Spring Training Previews: Catchers

January 31, 2019

We are just one sleep away from February, and that means spring training is rapidly approaching. It’s time to start talking baseball around these parts, so let’s begin our positional previews as we look to see who is in contention to make the Tacoma Rainiers opening day roster.

We will start with the catchers.

SEATTLE

The Mariners catching situation is really easy to pin down at this moment in time, because they have just two receivers on the 40-man roster: presumed starter Omar Narvaez, and returning back-up David Freitas.

The organization has signed major league veteran Jose Lobaton to a minor league contract. He has caught over 400 major league games, including 22 with the New York Mets last season. He’ll compete with Freitas for the back-up job in spring training, but his lack of 40-man roster status means we are going to pencil him in for Tacoma for now.

TACOMA

With the exception of Lobaton, the Triple-A catching crew that is coming into spring training is not very experienced behind the dish.

Lobaton is the likely starter. He mashed it for Las Vegas in 39 PCL games last year, batting .348 with eight home runs in just 132 at-bats. The switch-hitter is a career .280/.363/.443 hitter at the Triple-A level. He is also very experienced as a catcher, having played the position since he was signed as a teenager out of Venezuela in 2002.

The other catchers in the Tacoma mix are recent converts to the position.

Austin Nola is a former infielder in the Marlins organization who converted to catcher at the Double-A level in 2017, so he has two years of catching experience. He caught during the 2018 season for New Orleans, so he has done it at the Triple-A level. The Mariners signed Nola as a minor league free agent earlier this winter. Although he didn’t hit for much power, Nola did show strong on-base skills last season in the PCL, posting a .370 on-base percentage in 69 games.

The other catcher in the mix for a Tacoma assignment is organization stalwart Joe DeCarlo. The Mariners second round pick in 2012 as a corner infielder, DeCarlo converted to catching in 2017 at Class-A Modesto. Last season he moved up to Double-A Arkansas and hit eight homers in just 207 at-bats, with a .246 batting average. DeCarlo has caught roughly 150 games in his professional career and may be asked to return to Double-A to continue his growth at the position.

The Mariners could add another experienced Triple-A/MLB catcher to the mix. Remember last year when Garrett Kennedy (who was released after the 2018 season) came out of nowhere to be the Rainiers opening day catcher, due to a series of roster moves at the start of the season? We could see that situation repeat itself, especially if any of the five players mentioned in this post suffer injuries during spring training – which is always a concern with catchers.

Next Thursday we will look at potential Tacoma Rainiers corner infielders.

Links:

  • Edgar Martinez returned to Seattle and was greeted as a Hall of Famer.
  • In the PCL, the Fresno Grizzlies unveiled new uniforms and one of the combinations includes… red pants?
  • If you hadn’t heard, the soccer side of the Tacoma sports enterprise made some major announcements yesterday. The S2 franchise (Sounders top affiliate) will continue to play at Cheney Stadium, and it now has a real name: the Tacoma Defiance. Furthermore, the top-level women’s team Reign FC (formerly Seattle Reign) will play its home matches at Cheney Stadium this season.

More Relievers Added To Spring Mix

January 28, 2019

The Seattle Mariners hosted their annual Pre-Spring Training Media Event late last week, and there was quite a bit of chatter about the prospects in the organization. The trades that the M’s made during the winter have brought a lot of talent into the minor leagues.

Much of the specific talk about prospects centered around the Double-A club. Director of Player Development Andy McKay said that top first base prospect Evan White will open the season with Arkansas, and without saying so directly he made it sound like oft-injured outfield prospect Kyle Lewis will start there, also.

There was no talk about specific players being assigned to Tacoma to open the season – which makes a lot of sense. The upper-level players acquired in the offseason will come to major league spring training, and Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais will see them in action for their first time. New additions like J.P. Crawford, Justus Sheffield, and Erik Swanson (and many more) will get a chance to earn major league roster spots.

