PCL Preview and Opening Day for the 2019 Tacoma Rainiers

marc w · April 4, 2019 at 6:43 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

It’s opening day in the Minor Leagues today, so fire up MiLB.tv and watch what we hope is the next generation of M’s stars. JY’s previews for each of the affiliates are so, so good that I don’t have to do as much for a minor league preview, but as I usually say: I love each M’s affiliate, and sure, West Virginia and Arkansas will get the bulk of the prospect-hound eyeballs, but I love the Rainiers most of all. I’m from Tacoma, and loved going to games when I lived there, and it’s an affiliate that marries both a handy location for many M’s fans in the northwest with high-level/close-to-the-majors baseball. As such, I write a post like this that’s both a look at the R’s season and also a guide to which games you may want to come down and catch if you’re interested in both M’s and other teams’ big prospects.

Last year’s post was kind of angry, as it’d been years since Tacoma had seen real, honest-to-goodness prospects, especially if you don’t count Mike Zunino being sent down repeatedly to work on his swing. Instead, 2018 was the apotheosis in the M’s annoying-but-possibly-necessary process of managing the roster nearly entirely through minor league free agents. The system had been so hollowed out by some bad drafts and a raft of trades that the M’s really didn’t have enough players, and that meant that the team cycled through org players at an astounding rate. 2017 set records for pitcher usage, and while it was a bit better last year, the bulk of the roster’s no longer in the org.

Happily, things are quite a bit different in 2019. While the players are new, this isn’t a new crop of MiLB veterans and independent league performers who’ll be gone in months. Instead, it’s an intriguing club built of actual, honest to goodness prospects, the return for the M’s busy offseason step-back. We haven’t seen a team like this in Tacoma since 2013 or so, and it’s great for the Rainiers and M’s fans. The group is headlined by the main trade return in two of the M’s hot stove blockbusters, Justus Sheffield (acquired for James Paxton) and JP Crawford (acquired for Jean Segura). Shed Long, Erik Swanson, and Joey Curletta round out the key players of interest, and it’ll be fun seeing how some of these players – who have experience in the International League – adjust to the PCL. Last year, there were exactly zero position players on the M’s 40-man roster on opening day. This year, there are five. It’s pretty much a 180 degree turn from how the club looked last year.

Tonight, the R’s kick off their season in Sacramento with a 7:05 start against the RiverCats, a Giants affiliate who’ll come to town later in the month. Tonight’s game pits Erik Swanson, a solid righty also acquired in the Paxton deal – and a good bet to be the first up if the M’s need rotation help – against Sacto lefty Andrew Suarez, who pitched in the Giants rotation last year. With some of SF’s off-season moves, they had a roster crunch which led to Chris Stratton moving to the Angels and Suarez getting optioned back down. Ex-Athletics/Brewers catcher and Thurston county resident Stephen Vogt will do the catching along with Giants prospect Aramis Garcia, a C with some power but who struggled at the plate in the minors last year (but did make his MLB debut). The top prospect on the team’s another pitcher, righty Shaun Anderson; we’ll probably see him at some point in the series, or when they head to Tacoma beginning on the 24th.

Tacoma’s home schedule begins next week, on Tuesday the 9th with a 6:05 start against the El Paso Chihuahuas. The Padres have been a loaded system for a little while, and this year’s no different. They’ll be in Tacoma for a three-game set, and we should probably see SP prospect Logan Allen, who’s just shy of 22 and coming off a brilliant 2018 campaign split between Hi-A and AA. Sure, Chris Paddack and Fernando Tatis, Jr. started in San Diego, but the Pads’ #3 prospect Luis Urias will play SS/2B, and slugging Canuck Josh Naylor (who seemed to hit a bajillion dingers against M’s affiliates last year) will be at 1B or an OF corner. Former 1st rounder and another noted prospect Cal Quantrill’s also in the rotation, and finally free of innings limits and the like after his post-draft TJ surgery.

