though we’ve gotta play ‘em,” Taylor said.

“He always does that,” Tyler added. “That’s not going to change.”

(Top photo of Julio Rodriguez: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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