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2016 Mariners-Crown Em’

Besides being humans and playing baseball for the Seattle Mariners, can you think of something in common between Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, and Seth Smith? This group are the only Mariners that will take part in the opening day ceremonies next week that did the same last year with the M’s. The other 18 men were not on the M’s opening day roster in 2015. A lot can, and has, changed in the past few months for the Mariners and many other teams around the league. Though I would imagine a 72% overhaul of opening day rosters from one year to the next is higher than league average, by a considerable margin. If I had the time I’d like to know if it ranks as the most changed roster, which it well may. It’s all to be expected when a new manager and general manager are brought in, as is the case with Seattle. But is all the change a good thing? Time will tell, but in this case, I think it is.

A year ago I couldn’t go a day without reading a new predictions tweet or article that had the M’s in the World Series. It was all a bit surreal. This year, most pundits see the M’s extending their 13 year postseason drought another year. This makes sense given how 2015 played out, to say nothing of the prior decade. But aside from expectations, there is good reason to think the M’s actually look a good bit better today than April, 2015. Below are how the opening day rosters compare. The 18 new faces all have a player they are essentially replacing, as the chart shows. As for the impact column, that is my opinion whether the current player is an upgrade (+), downgrade (-), or no real change (o).

2015 2016 Impact
James Paxton Wade Miley +
J.A. Happ Nate Karns o
Danny Farquhar Nick Vincent +
Charlie Furbush Mike Montgomery
Yoervis Medina Joel Peralta o
Tyler Olson Vidal Nuno +
Fernando Rodney Steve Cishek o
Carson Smith Joaquin Benoit o
Tom Wilhelmson Tony Zych o
Mike Zunino Chris Iannetta +
Jesus Sucre Steve Clevenger +
Logan Morrison Adam Lind +
Brad Miller Ketel Marte +
Willie Bloomquist Luis Sardinas +
Dustin Ackley Nori Aoki +
Austin Jackson Leonys Martin +
Justin Ruggiano Franklin Gutierrez +
Rickie Weeks Dae-Ho Lee +
Felix Hernandez Felix Hernandez o
Hisashi Iwakuma Hisashi Iwakuma o
Taijuan Walker Taijuan Walker +
Robinson Cano Robinson Cano +
Kyle Seager Kyle Seager o
Nelson Cruz Nelson Cruz o
Seth Smith Seth Smith o

There are dozens of variables and caveats to an exercise like this, and we can differ on opinion, but I see the M’s upgrading in 14 spots this season, downgrading in 1 (though Furbush is still on the roster), and staying even in 10. Each spot is a case by case assessment but in general I’m looking at the performance of the 2015 player versus the reasonable expectation/projection of the 2016 player. Let’s dig in a little further.

Starting Pitching
The rotation is deeper and projects better in 2016. Felix is Felix, no reason to expect he won’t be an ace and in the thick of Cy Young contention. A year ago Paxton broke camp as the #2 starter, this year he is healthy but in Tacoma. Not many teams have a #6 guy like James, who still has a high ceiling. Wade Miley was brought in to replace Iwakuma, but then Iwakuma returned after all, which was a bonus. Taijuan returns to the rotation and is poised to build off his rookie campaign. Tai was terrible in April and May last year, but found his rhythm in the summer. Happ for Karns feels like a wash for 2016 but Karns will be a key piece for years to come.  Few may realize he actually started the third game for Tampa Bay last year, and was a key piece of their rotation all year. Thanks to retaining Kuma and adding Miley, I think the rotation is significantly improved.

Bullpen
There’s no disputing the bullpen is the biggest question mark. I won’t try to convince anyone that the pen will be good, but honestly can it be worse than last year? I don’t know that it can and I like Dipoto’s strategy of completely overhauling the pen and bringing in a heap of arms which will sort itself out as the season goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the M’s give 15+ guys a chance in the pen this year. Whether the depth is any good is TBD but there are reinforcements if a couple guys get hurt (Scribner, Cook, Furbush) or potentially suck. Last year few alternatives existed, which is a huge reason why the bullpen went from bad to disastrous. Cishek and Benoit will go a long way in determining the success but I feel a little better about the bullpen with Vincent’s acquisition today. The bullpen can’t be worse and maybe it isn’t a ton better, but ’16’s version looks poised to improve on ’15.

Lineup
Gone are LoMo, Brad Miller, Austin Jackson, and Ackley. In are Lind, Marte, Leonys, and Nori Aoki. Gimme that 4 for 4 trade any day! Beyond the areas of change, the lineup, at least at present, does not look to have a black hole (Zunino is in Tacoma). Seager, Cruz, Cano, and Seth Smith are all back, and while Cruz may not match last year’s incredible season, Cano is finally healthy and I imagine Seager and Smith will continue their career norms as above average players. I have some worries about this lineup, given the offensive woes that seem to haunt the M’s, but on paper it looks league average and capable of 4 runs/game.