The combination of open major league roster spots and an influx of upper-level minor league talent is going to make this an extra-interesting spring training. When asked about the upcoming camp, Dipoto said he is “looking for progress from young players.” The youth movement is on.

The team released its list of non-roster invitees to major league spring training, and as usual there are a couple of minor league free agent signings that were not previously reported. Two relief pitchers signed to minor league deals with spring training invites are now in the mix for Tacoma roster spots.

Robin Leyer is a right-hander form the Dominican Republic who pitched last year for the Cincinnati Reds Double-A affiliate in Pensacola. The 25-year-old posted a 2.59 ERA in 42 games out of the bullpen, with 65 strikeouts and 28 walks in 59 innings pitched. He must throw a good sinker or something, because he has maintained a low home runs allowed rate throughout his career.

The M’s have also signed a 24-year-old right-hander from Venezuela named Jorgan Cavanerio. He may be ticketed for Double-A, but his numbers from last year in the Marlins system are intriguing: a 2.54 ERA as a multiple-inning reliever at Advanced Class-A, where he walked just five batters in 46 innings with 42 strikeouts. He pitched in 13 more games for Double-A Jacksonville later in the season.

One player we won’t be seeing in Tacoma is infielder Kaleb Cowart. The Mariners hoped he would clear waivers and that they could develop him as a two-way player in the minors, but he was claimed by the Detroit Tigers. So much for that plan.

We’ll start our annual position-by-position look at the players who could be on the Tacoma roster this coming Thursday, with the catchers as the first group.

Links:

  • The Seattle Times has a round-up of the major league news that came out of the Seattle Mariners Pre-Spring Training Media Event.
  • Mallex Smith was one of the players introduced at the Mariners event on Thursday, and his personality shined.
  • The News Tribune’s story on the event serves as a reminder that the players sure don’t look at the coming season and think it’s a “step-back year.”
  • Edgar Martinez met the other new Hall of Famers, and it was story time. << this is a good one.
  • The Mariners signed high-pressure reliever Hunter Strickland to boost the bullpen – and potentially be the closer. And just like that, the M’s are out of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes.
  • From Baseball America’s latest Minor League Transactions, we learn that Gordon Beckham has signed a minor league deal with the Detroit Tigers. Beckham spent the last two seasons with Tacoma, earning a few call-ups to Seattle. We wish him the best with Detroit.
  • In the PCL, the Sacramento River Cats announced their coaching staff with ex-Rainiers coach Dave Brundage returning as manager.
  • The Houston Astros named Mickey Storey as the new manager of the Round Rock Express.
  • Rick Sweet will be the first manager in the Triple-A era of the San Antonio Missions.


Edgar Adds A Bigger, Better Hall

January 23, 2019

It is with great pleasure that the Tacoma Rainiers organization congratulates Seattle Mariners legend Edgar Martinez on his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooperstown is where he belongs.

Edgar was a tremendous major league player, of course – one of the greatest hitters of his era. Prior to that, he was one of the best hitters in the Pacific Coast League.

Did you know that the PCL Hall of Fame was ahead of the curve on Edgar? He was inducted in 2013 to the PCL Hall – his “online plaque” is right here.

When Edgar played in the PCL, the Mariners affiliate was in Calgary. We were the Tacoma Tigers with the Oakland A’s affiliate back then – Martinez played in the league all or parts of the 1985 through the 1989 seasons.

Martinez was a career .344 hitter in the PCL. And get this: in 276 games and 950 at-bats in the league, Edgar drew 182 walks while striking out only 102 times. That’s a heck of a ratio.

More recently, we have seen a lot of Edgar at Cheney Stadium as he increased his role as a hitting instructor, first in the minor leagues and eventually at the major league level.

Some of you will remember when Edgar threw out the ceremonial first pitch to open the 2015 season at Cheney Stadium. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Rainiers employee No. 1: OK, we have to find someone to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day. It needs to be awesome.

Rainiers employee No. 2: How about a Mariners legend, like Ken Griffey Jr. or Edgar Martinez?

