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Keeping the Home Fires Burning: A Look at the 2016 Bakersfield Blaze

The Blaze Go Out With a Bang

Midway Classic Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Welcome to Day Three of our look at how each Mariners affiliate performed in 2016. Today, we’ll be looking at the Bakersfield Blaze, a High-A affiliate in the California League.

Season Preview

While the 2015 Bakersfield Blaze weren’t the worst affiliate in the system, their 61-79 record certainly left room for improvement in 2016. Despite having six position players who would go on to play for the championship AA Generals in 2016, plus a handful of pitchers who would do the same, those players weren’t as effective in Bakersfield in 2015: the team slash line was a paltry .237/.307/.352, with a .659 OPS. The 2016 Blaze got a boost from some aggressive promotions of 2015 draft choices Braden Bishop and Drew Jackson, along with a brief but dominant performance from 72nd overall pick Andrew Moore. The players who repeated at Bakersfield put up significantly better numbers, too:

The exception to this is Austin Wilson, whose numbers didn’t show any improvement: .239/.342/.374 vs. .226/.338/.375. The 2013 draft choice did increase his walk rate significantly, from 7% to 11%, so maybe that’s a sign that he’s working on a different plate approach. But overall, these are encouraging signs. Of course the goal for players repeating levels is to make significant strides forward, and that’s definitely reflected in the table above.

With this newly revamped offense, plus some spectacular pitching, the Blaze cruised to a 76-64 record. While they struggled initially, playing sub-.500 ball in both April and May, the Blaze rebounded in a big way in June, kicking off the month with an incredible nine-game winning streak during which they scored 50 runs. The Blaze would again post winning records in July and August en route to ending the season atop the Cal League North and headed to the division championship.


Playoff Review

While rumors had swirled around the future of the Blaze all season, in August it was officially announced that, for the first time since 1941, baseball would not be returning to Bakersfield for the 2017 season. However far this team could go would be the end of the line for the Bakersfield Blaze. In the first round, the Blaze dropped the opener of their series against San Jose despite outhitting the Giants, and had a frustrating TOOTBLAN that knocked them out of a comeback attempt. The Blaze rebounded in the next game thanks to a strong performance from starter Zack Littell and offensive fireworks from Drew Jackson, Kyle Petty, and Joe DeCarlo. In the decisive Game Three, the Blaze fell behind early before jumping ahead on a two-run blast by Joe DeCarlo. Starter Tyler Pike was only able to go five innings and the Giants were able to get to reliever Kody Kierski to tie up the game, but the Blaze responded with a solo homer from Jay Baum and an RBI single from Kyle Petty. A dominant performance from the bullpen secured the win, advancing the Blaze to the next round and keeping baseball alive in Bakersfield a little longer. Bakersfield would go on to be knocked out in the next round by the Visalia Rawhide, keeping it close but failing to win a game. RIP Bakersfield Blaze.


Top Performers, Position Players

Kyle Petty, 1B - Petty was a dominant hitter in the Cal League this year, being named to the All-Star game and winning the Home Run Derby (which, like a Lonely Island song, was on a boat). His 14 home runs this year were a career best, but his double-digit walk rate against a modest strikeout rate suggests he has a plan at the plate other than just swinging for the fences. Petty was able to maintain those numbers in a brief appearance at AA Jackson this year but otherwise looked overmatched by AA-level pitching. At 25, Petty needs to show he can handle pitching at the next level in order to take the next step forward in his career.

Gianfranco Wawoe, 2B/SS - The 22-year-old from Curaçao had another strong season in his second year of pro ball, maintaining a nice K/BB ratio and hitting for average as well as a little bit of power. In a system that’s marked by quixotic performances, Wawoe’s consistency is a breath of fresh air. He has a ton of defensive value as well, being able to play anywhere in the infield. And let’s be real, that’s a 70-grade name. The departure of Tim Lopes left a hole in the infield of the Arkansas-Travelers-stop-typing-Jackson-Kate, one which will almost certainly be filled by Wawoe.

Chantz Mack, OF - Chantz Mack is another 25-year-old looking to get out of A-ball next season. These kids and their insistence on “getting an education,” I’ll never understand it. Mack said he wanted to focus on being more consistent this season, and he was, at one time putting together an eight-game hitting streak The lefty put together a strong campaign on his second tour through Bako, significantly raising his BB% (from 8 to 13!) while adding power, hitting a career-high 18 doubles and 14 home runs. Mack had one of his best games ever on June 19th, hitting for the cycle for the first time in his career and for the first time in a decade in Bakersfield, and collected five hits on the day.

