Can the new cast of Mariners top prospects and young Major Leaguers replace the all too frequent disappointments of Montero and Ackley?
The Seattle Mariners have been bad for a long time. We all know the M’s last made the playoffs in 2001, despite winning 93 games in both ’02 and ’03. So, it is safe to say the Mariners have been rebuilding for about a decade now. The fluke years of 2007 and 2009 were nice, but the Mariners crashed back to square one after those years. What we really want is some sustained success—a consistent playoff contender and eventually a team worth of a world championship. The process, in this day and age where medium market teams lock up their young superstars, is to build from within; it’s about turning prospects into All Stars. This is an area where the current Mariners’ rebuild has fallen on its face.
The new faces of the Mariners’ latest rebuild are different than they were two years ago, or even just last season at this time of year. Gone for various reasons (and to various degrees) are the shine that encompassed Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak (according to Jason Churchill, Smoak has the lowest batting average of any first baseman with 1,500+ at bats), Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez, Mauricio Robles, Danny Hultzen, Vinnie Catricala, Francisco Martinez, and Johermyn Chavez — just like that of former fallen young guys like Wladimir Balentien, Jeff Clement, and Jeremy Reed. Now just because guys like Montero and Ackley have struggled to become even Major League regulars at this point doesn’t mean that they never will … just look at Michael Saunders. It just seems like in today’s game, rookies come up and succeed at a much greater rate than before. I imagine this has a lot to do with increased sophistication at all levels of play, among other things.
Of the Mariners’ top 10 prospects in 2011, according to expert Jon Sickels, only Kyle Seager and Nick Franklin are currently suiting up for the Mariners. The 2012 list is not looking much better. Jesus Montero has been bad, horrible at catcher, linked to PEDs and Biogenesis, and returned to Tacoma only to tear his knee while learning first base. Ackley was left off the list because he had enough MLB experience to lose rookie qualification. Danny Hultzen’s shoulder has been hurt. Taijuan Walker has yet to appear in a Triple-A game (though his star has not dimmed). Francisco Martinez and Vinnie Catricala both sucked, leading the Mariners to, during roster crunches, designated them for assignment and they claimed by other teams. James Paxton’s command and control have completely departed him as he has allowed 110 hits plus walks at Triple-A in 66 innings.
So, what’s left? Who should we Mariners fans pin our hopes too? Who will be able to help Seattle the rest of this season and be ready to make an impact for a 2014 team that hopes to compete? Despite the aforementioned failures, the Mariners went into 2013 with the second ranked farm system in all of baseball, and half a season has done little to change that.
Some of the new guys who will make the biggest impact next season are already playing for Seattle. Catcher Mike Zunino, the 2012 draft’s 3rd overall selection, got the call in early June despite struggling to make consistent contact at the plate in Triple-A. Zunino is the polar opposite as a catcher from the recent hacks (Montero, Olivo) the M’s have deployed behind the dish. Scoutingbook.com wrote about Zunino: “Behind the plate, he's a strong-armed and very high-quality defensive catcher with significant leadership and game-calling skills…” Zunino earned his promotion due to his strong work behind the plate and massive home run power.
In addition to Mike Zunino, second baseman Nick Franklin has already made the Mariners. Franklin almost wasn’t ever a Mariner because the club tried to send him to Arizona in the Justin Upton trade that never happened. Interestingly enough, Franklin always seemed like an odd man out as a second baseman with Dustin Ackley ahead of him. Since then a lot has changed—Franklin was called up to take the spot of Dustin Ackley. As of 6/19/2013, Franklin is hitting .283/.383/.507 and really impressing with his patience at the plate by walking in 12.3% of his plate apperences. Fangraphs has Franklin already tied for second on the Mariners with 0.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in just 21 games. My favorite thing about Nick Franklin though, has to be this. Eating 6,500 calories a day to reach 200 pounds is not a struggle I can relate to.
Currently, Triple-A has two position players the Mariners figure to be above average regulars; I would anticipate they join Zunino and Franklin in September at the latest. Shortstop Brad Miller was drafted in the second round in 2011 and since then has done nothing but rake. At the plate, he has produced incredible results with a great approach and conquered every level he has played at. In over more than 210 MiLB games, Miller has hit .333/.409/.508, in 20 Triple-A games; this year, he is hitting .341/.423/.537 with 4 homers. Miller makes a lot of errors at shortstop on routine plays but the organization believes in him as a shortstop and he will get every oppurtunity to stick there.
The other interesting offensive force in Tacoma right now that Mariners fans should hope doesn’t bust is Stefen Romero. Romero went to college at Oregon State and was the Mariners’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, hitting .352 with 23 HR and 101 RBIs in 116 games. This year, Romero is transitioning to playing the outfield because the Mariners are desperate for impact bats and Romero’s two former positions are held down by Kyle Seager (3B) and Nick Franklin (2B). Romero is hitting .303 at Triple-A this year. Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com ranked Romero 9th among M’s prospects before the season.
On the pitching end of the Mariners, Erasmo Ramirez is the one to watch. Last year, Ramirez was good in 59 innings for the varsity club; he walked less than 2 guys per 9 innings and had a 3.36 ERA. His best pitch is his changeup, which according to PITCHf/x was 6.2 runs better than average in 2012. For reference, Felix Hernandez’s awesome change-up was 9.7 runs above average. Mild injuries kept Ramirez from making the club out of Spring Training, but he is healthy again and dominating Triple-A with a 1.69 ERA. Expect Ramirez to take a rotation spot from Aaron Harang or Jeremy Bonderman, depending on who gets shelled (the most) in their next few outings.
Guys like Romero, Ramirez, and Miller will find the opportunity for playing time. Next year, the Mariners will have openings for three new starters (Saunders, Bonderman and Harang all face free agency) and a whole host of new position players; 7 of the top 11 in plate appearances for the Mariners right now are not under contract for 2013. Also don’t rule out some of the steady faces on Mariners’ top prospect lists to get a chance to help in 2014. Pitchers Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, MLB.com’s fifth ranked prospect, are still bright spots. Other young guys to watch include ex-Rutgers football player Patrick Kivlehan, oft-injured Julio Morban, reliever Carson Smith, starter Victor Sanchez, and the newly drafted slugger D.J. Peterson.
Kyle Smith is on Twitter. Follow him at @kpsgocougs