It’s a little harsh to say “never mind” to the debut season of Robinson Cano as a Mariner. But the pressure on him in 2014 is far less than on general manager Jack Zduriencik and his previous hires. He’s the guy who convinced CEO Howard Lincoln to walk from the major leagues’ kiddy pool to the adult swim party by saying the rest of the team is ready.
With spring training underway and precious little help delivered so far to supplement Cano’s hire for a team that was 71-91, the season will rise or fall on delivery of promise from young players Zduriencik drafted to become, finally, major-league-average contributors.
That’s asking a lot.
Position players Mike Zunino, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Carlos Triunfel, and pitchers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are the healthy players on the 40-man roster who are what remains from Zduriencik’s top draft selections among Baseball America’s annual listing of top 100 prospects.
Smoak and Montero, both young vets acquired via trade by Zdurencik, were included because they were prospects in other organizations comparable to Seattle’s choices.
Baseball America is by no means a final arbiter of baseball talent. To cite just two examples, neither 3B Kyle Seager nor SS Brad Miller, two key parts of the Mariners’ future, never made any of BA’s top 100 lists.
But BA’s lists are range-finders among scouting sources about farm-system talent most highly regarded in each year’s draft. Naturally, it’s subjective. And more than nine out of 10 overall draftees on every MLB club never get a sniff of the major leagues.
But the top picks are annually the most important source of premier talent whose contract rights can be controlled for the first six years of service time.
It is this talent pool from which most championship teams most times are made — and helps preclude making hugely expensive gambles in the veteran free agent market.
Here’s a look at Mariners prospects over the past 10 years of BA’s top 100 lists, which means five years under Zduriencik and five years under his predecessor, Bill Bavasi:
- 2014 — 11, Taijuan Walker, RHP; 85, D.J. Peterson, INF; 99, James Paxton, LHP.
- 2013 — 17, Mike Zunino, C; 18, Walker; 29, Danny Hultzen, LHP, 79, Nick Franklin, INF; 87, Paxton.
- 2012 — 6, Jesus Montero, C; 20, Walker; 21, Hultzen; 52, Paxton; 77, Franklin.
- 2011 — 3, Montero; 12, Dustin Ackley, INF-OF; 16, Michael Pineda, RHP; 55, Franklin.
- 2010 — 4, Montero; 11, Ackley; 13, Justin Smoak, 1B; 30, Michael Saunders, OF; 83, Adam Moore, C; 93, Phillippe Aumont, RHP.
- 2009 — 57, Greg Halman, OF; 65, Saunders; 89, Carlos Triunfel, SS; 93, Aumont.
- 2008 — 42, Jeff Clement, C; 62, Triunfel; 83, Aumont.
- 2007 — 28, Adam Jones, OF; 62, Clement; 87, Brandon Morrow, RHP.
- 2006 — 64, Jones; 66, Kenji Johjima, C.
- 2005 — 2, Felix Hernandez, RHP; 33, Jeremy Reed, OF; 51, Shin-Soo Choo, OF; 73, Clint Nageotte, RHP.
From these listings, it’s plain that the Mariners so far haven’t received much from the top end of the draft, to which most scouting resources are devoted.
Even when the Mariners chose well, as in the cases of Adam Jones, Shin-soo Choo and Brandon Morrow, they traded them away for next to nothing in return. In the case of Pineda, it could happen again. If Pineda, who had a lost year with the Yankees, returns to form, he will make a disaster out of his trade for Montero, who has eaten and PED’d his way out being a major-league contributor.
Many of the draftees under Zduriencik are early in their major league careers. They also are forced to be among the key figures this season to support the Cano decision, which has to succeed early in his 10-year term.
Zunino at catcher, Smoak at first base, Miller/Franklin at shortstop, Ackley and Saunders in the outfield, and Walker and Paxton in the rotation are presumed to be starters, yet all were below major league average players a year ago, or just at the beginning. Most have to deliver this season.
The 10 years of under-production from top draftees, whether by their own shortcomings, injuries or the failure to get adequate return on trades, is at the heart of the Mariners’ failure to return to the post-season since 2001.
Even though Zduriencik has given himself credit for rebuilding the farm system, there is no getting around these two facts:
Zduriencik’s five-year record: 359 wins, 451 losses.
Bavasi’s five-year record: 359 wins, 451 losses.
For reasons not entirely clear, Zdurencik gets a sixth year to break the tie.