We did it! After a long and cold winter, we have officially arrived at the date where we hear those four glorious words: pitchers and catchers report. Some players in the Mariners organization were already at the team’s Spring Training complex in Peoria, but all pitchers and catchers arrived in Arizona today. We’re still more than a month away from regular season baseball, but who cares? We have bad beat writer pictures of guys throwing baseballs!
No this isn’t yoga pic.twitter.com/QxcbtjqlMg
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) February 19, 2016
I’m excited to say that I’ll actually be at Spring Training for the first time March 6 through 10, but for now be sure to follow the reporters that do a fantastic job covering the M’s: Ryan Divish, Bob Dutton, Greg Johns and Shannon Drayer among others.
The offseason storylines in the organization — primarily the new-look front office and coaching staff — have been covered ad nauseam by many, so I won’t bore you with more of that. Instead, lets look at Spring Training from a decidedly Jackson Generals perspective. Though Dealin’ Dipoto has traded away a bevy of former Generals — Brad Miller, Carson Smith, Roenis Elias, Brad Miller and Pat Kivlehan come to mind — there are a number of alums that are still a big part of the success Seattle hopes to have this year.
Kyle Seager will certainly start at third base, but that’s a tidbit not really worth discussion. So lets look at some of the questions the Mariners will use the next six weeks to answer involving guys who played in Jackson.
Will any non-roster invitee make the Opening Day roster?
It’s no secret that the new front office is making the farm a point of emphasis. Baseball America recently rated Seattle’s system 28th out of 30 MLB teams. This is after the organization came in at 24 and 25 the previous two years.
So it’s no surprise that only seven players not on the 40-man roster earned an invite to big league camp. The 2016 squad is mostly set, but there are guys who could make some noise as the system is not totally bereft of talent.
Of the seven non-roster invitees, five played in Jackson last year: RHP Tony Zych, SS Tyler Smith, LHP Paul Fry, OF Dario Pizzano and LHP Danny Hultzen. Outfielder Boog Powell played against Jackson with Montgomery in 2015.
Zych probably has the best shot to open the season in Seattle after impressing over 13 appearances as a September call-up last year. The hard-throwing righty was in his fourth go-around at Double-A when he started 2015 with Jackson, but a new organization seemed to do him some good after beginning his career with the Cubs. He would up spending most of the year in Tacoma before earning his way into The Show for a first time. Steve Cishek, Joaquin Benoit and Charlie Furbush figure to anchor the back end of Seattle’s bullpen, but Zych would slot in nicely as another setup man.
Fry, Smith and Pizzano were stalwarts of last year’s Jackson team. Fry was the team’s most reliable bullpen arm after moving up from High-A Bakersfield, where he was the team’s lone California League All-Star. Like Zych, Fry showed great command (113 strikeouts to only 24 walks) last year. Based on that and the fact he throws with his left hand, I give him an outside shot to earn a spot. He’s helped by the fact that the bullpen is the area with the most question marks heading towards Opening Day.
Neither Smith nor Pizzano have played above Double-A, so I’d be surprised to see either suiting up with the Mariners in April. Both are great at making contact and avoiding strikeouts at the plate, which has been an emphasis of Dipoto since taking over in Seattle. I suspect that played a big part in the decision to have them start off with the big league team in Peoria. Pizzano was a Southern League All-Star who hit in a franchise-record 25 straight games last year, but a hand injury forced him to miss the second half of the season. Smith had a 27-game on-base streak of his own and served as the team’s everyday shortstop after Jack Reinheimer was dealt away midseason.
The one member of last year’s squad I haven’t gotten to brings me to my next question.
Can Danny Hultzen stay healthy?
The former No. 2 overall pick has been limited to just 10 affiliated appearances over the past three seasons thanks to shoulder issues that popped up in 2013. The fact that he’s even making a comeback is remarkable given how hard it is for pitchers to recover from these types of injuries, especially surgery on a torn rotator cuff and labrum in a throwing shoulder.
Hultzen went straight to Double-A in 2012, setting the Southern League on fire to the tune of a 1.19 ERA and 79 strikeouts over 75 innings before moving up to Tacoma. The Generals made it to the Southern League Championship Series that year, but the team has been on a similar trajectory to the lefty hurler in three seasons since.
He tried coming back last year to no avail. Hultzen made his first minor league appearance in 20 months, but wound up shutting it down after just three starts with the Generals.
We know how talented Hultzen is, but the question if he can stay on the field. He’ll likely transition to a bullpen role to ease the stress on his shoulder. Maybe that will allow him to do what he hasn’t the past three years.
Two of Hultzen’s rotation-mates from that 2012 Jackson team are at the crux of our next question.
One General in Seattle’s rotation or two?
Barring something unforeseen, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Wade Miley will be the top three starters for the Mariners come Opening Day. Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Nate Karns will play a game of musical chairs for the final two spots in the rotation. Probably not, but that would be a fun way of figuring this out.
Before going any further, I’d wager that all three spend time in Seattle’s rotation this year. Teams rarely only use five starters, but for purposes of this exercise we’re focusing on who gets to start out of the gate.
Walker and Paxton were part of the 2012 Jackson squad that laid waste to the Southern League en route to a First Half title. Walker will more than likely get the fourth rotation spot based on his success at the end of last season. After a slow start with Seattle, Tai posted a 3.62 ERA with 118 strikeouts and only 17 walks in his final 20 outings. No surprise he said command was the biggest part of that turnaround, and that mentality fits into the new organizational mantra of Control the Zone (or #CtheZ for those of you into hashtags and such). He throws really hard, too, which is always a plus.
Like Hultzen, health has been the biggest issue for Paxton. Fortunately, his problems have not been nearly as serious. He has been limited to 30 big league starts over the past two seasons, but the southpaw has an impressive 3.12 ERA over that span. He has a ton of upside and he has lost weight in an attempt to avoid injury this year. We’ll see if the cliche “best shape of his life” is enough.
Karns provides an intriguing foil to the two former Generals. The righty was acquired in the deal that sent former Generals Brad Miller and Danny Farquhar to Tampa Bay. He impressed in his first big league season, striking out 145 with a 3.67 ERA over 147 innings of work with the Rays last year. Karns is arguably the centerpiece of the trade Dipoto made in November, so it would hardly be a surprise to see him break camp as a starter.
What will a full season of Ketel Marte look like?
Marte is one of the most talented prospects this system has produced in recent years, and he figures to be Seattle’s starting shortstop on Opening Day with the departure of the aforementioned Miller. The switch-hitting infielder seemed more than capable in 57 games with the Mariners last year, hitting .283 with an OPS+ of 113 and eight stolen bases.
If he can keep that up over his first full season in the majors, the Mariners will be more than happy. There are still unanswered questions with Marte, mainly concerning his baserunning and defensive abilities at shortstop. He was a Southern League All-Star in 2014 with Jackson, batting .302 with 35 extra-base hits in 119 games. But he also committed 29 errors defensively and was caught stealing 10 times in 33 attempts.
A good Ketel Marte could go a long way to putting the Mariners in position for a playoff berth this year. But if he struggles, the team will likely see some combination of Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas at shortstop. While both are serviceable players, they don’t have the potential upside that Marte does.
Almost 1,500 words on relatively inconsequential Spring Training storylines is probably (definitely) too much, but can you blame me? Baseball is (kind of) back, and I’m excited. You should be, too! We’re less than two weeks away from actual Spring Training games!
We’ll be taping a second episode of the Seattle System Scoop podcast next week, so be on the lookout for that as well.