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Seattle Mariners Hype Was Just That: Hype

By Eric Denton – LA Angels

I must confess—I bought into the hype this offseason.

The Seattle Mariners, coming off an 85-win 2009 season, made some serious moves in the winter.

They traded for one of the best starting pitchers in baseball in Cliff Lee, giving them one of the more formidable one-two punches along with blooming superstar Felix Hernandez.

Seattle also signed the best free-agent third baseman on the market, the Angels’ Chone Figgins. Not only would Ichiro and Figgins be dangerous batting one-two in the Mariner order, they also hurt the AL West champion Angels by taking their offensive catalyst.

Seattle’s one confusing move was the acquisition of controversial outfielder Milton Bradley, but even Bradley has a track record of behaving well every other year, so maybe the M’s would get the good Milton.

Adding Bradley and Figgins to a lineup consisting of one of the best players in all of MLB, Ichiro Suzuki, up-and-coming center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, along with second baseman Jose Lopez, who at 25 years old had just put up his biggest offensive season with 25 HR and 96 RBI: what wasn’t to like?

Seattle had great defense and enough offense to back up the league’s best pitching staff from 2009. The only real loss the Mariners took was losing slugging first baseman Russell Branyan to the Indians and replacing him with another former Angel, Casey Kotchman.

I was totally convinced it would be the Mariners and not the Angels who would win the AL West. I proclaimed it boldly on a couple appearances on AM830’s “The Drive” with Jeff Biggs and Jason Brennan.

While I can’t say my early concerns about the Angels have come to pass, my choice of the Mariners, like the team, is a complete disaster.

Chone Figgins has been a complete bust in the early months of his new four-year contract. Figgy is hitting just .194 with a .308 OBP and only has nine stolen bases along with three caught stealing.

Jose Lopez became such a liability defensively at second base they had to move him to third to hide him. Seattle signed Figgins, who arguably could have won a Gold Glove at third, and had to move him to second, a position he never played with regularity in Anaheim, because of Lopez’s poor defense. Lopez also has been terrible at the plate, hitting only .214 with one HR.

As for the other new additions, Milton Bradley had a well-publicized meltdown and left the team to deal with stress-related issues. He’s hitting .237 with three HR. Casey Kotchman got off to a fast start and then fell off the face of the Earth. He’s under .200 like Figgins—.190, three HR, and 18 RBI, which I believe were all produced within the first couple weeks of 2010.

Seattle icon Ken Griffey Jr. is a shell of his former self and went through his own controversy when it was reported he allegedly fell asleep in the clubhouse. Cliff Lee started the year on the disabled list, and Felix Hernandez hasn’t found his 2009 form.

Overall, the Mariners still have a very good pitching staff (team ERA 3.75) but, outside of Ichiro, Gutierrez, and the resurgent 36-year-old DH Mike Sweeney, the Mariners are a disgrace: 18-28, 7.5 games back before their weekend series against the Angels.

Unlike the Angels, who have shown some flashes of being a competitor, the Mariners, preseason darlings of most followers of Major League Baseball, were dead on arrival.

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Mike Napoli Making the Case for Everyday Play with Angels

The recently completed Angels road trip through Texas, Chicago, and St. Louis was mediocre. The team went 3-4 and did not seem to shake off the doldrums they have suffered all season.

On the other hand, for Mike Napoli, the road trip had some definite upside.

The Angel catcher played in six of the seven games on the trip. In those six games, Nap had 21 at-bats, five runs scored, eight hits (including one double and four home runs), and an eye-opening nine RBI. His line for the road trip:


Those numbers are not a typo—Mike Napoli posted a 1.458 OPS on the recently completed road trip.

When the Halos left Anaheim, Mike’s numbers sat at .230/.316/.402/.719. As they finished a winning series against Toronto with a Wednesday walk-off, that season line improved to .265/.353/.538/.891. That is nothing short of a remarkable turnaround for a hitter whose OPS was an anemic .569 as recently as May 3.

What is not remarkable about that turnaround is that all Angels fans should have expected it. Coming into the 2010 season, Mike Napoli had played 366 MLB games. In those games, he had a career OPS of .850 with 66 HR and 181 RBI.

To add to his offensive credentials, Napoli set the 2010 Cactus League on fire. In 18 spring games this year, Napoli blasted six homers and drove in 11 runs, putting up an impressive line of .280/.368/.760/1.128.

With numbers like that, it was not hard to see that Mike Napoli was going to be the Angels’ everyday catcher, starting on opening night.

Funny thing, however: It did not work out that way for Mike. Angels manager Mike Scioscia—who has never made his desire for a strong defensive catcher a secret—gave the opening night assignment to Jeff Mathis. Mathis would go on to start 10 of the Angels’ first 14 games.

Mathis played well in those games, without question; even his bat came to life, as Jeff has posted an impressive .851 OPS in 2010 play.

During that 14-game stretch, Napoli only got into six games (four as a starter), and his hot spring became a memory. Mike posted a meager line of .133/.235/.133/.369 to start 2010.

