Day Four is upon us and on this lovely Thursday morning we’ll be taking a look at the Jackson Generals, the Mariners’ (now former) Double-A affiliate in the Southern League.
The Generals, armed with perhaps the best collection of talent in the entire system, raced out to a 46-24 record in the first-half, easily capturing the division title by a whole ten games. They were loaded for the first few months of the season, armed to the teeth with hitting, starting pitching, and relief pitching.
Unfortunately for the Generals, waves of promotions left them scrambling to piece together a roster in the second half, with several out-of-organization-journeymen and organizational filler joining the squad to keep them afloat. 29-year-old Bryan Evans was there. Alexander Capriata popped up to be the backup catcher. Adam Law and Ryan Casteel joined the squad. The differences between the first-half Generals and the second-half Generals were staggering. It was because of these changes that you couldn’t fault them for finishing the second-half in third place (despite a surprising 38-31 record). They’d ultimately end the year with an overall record of 84-55, the best record in the Southern league.
The Jackson Generals, as broken as they were down the stretch, persevered in the playoffs and did the damn thing, going 7-1 en route to their first championship since 2000.
Things started with a five-game series against the Montgomery Biscuits. Andrew Moore got them rolling in Game One, striking out eight in a one-hit shutout. Brett Ash kept it going in Game Two with six innings of one-run ball. After Montgomery picked up their first win of the series in Game Three to bring the series to 2-1, Bryan Evans and Ryne Harper slammed the door, combining for eight innings of one run ball to help the Generals clinch the series with an 8-2 victory.
In the championship series, the Generals squared off with the Mississippi Braves. Things were tense in the first couple games, with a Tyler O’Neill two-RBI double lifting the Generals to a Game One victory and a gem from Brett Ash and Ryne Harper helping them to a 2-0 series lead. In Game Three, the Generals went Pacific Rim-jaeger sword on the Braves, cruising to an 11-3 win to clinch the Championship. Seven different Generals drove in runs. They drew ten walks. They had twelve hits. It was a total massacre that perfectly exemplified how dominant they’d been in the playoffs.
They were fun and they won and all was well.
Top Position Player Performances
Tyler O’Neill: Despite gushing over O’Neill every single week for the better part of six months, I still haven’t ran out of good things to say about Canadian Popeye. I often called the Jackson Generals the most entertaining team in the system and O’Neill played a major part in that. Whether he was hitting the longest of home runs or displaying a much improved approach at the plate, he seemed to always give you a reason to watch on a daily basis, and his rocket arm in the outfield wasn’t too hard on the eyes, either. He is easily a top-two prospect in the system (along with Kyle Lewis) no matter how you spin it; his rise into Baseball America’s Top-100 prospect list was well earned.
Marcus Littlewood: Littlewood enjoyed his first big season at the plate in awhile, teaming up with Steve Baron to provide outstanding offensive output from the catcher position. The incredibly high BABIP and general lack of power suggest the success won’t last, but he was a major part of what the Generals accomplished this season.
Guillermo Heredia: No one was sure what to expect from Heredia after being out of the game for two years, but he proved to be a spark plug on both offense and defense, consistently getting the most out of his athleticism. His combination of high-contact rates, speed, and surprising plate approach helped him to a >.400 OBP in Jackson across 260 plate appearances. He’d ultimately receive a promotion to Tacoma (and then later, Seattle), but he was absolutely one of the most impactful players to come through Jackson this season.
D.J. Peterson: Peterson got his career back on track in 2016, fixing mechanical issues that plagued him last year and bashing his way through Southern League pitching. After starting out a bit slow, he caught fire in early May and put up a 165 wRC+ in his final 180 plate appearances with the Generals. He, too, was eventually promoted to Tacoma, but he was a major part in the Generals’ ridiculous first half run.
Steve Baron: Steve Baron, famed member of the Seattle Mariners’ 40-man roster, rode a .354 BABIP and 12.6% walk-rate to a strong offensive year for the Generals. His season came to a halt in early August due to injury (which ultimately led to Jackson needing to call up a player from the rookie leagues to fill in as the backup catcher), but up to that point he was one of the most reliable bats in the lineup. I don’t expect him to last on the 40-man roster much longer, especially with players needing protection from the Rule-5 draft and Dipoto willing to make five or six moves during the span of a typical lunch break, but his 2016 was fine and he deserves a bit of recognition.
Top Pitching Performances
The offense carried Jackson in 2016, but the team also got strong contributions from their starting pitching. Ryan Yarbrough, Southern League Pitcher of the Year, put up solid numbers in his first year in AA and most significant number of innings pitched to date. Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, Yarbrough was hampered somewhat by injury towards the end of the season and wasn’t able to pitch in the Generals’ postseason run. Yarbrough has an average fastball, a plus change-up, and a curveball that’s average-to-good thanks to some nasty late movement. Yarbrough is quite tall, at 6’5”, and although he’s listed at 205, he looks lighter than that; it would be nice if Tyler O’Neill would show him the way to the weight room to maybe help with his durability.
