Rainiers Anticipate Young Starting Rotation

February 28, 2019

In recent years sorting out the Tacoma Rainiers starting rotation has been a challenge during spring training, due to the large number of minor league free agents signed by the Mariners. Things are a little different this year: Jerry Dipoto‘s offseason trades have brought in a handful of young pitching prospects, and we are going to see some of them at Cheney Stadium this year.

At the major league level the Mariners starting rotation is set – barring injury, of course. The M’s are looking at a rotation of Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc, Yusei Kikuchi, Marco Gonzales, and Felix Hernandez.

That means that top prospect Justus Sheffield is probably going to begin the year here in Tacoma, working to refine his command while waiting for an opening in Seattle. The lefty was the key prospect acquired from the Yankees in the James Paxton trade, and he is ranked as the Mariners top prospect overall by most outlets.

Another pitcher acquired in that trade was right-hander Erik Swanson. He reached Triple-A in the Yankees system last season, making 13 starts in the International League with a 3.86 ERA. There was some chatter at the time of the trade that Swanson may profile as a major league long reliever/swing man, which could cause him to win a spot on the Mariners opening day roster. It’s something to keep an eye on this month.

Large human Max Povse is a candidate to break camp in the Rainiers rotation. It seems like he’s been around forever, but Povse will play this season at age 25. In a common refrain for minor league pitchers, Povse has good stuff (and size) but needs to improve his control.

The organization signed veteran left-hander Tommy Milone to a minor league contract, helping flesh out the Rainiers rotation and provide major league depth. Milone has pitched all or part of eight seasons in the majors, with a career record of 46-37, 4.42. Last year the 32-year-old made twenty starts in Triple-A for the Nationals affiliate, going 7-4, 4.11 in the IL.

Another prospect added this winter – from the Mets in this case – right-hander Justin Dunn could make the jump to Triple-A for opening day. Dunn is just 23-years-old, but he made 24 starts in Double-A last year with a 3.56 ERA in the Eastern League. He struck out 156 batters in just 135 innings, albeit with 52 walks.

Columbian righty Nabil Crismatt was signed as a minor league free agent. He was teammates with Dunn at Double-A in the Mets system last year, and also made nine Triple-A starts for Las Vegas. His first taste of Triple-A ball didn’t go very well (8.84 ERA), but he just recently turned 24 and has room for improvement.

Some additional names in the mix: lefthander Anthony Misiewicz made 21 starts for Double-A Arkansas last year, but had a rough season (3-12, 5.51) and may need to go back… free agent signee Aaron Northcraft hasn’t pitched since 2016, but the now 28-year-old was swing-man for El Paso in 2015-2016… young lefty Ricardo Sanchez made 13 starts in Double-A for the Braves organization last year. He’s on the 40-man roster, turns 22 in April, and is likely to open the season in Arkansas but is a prospect to follow.

Overall, there is not a lot of depth in this group, and the Mariners could be combing the independent leagues looking for pitching once again this season.

One name not on this list is Rob Whalen, who announced his retirement from baseball (via twitter) earlier this week. Whalen made 20 starts for Tacoma last year, going 7-7 with a 5.16 ERA, and we had him penciled into the Rainiers rotation for this season until he decided to hang ’em up.

Deciding to move on from the sport is a difficult decision. We wish Rob the best in his future endeavors.

Links:

  • Oft-injured top prospect Kyle Lewis is healthy during spring training for the first time, and the Seattle Times caught up with the young slugger.
  • Greg Johns has a story on Shed Long‘s hot start to spring training, and the Mariners plan to move him around defensively. In the article we learn he played outfield last weekend for the first time since he was 12.
  • We hear so much about the Mariners youth movement, but Larry Stone investigated the other side of the clubhouse: the veterans who know they could be traded at any moment.
  • Yusei Kikuchi made his spring debut on Monday, using deception to strike out Reds star Joey Votto.
  • Tim Booth of the Associated Press filed a story on Jerry Dipoto‘s health after his blood clot scare during the Winter Meetings.
  • Exhibition game recaps: yesterday Dan Vogelbach homered to help the Mariners to an early lead, but rookie relievers let it get away in a 6-5 loss to Cleveland… on Tuesday the M’s were trailing Texas 4-1 going to the bottom of the ninth, when minor leaguers Jake Fraley and potential Rainiers infielder Chris Mariscal hit back-to-back homers to tie the game, and then the teams decided a tie was just fine… and on Monday, Kyle Lewis launched a homer to support Yusei Kikuchi in an 11-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds.
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Potential Rainiers Players Shine On Opening Weekend In Cactus League

February 25, 2019

Spring training exhibition games started late last week, and we have actual baseball results to look at. Opening day is getting closer.