Bench
Say goodbye to Rickie Weeks, Ruggiano, Sucre, and WFBloomquist. They’ve been replaced by Dae-Ho Lee, Gutierrez, Steve Clevenger, and Luis Sardinas. Again, anyone not willing to take that 4 for 4 trade? Seems like a no brainer. The bench will be better, quite significantly in my opinion.

Defense
The theme of Dipoto’s offseason was constructing a roster built for Safeco Field. That hadn’t happened in a long time. To do so, Jerry brought in guys who get on base and can field their position, above average in most cases. Aoki and Leonys are instant upgrades to the outfield, which had been a glaring weakness during the Jack Z era. Marte isn’t flashy but he makes all the plays you’d expect at short stop, something that cannot be said of Brad Miller. Sardinas is a terrific defender, WFB is not. The defense is vastly improved.

Depth
MLB is a 162 game season, so depth is pretty important. Jack Z learned the hard way that you can never have enough pitching and catching. Dipoto is all about accumulating guys who can play in the majors, particularly if they’ve tasted some success. You need depth, so in addition to the 25 guys who will take the field in Arlington next week, there had better be a plethora of other options. Paxton, Zunino, Taylor, Romero, Blash, O’Malley, Furbush (DL), are all still in the organization and can step in. You also have Daniel Robertson, Boog Powell, Efren Navarro, and Rob Brantly, plus another 5-8 bullpen candidates (Roach, Parker, Guaipe, Aro, De Fratus, Scribner, Cook) . Last year, that sort of depth simply did not exist, particularly in the bullpen and at catcher.

To recap, I feel better about all areas of the 2016 Mariners as compared to last year. Most fans probably feel the same about their team, hope springs eternal and all that. But last year’s team won 76 games, so it will take a big jump forward to be in playoff contention. The rest of the AL West, mid-season acquisitions, how Servais adjusts to managing, and of course injuries, slumps and so many other factors will help determine how the season shakes out, but the Mariners should not be bad. In fact, they should probably be good.

Dipoto makes some tasty Kool-Aid, and I’m drinking it. Crown em’.

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Let’s Talk Some Mariners

The Mariners just pounded the Royals 7-0 to keep treading water in the AL West. Seems like the perfect time for a fake Q&A. As always, these are made up questions that no one has ever asked me.

Talk a little about the Mariners’ season so far.

That’s not a question.

Sorry. How has this season gone for the M’s?

That’s better. Not well. They quickly extinguished the World Series talk with a terrible start, and while they’ve been better at times, they’ve also been consistently inconsistent. Right now they’re six games under .500 and around 8 games back in the division.

What’s been the problem?

A little bit of everything. The pitching and defense were bad to start. The pitching has gotten good and the defense has been okay since, but the offense has been mostly bad all year. They’ve also been plagued by a lack of focus and general malaise that’s led to a lot of silly errors and a seeming lack of fight in certain games.

So what should they do? They probably need to switch out most of the team, right?

That’s the weird thing. There aren’t really that many holes now. Let’s break it down.

Cruz, Seager and Seth Smith have done exactly what was expected or more, as have J.A. Happ and Charlie Furbush on the pitching side. Austin Jackson and Logan Morrison started slow but have turned into solid bats since, although we’ll see if it lasts with Jackson. Brad Miller’s stats aren’t amazing, but he’s actually been one of the better shortstops in the league offensively, and his defense has been mostly solid. The starting rotation has been good to great, despite the occasional rough start. Felix has been spotty lately, but he should be fine going forward. The youngsters (ie Walker, Paxton, Elias, Montgomery) have had bad games, but have mostly been really good, especially since the middle of May or so. The bullpen has also stabilized. It’s not as good as last year’s incredible group, but it’s good enough.

That all sounds pretty good. So what’s the problem at this moment?

For the pitching, they could use another elite reliever or two, especially with Rodney out of the closer role. But that’s not a huge issue. The real problem is three black holes in the lineup and a worthless bench. Two of them, Zunino and Cano, aren’t going anywhere. Zunino is so valued defensively, and there is such a dearth of decent catchers, that the team will just live with a weak bat. If he could rebound just to last year’s numbers, that would be a huge addition. Cano seems to be turning things around a bit. His season-long slump is probably the largest contributor to the offensive issues.

