After signing his draft deal, Mike Zunino was so rich he could afford to hire old guys to carry his clothes around for him.
For over a hundred years, baseball has been playing a prank on the state of Arizona. A few weeks out of every year, the top talents in the world would descend on the state, work out for a while, play some baseball before decent-sized crowds, and then the commissioner's office would declare these games irrelevant and that a full season of actual matchups were yet to be played. Every year this happened. Sometimes other cities and jurisdictions fell for the prank by thinking that their own team, by performing so well in Arizona, had a legitimate shot at the playoffs. The pranking got so bad that by 1992, not content to let the opportunity come around only annually, a secondary "fall league" would be started where baseball's top prospects would arrive in the state only to be pulled back a month and a half later. It would take another six years before the state would successfully petition for a major league team of their own, but as per the contract, all the old japes would have to remain in place as part of the legacy.
This year, the Mariners will be sending to the Fall League three of their top five prospects, one guy presently just outside that, a guy who was thought to be near the back end of the top five at the end of last year, and a few near-term relief candidates. I hate guessing too, so I'll just rattle off names: C Mike Zunino, LHP James Paxton, SS Nick Franklin, 2B Stefen Romero, 3B Vinnie Catricala, RHP Logan Bawcom, LHP Bobby LaFromboise, and RHP Carson Smith all have tickets to Arizona in the fall where they will presumably play some baseball and watch the cactuses change color or something. Go look at the full roster.
Zunino getting sent to Jackson a couple of weeks ago set the gears in motion to get him on an AFL roster. It's not commonly known, but organizations are only allowed one AFL player below the double-A level, and Smith is the Mariners guy in this case. To this point, Zunino has played forty games between Everett and Jackson, and he's only failed to reach base safely in four of those games. In one of those four games, he got plunked, so he was still on anyway. Consider this for a while.
Also consider that, while we were being concerned with his seeming aggressiveness in Everett (19.5% Ks), he's down to 9.1% Ks in Jackson, which is identical to his walk%, and he's only lost about forty points of isolated slugging, which still puts him at over three hundred. There's very little to complain about with how Zunino has handled the bat.
Behind the plate, he's managed a caught stealing percentage of close to half and passed a few too many balls, not that we aren't used to that. A good showing here might position Zunino to compete for a position on the major league roster next season, if we're lucky. If we're unlucky, more Olivo :( If we're real unlucky, well, let's just move on for now. Keep going for much, much more.
Paxton gets by being added only because he missed all of June and one doesn't really pitch all that much in Arizona to begin with. Last year's team IP leader for Peoria only got 29.2 innings. The first two months of the season, part of which featured Paxton trying to pitch through a knee contusion, he walked 15.8% of the batters he faced. Since coming back from the disabled list, he's been down to 8.8%, which is progress to be excited about if it can hold.
To split other hairs, he had 25.6% strikeouts pre-injury, bolstered by 30.4% Ks in April, and since the injury, he's still been around 23% Ks, which isn't bad at all. Among the things conceivably said about baseball players past and present, I don't think one of them has ever been "he'll improve his command merely by virtue of not pitching for a while," so it's good that Paxton will be able to do this in a controlled environment under the watchful eye of the guy who was also his pitching coach during the regular season, Lance Painter. I still don't know if I'd expect Paxton to be a major contributor next year, but he is getting closer.
In Nick Franklin's case, he's not especially trying to recover from a lack of playing time so much as build his case against decent competition. Maybe some other things too. Since arriving in Tacoma, Franklin hasn't seen his slugging drop, at least not from the standpoint of ISO or dingers, and he hasn't seen his line drive rate drop either. He has lost about eighty points of his BABIP, roughly the same amount of his average, and has seen his walk rate drop from 10.2% to 7.9% while his Ks have risen from 15.7% to 24.1%. The former strikeout mark would have been a low for him, just as the current one is definitely a high. Plate discipline is definitely something to be cleaned up, as are a few defensive aspects of the game, though the drop off from Ryan to him will be agonizing in some respects.
One other thing I'd consider is having him work exclusively as a left-handed bat. In 2011, his cumulative totals as a right-hander facing a southpaw had him batting .238/.298/.333. He was .300/.374/.453 as a left-hander against right-handers. Jump ahead to this year and you have him at .189/.269/.283 as right-on-left and .305/.373/.512 as left-on-right. If you want to convince me that he's better off continuing as a switch-hitter, there's this big mound of data I'd have to be ignoring and I don't feel good about that. I feel queasy, actually.
