Rainiers Opening Night
I know, I know: I just wrote a post about the minors, and the post in fact mentioned that tonight is opening day across the full-season leagues. But anyone who knows me or has read the blog for any length of time knows that I am, in Mike Curto’s perfect phrase, PCL for Life. At times in this rather lean decade for the big club I’ve felt more of a Rainiers fan than an M’s one – that’s where you get to see Ackley/Smoak/Montero *succeed* after all – and while this is and will always be a Mariners blog first and foremost, the Rainiers will always get a lot of attention. I spent years living within walking distance of Cheney Stadium, and it’s nights like this – it’s near 80, no clouds in the sky – that I most miss it. I’ll be up at some point in the opening series, but let’s take a look at the Rainiers in a bit more depth and talk about things to look for if you head to Tacoma for a game.
The rotation features James Paxton, Cody Martin, Adrian Sampson, Donn Roach and tonight’s starter, Joe Wieland. Of that group, only Adrian Sampson lacks MLB experience. Paxton’s got the most innings pitches, while Martin/Roach and Wieland have all pitched (very sparingly) for multiple big league clubs. Sampson was a mid-level prospect the M’s got from Pittsburgh in exchange for JA Happ, and he figures to get some friends and family to the games, as he went to Skyline HS in Sammamish and attended Bellevue College. Roach was the star of spring training coming out of the bullpen, but will stretch it out as a starter in the early going. Cody Martin made his debut out of the pen for Atlanta last year, got demoted, and was then traded to Oakland. As I mentioned when he was acquired, Oakland seemed to make some fairly big changes to his pitch mix, and the results were awful – like Roach, I’m really curious to see what and how he’s throwing in the early going.
I went over the IF and OF last night, and the question about Rob Brantly’s place on the roster’s been answered: the M’s released Steve Lerud to make room for Brantly. He’ll be Mike Zunino’s back-up. Via Mike Curto, here’s a great John McGrath column on the new player development group and their work with Zunino, Chris Taylor and James Paxton. It also covers the, uh, struggles the last group had in trying to make Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, etc. were consistent big leaguers. According to the column, Ackley in particular got tips from a variety of coaches and tried to incorporate all of them. The new group prioritizes the mental side, and they may have more of an organization-wide philosophy on hitting, if that “hitting summit” during the off season is any indication.
Here’s tonight’s opening day line-up. With the M’s traveling, it’s the perfect time to head to Cheney or just tune in to the game here , on 850am in the south sound, or via MiLB.tv. Game time is 7:05pm
1: Boog Powell, CF
2: Shawn O’Malley, 2B
3: Stefen Romero, RF
4: Efren Navarro, 1B
5: Mike Zunino, C
6: Mike Baxter, DH
7: Ed Lucas, 3B
8: Chris Taylor, SS
9: Daniel Robertson, LF
I didn’t mention Ed Lucas in yesterday’s post, so let’s talk about him: Lucas was a long-time Royals farmhand who’s moved through the Braves/Angels/Rangers and Marlins systems. He’s mostly a 3B, but has displayed a lot of versatility: in his extended call-up with the Marlins in 2013 and 2014, he played SS, OF, 3B and some 2B. He’s got good control of the strike zone, but very little power, which makes him eerily similar to tonight’s 2B, Shawn O’Malley.
Ok, so what’s the PCL look like this year? And when should you come out to a game? Let’s take a look at some of the clubs visiting Tacoma this year:
Tonight’s opponent, the Albuquerque Isotopes, are the Rockies AAA affiliate. Last year you could’ve seen Trevor Story on this club, and I bet you’re wishing you had. The closest thing to a must-see prospect on this club is Saturday night’s starter, Jeff Hoffman. Hoffman was in the running to be the #1 overall draft pick in 2014 out of East Carolina, but he went down with an injury that required TJ surgery before the draft. It says something about his overall ability that Toronto *still* took him with their first pick in that draft, and he made it back to the mound last year. He was rusty, and the results weren’t eye-catching, but scouts still raved. Now, the Rockies have had a number of highly-touted prospects fly through AA only to hit a wall in AAA or MLB, and the opening night starter, Eddie Butler, is a prime example, but Hoffman’s looking to avoid any hang-ups.
Starting this coming Monday, the El Paso Chihuahuas come to Tacoma. The Padres affiliate, like many in the Pads system, has seen a great deal of turnover in recent years thanks to the big trades GM AJ Preller’s made. Unlike with the Isotopes, the guys to watch on El Paso are position players, and the biggest name is CF Manuel Margot. Margot was one of the centerpieces of the deal that sent Craig Kimbrel to Boston, and the converted IF flew through high-A and enjoyed a very good half-year for Portland in AA last year before the trade. He’s ranked 44th in baseball by MLB.com, ahead of big names like SS Javier Guerro (the other big piece moving from BOS to SDP), Alex Jackson of the M’s and Jeff Hoffman of the Rockies. Flanking him in the OF is MLB’s 91st ranked prospect, Hunter Renfroe. The Mississippi State product was the Pads first-rounder in 2013, and has moved up slowly, but took off after a late-season promotion to El Paso last year. He and Margot are both on the 40-man, and the Padres evidently can’t hit at all, so catch them next week or they’ll be up in the majors soon.
