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Take 2

A different spin on sports by The Seattle Times staff and readers.

June 13, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Why are Mariners taking so long to call up Big 3 pitchers?

By Jux Berg

Talk to a Mariners fan, and you’ll hear a lot of this: I’m fed up, I don’t care anymore, they won’t be good until we get some new people in charge.

Tell the fan there are top-rated prospects on the way, and you’ll hear:

Oh, really? More guys like Justin Smoak (.225 career batting average) and Jesus Montero (.264 on-base percentage in 2013) and Brandon Maurer (6.93 earned-run average)?

What’s taking so long to call those three pitchers up? We keep hearing about them, so where are they?

Valid questions. When your team has produced less-than-minimal excitement for over a decade, you have the right to be despondent and cynical.

Questioning the 2013 “Plan”

Although the Seattle farm system is supposedly stacked (Ranked No. 2 in Major League Baseball by Baseball America, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik spent his winter trading for/signing three rag-arm pitchers (Aaron Harang, Joe Saunders and Jeremy Bonderman), two aging outfielders (Raul Ibanez, 41 and Jason Bay, 34), a 33-year-old journeyman catcher (Kelly Shoppach) and a utility infielder with a sub-.300 career on-base percentage (Robert Andino).

Total price: $20.35 million (plus whatever Bonderman is netting).

Are any of these players difference-makers? Would you buy season tickets to see these players?

So then why make these acquisitions? Why spend the money? Why block your highly ranked young talent for another year?

Going From Prospect to Big Leaguer

According to every scout from Seattle to Siberia, the Mariners have three spectacular pitching prospects in the farm system: 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-hander Taijuan Walker (first round, 2010), 6-4, 220-pound left-hander James Paxton (fourth round, 2010) and 6-3, 200-pound lefty Danny Hultzen (second overall, 2011).

Why aren’t these guys pitching at Safeco Field yet?

 The evidence for calling them up

 Felix Hernandez made his major league debut in August of 2005 at age 19. Check out how his minor league stats compare to the Big 3:

Player

Starts

ERA

Innings

Strikeouts

Walks

WHIP

Strikeouts/9

HR allowed

Felix Hernandez

48

2.59

306 1/3

363

122

1.201

10.7

14

Danny Hultzen

29

3.01

146.2

161

81

1.261

9.9

5

Taijuan Walker

55

3.52

301 2/3

317

121

1.210

9.5

22

James Paxton

54

3.42

274

318

130

1.387

10.4

14

Hultzen has made fewer starts, but he did throw over 300 innings in college at the University of Virginia. He also had injury issues in 2013.

Hernandez had a lower ERA than the Big Three, but that stat can be deceiving. There is a lot of luck involved in pitching. A guy scalds a ball right at your shortstop, or a guy breaks his bat and bloops a two-run single down the right-field line. You can pitch well and allow five runs or live dangerously and allow two runs.

The rest of the numbers, however, look pretty similar. And Felix’s first two-plus seasons in the majors were solid: 30-25, 3.94 ERA, 418 strikeouts, 136 walks, 1.291 walks plus hits per inning pitched (WHIP), 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings.

Something else to consider: Wouldn’t it behoove the Mariner coaching staff to get a look at these prospects against major-league hitters? Two scenarios will play out. Either the pitcher will show that he’s ready for The Show or the coaches will be able to identify exactly what he needs to work on, send him back to Class AAA Tacoma and let him make the necessary adjustments. Win-win.

 The evidence against calling them up:

The average major-league pitcher logs at least 400 innings in the minors. Only Walker has eclipsed the 300-inning mark.

In 2012, the Oakland A’s called up a quartet of rookie pitchers on the way to the American League West title: Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily. The foursome combined for 82 starts, a 35-20 record and a sub-4.00 ERA. But these guys had more experience in the minor leagues than do the Mariner threesome. The four hurlers, in the minors, averaged 74 starts, 3.30 ERA, 427 innings pitched, 417 K/110 BB, 1.166 WHIP and 8.75 K/9.

Many GMs worry about the confidence of a player. What if we call a pitcher up too soon and he gets crushed, will his confidence be ruined forever? What if he can’t handle failure?

Clearly, the Mariner brass leans toward this set of statistics more so than the Felix Hernandez comparison. As for the “possible shattered confidence” argument, pro athletes become pros because of extraordinary confidence and belief — especially in baseball, a game that is nearly all mental. If a player can’t handle it, wouldn’t that be a good piece of information to have sooner rather than later?

 The shelf life of a GM

Zduriencik was hired in October of 2008. The Mariners have finished above .500 just once in his tenure, twice losing 95 or more games. In Year 5, is the Mariners’ GM feeling pressure to win now? Is that why he spent over $20 million on a pile of veterans this past offseason instead of promoting prospects like the three pitchers, as well as outfielder Stefen Romero (1000-plus minor-league at-bats, .313 average), or shortstop Brad Miller (800-plus minor-league at-bats, .334 average)?

It’s a legitimate gripe for long-frustrated Mariner fans. Obviously, $20 million is a lot of scratch. You can invest a good chunk of that sum in scouting, drafting (and signing high picks) and most important, player development. You could spend that $20 million solely on hitting instruction for your prospects so each player develops the proper approach for Safeco Field. Hire Hall of Famers like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs. Bring Edgar Martinez back!

After all, homegrown talent is the most cost effective asset a major-league club has on its balance sheet. On average, a player in his first few years in the big leagues earns around $500,000 per season. In contrast, Harang and his 5.60 ERA slaps $7 million on the payroll. Joe Saunders and his 5.12 ERA rings up on the register at $6.5 million.

 Jack Z’s thoughts on the matter

Zduriencik had this to say in March 2012, in an interview with Seattle Times baseball reporter Larry Stone:

“Here’s the thing: You have to be careful with any young kid. You have to realize it doesn’t really matter how talented that player is. Their abilities might be better than players you have on your ballclub. But it’s the emotional aspect of being in the big leagues. It’s the innings they have under them in the minor leagues to come up here and be able to sustain 180 innings, 170, whatever kind of innings you want to put on them. And what’s the best for that player.”

Zduriencik is overthinking things. There is no perfect formula for knowing when a player is ready for the major leagues. Some players need five years of minor-league seasoning, others may only need 250 at-bats (see Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig. These guys are all human beings. They’ve been playing baseball their whole lives. If a kid dominated in high school, starred in college and has shown the ability to get minor-league hitters out, let’s see what he can do against major leaguers. Bringing in Harang, Saunders and Bonderman to make those starts won’t win you any fans (other than opposing hitters who get the pleasure of facing those guys).

The Mariners have shown signs of building from within, compiling highly rated talent in the past few drafts. Unfortunately, the front office continues to spend money on insignificant veterans that don’t improve the product on the field. It’s a half-in, half-out approach.

Commit fully to rebuilding with young talent and let the prospects learn at the major league level or go big, trade your prospects for proven players and spend a ton of money on free agents. Pick a lane.

Because of an inconsistent plan of action, top prospects are being blocked from gaining on-the-job experience for another season. And, more important, the fan base continues to be fed up, apathetic and skeptical of future success.

Want to be a reader contributor to The Seattle Times’ Take 2 blog? Email your original, previously unpublished work or proposal to Sports Editor Don Shelton at dshelton@seattletimes.com or sports@seattletimes.com. Not all submissions can be published. The Times reserves the right to edit and publish any submissions online and/or in print.

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