We’ve reached the end of our team-by-team look at the 2016 Mariners affiliates. We’ll close things out with the Tacoma Rainiers, the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League.
Tacoma vaulted out to a big division lead early on and managed to tread water for the rest of the year, holding off the Reno Aces long enough to lock up a division title. When the dust settled, they had gone 81-62 thanks in large part to a juggernaut-type performance at Cheney Stadium (46-26).
And because it was the minor leagues, a lot of weird things happened along the way. James Paxton started throwing 100 mph out of nowhere. Al Albuquerque popped up. Chris Taylor got into a feud with a mascot. Rob Brantly’s abs became the talk of the town.
Tacoma was arguably the worst team in the system from a prospect/potential standpoint, but they were still fun in a lot of ways.
The Rainiers opened the playoffs with a best-of-five series against El Paso. Game One was playoff baseball at its finest, with Tacoma winning a thriller, 6-5, in extra innings. The story of the game was Tyler Smith, who made two errors in the game at critical junctures after making just ten in the whole regular season. Smith redeemed himself in dramatic fashion, however, making the final two putouts to end the game after he’d singled and scored a run to put Tacoma ahead the inning before. Tacoma dropped Game Two in El Paso, 7-1, when the Tacoma bats couldn’t muster anything against El Paso starter Walker Lockett, who shut them out over seven innings of work, and Tacoma starter Cody Martin gave up four runs over five innings.
The series returned to Tacoma, where El Paso shut out Tacoma in front of their home crowd and torched starter Wade Le Blanc (oh Wade) for four runs in the first two innings, eventually tacking on three more for a 7-0 win, setting up a must-win situation for Tacoma. Game Four was a see-saw of lead changes, with Tacoma taking an early lead thanks to a leadoff double from Daniel Robertson, and then El Paso coming right back to tie the game 1-1. Tacoma battled back with a pair of RBI singles to take a 3-1 lead, but then El Paso again answered with a run in the next inning, thanks to top prospect Hunter Renfroe. Stefen Romero hit a solo home run to give Tacoma a 4-2 lead and a little more breathing room, but El Paso would manage to score three more runs, including a two-run home run from Renfroe in the eighth that snuck El Paso past Tacoma for a 5-4 win. El Paso would go on to win the PCL championship, so at least Tacoma got beat by the best, but it was a disappointing end to the season nonetheless.
Top Position Players Performances
Before you read on: I know this list is sad, okay? It’s a sad list. Welcome to Tacoma.
Stefen Romero - Look, at this point it’s maybe just time to trade Stefen Romero. He’s climbing towards the top of the all-time leaderboard in several categories for the Rainiers, and that’s a sad thing. This year, Romero bested his own performance, chopping his K% by ten points (!) while hitting a career-best 21 home runs. Romero is 28, and at this point the best thing for him might be a fresh shot with a new organization where the ghost of his brief MLB appearance in 2014 (and 2015, and 2016) doesn’t hang over his head.
Daniel Robertson - Robertson was the spark plug in this Tacoma lineup, often getting the first hit in multi-run rallies, and continues to be very fast on the bases despite being thirty-and-one years old. This year, he accomplished something pretty amazing: his walk rate (9.1%) beat his K rate (8.9%). There’s got to be some weirdly-named award for that, right?
Dan Vogelbach - the major piece acquired in the Mike Montgomery trade, Vogelbach put up an otherworldly 21.2% BB% at Tacoma, against just a 17.2% K rate. He’s a walking object lesson in why batting average alone is a flawed stat, as his .240 doesn’t begin to capture the fear he instills in minor league pitchers. It’s not small sample size, either; Vogelbach hasn’t touched a 20% K rate since his second year of pro ball, and his BB% is consistently double-digits. He’s still far from a sure thing at the major league level, and his defensive value is almost nil, but he’s probably the player I’m most interested to see get extended reps against big-league pitching in Spring Training.
Mike Freeman - Freeman was a later acquisition by Dipoto, claimed off waivers August 1st from the Diamondbacks. Freeman is a 29-year-old utility player, seemingly redundant for a club that employs Shawn O’Malley, but he is another C-the-Z player whose BB% threatens to eclipse his K%. Freeman also had some clutch hits when he was called up by the Mariners as part of their ill-fated playoff push, and flashed a nice glove at short stop. His inclusion on this list of top performers, however, says a lot about the state of things in Tacoma.
Top Pitching Performances
Tacoma pitching this season was so unbelievably unimpressive. Two of the guys listed above (Parker, Coleman) weren’t even in the organization by year’s end, with Coleman opting out of his contract for better opportunities and Parker getting claimed off waivers by the Yankees. Martin had a two-month stretch where he C’d the hell out of the Z, eventually leading to a call-up with the Mariners due to the ten other starters ahead of him on the depth chart resembling a Jackson Pollock painting. Tony Zych threw three brilliant innings with the Rainiers while rehabbing. He was gone before he even had a chance to remark upon the peculiar architecture of the Tacoma Dome and its surroundings.
Pitching prospects Emilio Pagan and Paul Fry both struggled with command and finished the season with walk-rates hovering around 5.00 BB/9. Mayckol Guaipe looked neat and then immediately got hurt. Jordan Pries was having a weirdly good season and then was shipped off to Chicago. Something named Kevin Munson threw baseballs at one point. I have been watching Triple-A baseball on a frequent basis for a few years now and understand it to be fairly boring in terms of pitching performances, but even with the low bar, it was a thoroughly boring year for Tacoma arms.
I got...I don’t really have anything for you here. A bunch of players ping-ponged between Tacoma and Seattle this year, and their names are familiar to you even if you don’t follow the minors closely. Tacoma this year was pretty much just Jerry Dipoto’s Home For Broken Major Leaguers, a box of those antibacterial wipes they give out at the supermarket to clean carts with masquerading as a pitching staff, and a holding pen for Dan Vogelbach. Maybe Tyler Smith could be a thing? The 25-year-old second baseman put up...fine numbers on his first tour of AAA, but the 4.8% BB rate and .089 ISO are not a tantalizing combination.
Fellow 25-year-old infielder Zach Shank had a good year, but there are concerns his .292/.350/.395 slash line was BABIP-fueled. Shank did hit three home runs, which is the most he’s hit in any year above A-level, and he kept the strikeouts down while upping his walk rate from last year, and overall improved on his numbers from his brief stay at AAA last year. Shank also took home the “Mr. Mariner” award in the minor league awards this year, which is given in honor of Alvin Davis to the player who best exemplifies teamwork on and off the field. From everything I’ve heard, Shank is one of the nicest guys in the system, so I’m certainly pulling for him to get his chance once Shawn O’Malley and Daniel Robertson and Mike Freeman all decide baseball is too hard on the bones and go off to farm sheep somewhere.
Next Year’s Outlook
The Rainiers should be better off next year from both a talent and production standpoint. While there’s a small-to-decent chance Stefen Romero is playing baseball elsewhere next year, Tacoma will be inheriting several players from a terrific Jackson Generals team in 2017. Top prospect Tyler O’Neill will be there. Top arms such as Ryan Yarbrough and Andrew Moore will be there. D.J. Peterson, Boog Powell, Zach Shank, and other contributors from this year’s team will be back. (NOTE: this is all assuming Dipoto doesn’t trade the entire team this offseason)
Tacoma baseball was fun this year, but I expect it to be all the more entertaining in 2017.