2015 Tacoma Rainiers Preview
An evening full of typing and being sort of bummed out by a failed Mariners rally later, and I’m here with a Tacoma Rainiers preview. I feel like at this level, there’s a tendency to get more philosophical because we’re not so much trying to determine what could happen for guys as evaluating what has happened. Triple-A can be a land of players that have been around a while, for whom the results have already spoken, but I found myself unusually eager to type my way through it this time even if it’s been a slog in years past.
Three-fifths of the rotation is new to us and features some former top prospects within their respective systems and whatever Elias is outside of a ten-game winner for the ‘Ners last season. The bullpen has various names of recent and more distant familiarity and a guy who, despite being added to the 40-man, still seems to be ignored in a lot of outlets. Catching will be split between two guys with solid all-around profiles. The infield has Montero, Marte, and a supporting cast that can make a case for fringe MLB roles (I pray we give Bonilla the Jaime Bubela treatment when he finally does retire), and then the outfield has a unicorn, a broken unicorn, some role players we’re still trying to figure out, and the bizarre and talented Jabari Blash, who isn’t a unicorn but is probably some other breed of cryptid.
Rotation:LHP Roenis Elias, RHP Sam Gaviglio, LHP Mike Kickham, LHP Mike Montgomery, RHP Jordan Pries
Because Mike Curto is a dude of the highest order, I actually know what the rotation will be looking like. The ace of the rotation is going to be Pries, who has done all right for himself for a 30th-round pick. Among the finer points of his 2014, besides pitching his way onto the radar, he allowed a run or less in almost half of his Tacoma starts, although with a 4.06 overall ERA, you can vaguely see where things might have gone rather poorly for him a few times. Six outings, for example, saw him give up five or more runs. In spite of that, he led the org in innings at 154.0 and was second in Ks at 120, though he’s tended to hover around a 2:1 K:BB ratio the last two years. He’s a fine org pitcher, but I think that something might have to go awry for him to be much more than that.
Elias on the other hand… well, I think that I’d rather see him than Happ sometimes, but you’d think that he might get the chance to see some starts later this year and beyond that. Elias had a spring training showing perhaps more in line with what might have been expected of him last year as he a 8/7 K/BB and twenty-six hits allowed through 14.2 innings. To be fair, the worst of that damage was the last start against the Brew Crew when he gave up six runs on eight hits with a 1/3 K/BB in three innings. If you look at what he did overall last year, he was a bit better in the second half (or properly, last third) as he saw his slugging against drop by more than seventy points, even as his average and OBP rose a bit. I think he has the stuff to stick around in the majors a while, but as we’ve all recognized, much of that depends on his command.
The remaining three are all imports from other organizations. Kickham is in his third org, having originally been drafted by the Giants, but after he was waived by them, he was a Cub for all of three weeks before being traded for Dutch right-hander Lars Huijer. Kickham was a pretty good prospect for San Francisco, having a low-to-mid-90s heater, a slider, a curve, and a change. He opted for more the power than finesse arsenal, which has been appropriate as his command has never been all that good and the walks, higher than most people’s comfort level. He remains technically a rookie, having never really established himself in the big leagues. We’re good enough at handling pitchers so the change of scenery could turn out to be a positive.
Montgomery was formerly a top prospect in all of baseball. The whole thing. The same year we drafted Josh Fields, the Royals were active and between picking up Eric Hosmer and Johnny Giavotella, recently sighted with the Angels, they drafted Montgomery. Back then, he was throwing around 90, touching 94, and had a curve and change that were impressive as secondary offerings. Zip a few years ahead and he’s the Royals’ best prospect, having added a couple miles to his fastball and improved his change, though the command and curveball remained works in progress. In the winter of ’12, he was one of the set of prospects sent to the Rays in the Shields/Davis trade. Montgomery has never really been the same pitcher in the high minors that he was in the low minors. A lot of that is hits, as previously he was in the 6.5 per nine range and has seen his totals three higher with added home runs at the double and triple-A levels. By late March this year, that rendered him worth an Erasmo Ramirez. His velocity has regressed, his curve has never been where it needs to be, and some have lost patience and wanted to try him out in the bullpen. For the Mariners part, they’re still into him as a starter and he’s going to keep at it with the Rainiers. It’s his last option year.
