A peak at M’s players in winter ball, and what went wrong this season, and why




Terry Benish

Special to The Sports Paper


The Mariners have at least 10 players playing winter ball. There may be more, but that is what my research shows right now. Seven guys in the Arizona Fall League are playing for the Peoria Javelinas and in the Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional playing for Lara there are another three guys.

The decisions the organization has made about their players are revelatory if not a bit surprising. Injuries always play a part in these events, witness Danny Hultzen going down again, this time for rotator cuff, labrum and who knows what all. It seems obvious looking back that Hultzen was demonstrably hurt last summer (2012) when he advanced to Tacoma from Jackson, but finally a year later this happened.

That said let’s look at the roster choices and who made it and see if their seasons dictated the selection or if it might have more to do with financial commitment, results not mattering.

The Peoria roster includes four pitchers: Kyle Hunter, Brandon Maurer, Dominic Leone, and Carson Smith, two infielders Chris Taylor and Patrick Kivlehan and Stefen Romero the lone outfielder.

For Lara you have pitcher Logan Bawcom, shortstop Gabriel Noriaga and designated hitter Jesus Montero.

Kyle Hunter is a left-handed relief pitcher taken in the 31st round of the amateur draft in 2011. He split the year between High Desert and Jackson. He misses bats and has a great strike out to walk ratio, 2.69 this year, which is a good measure of his command. Over nine innings he averages just fewer than seven strikeouts per game. He represents, perhaps an upgrade on Lucas Luetge. Hitters this past summer had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .263 at Jackson and .270 at High Desert. The numbers are ok, but not special, he’s more of an insurance policy than anything else.

Dominic Leone is a five=foot-eleven relief pitcher drafted in the 16th round of the 2012 amateur draft from Clemson of the ACC. This past summer he was a closer at three different teams in the Mariner system: Clinton, High Desert and Jackson.

He had 64 strikeouts in 64 innings, His 18 walks are impressive, and only four bombs allowed are good. As he progressed upward his BABIP declined as he missed bats.

The description of the M’s closing situation with Danny Farquhar would indicate Leone is plan B, in the event of a fall off. Farquhar is five years older and even shorter than Leone, but under club control for quite a while yet. This falls under the no room at the inn department and would not seem to be a dramatic event except as a change in role to be a setup guy.

Carson Smith is another reliever who toiled at Jackson this past summer. He was drafted in the eighth round of the 2011 amateur draft from Texas State University. He had 71 strikeouts and 15 saves in 50 innings. His BABIP was .294, and he only allowed 17 walks.  He allowed just one home run, which is special. Of the three he might have the best stuff. All three could play into the roster next year.

Brandon Maurer was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2008 draft. He’s a (former M’s GM Bill) Bavasi pick. He was drafted from Orange County High School and was the Mariner pitcher of the year in 2012.

At both Tacoma and Seattle this last summer he was hit like a piñata with BABIPs of .346 and .341. With the Mariners he gave up 16 homeruns in 90 innings.  Maurer got kicked around in his first game with Peoria this week. It is hard to perceive that there is any there, there, if you will. This is a reconstruction project at some level, but really reflects the huge mistake the team made when they rushed him onto the major league roster. He actually struggled at Tacoma as well.

Over the course of Jack Zduriencik’s term with the team he has rid the system mostly of picks from his predecessor, Bavasi. Going into the 2013 season there were two good starters in Felix and Iwakuma, two absolute locks to fail in Jeremy Bonderman and Joe Saunders and still one more spot to fill. None of Zduriencik’s big three were going to get tossed into the fifth starter role, so why not sacrifice one of Bavasi’s guys?

That’s where Maurer fall. Most minor league guys and their families have nurtured this dream of the major leagues for well over 10 years and while Maurer was chewed up like so much chuck roast this year, his first outing this fall suggests that absolutely

No body has done anything to modify what Maurer is doing with his mechanics. His velocity with the Mariners averaged 93.7 mph according to Baseball Prospectus. My game notes had him touching 96 once and 95 many times.

