Since studhoss Clayton Kershaw was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers Thursday, it seemed like a good time to head to T-ball Park for a couple of temperature checks, answer some questions about my health, and to see what condition the Mariners were in, especially since this weekend marks the seasonal midpoint in VirusWorldBall.
The good news: Kershaw and I are doing good. He passed Don Drysdale for No. 2 on the Dodgers’ all-time strikeout list, trailing only Don Sutton. And I passed my COVID-19 screenings, nailing 98.6 like the champ that I am.
The bad news: The Mariners. To paraphrase the trendy rhetorical flourish of the day, they are who they are.
The argument could be advanced that such an observation could just as easily have been made from home. Which is true, but you can’t really grasp on TV the visual majesty of 13,000 cut-outs of fans spread around the park.
The Mariners may lead the the league in this sort of stuff. I fully expected the club would have figured out a way to have the cut-outs do the wave. I didn’t want to miss that.
Alas, the facsimile fans were unanimated. As were the Mariners.
Seattle’s 6-1 defeat (box), eighth in nine games, was unremarkable except for Kershaw, who struck out a season-high 11, while giving up a solo homer to 3B Kyle Seager among four hits surrendered.
At 6-4 and 225 pounds, the lefty All-Star commanded the afternoon as if he were George C. Scott in Patton. To close the sixth inning, he threw a 74-mph curve so wicked that it bent Seager’s knees nearly into cramp-lock. By itself, that pitch deserves its own hologram in Cooperstown.
“It’s such a different pitch than what you typically see,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s got a big late break to it. Often it starts up high out of the strike zone. The particular one you’re talking about, it went through the zone right at the bottom. It’s a really unique pitch.
“He was really good today. Our guys learned a lot.”
That, of course, has been the plan for 2020: Learning. After a 2019 season largely devoted to unloading dead-weight contracts for prospects, this 60-game season is about getting game experience for the kids.
Management was quick to point out on opening day that the roster was the youngest in the majors. And at 8-19, the kids have backed up the effort to tamp down expectations.
The Mariners do have a star in the making in CF Kyle Lewis. They have have a solid veteran ace in Marco Gonzales, an apparent bounce-back success with the return of Taijuan Walker, and a rookie starter, Justus Sheffield, living up quickly to high expectations.
And at 32, Seager is having a prosperous season that might elevate him to trade material by the Aug. 31 deadline.
After that, the season has produced little that can be defined with more than the word “hope.”
Servais sees more than that. But he’s obligated to do so. Before the game on Zoom, he explained.
“There’s a lot that really encourages me,” he said. “We’re playing good baseball against really good, experienced teams teams that have been to the playoffs and World Series. We’re not winning all these games, and certainly we hope to see more that in future. But the experience our guys are getting is super valuable.
“I think this is a new era in Mariners baseball.”
That may be true. But what longtime Mariners fans also see is a familiar theme. This week the Mariners moved on from two players that were once hailed by general manager Jerry Dipoto, who went to some trouble to trade for them.
After a terrible second half of 2019 and a worse start this season, DH Daniel Vogelbach was designated for assignment, basically cut. OF Mallex Smith, batting .133 in 14 games and playing equivalent defense, was sent down to the alternate site in Tacoma.
Both are 27, the customary apex year in the development of baseball players.
Vogelbach was the Mariners’ All-Star selection last year, and Smith had been traded for twice by Dipoto.
The departures were deserved, even overdue, but the whiffs offer no polish for Dipoto’s talent-hunting reputation.
Of course, every GM has whiffs. And he has landed several gems, including players such as OF Jarred Kelenic, laboring in obscurity with the 30 players in Tacoma who remain from the great purge of the minor leagues across baseball.
It’s unlikely any of them will be in Seattle in 2020.
“As far as going down into Tacoma and bringing up a ton of even younger players, those players aren’t ready,” Servais said. “They have not experienced a lot of minor league baseball, and it’s not fair to them.
“We want to see it, but we’re playing for the long haul here. We need to do what’s right for the players. They may look (ready) when you see them on a given day. But to go through the grind of a major league season, the competition level, the travel, everything else that’s going on, they’re just not quite ready.”
So the ABs surrendered by Vogelbach and Smith will not be given to the hotshots. Barring injuries, they will be given to the players here now. The 60-game season is already a bad thing for player development; it would make it worse for an organization to start the major-league service-time clock on players for a throwaway season of extended spring training.
Dismaying as it may be for Mariners fans, they can take some solace in that the Mariners seem to have learned a few lessons from the episodes of Dustin Ackley and Mike Zunino, top-tier draftees spoiled by the desperation of previous regimes for quick results.
But Dipoto needs to respect the public wariness when it comes to dismissing Vogelbach and Smith. The knee-buckle response, as with a curve from Kershaw, is well-earned.