Baseball is a unique game with many special qualities and quirks that sets it apart from the other major sports. There is the romanticism, the history, the numbers, the tradition, the volume of games and length of the season and many more. For those die-hard fans, however, one of the greatest aspects of the national pastime is following rising stars in your favorite team’s farm system. In today’s world of constant sports coverage and information, we are now able to closely track the progression of players through the levels of the minor league system, anxiously awaiting their arrival to the parent club. When one breaks through and succeeds, we all feel a great sense of satisfaction as the time, hope and anticipation was worth the wait. I am sure Orioles fans can share those sentiments with you every time they watch Manny Machado stroke a double to the gap. Same goes for Angels fans with Mike Trout, Nationals fans with Bryce Harper, Rays fans with Matt Moore and on, and on, and on. Sadly, more often than not, the opposite happens and that joy is ripped from you like a week old Band-Aid. Maybe your prize prospect busted his ankle, derailing a promising future. Or they finally arrived at the Show and struggled to make the necessary adjustments, never quite realizing their seemingly (at one time) unlimited potential. Or maybe your team was desperate to add a piece to their championship puzzle, so they bit the bullet, dipped into the farm and traded away that beloved youngster you had been following for a handful of seasons. Or maybe you are a Seattle Mariners fan and you get to experience all of these emotions year after year.
On the evening of January 13, 2012 I was out to dinner with my very pregnant wife and her parents when I received a bone chilling text message from my friend Eric.
“Jesus for Pineda”
Unless there some mysterious biblical character named Pineda that I had never heard of, these words only meant one thing: my beloved Jesus Montero was on the move. Two other texts followed as I sat staring blankly at my salmon.
“Yes. May be others involved.” “Tried for Felix. Offered the big 3 says Heyman”
Rumors had been swirling for quite a while that Montero was on his way out the door, despite showing flashes of greatness during a brief cup of coffee down the stretch in 2011 and being labeled a “generational bat” by some. The reasons were bountiful: Montero wouldn’t survive at catcher and the Yankees didn’t want him clogging the DH spot as their veterans aged. After years of shaky rotations, the Yankees brass favored young pitching, assuming they could always sign a big bat out in the free agent market; and one of the most annoying, Montero had an attitude problem and his entitlement ticked off the veteran locker room. So, on that blustery winter night, prospect-hugger hearts around New York shattered as the great savior, Jesus, was told there was no room for him at the inn and was shipped off to the Pacific Northwest. Coming back to NY was ace in waiting, Michael Pineda. The towering flamethrower had a fantastic breakout season in 2011 and was still quite young and developing. It seemed like a shrewd swap on the surface as the pitching-starved Bronx Bombers and limp-lineup Mariners each benefited where they needed help the most. However, many Yankee fans looked at things differently as they saw an aging lineup that badly needed an infusion of youth. Those angry fans immediately had more fuel tossed into their fire when Pineda showed up to the team facility out of shape in February and eventually things blew up during a manic training camp in which beat writers and pundits watched his velocity as closely as Barack Obama reads your personal emails. With each fastball thrown under 90 MPH, worry built, but Pineda had kept pushing through, trying to prove himself and earn a rotation slot. That led to Pineda tearing his labrum and hitting the DL for a surgery that had a low success rate and involved a lengthy recovery. Not a good combination. He didn’t help matters when he got tagged for a DUI shortly afterwards. While Pineda was going under the knife and scheduling a court date, the man he would forever be linked with was off to a solid start in Seattle.
There was a time, about 15 years ago, that the Mariners consistently possessed the most feared lineup in baseball. The names read like a who’s who of All Star baseball sluggers: Ken Griffey, Jr., Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Brett Boone, Alex Rodriguez and Ichiro Suzuki. From 1996 through 2002, the lowest number of runs they scored was 814 and they usually hovered closer to 900, even plating an amazing 993 in 1996. However, with their stars fading or leaving town, things started to trend downwards as 2003 dawned. By the end of the decade, the Mariners kicked off a stretch of offensive futility that saw two straight seasons with less than 600 runs scored. As a result, since 2004, they have finished in the AL West cellar seven times. They finished second in 2007, just missing out on a Wild Card berth, and finished third in 2009. It was no coincidence that their precipitous slide correlated with a dearth of strong hitters emerging from their farm system. Combine that with poor roster management, a lack of free agent signing acumen and poor trading and you can now see how a team flush with Nintendo money, in a gorgeous new stadium, in a red-hot sports market can be so consistently bad. 2003 was a key year in franchise history for a few reasons, both good and bad. One major positive was a move that a majority of fans probably had no idea even happened at the time. With the 37th pick of that year’s amateur draft, the team selected a high school shortstop named Adam Jones. As with most drafts, your head will spin when you look at the names selected ahead of Jones, but the league’s oversight was Seattle’s gain. Drooling over his arm, the Mariners had aspirations to move Jones into the starting rotation, but Jones maintained that he wanted to remain an everyday player. He remained at shortstop until Seattle signed the immortal Yuniesky Betancourt. At that point, Jones was moved to centerfield. He made his major league debut in the summer of 2006 as an injury fill-in. He also saw some time in 2007 and while his success was limited, there was enough there to get fans excited. The good feelings were short-lived.
