TACOMA — Take a hard look at the Triple-A Tacoma roster as the Rainiers head into their season opener Thursday night* against Sacramento (Giants) at Cheney Stadium.
(* — weather permitting, which is always the case for early-season games in Tacoma. The forecast for the entire five-game series is less than promising. Not-so-fun fact: Cheney Stadium opened in 1960…with a rainout.)
UPDATE: The Rainiers, after a rain delay lasting nearly 90 minutes, opened their season Thursday with a 5-0 victory over Sacramento. The forecast still remains iffy for the rest of the weekend.
Back to the roster.
What jumps out is what you don’t see: Prospects.
The Rainiers are, essentially, a taxi squad for the big-league club. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for fans in Tacoma, and it could even prove to be a short-term plus for the Mariners.
We’ll get to that in a moment.
As for prospects, though, it’s pretty thin.
The issue isn’t merely the lack of high-ceiling talent at Tacoma, although that, in itself, underscores an industry-wide consensus that views the Mariners as having the game’s worst farm system.
It’s the lack of prospects, period.
The Rainiers have just three players who, even with a generous interpretation, can be classified as prospects: outfielder Ian Miller and right-handed pitchers Max Povse and Rob Whalen.
Miller, 26, is a plus defender with plus-plus speed who produced a breakout season a year ago when he set career highs by batting .307 with a .355 on-base percentage in 124 games at Tacoma and Double-A Arkansas.
Scouts now see him as a reasonable projection to reach the majors as a fourth outfielder, but another solid offensive season could prompt a further upward reevaluation. He's worth watching.
Povse, 24, and Whalen, 24, each spent a brief tour last season in the majors but are actually embarking on comeback efforts.
Whalen candidly revealed that he’s long battled depression, which finally prompted him last year to walk away from the game to receive treatment. He now appears rejuvenated, and his spring work revived his status as a prospect.
Povse has intimidating size at 6 feet 8, but he missed a month because of an injured hamstring. The Mariners then tried to convert him into a Chris Devenski-type, multi-inning reliever.
When that experiment failed to produce the desired uptick in stuff, Povse shifted back this spring to starting duty. That seems a better fit. He possesses a three-pitch mix that makes him a reasonable back-of-the-rotation projection.
Whalen and Povse also represent a step by the Mariners to fulfill general manager Jerry Dipoto’s goal to bolster organizational depth — particularly pitching depth.
"Not every guy is going to be a marquee drive-by name,” Dipoto said. “These are guys who have a chance to take the three-four spots in a rotation and get you through the long season as strike-throwers who know how to manage at-bats.”
“Lo and behold,” Dipoto said, “one day you look up and Kyle Hendricks turns into Kyle Hendricks.”
Once lightly regarded, Hendricks is 38-22 with a 2.93 ERA for the Chicago Cubs over the last four-plus years. Just saying.
It’s worth noting, too, that Tacoma’s projected rotation for its first series consists of five guys with big-league experience: Christian Bergman, Ariel Miranda, Erasmo Ramirez (on a rehab assignment), Povse and Whalen.
UPDATE: The Mariners, fearing rain in Tacoma, made a late decision to shift Miranda to Double-A Arkansas for a Friday start against San Antonio (Padres). That keeps him in line to start April 11 in Kansas City, when the Mariners will need a fifth starter for the first time.
Ramirez is slotted for just three innings in his first game action since recovering from a strained back muscle.
Unimpressed? Hold on…
No club is brimming with good options if/when injuries tear through their rotation, but the Mariners, at least, will be sifting through guys at Tacoma who previously logged big-league time.
That’s no small thing.
It’s a similar story in the Rainiers’ bullpen, where Mike Morin, Erik Goeddel, Dario Alvarez, Ryan Cook, Shawn Armstrong and Chasen Bradford all have big-league experience.
(Side note: Goeddel is a good bet to open the season as the Rainiers’ closer.)
Dipoto and manager Scott Servais placed a premium last season (somewhat out of necessity) on keeping fresh arms in the Mariners’ bullpen. It would be surprising if the bullpen shuttle doesn’t again make regular runs between Cheney and Safeco.
The rest of the roster is also packed with big-league experience, including infielder Gordon Beckham and outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Further, whenever veteran outfielder Jayson Werth is deemed game-ready, he’ll report to Tacoma.
The roster’s taxi-squad nature offers a definite benefit for Rainiers fans: The emphasis for manager Pat Listach and his staff will be on winning instead of development. There’s a big difference.
Example: The Mariners, under a previous administration, had a rule that no prospect could bat lower than sixth in the lineup. If that player was struggling, and killing rallies, it mattered little. Development was paramount.
That’s fine. Many clubs have similar guidelines aimed at fostering development. Another example: Pitch counts for prospects are stringently monitored, which also makes sense — even if it often doesn’t pay off in the standings.
This year’s Rainiers should have few such restraints, which is not to say there won’t be challenges. Listach will see his roster raided whenever the Mariners need help. That’s just how it works.
But if the Rainiers lose because a hanging curve gets belted into the gap, it won’t be because the pitcher threw that curve under a development mandate. Having few prospects means Tacoma’s record should reflect its talent and performance.