The other hole is left field, where Dustin Ackley has been a complete failure. He had a great game tonight, so maybe he can build on that. Yeah, it’s probably not going to happen. The addition of Mark Trumbo has patched the problem slightly, but they could still use a good every day outfielder, or even a right-handed bat to platoon since Ruggiano and Weeks failed pretty miserably.

So what can they do? Is there help in the farm system?

Maybe, but not really.  Tacoma has some veterans who might help some. Guys like Franklin Gutierrez, Jesus Montero, and maybe even Stefen Romero are having solid seasons and might be able to help, but they all have issues too.  Guti is still Guti and is unable to play many games in a row. Scouts are still skeptical about Montero, and Romero was terrible in the bigs last year. Still, any one of them or a few others could come up and provide a boost for a month or more. There just aren’t any guarantees.

Trading Willie Bloomquist for Chris Taylor or even Ketel Marte (once he’s healthy) would be an immediate improvement, but they seem reluctant to move on from Willie. This squad could really use a top prospect promotion to provide some excitement and a short term boost, but there’s no one who fits that bill.

I though rebuilding the farm system was supposed to be Jack’s specialty?

It was, but most of the advanced talent has been promoted already. What’s left is young and/or struggling mightily. There’s still hope for the future but little help for the present.

Trades?

Hard to say. It’s a little early still, and the Mariners don’t have a lot of talent to trade. I’d be looking for a righty outfielder though, especially one who can get on base, along with a righty set up man and a backup catcher. No idea if they’ll find them, but that would be ideal.

People have started talking about firing McClendon and ZduriencikWould that help?

That’s a very different question for each guy. With McClendon, who knows. I’m always skeptical of manager changes being the answer, but something’s clearly not clicking with this team. I like Lloyd, but sometimes a new voice is the difference. He’s indicated the team is struggling with expectations, which isn’t really mark on the good side of his ledger. In short, I’d be fine with it either way.

With Jack, it’s a little more complicated, simply because changing general managers means a much bigger shakeup. It’s become clear that he struggles with building a complete team. He has a poor record in picking non-elite free agent hitters. And for all of his scouting accolades, his offensive prospects have mostly struggled in the minors and especially when reaching Seattle. On the plus side, he’s improved the talent significantly and demonstrated an ability to build a cheap and effective pitching staff. I could go either way on this one too. I think the Mariners could do much better than Zduriencik, but I’m profoundly skeptical that they actually would. Mariner management is anything but inspiring.

Just a hunch, but barring a good next month to put them into contention, I’d say one or both of them will be gone before the end of the season, and possibly very soon.

So, is the season basically over?

I would say no. The M’s really just need for people to start hitting like they have before. A really good hot streak or two by someone would help too. The pitching will keep them in nearly every game, especially with Iwakuma and Paxton eventually returning. This team just needs some kind of spark. I have no idea what it will be or if they’ll ever receive it, but the pieces are mostly there to be a solid team. Whether they can get back into contention depends on whether Houston and Texas come back to the pack, but I think they will.

The preseason hopes were clearly too high for this team. The M’s have good talent, but it’s (mostly) not elite. They were always a team who could work its way into the postseason and then hope for a hot streak to carry them to the World Series, like the Royals last year. It would have taken everything going right to be a juggernaut, and instead everything went wrong, at least to start the season. This is a better team than they’ve shown, and is pretty fun to watch when they’re on, but it’s anyone’s guess when or if it will click and they’ll turn into the winning team everyone expected.

-Matthew

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Where One is Lost, More are Found

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I, with the baby in the backseat, were driving home to spend the weekend with my parents and see some friends and relatives. We got to talking about my grandma, who passed away some seven or eight years ago. There was no one quite like Grandma Long, a spunky lady who overflowed with wisdom, loved people and fun, and worked harder in her retirement than I will likely ever work in my life. Every loss leaves a hole, but some holes are bigger than others, and the void created when she was killed one night in a car accident was massive.

As we were saying we missed her, I realized, and said to Lisa, that it’s sad knowing Wyatt, my son, will never know her. That someone who was such a major part of my life will be known to my son only through stories is something I had never given much thought. Life moves on. Lord willing, he will know and love people I will never meet, but there are people and memories I wish could be part of his life as they are mine.

I had a similar thought yesterday in the Mariners team store. They had a collection of the new alternate jerseys with the usual suspects on the back: Cano, Felix, Cruz, Zunino. And there at the end of the row was Griffey’s #24, and I thought, with another tiny bit of sadness, “Wyatt will never see Ken Griffey Jr. play baseball.”

