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Another brief history of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

While Rattlers' prospects like Felix Hernandez and Wladimir Balentien excelled on the field, the club's overall success waned in the second half of their 16-year relationship with Seattle.

Wisconsin Timber Rattler Daniel Carroll.
Wisconsin Timber Rattler Daniel Carroll.

The second half of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers’ tenure with the Mariners carried a slightly more sour taste.

In 2001, they lengthened their playoff streak to six consecutive seasons with one more attempt, but a roster debilitated by injured prospects hampered their best efforts. Only three days before the first round opener, infielders Pedro Liriano and Dan Floyd and closer Chad Wiles were each ruled out with wrist injuries. Despite the addition of supplemental players from the Arizona Fall League, the Rattlers flunked out of the semifinals against the Diamondbacks’ co-champion South Bend Silver Hawks.

While their major league counterparts enjoyed a record-tying 116 wins, the Single-A Rattlers put up their best record since signing on with the Mariners: 84 wins, 16 shutouts, and a league-leading 2.96 team ERA. Three of the top four pitchers in the Midwest League belonged under Wisconsin’s banner: right-handers John Butler, Rett Johnson, and Jared Hoerman. Twenty-year-old righty Clint Nageotte, the only one of the bunch to reach the majors, led Midwest pitchers with 187 strikeouts -- over 15 percent of the team’s league-best 1,225 whiffs.

Their success was short-lived. The following season would be the final one for manager Gary Thurman, whose three-year stint was the longest among Seattle skippers in Appleton. For the first time since 1995, attendance plummeted to under 200,000, perhaps indicative of the skid to come.

On the field, the 2002 Rattlers produced only 53 wins, their lowest mark in nine years. Much of their bad luck could be credited to a string of injuries, from right-hander Phil Cullen’s snapped humerus bone to infielder Luis Cordova’s groin strain. The Mariners’ most promising hitters, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and corner infielder Greg Dobbs, were promoted just after the halfway mark in the season, forcing the team to rely on a hodgepodge of emergency replacements and mediocre performers.

As Gary Thurman entered into a three-year reprieve from his minor league managerial duties, San Bernardino Stampede skipper Daren Brown transferred to the Midwest League for a one-year shot with the Rattlers. The 2003 season got off to a slow start -- their first month culminating in a three-game losing streak and 20 scoreless innings -- but a much-needed rally from outfielder T.J. Bohn moved the team within a game of .500 by early May. The Rattlers vaulted to second place by the midseason mark, coming within a game of clinching the first half title after making a 12-4 run in their final 16 games.

While the Rattlers reaped the benefits of hitters like 23-year-old Jon Nelson, who led the league with 38 doubles and placed third with 91 RBI, and 23-year-old Matt Hagen, who whacked a franchise-best 21 home runs, they barely scraped above .500 with a 69-66 record. Still, their finish in the first half merited a wild card spot, which they promptly squandered, getting trounced 2-0 by the Brewers’ Beloit Snappers in the first round of the postseason.

Amid the rise and fall of the Rattlers’ playoff hopes was a bright spot: the timely and brief arrival of one Felix Hernandez. The 17-year-old advanced from the short-season Everett AquaSox during the last two weeks of the season for a two-game stopover in Wisconsin, allowing three earned runs, one home run, three walks, and striking out 18 batters in just 14 innings. By the spring, he would be squirreled away in San Bernardino, California with the High-A Inland Empire 66ers.

The 2004 season was marked by success of a more tangible kind: a surge in attendance. The Rattlers filled the ballpark with 206,487 fans, more than they’d seen in three seasons. In the dugout, Daren Brown was replaced by Steve Roadcap, who headed Wisconsin’s squad back in 1999 and had taken a year and a half off to join the Inland Empire 66ers. In 2004, he split his duties between the 66ers and Rattlers, managing the first to a 77-63 record, the other to a 57-82 finish. It would be his last season in the Mariners’ minor league system.