Lots of hitters cheat, that is to say they guess. They can do that when a guy can’t throw anything but his fastball for a strike or when he tips pitches or if he falls into a pattern, which is to say the Mariner’s bench falling into a pattern calling pitches for him.

Forty five percent of the balls that were hit off Maurer as part of the BABIP calculation were fastballs. It suggests that’s all he throws for strikes. I don’t get it, except to say he can’t get other pitches over for strikes. The thing is you can’t throw the ball over the middle of the plate. Ever.

Patrick Kivlehan was a fourth round pick in the 2012 draft pick from Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is six-foot-two and 210-pounds, and plays third base. He played 60 games at Clinton in the Midwest League and 68 at High Desert. Clinton is an A League and High Desert is thought of as an A plus league.

His isolated power index at Clinton, which is calculated by subtracting his batting average from his slugging percentage, was .103. When he moved up that index climbed to .161. He had 25 doubles, three triples and 16 homers for the whole season.

As a third baseman, he is stuck behind first round pick D.J. Peterson, who had a great first season despite being drilled in the jaw with a pitch.

Chris Taylor is a fifth round pick from the University of Virginia in the 2012 draft. So far he has hit, hit and hit again. This year at two levels, High Desert and Jackson, he combined for a .411 on-bag and a .449 slug or an OPS of .860.

Taylor banged out 28 doubles, 11 triples and eight home runs this year. If you include him, Nick Franklin and Brad Miller, you have three shortstops up and near the major leagues.

The Mariners decided Miller was better at shortstop than Franklin and now there have been suggestions they think Taylor is a second baseman or utility guy. That both Franklin and Taylor seem to be able to get to more balls than Miller does not seem to matter.

In spring training there were remarks from Mariner player development guys that Franklin did not have a shortstop’s arm, when in fact he has a very strong arm.

Minor league shortstops make errors. They all do. One has to discern when that will go away or if it won’t go away. Franklin is younger than either of them and continues to suggest more upside than the other two. The question now is who might be closer to their topside already.

Miller is the oldest and biggest of the three, while Franklin is the youngest.

This is a time to pause and ask the following question. If you are trying to develop a system full of players that are going to drive resurgence in the team for the next five or six years, why do you give away forty seven games to a guy Franklin Gutierrez) that has to have been deemed a failure, whether to real or imagined injuries?

The answer is somewhere up above Tacoma somebody says we’re going to get our $8.5 million out of Gutierrez. It makes you wonder if they’d run him out there no matter what.

According to club CEO Howard Lincoln, baseball operations are Jack Z’s deal to do, and so if you believe him then Jack doesn’t know a baseball player from an old gray mare.

See the deal is the MLB Players agreement does not allow a team to stash players on phony injury claims. In this instance the team was not doing that, but perhaps the player (Gutierrez) said he was unable to play, over and over again.

All they really had to do was release him, and well they should have done so.

That decision reflects all kinds of things that you can only speculate about. Was the GM willing to do anything to the future of the team to keep his job? Or did he not want to go to his boss and say it’s time to release Gutierrez and eat his salary for 2013.

Last January Jack apparently offered Taijuan Walker, Nick Franklin, Charley Furbush and Stephen Pryor for Justin Upton of the Diamondbacks. Everybody said yes, accept Upton had a no-trade clause to Seattle and the deal did not happen.

This could have been a really bad trade in the Eric Bedard range.

What about Dustin Ackley in centerfield?

Well after Ackley went to Tacoma, he hit better, but without power and his arm does not really permit him in the outfield. So what did the M’s do, they played Ackley 25 games in centerfield.

This again looks like a decision not to admit that drafting Ackley was a very bad decision.

I still can’t get around picking him instead of Mike Trout in the draft. It’s an absolute failure move, no matter what excuses are offered up.