The first big weekend series at Cheney sees the Albuquerque Isotopes visit for 4 games starting Friday the 12th of April. The Rockies affiliate is perhaps the 2nd-most prospect-laden group in the league behind Las Vegas (who are less of a sure thing), headlined by Rockies #1 prospect and somewhere around #20 prospect in the game, SS Brendan Rodgers. A SS with plus power, he put up eye-popping numbers in the Cal League, but took a slight step back last season. He’s still great, but there are more questions now, particularly on his hit tool; all of that sounds a bit like JP Crawford. They’re very, very different players, of course, but both may have something to prove in 2019. The Isotopes boast a few of the Rockies top pitchers like Jeff Hoffman, who’s been working at Driveline after some up-and-down seasons following his own TJ rehab. There’s former top prospect Ryan Castellani who’s been all over the map results and stuff wise in the past few years. Closer Yency Almonte figures to see time with the big club this year, and CF Yonathan Daza is in the Rockies’ top 10 list.

After Sacramento’s visit closes out the April home schedule, Albuquerque returns for the first weekend of May. They’ll be followed by the Reno Aces, beginning on Tuesday the 7th. They were supposed to be headlined by top prospect Jon Duplantier, a huge SP with solid velo from the right side, but the D-Backs called him up this week. Instead, we’ll settle for their #2 overall prospect, Taylor Widener, another RH SP. Widener’s got a mid-90s fastball and a good slider, and he used them to carve up AA hitters last year. Also pitching for the Isotopes are Taylor Clarke, Jimmy Sherfy, and ex-Red Sox lefty Robby Scott. Of note is former Rainiers/Mariners lefty Anthony Vasquez, who’s joined by ex-R’s OFs Andrew Aplin and Abraham Almonte.

On May 22nd, Tacoma welcomes the Nationals’ affiliate (wait, what?), the Fresno Grizzlies. This club had been an Astros affiliate for a few years, and then the Giants affiliate for a while before that; it’s going to take me a long, long time to associate them with the Nats, who haven’t had a PCL affiliate in…maybe ever? SS Carter Kieboom, the Nats #2 prospect, will play for the Grizz, but that’s pretty much it for big prospects. They DO have three pitchers named Austin/Austen, and Austin Voth played for UW.

In June, the Memphis Redbirds make their once-every-two-year visit to the Northwest. The Cardinals affiliate boasts St. Louis’ #4 prospect in RHP Ryan Helsley, and he’ll throw to #5 prospect, C Andrew Knizner. Former M’s prospect Seth Elledge starts in AA, but may be up with Memphis by this time. Their IF boasts Tacoma-born, strikeout-avoiding 2B Max Schrock, who’d been fascinating to watch as he moved up the line first with the Nats and then in the Oakland org, but he really struggled in the PCL last year. Also on the club are back-end-of-the-top-30 guys like 3B Evan Mendoza and P Daniel Poncedeleon.

As soon as Memphis leaves, the R’s play host to Nashville. The 4-game series begins on the 7th (a Friday), and lets us get a look at the Rangers close-to-the-majors talent. Yes, this had been an A’s affiliate for a few years, but the Rangers shockingly left Round Rock. The Sounds are led by 2B Eli White, long-time Rays prospect Taylor Guerrieri (who once boasted one of the minors best changeups) and hard-throwing lefty starter Taylor Hearn. Willie Calhoun, the position-challenged hitting savant starts in AAA after failing to, uh, hit for the Rangers last year. Lower-tier prospect Jose Trevino will catch along with Jett Bandy, the former big leaguer who’s hit well in the PCL in the past.

El Paso returns beginning June 20th, and then – shockingly late in the year for it – the M’s finally get to see divisional rivals Salt Lake beginning Saturday, June 29th. The Bees remain an Angels affiliate, which they’ve been for a long while now. The Angels systems has been building for a while now, and while consensus top prospect Jo Adell is a ways away, top pitcher Griffin Canning will try to figure out how to deal with the PCL; he’ll probably be thrilled to be in Tacoma and away from his offense-addled home park. Canning struggled in Salt Lake last year, but we’ll see if he’s learned something from the experience. 1B Matt Thaiss is a converted catcher who may actually hit enough to play first. His power output isn’t great, but he’s a decent all-around hitter. At 2B is former M’s prospect Luis Rengifo who broke out in a big way in 2018, his first in the Angels org. He dominated hi-A and ended up finishing the year in AAA. He drew as many walks as he had strikeouts, and hit for average in three leagues.

