For as poorly as things have gone in Seattle the past few seasons, it is easy for fans to forget one thing. The Seattle Mariners did this the right way.
With the offense off to another terrible showing through the first 20 games of 2013 the questions are everywhere about the hitting of the Mariners. And after more than a decade dry spell of postseason baseball and many seasons as one of the worst offensive teams in the entire major leagues the faith from the fan base that Seattle has the right people in place to make a turnaround is dwindling. But if you take the time to look at the moves that have been made to try and rebuild the club, to try and rebuild the offense, finding fault with the decisions made and the decision makers is hard to do.
When General Manager Jack Zduriencik went out and traded for left-hander Cliff Lee prior to the 2010 season, he did so by trading away three prospects in the organization who were not going to help the club at the big league level soon. In fact, to date only Phillippe Aumont has appeared in a major league uniform, and even he has only seen 20 innings of action, flashing potential but still battling the control problems that were plaguing him as a Mariners farmhand. When Seattle traded away Lee that same summer, from all accounts they had their choice of a deal from the New York Yankees centered around Jesus Montero and a deal from the Texas Rangers centered around Justin Smoak. They, of course, ended up making the deal for Smoak, a switch-hitter who was already in the major leagues and showing the promise of patience and power while playing regularly for Texas.
Before the 2010 season started, Baseball America ranked Justin Smoak as the No. 13 prospect in all of baseball. He was the No. 2 prospect in the Rangers' system and was being compared favorably to former Texas first baseman and All-Star Mark Teixeira as a switch-hitter with good power from both sides of the plate, the patience to take a walk and the baseball acumen to make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat. As a switch-hitter who would obviously see more plate appearances from the left side, he seemed like a perfect fit for the Mariners and Safeco Field -- which at the time was a park that decidedly favored left-handed bats.
But Smoak has never been able to put together more than a one month stretch (usually in September) of consistent performance with Seattle yet and he has a career line of .224/.302/.371 as a Mariner, ranking dead last out of the 39 players that qualify as first basemen -- and in the bottom 15% of all qualified hitters -- since the beginning of the 2010 season in wOBA (.299) and OPS (.675). He still has the some of the promise left, has shown the power and patience, but the overall package has been underwhelming. Still, though, the club rightfully points out that he hit the second most homers (19) on the team in 2012 despite slumping badly for most of the year and spending three weeks in Triple-A. But despite the homer totals, he has an Extra Base Hit Percentage of only 5.5% since the start of 2012. For reference, that number would have ranked ahead of only seven of the 144 qualified big leaguers last year.
The Mariners ended the 2008 season with the second worst record in all of Major League Baseball. And that gave them the 2nd pick in the 2009 draft, of course. That meant that they missed out on the consensus top talent that year in right-hander Stephen Strasburg, but there wasn't much dispute that North Carolina's Dustin Ackley was the best available hitter, and the Mariners made him their selection at No. 2 overall. After a solid debut in Double-A that year, the left-handed swinging second baseman -- who was undertaking the learning of a brand new position that season -- went to the 2009 Arizona Fall League and tore it up, winning the MVP. That early success saw Ackley ranked as the No. 12 prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season by Baseball America. He ascended two levels of minor league ball that year and made his big league debut in the middle of June that year, singling to center field off of veteran right-hander Roy Oswalt in his first big league at-bat.
He was hitting a robust .313/.374/.551 after his first 40 games in the majors for the M's, but finished the season hitting just .242/.329/.312 over his final 50 games, leaving him with the 6th worst OPS and 4th most strikeouts (58) in the AL over that span. And despite playing virtually every day since debuting, Ackley still hasn't been able to regain that early success as he hit just .226/.294/.328 last year and is off to a .161/.200/.177 start in 2013. Perhaps most concerning is that Ackley's plate discipline -- the tool that made him such a "sure thing" as a prospect to many -- has completely disappeared. As a minor leaguer Dustin had a 1.11:1 BB:SO ratio and very strong 14.2% walk rate, but since making it to the big leagues those numbers have flipped to 1:2.13 BB:SO ratio and 9.1% walk rate.
After almost making a deal for Montero a few seasons earlier, the Mariners and Yankees finally agreed to a trade that landed the talented hitting catcher in Seattle prior to 2012 when the Mariners dealt young right-handers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos to New York for Montero and Hector Noesi. Many thought the trading of Pineda, who was an All-Star in his Rookie season, was a worthwhile risk for the hitting-starved Mariners to take considering the organizational strength of pitching that the club had. Montero -- who Baseball America had ranked as the No. 6 prospect in baseball prior to 2012 -- was compared as a hitter to great right-handed bats like Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Martinez, Frank Thomas and Mike Piazza by talent evaluators, scouts and baseball front office personnel prior to the deal. He'd made his major league debut with New York at the end of 2011 and hit .328/.406/.590 in 18 games as a 21-year-old, forecasting a bright future.
But Montero -- who had always been considered below average defensively behind the plate -- didn't take quickly to the designated hitter role for the Mariners. He hit just .226/.265/.309 when he didn't catch (.310/.343/.498 when he did), and starting 77 of his 135 games as DH for Seattle in 2012, it was clear that was the role that the Mariners saw as ideal for him. The club nevertheless made a move in 2013 to get him more time behind the plate by dealing away John Jaso, but Montero hasn't responded as he's started off hitting just .217/.250/.239 through his first 12 games of the year, all 11 of his starts coming as a catcher. Montero has recently lost his regular starting job to veteran Kelly Shoppach and it isn't really clear where he stands right now.
The struggles that the above trio has endured mirror the struggles endured by the entire Seattle Mariners club in trying to pull their offense up out of the depths of ineptitude. And look again at those rankings; the club added a No. 13 overall prospect, No. 12 overall prospect and No. 6 overall prospect to their big league team in three season's time. They did it the right way -- building with youth via trades and the draft. That's easy to lose sight of as the losses and low scoring games continue to pile up. But Montero is still just 23 years of age, Ackley recently turned 25 and Smoak is 26. By no means are the books closed on these three prospects. But if the Mariners are going to get the offense headed in the right direction, they are going to need to do so by seeing these once highly regarded prospects finally deliver on their promise.
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