BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 02/24/2014

Thiel: Mariners’ touted farm kids have to deliver

The Mariners have yet to do much to supplement the hire of Robinson Cano, which means GM Jack Zduriencik’s draftees have to have breakthrough seasons. Big ask.

Dustin Ackley is one of several farm-system grads who need to deliver to support the hire of Robinson Cano. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

It’s a little harsh to say “never mind” to the debut season of Robinson Cano as a Mariner. But the pressure on him in 2014 is far less than on general manager Jack Zduriencik and his previous hires. He’s the guy who convinced CEO Howard Lincoln to walk from the major leagues’ kiddy pool to the adult swim party by saying the rest of the team is ready.


With spring training underway and precious little help delivered so far to supplement Cano’s hire for a team that was 71-91, the season will rise or fall on delivery of promise from young players Zduriencik drafted to become, finally, major-league-average contributors.

That’s asking a lot.

Position players Mike Zunino, Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Carlos Triunfel, and pitchers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton are the healthy players on the 40-man roster who are what remains from Zduriencik’s top draft selections among Baseball America’s annual listing of top 100 prospects.

Smoak and Montero, both young vets acquired via trade by Zdurencik, were included because they were prospects in other organizations comparable to Seattle’s choices.

Baseball America is by no means a final arbiter of baseball talent. To cite just two examples, neither 3B Kyle Seager nor SS Brad Miller, two key parts of the Mariners’ future, never made any of BA’s top 100 lists.

But BA’s lists are range-finders among scouting sources about farm-system talent most highly regarded in each year’s draft. Naturally, it’s subjective. And more than nine out of 10 overall draftees on every MLB club never get a sniff of the major leagues.

But the top picks are annually the most important source of premier talent whose contract rights can be controlled for the first six years of service time.

It is this talent pool from which most championship teams most times are made — and helps preclude making hugely expensive gambles in the veteran free agent market.

Here’s a look at Mariners prospects over the past 10 years of BA’s top 100 lists, which means five years under Zduriencik and five years under his predecessor, Bill Bavasi:

  • 2014 — 11, Taijuan Walker, RHP; 85, D.J. Peterson, INF; 99, James Paxton, LHP.
  • 2013 — 17, Mike Zunino, C; 18, Walker; 29, Danny Hultzen, LHP, 79, Nick Franklin, INF; 87, Paxton.
  • 2012 — 6, Jesus Montero, C; 20, Walker; 21, Hultzen; 52, Paxton; 77, Franklin.
  • 2011 — 3, Montero; 12, Dustin Ackley, INF-OF; 16, Michael Pineda, RHP; 55, Franklin.
  • 2010 — 4, Montero; 11, Ackley; 13, Justin Smoak, 1B; 30, Michael Saunders, OF; 83, Adam Moore, C; 93, Phillippe Aumont, RHP.
  • 2009 — 57, Greg Halman, OF;  65, Saunders; 89, Carlos Triunfel, SS; 93, Aumont.
  • 2008 — 42, Jeff Clement, C; 62, Triunfel; 83, Aumont.
  • 2007 — 28, Adam Jones, OF; 62, Clement; 87, Brandon Morrow, RHP.
  • 2006 — 64, Jones; 66, Kenji Johjima, C.
  • 2005 — 2, Felix Hernandez, RHP; 33, Jeremy Reed, OF; 51, Shin-Soo Choo, OF; 73, Clint Nageotte, RHP.

From these listings, it’s plain that the Mariners so far haven’t received much from the top end of the draft, to which most scouting resources are devoted.

Even when the Mariners chose well, as in the cases of Adam Jones, Shin-soo Choo and Brandon Morrow, they traded them away for next to nothing in return. In the case of Pineda, it could happen again. If Pineda, who had a lost year with the Yankees, returns to form, he will make a disaster out of his trade for Montero, who has eaten and PED’d his way out being a major-league contributor.

Many of the draftees under Zduriencik are early in their major league careers. They also are forced to be among the key figures this season to support the Cano decision, which has to succeed early in his 10-year term.

Zunino at catcher, Smoak at first base, Miller/Franklin at shortstop, Ackley and Saunders in the outfield, and Walker and Paxton in the rotation are presumed to be starters, yet all were below major league average players a year ago, or just at the beginning. Most have to deliver this season.

The 10 years of under-production from top draftees, whether by their own shortcomings, injuries or the failure to get adequate return on trades, is at the heart of the Mariners’ failure to return to the post-season since 2001.