Speaking of opening day, tickets for the Tacoma Rainiers home opener and the remainder of the first homestand went on sale over the weekend. The Rainiers start the season on the road, so Opening Night at Cheney Stadium will be on Tuesday, April 9 and the first homestand is a seven-gamer running through the following weekend. Act early to get the best seats for the opening week – you can get tickets online (click on the ‘T’), or visit the Cheney Stadium box office during normal business hours.

One player we are hoping to see in a Rainiers uniform during the opening homestand is infielder Shed Long, who was the story of the first weekend of Mariners spring training games. He had multiple hits, with a homer, and even had a couple of doubles “cancelled” during a game that was rained out in the second inning.

For all of the details on spring training so far, check the links down below. Later this week we’ll have a look at the pitchers battling for spots in the Tacoma Rainiers starting rotation – planning to post that on Thursday afternoon.

Links:

  • The Mariners spring training opener on Thursday got wiped out by rain in the second inning. However, the M’s scored five runs before the rain came, with Shed Long knocking a pair of doubles… the M’s won their first full game of the spring on Friday, defeating Oakland 8-1. Potential Rainiers infielder Tim Lopes went 3-for-3 in the win… Shed Long hit a, um, long home run in the Felix game on Saturday… Long came back with a game-winning RBI single on Sunday against the Rockies.
  • Felix Hernandez made his spring debut on Saturday, trying things like working exclusively from the stretch. Results were uncertain.
  • Top prospect and anticipated Rainiers starter (more on this Thursday) Justus Sheffield made his spring debut, delivering a pair of scoreless innings on Sunday. Ryan Divish has the story with reaction from Sheffield and his teammates.
  • The Seattle Times caught up with outfielder Braden Bishop, who we expect to be with Tacoma this year. However, the story notes that the Mariners lack of outfield depth could mean an opportunity for Bishop to make the big league team. Seems like the M’s could really use an experienced Triple-A outfielder.
  • Greg Johns brings us some details on the unusual walk-up routine of outfielder Eric Filia, who made our list of possible Tacoma Rainiers outfielders last week.
  • Larry Stone has a story on new Mariners coach Perry Hill, who is one of the most renowned infield instructors in the sport.
  • Stone also gets us caught up on where the Mariners rebuild stands at the moment.
  • Mariners closer candidate Hunter Strickland is looking to hit the reset button on his career, which includes several memorable moments in which he lost his cool.
  • Seattle promoted Joe Bohringer to Assistant General Manager, filling the spot that was vacated several months ago when longtime employee Jeff Kingston was hired away by the L.A. Dodgers.
  • An ESPN article on unexpected breakouts that could help their teams make a push for the playoffs includes… a Mariner? It’s true.
  • Baseball America took an early shot at projecting the ten most prospect-loaded minor league teams at the start of the season, and two PCL clubs made the list, including Rainiers home opener opponent El Paso.

Season Previews: Tacoma Outfielders

February 21, 2019

On the occasion of the Seattle Mariners first Cactus League game of the spring – in which several potential Tacoma Rainiers are in the starting lineup – let’s continue our preseason series with a look at the Tacoma outfield situation.

At first glance it appears that the Mariners organization is temporarily a little light in the Triple-A outfield. However, it is a situation that should soon correct itself.

The Seattle outfield seems to be set, with nobody seemingly at risk of being sent down: Jay Bruce, Mitch Haniger, Domingo Santana, and Mallex Smith.

The Tacoma outfield group features two players with Triple-A experience, one player clearly due for a promotion from Double-A, and then a large group of prospects the organization likes but have barely played any Double-A games.

Tacoma fans will be familiar with our two experienced players, albeit in very different ways.

Ian Miller should be back after a very busy winter. The speedster hit .261 with 33 stolen bases for Tacoma last year, and with 46 steals over a season-and-a-quarter he already ranks 17th on the all-time Tacoma stolen base list. With thirty more steals this year, he would zoom all the way to No. 2 on the list. Dell Alston of the Tacoma Yankees-Tugs-Tigers is the all-time leader with 92 swipes from 1978 to 1980 (he is also the only man in Tacoma history to play for three different team names).

After the 2018 Rainiers season ended, Miller went on to play in the Arizona Fall League, and when that ended he played in the Mexican Winter League. He certainly got his work in.

The other familiar player is Dustin Ackley, who should be back with the Rainiers for the first time since 2013. The former Mariners first round draft pick has been playing left field, first base, and a little second base for Salt Lake the last two years.

University of Washington product Braden Bishop has earned a promotion from Double-A Arkansas, and we expect him to be the regular center fielder for Tacoma at the start of the season. Bishop hit .284 with eight home runs and a .361 on-base percentage last year, and he probably would have received a late-season promotion to Tacoma if his campaign hadn’t been cut short by a fractured forearm. He is known to be a very good defensive outfielder.