After coming up just short of a playoff berth in 2007, GM Jack Zduriencik wanted to solidify his rotation behind Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and burgeoning star Felix Hernandez and he thought he had enough (aging) offense to sacrifice a young bat. Sound familiar? So, on February 8, 2008, in one of the most maligned trades of the decade, the Mariners traded their young CF along with reliever George Sherrill and three minor league arms to the Baltimore Orioles for starter Erik Bedard. Despite the fact that Bedard was coming off a very good two-year stretch at the top of Baltimore’s rotation, the trade was panned by most. It seemed like an awfully large bounty to pay, especially for a team that needed youth in the lineup. Many also saw Seattle’s 2007 as a bit of fool’s gold, noting that the team still needed to slowly rebuild and not push their chips all-in because they were not really close to being ready for a championship run. Bedard pitched well when healthy, but he quickly got sucked into a mire of injuries, making just 30 starts over the next two years. On the other side of the country, Jones slowly developed into a star and the type of two-way player the Mariners, and every other team in the league, greatly covet today. While the Mariners have improved in both drafting and trading for offense since that time, they have seemingly stumbled into a disconnect in developing those hitters through the system and bringing them up to the major league level.
In 2009, they drafted Dustin Ackley (.237/.307/.344 in 1,215 PA) second overall. Ackley would twice peak at #1 in baseball’s organizational rankings and at 11th overall in all of baseball. Later in that draft, they selected Kyle Seager (.235/.324/.426 in 1,125 PA). The two have yet to look like cornerstone bats as expected, specifically the studly Ackley. While not as heralded, 2004 11th round pick Michael Saunders (.217/.361/.644 in 1,368 PA) and 2004 Mets 9th round selection Mike Carp (.255/.327/.413 in 608 PA) have never developed within the Mariners system either. At the 2010 trade deadline, Seattle spurned the Yankees and Montero, instead choosing to deal ace Cliff Lee to Texas for stud prospect Justin Smoak, who was the 11th pick of the 2008 draft, peaking at #13 in Baseball America’s league rankings (#2 for the Texas organizational rankings). Since arriving in the bigs, Smoak has petered out, disappointing to the tune of .229/.310/.377 in 1,326 Seattle PA. After passing on Montero in 2010, Seattle finally brought him into the fold in 2012 and despite Smoak’s struggles, the franchise seemed to be delighted that they landed both players and they saw both as cornerstones for the future (Montero peaked at #1 in BA’s Yankee team rankings and #3 overall). After a decent rookie campaign, Montero completely fell apart in 2013. For his Seattle career, he is now sitting at .252/.293/.377 in 663 PA. Even though the team seemed to commit to Montero as a catcher, the bloom quickly fell off that rose and he was demoted back to AAA where he has been now manning first base. Many doubted Montero could stick behind the plate for the Mariners, especially with highly touted catching prospect Mike Zunino mastering his craft in the minors. Unfortunately for the team, the trend seems to be continuing, as Zunino is hitting just .238/.303/.503 in an albeit small sample size of 185 AAA AB. Despite those numbers, the Mariners have decided to promote Zunino, hoping he gets it going at the major league level. Even if you want to shift blame to Texas and New York for Smoak and Montero respectively, there still seems to be something foul in the Puget sound that is stunting the development of these young bats. You may argue that spacious Safeco field is causing the damage, but outside of Montero’s 2012 campaign, none of these guys sport significant home/road splits. They suck across the board and things don’t seem to be improving at all, with yet another fourth place finish looming.
A year ago this month, Michael Pineda seemed doomed to be a footnote in Yankee history, a forgotten piece of a brutal trade that robbed fans of watching a homegrown Hall of Fame slugger. We watched from afar as Montero was breaking in as a catcher, working with the great King Felix and adjusting to the big league level. The memories of Montero poking opposite field home runs over the Yankee Stadium short porch in 2011 seemed like a distant memory. And now, just twelve months later, the often cruel baseball gods have flipped the script. While Montero toils away, learning a new position in the minors, Michael Pineda just completed his first rehab start and came out of it healthy and strong, already pumping that 95 MPH fastball to go along with his developing change-up. Word is that Pineda will be in the Bronx by the All-Star Break, something that seemed impossible a year ago. Prospect hugging is a dangerous game, and more often than not can lead to heartbreak and sorrow. But things can change in the blink of an eye as a bust can go boom with the flick of a wrist and a surefire All-Star can fade into oblivion with one swing gone wrong. The ups and downs of the trek through the minor league systems beautifully mirrors the long, winding road of the baseball season. The key is never to get too high or too low. But sometimes, just sometimes you have to let your guard down and embrace the moment. And really, isn’t that what makes it all worth the ride?