Rainiers employee No. 1: Edgar lives around here. He’ll do it.

Rainiers employee No. 3: I’m not sure, he’s a pretty mellow guy who doesn’t really seem to be into that kind of thing. How are we going to convince him to do it?

(some moments of silence)

Rainiers employee No. 2: Tell him we’re gonna fly him in on a helicopter, and land in center field!

The Mariners made a trade on Monday, and it’s one that will help the Tacoma Rainiers.

Infielder Shed Long was acquired from the New York Yankees, in exchange for outfield prospect Josh Stowers. Long had just been acquired by the Yankees from the Cincinnati Reds, as a part of a trade involving major league pitcher Sonny Gray.

Long spent the 2018 season at the Double-A level, hitting .261 as an everyday player in the pitcher-friendly Southern League. The 23-year-old showed some pop for a second baseman, belting 12 homers and 22 doubles. He had a .353 on-base percentage, and he swiped 19 bases.

Long has been playing the last season-and-a-half in Double-A, so a promotion to the Triple-A level makes sense.

The Mariners gave up their second round draft pick from last June – Stowers – in order to get him.

Long had to be added to the 40-man roster, so Kaleb Cowart was designated for assignment and now we must wait to see if he clears waivers and is outrighted to Tacoma. Cowart is a solid Triple-A player who we have seen a lot of the last couple of seasons when he was with Salt Lake. He would definitely be a nice addition to the Tacoma roster.

Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus announced their Top 100 (or in BP’s case, 101) Prospects today.

Baseball America is more bullish on the Mariners farm system, ranking four players in the Top 100. Baseball Prospectus has two – but it should be noted that one of BA’s is not eligible for BP’s list. Baseball Prospectus does not qualify signings from the Japanese league as “prospects,” so Yusei Kikuchi is not listed.

Baseball America

  • LHP Justus Sheffield (27)
  • LHP Yusei Kikuchi (45)
  • OF Jerred Kelenic (68)
  • 1B Evan White (100)

Baseball Prospectus

  • LHP Justus Sheffield (50)
  • OF Jerred Kelenic (63)

As always, please remember that prospect lists are fun for discussion but what happens on the field is what actually matters.

Links:

  • We’ll start with the Seattle Times story on Edgar Martinez being elected to Cooperstown, complete with reaction from the man himself.
  • Larry Stone was with Edgar and his family when he got the call, and wrote this great piece.
  • The Times has a cool look at Edgar’s top moments.
  • The News Tribune has five reasons why Edgar belongs in the Hall. Here is the paper’s story on Edgar’s election.
  • Some fans have been actively pushing Edgar’s candidacy since the very beginning, and Larry Stone found them.
  • Here’s the Seattle Times story on the trade for infielder Shed Long.
  • Some Rainiers players from last year are on the move. We’ve lost outfielder John Andreoli to a waiver claim – the Texas Rangers claimed him. Starting pitcher Christian Bergman was a free agent after the season, and he signed a minor league deal with the Chicago Cubs.
  • In a feel-good story, former Rainiers and Mariners reliever Danny Farquhar signed a minor league contract with the New York Yankees, and has been cleared to pitch after his scary episode.
  • PCL news: Memphis announced its new manager, former St. Louis Cardinals minor league outfielder Ben Johnson. New Orleans has hired former Salt Lake skipper Keith Johnson as their new manager.

Coming Attractions

January 18, 2019

Just a quick update today to pass along a few links accumulated during the week, and to let you know what’s happening in this space in the future.

Things should be picking up late next week. The Mariners will hold their annual Pre-Spring Training Media Luncheon on Thursday, and I’ll have a report on the Rainiers-related news from the event.

The following week – I’m eyeing Tuesday, January 29th – we’ll begin our weekly Rainiers spring training previews. In each post we look at a positional group and the players who could make the Rainiers opening day roster. These get sorted into catchers, corner infielders, middle infielders, outfielders, starting pitchers, and relievers.