It’s surprising, when you stop to think about it, how short a baseball career is in the course of a life. My brother is about nine years younger than I am. At this point, we experience much together, because we are good friends but also because we are grown and finally at similar points in our lives. Still, that nine year gap distinctly changes memories. He was five when the ’95 Mariners made their playoff run. I frequently rave about Randy Johnson, but he has few memories of the Big Unit as a Mariner. His pitching hero, as a fellow lefty, was Jamie Moyer, about whom I’ve always been somewhat lukewarm, probably because of those Johnson memories. Nine years is not much between friends or brothers, but it’s half a career for the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time.

What is thrilling and restorative about sports is there is a new legend for every generation. I have Griffey and Randy and Edgar, and Jordan and Pedro and Vlad and Marques Tuiasosopo and so many others. But I grew up listening to my dad talk about Willie Mays and Sonny Sixkiller, whom I didn’t come close to seeing. We might miss a legend, but if we are lucky enough to live a long, full life, we will see many more.

I envy Wyatt those early years of fandom and discovery, which I’m long past and from which he’s still some years away. He has yet to make his first trips to Safeco and Husky Stadium. He gets to experience for the first time baseball and football and basketball, not to mention books and music and everything else that makes life wonderful. He spent his first months in the hospital, fighting to live, and it thrills my heart to know he will never remember those months, that I can bear those hard memories for him as a father so he can fill his memory with sunny days spent with those he loves.

I don’t know who Wyatt’s legends will be. He’s too young to really remember anything but the tail end of any current player’s career. Maybe Mike Zunino, who I’ve decided is his current favorite player, will still be around. The timeline could be about right for Alex Jackson or even maybe Taijaun Walker. He’ll be wearing a Felix jersey onesie tomorrow for opening day, and I hope he gets to half-remember a couple of his vintage seasons. Most likely, his sports and music heroes are currently teenage kids in the middle of nowhere, waiting to be drafted or get their big break.

Sports are regenerative, and I can only hope Wyatt’s legends are as great as mine were. I know they will be, because that is their nature; legends are made as much by our lives and memories as they are by their own greatness. I don’t know the names, and I don’t know where his life will take him, but I know he has so much ahead.

-Matthew

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It’s Been a While

On September 28th last year, Andrew wrote a memorial for the Mariners’ playoff hopes. After that, we were in such mourning we haven’t written a thing since. That’s not really the reason, of course. As usual, life just got in the way.

We missed a lot in the last six months. The Seahawks rode one of the best defensive runs ever clear to the Superbowl. We won’t mention what happened there, but the fact that a Seattle team was playing for their second championship in a row is amazing. The Huskies finished an uneven and ultimately disappointing football season. My hopes for Chris Petersen’s ability to create a Rose Bowl-level program haven’t dimmed, but 2014 definitely didn’t go according to plan. Speaking of uneven, Husky basketball had one of the strangest and most frustrating seasons we’ll ever see, going from undefeated to terrible and losing their most exciting player in years in the process.

Our personal lives have been even crazier. Andrew has a growing business giving guitar lessons and recently started a Disney travel blog. Dan became a father for the third time in October. I can’t imagine wrangling three boys under five years old, and he has a busy job running an assisted living home on top of it.

I became a dad in September, which was incredible and scary, since our baby, Wyatt, wasn’t due until December. He spent the next 11 weeks at the hospital receiving breathing and feeding support before finally coming home in early December. There were lots of scary moments, but he’s made miraculous growth and improvement and is now six months old and has gained 13 pounds since being born at 1 lb. 10 oz. I’m finding parenthood is just as tiring as people say but even better than I could have imagined.

I don’t know how much any of us will write, but we wanted to reopen the blog because we miss it. It’s fun being part of the larger conversation about the teams and sports we love so much. And if you hadn’t noticed, the Mariners, my personal favorite team of all, could be in for a huge year. It still seems somewhat impossible that they’ll be as good as so many are projecting, but hopefully that’s just years of cynicism and disappointment showing through. However the season turns out, it seemed a shame to stop blogging just before they get good, after going through so many terrible seasons.

We had to change the blog address slightly, due to some domain issues. It’s now goodguysports.com. All we did was drop an “s” in the middle, which we probably should have done all along. Thanks for reading, any of you still out there, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Believe big!

-Matthew and the Good Guys

Wyatt Now Wyatt Then

Wyatt now and then

Dan

Dan’s three boys

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5 Stages of (Mariners) Grief

1.  The Heartbreak

I arrived at my seat, with some family members, about an hour before game time.  I was in such a hurry to buy tickets last night, they weren’t at all where I thought that’d be but we had a great view of the Seattle skyline and we were sitting by people who cared in game 162 of the season so it didn’t really matter.  As we took our seats, Oakland took a 2-0 lead.  Not the best start to the day, but it didn’t seem to be a crippling blow as it was only the second inning in that game.  There were a lot of people there but the energy in the building was definitely a nervous one.

