While the Major League Won-Loss record for the 2013 Mariners was again putrid at 71-91, 20 games or more under .500 for the sixth time in the last 10 years, the just completed season wasn't a complete disaster in every area.
Following several less than exciting years of guys who were touted as being able to be impact rookies at the big league level - Jeff Clement, Wladimir Balentien, Michael Saunders, Adam Moore, Matt Tuiasosopo, Carlos Triunfel, Blake Beavan, etc. - the Mariners had a number of their top prospects reach the majors and actually show promise this season. There were still ups and downs, but as a group, this year's rookies should give the club some hope for future contributions, potentially filling long-term roles for the club going forward.
Nick Franklin, Brad Miller, Mike Zunino, Abraham Almonte, Brandon Maurer, Danny Farquhar, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Yoervis Medina all made their Mariners regular season MLB debuts this season, and it isn't far out there to suggest that each of those nine players could figure prominently in Seattle's immediate, long-term future. Seattle rookies accounted for 1,102 plate appearances and 376 1/3 innings on the season, both marks good for the 9th highest totals in MLB. And while those totals represent less than 20% of the playing time the Mariners had as a team this season, the rookies also accounted for 5.1 of the team's 21.0 overall fWAR - nearly 1/4. And for the rookie hitters that mark was a cool 1/3 - 1.5 of the 4.5.
Following an amazing start to his big league career, the 22-year-old Franklin fell on some tough times in the second half of the season for Seattle but the switch-hitter still ranked in the Top-10 in the majors in 2B (20), HR (12), RBI (45) and BB% (10.2%) while getting the 11th highest total of plate appearances among all rookies. Franklin was able to reach those totals even though he hit just .107/.194/.214 (9 for 84) in August and posted a 31.6% strikeout rate after the All-Star break. Regardless of the struggles, the offense that Franklin gave Seattle from the second base position was a big uptick for the club, even if it was muted by that second half.
Miller came up and replaced defensive wizard Brendan Ryan and, like Franklin, immediately boosted the ballclub with his offense. Unlike Franklin, Miller (23) improved as the season went along, lowering his strikeout rate while raising his OPS with each passing month and ending with a slash of .265/.318/.418. A large majority of those plate appearances came out of the leadoff spot in the order, not usually a place you see rookies. The numbers don't love his defense as he ranked 26th out of 39 shortstops who accumulated 400 or more defensive innings, and coming from Ryan that was glaringly obvious. But if Miller continues to improve at the plate, even average defense at shortstop would easily push him into the Top-10 in baseball in fWAR from the shortstop position.
When Zunino was called up, there was a lot of discussion about the 22-year-old being rushed. Seeing as his debut came less than one full calendar year after the time he debuted in pro ball that may very well have been the case -- even though I pointed to some of the reasons why the move wasn't as egregious as some would have us believe at the time. Still, the experience and exposure that Zunino got to not only hitting big league pitching but receiving big league pitching will be incredibly valuable going forward. Only three rookie catchers received more playing time in 2013 than Zunino did, and he performed better than the two not named Evan Gattis in almost every category. Hard as it is to believe, Zunino also performed better than almost every catcher the Mariners have run out there regularly since their inception. His 0.0 fWAR ranks 5th in Mariners team history among rookie catchers.
Almonte, 24, who received the Mariners Minor League 2013 Heart and Soul Award for his exemplary play and leadership, went from organizational filler to a potential big time player in the club's 2014 outfield plans with the season he turned in. The switch-hitter who came over in exchange for Shawn Kelley combined to hit .295 between two stops in the minors and in Seattle this season, cranking out 17 home runs, walking 73 times and stealing 27 bases while playing all three outfield positions. He showed a lot of defensive ability in all three outfield spots during his 25 game late season trial with the Mariners and looks like a steal for what he cost. His athleticism and versatility are a big change from the outfield the club started the 2013 season with, and that could see him stick on the 25-man roster in 2014.