Paul Blackburn only played in eight games in Jackson after coming over as part of the Mike Montgomery trade (his numbers in the table are an average of his performance at Jackson and with the Smokies). I have a hard time getting excited about Blackburn, to be honest. He doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, all his pitches are average, and he’s not especially good at limiting walks. He does generate slightly more ground balls than average, I guess. Whee. Blackburn’s ceiling seems to be long reliever/spot starter, but those are important roles, too. [Looks wistfully at Mike Montgomery pitching in the World Series]
I learned the word stan just so I can call myself an Andrew Moore stan. I am super-high on Moore, higher than most, and here’s why: I love a command artist, which is what Moore is. None of his pitches are plus pitches, but even his detractors have to admit that the command is superior. As organizations chase more and more fireballers with spotty command and limited pitch repertoire, my theory is that pitchers like Moore will have an edge with their ability to locate all over the strike zone and show hitters many different looks. Moore has been successful at every level at which he’s played, including on the biggest stage for a college player, the College World Series. Moore is a pitcher’s pitcher; he loves the game and studies it relentlessly, seeking out guidance from those who cross his path, like Jamie Moyer. This article from the Oregon State SB Nation site offers insight on Moore’s makeup and a peek into his prep career. Looking at Moore’s 2016 game log, there are wobbles: a two-home run game here, departing after two innings there. But what stands out to me is none of these bad games are back-to-back; Moore doesn’t let his poor performances creep into successive starts. He adjusts, he moves on, he moves forward, and to my mind, that’s a recipe for success.
The Jackson bullpen was too effective for its own good this year, losing their set-up and closer combo Díaz and Altavilla to the big club in June and August, respectively. Diaz’s promotion was a foregone conclusion, but Altavilla’s came as a surprise, especially after he had been rumored to be a trade candidate. Each time, these moves left Jackson bereft of a closer, but Matt Anderson stepped up to fill the void admirably. A brief stint on the DL for Anderson in late August prompted the Generals to pick up Brandon Sisk, a journeyman lefty who last pitched in the indy leagues, who was nonetheless effective in four appearances.
Ryne Harper came to the Mariners after the winter meetings as the PTBNL in return for Jose Ramirez. Harper’s weapon is his big curveball, and while he’s been dismissed as a one-pitch pitcher, he was lockdown out of the Jackson bullpen, thanks to a fastball and slider that work to set up that dangerous curveball. He was borderline unfair against AA hitters this year and should get a shot in Tacoma next year. At 27, he’s running out of time.
RHP Dylan Unsworth - Unsworth was on track for an strong 2016 in Jackson, with a 15.2% K-BB% and a 2.96 FIP over nine games. He was named to the Southern League All-Star Game and the Futures Game, before an injury knocked him out for the rest of the season. He’s currently pitching in the AFL and so far has surrendered just one run in six innings while collecting three strikeouts. Unsworth re-signed with the Mariners recently and the team rewarded him with a slot in the AFL, where he’s roommates with fellow prospect Luiz Gohara and the two of them regularly go to Starbucks and sit in their hot tub in my favorite minor-league buddy comedy in the making.
CF Ian Miller - The bat is still a question mark but Miller is absolutely lethal on the bases, swiping 49 of them, second-best in the Southern League (and ten more than the next-closest player on the list). And while the power’s not there, Miller improved his OBP significantly by lifting his walk rate to 9.1% while cutting down his strikeouts to a career-best 10.9%. If he can just figure out how to get on base more often, Miller’s speed and the defensive value he brings in center field make him a viable roster piece. And he is doing what he can to get on base—this year he was hit by a career-high seven pitches. Whatever works, man.
3B Adam Law - Acquired from the Dodgers in July, Adam Law had never hit a home run in four seasons of pro ball. In three months with Jackson, he hit three of them. Baseball! The Southern League seemed to agree with Law, as he slashed .321/.402/.444 in 47 games with Jackson, over the .276/.356/.316 he hit in the Texas League. Law is nifty with the glove, too; in the playoffs he made a killer snag on a 105 mph liner hit right at his head. Law has an interesting lineage: his dad, Vance, is a former head coach at BYU, where Law went to school, and a former Major Leaguer; his grandfather, Vern (“the Deacon”), won the 1960 Cy Young Award as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Most Improved General:
In his first year at AA, Tim Lopes raised his average by ten points and his OBP by almost twenty, bumped up his walks, cut down his strikeouts, played a very good second base, and swiped 26 bases. The Mariners gave him to the Blue Jays in exchange for Pat Venditte. What. The. Hell.
Next Year’s Outlook:
Next year the Mariners’ AA affiliate will be the Arkansas Travelers, part of the Texas League. The Texas League has a slightly more run-friendly environment, at 4.6 RPG over the 4.4 of the Southern League. However, Dickey-Stephens park, home park of the Travelers, is a tricky place to hit, ranking second-to-last in the league for runs per game and dead last for home runs. The outfield is expansive and the power alleys deep: it’s 400 feet to dead center, 415 to left-center and 390 to right-center. For the hitters coming from the offense-heavy Cal League, it will be a rough adjustment, but at least the pitchers will be happy.
Despite the successes at Jackson this year, I wonder if the club will be more conservative in moving people up, wanting them to get comfortable in a new league. Catcher is a tricky spot to predict, as I don’t have a sense of who the organization prefers between Baron, Marlette and Littlewood, although if Marlette keeps bashing against top prospects in the AFL that might clarify that decision. Tyler O’Neill will certainly begin the year in Tacoma (and probably remain there, much to the chagrin of everyone), and Adam Law would be a good candidate to join him there, as it seems like there’s nothing to gain out of forcing him to repeat the Texas League. On the pitching side, Andrew Moore will be a boon to Tacoma’s weak rotation, as will Yarbrough, if he can stay healthy. Ryne Harper deserves a shot in Tacoma and would help shore up a bullpen that spent 2016 yo-yoing between Seattle and Tacoma.