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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

May 28, 2013 at 12:34 PM

Mariners’ rebuild needs a re-charge

sdiego

(Here is today’s Mariners’ minor-league report)

It was a little bit hazy this morning in San Diego — I hopped on a 6:30 a.m. flight from Seattle in advance of tomorrow’s showdown at Petco Park  — but I’m confident it will be sunny and 70 before long. Just enjoyed one of the perks of San Diego: Fish tacos (accompanied by another early arrival, Ryan Divish) at the Tin Fish. And, indeed, the skies are already turning blue.

Meanwhile, this was not a good week for Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners’ blueprint for success — certainly not for the perception that the Mariners are headed toward their ultimate goal any time soon.  It’s almost painful to think how much farther along this ponderous rebuild would be if the Mariners had hit on the three huge pieces obtained along the way by Zduriencik – Dustin Ackley with the second overall pick in the 2009 draft, Justin Smoak as the centerpiece of the trade for the coveted Cliff Lee in July of 2010, and Jesus Montero as the primary return for All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda in January of 2012, back when he was a healthy fireballer who would have been desired by every team in baseball.

A couple of weeks ago, I examined the trials and tribulations of those three struggling prospects. It hasn’t gotten any better in the meantime. In fact, Ackley and Montero became so lost at sea that the Mariners really had no choice but to send them down, a few days apart, to Tacoma. Now they’re operating on the hope — and that’s all it is at this point — that they will somehow harness their potential in Triple-A, away from the pressure and spotlight of the major leagues.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Many a young player has hobbled along on a slow, maddening pace to expected success, only to finally figure it out and have a long and prosperous career. The comparable most used with regard to Ackley is Alex Gordon of the Royals, also a No. 2 overall pick (four years earlier) as a third baseman. In 2010, his fourth year with big league time, Gordon hit just .215 and wound up playing 68 games in Triple-A. But just when he was starting to be labeled a bust, Gordon came back in 2011 and put up a .303/.376/.502 season (as a left fielder, not a third baseman), and he’s been an upper-echelon player ever since. But it must be said that Gordon’s down years were still better than those produced the last two seasons by Ackley, whose closest comparison is one you don’t want to know.

For Montero, the biggest cause for a measure of optimism  is that he is merely 23, two years younger than Ackley. Read this blog post from right after the trade with the Yankees to get a measure of how highly he was regarded as a hitting prospect (and how his defensive struggles were predicted). As I wrote back then, if Montero develops into the kind of slugger that was predicted of him, even if it’s not as a catcher, he’s still a valuable commodity. An excerpt from that blog post in January of 2012:

“… if Montero’s defensive liabilities are too great, as many believe, and he has to move to either first base or DH (or a combination thereof), then his singular attraction as the rarest of breeds immediately lessens. Power-hitting first basemen and DH, while still highly valuable (particularly to the Mariners, who have found such creatures to be maddeningly elusive), are not nearly as precious as one who can hit 35 bombs, drive in 100 runs, and squat behind the plate. If his hitting tools are as advertised, Montero as a catcher is a generational talent. If not, he joins the much larger, but still coveted, pool of valuable sluggers.

Ominously, Montero still has a long way to go to show that his hitting tools are as advertised. But again, he’s 23. As for Smoak, currently sidelined with an oblique injury, his encouraging on-base percentage (.352, down from a peak of .374 just a week ago) is mitigated by an alarming lack of production. He is on pace for 10 homers and 25 runs batted in, obviously unacceptable for a corner infielder. While RBIs are partially out of a players’ control, a .346 slugging percentage and .111 average with men in scoring position are less so, and will need to be greatly improved for Smoak to remove the growing doubts about his long-term fit in the Mariner lineup. The encouraging thing is he’s trending in the right direction; over the last 26 games, Smoak is at .273/.390/.443 for a .834 OPS; over the last 19 it’s .286/.408/.460 (.868). Those numbers will play — but I know people are getting tired of fragments of Smoak’s season that provide teasing evidence of a breakthrough. The crying need is for him to do it on a sustained, consistent basis. And the time is now.

I was struck by one comment in the previously linked story, from Keith Law of ESPN,  on the slow development of Ackley, Montero and Smoak. He told me, “If you go 0 for 3, it tends to bring down a whole front office. You can’t whiff on that many guys.”

I can’t help but notice that Zduriencik is now starting to mention, in interviews, that the rebuilding process for a team as bereft as the Mariners’ club he inherited in October of 2008 can be five to seven years. We’re in Year Five right now, so you can do the math. Here’s what Zduriencik told me when I interviewed him in late April for that previously referenced story on the three players:

“I said, even when I took this job, it really takes five to seven years to turn it around, unless you have a big influx of something where you get real fortunate or real lucky with a player. I like the health of the organization. I certainly wish we would play better, and if we do, a month from now, people will say different things. That’s the way it is.”

It’s nearly a month later, however and people are saying pretty much the same thing, only nastier. The Mariners’ hot streak earlier this month prompted a short-lived surge of optimism, followed by a torrent of pessimism fostered by the recent eight-game losing streak). Speaking from a big-picture point of view, it’s not a hopeless cause. It’s not Pollyanna-ish to point out that the Seattle farm system really is stocked with blue-chip prospects., unless every analyst is wrong (and the fitful progress of Smoak, Ackley and Montero does cast some aspersion either upon those who assess talent, or the ability of the Mariners to develop that talent). If Nick Franklin is a success at second base, it will move things along. If Mike Zunino makes a second-half impact, it will move things along even farther. If one or more of the Big Three pitchers makes the jump, same thing. It would help if the Mariners got a surprise boost from someone like a Stefen Romero. If the help comes, it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t from one of the touted prospects whose progress – and regress – has been intricately chronicled, like Ackley, Montero and Smoak.

But it can’t always be at some vague point in the future. The five-to-seven year plan can’t turn to a seven-to-nine year plan. Especially when the patience from much of the fan base is running out (or has run out) right here and now.

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