Though Rattlers’ fans didn’t have a postseason to fret over, the 2004 squad turned out some stellar prospects. Twenty-four-year-old right-hander Brandon Moorhead racked up 163 strikeouts in 145 2/3 innings, allowing a paltry five home runs and 50 walks. Outfielder Wladimir Balentien led the team with 15 home runs and secured a spot on the Dutch Olympic team by early August.

Even with their brightest stars in play, however, Wisconsin’s best efforts petered out by season’s end. They lost 12 of their last 14 contests and finished eighth in the Western Division. Their next and final shot at a playoff title would come in 2005.

In fact, the 2005 season not only resuscitated the Timber Rattlers’ playoff hopes, but brought the attendance to a whopping 211,927, the highest it had been since 2000. For the fourth time in as many years, the Rattlers marched to the tune of yet another manager, this time the Arizona League Mariners’ Scott Steinmann.

Joining the Rattlers were a plethora of prospects from the Mariners’ short-season affiliate in Everett, Washington. It was a mark of success for Everett manager Pedro Grifol, who told the Seattle Times’ Matt Massey, "My biggest challenge is making sure that nobody comes back." Luckily for Grifol, it appeared that his newly promoted AquaSox would have little trouble sticking in the Midwest League.

Together with some veteran holdovers from previous seasons, the young Rattlers clinched a first-half and second-half title in the Western Division, firmly anchoring their place in the postseason. Oddly enough, they also supported one of the poorest pitching staffs, with the second-highest ERA (4.02), fewest strikeouts (881), and most hits (1,297), runs (790), and earned runs (669) allowed. Their saving grace was a superb showing by their offense, which placed second in the league with 788 runs, 1,331 hits, 712 RBI and a slash line of .275/.350/.409.

It came as relatively little surprise that the Rattlers blazed through the preliminary rounds of the playoffs, first ousting the Twins’ Beloit Snappers, then shutting out the Rangers’ Clinton LumberKings. Their downfall came in the final round against the Eastern Division-leading South Bend Silver Hawks, who took the series 3-2 for their first championship since 1993.

Buoyed by a strong showing in the Midwest League finals, the Rattlers received only accolades from Mariners' management as they approached their 14th season with the club.

"I feel like we have the best affiliates possible," Mariners’ director of minor league operations, Greg Hunter, told the Seattle Times. "They are in good communities who support the team, and they have nice, fair fields. […] As long as you’re around that .500, that competitiveness stays there and that’s a big part of the development."

Unfortunately for the Rattlers, "that competitiveness" had dissolved by the time the 2006 season kicked off, and they found themselves relegated to the bottom of the league for their final three seasons with the Mariners. From 2006 to 2008, the club failed to accumulate more than 600 runs per season, sitting well below .500 and only one or two places above the poorest performers in the Western Division. Attendance figures dipped as low as 190,000 in 2008 and the club averaged little more than 54 wins per season, notwithstanding two managerial changes and the addition of soon-to-be familiar names like Michael Saunders, Alex Liddi, Michael Pineda, Carlos Peguero, Shawn Kelley, and Carlos Triunfel.

Finally, both the Mariners' and Rattlers’ higher-ups pulled the plug on the ailing affiliation. In 2009, the Timber Rattlers were turned over to the Milwaukee Brewers, who had themselves sustained a 14-year relationship with the Midwest League Beloit Snappers and just returned from a four-year stint with the South Atlantic League West Virginia Power. The Mariners, for their part, entered a more fortuitous and fruitful relationship with the Clinton LumberKings.

Wisconsin trivia

  • Notable Timber Rattlers: Wladimir Balentien, Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Greg Dobbs, Greg Halman, Felix Hernandez, Adam Jones, Shawn Kelley, Alex Liddi, Mark Lowe, Adam Moore, Carlos Peguero, Michael Pineda, Michael Saunders, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Carlos Triunfel, and Matt Tuiasosopo.
  • In 2005, all anyone could talk about was 19-year-old third baseman/shortstop Matt Tuiasosopo. The young prospect was taken third in the 2004 draft and finished the season with six home runs, 45 RBI, and a .359 average. However, the most peculiar moment of his first pro season happened off the field, when the multitalented infielder punched a window after infield practice, cutting his left wrist and requiring several stitches and some quality time on the DL.