The Sacremento Rivercats, in their second year as a Giants affiliate (I’ll always associate them with the A’s), come to Tacoma on the 23rd of the month. They don’t have a deep system, but they’ve got a couple of mid-level prospects in their rotation, headed by Clayton Blackburn. Ty Blach gets the opening day start, and he’ll be repeating the league this year. Both he and Blackburn are on the Giants 40-man, but there’s not much room for them on the big club with Cueto and Samardzija signing in the off-season. Miguel Olivo will catch for the team. Yeah. Among the top prospects of 2010 or so that dot the roster are Grant Green, Hak-Ju Lee, Conor Gillaspie, and Gorkys Hernandez. An actual prospect is RF Jarrett Parker, who shone for Sacramento last year and in a brief call-up with San Francisco.
The Salt Lake Bees, the long-time Angels affiliate come to town in early May. If you know anything about the state of the Angels system, you’ll know that this is not the most dazzling club for big league prospects. They’ve got a mix of MLB vets like Cuban emigre and one-time Washinton National Yunesky Maya (now 34, and coming off of injury), Tyler Skaggs, former Angels, then D-Backs, then Angels, then operating table prospect as well. Old friend Lucas Luetge’s in their bullpen along with Al Albuquerque. Disappointing ex-prospect Kaleb Cowart starts the year in AAA and will play 3B, along with fellow disappointing 3B prospect Kyle Kubitza. Alliteratively-named prospects beware.
Mid May brings the sole visit of a couple of old American Association teams, the Omaha StormChasers and the Iowa Cubs. Omaha and Iowa have had loaded clubs in the recent past, but they’re not as stocked this year. Omaha features one of the Royals top pitching prospects in Kyle Zimmer, but the oft-injured University of San Francisco product will start the year on the DL. Delightfully-named 3B Cheslor Cuthbert’s been on the prospect radar for years, and actually made his debut for KC last year. Local kid and long-time professional 5-th OF Travis Snider is also on the club.
Iowa features relief prospect Carl Edwards Jr., a former 48th-round draft pick who shot through the Rangers system before being moved in one of the many Matt Garza trades. Their catcher, Willson Contreras, is one of the top 50 or so prospects in the game following a break-out 2015. They’ve got hefty 1B Dan Vogelbach, who looks like a Greg Luzinski-type but hasn’t tapped into as much in-game power yet. For pure star power, though, it’s tough to beat Munenori Kawasaki, who’ll be dancing across the IF for the I-Cubs this year. OF Matt Murton was arguably a bigger star in Japan than Mune, as he set the single-season hit record there several years ago. He’s back, giving it one more shot to win (and keep) a big league job.
The Reno Aces visit in mid-June, and the D-Backs affiliate has the club’s top two pitching prospects in its rotation in Archie Bradley and Braden Shipley. Two of the guys the M’s sent to Arizona in the Mark Trumbo deal, Dom Leone and SS Jack Reinheimer, will start the year in Reno as well. 2015 Tacoma Rainier Carlos Rivero plays 3B for the club, and power-hitting OF Peter O’Brien will try to make the most of one of the better home hitting environments in the minors.
Mets affiliate Las Vegas visits around the 1st of July, and they won’t have the kind of pitching riches they’ve had the past few seasons. They do have veteran over-achiever Rafa Montero and reliever Sean Gilmartin, who spent all of 2015 pitching pretty well for the Mets. 2B Dilson Herrera’s the position-player prospect, and they’ve got several ex-Rainiers, including C Rene Rivera and IF/OF Ty Kelly as well.
The Colorado Springs Sky Sox come to town in mid-July. They’re a Brewers affiliate, and as I mentioned yesterday, the Brewers AA club is pretty stacked. Some of that crew could join top prospect, SS Oswaldo Arcia, and make this a pretty good series to catch. If not, well, Arcia sounds special, and there are a couple of arms to check out, like Damien Magnifico and Jorge Lopez.
The Oklahoma City Dodgers follow Colorado Springs, and bring one of the better clubs to Tacoma. As I mentioned in yesterday’s piece, their rotation may be the best in the PCL, with Zach Lee, Jharel Cotton, Carlos Frias, and one of the bigger prospects in the minors, Julio Urias. Here’s hoping Urias isn’t already up, but if he is, Jose De Leon, another uber-prospect, may take his place.
The Fresno Grizzlies, the Astros PCL club, don’t visit Tacoma until late August, so it’s kind of pointless speculating who’ll be on the team, but given their system, it’s worth checking the roster closer to their arrival. 1B AJ Reed’s the biggest prospect on the club, and the best 1B prospect in the minors, meaning he’s got one of the best pure bats in affiliated ball. Colin Moran was a top-10 pick a few years ago by the Marlins and came over in the trade for pitcher Jarred Cosart. Reed will likely make his MLB debut this year; Moran could as well. In AA, the Astros have pitcher Francis Martes and Joe Musgrove, either of whom would be worth a visit to see if they pop up on Fresno’s roster later in the year.