Because of their many injuries, the M’s have made 119 roster moves, which keeps the players on the move.
When Mike Zunino was called into the manager’s office toward the beginning of May, he knew what might be coming. At that point in the season, Zunino was hitting .167 with a .250 on-base percentage.
Like walking into the principal’s office for something you know you’ve done wrong, Zunino had an inkling Mariners manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto might tell him that he was heading to play for the Tacoma Rainiers, the Class AAA team in the Mariners’ organization.
And Zunino was right.
“You sort of have the idea when stuff’s not going well and you get grabbed, that something may be up,” Zunino said.
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Zunino knew the plan for what he needed to work on with his swing, but there was no timetable for how long he’d spend in Tacoma. There never really is. Zunino was with the Rainiers for 17 days, and that’s his only stint with the Class AAA team so far this year.
But some of his teammates in the Mariners’ clubhouse have been packing up their lives — sometimes living out of hotels — to move 30 miles up or down I-5 over and over again this season.
Now in his fifth year with the Mariners, Zunino doesn’t remember a season with this many roster moves, the result primarily of an injury-plagued pitching staff. Through Thursday, the Mariners have made 119 roster moves this season.
There’s always the opportunity that players from Class AAA will get called up to the big leagues. But for each one who comes up, another has to be sent down.
“A lot of times you send players down, not based on performance but based on roster moves, roster spots and availabilities,” Rainiers manager Pat Listach said. “We’ve had to send some guys down to AA that probably their numbers didn’t warrant going down, but due to roster moves at the top, everything kind of slides down.”
Tyler Smith’s first trip to the big leagues came as a product of Jean Segura’s high-ankle sprain. Smith knew when the injury occurred that he might get a chance with the Mariners. He followed Segura’s recovery through reporters on Twitter, so he had an idea of when Segura would be able to reclaim his role. When Smith got called into the office, just as Zunino had in May, he said he “kind of figured it was coming, so it wasn’t that bad.”
Pitchers and their arms that need to rest can be penalized in a way for performing well. In the Mariners’ game against the Rockies on June 1, Casey Lawrence threw five solid innings of relief and was then sent down to Tacoma the next day. Lawrence was recalled on June 12, pitched 32/3 innings on June 13 and went back down to Tacoma on June 14.
Chase De Jong twice pitched four innings where he allowed only one hit, and both times he headed back to Tacoma the following day.
“You put the team in the position to succeed in the upcoming series, now you can have a fresh bullpen,” De Jong said. “They didn’t have to get overworked. That’s our job. That’s our job when they call us up as a long reliever. We know that.”
Down in Tacoma, there’s the tricky combination of players trying to get back to the big leagues, while also needing to win games at the Class AAA level. But Listach said those two goals can work in conjunction.
“You’re trying to develop some things, but we’re down here trying to win also,” Lawrence said. “It’s a fine line. It’s a balancing act. At the same time, you want to get back up there as fast as possible.”
When that call from the Mariners comes, the players need to — and want to — head toward Seattle, or wherever the team might be, as soon as they can.
“When they need you, they need you,” Listach said. “And they don’t care where you are or what you’re wearing.”
In April, De Jong and his Tacoma teammates were watching the Mariners on TV at the Albuquerque airport, and Felix Hernandez ended up getting injured.
Before the flight out of Albuquerque, De Jong was told he might be called up, even though he had met the Rainiers in New Mexico after the Mariners sent him down just a few days prior. By the time he landed in Phoenix for a layover, De Jong found out he was on an 8 a.m. flight from Seattle to Detroit the next day.
De Jong got to his locker in Tacoma around 2:30 a.m., and he slept on the training-room table. But he didn’t mind. He was going back to the big leagues.
“I’ll sleep on that training-room table every time if it means I get to go up,” De Jong said.
De Jong usually lives in hotels, and when he’s in Tacoma he stays with a family his fiancée knows. The chaos doesn’t bother him because he gets to play his sport as a career. De Jong said his “entire life is in the back of my gray Ford Explorer.” He has a flat L shape in the back, where he has collapsed the seats. There’s a shower rod for his hanging clothes, a wooden shelf for his shoes and two large suitcases.
He’s packed and ready for a call-up whenever it comes. There’s never a timeline but always a chance. And once he’s in the Mariners’ clubhouse, he knows he’s only one trip to the manager’s office away from moving back down.
“If you’re looking for job security,” De Jong said, “this is not the job for you.”