I had the opportunity to visit Tacoma over the weekend and while it wasn't a great series for the Rainiers on the scoreboard, it's always a good time in the deuce nickel tre. I can't recommend the new Cheney Stadium experience enough if you haven't been already, and their new Sunday red uniforms look pretty sharp too.
There was also some baseball to be played, and the M's have just enough young talent in Tacoma to keep things interesting down there. I took some notes, and thought I'd share a few observations on some of the more notable performances I saw:
- Franklin Gutierrez: Gutierrez, the most recent Mariners position player to post a 6 fWAR season, might be the bat Jack Zduriencik hoped he was getting when he signed Rickie Weeks. After sitting out all out of 2014 and missing most of spring training, Gutierrez is off to a torrid start with the Rainiers. In his first seven games, he's bashed six extra base hits and two homers, the most recent of which came on a decently located fastball in the lower half of the strike zone yesterday afternoon. He's a man among boys in the Tacoma lineup right now, and while he won't have his contract purchased until he shows he can stay on the field for more than a week at a time, I wouldn't be shocked if he's brought up as a bat off the bench at some point this year.
If he does get the call, he won't be the same player we enjoyed watching back in 2009. From all appearances, his legs are shot and his days in center field are over. He's played a little bit of left field in Tacoma thus far, and his rout running and jumps are good enough to allow him to fake it out there for as long as he stays healthy. He's a hitter first at this point, and if someone on the big club goes down, he'd make a fine lefty-mashing replacement.
Five years ago, who would have guessed that it would be Gutierrez's stick that kept him in the league?
- James Jones: As you may have heard by now, Jones was involved in a scary incident during Tacoma's home opener on Friday night. The speedy center fielder dove headfirst towards third and the crown of his helmet collided with Brett Wallace's knee. Jones was down for several minutes, and the play reminded me all too much of how former Arizona State outfielder Cory Hahn injured his neck a few years ago. While a concussion isn't exactly a mild injury, Jones is lucky that the damage wasn't worse. He's been placed on the 7-day disabled list and his condition will be evaluated over the next few days.
- Patrick Kivlehan: Tacoma's outfield is composed primarily of corner guys and with Jones on the shelf, Kivlehan has received some playing time in center field. That does not make him a center fielder.
An infielder by training, Kivlehan is struggling enough to adapt to life in left field: he has enough speed for the position, but his instincts are just developing. He's slow to read the ball off the bat, his routes look choppy, and his throws are frequently off line. He also misplayed two line drive singles yesterday, nearly overrunning both of them while barely avoiding a colossal mistake by desperately knocking the ball down with his bare hand. He may have the athleticism to learn left field but his best position is probably first base.
Wherever he ends up, he'll need to hit. This series, he's looked bad on pitches on the outer half of the plate, which is concerning for a player who's struggled to cover that side of the dish in the past. He can hit to all fields, but he has trouble getting his arms extended and will need to prove he isn't overly susceptible to pitches away from him.
- Jordan Pries: There's a frightening lack of starting pitching depth in the organization beyond Roenis Elias. After the Cuban, nobody in Tacoma's rotation has won a big league game and there isn't help coming from Double-A until mid-season at least. Of the options on the Rainiers, Pries entered the season as one of the nominal favorites to be recalled in case of emergency.
So far, Pries hasn't solidified his place at the top of the pile. In three starts, he's posted an ERA over 9 and has only lasted more than five innings once. Some of that isn't his fault: he's been hurt by poor defense in bandbox ballparks, and hitters won't BABIP .435 against him all season. Concerns about his stuff remain valid though. There were reports that he'd added velocity in spring training but he sat 89-91 with his sinking fastball yesterday -- about where he was last year -- and he doesn't have a true out pitch. His cutter isn't sharp enough to induce whiffs, and while his sinking changeup is effective, he slows his arm and body noticeably during delivery. If big leaguers can pick that up, that'll take a lot of bite out of his best off-speed pitch. As it is, he's a righty with decent command who primarily works by pounding the zone with a sinker. It'll play in a spot start, but there's not a whole lot more there right now.
I'll be heading back to Tacoma tonight to take a look at Elias. The lefty has struggled in his first two outings this season, and while some of that can be pinned on tough ballparks, he's fought himself mechanically and hasn't been able to harness his curve. Hopefully a return to sea level will bring better results.