Following a sparkling showing in spring training, the 22-year-old Maurer skipped over Triple-A and was put in the rotation from the starting gun to open 2013. He showed flashes of being able to dominate with his stuff at times, but he struggled mightily to consistently get left-handers out. That ultimately led to a demotion to Tacoma, where he made 10 starts of varying degrees of "meh" type success. Put in a bullpen role after his recall, Maurer flashed his fastball up to 98 at times in relief before finished the year strong by allowing only five earned runs and 19 baserunners over his final 18 innings and three starts. He definitely had his struggles at times and his overall season numbers aren't good, but the fact he spent so much time on the roster and threw 90 big league innings -- the 16th most among MLB rookies in 2013 -- gives him a solid base to build on going forward.
Of everyone on this list, Farquhar is probably the most surprising to have turned into something valuable at the big league level in 2013. Danny (26) came to the Mariners as one of the pieces in the Ichiro trade, but we all know that trade wasn't about getting value back. In fact, Farquhar moved around five organizations between the 2010/2011 offseason and his July 2012 trade to Seattle. Somewhat of an enigma as a 5-foot-9 right-hander that employed a lot of three-quarters and below arm angles, Farquhar had only two big league innings before his promotion to Seattle this season, but he ended the year as the club's closer and posted the 9the highest SO/9 rate of all MLB relievers in his 55 2/3 innings this season. And while his ERA was an uninspiring 4.20 his FIP was 1.86 -- the fourth best number in the majors among relievers. Farquhar's curveball really made a huge difference for him this year, and sticking to a more natural arm angle allowed him to refine his command past where it had ever been for him before. His 1.9 fWAR was the third highest number on the club and tied for 9th among MLB relievers for the 2013 season.
Walker was a consensus Top-20 prospect across baseball coming into 2013, but he really moved his profile forward with his performance during the season, split between Double-A Jackson, Triple-A Tacoma and a brief three-start introduction to the major leagues (2.25 FIP, 7.2 SO/9). His stuff is beyond impressive and the 21-year-old oozes athleticism and confidence. His strikeout rate jumped back up this season and his workload made another 30 inning leap as well, all while his repertoire and statistical success progressed as you'd hope from a top prospect. Having proven that he not only can dominate PCL hitters but also shut down big league teams, it seems almost a foregone conclusion that Walker will break camp in 2014 as part of the rotation for the Mariners.
As impressive as Walker was, the big league debut of the big lefty Paxton was probably more eye-opening as there were a number of questions surrounding his overall ability. Yes, it was only four starts, but Paxton showed a combination of stuff and pitchability that is rarely seen from left-handed starters during those four starts, culminating in his dominant final start against the Royals: 7 innings, 4 hits, no walks and 10 strikeouts. Paxton turns 25 next month and was originally a 2009 draftee, remember, so the time is now for the B.C. native. If he can keep his mechanics and command in check as he transitions into 2014, it seems a lock that he will crack the big league rotation in Seattle (or somewhere else if he's dealt) next spring. Walker and Paxton were both worth 0.5 fWAR in their short exposure to the big leagues and only two starters for the Mariners were worth more than 1.0 fWAR for the entire 2013 season.
Medina (24), who was consistently looked at as a curious inclusion on the 40-man roster as he struggled mightily over the past few seasons, paid off the organization's faith in him this season. The big right-hander earned an early season promotion and appeared in 63 games for Seattle -- the second most appearances on the entire staff. He generated a team best ground ball rate of 53.8% and allowed only a .198 opponents' average. With fastball velocity consistently in the mid-90s and a sharp breaking ball, Medina was a key arm in many high-leverage situations and delivered despite less-than-ideal control. He looks like a legit back-end bullpen arm moving forward.
The value that these nine rookies can provide to the Mariners going forward is, truly, invaluable. One of the biggest keys for teams like Seattle to be able to afford to build a winner and add free agents or other existing large contracts through trade is being able to have young, low cost, cost-controlled talent ascend through the organization and fill out the balance of the roster to surround those acquisitions. If these nine players can continue to fill key roles for Seattle, a winning future may be more attainable than it seems following such a disappointing stretch.