What's going on with the Mariners?
You can forgive any Mets fans for casually pulling for Seattle this season. Why? It's not just that the Mariners have a pleasant color scheme and rarely get in the way of our Amazins. The "real" reason to root for them is that they are having success in a tough division even though their offense is a bit of a mess. Yes, high profile acquisition Robinson Cano (.335/.394/.459) is performing just as well as advertised, and third baseman Kyle Seager (.277/.346/.493) continues to be one of the league's most underrated players, but it's still hard to imagine a club that regularly plays Endy Chavez and Miami castoff Logan Morrison scoring a lot of runs.
That's because it doesn't. Only two teams in the American League have scored fewer runs than the Mariners this season, and yet they have a run differential of plus-56 and are in position to grab the circuit's second Wild Card spot. It's amazing what a little pitching can do.
Felix Hernandez is having the best season of his stellar career, but he still doesn't have control quite as good as Hisashi Iwakuma, who is basically a second ace for the M's. All in all, Seattle is built a lot like how the Mets envision themselves in the near future. A rotation anchored by a pair of studs and a solid bullpen help cover for a lineup that is missing a solid bat at one or two (or three) positions. The only real difference is that the Mariners are getting surprisingly good production out of their Chris Young.
Let's not get too cuddly, though. The Mariners are fresh off of a series loss to the Angels in which they blew one ninth inning lead and lost another game in the 16th. I'm sure they'd like nothing better than to get back home and start beating up on a Mets team that has scored one run in its last two games.
Who are these guys?
Like many of his teammates, James Jones doesn't hit all that well, but the rookie center fielder can at least make up for it a little with his legs. He's slashing .284/.313/.346, but 18 stolen bases compared to just one caught stealing is impressive for a 25-year-old who maxed out at just 28 stolen bases during the 2013 minor league season. At 6'4" and 193 pounds, Jones is a seriously impressive athlete who flashed some power and walks at all levels of the minor leagues. If those skills are able to eventually translate as well as Jones' baserunning, he'll become one heck of a player.
Catcher Mike Zunino is another player who has All-Star potential if his offensive skills start to translate over to the big leagues. Since they picked him third overall in the 2012 draft, the Mariners have to be pretty confident that that will happen soon for Zunino, who is hitting .205/.257/.406 this season with 98 strikeouts. Those numbers aren't too bad a player who was playing Rookie ball two seasons ago. In his first year as a pro, Zunino rose all the way to Double-A after hitting .373/.474/.736 in the short-season Northwest League. Skipping two levels of Class A seems a little crazy, but with Zunino's defense already rated at nearly eight runs over replacement by FanGraphs, the rush job seems to be paying off.
Who's on the mound?
Monday: Jon Niese vs. Roenis Elias
The Mets really don't need to be seeing another Cuban pitcher right now after they were thoroughly dominated by Odrisamer Despaigne on Sunday, but Elias should prove to be slightly less of a challenge. The lefty is coming off of some serious struggles, as his last three starts before the All-Star break featured 14.1 innings pitched and 17 runs allowed. Those aren't promising totals, but the Mariners will continue to lean on the 25-year-old for at least a little while longer. For a rookie, Elias's 96 strikeouts and 40 walks in 113 innings aren't terrible; he should at least be able to pitch to an ERA a little below the 4.54 he has now.
Niese will be making his first start since Independence Day, when he left a game versus the Rangers in the first inning upon being struck by a batted ball. Since he only was charged with one run in that game, Niese's streak of allowing three runs or less in every start is still alive, and the Mariners aren't a bad team to face if he wants to keep it going. Still, the most important thing to watch is how the lefty's stuff looks after spending the past two weeks on the shelf with a shoulder strain.
Tuesday: Jacob deGrom vs. Erasmo Ramirez
Ramirez is expected to be recalled from Triple-A Tacoma to make the start on Tuesday. He's been pitching pretty well for the Rainiers lately, with four straight quality starts since the first day of July. He was looking like replacement level fodder at the big league level until three straight scoreless outings in June lowered Ramirez's ERA to a semi-respectable level. As a right-hander who throws his fastball a little more than half the time, Ramirez relies on his changeup and and breaking pitches to get hitters to chase junk. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened too much in the majors, as he's averaging nearly five walks per nine innings to go with a 4.58 ERA.
With 27 strikeouts and four walks in his last three starts, deGrom has become the new "it" pitcher for Mets fans to get excited about. His 11-strikeout game against Atlanta on July 8 was also his first in the majors with zero walks allowed, and it's a sign that deGrom's command is improving. He's throwing his fastball with a lot more authority than he was when he was first called up, and that's let to more consistent strikeout totals. With the performance of Bartolo Colon fading and Niese taking a break on the DL, deGrom has temporarily taken over as New York's "ace," and it will be fun to see how much longer he can continue to dominate.
Wednesday: Bartolo Colon vs. Hisashi Iwakuma
Update: Iwakuma has been switched out in favor of rookie right-hander Taijuan Walker. Here's a quick preview, which I also posted in the comments:
Taijuan Walker is a talented prospect, but he's obviously nowhere near as polished as Iwakuma is. In his debut this season on the last day of June, he allowed three runs in six innings to the Astros in Houston. That's not too shabby, but in his next outing he walked five batters in four innings against the White Sox. Walker walks about three batters per nine in at Triple-A Tacoma this season, so he could continue to experience control issues in the majors. And we all know the Mets like to take pitches.
The change gives the Mets the pitching advantage in all three matchups. I'll go ahead and predict two out of three wins and hope for the best.
After making his stateside debut as as swingman for the 2012 Mariners, Iwakuma made himself more widely known with a stellar 2013 that saw him finish third in the AL Cy Young voting despite posting a lower ERA and more innings pitched than either Yu Darvish or 21-game winner Max Scherzer. Yes, it's easy to fly under the radar when you pitch in Seattle and strike out considerably less batters than King Felix does, but don't be tricked into thinking that Iwakuma isn't one of the game's best pitchers. He's walked just eight batters all season long, and an improved ground ball rate has led to less long balls against him. That leads to a 2.95 ERA and an even lower 2.85 xFIP that is fifth-best in the AL.
The four runs in five innings that Colon allowed against the Padres wasn't good for his trade value, but if you watched the game, you know the San Diego rally was more or less a bunch of well-placed singles. The Mets can deal with that considering that Colon's main weaknesses are the long ball and pitching to too much contact. It's a good sign, then, that the right-hander has 13 strikeouts, one walk and zero home runs allowed in his last two starts, even though they have been mediocre from a runs allowed perspective. So long as the BABIP fairy doesn't betray him like it did at Petco, Colons should have a quality start in store for when he faces the M's.
What about some highlights?
Mets hero Chavez used Jedi powers on this bunt to help the Mariners to an extra-innings win over the Angels on Saturday night.
On Sunday, the Angels skewered M's closer Fernando Rodney with pretend arrows in the ninth innings after Rodney started his signature celebration a little early in the eighth. Perhaps the Mets will get a chance to do their own Legolas impression this week.
Seager sure can pick it at third. Here he is teaming up with Morrison for a sweet defensive play.