The Mariners season has consisted of equal parts of the good, the bad and the ugly. Well, maybe not equal, but fans have certainly witnessed a bit of each. After a rough first month that saw the team sink to a familiar 9-16, veterans Jason Bay, Mike Morse and Raul Ibanez helped stabilize the season by pulling the team back to 20-21 and second place in the AL West. For the first time in years the team possessed an experienced backbone, relieving much of the pressure hanging over the youngsters. They didn’t need to be saviors, just contributors. The veterans could hold the fort while the high-end prospects came into their own. Sounds like a plan right?
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that the young players cannot compete as their production has regressed sharply. Jesus Montero opened the season throwing 0-15 baserunners out and had significant holes in his swing that were regularly being exploited by opposing pitchers. Dustin Ackley was constantly down two strikes at the plate and was not leveraging his speed on the basepaths. Justin Smoak’s value as a switch hitter was minimized because he wasn’t hitting from either side and lacked anything that approximated power. Rookie pitcher Brandon Maurer was taking the team out of games early by getting lit up by major league hitters.
The weight of these underperformances finally became too much to bear and Montero, Ackley and Maurer were all sent to AAA Tacoma to work themselves out. Painfully, the next wave of prospects (Nick Franklin and Carlos Triunfel) were promoted to the big club, leaving many to wonder if Seattle has whiffed on an entire cohort of players. As part of the ugly sideshow, Eric Wedge conducted a series of interviews where he appeared to lash out at the fans, the media and sabermetrics in general as contributing to the struggles of his players. Not surprisingly, the calls for heads to roll have become louder and now include Wedge, GM Jack Zduriencik, front office fixtures Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong and the Mariner Moose.
An interesting point that has been lost in all of the noise was Wedge’s call to stay the course, “You just can’t keep changing. They did that here for a lot of years — didn’t work. You gotta stick with the program”
Fans want change and immediate results. Good teams compete while implementing a consistent philosophy that provides continuity. An interesting idea that has been making the rounds in Seattle is that only one manager has lasted through four years for the Mariners, Sweet Lou Pinella. And it’s true, the likes of Dick Williams, Mike Hargrove, Don Wakamastu and Jim Lefebvre were all out after less than four years. However, another commonality is that none of them had winning percentages above .500. So, the question is, do good teams keep their managers, thus providing continuity, or are good managers kept because they win? A quick look at the tenure of MLB managers this year shows us that most managers have been hired very recently with a smaller number retained for five or more years. Among the teams that have long-serving managers are the Twins, Angels, Phillies, Rays, Tigers, Rangers, Giants, Padres, Yankees and Reds. Padres notwithstanding, these are all teams that have experienced recent success.
So, regardless of causality or the specifics of this Seattle team, history suggests that third year manager Eric Wedge needs to get this team winning if he hopes to make it to year five.
The future of the Mariners has not looked this uncertain for some time. Although the minor league system has some interesting prospects, translating such talent into MLB success is anything but assured. Positive examples exist, such as the Tampa Rays, who have used their farm system to maintain a competitive major league club for many years. On the other hand, two years ago the top two farm systems were the Kansas City Royals and the Toronto Jays. Today, both teams sit in last place in their divisions (winning % = 0.420 and 0.434 respectively), even though they got there through widely divergent paths.
KC took a slow approach, pairing their young core of Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas with a veteran starting rotation secured by trading some of their prospects. Toronto went a different route, using most of their prospects to trade for veterans R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. Both teams have struck out thus far and serve as a warning for Seattle fans that minor league strength alone is insufficient to guarantee success.
Although it is clear that many of Seattle’s prospects are struggling, we don’t know if this is due to poor talent evaluation, player development or a combination of both. The challenge is predicting whether these are minor bumps for young players or early indications that they may never fulfill those lofty expectations.
Let’s start with Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick who was widely regarded as the best hitting prospect in his draft class. With a record of success in college, Ackley moved to second base and shot (perhaps too quickly) through the minor league system. Since arriving in Seattle, Ackley has played a passable second base, but has regressed dramatically as a hitter. A quick look around the league shows that the elite second basemen (Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, Howie Kendrick) experienced early success at the plate, usually within the first two years of reaching the majors. The player who most closely mirrors Ackley’s career thus far is Gordon Beckham of the Chicago White Sox (that’s the sound of a thousand Mariners fans poking their left eye out). Drafted high in the first round, both Beckham and Ackley batted .270 in their first seasons followed by regression over their next few. Ackley’s future now depends somewhat on the performance of Nick Franklin, who just hit two home runs in his fourth game with the Mariners. A move to the outfield could be possible before he returns to Seattle.
Justin Smoak was a highly regarded, switch-hitting prospect at first base. Since arriving in Seattle, Smoak has performed well defensively and has shown a remarkable eye at the plate. However, his situational hitting has remained inconsistent and this year his power seems lost. Smoak is somewhat older and so time is clearly running out for him to make an impact. Top first basemen Joey Votto, Mark Trumbo, Adrian Gonzalez all produced results early in their careers. Even younger prospects like Anthony Rizzo (23), Paul Goldschmidt (25), and Freddie Freeman (23) are showing more progress than Smoak (26). The one player that Seattle fans can look to is Chris Davis, who took several years before finally becoming an impact first baseman.
Finally, Jesus Montero is the onetime catcher of the future who has struggled to, well catch (that’s the sound of a thousand Mariners fans poking out their other eye). With remarkably slow feet, Montero has demonstrated a limited ability to hold runners or stretch out hits. Behind the plate, Montero appears to struggle receiving, specifically framing pitches. On offense, Montero has flashed power, especially to right-center which makes him ideal for Safeco Field. However, hitting a curveball has been increasingly problematic and in 2013 he is hitting a weak .119 on curveballs
Although some elite catchers (i.e., Buster Posey, Salvador Perez, Joe Mauer) are seemingly hatched to succeed at the position, others have taken more time to develop. Many good catchers were inconsistent at the plate in their first three years, with wide variation in their batting averages (Matt Wieters, .249 to .288; Yadier Molina .216 to .267; Carlos Santana .239 to .260). Montero is the youngest of the Mariners prospects at 23 years and so it is perhaps too soon to close the book on his career, though his catching days may be finished.
Once returned to AAA, the prospects helped the Tacoma Rainiers to a 25 run outburst. These players may have underperformed for the Mariners, but they are clearly close. They all hit in spring training and in AAA, now the tough question is how to translate this into success to Safeco Field. Are these the Mariners of the future or do they give way to the next wave of prospects? Will Wedge and Jack be here to see the rebuild through, or will there be a regime change in 2013?