Romero will end up on the taxi squad, which means that he's only active on Wednesdays and Saturdays, lest the Mariners prospects have a weird stranglehold on the infield. I've spent so much time talking to various audiences about Romero at this point that I really don't know what I could say about him anymore here. Various points of interest: since arriving in double-A, in a far less hitter-friendly environment than the California League (we'd have to go to space again to find more hitting-friendly confines), Romero has seen his power numbers (+ .036 ISO), his walks (+1.2%) and his Ks (+ 2.2%) all rise.
What we haven't seen from him is any further efforts to get him at another position. He's been as much a second baseman as he ever was in Adelanto. Given that the Javelinas are only listing four outfielders and ten infielders including crazy-fast shortstop Billy Hamilton (who some are saying will be used as an OF) Romero might get tried out there at some point.
Catricala might also see some time out there, since he's gotten eleven games in left field since the start of July, but he's remained the biggest disappointment in the system for much of the season, and possibly a cautionary tale for Romero's success. The highest OPS Catricala has posted for a month this year is .743. That was June. He was .670 in July and .542 so far in August. His walk rate's been around 9.7% (same as last year) after being at 5% the first two months, but the Ks have been up and down and the power has never really stabilized to a level that looks good.
What I see in the components is fewer line drives (- 2.5%) and more pop ups (+ 1.2%) and groundouts (+ 3.7%). It goes a little way towards explaining things, but the degree of Catricala's collapse remains something of a mystery. It's bad timing too, as he needs to be added to the 40-man roster in the offseason or risk Rule 5 Draft exposure.
The relievers going out are varying levels of interesting. Bawcom is the new guy via the League trade with the Dodgers. Unlike every other reliever we have in the system (this is an exaggeration), Bawcom doesn't throw nearly 100 mph, but he does hang out in the low-90s and everything he throws gets some good sink on it. Last year he induced 48.1% ground balls and this year, he's at 42.5%. The extreme groundball tendencies he showed early on (nearly four grounders for every air out his first season) have tapered off, but the general notion remains that he's a guy that won't give up good contact and the worm burners have increased since joining Jackson. The walks have too, as he went from a walk% around eleven to a percentage north of a quarter. Not good. Please let them be tinkering with something.
LaFromboise, on the other hand, is on the rise. Last year, his K-rate was 20% and this year it's 27% over two stops. He also managed to nearly halve his walk rate in a follow-up tour of Jackson. Left-handers have gone from hitting .243/.333/.351 off him last year to hitting a miserable and unreal .085/.122/.106 off him in Jackson this year and then .188/.257/.281 in Tacoma. Right-handers have similarly suffered. In 2011, they managed a respectable .280/.349/.433 line and they found themselves down to .224/.269/.265 in the Southern League and are only up to .242/.342/.258 in the PCL. LaFromboise stuff was never anything other than ordinary as a starter, but as a relief arm, he's doing things this year and is a fringe candidate for 40-man addition as well.
If the past year or so in relief arms has been an indication, Smith might have to wait a little longer for that, but not much longer. For the season, Smith has struck out 27.6% and walked 10.3%, and his Ks have been of the swinging variety three times as often as they've been looking. I haven't heard anything new about his arsenal this season, but what we knew from last year's report was that he was clocked at 97 as a reliever and had been more in the low-90s range as a starter.
At least where their High Desert tenures are concerned, Smith has outdone Pryor in every category. To be fair, Pryor was a bit injured to start last year, but Smith has also turned it up lately. In June and so far in August, his walk% has been under five -- he spiked to 14.1% in July :( -- and his K% for the last two months has been 37.6%. Smith has remained in High Desert [against his will], but there really isn't much reason why he couldn't be in Jackson right now.
People like to end these sorts of things with summaries to review information, and who am I to defy years of tradition? Other AFL rosters of the past have featured whoever the M's could get to agree to go. This isn't one of those, and there's a lot to watch here to the extent that the performance of the Mariners contributors is going to have a pretty big impact on the team's success or lack thereof.
The only curiosity to me is that Poythress, who is also due for 40-man addition, isn't going, but they may send him to Venezuela or the Dominican Republic or some such thing. If you're in Arizona, make a trip, or be regarded with scorn. If you're not near Arizona or don't have money, you might be missing out on something that we hope to see more of in the future. You might also miss out on getting your hopes raised only to be crushed at a later date. Suckers.