Are the Mariners headed down the same path as the Royals?

The Seattle Mariners have a nice core of young talent around which there will be much optimism this offseason. This optimism will be fueled by logic and reason on the part of fans, writers and front office members alike. In what was another down season in the Pacific Northwest, the Mariners can look to this past season’s debuts of some talented young players as reasons to believe in their future.

And they’re not wrong to do so. The excitement created by this year’s progress, however, should be met with guarded optimism.

Sub-25 players such as Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, Brad Miller and Nick Franklin give the Mariners a chance to have a solid home-grown base from which to build. Developing talented major leaguers from within is the key to any rebuilding project, and most rebuilding organizations would be envious of this start. They alone put the Mariners in good hands.

Additionally, Dustin Ackley, who was to be the face of a new Mariners era but has since been passed by after struggles in the majors, turned things around in the second half of 2013 after a brief return to the minor leagues. After his return to Seattle, Ackley hit .285/.354/.404, which isn’t exactly the perennial batting title winner the Mariners thought they were drafting second overall, but it is good enough to be in their lineup, especially in center field, where he won’t be great, but could be passable.

But this wouldn’t be the first team to build a solid young offense only to hit a ceiling and stagnate.

When the Brewers built a young core and made it to the playoffs in 2008, it included Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. When the Phillies put together a young nucleus of offensive players that led to five straight division titles, it included home-grown stars such as Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. None of the young Mariners projects to be an impact bat in those molds. The best comparison to what the Mariners are doing is what the Royals have done over the past few years.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Royals farm system was the envy of baseball. It had a base of young, talented hitters who were sure to be making an impact in the majors soon, and it had pitching depth, which was certain to produce at least a few major league arms. Fast forward about three years and that core is, sure enough, all in the majors, but not exactly making the impact many had hoped. Eric Hosmer rebounded in 2013 and put together a nice campaign, but he still has yet to hit over 20 home runs in a season. Talk of him overtaking many of the bigger names as a yearly All-Star have diminished, at least for now. And he is the best of the bunch.

The biggest disappointment has been third baseman Mike Moustakas, whose free-swinging ways have zapped his power and exposed his weaknesses to major league pitching. He’s yet to be even a major league average hitter and is on the verge of becoming a role player. Alcides Escobar wasn’t expected to hit a ton, but his .559 OPS this year was unacceptably low. No one has stepped up and really claimed a job at second base or center field from among the talented pool of players that has been bought to the majors.

Despite what was thought to be a strong bunch of offensive players for their future, the Royals missed the playoffs this season, in no small part because they were at least one bat short.

But it’s the pitching that really let them down. No, not this year’s pitchers, who were the reason the Royals remained in contention, but their home-grown pitchers, from whom they have yet to produce a quality starter. The biggest reason the Royals were competitive this season was James Shields, whom they had to acquire from elsewhere for, coincidentally, the young hitter who would have been the best of the bunch, Wil Myers.

After the 2011 season, there was optimism in Kansas City that mirrors what Mariners fans have right now. Hosmer was coming off a strong rookie campaign and that power was just sure to develop. Moustakas had made it to the majors and even though he struggled, he showed enough potential to get excited over. Salvador Perez, the organization’s top young catcher, had made a brief appearance in the majors and was on the verge of stardom (and has actually developed into one of the better catchers in the American League).

Combined with incumbent hitters Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, this had the makings of a future powerhouse lineup.

But sometimes things just don’t go as planned.

Which isn’t to say the Mariners aren’t heading in the right direction. They certainly are, and just because prospects don’t develop doesn’t mean they aren’t the best way to build for a strong future. Just because Brad Miller posted a 110 OPS+ during his 76-game stint doesn’t mean you can extrapolate that out over the course of a season. Just because Nick Franklin hit 12 homers in 102 games doesn’t mean you can pencil him in for 20 in 2014.

If the struggles of Ackley’s early career, or of Moustakas, or of countless other prospects have told us anything, it’s that you can’t simply count on them to get better just because they’ve shown some promise. Major league success is about adjustments. The league adjusts to young players and they have to adjust back. That’s when success can be relied upon.

In addition to their young offensive players, the Mariners will need pitching. They have a significant leg up on where the Royals were a few years ago because they have Felix Hernandez. Additionally, Taijuan Walker is a better pitching prospect than any that the Royals had and has already shown more at the major league level than Mike Montomery, Danny Duffy, or any of the other prospects who constituted the Royals’ pitching depth at the height of their system’s prowess. While Walker is ready to contribute, however, the Mariners have already taken a hit to their pitching depth with the announcement that Danny Hultzen, the former No. 2 overall draft pick, will undergo shoulder surgery. His future is now in serious question, bringing to the forefront the dangers of relying on young pitching.

The Mariners are set up as well as they could hope for right now. Their hitters don’t have the impact potential of our playoff examples before, but they do still have the potential to make up a nice core for their future. The Mariners’ strength will be on the mound, which fits well with their ballpark, and this group of offensive players, with a piece or two added from the outside, can be enough to compete.

But it’s important to remember the question marks that come with young talent. Just because the 2013 season ended with a lineup full of young players showing potential doesn’t mean that that potential will automatically progress the following season into impact talent. Players regress and the league figures them out. The 2014 season will tell us much more about the Mariners’ future than did this past season.

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Comments

  1. John C said...

    Actually, the biggest reason the Royals were competitive was their phenomenal defense and bullpen, not James Shields. They would have been better off if they hadn’t made that trade, because along with Shields, they acquired Wade Davis, who was so bad that he negated a lot of what Shields gave them. If they had simply used Bruce Chen in the rotation all season, played Wil Myers instead of Jeff Francoeur in right field from day one, and used the money they paid Shields to acquire a decent starter on the FA market, they would have won more games than they did. And they would still have Wil Myers.

    That’s not the “official” line on the Royals’ season, and it’s certainly not the one that Dayton Moore wants anyone to buy into, but that was a terrible trade for K.C.

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