I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Mariners might not have traded for Jesus Montero had they known they’d be drafting Mike Zunino with the third pick of the 2012 draft. So here are the lowly Mariners with two of the game’s best young catchers: Montero at 23, and Zunino, who’ll soon be 22. And there are the Yankees, the team that’s been blessed with Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada, ready to open the season with Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. So who’s lowly now? (To be fair, and we shouldn’t have to be to the Yankees, New York’s Gary Sanchez, age 20, is an awfully good prospect himself.) Zunino is Baseball America’s 17th-best prospect and MLB.com’s 23rd, but they might be in error. Zunino is better. He needed two months to go from college to AA, batting .360 and slugging .689 on the way. He’s homered twice more in spring training. He’ll be hitting a lot more soon for the parent club.
What is this man doing here? Jason Bay said he enjoyed his time in New York after the Mets terminated his contract last fall. Too bad Mets fans couldn’t reciprocate. The Mets spent $16.5 million per season the last three on Bay, and in return he hit 26 home runs, or 10 less than he hit in his last season in Boston. Bay capped it with a pitiful .165 average in 2012; his WAR was -1.3, but would have been worse if he had played more. Bay was only 31 when the Mets signed him — no one has ever accused his native Canada of fudging birth certificates — but it’s hard to remember anyone whose career has fallen so precipitously at a normally productive age. Bay’s signing was low risk for the Mariners and he’s looked more like his old self in spring training. If you can make it New York the song says, you can make it anywhere. But what if you can’t make it there?
What he said: Mariners manager Eric Wedge, on what it would take for Justin Smoak not to be his Opening Day first baseman: “It would have to be something drastic.” What he meant: “Until we get someone better. Which, given that Smoak is a career .223 hitter with a .683 OPS, shouldn’t take long.”
Outlook: The Mariners won 75 games last year, which may not seem like a lot, but is to a team that won 67 in 2011 and 61 in 2010. The good news is it may not seem like a lot in the years ahead.
All the trends are good for the Mariners. They’ve improved by 14 wins in two seasons and cut their run differential from -185 to -32. They’ve signed Felix Hernandez for a long time, and their farm system will soon be supplying worthy teammates — it’s ranked No. 2 in baseball by minorleagueball.com’s John Sickels. Brendan Ryan won’t lead the team in WAR, as he did in 2011 (3.6), again.
The Mariners have done the easy part — improving from pitiful to mediocre. It gets harder from here.
This year’s team is a lot like last year’s with more hitting and less pitching. But the big improvements will come when the best prospects arrive: Zunino will either be a DH or Montero will, but Smoak will be a reserve; Nick Franklin needs more plate discipline but should finally move Ryan off shortstop, and if he doesn’t, Brad Miller will; pitchers Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer and Danny Hultzen are the reasons the Mariners traded Pineda.
That’s a lot of potential, but the Mariners know too well potential isn’t always realized. They’ve seen it too often, in Carlos Peguero, Mike Carp, Dodgers acquisition Trayvon Robinson, Alex Liddi and others. None of them has had much of a career. Second baseman Dustin Ackley hasn’t had enough of one — he’s now a .243 hitter (.673 OPS) in almost 1,000 at-bat. And what success third baseman Kyle Seager and outfielder Michael Saunders have had has been grudging.
The Mariners’ offensive prospects haven’t changed the results at the major-league level, but mirrored them.
There’s an opening in the AL West that’s going to grow — the Angels’ talent is front-loaded, the A’s financial state isn’t stable and the Astros are worse now than the Mariners have ever been. But it’s not enough for the Mariners to be there to get through it.
Team song: Foo Fighters: Aurora