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Game 65, Angels at Mariners: Upton’s Revenge?

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Robbie Ray vs. Michael Lorenzen, 7:10pm

With the M’s offense struggling again, the M’s keep throwing things at the wall to see if any of them can hit. They’ve changed the batting order, they’ve shifted things at the bottom of the line-up, etc. Today, they’re trying something new. Kind of. The M’s have brought up Justin Upton, the free agent – still only 34 – who the Angels cut after spring training. He caught on with the M’s, as the Angels are still paying his salary, and today, he’ll join the team and start in left field. Can Upton recharge the offense? Eh, the odds are against it, but at this point, what’s the harm? He’s taking Sam Haggerty’s spot on the roster, and quite frankly, he’s going to be a better hitter than Haggerty (though a worse/more limited defender). He was rusty, and certainly wasn’t tearing it up in Tacoma, though of course we have 15 years of MLB performance against his few weeks in the PCL. But if this isn’t the end for Upton’s MLB time, it’s coming soon. We can just hope he uses the Angels’ dropping him as fuel, and hits a dinger or two against a lefty tonight. That’s likely how he can best be used: as a lefty-masher off the bench. That spot is generally held by Luis Torrens right now, esp. if he isn’t starting, and boooooy has it not worked out to have Torrens hit in late game situations against lefties. I’m fine trying something new.

I had kind of a hot take on Twitter last night that some may agree with, and some definitely do not. I feel like I need to lay out the case here in a bit more depth. What I said was that at this point, the idea that the M’s could become a pennant contender through player development is now dead, and further, that we can now close the book on the M’s being a PD super-org. Others pointed out that in short succession, the M’s had the 2020 Rookie of the Year, Logan Gilbert, Julio’s strong start, and now George Kirby. Sure, there were misfires, but any org that can turn signings and drafts into *this* actually IS having a ton of developmental success. It’s true!

But what I’m pointing out is that they’ve had all of that, and currently sit 28-36, and are the 11th-best team in the 15-team American League. I don’t think they are *bad* at player development, certainly not on the pitching side. But what they are NOT is so good that they essentially don’t need to do anything else. Talent gaps between them and the Astros, or Twins, or whoever you pick are only point in time measures that don’t reflect what’s going on below the MLB level. The problem with that is that it’s not clear the gaps are shrinking. The M’s have developed two great starters, and it certainly seems like Matt Brash will be back soon, AND they’ve got Julio. And they’re 28-36.

It’s not enough to be good. The problem is that because they believe in their own ability *so much*, they didn’t explore much in free agency (apart from tonight’s starter, of course). They continue to make minor moves, and even some of those have been amongst the crowning successes of the development coaches: Paul Sewald, Casey Sadler, or, going back a ways, Austin Adams. But the problem is those successes each have a counter-example of a player who looked pretty good who’s cratered here. Mallex Smith was a three-win player the year before he got to Seattle, and then he developed his way out of the big leagues. Dee Strange-Gordon was nearly a three-win player the year before the M’s acquired him, and spent three replacement-level years in Seattle. Luis Torrens was a decent hitter in 2020-21, but is…not right now. We don’t even need to go into Evan White. But Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Shed Long. They’ve had so many players – from drafted prospects to near-MLB prospects developed elsewhere to guys with a lot or a little MLB time. Some worked out, a lot didn’t. Hey, bad luck happens to every team, and absolutely no one develops every single player. But it’s hard to look at this record – the whole record – and believe that the M’s are a developmental powerhouse.

I think the ramifications here are important. Does the team need to make a change? Yeah, I think so. But change what? I think the most important thing is to figure out what’s going on when development goes right, and what’s going on when you get these slips from Torrens or the disastrous starts from the likes of White and Taylor Trammell. As is, they seem less like the development stars like the Dodgers and Yankees, and more like the Detroit Tigers. Detroit’s done a great job with Tarik Skubal, and might get some points for Matthew Boyd’s development, but they’ve essentially struck out on offense. That might change with Spencer Torkelson (who’s struggled) and now Riley Greene (their top prospect, who was called up today). But as it stands, they don’t have a lot to show for what many credit as a top-flight development group *for pitchers.* They’ve had some go down with injuries, they’ve had some grow in the big leagues, they’ve spent a bit of money after a painful rebuild, and…it’s not enough.

So are the M’s doomed? No, of course not. Well…uh, whatever their “doom” status, it’s not my point here. The point is that they tried very hard to build the club through player development and trades for youngish talent before splashing out on Robbie Ray and Jesse Winker. That hasn’t worked, and the signs it might not were evident long before late-May of 2022. So, ok, you don’t have the Dodgers money or development. You don’t have the Rays savvy with development. You don’t have the Astros’ skill there. It’s going to take more in free agency. You might have to pay more, you might have some eye-wateringly high salaries on the back end of deals that may seem like wasted money. But you’ve got to do something differently.

1: Crawford, SS
2: France, 1B
3: Rodriguez, CF
4: Suarez, 3B
5: Winker, DH
6: Upton, LF
7: Frazier, 2B
8: Raleigh, C
9: Trammell, RF
SP: Ray

Angels’ starter Michael Lorenzen was once something of a two-way phenomenon, though nothing like his current teammate Shohei Ohtani. Lorenzen’s come to bat over 130 times, and owns a higher career OPS than many in the M’s line-up. It is just barely below JP Crawford’s career OPS, though of course accounting for park would tilt things in Crawford’s favor. He is not a “hits well for a pitcher” which is not even a thing that could give him an advantage anymore. But the Reds used to use him as an occasional pinch hitter, and after seeing several of the late-game PHs the M’s have used, uh…could we borrow Lorenzen from time to time?

Lorenzen throws a sinker, a four-seam, a change-up, a slider, a cutter, and his thrown two (2) curve balls. He’ll throw the kitchen sink. He doesn’t have the super high velo he had coming up as a reliever, but is averaging about 95 with his four seam. Despite the change and a deep repertoire, he’s still got very sizable platoon splits, so this may be a decent match-up for the M’s lefties. It’s less of an ideal match-up for Upton.

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