Surely you’ve heard the story of the fringe prospect who makes good, the player who defies his mediocre tools and reaches his big league ceiling. It is the story of Kyle Seager, a guy who filtered through the old Mariners development system and emerged as an effective major league player on the other side.
Mayckol Guaipe is another such player.
Guaipe is currently a major league reliever for the Seattle Mariners. That’s something you knew about him, most likely. But unlike many big leaguers from Venezuela, he was never a "bonus baby." When he signed with the Mariners as a 16-year old in 2006, his acquisition barely made ripples, even among those who intently follow Latin American baseball.
Guaipe was able to live his dream in 2015, but he took a bumpy path to the majors. After signing in 2006, Guaipe spent his first four seasons as a member of the VSL Mariners, the lowest farm affiliate in the organization. Generally, players who spend more than a year or two there wash out of the system quickly. Guaipe stuck around. He made it to Single-A Clinton in 2012, but even there, scouts often looked past him, as John Sickels recalled:
I saw scouts put their guns away after the first few pitches. "Big guy with an awkward delivery, no fastball, no breaking ball, no prospect," their faces said.
Somehow he got through the inning unscathed, and then things began to change. By the third inning, he had his mechanics ironed out a bit. They still looked shouldery, but his rhythm was better and his control sharpened up. His fastball took a big step forward, up to 90-93 by the middle innings, with good movement. His breaking ball was never more than blah, but he threw several very impressive changeups, and by the middle innings he was in command of the game.
The scouts were certainly paying more attention.
In 2013, Guaipe was converted to relief and his strikeout rate jumped from 5.25 K/9 to 8.69. He posted even better numbers the following year, striking out a batter per inning and cutting his walk rate by two thirds. The following winter, the Mariners added Guaipe to their 40-man roster, protecting him from the Rule 5 draft.
Even after his impressive 2014 campaign, evaluators had low expectations. Jason Churchill ranked Guaipe as Seattle’s 27th best farmhand on his preseason prospect list for 2015, writing:
Guaipe pounds the strike zone with the fastball and slider, creating plane on the four-seamer and getting some armside run to go with it. He’s not afraid to pitch inside to left-handed batters but he doesn’t command the pitch well to that side of plate just yet.
When he stays down with the slider the short-breaking pitch is effective and he’s shown the ability to get called strikes with it, backdooring it to lefties and keeping it away from right-handers.
Guaipe’s arsenal remained the same during his short stint in the bigs, where he primarily featured a fastball and a slider, mixing in a curveball and changeup occasionally. Like many young fastball-slider relievers, he posted stark platoon splits:
|RHB (71 PA)||50|
|LHB (50 PA)||172|
Lefties hit like Mike Trout against Guaipe, while righties basically emulated Brendan Ryan. If he’s able to maintain that level of success against righties, he could certainly find a role in a big league ‘pen, though he was never this effective against them in the minors.
Guaipe’s slider is easily his best offering. He threw 70% of his sliders for strikes last season, generating a 16% whiff rate on the pitch. He was less effective with his four-seamer, which only produced an 8% whiff rate. For a reliever, his fastball is unimpressive. According to PITCHf/x, his average heater was 93 mph (topping out at 96). While that’s an improvement over the "90-93" that Sickels saw in Single-A, his pedestrian velocity puts pressure on his command, which remains spotty.
In a lot of ways, Guaipe represents bullpens of Mariners past, which were littered with fastball-slider specialists who posted severe platoon splits. Perhaps the current regime will help Guaipe develop his changeup, and see if he can use it to miss bats against lefties. Otherwise, Guaipe’s utility is limited and he’ll likely only see action in 2016 if the bullpen crumbles and needs a fresh arm.
Regardless of what he becomes, Guaipe is the kind of guy you should root for. He is The Little Engine That Could, a player who moved to an unfamiliar land to achieve his dream against incredible odds. When we talk about fringy major league relievers with limited skillsets, we often forget that kind of thing.