The first ‘moment’ of the day was when Felix came in from the bullpen after his warmup tosses.  As has been customary this season, Aloe Blacc’s ‘The Man’ blared through the Safeco PA as Felix walked in, Zunino by his side.  My wife had just ran in to a friend from her hometown that I’d met a few times before.  She stood and talked to her, while I stood behind her.  As they were having a conversation the crowd rose to it’s feet, saluting the man who’s been here when these games didn’t matter.  The yellow towels were swirling and the crowd was roaring.  Felix didn’t flinch, he just kept walking.  A man on a mission.  I slowly backed away from my wife and her friend so that they didn’t see the tear in my eye.  I’m not sure why I got emotional.  Maybe it was the Dave Niehaus call I had heard about half in hour earlier that I had been reflecting on ever since.  Maybe it was the stress from the last 2 weeks in my personal life finally having an outlet.  Most likely it was the realization that my favorite player was pitching in the last game of the season and it finally mattered.  Felix and Seattle have been joined at the hip for a long time and I think we’ve started to empathize with each other.  Whatever it was that got to me, I brushed it aside and got in my seat.

Watching the game was a mix of waving my yellow towel around when the game necessitated it and following the A’s-Rangers game on my phone.  There was the joy of seeing Felix rise to the occasion and the Saunders double.  There was the hope of the Rangers having first and third with no outs followed by chants of ‘Let’s go, Rangers!’ by the Safeco crowd.  But, in the end it wasn’t enough.  The Rangers just couldn’t get anything off of Sonny Gray.  As the Mariners were taking care of business, the sobering thought that this was the last game of the season took hold faster than a Felix fastball reaches Mike Zunino’s glove.  The A’s had scored 2 more in the top of the 9th.  It was all over and it was only the 5th inning.

2.  Anger/Sadness

Once the shock wore off, it was followed by a wave of sports depression.  The Rangers game was just about to go final, they weren’t mounting a comeback, and thoughts of all the missed opportunities wandered over to my head.  Just one more game.  If the M’s had just scored 2 runs for Walker on Wednesday.  Or if Brad Miller hadn’t flipped the ball over Cano’s head on an April night in Arlington.  Maybe if John Buck had been better at catching baseballs.  What if Rodney had been able to throw strikes in the 10th against the A’s a few weeks ago?  Or what if he hadn’t prematurely shot an arrow over the Anaheim dugout right after the All-Star game?  Never mind on that last one, that was cool.

Maybe it’s the Seattle fan in me.  I think the long-time Seattle fans fit in well with the Legion of Boom.  We always feel slighted, regardless of if we should.  I truly believe we don’t catch half as many breaks as other teams do.  I believe that we get jobbed by umps more than any team.  I have no idea if it’s true but I believe it is.  What if we had just caught a few more breaks or had a few calls go our way.

The Texas-Oakland game went final.

Those were only some of the games where the Mariners had a chance.  And as the brain thought about those terrible wasted games, it moved on to players.  Did Kendrys Morales not pick up a bat all winter long?  Did he just eat the whole time?  Why have Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia not had an extra base-hit in what seems like 2 months?  Why was James Jones playing so much after it was apparent he was ineffective?  Why was Sean Barber a major league umpire?  There were so many things to be upset about but it clashed with another emotion. Gratitude.

3.  Gratitude

In the midst of the sadness that there wasn’t going to be baseball in Seattle tomorrow, there was a whole lot of appreciation to.

I was 5 years old when Edgar hit ‘The Double’.  I was an 11 year-old who didn’t have cable TV at his house during the 2001 season.  2007 was okay but I was busy playing baseball myself and then there was that terrible losing streak.  And Jose Vidro.  2009 was the season I remembered best.  I still love that team but they were built on nostalgia, quite a bit of luck (check out that run differential), and they were never really in the pennant race despite their parade around the field after the last game.

This was finally my team.  A team I followed through thick and thin.  Whether I was in a cabin in the mountains without internet or in a theme park in Orlando I always knew what this team was doing.  There were so many moments to remember.  Watching Opening Night with the rest of the Good Guys, followed by a sweep of the Angels.  There was the Seager walk-off and resurgence after the 8 game-skid.  Roenis Elias’ complete game against the Tigers, those routs of the Red Sox in Safeco, and Felix’s unbelievable run.  There were the 2 times the Mariners came back to score 5 runs in the top of the 9th when they were down to their last out.  There was the Robinson Cano home run in front a sell-out crowd that tied the game up against the A’s.  And there were the last 3 days.  As much as the last road trip hurt, the last 4 games were a joy.  They also described this team.  A young, resilient team with character that just didn’t quite have enough.