Even though Zduriencik has given himself credit for rebuilding the farm system, there is no getting around these two facts:

Zduriencik’s five-year record: 359 wins, 451 losses.

Bavasi’s five-year record: 359 wins, 451 losses.

For reasons not entirely clear, Zdurencik gets a sixth year to break the tie.


  • Marcus

    Yep, seems like the last several years worth of strategy being used yet again, except the Mariners brought in one, good bat in Cano. If they don’t get Morales back, it’s possible even with Cano the lineup will be WORSE than last year.

    • art thiel

      I don’t think they’ll be worse, but so many guys have to deliver at once, it’s asking a great deal.

  • RadioGuy

    Hasn’t Pineda lost TWO years with the Yankees? Hard to believe that Hector Noesi has won more games in Seattle than Pineda has won in New York.

    • art thiel

      Yes, two years. The deal that keeps on not giving.

  • jafabian

    That’s an alarming stat on Jack and Bavasi. He can take pride in the farm but Pat Gillick didn’t have much of a farm after Woody Woodward traded much of it away and IIRC Gillick did okay. A minor league system doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t help the big league club.

    I really thought at this point Ackley would be the #3 hitter, Smoak the #4 and Saunders #5. Something happened between their transition from the minors to the majors that made them take a step backwards. Not sure if they were rushed or just bad player management. Saunders was great in the WBC and I hoped he’d build on that but it didn’t happen. Sometimes I thought maybe it was Wedge but his track record in Cleveland suggests otherwise. I’m not sure if Jack is the kind of GM who works with players to any kind of degree or at least discusses batting stance, fielding and such but he’s the consistent factor in all this.

    Zunino bears watching as that he was blatantly rushed. The Yankees took their time with Montero and he played 516 games in the minors. Zunino only 96. If Montero still wasn’t ready what does that say about bringing Zunino up now? I don’t want to see the younger players rushed up just because Jack’s trying to save his job.

    On paper the M’s look okay. At the very least they should finish ahead of the Astros and Angels.

    • RadioGuy

      I wouldn’t give Gillick high marks on how he ran the Mariners farm system. Pat was great at identifying MLB vets who could help in Seattle, but the minors produced very little returns for the Mariners and what Bavasi took over on the farm was no better than what Woody left Gillick. Look at the players taken in the draft under both Gillick AND Bavasi (I did that once) and you’ll see what I mean. Hardly any of those guys did squat in MLB, if they got that far. Adam Jones and Chris Tillman are the only draft picks I can think of who’ve met expectations and, of course, they were traded.

      Whatever shortcomings Zduriencik has at the MLB level, and there are many, he deserves at least a measure of credit for the rebuilding of the farm system to a level we haven’t seen since the 80’s, when there were quite a few legit prospects in the organization.

      • jafabian

        I’m not giving Gillick any credit for the farm at all. His style is to build thru free agency and trades which he did successfully. Woody traded away players with mixed results. Trading away Cruz Jr, Varitek and Lowe in 1997 hurt the farm big time. Ryan Christenson and Ryan Anderson never developed. I’m saying Gillick didn’t have much to work with when he joined the M’s and when you look back he really didn’t do many trades. He built his club with free agents.

        Jack has made a nice looking farm but that doesn’t mean anything if the M’s continue to lose 90+ games.

        • art thiel

          Gillick never asked for nor received credit for the farm system. Not his job, in his view.

      • art thiel

        Pat was hired to be a win-now guy. It worked in Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle, in terms of playoffs, but he raided the future for the present. In the Moneyball era, that doesn’t work now.

    • art thiel

      Every player is a different case. It’s always dubious when fans and media try to generalize over individual shortcomings. When it comes to the franchise, however, the record is the generalization that trumps all.

      And I don’t know about the M’s being better than the Angels.

  • Trygvesture

    But, the M’s have a new bean counter at the top! Who cares wheat happens on the field? Not Lincoln, not the Board– it’s just beans beans beans to these guys and Z is yet another stand-in smarmng his way along– and dissing anybody who questions his omnipotence– to stay employed.
    Great Stat on 10 years of uniformly distributed incompetence.

    • art thiel

      If you can’t believe in the ball, believe in the bean.

  • K.j. Hinton

    Another 70 and 92 record coming right up.

    • art thiel

      This is the least knowable team in spring training I’ve seen in some time. A year ago at the end of spring, we thought we knew that team, at least well enough to believe they would be around .500. Hah.