After those three players, we are looking at a group of guys with very little Double-A experience, and questions about how willing the Mariners are to rush them up to Triple-A.

Minor league free agent signing Tito Polo received an invitation to big league camp, and he could slot in as Tacoma’s fourth outfielder. But Polo has played in only 81 career Double-A games, no Triple-A games, and missed most of last season with an injury. He’s a speedy guy kind of similar to Miller.

Mariners 2016 first round pick Kyle Lewis has played in just 37 Double-A games, hitting .220. He needs more time there – perhaps even a full season; although if he is having a good year we might see him after the all-star break.

Eric Filia played in 79 games for Arkansas last year, batting .274 with a very good .371 on-base percentage. He rarely strikes out but hit just two homers – PCL ballparks might give him a power boost should the M’s decide to move him up.

Two outfielders we’ll be keeping an eye on in Double-A this year are Jake Fraley and Dom Thompson-Williams. Each was acquired in an off-season trade, performed well at Advanced-A last year in their previous organization, and appears set for an Arkansas assignment to start the year.

Other possible outfield fill-ins could come from the Rainiers infield group. There has been a little chatter that the Mariners might give second baseman Shed Long some outfield reps to improve his positional flexibility. First baseman Joey Curletta played some corner outfield in the lower levels of the minors and presumably could go out there from time to time if needed.

That’s the Triple-A outfield situation for now. Next week we’ll get to the Rainiers starting rotation candidates.

Links:


Rainiers Middle Infield Could Contain New Prospects

February 14, 2019

Today we’ll look at the middle infielders who could make the Tacoma Rainiers opening day roster, and this is an area where fans should get to see some of the young prospects that the Mariners have recently traded for.

One of the spots is kind of tricky, and that is the shortstop.

Seattle traded for 24-year-old J.P. Crawford from the Philadelphia Phillies in the Jean Segura deal, with the hopes that he will be a long-term solution at shortstop. Crawford is coming off a disappointing rookie season, in which he had injuries and played in just 49 major league games, hitting .214. A lot more than that is expected from Crawford, a former first round draft pick and highly regarded prospect.

Media reports have made it sound as if the Mariners might want Crawford to see some time in Triple-A to get back on track. Seattle even signed veteran infielder Tim Beckham to handle shortstop if Crawford doesn’t appear ready during spring training.

So, Rainiers fans might get to see Crawford at shortstop for the first few weeks of the season. Or maybe not. Hard to say, really.

Tacoma’s second base position appears to be set, with the trade for Shed Long from the Cincinnati Reds (via the Yankees in a three-team trade). Long has played the last season-and-a-half at the Double-A level and is expected to move up this year. He’s considered a bat-first second base prospect, with the ability to produce a lot of extra-base hits.

Seattle signed two minor league free agents who are good Triple-A players and can play the middle infield: shortstop Orlando Calixte and second baseman Tim Lopes.

We’ve seen a lot of Calixte in the visitor’s dugout the last few seasons. He has four years of PCL experience, spending 2018 and 2017 with Sacramento after two seasons with Omaha. Primarily a shortstop, Calixte can move around to the other infield positions and has even had reps in center field. He’s got a little pop in his bat for a middle in fielder, reaching double figures in homers the last three seasons.

Tim Lopes – no relation to Davey Lopes despite playing the same position – is a former Mariners draft pick who was traded to Toronto two years ago, then brought back into the fold as soon as he reached minor league free agency. He’s primarily a second baseman, and in his first Triple-A season last year he hit .277 with 18 stolen bases for Buffalo in the International League.

Those four players – Long, Calixte, Lopes and maybe Crawford – should have the middle infield fully covered. But wait, there’s more… Dustin Ackley is back!

However, Ackley doesn’t play much second base these days. He appeared at the keystone in just 16 games for Salt Lake last year. The Bees chose to use him in left field, at first base, and as the DH in most games.

We talked a little about Adam Law in the corner infielders post, but his best position is second base. He fared well in his first taste of Triple-A baseball with the Rainiers last year, and we know he’ll fight hard in March to make the club.

Another name to know is Chris Mariscal, who was the primary shortstop for Double-A Arkansas last year. A 2014 Mariners draft pick out of Fresno State, Mariscal also plays second and third base. Mariscal hit .261 with seven homers and 60 RBI last year in 120 games.

That’s a lot of players in the middle infield mix, and if Crawford is sent to Tacoma there will be quite a logjam. The Mariners front office will have to figure it all out in spring training.