The AAA All-Star game takes up the second week of July, but when it ends, the Rainiers are home to host Reno beginning July 11th. On the 15th of the month, the renamed Las Vegas Aviators come to town. Vegas is now an A’s affiliate, so we’ll get a look at a solid system headlined by dominating SP Jesus Luzardo (who was born in Peru, but was drafted out of Marjorie Stoneman-Douglas HS in Florida). Frankly, I don’t expect he’ll be with the team in July, but I suppose you never know. Mid-July is right around the time that former top pitching prospect AJ Puk might return to game action following TJ surgery right before opening day last year. The rest of the Aviators rotation is basically the A’s rotation of a year or two ago, with Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn (another ex-M’s prospect), and Daniel Mengden. This figures to be a tough club in the PCL. In addition to all of the pitching, they have A’s #3 prospect Sean Murphy catching, #7 prospect Jorge Mateo at 3B, and IF Franklin Barreto. This is pretty much the most loaded team in the league, and while there’ll be plenty of turnover by July, they’ll likely get restocked with guys like SP Grant Holmes or maybe SP James Kaprelian, SS Kevin Merrell.

We close out July with a visit from the Omaha StormChasers, who have an experienced group of prospects, or maybe ex-prospects with something to prove. The big name is Bubba Starling, the local kid the Royals took in the first round way back in 2011, buying him out of a football scholarship. It’s been…slow going for the freakishly athletic CF, but he’s back in Omaha on a minor league deal. He lost a lot of time due to injuries, but I’m rooting for him. He’ll be joined by fireballing enigma Josh Staumont who struggled with control, but took to a relief role quite well in 2018. SS Nicky Lopez is still a rising/traditional prospect, and he’ll man the left side with 3B prospect Kelvin Gutierrez. They’ve also got OF Brett Phillips, who scuffled in the majors with Milwaukee and KC last year, but was a great pure hitter in the minors.

On Friday, the 2nd of August, the Iowa Cubs come to town. The club is nowhere near as loaded as the old days with Kris Bryant and Javy Baez, but there are some back-of-the-top-30 guys on the IF like SS Zack Short and 2B Trent Giambrone. There are a few minor prospects among the pitchers, but comeback story Tim Collins, the 5’7″ hurler for the Royals for a few years, is a bigger name. James Norwood and Dillon Maples are solid pitchers; both excelled for Iowa last year, the former in relief, and the latter in the rotation. By this time, the club will likely promote a few more of their top pitching prospects from AA, guys like Michael Rucker and Thomas Hatch, and we could see SS prospect Nico Hoerner.

Fresno, Salt Lake and Vegas close out the home schedule, with the final games on the first two days of September. Go catch a game or a series in Tacoma; it’s a great place to watch baseball, and the league’s great thanks to spectacular variation in run environment from park to park and division to division.

Tonight’s line-up:
1: Braden Bishop, CF
2: Eric Young, JR. LF
3: JP Crawford, SS
4: Jose Lobaton, C
5: Joey Curletta, 1B
6: Shed Long, 2B
7: David Freitas, DH
8: Kris Negron, 3B
9: Tito Polo, RF
SP: Erik Swanson


3 Responses to “PCL Preview and Opening Day for the 2019 Tacoma Rainiers”

  1. marc w on April 4th, 2019 10:57 pm

    This has been quite a game. Swanson was great, striking out 8 over 5 scoreless. The bullpen was solid, but Nick Rumbelow gave up 2 runs to allow Sacto to tie in the 9th…but the big 2 run hit was a “double” on a ball that went off Eric Young’s glove. Not saying it should’ve been called an error, but Young should make that play.

    It’s in the 11th now, and the R’s have moved ahead on a Kris Negron hit. A one-run lead in extras doesn’t mean as much given a runner starts the inning on 2nd base, but hey, better than nothing.

    Williams Jerez, the reliever the Giants org got for Chris Stratton was mostly great, striking out 3 between 10th-11th, but could lose it, I guess. JP Crawford hitless, Curletta 1-3 with 2 BBs. Braden Bishop 2-4 thus far, Freitas 2-3 with a walk.

  2. marc w on April 4th, 2019 11:05 pm

    Sacramento walks it off, 5-4 in 11. Booooo. Get ’em tomorrow, Tacoma.

  3. Jay Yencich on April 4th, 2019 11:10 pm

    Logistics render me more of an Everett fanboy but I really hope to make it down to Tacoma this season. Even if some of the 40-man type prospects get promoted, there’s also a good chance of reinforcements coming in from Arkansas mid-season.

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