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Chris Ray, Josh Lueke Bully Innocent Little Game, Beat It Senseless

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Coming into the season, the Mariners had an outside shot at fringe contention if several things went their way, but more realistically, 2011 was likely to be a transition year, and we've known for a while that the most important thing to observe in the organization is the development of young talents like Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley, and Michael Saunders, among a few others. Ultimately, what we really want from 2011 is for the young guys to take a step forward so we can set our eyes on a promising 2012, and anything else is gravy.

So after 17 games, I guess in a way you could say: mission accomplished, so far. Justin Smoak hit another home run tonight and has an OPS around .900. Michael Pineda has strung together three excellent starts against big league competition. Michael Saunders has had some promising at bats. Dustin Ackley is starting to show some power.

By and large, the prospects have made good showings. It's everybody else who's been a disaster.

Obviously, there are some exceptions. Josh Lueke and Tom Wilhelmsen, for example, have been bad, while vets like Jason Vargas and Milton Bradley have been good. But, overall, we've gotten what we wished for. Smoak and Pineda look terrific, and seem destined to be quality players for a very long time. Yet the Mariners are still just 5-12, because many of the players around them have been crap.

The development is the most important thing, and I'd much rather see Smoak and Pineda succeed while Chone Figgins and Jack Cust suck than the other way around, but it sure does seem mighty early in a baseball season to be tuning in simply to watch a few individual players. It's April 18th, and already I'm at the point where I'm fine with a loss provided the right players did the right things. That's sick. It's probably healthy, considering, but it's also sick. Even the 2010 edition made it to the end of the month.

This was kind of the opposite of most Mariners games, in that, instead of falling behind early and spending the rest of the game battling back, the Mariners took a narrow lead into the sixth and farted it away. It was basically the exact same game as last Wednesday, right down to the starting pitcher. Jason Vargas made a quality start. Milton Bradley helped the M's take a 2-1 lead. Then Chris Ray and Josh Lueke spotted the little potential win by the swing set, chased it across the playground, cornered it, beat it with sticks until it stopped moving, and then continued beating it with sticks until it stopped whimpering. Ray and Lueke, such bullies.

It's evident by now that both of these guys have big problems, after coming in with high hopes. We were the ones who had high hopes for Lueke, while it was the coaching staff that had high hopes for Ray, but they've both just been lousy. Lueke has thrown a few quality breaking balls, but his command and velocity have gone missing. And Ray is now up to 28 batters faced on the year, with two walks, one strikeout, and four extra-base hits. In their limited samples, they both have ERAs in the mid-teens.

Lueke is troubling, because here's a young guy who breezed through the minors with a mid-90s fastball and some strong offspeed offerings, and now his fastball is down and his location is inconsistent. Lueke's average fastball tonight was 91.5 miles per hour. Something's wrong, but nobody's quite sure what it is, and as a result Lueke is a shell of himself.

Ray is less troubling, if only because he's not being counted on to be a part of the future, but he's been a win probability nightmare, and it's hard to watch him go out there knowing full well that he's just about out of a job. Ray landed with the Mariners on a minor league contract. For a few weeks, now, he's been a terrible reliever, and he isn't missing bats. If he keeps this up, who's going to give him his next opportunity? The only thing keeping Ray from being an automatic DFA candidate upon David Aardsma's return is that Lueke and Wilhelmsen have also been bad, but at this rate Ray'll be out of a job soon one way or another.

The Mariners' bullpen had promise coming into the year, but a lot of that promise was built on the quality of Lueke, Ray, and Wilhelmsen's stuff, and they haven't pitched up to it. Two of those guys just burned us again, and the Mariners lost by five. With Lueke, the answer may be getting him some rest, or perhaps a medical evaluation. And with Ray, it's looking more and more like those bags of soil Safeco gave away tonight could be used to bury his career. It's a bummer for him, but I don't know Chris Ray the person. I only know Chris Ray the pitcher, and Chris Ray the pitcher makes me scratch my own corneas.

Tonight's assortment of bullet holes:

  • I don't know if there's even a point to talking about Jason Vargas' performance since it was basically identical to so many of his other performances. He threw a lot of changeups, he got some weak contact, he got some harder contact, and he wound up with six innings. There's something to be said for consistency and reliability, but boy is it ever dull to write about.