Links:


Imagine This: Spring Training Has Begun

February 12, 2019

I know. It’s hard for any of us to picture right now. Maybe try it this way:

Sit down next to your heater. Or if your power is out, next to the fireplace. Bundle up in an extra jacket. Do something to feel warm for a minute.

Close your eyes. Forget all about the snow, and the slush, and that fallen tree in your backyard and the car that has been frozen without moving since Thursday.

Imagine yourself in a different part of the world. A place where there is a sun. The sky is blue. A sun-splashed baseball diamond is in front of you. You remembered to bring your sunglasses – you’re smart like that.

There it is! You can see it!

All across Arizona and Florida, pitchers and catchers reported to spring training today. Baseball season is on its way.

We’ll continue with our Rainiers positional previews on Thursday when we take a look at the middle infielders. In the meantime, entertain yourself with some stories from the start of spring training.

Links:


Rainiers Position Preview: Corner Infielders

February 7, 2019

We’ll continue our 2019 Tacoma Rainiers spring training position previews with a look at the corner infielders. 

In recent years here at the Triple-A level we have seen many Tacoma players move between first base and third base during the season, so that’s why we lump these two positions together. But there is always some crossover with the third baseman and the middle infielders group, which we will get to next week.

Anyway, let’s have at it.

SEATTLE

The Mariners will be playing Kyle Seager at third base. First base is more of a group effort, as it currently looks like some combination of Ryon Healy, Dan Vogelbach, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jay Bruce will get reps at first base. The Mariners designated hitter is likely to come out of this group, too.

Vogelbach reminder: he is out of minor league options, and must make the big league roster or be exposed to waivers. You would think that some team that isn’t contending this year (and doesn’t have Edwin Encarnacion on its roster) would claim him and install him as the everyday designated hitter. It is very unlikely that Vogelbach plays in Tacoma this year.

TACOMA

First base should be all taken care of with late-blooming prospect Joey Curletta ready for a Triple-A assignment. Curletta hit .282 with 23 home runs and 94 RBI at Double-A Arkansas last season, winning the Texas League MVP award. He also drew 81 walks in 129 games, posting a .383 on-base percentage. The 24-year-old was added to the Mariners 40-man roster in November.

Across the diamond at third base there will be many players in the mix for the Rainiers.

The Mariners acquired Dylan Moore from the Milwaukee Brewers organization in a free agent signing, and he could be the Rainiers starting third baseman. Moore played for Colorado Springs last season, hitting .280 with 11 home runs and an .838 OPS.

Moore is on a major league contract, and he has the ability to play all four infield positions. Seattle is going to look at him during spring training and he’ll have a chance to win the back-up infielder job.

Also in the Mariners back-up infielder mix is Kristopher Negron, who we have been watching for a few years now with Reno and is a certified Very Good Triple-A Player™.

Both Moore and Negron are on the 40-man roster, and at the moment it appears that one of them will be the Mariners utility infielder. But only Moore has minor league options left (three years worth!); Negron would have to clear waivers to play for the Rainiers.

Adam Law played a little third base for the Rainiers last year, and he is expected to be on Tacoma’s opening day roster in some capacity. Law batted .260 in 62 games during his first taste of Triple-A ball during the second half of last season.

Another third base possibility in the organization is Logan Taylor, who has enjoyed a brief promotion to Tacoma during each of the last two seasons but has been a regular at the lower levels of the farm system. In late May of 2018 he was promoted to Double-A for his first time, hitting .270 with seven home runs in 66 games for Arkansas. He’s a bit of a longshot to make the Rainiers opening day roster, but it could happen.

That’s the corner infield mix for 2019: first base is set, third base is open. We can also read into this to say that at this point it appears manager Daren Brown will be pulling his DH from the outfield ranks.

Next Thursday we’ll look at the prospective Rainiers middle infielders.

Links:

  • Frank Robinson – top tier Hall of Famer and major league baseball’s first black manager – has passed away at age 83. Here is his New York Times obituary.
  • If you are an ESPN Plus subscriber, you can read Keith Law’s detailed look at the Mariners farm system.
  • Former Rainiers infielders with new teams: Ty Kelly signed with the Angels (which should lead him to the Salt Lake Bees), and Nick Franklin has inked a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • MLB owners and players have begun discussions on a number of potential rules changes, mostly designed to improve the pace of the game. I like requiring relief pitchers to face a minimum of three batters, which will speed things up while increasing forward-thinking strategy.
  • We have a few PCL stories to pass along. New Reno Aces manager Chris Cron spoke to the media about what it will be like managing his son, Kevin Cron.
  • The Las Vegas 51s Aviators are confident that construction of their new ballpark will be completed in time for opening day.
  • San Antonio manager Rick Sweet met fans and media as the team prepares for its first Triple-A season.