As all Angels fans are aware, Mathis went down the night of April 19 with a fractured right wrist (he is still on the disabled list with no definite return date, though he did resume light throwing on May 18). Napoli became the starting catcher by default, and at first he did not respond well with the bat.

In eight starting assignments between April 20 and April 27, Mike went 4-for-24 (.167 average) with zero extra-base hits and one RBI. The Angels were no doubt starting to wonder what happened to their superior offensive catcher’s superior offense.

Starting April 30 at Detroit, when Napoli went 1-for-3 with a triple, the Angels have not had to wonder any longer.

In that time span, Napoli has posted a .321 batting average, .391 on-base percentage, and .731 slugging percentage (for a gargantuan 1.122 OPS). The slugging percentage in that period has been amongst the American League’s best.

More importantly, it has the Angels lineup more productive, with its bottom half anchored by its slugging catcher (Napoli has batted seventh or eighth in all but three starts this season).

The Angels and their fans are also undoubtedly aware that Napoli is perhaps the streakiest hitter in the lineup. As hot as Mike has been of late, he has a penchant for going ice-cold for long stretches.

Looking back at Napoli’s 2009 campaign, one can see in June and July he posted an OPS of 1.002 and .919, respectively. On the other hand, in August and September he put up numbers of .696 and .731, respectively. Napoli’s big bat tends to deliver “feast or famine” numbers, to be sure.

There are questions that the Angels are going to need to answer when it comes to Napoli. First off, how do they try to keep that bat hot and temper his streaky tendencies? Next (and perhaps even more pressing): When Jeff Mathis comes back from the DL, how does Napoli continue to play every day?

There is no doubt that with the bat, Napoli has done everything asked of him to justify everyday play throughout his career; his 2010 numbers will no doubt give All-Star voters pause.

However, his career high in games played came in 2009—just 114. Before that, Mike had never played in more than 99 games (as a rookie in 2006).

The first question, how the Angels can keep Napoli’s bat hot, will be best answered by Napoli and Mickey Hatcher. Fans will be able to tell when Napoli is locked in with the bat, because he will consistently drive the ball to the opposite field with authority (as he did Sunday, driving a Chris Carpenter pitch deep into the right-center field stands at Busch Stadium).

The second question, where to put Napoli once Jeff Mathis comes back, is a difficult one. One true injustice in sports is when a starting player gets hurt and his replacement plays so well that the starter loses his job. If it were to happen to Mathis, it would not be the first time in the history of sports. It would be very surprising to see that happen to Mathis, however.

While Mike Napoli has made defensive strides since taking over in late April, there are few who would disagree that Mathis is the superior defender. As mentioned earlier, Mike Scioscia places high value on catcher defense.

There is little doubt, barring physical barriers, that Jeff Mathis will regain a significant portion of the catching duties upon his return.

So where to put Mike Napoli?  

One possible solution is to get Mike more consistent at-bats as the DH. There is justification for this: As a DH in 2009 (18 games and 72 ABs), Nap impressed with a .359 average, 1.024 OPS, three HR, and 11 RBI.

Oddly enough, 2009 provides the only substantial DH data for Napoli. Before 2009, he appeared as a DH just once, walking in one plate appearance as a rookie in 2006.

In 2010, Mike has been the DH just once and had a rough 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. However, getting Napoli more at-bats as the DH would require taking those ABs away from Hideki Matsui.

But when you consider Matsui’s 2010 OPS of .705 (and four extra-base hits since April 20th), that may not be the worst idea for the club to consider.

Here is one more idea, strictly from this columnist: What about giving Napoli a third baseman’s glove?

Before dismissing the idea entirely, consider the following. As mentioned on this very site, the Angels potentially have a long-term problem at third base unless Brandon Wood starts to produce (check Eric Denton’s item on the subject ).

No one appears ready to take over the position if Wood continues to falter, save Maicer Izturis (whose value is diminished if he is locked into one position).

Should someone decide to try moving Napoli, he would not be the first catcher to change positions. Craig Biggio came up as a catcher, as did Angels Hall of Famer Brian Downing.

There are even high-profile examples of catchers moving to third base: Johnny Bench played 195 career games at third with a .929 fielding percentage. Phil Nevin finally realized his All-Star potential after the Angels traded their backup catcher to San Diego and he became their everyday third baseman.

The idea of moving Napoli to third base is, admittedly, “outside the box” thinking that is unlikely to come true. What is true, however, is that the Angels are a better ballclub—with a better lineup—when a productive Mike Napoli is part of it.

For hitters as streaky as Mike, time spent on the bench can have resounding negative effects. Batters like Napoli need to hit their way through their slumps.

So to the Angels, I humbly suggest: Give Mike Napoli at least 450 at-bats for the first time in his career. Let’s see if he has that 35-plus-homer potential. Give him the ABs at catcher and at DH, and don’t be afraid to try new ideas to keep him in the lineup.

At 28 years old, Mike Napoli is in his prime years as a hitter and approaching his final year of arbitration before free agency arrives…isn’t it about time that the Angels find out how great he can be?