Felix Hernandez was pulled from the game shortly after Oakland had clinched a playoff spot.  He received an ovation fit only for royalty.  That’s what he is in Seattle.  As he left the field I (and I’m guessing any Mariner fan) felt so many things – pride, sorrow, joy, hope, anger, gratitude.  We felt those things for Felix and Felix felt those things for us.  Empathy between the king of a city and his loyal subjects.

Robbie came off the field a few outs later and as I watched him and Felix embrace I felt more hope and gratitude than I did sadness.  Although, the sadness was still there.

4.  Letting go (or not)

As I was driving home after a few stops, the Mariners post-game show was wrapping up.  Gary Hill and Shannon were talking about how it was all over, they sounded a little shocked still.  It was time to end the season, let go and get ready for next year.  As the show ended they played a montage of moments throughout this season.  All the great moments from this season came through the car’s stereo one last time.  I could have listened to that all day.  I wanted to get home to watch highlights from my favorite games.

During the game, once the Mariners chances at the playoffs were gone, I cracked a few jokes.  “This will probably be the last time I see Kendrys hit in a Mariners uniform!”  “Hey dad, what dates are you taking me to Spring Training again?”  It was my way of getting over this season and looking ahead to the next one.

I’m probably not going to let go of this team though.  Depending on the next few years, this will either be the team that jump started it all or missed a big opportunity.  I probably won’t be letting go of this team but I will look ahead because the future is pretty bright.

5.  Hope

At the end of the day, the Mariners missed out on a big opportunity.  But at the end of my day, I went to go see my nephew who was born 3 months early in the hospital.  I got to see him open his eyes for the first time.  It makes sports seem pretty small and puts them in their place.  Sports are important to me but they can’t ever bring me the joy that I have when I get to see that little guy.

Selfishly, I hope the Mariners just decided to wait until next year.  That way my brother can enjoy the run more than he was able to this year, and he can do it with his son on his lap.

Surely, this was disappointing but there’s reason to be hopeful.  We have a manager who understands his team, which might be more important than I thought.  We have a star second baseman and third baseman.  We have the young pitchers who were promised to us that came up big down the stretch, Paxton and Walker.  We have Ackley, LoMo, and Saunders who all look like they’ve found something in the last few months.  We’ll have those same arms in the bullpen.  And there’s a good amount of talent aside from that too.  There’s also Felix.  He’s ours.  The foundation was laid this year, now it just has to be built upon.

I’ll save an off-season post for later hopefully, but the age old Seattle Sports Insider question of ‘Can this player win me a pennant?’ is turning more and more in the Mariners favor.  So, I’ll look forward to next year.  I’ll be sad tomorrow night around 7 when I wish I could hear Dave Sims say goofy things and Blowers come back with his increasingly good insight.  But for now, I just look forward to the off-season and next year.  Go M’s!

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Your 2014 UW Huskies Defensive Preview

Defense wins championships, I’ve heard. I’m not sure that’s always true, but should the Huskies win a championship, the defense will likely be the main reason why. This is the most loaded UW has been on this side of the ball in a long time. It does have some issues on the back end I’ll discuss below, but if they can sort those out, points could be few for UW opponents. Offense was covered here, if you missed it.

Defensive Line

With the coaching change, it’s hard to be sure what the defensive alignment is going to look like. Players and positions are being moved around a bit, but it’s unclear how that will actually look onfield. For my purposes, I’m considering players where they played last year. For example, and as a good place to start, Hauoli Kikaha was a defensive end last year, but they’re listing him at linebacker now. I imagine his new role will be similar to Wilcox’s Rush End, where he can be moved around some and plays in space and coverage a bit more. Whatever the specifics, Kikaha will be rushing the passer, and if last year was a starting point and not a peak, he will cause massive amounts of havoc. Kikaha overcame knee issues and lots of time off to turn in one of the better pass rushing seasons in UW history. He had the most sacks of any returning player in the nation, and if he builds on 2013 at all, he could be an All-American and 1st round pick.

