Young players like Justin Smoak and Michael Pineda are giving Mariners fans hope and signaling that the Mariners' once-barren farm system may soon yield a bumper crop.
Since the end of a disastrous 2010 season, the Mariners have been persistently selling their fans on visions of a more prosperous future, built around an influx of young talent.
It’s been the best way to assuage the frustration of what had been, for so long, a miserable present in Seattle.
But now the surging Mariners, who begin a series with the Yankees on Friday at Safeco Field, could be approaching a new reality.
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They hope they are finally at that long-awaited juncture where they can begin to reap the benefits of their rebuilding campaign, while still confident of further help on the way.
“Personally, if I was a Mariners fan, looking at us contending every day with the pitching we have, and knowing the system like I do, I’d be excited,” said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ director of minor-league operations.
Grifol points to Michael Pineda, who began the 2010 season at Class AA, and has been, at age 22, one of the top pitchers in the American League so far this season. His teammate at West Tennessee to start last year, Carlos Peguero, has become the Mariners’ regular left fielder. While hitting just .208, Peguero has slugged two homers and contributed some timely hits.
“We’ve been talking about these kids for a few years now,” Grifol said. “Now we see them playing in the big leagues against the best in the world, and holding their own — doing better than holding their own.
“It’s refreshing to everybody. And we have guys below them who have chance to do similar things. I’m not telling you the whole organization is loaded up and down the system with 50 guys like that. But we have guys that Mariner fans should be excited about.”
One of those, of course, is Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick in the 2009 draft (behind Stephen Strasburg). Ackley, now playing for Class AAA Tacoma, is likely to be called up sometime in June and take over the Mariners’ second-base job.
Beyond that, the Mariners have numerous promising prospects, but there are differing opinions about just how much of an immediate impact they will have.
In rating the Mariners’ organization before the season, most of the leading analysts had them in the middle of the pack. Their ranking ranged from 10th in Major League Baseball by ESPN’s Keith Law to 18th by Baseball America. FanGraphs gave the Mariners an organizational ranking of 17, but had them tied for fifth in the category of future talent.
Baseball Prospectus ranked the Mariners’ farm system 13th of 30 teams, but analyst Kevin Goldstein says that was mostly on the strength of Pineda and Ackley. Beyond that, his minor-league outlook for the M’s is not nearly as optimistic.
“Once you take Pineda out of the group, which you have to, and let’s face it, in a week to 10 days, Ackley’s out of the pack, all of a sudden they’re not in the middle anymore,” Goldstein said in a phone interview. “That drops their ranking significantly.”
“Those are THE two guys. There’s stuff to be excited about at the low levels, but as far as immediate help, it’s hard to beat Pineda and Ackley. After that, the cupboard is kind of bare.”
The Mariners would point to pitchers such as Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, Dan Cortes and Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielders Greg Halman and Johermyn Chavez, and infielders Alex Liddi, Carlos Triunfel and Kyle Seager as potential members of the next wave. All are at Class AA and AAA, and some have gotten a taste of the majors this year. Mike Carp, Johan Limonta and Jake Shaffer are also putting up big numbers.
They are also excited about players at the Class A level like pitchers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, infielders Nick Franklin and Marcus Littlewood, and outfielders Guillermo Pimentel (now in extended spring training) and James Jones, among others.
Said Goldstein: “It’s coming slowly. The train is moving in the right direction, but it’s a pretty long way from pulling into the station. But there’s all sorts of stuff at the lower level to get excited about.”
Conor Glassey of Baseball America, pointing out that Justin Smoak is another young player not far removed from the prospect stage, likes what he’s seeing in Mariners player development. He noted that his publication annually ranks the top prospects in each league. This past year, the Rangers had the most ranked players with 18, followed by the Rays with 15. The Mariners were among five teams that had 14 ranked players.
“That speaks to their depth. There’s lots of young talent in the Mariners system,” he said. “I think they’re going to get back on the right track.”
Glassey believes the Mariners were set back greatly by barren drafts in 2000, 2001 and 2002, out of which the best player they produced was probably catcher Rene Rivera.
“The Mariners had three of the worst drafts of the decade in terms of getting nothing,” Glassey said. “When you don’t have guys to come up and fill holes, in a city where everyone wants to win, you have to find other ways to do it. That sometimes leads to bad contracts and bad trades. It kind of crippled the Mariners. They didn’t have the foundation they needed, and they crumbled.”
Jack Zduriencik, who inherited a 101-loss team (and presided over another one last year), points to the progress in talent acquisition by the Mariners in his two-plus years as general manager, whether through the draft, trades or international signings.
He doesn’t gloat, however, because he understands that the Mariners still have some glaring issues, including an offense that ranks near the bottom in almost every category.
“This is the embryonic stages of where we’re going to go,” Zduriencik said. “Seeing Pineda and Peguero and flashes of what these guys can become, that’s a good thing. We’re seeing some of this start to come together.
“I’ve said on many occasions, really good clubs are built on players who are young and you know you’re going to have them for a number of years. You can take a Smoak, a Pineda, a Peguero, among others. Everyone’s looking at an Ackley. You can say, ‘OK, I can see this thing getting to where we want it to get. At least we have some big pieces.”
The Mariners have an opportunity in 11 days to add another major piece when, for the second time in three years, they will pick No. 2 overall in the amateur draft on June 6. This year’s field is considered one of the best in recent years; while there is no clear-cut No. 1 like Strasburg or Bryce Harper the past two years, there should be an opportunity to pick an impact player at No. 2.
“We’re starting to see this whole thing get to a point where you can see it long-term,” Zduriencik said. “We want to win now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want the message to always be: ‘Down the road, down the road.’ We want to win now.
“But you have to understand it is a process. Two and a half years ago, we didn’t have the upper-level talent to make an impact in the years to come. Now we’re seeing that.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org