    So I'll just take this opportunity to touch on the curveball that Vargas talked about developing during the spring. Vargas threw 11 of them tonight, and is up to 26 on the year, making up 7% of his total pitch count. 15 of his curves have been strikes, and one of them has been cut on and missed. I just realized that you can't really do anything with a sample size of 26 pitches, so, there you go. Jason Vargas' curveball, everybody.

  • In the top of the first inning, Ryan Raburn hit a foul pop-up that became the first ball in Safeco Field history to strike the roof (or a support beam of the roof). While it was up there, the ball dislodged Miguel Olivo's swing rate.

  • I don't think there's any denying that Chone Figgins has looked more comfortable at third base than second, but I've already lost track of how many hot shots have gotten right by him and wound up in left. I understand that righties can pull some really hard grounders that take some really wicked hops. These are not easy plays to make. But you'd figure that Figgins would eventually make one of them. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt just because I don't actually enjoy being negative all the time, but he could really use a Web Gem or two in the coming days.

  • Rick Rizzs was talking about the hit that snapped Miguel Olivo's protracted 0-fer slump when he said that Olivo could "get that hit and start all over." I'm pretty sure that's the exact opposite of what everybody wants.

  • Aside from a fielding adventure that allowed the Tigers to tie the game up in the sixth, this was a big night for Milton Bradley. He ran out an infield single, he drew a pair of walks, and in the bottom of the third inning, he took a 2-1 changeup from Max Scherzer way out to center field for his second home run of the year. Sometimes, I come away a little dissatisfied with cheap home runs down the line, but there are no cheap home runs to Safeco's center field. Bradley's eye is there. As shown tonight, his power is there. And his contact rate is up from where it was last season. All the lights in Milton Bradley's little neighborhood are green.

  • The Mariners' other home run - their second of two home runs! - was Smoak's in the eighth off Daniel Schlereth. There was nothing especially remarkable about Smoak's dinger except that he hit it batting right-handed, and it cleared the godawful power alley. The Mariners haven't had a player post a .900 OPS since Richie Sexson did it in 2005. That's setting the bar a little high for Smoak given that he's only 24 years old, but he could do it. He's shown all the necessary talent.

  • During tonight's Building To The Future segment, the broadcast highlighted Carlos Peguero, and Jay Buhner remarked that Peguero "can carry the mail." The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary traces this expression back to 1937 and says that it means a guy is fast, but I think it's better applied to a guy like Chris Ray, because Chris Ray's next job will be as a mailman.

  • When the Mariners signed Jack Cust, they did so hoping that the clear downward trend in his power numbers would reverse itself given regular playing time in a lefty-friendly environment. The more I watch him, though, the less convinced I am that he has much of anything left in the tank. Discipline aside, he's off to an absolutely miserable start, and the one name that I can't shake from my mind is Brad Wilkerson. By this time next year, Cust might be out of baseball completely.

  • Said the Root Sports voiceover guy:

    So the road trip didn't go how we wanted, yeah, but I'm thinking this seven-game homestand is the perfect time to right the ship.

    It took 16 games for the Root Sports voiceover guy to start being honest with the audience. "Hey, this team sucked, but hopefully they won't suck anymore." If you think about it, he's made a remarkably swift adjustment to understanding what it's like to root for the Mariners. All that's left is for him to drop the second half of that sentence.

  • The most uncomfortable commercial of the day ever was a Norelco spot featuring Nick Swisher shaving his face with an electric razor, and Jonathan Papelbon shaving his face with an electric razor. The two share a mutual love of their Norelco electric razors, but they began to argue when Swisher said he likes to shave in the shower, while Papelbon prefers to shave dry. The commercial cut off there, with the line "watch the debate get personal at greatshavedebate.com." It was like one of those GoDaddy ads except instead of trying to get me to visit their website by luring me with half-naked women, they're trying to get me to visit their website by luring me with two dudes in the bathroom.

Phil Coke and Doug Fister tomorrow at 7:10. When I'm feeling down on my baseball team, nothing makes me more excited to tune in than the promise of 5.2 innings of Doug Fister.