While Kikaha gets more credit, big Danny Shelton is the true key to the defense. The massive tackle blossomed last year, eating up blockers for other guys to get into the backfield. At his best, Shelton occupies two or three blockers, clogging the inside of the line and preventing running plays from going whichever direction was planned. Shelton was extremely effective last year, but if he can find a bit more burst and get into the backfield with regularity, he’ll be in the discussion for the best D tackles in college football. It’ll be important to keep Shelton on the field, because the depth behind him is quite young. RS frosh Elijah Qualls has loads of potential, so it was surprising to see less heralded true freshman Greg Gaines listed above him on this week’s depth chart. That may be as much about Gaines having a bigger body as anything to do with their performance. Both have good to great potential, but there will be a noticeable drop-off when Shelton leaves the field.

Completing the line are the Hudson brothers (not really brothers) Evan and Andrew. Both are cool stories. Evan was a walk-on from Bothell who started out at TE. Last year they moved him to the line, and he started most of the year as a big end/smallish tackle. I kind of think of him as playing a similar role to what Red Bryant did for the Seahawks, where he did more to hold the edge or occupy guys than make plays in the backfield. That said, I have no idea what his role will be this year, or what kind of upside he still has in him. He could become a star or lose his job to a younger guy and I wouldn’t be surprised. Andrew Hudson was a starter early in his career before rarely seeing the field last year, leading the old staff to decide it was time for him to move on. Peterson had other thoughts and invited him back, and now he’s slated to start. He never showed a huge amount of explosiveness, but he used to be a serviceable starter. No idea what he’ll do this year. LIke at tackle, the depth here is talented but young. I’d feel better about guys like Jojo Mathis, Jarrett Finau and Psalm Wooching seeing the field, though. They’ve at least gotten their feet wet, and there are some interesting skills there.

Linebacker

This could be as good as any backer group in the conference. John Timu is finally a senior and has developed into a dependable leader in the middle. He’s not an elite athlete, but he makes up for it with great instincts and a nose for the ball. Shaq Thompson has not quite delivered on his talent and athleticism, which isn’t to say he hasn’t been excellent. He has. He just has so much potential, that anything short of a dominant year would be a bit of a disappointment. Maybe that’s not fair, but he’s capable. The third spot is a bit undecided, but it’s not for a lack of good options. At times, Travis Feeney has looked like the best backer on the roster. He’s listed as a co-starter with RS freshman Keishawn Bierria. Both are lighter guys who can cover ground and be effective in pass protection. Bierria’s fellow RS freshmen Azeem Victor and Sean Constantine are in the depth and should see time. Victor in particular is developing a rep as a big hitter and could become a fan favorite before long. Scott Lawyer is the long experienced reserve besides Cory Littleton, who’s become a bit of a forgotten man with some minor injuries in camp. I don’t know if he’ll serve as more a linebacker or a rusher, but he should make his presence felt at some point.

Secondary

If there’s one area that could hold the team back (other than QB), it could be the secondary. UW is replacing 3 of 4 starters along with some key reserves, and all of the contenders for those spots are young. Luckily, the one returning starter is CB Marcus Peters, and he’s one of the best in the country. Peters is the latest and maybe the best in the Dawgs’ recent run of excellent corners. If he has the season everyone expects, he’ll likely go pro and be picked in the top round or two. Opposite him, RSFr. Jermaine Kelly looks to be the guy. He’s a tremendous athlete who’s received nothing but raves since he showed up on the recruiting radar. He’ll likely have some growing pains at times, but I expect him to look like the Huskies’ next star corner by the end of the year. Depth will come from senior Travell Dixon, who seems to have responded well to the coaching change, and some true freshman. Naijiel Hale and Sidney Jones are first up, and both have the talent to excel. Whether they can do so this year is the question.

Safety is replacing both spots, but it has a bit more returning talent. Of course, the guy turning heads is true freshman Budda Baker from Bellevue. He brings a small body but elite speed and football instincts. He’s slated to start opening night, and he should be the most exciting Husky freshman since Shaq. Opposite him at strong safety is Brandon Beaver. He was a touted recruit who didn’t play much last season, but he’s still only a sophomore. Behind him are two sophomores who saw lots of time as true freshman last year, Kevin King and Trevor Walker. Both played well at time last year. Expect to see all four of these guys on the field in different coverages and as the coaches try to find the right combinations.

Special Teams

UW lost do-everything kicker Travis Coons, so these spots are a little unsettled. Cameron Van Winkle has recovered from back issues to take the lead for field goal duty, and he and Tristan Vizcaino will handle kick-offs. Kory Durkee gets first crack at punter. He has a huge leg but has struggled previously with consistency and getting his kicks off.

John Ross returns as the kick returner, where he’s a threat to break one every time. Budda backs him up and has similar potential. Jaydon Mickens gets the call to return punts. UW hasn’t received much production there, but Mickens and others have the skills to be effective.

Go Dawgs!