Hultzen is a failure too, so Jack Z’s first two first-round picks are busts.

So, wow, this started off as fall ball prospect review and went into a review of player development, as if a bumblebee did the review. Sorry it was there to do.

Now I wonder why pick college kids from the ACC over and over again, especially when it does not seem to be working?

So Jack Z is coming back again? And if you could get him to talk about the stuff above, what would you think he would say?

Probably, something like this:

“We look at players constantly and we do what we do based on that examination and review.”

Then the questioner’s rejoinder should be:

“Gutierrez was part of the future? Were you not just covering up a bad trade?”  Then Jack in return:

“We did not anticipate an injury.”

Back across the net to the questioner:

“Then why not tell that to Chuck (Armstrong, club president) and release him and move on?”

And that is where it would probably end.

But there are three other guys playing in Venezuela. The first is Jesus Montero, the failed return from pitcher Michael Pineda’s trade to the Yankees.

Montero was suspended for 50 games for taking steroids, just after he failed as a catcher, and was sent down to Tacoma to learn now to play first base, but then Tacoma manager Darren Brown inexplicably played him at catcher and he blew up his knee.

Somewhere William Faulkner sat up in his grave and had some bourbon.

So Montero is reported to be on the roster with Lara, but has not played yet. He might be hurt yet.

Gabriel Noriega has played for the Mariners since he was 16 years old, six seasons ago. He is not a prospect as an every day shortstop and it is doubtful he advances except perhaps as utility guy that plays for very little money.

I don’t believe the Ms do this much any more, especially with the minor league drug testing. I would look for them to sign more guys that might be a bit older.

Logan Bawcom is another right-handed relief pitcher that will be 25 next season. He was acquired in the Brandon League trade with outfielder Leon Landry. He was a very high strikeout guy with the Dodgers and that has eroded a bit, from the teens per nine innings to below nine strikeouts per nine innings.

He’s not bad. It’s just that there are a bunch of guys they like better.

For what it’s worth, Landry only hit .216 at Jackson after hitting .341 for the Dodgers high A team and .385 for the Mariners at High Desert. This was probably another bad trade among many by Zduriencik.

Nate Tenbrink is one of the best hitters in the system outside of Peterson. He’s 26 and has been dubbed a utility guy. He missed 2011 after breaking his elbow in spring training that year due to a hit-by-pitch. He’s got power and is an athlete. His primary position is third base, although they played him at every defensive position other than catcher this past year.

For a team that can’t score runs and that runs out terrible hitters in Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak, it must be really frustrating for guys like Tenbrink and Romero, who can actually hit.

This happens because of the transactions to get Ackley and Smoak. Smoak really cost nothing but a rent-a-pitcher that was not coming back in Cliff Lee, and some guys from Bavasi’s time that Zduriencik was going to dump anyway.

However, Ackley was a first round pick.

If you are keeping score, the Mariners don’t think any of these guys really matter at least in so far they will keep Jack and his boys employed. Maybe some of the relievers will factor in, but not really in a way that will turn the team around. There is nobody that they think will jump into the lineup and play or be one of the starting pitchers.

The players who are gone, or will likely be, are Montero, Kelly Shoppach, Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, Franklin Gutierrez, Brendan Ryan, Jeremy Bonderman, Joe Saunders. From what I hear, Ackley will also be gone.

How about Raul Ibanz”

He could be a pinch-hitter ‑ maybe. There wasn’t much production from Raul in the last couple months of this past season. His bat speed was gone. It was a father time thing.

Paxton and Walker make things a bunch better right out of the shoot, but as much as they are promising they are rookies. Yet that promise must be better than what we saw this year.

The Ms in 2012 only allowed 651 runs. If they could do it again that will be a larger move towards competition than chasing after broken down geezers, again.

Next is a Website that lists all the free agents by position for you to peruse. http://www.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/cots/league-info/potential-free-agents-for-2014/