Farm Report: Independents' Day

The Northshore Spirit. The Brockton Rox. The Camden Riversharks. Who the heck are these teams? Among several others, they are members of Independent League baseball leagues, and currently the "minor leagues" to the Mariners minor league affiliate in Triple-A Tacoma.

Never before has Tacoma manager Dan Rohn seen the kind of roster shakeup that has occurred this season for his division-leading Rainiers. More than half of his opening day roster has been called up at one point or another, and currently there are 10 former Rainiers on the Mariners' 25-man roster.

With pitchers Clint Nageotte, Matt Thornton, J.J. Putz, Scott Atchison, Bobby Madritsch, and George Sherrill manning spots in the starting rotation and bullpen for the parent club, as well as Justin Leone, Bucky Jacobsen, Hiram Bocachica, and Jose Lopez getting regular at-bats, Tacoma has been forced to use each and every resource available to them.

On top of all of the promotions, there have been several injuries that robbed Tacoma of key players at one time or another, including season-ending injuries to two key members of the bullpen.

Right-hander Cha Seung Baek missed more than a month with a finger injury, while southpaw Bobby Madritsch missed several weeks with an oblique strain. Both returned and were contributors immediately upon their activation from the disabled list. But then there's the list that never returned.

Right-hander's Jeff Heaverlo and Aaron Looper sustained early-season injuries that kept them out all season, with Looper requiring surgery to repair elbow damage.

The injuries weren't limited to just the pitching staff either. Outfielder Jamal Strong has been in and out of the lineup all season with hamstring and knee injuries and Bocachica missed several weeks with a shoulder injury. Lopez missed more than a month with a knee sprain and to top it all off, the season-ending injury to catcher Wiki Gonzalez was not the best way to start the season's second quarter.

So how are the Rainiers still fielding a team let alone hanging on to first place in their division?

Two reasons; The Independent Leagues, and Rohn's ability to work effectively with pitching coach Rafael Chavez to mold the Indy leaguers into roles where the team benefits best.

Without the resources within the system to cover every roster spot vacated by the promoted and the wounded, the Mariners went outside the organization to find help. Five pitchers later, the Rainiers boast a stable of former independent leaguers and are holding up just fine, thank you very much.

The independent league signings started with a right-hander Jeff Harris and southpaw Tim Christman. Harris, 30, was signed out of the Quebec Capitales in the Northeastern League, while Christman, 29, was picked off the St. Paul Saints in the Northern League. Both were signed in early June and have filled very important roles on the Tacoma staff.

Harris has made 21 appearances, including four starts and is 3-3 on the season, while Christman has made 22 relief appearances, tallying a 1-0 record.

While neither sport sparkling ERA's, both have posted several quality outings and have eaten the innings that the club has asked of them.

Christman has struck out 34 and walked just 10 in his 25.1 innings of work, while Harris has 11 appearances of three innings or more where he allowed one run or less.

The indepenedent league influence didn't stop there. The Rainiers scrambled to acquire right-hander Tony RUnion and left-handers Bryan Ward and Bill Pulsipher from the indy leagues as well.

Ward was taken off the roster of the Camden Riversharks in the Atlantic League in July, while Runion was signed out of the Northeastern League, where he was pitching for the Brockton Rox. Former New York Mets phenom Bill Pulsipher was signed after spending the year with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

Ward, 32, has made two starts and has covered 14.1 innings in the process. Boasting 13 strikeouts and just two walks, Ward has been a solid addition thus far and has a 2-0 mark to show for his efforts.

Runion is working out of the bullpen and has a win and a two saves to his credit. In three appearances, the right-hander had three strikeouts in his first three innings of work. Runion came aboard via the Northeast League and is used to closing out games.

"I was closing where I came from, and obviously it's a different situation here, but I think mainly I'll be used late in games." Runion said of his possible role with Tacoma.

Runion is also used to winning, and the former Duke University product alluded to that when asked about being tossed into a pennant race in the Pacific Coast League.

"I've won a few championships in the minor leagues, though they were all in "A" ball," said Runion. "But here it's kind of interesting we have all the independent ball guys, and you know, we're hanging in there. It's been a long journey (to afiliated baseball), but it's definitely worth it."

Pulsipher, 30, has made two starts and sports a quality 2.92 ERA covering 12.1 innings. He is 1-1 since joining Tacoma on their recent road trip.