That project will lead us into March, when spring training will be in full swing.

A word about spring training: if you are planning to go to Arizona this year, keep in mind that the major league squad is departing very early because of the Japan trip. You’re going to want to go in early-to-mid March if you want to see the big league team. The late-March Cactus League games will feature mostly Rainiers players, which will be kind of fun – instead of playing on a dusty back field, the Tacoma players will be in the major league spring training parks.

Links:

  • Greg Johns has a story on Mariners first base prospect Joey Curletta, who we expect will be the Tacoma Rainiers first baseman on opening night.
  • One of the most successful baseball players to ever come from Washington state, Mel Stottlemyre has passed away. Don’t miss Larry Stone’s heartfelt obituary.
  • Darrin Beene – the sports editor at The News Tribune – revealed his Hall of Fame ballot and has a column explaining his picks.
  • Former Rainiers pitcher Hector Noesi is back in the states, signing a minor league deal with the Marlins. He’s been pitching in Korea since 2016.
  • Jonah Keri checked in on relief pitcher Oliver Drake, who set a new record by pitching for five different teams in one season last year. He’s a walking waiver claim – kind of amazing that Jerry Dipoto never grabbed him.
  • In the PCL, we have a new manager for the Oklahoma City Dodgers. Travis Barbary will lead a PCL team for his first time. He’s a catching expert, and the Los Angeles Dodgers top two catching prospects are both expected in Oklahoma City this year.
  • Memphis has been announced as the host of the 2019 Triple-A National Championship Game. The Redbirds have played in this game each of the last two seasons, and now they are hosting it.

Daren Brown Back To Manage Rainiers

January 14, 2019

The Seattle Mariners announced the 2019 Tacoma Rainiers coaching staff earlier today, and a familiar face will be at the helm of the Rainiers.

Daren Brown returns for what will be his eighth (sort of) season guiding Tacoma.

The veteran minor league manager is Tacoma’s all-time leader in manager wins, with 433 victories over seven-ish seasons.

Twice in his career Brown was appointed Tacoma’s skipper, only to get promoted to the major league team during the PCL season. Most notably was the 2010 season, when Brown piloted the Rainiers to a big lead in the division race… but was promoted to Mariners manager in mid-August, replacing Don Wakamatsu. Brown got fifty games of major league managerial experience, while the Rainiers went on to win the PCL Championship with hitting coach Jose Castro filling in as manager down the stretch and into the playoffs.

After another mid-season promotion from Tacoma in 2013 – this time to major league third base coach – Brown was one of few holdovers when Eric Wedge‘s staff was disbanded. He spent two years as a roving minor league instructor.

Once Jerry Dipoto took over, and Andy McKay was named farm director, they realized they had an experienced Triple-A and former interim major league manager working as a roving baserunning instructor, which they thought was an under-utilization of his talents. Pat Listach was already in as our manager in Tacoma, so they made Brown the Double-A manager. That’s what he has been doing the last three years, with one league championship (in 2016).

It has been nearly six full seasons since Brown was in Tacoma or the PCL. So, Daren – if you are reading this – here is a quick update of what’s going on around here.

  • The Cheney Stadium renovation and subtle improvements have been a hit, with growing home crowds at the games.
  • The league has changed. El Paso is a great road trip, once you get there. San Antonio is coming in this year. No more Springs. Nashville’s new ballpark is a jewel. We make our last trip to New Orleans this season.
  • The Rainiers still can’t win in Reno. Something to work on!
  • Sacramento is no longer a perennial title contender. In fact, they aren’t very good at all. And Tony D isn’t even in the league this season.
  • Somehow, our division rival Fresno ended up being a Washington Nationals affiliate. I don’t know anything about them, either.
  • The massive freeway construction project at the I-5 – HWY 16 interchange is not even close to being completed, and it will probably be obsolete before it is finished.
  • Tacoma has many great new restaurants since you were last here.
  • They cut the PCL season from 144 to 140 games, and added four off-days to the schedule. However, we spend those extra off-days travelling. It is an improvement, though.
  • We now have an Epic Sax Gorilla.
  • Your office probably smells of cigars. You know who to thank for that.
  • Tom Newberg is still here.

