Before catcher Mike Zunino landed on the disabled list last week with a broken hamate bone in his left wrist, the Mariners featured a starting infield comprised entirely of players from the Southeastern U.S.
A left to right view around the diamond provided had a decided Southern accent: Kyle Seager (3B, University of North Carolina), Brad Miller (SS, Clemson), Nick Franklin (2B, Sanford, FL.), Justin Smoak (1B, University of South Carolina) and Zunino (C, University of Florida). All were highly regarded players when they left college, or in Franklin’s case, high school. All hail from the land of Lynyrd Skynyrd and deep-fried everything.
To call it a coincidence would be to discredit Tom McNamara.
Mariners director of amateur scouting since 2008, McNamara signed each in an attempt to rebuild a farm system decimated by former GM Bill Bavasi, the executive whose win-now approach after the 2007 season resulted in losing future All-Stars Adam Jones, Chris Tillman and George Sherrill in a swap for Erik Bedard.
In the five seasons since, Seattle has lost fans, finished once with a winning record — in 2009 — and collected a smattering of free-agent busts. See Chone Figgins, Carlos Silva, Milton Bradley.
But during July, the Mariners have inched back toward .500, riding the production from Miller and Franklin in the 1-2 spots, Seager at cleanup, and a revitalized Smoak toward the bottom of the order. Zunino, before suffering the injury, provided solid defense and posted in his last 11 games a .324 batting average with a home run, two doubles and six RBIs.
All but Smoak were scouted in college or high school by McNamara’s crew of talent evaluators for two to three years before the Mariners selected them in the MLB amateur draft — Franklin out of high school as the 27th selection in 2009 and Seager in the third round the same year. Seattle in 2012 selected Zunino third overall. They took Miller as a second-round pick in 2011 after his junior year at Clemson when he won the ACC Player of The Year and Brooks Wallace National Shortstop of The Year awards.
Fairly remarkable is that the players who appear entrenched as the foundation for the latest rebuilding plan of the most northerly, remote outpost in MLB are from SEC and ACC country. McNamara said Monday he didn’t necessarily mean for it to work out that way. But the evidence sitting below the “Hometown” column on Seattle’s roster begs the question: Has McNamara created in his five-year tenure a quasi-recruiting pipeline to a region historically rich with baseball talent?
“You rank the players ability-wise,” he said. “You don’t really know where they are coming from. Sometimes, it helps when you get extra looks. We were fortunate in 2009 to have two first-round picks. We got to know Franklin, we saw him a lot in high school and we saw him the summer before, and late October.”
The other first round pick in that 2009 lottery was Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 selection who has struggled with the Mariners, exacerbated this season by a position switch to center field after a mid-season demotion to Triple-A Tacoma. He is hitting .216 and his OPS is .548, but has produced modestly (.256 BA) during Seattle’s run of seven wins in 10 games. A stud hitter at North Carolina alongside Seager, Ackley spoke with a subtle Southern drawl when he described how baseball is viewed in a region where college football is king.
“Arkansas, South Carolina, Clemson — all those places are huge baseball schools,” Ackley said. “They’ll draw 8,000-10,000 a night. It’s pretty crazy how much the fans and everybody enjoys baseball down there.”
Those serious enough to devote the attention to earning a Division I scholarship also have the chance to enjoy it year-round.
“I don’t think it’s really a surprise that there are a lot of great players coming out of there,” Ackley said. “I don’t know if there is really an explanation for it. (Pro baseball franchises) get recruiting to the South. The weather is pretty good for baseball, so I’m sure that has an effect.”
McNamara attested to Ackley’s theory, noting that while talent evaluation is an all-year process, it magnifies during spring. McNamara grew up in New York and calls himself a “cold-weather” guy, but said it’s important to see prospects play when the weather is warm. He opted not to outline his scouting strategy but provided an obvious clue as to which players usually receive more exposure. Hint: Their winters are nothing like Seattle’s.
“Let’s just put it this way: you keep yourself busy in the warm weather because there are games in the morning, afternoon and night,” McNamara said. “There’s a time and place to see players in the Northwest and the Northeast, but I try to map it out where I’m going to see these players in the best weather possible.”
“It’s hot all year round,” said Smoak, a Goose Creek, SC., native. “If you grow up in the South you play baseball and you play football.”
Then there’s the SEC and ACC — two powerhouse baseball conferences that regularly send teams to the College World Series. Since 2000, they boast five of the 13 national champions.
“All those conferences down there have played great baseball for a while now,” Ackley said.
“The last few years it’s been really good,” Zunino said. “When I was playing there, whether I played FSU or any of the SEC schools, it was full of competition.”
The Mariners, too, are competing more regularly entering their East Coast road trip, posting a 15-8 record in July and three consecutive road series wins. Often over-hyped and nearly impossible to quantify is the importance of chemistry. But it certainly can’t hurt when young players have something in common. Overheard in the clubhouse during the hours leading up to games is chatter of SEC football and which school owns the best baseball program, Zunino said.
“We have Jadeveon Clowney,” Smoak said of the Univeristy of South Carolina’s premier defender. “We have to be good.”
The recent play of the Seattle’s new nucleus has formerly fed-up Mariners fans thinking the same way.