Gaviglio is what we got in exchange for Ty Kelly going to the Cardinals. While the Redbirds put Kelly on the 40-man immediately, the Mariners left Gaviglio unprotected during the Rule 5 draft and no one was interested enough to take him. Throughout his minor league tenure, he’s run GB%s above 50% for every full season, or any reasonably full season, as that includes a 2013 year where he missed a lot of time with a forearm strain. He’s a guy that tops out in the low-90s and throws a slurvey breaking ball that’s been a good offering for him, but Gaviglio has never really gotten a change-up together and left-handers can knock him around at times. It makes me question his possible utility out of the bullpen, but hey, could be worse. He could be a southpaw that’s better at getting right-handers out.
Bullpen: RHP Logan Bawcom, RHP Justin Germano, RHP Mayckol Guaipe, RHP Dominic Leone, RHP Mark Lowe, LHP Lucas Luetge, LHP Joe Saunders, RHP Forrest Snow
Bullpen! Some of these names are familiar in that they’ve been in Seattle or on the 40-man previously. Forrest Snow isn’t among those characters, but he was reportedly the last cut from the rotation and has been in Tacoma off and on since 2011. Last year was the first year that his BB/9 dropped below 3.0 since that same season, but if some of those stats are folding in from his tenure in Jackson, does it still count? He’s tested positive for a “drug of abuse” a couple of times now and that cut out his first two months of last year. He made up some of that time in the LVBP, where he made five starts and had a 2.05 ERA over 26.1 innings with a 18/4 K/BB. I would have figured he would have ended up in Seattle in some capacity years ago, but it just hasn’t happened for him yet.
Leone would figured to make the trip north sooner than anyone else, although that’s contingent on his progress in triple-A. As a reference point, last year when he kind of made the team, he had a .171 average against and a 10/3 K/BB in ten innings. This year, he only got seven frames of work in, had a .425 average against, and a 5/3 K/BB. Not good? One likes his chances long-term as a groundball-oriented pitcher with a varied arsenal, but he doesn’t yet have enough of a reputation to justify keeping him around after a poor spring. Or maybe the conspiracy theorists want to buy into the same CB legerdemain that keeps someone of Kris Bryant’s talents in the minors for a few weeks. Time is money.
Luetge could also figure to come back eventually. He saw all of nine innings with the team last year and has been the same high-80s fastball, slider guy he’s always been. His second partial season in Tacoma represents a minor improvement over his first, or I’ll say as much because even though he lost some Ks, the walks and home runs likewise dropped. As for the all-important splits, his .725 OPS against left-handers was a slight improvement over his .764 OPS against right-handers, but then left-handers made better contact against him? The gulf between the two was wider back in his 2013 tenure with the Rainiers. I’d question it, but small sample sizes.
Or, you know, Joe Saunders could be a thing. Or Beimel. Saunders signed with the team again out of loyalty to the Mariners and/or Safeco. He was pretty awful with the Rangers and Orioles last season, but even over that span, his wOBA against left-handers was a respectable .281. With the Mariners in 2013, it was an even-better .252. Basically, it seems like all this time he was masquerading as a starter when his true calling was elsewhere, in relief, never seeing another right-handed bat. Perhaps he could yet have his uses, but I shudder when thinking of that 2013 Mariners pitching staff, or at least the non-Felix, non-Kuma portions, and would prefer to not revisit much of what we had there.
Mark Lowe was one of this season’s blasts from the past as he last pitched with the team in 2009 which, incidentally, was the last time he was really any good. His contributions to the Rangers were negligible and limited appearances for the Angels and Indians over the past couple of seasons were awful enough to net him -0.3 WAR for each. In both cases, his command was really bad, and spring training didn’t show too much evidence of that being different with a 12/5 K/BB and a .286 average against in 8.2 innings. So that isn’t where it used to be and neither is the heater, which is now low-90s rather than mid-90s. I like Lowe. I want good things to happen for him. I don’t want him to come back and have me dread his approach from the bullpen.
Guaipe, I could keep liking, sure. In fact, I’m not sure why a lot of people are less enthusiastic about him. He’s got a low-to-mid-90s heater and a slider that’s been good at times and refined mechanics have allowed to hit his spots with better frequency. Just last year, after the sometimes anticipated hiccup of traveling through High Desert, he dropped his BB% to 4.0 and had more than six strikeouts for every walk. Looks good to me? I don’t think he’ll beat out Leone if a spot opens, but he’s around and will be hard to ignore if he does again what he did last year.