-Matthew

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Opening Day! Mariners! Get Excited!

Opening Day is here.  I was going to say it’s finally here, but it feels like it snuck up on me this year. Usually spring training turns into a slog in late March, but for whatever reason I never felt that this year.  Anyway, Opening Day, the best sports day of the year, is here.

The Mariners and King Felix face the Angels tonight.  Jered Weaver’s on the mound for the dumb Angels.  If you’re in Anaheim and can find tickets near third base, Josh Hamilton will keep you cool with his many swings and misses.  Albert Pujols might even come sit with you after he reinjures his foot.  Mike Trout will do stuff with his monstrous neck. The Angels are no Oakland Athletics, but they’re still dumb.

It feels like more casual Mariner fans really want to root for the team, but they just can’t quite bring themselves to do it.  I don’t blame them, given the ineptitude the team has shown over the last decade plus. Still, if we all can find it in our hearts to let go of the dismal memories, we just might find a little magic this year. Henceforth, nothing but positive thoughts!  The Mariners could be good!  Just start with that.  You don’t have to plan on the playoffs yet.  There’s always next year for crazy talk like that.  Just look for some little things.  This might be the year a young player finally does something right.  Maybe Felix won’t lose any 1-0 games.  Just start small and enjoy what you find, and soon enough, we will all believe big together. Go Mariners.

If that’s not working for you, here are a few real reasons to be excited for this season:

Robinson Cano is really good.  He’s the closest thing we’ve had to Edgar since we had Edgar, plus he plays a mean second base.  The only position player close to him in talent Seattle has had recently is Ichiro, and as much as I love Ichiro, Cano’s power is a better fit for this young group than Ichiro’s speed and contact could ever be.  Don’t be surprised if he makes a run at the MVP, but even on an average year, he’s the best second baseman in baseball and one of its best hitters.

The (healthy) rotation is tremendously talented. Once Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker return to the field, this rotation will have as much potential as nearly any in the league. The problem is, outside of Felix and Kuma, it may take a season or two for guys to begin to reach that potential.  I expect many bright flashes from Walker, Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez (or whoever fills that last spot), but we could really be in for special things in 2015. This rotation has four guys with legitimate ace-level stuff, and a slew of kids waiting to fill in behind them. Plus, the 2013 rotation set the bar low, and even an inconsistent season for the kids could bring significant improvement.

Brad Miller is starting to look like a folk hero who will become an all-star.  Miller was not a first round pick, but since he was drafted, he’s done nothing but hit and improve at shortstop. Where many thought he’d have to move off the position, he’s now a solid defender. And he still hits. How good he’ll be remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if he holds down short for the next decade with a few all-star games thrown in.  Add in his “crazy legs” running and team captain attitude, and he should be a fan favorite soon.

This is the year some young guys should break out. Ackley looks ready to shine. People who know seem excited about Smoak. Saunders had jumped a level before his injury last year. That’s not even counting the really young guys. What if Mike Zunino hits even decently? He’ll be the best Mariners catcher in 20 years, that’s what! There’s big upside with most of the roster. They won’t all reach it, but some should. And if they don’t, at least for the Ackley, Smoak, Saunders group, it’ll be time to move on. That means seeing a new crop of young guys come up. Who wants to see Jabari Blash get a chance to knock some dingers? Me, me! I do!

Lloyd McClendon’s a man. He’s funny, interesting and no-nonsense, without seeming over the top. Eric Wedge acted no-nonsense, but I think there was plenty of nonsense going on there. The season will show whether the switch will make any difference, but it’s certainly improved the manager interviews (and pictures. No more Wedge eyes!).

It feels like there’s one more big move coming. The Mariners are still sitting on salary and big trade chips. Nick Franklin is an excellent trade piece, and there’s plenty of young talent in the majors and minors.  Maybe they move some guys to finally get an outfielder or another piece.  Maybe they make a huge move at the trading deadline or next offseason for David Price or Cliff Lee or Giancarlo Stanton. There’s never any guarantee with trades, but the Mariners will be able to make offers very few teams can top for nearly anyone who hits the market.

 

Hopefully, some of those things get you pumped up.  If not, just stop worrying about the M’s and go to Safeco, or your local minor league or high school stadium, and watch some baseball.  There’s nothing better than sitting on a nice day watching some ball.  Get a hot dog or some peanuts or sunflower seeds. Play catch with your nephew.  Have a home run derby.  If the M’s season goes bad, as it usually does, find your baseball enjoyment elsewhere. Baseball’s here, and apparently so is spring. And hope springs eternal, as they say.  So don’t let the man get you down. Believe big.

Go Mariners!

-Matthew

 

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