The State of the Farm System: The Seattle Mariners Organizational Depth
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
The Mariners ended their 2015 campaign with a 76-86 record, finishing 11 games back from their 2014 win total. And this after graduating much hyped players such as Taijuan Walker and James Paxton from the farm to the majors.
In 2015, we saw Mike Zunino struggle at the plate, the trades of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Nick Franklin, and continued injury problems for lefty hurler, Danny Hultzen. We also saw late season call-ups for Ketel Marte and Shawn O’Malley, strong performances from young relievers and a glimmer of hope from former super prospect, Jesus Montero. Marte and O’Malley, in particular, showed some promise and brought much needed swagger to the Mariners in September.
We also saw what should be looked at as one of the best stories of the year for Mariners fans with the return of Franklin Gutierrez. The player once known as “death to flying things,” put up league leader-caliber numbers after being brought up mid-season to the tune of .292/.354/620. In 171 at-bats, he hit 15 home runs, 11 doubles and 35 RBI’s.
Recently released manager Lloyd McClendon attributed much of Gutierrez’s success to limiting his playing time and not pushing him; he’s a player with a laundry list of injuries over the last few years, passed what his body was capable of. Hopefully moving forward, he can be a productive 4th outfielder, but even with those gaudy numbers, there’s a good chance we’ve seen the last of Franklin Gutierrez as an everyday player.
With all of the movement, the Mariners’ organizational depth chart took a huge hit this year in a number of ways. Not only did they promote or trade several of their top prospects, they also saw steps in the wrong direction from the big names that are still in the system. Alex Jackson struggled mightily at Class A Clinton, hitting an abysmal .157 before moving to short-season Everett and showing some minor signs of improvement.
D.J. Peterson split time between the Tacoma Rainiers and Jackson Generals, with the majority of his games being played for Jackson, where he hit .223 with seven home runs and 19 doubles. For the Mariners top offensive prospects going into the year, 2015 was definitely a disappointment.
This brings us to rankings. As recently as 2013, baseballamerica.com had Seattle’s farm system ranked at number two in all of baseball. After the end of 2015, baseballamerica.com and Fangraphs.com both have the Mariners Farm system ranked 23 of the 30 Major League organizations. That’s a pretty huge drop off, but a justified one as the team has consistently failed to develop their young talent to reach their potential or expectation. And while there are still some exciting young players on the farm, the consensus among baseball analysts seems to be that there’s not much depth to be found there.
New GM Jerry Dipoto will surely have his hands full in the coming months. The first order of business is obviously the hiring of a new manager and to fill the vacancies he’s created around the organization, but eventually it’ll come time to start looking at the employees on the field. He’s in an interesting spot, as he has a strong core of players to build around, but with a barren minor-league system and last year’s team posting a sub-500 record, he doesn’t have a ton to push all-in with.
Trying to make any impactful trade without giving up one of those four core players would take a lot of creativity and selling low on a player like D.J. Peterson is the stuff nightmares are made of. So how will Jerry Dipoto put an improved club on the field in 2016 and still help build our farm system back up? General managers in baseball will tell you that you have to work with a combination of trades, free-agent signings and educated gambles on the players you’ve already got. That’s sort of cliché, but for the new Seattle GM, I imagine this is probably more than that.
Dipoto has said before that he prefers developing players and making trades to free agency when at all possible, and tried to think of free agency as a means of filling in the holes you have after you get your core team set. But that’s going to be very challenging for him as he doesn’t have much to trade that the team can afford to lose, which leads me to think that he’s going to have to dip into the market and sign some players.
When you make a trade to get better sooner rather than later, you look to trade from a place of strength. For instance, if you have wealth of talented young outfielders, but you lack depth in your pitching rotation, you can afford to reduce depth in your outfield to solidify your rotation.
The Mariners, however, don’t really have any overstocked positions in the organization. Last year they struggled in the bullpen, suffered from a lack of depth in the rotation when they got bit by the injury bug early in the season, and spent the entire year with question marks in the outfield, shortstop, first base and even behind the plate. Their strongest positions on the team are arguably at third and second base, where they don’t have any reliable replacements on the horizon.
This team either has to have a huge facelift and move a bunch of money, which means saying goodbye to one of those marquee players, or use a very thoughtful combination of lesser free agent signings and smart trades within the high-minors to improve the system as a whole. Robinson Cano is over 30 and has eight years left on his mega-contract and moving Felix or Seager would be the equivalent of telling fans that you just don’t want them at games anymore.
Nelson Cruz, who’s coming off a career year, is probably your best option for a big trade. He’s under control for the next three years at $14,000,000 annually, which is extremely reasonable for a guy who just hit 40+ home runs for the second consecutive season. Defensively, he doesn’t offer a ton of value, meaning while you couldn’t easily replace his bat in the line-up, you can add value defensively and offset some of what you’d lose.
To be clear, I’m not saying Dipoto should go out and trade Nelson Cruz just for the sake of doing it. I’m not even saying he should trade him at all. You don’t trade a bird in the hand for two in the bush. All I’m saying is that if there are like, five of the perfect birds in the bush … you consider the thought. Otherwise, I don’t think there is a huge trade to be made that improves the farm system without giving up on next season. Mr. Dipoto, you’re going to have to get creative, and this Mariners fan is looking forward to seeing what you do.
Stay tuned next for week, as we discuss the early free agent market, the Mariners’ areas of need, and what we might expect from our team’s top brass in the coming months.
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