Tyler Marlette, C - Tyler Marlette plays a position at which the Mariners are desperately thin, and the team looks to be accelerating his development over fellow prospect Marcus Littlewood. When a spate of injuries in Tacoma required Marcus Littlewood to be called up, Marlette received a late-season promotion to Jackson and was relatively productive there, with numbers that looked fairly similar to his performance in Bakersfield. The team sent him to the AFL this season, where so far in 23 PAs he’s struck out 3 times but has also bashed a home run and two doubles. His K/BB rate against higher-level pitching makes me uneasy, even in this small sample size (in 50 games in 2015 at AA Jackson his walk rate was 5%), and Marlette needs to develop more consistency at the plate, but a series of mechanical changes might have unlocked the potential in “Red’s” big bat. He is a player to pay close attention to in 2017.


Top Pitching Performances

Zack Littell: I’m not sure any other prospect in the system boosted their stock more than Littell did over the last eight or so months. After entering the year far, far away from most top prospect lists, Littell ended the year looking like one of the better pitching prospects in the whole organization. As of now, he’s working with a low-90s fastball and a big curveball and can effectively command both. And as it goes with most lower-level pitchers, a third pitch (changeup) is currently under construction.

Osmel Morales: Morales was placed in the starting rotation in late June and made the most of the opportunity, putting up a 3.65 FIP while striking out batters at a rate of 10.39 K/9. The peripherals aren’t mind-blowing by any measure, but his presence in the Bakersfield rotation was a massive boost to what had been a weak point all season long.

Thyago Vieira: Vieira finally managed to get his walk-rate under control in 2016, helping him to a career-best 2.97 FIP. As we’ve seen in the Arizona Fall League, Vieira has a big fastball that he’s able to push up to as high as 102 mph while sitting in the 98-100 range. His release also seems to generate a lot of ground balls, as evidenced by his 53% ground ball percentage this year.

Jacob Zokan: Health issues have put a damper on Zokan’s pro career thus far, as the 25-year-old out of the College of Charleston has spent significant time on the DL for each of the past three seasons. This year, Zokan managed to piece together a long, healthy stretch that saw him emerge as the most reliable arm in the Blaze’s bullpen. Several of his numbers were career-best marks, most of which were likely due to his switch to the bullpen.


Top Prospects

Here are some of the better prospects in Bakersfield this past season who didn’t manage to nab a spot in any of the other categories.

Braden Bishop: Bishop, ranked the No. 11 prospect in the system by, put together a decent finish to his season, putting up a 116 wRC+ and a .790 OPS over his final 89 plate appearances. It was a subpar year for Bishop, who put up good-but-not-great numbers with Clinton before getting bumped up to High-A, where he posted a 70 wRC+ across 184 plate appearances. The defense is still there, but it was always a given that Bishop’s bat would be the biggest determining factor in terms of how quickly he moves through the system. I think he has more pop in his bat than he showed this year and I expect him to have a better 2017, but don’t be shocked if he tumbles down the prospect ranks in the future.

Drew Jackson: Expectations were high for Jackson after a brilliant showing with the Everett AquaSox a year ago, but he was only so-so with the Blaze, putting up a 88 wRC+ in ~600 plate appearances. He’s currently out in the Arizona Fall League, where his struggles at the plate have continued. The good news is that his potential with the glove was still very much on display in 2016. He’ll need to focus on cutting down on the errors in the future, but he’ll have undeniable range and athleticism at just about any position you throw him in.


Most Improved Blaze

I’m giving this award to Zack Littell for all the reasons stated above. His promotion to the hitter-friendly California League didn’t slow him down in the least, as most of his peripherals from the pitcher-friendly Midwest League lined up well with his performance for the Blaze.

I still think you’re looking at a No. 4/5 ceiling with Littell, but that’s a heck of a lot better than I would’ve guessed a year ago.


Next Year’s Outlook

With the Blaze now extinguished, the Modesto Nuts will take over as the Mariners’ High-A team next year. They’ll likely be receiving a strong team, as the Clinton LumberKings currently possess a plethora of young, exciting arms who figure to move up next year. Luiz Gohara, Kevin Gadea, Nick Neidert, Pablo Lopez, and Brandon Miller are all entertaining guys who could find their way into the Nuts’ rotation at some point or another next year.

On the offensive side of things, prospects such as Drew Jackson and Braden Bishop figure to repeat the level, while lower-level guys such as Alex Jackson, Dalton Kelly, Logan Taylor, Eric Filia, and even Kyle Lewis (when he’s healthy) will likely make their way over to Modesto in 2017.