Oh yeah, that last one reminds me. The rest of the coaching staff:

Lance Painter returns for his fourth season as the Rainiers pitching coach, so be ready local golf courses.

Roy Howell returns to Tacoma as the hitting coach. He served as Rainiers manager in 2014, and has been the Double-A hitting coach for the last four seasons. The Rainiers hitting coach the past two seasons was David Berg, who is now the manager of the Class-A West Virginia Power.

Newberg returns for his 13th season as Tacoma’s trainer. Derek Mendoza will be back for his fourth season as the Performance coach (strength & conditioning), and the new assistant trainer is Josh DiLoreto.

Nothing but familiar faces on this throwback/retro/turn-back-the-clock coaching staff. Opening day will be here soon.

Links:

  • The News Tribune already has a story up on Daren Brown‘s return, with quotes from him.
  • The Seattle Times has an article on the Mariners entire development staff. The organization is all-in on hiring pitching coaches from private academies instead of ex-players.
  • Baseball America has a big round-up of minor league transactions, and several former Rainiers players are included. These are all minor league contracts – here we go: Erasmo Ramirez signed with the Red Sox… D.J. Peterson and Donn Roach are back with the White Sox… Justin Grimm inked with Cleveland… Michael Saunders signed with the Rockies… Cameron Perkins is taking his talents to the Dodgers… Mike Morin went to the Twins… and Steven Baron is now a Pirate.

Ackley Returns To Rainiers; Muno Moves To Front Office

January 11, 2019

The Mariners made some additions to the big league team on Thursday, signing utility infielder Tim Beckham and relief pitcher Cory Gearrin. And they also brought back Dustin Ackley.

Wait a minute. Dustin Ackley? The Mariners first round draft pick in 2009? Arguably the greatest hitter in NCAA baseball history? The guy who played for Tacoma in 2010 and 2011?

Yup, he’s back, on a minor league contract. It appears that Ackley will be suiting up for the Tacoma Rainiers in April.

Pacific Coast League fans have seen plenty of Ackley the last two years. He’s been a regular for the Salt Lake Bees, batting .261-6-59 in 2017 with a .716 OPS before posting a .286 average with four homers in 72 games last year.

Ackley has not played in the major leagues since May of 2016 when he was with the Yankees. His season ended due to major shoulder surgery, which affected his throwing well into the 2018 campaign. He was strictly a designated hitter for Salt Lake until late in the season in 2017, and last year he saw time at first base, left field, and second base.

There was much overreaction among Mariners fans on the internet (surprise, surprise!) when word of the Ackley signing got out. From my vantage point, this looks like an acquisition strictly to help out our team in Tacoma. We’ll happily take him: even when he was one of the top prospects in all of baseball, Ackley was a great representative for the team and would happily volunteer to participate in Rainiers community outreach programs. Now that he is a veteran, he should be a good clubhouse leader for the young talent that we’ll start to see this season.

Speaking of a, um, former and current Tacoma Rainier, MiLB.com has a story on our own Danny Muno, who played infield for the Rainiers in 2017 and 2018, and quietly moved to the Rainiers front office after the season. You should check it out.

More PCL coaching staffs have been announced.

Marty Pevey returns for his franchise record seventh season as the manager of the Iowa Cubs.

El Paso has a new, veteran manager in Edwin Rodriguez. Previous manager Rod Barajas was promoted to the Padres major league coaching staff.

