Playing the kids has become as routine a midsummer tradition for the Mariners as bobblehead giveaways and hydro races.
It may mean little in terms of wins and losses as the names of fresh-faced minor leaguers thrust on to the major-league field keep on changing. But here in Seattle, where a fourth consecutive losing season seems all but assured, the one thing that continues to keep fans buzzing is the hope generated by young players they haven’t seen before.
This year’s newbies include second baseman Nick Franklin, shortstop Brad Miller and catcher Mike Zunino. And while there’s no guarantee they will succeed where prospects failed in years past, the hope they provide can be a powerful selling point for a performance-challenged franchise that always seems to be looking down the road.
“I think you want to see them compete,’’ Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “I think we’d all like to look at them and feel like these guys are big-leaguers. And look at them and think that when you go into 2014 — and we aren’t giving up on this year, don’t get me wrong — I think… you also look forward to opening day next year and these guys won’t be wet behind the ears.’’
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It all sounds so promising, especially with former 2009 first-round draft pick Franklin hitting .275 with six home runs, 19 runs batted in and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .792 in his first 40 games. The team’s 2011 second-round pick, Miller, is hitting .264 with an OPS of .784 in 13 games and performing in the leadoff spot.
Last year’s No. 3 overall pick, Zunino, has hit just .235 in 22 games, but his ability to catch six of every seven days has impressed the team given the failures of previous players at the position.
The team’s offense has improved overall since their arrival. But the Mariners have also been down this hope road before.
Two years ago, during a 95-loss season, the Mariners kept fans interested with in-season additions of Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Mike Carp, Casper Wells and Trayvon Robinson. Only Seager and Ackley remain, with Ackley on to a new position and batting just .208.
Last year, the Mariners gave Wells a full-time audition during an 87-loss season, traded for Eric Thames, then promoted relief pitchers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps while making Tom Wilhelmsen their closer. Buoyed by solid play from youngsters Michael Saunders, Seager and home runs by a still-22-year-old Jesus Montero, the team went on a winning second-half run, with help from a soft July and August schedule.
On the season’s final day, Mariners manager Eric Wedge proclaimed his young team to be on the rise.
“I want them to understand just how good we’re going to be in the future,” Wedge said. “I don’t say that without reason. The people who don’t want to see it, it’s because they choose not to see it or they’re just negative by nature.”
The Mariners are on pace for 91 losses. Thames and Wells have been dealt away for cash, Saunders has struggled, as has Wilhelmsen, Pryor got hurt and Montero and Capps have been demoted to Class AAA.
The volatility of young players and uncertainty of counting of them has been highlighted before. Franklin Gutierrez was considered such a surefire part of the 2009 young core that the Mariners gave him a four-year extension.
He has appeared in just 150 games since 2010 and likely won’t have his option picked up.
The lesson of Ackley is particularly chilling. Ackley hit .273 with an OPS of .765 his rookie season in 2011, but has tumbled to .222 with a .626 OPS in 2012 and .208 with a .533 OPS this season.
“You look at several young players in baseball, they have good spurts and then they have to take a step backward,” Zduriencik said. “And you don’t really know.’’
Indeed, the Mariners rushed Justin Smoak into the lineup midway through 2010 after his trade from Texas, only to quickly demote him to AAA. After struggling for two more seasons, Smoak is finally looking like a more polished product this year.
Saunders debuted in 2009, labored for two more seasons then put a solid 2012 campaign together. But he’s foundered for most of this year’s first half.
So, the Mariners need to bank on far more than Franklin and Miller next year if they hope to win more than they lose.
A big test of Miller and Franklin will be their first slumps and how quickly they recover.
“I do think you have to trust what your people feel about a player,’’ Zduriencik said. “What your scouts tell you. Those who have their hands on him every day and watch adjustments and improvements. And some guys, it just takes a little longer than others.’’
For now, fans will have to keep waiting and trusting that the hope will eventually translate into more wins.