Roenis Elias is one of those great spring-training stories that you hope the regular season doesn’t crush.
Four years ago, he was a virtually anonymous prospect who fled Cuba with 25 others on a boat headed for Mexico. Next week, the left-handed pitcher is expected to take a huge and perilous leap from Class AA and make his first major-league start.
He’s unproven, but that’s better than unknown. Before last season, he was just a name on a minor-league roster. Then, in 2013, he made the Class AA All-Star team. Now, he’s charged with helping the Mariners overcome early injuries to starters Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker.
There’s no reason to root against him.
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But there’s every reason to fear he’ll fail.
The Mariners are doing it again. Despite their sketchy recent history of throwing prospects to the big-league wolves too early, they’re being impatient once again.
Brandon Maurer made this same jump from Class AA last season. He was a disaster, and his confidence remains heavily bandaged. But here are the Mariners once more, enamored and in need, willing to take a risk that could stunt the growth of yet another promising young player.
Besides losing, the constant in the Mariners’ youth movement has been the players’ rapid ascent to the big leagues. It’s easy to second-guess now, but in just about every case, the ballclub promoted its youth too soon.
When the Mariners acquired Justin Smoak in the Cliff Lee trade in 2010, they should’ve sent him down to Class AAA. Instead, they let him continue to struggle in the majors, finally came to their senses and took a step back, and though he has improved, Smoak still isn’t the impact slugger many expected.
Jesus Montero needed more time in the minors, especially because the Mariners tried to make him a catcher initially. Dustin Ackley needed more time. So did Mike Zunino, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin and even Kyle Seager, who eventually figured it out.
Every player is different, but if that’s the case, why have the Mariners been so eager to promote all of them? It’s popular now to declare that the Mariners’ touted young players have been overrated, which is an implication that they’ve scouted poorly.
But I’m not sure it’s possible to miss that badly on so many prospects. Sure, there are some busts in there. It’s more likely, though, that they’ve had some issues in player development. And the biggest issue is that they take prospects out of the oven before they’re fully baked.
We live in a world obsessed with potential. Few can live today without dreaming of a more glorious tomorrow. When general manager Jack Zduriencik arrived six years ago with impressive scouting credentials and a promise to rebuild the organization from the farm system up, the future became the focus. We’ve looked at many sonograms and wondered what many Mariners would look like once they developed.
With that excitement comes pressure to show what you’re building as quickly as possible. Couple that with the Mariners’ ineffectiveness at finding stopgap talent in free agency, and you have an awful double negative — needing to justify a plan and having no other good options. So, why not turn to the kids?
And when they fail? Why not turn to more kids?
When new manager Lloyd McClendon took over, he spoke of how the Mariners have rushed prospects to the majors. It’s clearly a problem that has been discussed within the organization. But that won’t stop the Mariners from tossing Elias into the deep end.
The franchise has been forced to trade so much good pitching to become a better offensive team. The Mariners have dealt Michael Pineda, Doug Fister and Jason Vargas, all to fix their biggest weakness. But they still have holes in their lineup, and now the organization’s pitching depth is diminished.
Elias had a great spring, but he’ll be in the starting rotation partly because of past sins. It would be ideal if the Mariners could treat him like they have Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen. They were careful about promoting all three. They made sure they were ready for the next step. Hultzen got hurt, but it wasn’t because they overworked him. Overall, the Mariners have been appropriately nurturing with the so-called Big Three.
But they feel they need Elias now. He does have some traits that Maurer doesn’t. He’s more athletic. He isn’t as reliant on blowing his fastball past hitters. Though unpolished, his secondary pitches (slider, change-up) are better. He’s 25 years old, about four months from turning 26, so he should be more mature. And you know he’s fearless, having defected from Cuba and having grown from unheralded to a Class AAA-skipping talent.
Will he make it? I sure hope so.
Because we’ve seen the alternative far too much.
Over the past four years, Elias has consistently defied the odds. He should refrain from thinking he made it, however. For nearly all of the Mariners’ intriguing young prospects, the fast track has been anything but a thrill ride.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer