If the Mariners want to win 90 games or more and become a true championship contender, youth must be served.
You look at the Mariners, with a swelling payroll and a roster featuring five All-Stars from last season, and start to think the youth movement is over because they’re finally built to play for now.
In reality, though, the kids will be as important as ever to this season.
While Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano are the veteran superstars, and Nelson Cruz is the new slugger, and closer Fernando Rodney makes the bullpen pieces fit, the Mariners still need more than Kyle Seager to carry their young core. At last, the Mariners have frontline players capable of taking over and masking weaknesses, and that’s why it’s hard to imagine them not having a winning record. But if they want to win 90 games or more and become a true championship contender, youth must be served.
The Mariners need it in the starting rotation, where it’s time for James Paxton and Taijuan Walker to be healthy and consistently productive. Before the season’s over, they figure to need the same from Roenis Elias, who won 10 games as a rookie last season but will start the year at Class AAA Tacoma.
The Mariners need it from 24-year-old catcher Mike Zunino. He has done solid work defensively and shown great power (22 homers in 2014). But Zunino also has 207 strikeouts in 183 career games and a .265 on-base percentage. He has walked just 33 times. As impressive as he has been as a young catcher, Zunino must be more polished this season.
The Mariners need it from left fielder Dustin Ackley. At 27 and with 499 big-league games logged, Ackley doesn’t seem to have the upside of a former No. 2 overall draft pick anymore. But he could still be an important role player with the potential to hit 15 to18 home runs and post a .265 batting average.
The Mariners need it from Logan Morrison, who’s just 27 and must prove he can be an everyday first baseman; and from Brad Miller and/or Chris Taylor (currently out with a wrist injury), who must provide stability at shortstop; and from a bullpen of young, hard-throwing options.
No, the Mariners aren’t in “Let’s see what the young guys have” mode. That phase of the rebuilding ended two years ago. But on their projected 25-man roster, 15 of the players will be 28 or younger on opening day. Nine of those players have no more than three seasons of major-league experience. Though the Mariners have accomplished veterans to balance the roster, player development will play a huge role in their success this season.
The established stars provide reason to expect the Mariners to be good.
The young players will determine whether the Mariners are great.
It’s not like they must all become Seager overnight. There are tiers of expectations. For instance, Ackley and Morrison are 27-year-olds that have had plenty of playing time and simply need to be dependable starters. You’re not dreaming of stardom from those players; they just need to play a role consistently.
But there is a top tier of youngsters who still have star potential, and the Mariners will ask much more of them. There are three in that category: Paxton, Walker and Zunino. They don’t need to reach their full potential this season. However, they need to be dependable contributors who show flashes of stardom.
Walker’s maturation has been the story of spring training for the Mariners. He understands the professionalism required of a big-league starter: how to prepare his body, how to prepare his mind, how to complement a fastball that touches 97 mph. Walker had been an athlete with ridiculous physical gifts, and he was trying to put it all together. Now he seems more like a pitcher who happens to be blessed with great athleticism. And he’s just 22 years old and capable of even more growth.
Paxton needs only to stay healthy, which has been a chore recently. But he has the talent and the desire to be great. He’s a mature 26-year-old. He can be one of the best left-handers in the American League.
Innings will be an issue for both Walker and Paxton. Neither will come close to 200 innings, and manager Lloyd McClendon and general manager Jack Zduriencik must work around that.
Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if both established themselves as nasty options in the Mariners’ rotation. In fact, it must happen for the Mariners to challenge for the American League West division title.
Zunino has been another spring star, with his improved approach and swing. Despite a .199 average last season, Zunino hit 22 homers and drove in 60 runs. It’s not a stretch to think he’ll hit for 25 or more homers this season. If he can do that with a better batting average, more walks and fewer strikeouts, the bottom portion of the Mariners’ lineup will be much more dangerous. His defense is already solid for a 24-year-old, and he continues to improve at managing the pitching staff and throwing out base runners.
This is the point Zduriencik needed to get to in the building of this roster. The Mariners have stars and role players now. They had the best pitching staff in the American League last season. Their lineup now looks like a big-league lineup. And there’s still room for young players to take advantage of opportunities and lift the franchise even higher.
Of course, if they don’t perform, they could also hinder the team’s progress.
Zduriencik has spent seven years building the farm system and identifying the best young players to build around. Seager, the Mariners’ latest $100 million man, is the poster child for that movement.
If the Mariners are to break their 13-season playoff drought, Seager will need company on the list of homegrown Mariners success stories. The veteran stars will lead the Mariners, but the youth must provide the finishing touches.