I’m down to Bawcom and Germano now. Bawcom was previously a member of the 40-man before getting flushed out late in December. Remember what I said with Landazuri about oblique strains and pitchers? It seems conceivable that Bawcom endured something similar as he missed a month in the middle of the season due to that injury. Except, weirdly, his numbers were worse pre-injury. Look at his Pre-ASB lines and you get a .330 average against and a 14/16 K/BB. After, .233 average against and a 18/9 K/BB. Was he hiding something? Was there something else going on? Whatever. Bawcom has never had extraordinary command and last season represented the worst of it for him. It’s hard to know what specifically led to that.
My familiarity with Germano is more limited, so I went to my media guide for help. As it turns out, Germano broke Mark McGwire’s Little League home run record as a kid. Has it been all downhill from there? But how could I forget about Germano? June 8th 2007, when he was a Padre, and gave up five runs against us over five innings. Or before that, on May 20th, when he allowed just an unearned run over six frames? Where has the time gone? Germano, through his career, has shown us a mid-to-high-80s fastball, a curve, a change, and most rarely a slider. He has 330 innings of major league experience, which is more than Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, and Bobby Madritsch combined. Just barely.
Catchers: John Baker, John Hicks
While Baron has defaulted into the reputation of being the system’s best defensive catcher, I sometimes wonder what he’s doing that Hicks isn’t. Before, it perhaps seemed more clear cut, but then last season Hicks passed only two balls over the course of the season. Or, as a reference point, he was involved in more double plays than he was errors or passed balls. That’s really something. The CS% numbers don’t seem too far apart either, particularly if you write off the fact that he was down to 31% in Tacoma in roughly thirty games last year when Baron has likely been able to inflate his numbers against weaker competition. Hicks can hit too, he’s not really a liability out there and has made steady improvements to his plate discipline. He’s only going to get you 20+ walks and a number of home runs you can likely count on a single hand, but I would say that his future as a back-up catcher doesn’t look bad at all.
So, I’ve known about John Baker, baseball person, for a while now as someone who has played in the major leagues. This is atypical in that he’s been a career NL guy and I’m nearly oblivious to what happens in that league, but bear with me now. Since 2012, we’ve had a Venezuelan infielder by the name of Jhombeyker Morales, and all along, I’ve been wondering, is there a connection? It doesn’t seem plausible given that Baker is only thirteen-and-a-half years older than Morales, but here I go answering my own bizarre questions again. Baker hit well his first couple of seasons with the Marlins but has since seen his offense taper off as he’s been increasingly relegated to backup duties. He is @manbearwolf on twitter. I don’t know if he’s related to the John “Home Run” Baker who played for the Philadelphia Athletics and led the league in home runs from 1911-1914 as he hit 42 total longballs in that span. That was before that jerk, Ruth, came along.
Infielders: UT Leury Bonilla, SS Ketel Marte, 1B/DH Jesus Montero, IF Shawn O’Malley, 3B Carlos Rivero
While it’s hard to want specific things out of spring training (I often find myself wanting to see prospects during the televised games, not that I often do), it was a bit disheartening to see Montero leave with only 15 at-bats and a .200/.250/.200 line. I mean, you all saw him right? Didn’t look like the same guy we had previously encountered. Looked like a guy who didn’t have to be taught how to run in his early-20s because he had never previously learned how. And as enthusiastic as I am about Peterson’s future and various other things, part of me sticks to the idea of how neat it would be if Montero actually came through on his prior potential. He hit .286/.350/.489 with the Rainiers last year and was not in great shape then. But now…. maybe?…
Prospect-wise, people are probably more interested in Marte. If I come to that particular bandwagon eventually, I will do so grudgingly. I think that the tools are fine on the whole and that’s what I’ve always heard, but the focus is erratic and we saw as much when he lead the team in errors during spring training despite playing in just fifteen games here and there. Shortstop is a demanding position and if he can’t fundamentally handle that, then it’s difficult for me to continue the assertion that the ability is just fine and he’ll come around. What concerns me more is that, with the series of bandboxes that the PCL has turned into, there would seem to be a risk of him adopting a weird approach or having inflated stats that aren’t representative of what his true talent would be in the major leagues. What turns into a headache for me is probably just fine for his prospect status though.
Rivero is a somewhat older guy who debuted last year at the age of 26, having spent some time in the Indians, Phillies, Nationals, and Boston organizations. While he had a silly 1.911 OPS in eight brief plate appearances with the Red Sox, it wasn’t really representative of what he had done even the rest of that year. In his time with their triple-A affiliate, he hit .286/.341/.407, which is okay, certainly better than his prior tours of the league (2012 tour of Syracuse excluded), but not extraordinary. Despite nearly OPSing 1.000 for the Lara Cardenales in the offseason, he was removed from the 40-man and came back on a minor league deal with an ST invite. He can play third, left, and short, but I’m guessing he’s at the hot corner for the Rainiers.
