UPDATE 1 P.M.: It is official: Carlos Peguero has indeed been recalled from Tacoma to replace Franklin Gutierrez, who goes on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right hamstring.
With so many Mariners struggling – last night’s game not withstanding – the possibility of change is hanging in the air. Let’s look down into the Mariners’ minor-leagues system at some of the replacement candidates. It appears that the next player up will be Carlos Peguero, replacing Franklin Gutierrez if and when he goes on the disabled list. Peguero was pulled from Tacoma’s game last night in Salt Lake City and isn’t in their lineup today, so the signs of an impending callup are evident.
At Tacoma, there are several players with major-league experience who are off to decent starts. The problems is that in most cases, they are players who have already had struggles at the major-league level. Now, that doesn’t mean they are doomed to have their weaknesses exploited for perpetuity. But it gives you pause. I’m talking about:
Alex Liddi. He profiles best as a third baseman, but that’s not a problem area, so we’d be looking at first base, primarily. He’s also played outfield. Liddi is hitting .270 (20-for-74) with five homers and 19 RBIs in 18 games for the Rainiers. He’s slugging .514. But here’s the red flag: 27 strikeouts in 74 at-bats. In 156 major-league at-bats, Liddi is hitting .224 with six homers, and has 66 strikeouts.
Eric Thames. The outfielder is hitting a torrid .347 in 19 games (26-for-75) with four homers and 10 RBIs. He’s also walked 13 times for a .449 on-base percentage to go with a .587 slugging percentage, good for a robust 1.036 OPS. Let’s face it: the guy dominates PCL pitching. Before he was traded to the Mariners last year, Thames was hitting .330/.407/.538 for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A farm team in Las Vegas in 54 games. In 2011, in 53 games for Las Vegas, he hit .352/.423/.610.
At the major-league level, Thames has 633 at-bats over the past three seasons, which has produced 21 homers, 62 RBIs and a .250/.296/.431 line. He’s struck out 175 times. And he’s been a sub-par defensive outfielder.
Carlos Peguero. Everyone knows the Peguero M.O.: Tremendous raw power, but doesn’t make enough contact. In 199 major-league at-bats, he’s struck out 82 times (and hit eight homers). This year at Tacoma, Peguero has cut down on his strikeout rate (18 in 61 at-bats, with 11 walks), but he’s only hitting .246 with two homers.
The one player who is red hot right now is Carlos Triunfel, who hit for the cycle last Wednesday (snapping an 0-for-20 stretch), and has his average up to .325 while playing second base and shortstop. Triunfel has token major-league experience, getting 22 at-bats last year as a September callup. Still just 23, Triunfel has long been on the radar as a top Mariners’ prospect, though recently others have passed him by, at least in the hype department. Triunfel is torrid right now, hitting .484 (15-for-31) over his last six games.
Looking at players who have never been in the majors, you have:
Nick Franklin. The 2009 first-round draft pick out of high school made a big splash in spring training with his winter regimen of 6,500 calories a day that resulted in a 34-pound weight gain (much of which appears to have been lost after the Mariners put the kibosh on his dietary plan). Franklin was slowed late in spring by a bout with tonsillitis (I had heard flu, but when I talked to Tacoma manager Daren Brown last week, he said it was tonsillitis) that delayed the start of his Triple-A season. Franklin, a switch-hitter, is hitting .333 with two homers and a .467 on-base percentage (thanks to eight walks) through 10 games. He and Triunfel have been alternating between shortstop and second base.
Mike Zunino. This is an obvious one, and a week ago, his ascension looked undeniable. Through seven games, he was hitting in the high .300s with more homers and RBIs than anyone in the entire minor leagues. But then came his first slump: An 0-for-20 stretch in which he struck out 10 times. Zunino has rebounded with a couple of two-hit games, hitting his fifth homer Saturday and driving in four runs yesterday. He’s still slugging an impressive .648, and his average has crept back up to .259, with five homers and 25 RBIs. That is impressive production for 14 games.
Danny Hultzen. The offense isn’t the only area that’s been struggling at the major-league level. The Mariners have 12 starts so far from their three, four and five starters (four by Joe Saunders and Brandon Maurer, two each by Aaron Harang and Blake Beavan), producing a 2-8 record with a 7.00 ERA. Saunders, who is making $6 million this year, isn’t going anywhere, and Beavan has already gone to the bullpen. But if an opening arises (Maurer has two strong outings after two rough ones, while Harang has hit a wall in the fifth inning in his two outings), Hultzen would seem to be atop the list. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Hultzen has conquered the command issues that were so alarming last year at Tacoma. In four starts, he’s 3-1 with a 2.78 ERA, featuring a 25-to-6 strikeouts to walks ratio in 22 2 /3 innings (compared to 57 strikeouts and 43 walks last year in 48.2 Triple-A innings).
James Paxton. At one time, there was a feeling that Paxton was the closest of the “Big Three” to the majors. But that changed after Paxton suffered through a rough spring (six runs allowed in 1.2 innings). He rebounded well at Tacoma — until last night. In his first Triple-A stint, he had a 3.68 in his first three starts, but was shelled for eight hits and six runs in 1 2/3 innings in Salt Lake City to raise his ERA to 6.61.
Jeremy Bonderman. The plan is for Bonderman to get back his arm strength and feel for pitching, but in four starts with Tacoma, he’s got a 5.06 ERA, allowing 32 hits in 21 1/3 innings. Triple-A opponents are hitting .337 off him, and he’s struck out just 13. The encouraging thing is he worked six innings in his last outing. Still a work in progress.
Another name to track in Tacoma is Stefen Romero, who was in the midst of a great spring when he suffered an oblique injury, sidelining him for several weeks. He’s back now and has four hits in 13 at-bats, including two doubles and a triple. Romero was the Mariners’ Minor League Player of the Year last season after hitting a combined .352 with 64 extra-base hits at High Desert and Jackson. So far, he’s appeared only at DH. I’m interested to see where Romero plays with the Rainiers, considering he’s played both infield and outfield.
Dipping down to Double-A Jackson, Taijuan Walker is off to a very good start. Disregard his 1-2 record and look at the 1.64 ERA, the .165 opponents batting average, and the 25 strikeouts in 22 innings. But I doubt the Mariners would even consider, at this point, having Walker bypass Triple-A at age 20 and make the jump to the big leagues. Especially not until he cuts down on his walks (14) and shows sharper command.
The name that’s intriguing on the Jackson roster, however, is infielder Brad Miller, who made a very strong impression in spring training. Miller is hitting .297 in 17 games with three homers. He has a .366 on-base percentage and is slugging .516. Yeah, it is Double-A, but Miller has been likened by Jack Zduriencik to Kyle Seager, who at a similar point in his career made it up to the majors in July of 2011. Miller has played 12 games at shortstop, three at second base, and two at third.