Links:

  • Here’s the Seattle Times story on the return of Dustin Ackley.
  • The story on the signing of Tim Beckham and Cory Gearrin makes it sound like recently acquired shortstop J.P. Crawford will begin the season with Tacoma.
  • In a Mariners Q&A, reporter Greg Johns fields questions on Dan Vogelbach and potential Rainiers outfielder Eric Filia.
  • In the PCL, some minor improvements have been approved for the old ballpark in San Antonio, which will be housing a Triple-A baseball team for the first time this season.
  • Our friends to the north the Everett Aqua Sox are celebrating their 35th anniversary this year, and they made a cool logo for it.
  • Former Rainiers slugger Bryan LaHair is now the hitting coach for the Cincinnati Reds short-season affiliate in Billings, Montana.
  • Longtime major league hitting coach Rick Down passed away at age 68. Although he was known for his success with the New York Yankees, Down made a couple of trips to Tacoma when he served as the Mariners minor league hitting coordinator during the 2011 season.

Updated M’s Prospect List; PCL Coaching Staffs

January 9, 2019

An updated Seattle Mariners Top Prospect List was released today, this one from Baseball Prospectus. It reflects the new-look farm system, with four of the top six players recently acquired via trades.

Baseball Prospectus is a subscription site, so you need a password to see their full list with the scouting reports on all of the players which goes beyond an organization top ten. But I will share their ranking of the Top Ten:

  1. Justus Sheffield, LHP
  2. Jarred Kelenic, OF
  3. Evan White, 1B
  4. Justin Dunn, RHP
  5. Logan Gilbert, RHP
  6. Erik Swanson, RHP
  7. Kyle Lewis, OF
  8. Julio Rodriguez, OF
  9. Sam Carlson, RHP
  10. Braden Bishop, OF

From the top ten, Sheffield, Swanson and Bishop are the most likely to start the season with Tacoma, with hopefully White, Dunn, and Lewis coming sometime during the season. That’s all just speculation on my part – we don’t really know if Jerry Dipoto will feel pressure to promote prospects quickly, as previous Mariners GMs have during non-contending major league seasons. It has been a few years since this has been a consideration.

Here’s a link to the complete article if you are a subscriber. If you like to follow prospects from around the minors, Baseball Prospectus is a valuable subscription. You get updates on prospect performances 3-4 times a week during the season, and some occasionally nifty writing as well. For example, this post came complete with an introductory Death Cab For Cutie lyric written in 2001 (when the M’s were at their peak) that somehow capsulizes the comfort and despair that BP believes Mariners fans will feel in 2019. Additionally, while I am not a fantasy baseball player, I’m told that BP is an excellent resource for that.

OK, back on topic now. Lots of PCL news below.

We anticipate an announcement from the Mariners any day now on the 2019 Tacoma Rainiers Turn Back The Clock Coaching Staff. In the meantime, teams around the PCL are naming their managers and coaching staffs for the approaching season.

Rainiers division rival Fresno – now a Washington Nationals affiliate – will be led by former PCL player and major league catcher Randy Knorr. The pitching coach will be ex-Rainiers and former M’s pitcher and minor league coach Brad Holman.

Another division rival has a new skipper: minor league baseball lifer Chris Cron will manage the Reno Aces this season, and is possibly going to have his son Kevin Cron as his cleanup hitter.

Albuquerque brings back Glenallen Hill for his fifth season at the helm of the Isotopes.

On the other side of the league, the Nashville Sounds staff includes former Rainiers and Mariners hitting coach Howard Johnson, along with former Cy Young Award winner (and PCL player) Eric Gagne. PCL veteran Jason Wood returns as manager of the Texas Rangers affiliate.

Omaha is standing pat with its coaching staff, once again led by skipper Brian Poldberg.

Links:

  • Get ready for the Ichiro comeback, which will begin in spring training next month. Larry Stone has a column that basically says, why not?
  • Seattle Times writer Ryan Divish has an analysis of the Yusei Kikuchi signing, which on the surface does not appear to fit the Mariners rebuilding plan… or does it?
  • The Mariners have signed right-handed pitcher Aaron Northcraft to a minor league contract. He has Triple-A experience with El Paso, but has not pitched in affiliated ball since 2016. He reportedly has been throwing well in the Venezuelan Winter League.