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Angels’ Ervin Santana Starting To Roll

Ervin “El Magic” Santana was at his best Thursday night against the Chicago White Sox. In seven innings, Santana allowed seven hits and three walks, striking out six and surrendering just one unearned run. His stuff gave AL homer leader Paul Konerko fits all evening (0-for-3 off Ervin with two K’s, and 0-for-5 with three K’s on the night).

In his last two starts, Santana seems to be getting on a roll. Over those two starts, he has beaten Oakland and Chicago. The right-hander has tossed 13 innings, giving up a total of two earned runs (1.38 ERA), walking six and striking out 12 (a high walk total, but a good K-to-BB ratio of 2:1). Both those starts, as you would imagine, were wins for Santana. Overall for the season, he now sits at 3-3, with a 3.75 ERA.  

So now, here’s the question: has “El Magic” really turned the corner and gotten on a roll? Looking closely at the numbers, some concerns begin to surface.

Santana’s 2009 season was a tough one, primarily because of injury troubles that kept his velocity down. He was limited to just 139.2 innings, and posted an 8-8 record with a 5.03 ERA and 1.48 WHIP… nothing to write home about.

However, some of his magic resurfaced in the postseason. Placed in the bullpen for the Angels’ ALCS showdown with New York, Ervin was outstanding. In four relief appearances he posted a 1.59 ERA and whiffed five Yankees in 5.2 innings pitched. Certainly with that rebound in the postseason, the Angels entered 2010 with high hopes for a return to dominance from Ervin Santana.

The returns so far in 2010 have been mixed (seems like that could be written for every facet of the team so far, doesn’t it?). Santana got off to a slow start this season, posting an April that looked more 2009 struggles were on the horizon: 1-2, 4.59 ERA, six HR in just 33.1 innings. When May came along, however, Santana turned the record around. In May so far, Ervin is 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA and just three HR in 26.2 innings.

One could say that those May numbers are proof: Ervin is back! However, there are other numbers to consider. While it is true that Santana’s April was a losing month with a pedestrian ERA, he did post a pretty strong WHIP ratio of 1.23 in the season’s first month. Perhaps he was a little unlucky in April?

On the other hand, his improved May record and ERA come with a surprising (and somewhat alarming) companion stat: a 1.54 WHIP ratio in the month. To put that in perspective, most quality major league starters need to have a WHIP of roughly 1.20 to have sustained success. 1.54 means essentially that for every two innings a pitcher works, he will have a total of three baserunners.

To say that Ervin Santana has been much more lucky in May than in April is an understatement. Bear in mind also that defensive miscues do not factor into WHIP: this ratio strictly counts walks and hits (events over which Santana holds more control). There is some cause for concern in Halo Country if Santana continues to give up baserunners at his May clip.

There is another angle to consider as well. Taking a look at Santana’s nine starts this season, one can see five Quality Starts (at least six IP and three ER or less). Those five quality starts have been against Toronto, Cleveland, Boston, Oakland and Chicago. These five teams have combined for an overall W-L record of 98-108, with only two—Toronto and Boston—with records above .500. These teams also have, with the exception of Toronto and Boston again, poor team offensive numbers:

Toronto: .242/.310/.459– 769 team OPS
Cleveland: .246/.331/.357– 688 team OPS
Boston: .270/.348/.455– 803 team OPS
Oakland: .252/.316/.363– 679 team OPS
Chicago (AL): .233/.314/.384– 698 team OPS

So Santana’s quality starts have essentially come against under-performing teams (remember that Boston has only recently started to heat up, and Toronto’s team offensive numbers look very different if you remove Vernon Wells’ incredible start to 2010).

What about his four starts that were not Quality Starts? They came against Minnesota, New York, New York again and Seattle. Their overall combined record is 64-59 (Seattle skews that, the Twins and Yankees are 49-33). While Seattle has been a terrible offensive ball club so far (648 team OPS, worst in the AL), the Twins and Yankees are in the upper tier offensively. The Twins sport a 769 OPS, while New York is at 818.

So what do all these numbers really mean? Santana was unlucky in April, and has been lucky in May. He has beaten up on the lower-eschelon teams, while the better-hitting teams have gotten the better of him. Overall, the numbers are still pretty good.

The 3-3 record and 3.75 ERA are solid; while his overall WHIP of 1.37 is not spectacular, it places him in the AL’s top 40 (tied for 29th with Minnesota’s Scott Baker). His strikeout-to-walk ratio sits at 2.60, and his strikeouts-per-nine innings is currently 7.8. There are certainly encouraging numbers to go with the numbers that are not as impressive (opponents are batting .270 off Ervin, a rather high number).    

There is no question that Santana has electric stuff—quite possibly the best in the Angels’ rotation. There also is no question that Ervin is an enigma. He can look absolutely brilliant one night, then get knocked around his next time out.

Ervin Santana needs to take the next step in his development and become the elite pitcher he can be. At 27 years old, he is entering his prime—posting numbers like his 2008 season (16-7, 3.49 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 214 K’s) should not be unreasonable. If Ervin can come close to those 2008 numbers again, the Angels have a 1-2 punch in Weaver and Santana that can stand up against any team.

Here’s hoping that “El Magic’s” last two performances are truly the sign of great things to come, and not just predictable dominance of two of the league’s
worst-hitting teams. 

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