O’Malley also debuted last year as a 26-year-old, which is a weird coincidence. He did it with another team that wears red too, the Angels, but the results weren’t so hot. Still, you can argue that he earned it, as he hit .330/.411/.475 over 89 games with the Salt Lake Bees last year (BEES). As far as his history goes, he was one of the Rays’ aggressive signings out of the PNW and hails from the Tri-Cities area. I remember reading that he’d wanted to sign with a Mariners as a tribute to his father and his own fandom growing up. He should replace Bloomquist if something happens.
Leury Bonilla hit .234/.291/.320 for the Rainiers in 2014. He also pitched a little and walked four without recording an out, with two runs scoring against him. He played everywhere but catcher and center. That’s about the only thing that I particularly care about. Let’s get him to all nine this year. Make it happen. In the same game.
Outfielders:RF Jabari Blash, CF Franklin Gutierrez, CF James Jones, LF Patrick Kivlehan, LF Stefen Romero
Outside of Jackson, maybe Peterson, Kivlehan has always been one of my favorite prospects in system. Mostly it’s just in how weird his journey has been. Play football for years, jump back into baseball cold, win league’s MVP and Triple Crown for the first time ever, win NWL MVP, get pushed to Clinton, then High Desert, then spend one more month+ there before turning up in Jackson and coming close to a .300/.400/.500 line, do the same in AFL. And I don’t really get it. We’ve pushed him. He saw 72 games in short-season A, 60 in A-Ball, 102 in advanced-A, 104 in double-A. He’s never been a full season anywhere and his performances have always been at a very high level, despite his lack of experience. He just responds well to the challenge. I have no idea what his true ceiling is. He’s one of a kind.
The more nostalgic among you may drift to Guti, and I won’t fault you for it. He was the dream for a while, that guy who figured it out in Safeco when few other hitters previously had, but then we all know the various injury issues that followed and the individual biological processes. Read up on it, if you’re so inclined. As much as we daydream of those earlier performances, particularly as the early returns for Austin Jackson have frustrated, I don’t know that what we’re getting back is going to be at that peak level of old. I don’t have those kinds of expectations. It’s difficult for me to believe that he’ll be able to play on a day-in, day-out basis.
Two guys who saw time with the Mariners last year…. Stefen Romero and James Jones. Romero, I think was brought in somewhat over-aggressively, and it showed, as he had that aggravating .192/.234/.299 line. I had thought previously that he could be in position for a more difficult adjustment as his approach all throughout the minor leagues had been very strong on contact and somewhat light on walks. As exposed as he was at the major league level, he didn’t carry it with him when he was demoted down to Tacoma again and through 36 games, he hit .358/.387/.669. It was just one month, but he was an absolute monster in August, batting .390/.420/.733 in 105 ABs, and then in the big leagues it was erratic playing time again and a whole lot of nothing.
If one doesn’t trust Guti’s health long-term, that leaves Jones as our non-Ruggiano hope in center. What stuck with me about him in his time with the Mariners was how good he was in a short time at stealing bases. This makes an impression on me of course because of my own established expectations. Jones’ first four seasons, he’d get caught about a third of the time he was running and it wasn’t until 2013 that he got it down to one out of every four times. To see him go on that 27-1 run was wholly unexpected. As for the defensive stuff, eh, I mean, I wanted him to play center all along because I figured that was the safest place for his bat, but he doesn’t always have the greatest reads out there and I think it showed. With the five listed outfielders they have on the active roster and Bloomquist and Weeks that could theoretically play out there (thus far, we’ve been averse to using Weeks in that capacity), it’s hard to see a role for the speedy left-handed slap hitter, but the seasons are long and no one really knows what tomorrow brings.
That brings me to Blash who was suspended for a chunk of last year for perhaps toking on something he shouldn’t have. Hard to know which Jabari to prefer under the circumstances, as Blash played in just 82 games but still managed to knock out eighteen dingers, most of them in Tacoma, and was walking and striking out a fair amount. Translating for playing time, the big components look about the same as they did the year prior, maybe the plate discipline being a little worse, but not horribly so even with the time off. Like Pizzano, I’m tempted to write it off as a BABIP issue, because he was at .232 in Tacoma last year and .270 in Jackson whereas his career norms are well above .300. He went undrafted in the Rule 5 again, but I still want some kind of career for him. Baseball needs a Jabari Blash.