June 6, 2013 at 11:00 AM
Can Mariners recover from past drafting, player development failures?
By Jux Berg
Seattle Times freelance writer Justin “Jux” Berg has lived in Bellingham for seven years. The Ohio transplant lives for baseball, both past and present, and has been a fan of the Mariners since the day Ken Griffey Jr. was drafted.
In addition to misidentifying the types of hitters needed for a pitcher-friendly ballpark, a lack of organizational focus on scouting, drafting and player development in the past has crippled the Seattle Mariners offensively.
The Mariners’ front office is now trying to catch up with the rest of baseball. Teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds invested in drafting and development, and have been reaping the benefits. The Houston Astros are taking it to the extreme, completely cleaning house and allocating nearly the entire budget into the scouting and player-development side. The St. Louis Cardinals (11 World Series championships) have focused on this area since the 1920’s when Branch Rickey invented the farm system.
The good news: The current regime, led by scouting director Tom McNamara and general manager Jack Zduriencik, has taken measures to draft and develop better at bats.
The bad news: It will take time to recover from past ineptitude.
The Bad and the Ugly
For Seattle, the past twelve years have been a disaster when it comes to producing homegrown offensive talent. Of hitters called up to the big club since 2002 who were drafted or signed as amateur free agents by the M’s:
- Only seven players reached the 1,000 plate appearance mark in a Mariners uniform
- No player with at least 100 at-bats posted more walks than strikeouts: Total walks – 905, total strikeouts – 2655
- One All-Star selection (Jose Lopez in 2006)
- Only two players have stolen more than 25 bases (Willie Bloomquist -71, Michael Saunders – 44)
- No player with at least 100 at bags had an on-base percentage above .339
- The prospects have pulled about half of their overall hits. Ideally, you’d like that percentage to be under 40. Translation: The player-development side hasn’t produced enough well-rounded hitters who can use the whole field.
- Two players currently playing major roles elsewhere, Shin-Soo Choo (Reds, career on-base percentage .386) and Adam Jones (Orioles, two All-Star games, two Gold Gloves), were traded away after only 29 and 139 at-bats respectively in Seattle.
- Before Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin, only three first-round selections made it to Safeco Field: Jones (139 AB), Jeff Clement (219 AB), Matt Mangini (38 AB).
Further, no second-round offensive pick has contributed since Dave Valle (10 wins above replacement, ’78 draft). Only two third-rounders (Bloomquist – 2.1 WAR and Kyle Seager – 5 WAR) in the past three decades have contributed. (And yes, we’re using the word “contributed” loosely.)
Is this futility a case of bad scouting/blown draft picks? Should the finger be pointed at poor player development? Or do the major-league coaches deserve scrutiny? The likely answer is all of the above.
Re-enforcements (hopefully) on the Way
While you may disagree with some (or all) of the trades and free-agent signings (including managers) so far in his tenure, GM Zduriencik was hired because of a reputation for building an organization through player development. He joined the Milwaukee Brewers, a franchise that hadn’t tasted postseason champagne since 1982, as scouting director in 1999. Milwaukee made it to the playoffs in 2008 and to the National League Championship Series in 2011 with a core of young talent assembled by Zduriencik. In 2007, he became the first non-GM to win Baseball America’s Major League Executive of the Year Award.
Although the cupboard has been bare for over a decade, scouting publications like Baseball America believe the past few drafts have yielded possible core pieces in what could be sustained success moving forward. Seager (third round, 2009) has the makings of a .300 hitter. Last year’s top pick, Mike Zunino, appears to be a Buster Posey-type catching prospect. Middle infielder Franklin, also a recent first-rounder, looks to have some talent (top 50 prospect, MLB.com). And, although Ackley has had his tribulations at the plate, you never know if and when a young hitter will figure it out (see: Bautista, Jose).
Two more names to watch:
- OF Stefen Romero, 2010 selection out of Oregon State: The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder has hit .315 in two-plus seasons in the minor leagues and is currently at Class AAA Tacoma.
- SS Brad Miller, 2011 second-rounder from Clemson (6-2, 185 lbs): Now at AAA Tacoma – .332 BA in the minors with a high walk rate. Hit .334 with 15 HR and 40 2B in 2012.
Will Good Things Come to Those Who Wait?
Over a decade of spending boatloads of money in the wrong places has left Seattle behind the eight-ball when it comes to hitting. The numbers are alarming, pathetic and a big reason for the thousands of empty seats every night at Safeco Field.
According to respected scouting publications, Zduriencik and his staff have accumulated some promising talent in the past few drafts. Thursday’s MLB Amateur Draft will be another chance to add to that pool.
Of course, there is always the counter argument, which is that prospect rankings are virtually educated guesses. You can also allude to the struggles of Ackley and the fact that he was drafted second overall in 2009, when Angels star Mike Trout was still on the board.
Regardless, the plan is in place. The Zuninos and the Seagers of the world will either be saviors or casualties.
The question remains: Do you have the patience to wait and see?
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