Without the service of the aforementioned quintet, Tacoma's roster would likely have been replenished with younger, more inexperienced arms from Double-A San Antonio and risked the factors involved with rushing pitchers that simply are not ready for Triple-A baseball. Instead, the scouting department and chief scout Charlie Kerfeld sent them qualified pitching in attempt to save the younger arms from entering a situation where they may have simply been set up to fail.

Kerfeld and company get an A+ for these under-the-radar but all-important additions. Although the well may be running dry if the need should arise for more help.

"I'm not sure if we can round up any more of these guys" said Kerfeld. "We've picked the best of the bunch and they are all here."

The Mariners are no strangers to signing independent league ball players, mainly pitchers.

Also on the Rainiers roster is left-hander Randy Williams, signed in 2002 off the Central League's Edinburg Roadrunners. Williams has been one of the most reliable arms that Rohn and pitching coach Rafael Chavez have called upon all season. Williams is 5-2 on the season with a 3.36 ERA and seven saves.

Williams was pleasantly surprised when the Mariners came calling back in 2002, citing the lack of signings out of the league he was playing in at the time, as well as his health history as the reasons for the emotion.

"I was pretty ecstatic when I first realized I was going to have the opportunity," said Williams. "Being that I hadn't really played much before that because of my medical history, and when I looked around, nobody was being picked up in my league. I was both ecstatic and very appreciative of the Mariners for giving me a chance."

Williams is probably the most unlikely of the group, as well as the most polished of all the current Rainiers that spent time in any of the independent leagues. The 28-year-old was with the Chicago Cubs organization when he followed a shoulder surgery with the elbow procedure known as Tommy John surgery.

The elbow operation came in 2000 and not until 2002 was Williams really ready to pitch. But when he was, the right organization was watching.

While Williams rounds out the Tacoma connection with the independent leagues, the trend doesn't end quite yet.

The southpaw tandem of George Sherrill and Bobby Madritsch, currently two of the most effective pitchers on the Mariners' Major League roster, are former Winnipeg Goldeyes, a member of the Northern League.

Both began their 2004 campaign with the Rainiers and were arguably the two best pitchers on the club until they were summoned by the big leagues

Sherrill made 36 appearances and went 5-2 with 13 saves. The 27-year-old's secondary numbers are simply unbelievable. In 50.1 innings, Sherrill struck out 62 and walked just nine while putting up a 2.32 ERA.

Madritsch, 28, made 12 starts for Tacoma, winning five of seven decisions and sporting a 3.75 ERA. In 62.1 innings, Madritsch struck out 53 and walked 26.

Since being called up, Sherrill is 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA in 15 innings, while Madritsch is 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA in 24 innings.

I think it's safe to say that the independent leagues have been very good to the Mariners organization.

Without them, the Mariners youth movement on the mound this season may have been a colossal failure, and the Rainiers could be sitting in the middle of the pack in the PCL's Northern Division, instead of leading the Portland Beavers by a half game.

For the season, the independent league acquisitions have totaled 311 innings pitched for the Rainiers, winning 23 of 34 decisions and posting a very respectable ERA of 3.98. The eight pitchers have struck out 268 while walking just 116, and picked up 25 saves.

And as if that weren't enough, the M's signed right-hander John Kelly from the Northeastern League's Northshore Spirit last week, and the 31-year-old joined the Rainiers last Friday, the first day of the current eight-game home stand. Kelly was primarily a starting pitcher with the Spirit but has been used in relief thus far with Tacoma.

The Rainiers have made 135 transactions this season, and with almost a month to go, more are certain to come. Considering the likelihood that the Mariners will send for as many as five more players for a cup of coffee when rosters expand on September 1, Tacoma could easily eclipse 150 roster moves for the 2004 season. Wow. And you thought accountants had it bad during tax season.

The most likely targets for the annual September call-ups are outfielders Jamal Strong and Jeremy Reed, first baseman A.J. Zapp, third baseman Greg Dobbs, and pitchers Travis Blackley and Cha Seung Baek, though the organization will have to think about restraining themselves somewhat. For every player called up, another empty roster spot has to be filled. Somehow.

Uh-oh, the Rainiers might be calling up the independent leagues again. It's a good thing Mr. Kerfeld and company has them on speed-dial.

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