ADDITIONAL NOTE: We did an abbreviated Talkin’ Baseball segment today so that Mitch could get Dan Lewis of KOMO on the air to talk about co-anchor Kathi Goertzen, who passed away last night. You can hear our segment by clicking the link above, in which we discuss Justin Smoak, Mike Zunino and more.
There has been talk this season about how many of the top Mariners prospects are still at least a year or more from being ready for MLB action. You’ve heard it expressed in many ways, the most common of which is saying how the team’s best pieces are in Class AA ball.
Now, the point has been hammered home again by the fact the Mariners are contemplating a recall of first baseman Justin Smoak in light of Mike Carp’s injury. Up until his last 10 at-bats, Smoak over nearly three weeks of action had struggled to hit .200 in AAA. Prior to that, he had flailed away in the majors.
But now, the team seems ready to take another shot. Not because it wants to. But because it has little other choice. There just is not enough depth at the AAA level that the team can use on an emergency basis for any degree of time.
Now, part of that is because the Mariners already have a lot of their AAA pieces up here at the big league level. Guys who were playing their trade in AA or AAA over the last 15 months, like Jesus Montero, Trayvon Robinson, Eric Thames, Casper Wells, Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley, Blake Beavan, Tom Wilhelmsen, Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor and more. In some organizations, many of those players would still be in the minors.
So, that explains part of it. But the fact is, on the position player side especially, there just are not enough potential impact guys who are ready to be broken in to the majors yet. And that’s why, when it comes to upgrading the squad to the point where it can contend for something, the Mariners will either have to bring in players from outside the organization, or be willing to wait another two, three or four years.
Because if Nick Franklin isn’t ready to taste the majors right now, there is no point counting on him to be an impact MLB infielder next year. Frankly, if he only gets his feet wet next year, expecting him to be an impact performer for a contending team in his second season in 2014 seems a stretch. As we’ve seen with Smoak, Ackley, Michael Saunders and some others, it can take multiple seasons for even the best prospects to find their way over a full 162-game schedule.
This isn’t a knock on Franklin. But it’s hard to ignore that calling him up today would be one of the solutions the Mariners could use in Carp’s absence. They could play Franklin at third base, keep Seager at second and Ackley at first. You could play Franklin at second, but there’s no time for him to learn double-play combos with Brendan Ryan at this stage and such a move could wind up getting him hurt. Clearly, the team does not want to do this. Franklin began the year in AA and is still learning the AAA ropes.
Nor do they want to try a similar arrangement with Carlos Triunfel, who pretty much has lost any prospect status he may have had five years ago, despite still being young at age 22.
They could call up Alex Liddi to play first or third. But Liddi struggled in the majors this year and has stumbled at AAA as well.
Vinnie Catricala has struggled to adapt to AAA pitching. He’s not ready for the majors.
There is Luis Jimenez, who has out-hit all of the guys I’ve mentioned this year. But he’s a career journeyman type who fits the minor league depth profile more than being a future major league piece. There were concerns in spring training about his ability to play first base on a regular basis and I assume they’re still out there or else the team would have called him up last night already. Because he makes more sense than Smoak from a hitting perspective.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge reiterated last night that Jesus Montero — who has been working out at first base for a while — is not yet ready to be there. This is the same thing Wedge told me three weeks ago when I first asked him about using Montero at first base and he indicated it was possible.
The truth is, the guys who are going to help the MLB team are already here. The others aren’t ready to yet.
This is not a critique of the rebuilding plan. As you know, I’ve had a few reservations about that.
No, this is just a commentary on where things sit with that plan based on what’s going on. This team will need a big uptick in talent over the next year or two — both in the further development of guys already here and the replacement of others at some positions who do not appear to be everyday regulars — if it hopes to close the gap with other squads in the AL West.
That upgrade can either come from within or from outside. If it’s from outside, it will likely have to go beyond simply the importing of one mid-tier free agent bat. That was a move that should have happened last winter, just to see whether this team could stay close to .500 for most of the season. If you’re looking to actually contend for something, it will likely take multiple new bats brought in via free agency or trade. The outfield alone looks in need of multiple new faces.
If the team goes a different route and expects the upgrade to come almost exclusively from within, then we are in for a wait. As promising as catcher Mike Zunino looks, he hasn’t played a game outside of rookie level yet. Having him in in AA to catch the likes of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton isn’t some coincidence. The eye towards a future contender is on those two arms, plus Danny Hultzen, so you might as well start getting your future catcher acquainted with them.
But it’s going to take time. None of those names is really close to helping a major league team contend. Nobody still in the minors in this organization is.
That much should be clear as day based on the fact the team is even considering a Smoak recall.