Of all the changes Jerry Dipoto has made in the Mariners’ organization, one that hasn’t had a lot of press is the steady upgrading of minor-league facilities. In 2017, the Mariners switched two affiliates. At the Advanced-A level, they swapped out the historically significant yet idiosyncratic and impractical Sam Lynn stadium in Bakersfield, CA to move on up to Modesto in the Cal League, which has some of the less inflated numbers in the traditionally homer-happy Cal League. They also moved the Double-A club out of a criminally under-attended and remote ballpark in Jackson, TN into the relative hotbed of Little Rock, AR, trading a smaller league in the Texas League (vs. the Southern League, which has ten teams to Texas’s eight) for larger crowds and more upgraded facilities. (Fun fact: in 2016, the Jackson Generals won the Southern League Championship. The Arkansas Travelers, who finished third in their division and six games under .500, had double the Generals’ attendance, or more than 2700 more fans per game.)
This season, the Mariners completed the final upgrade in their system—as Everett and Tacoma won’t be going anywhere—by moving their A-level squad out of the Midwest League and into the South Atlantic League, often known as the “Sally League.” Single-A ball is, like Double-A, curiously not played west of Texas, and there are only two divisions: the Midwest League and the Sally League. For the past decade, the Mariners have been affiliated with the Clinton LumberKings of Clinton, Iowa, leading to countless delightful Instagram posts from prospects who have lived exclusively in warmer climes getting to experience snow for the first time. But now the Mariners’ A-ball affiliate has moved a time zone away to the slightly-smaller Sally League (14 teams vs. 16 in the Midwest).
This time, however, there is no spike in attendance. Clinton actually outdrew west Virginia by about 10,000 last year. And the young DSL prospects’ Instagrams are safe; Charleston doesn’t get any less rain or snow than Clinton, Iowa. In fact, Charleston, with its higher humidity, gets a little more rain and snow, meaning there most likely won’t be a net change in rainouts (or snowouts), although slightly warmer spring temperatures could make for a more comfortable environment for players.
On the surface, it would appear that Charleston has the stadium edge: Appalachian Power Park was built in 2005, while Ashford University Field, home of the LumberKings (but curiously, not home of Ashford University), was known as Riverview Stadium when it was built in 1937 as a WPA project, but has undergone several millions of dollars’ worth of renovations over recent years. And despite the fact that Charleston is a capital city with a population about double that of Clinton, Iowa (and quadruple if one includes the entire Charleston metropolitan area), there is no significant increase in Latino population to make a more welcoming environment for Latin American ballplayers. Charleston has a Latino population of less than 1%, significantly lower than Clinton’s already-paltry 3%. In fact, West Virginia had the lowest Latino population of any US state until a recent mini-boom pushed it all the way up to...48th.
There is one semi-significant difference between the two parks. Perhaps in a bid to mimic Safeco Field’s famous run-eating-tree effect, Clinton’s ballpark was the fourth-most offense-suppressing ballpark in the Midwest League in 2016; West Virginia, on the other hand, was the third-highest for happy little bats. A 2017 study in Baseball America that assigns “grades” to ballparks on the 20-80 scouting scale gives Clinton a 40 grade for both runs and balls in play, and 45 for home runs; West Virginia earns grades of average or slightly above in all categories.
In moving to the South Atlantic League, the Mariners will no longer face the affiliates for the Athletics (Beloit Snappers), the Angels (Burlington Bees), or the Astros (Quad City River Bandits). The Rays, Indians, Blue Jays, Tigers, and Twins are the other AL teams in the Midwest League. The smaller Sally League has a higher concentration of NL teams; the AL teams include the Orioles (Delmarva Shorebirds), the Rangers (Hickory Crawdads), the White Sox (Kannapolis Intimidators, aka the Dumbest Minor League Team Name), the Yankees (Charleston RiverDogs), the Red Sox (Greenville Drive), and the Royals (Lexington Legends). The Power play in the Northern division of the Sally League, meaning they’ll face affiliates from the Orioles, Rangers, and White Sox most often, along with the Pirates (Greensboro Grasshoppers), Nationals (Hagerstown Suns), and the Phillies (Lakewood Blue Claws).
If you think that sounds like a step down in competition, you’re somewhat right. Of Baseball America’s top ten farm systems from last year, seven of them are in the Midwest League. The Mariners prospects will go from regularly playing baseball’s #7, #8, #10, #13, and #15 systems (and #22, #24, and #27) to regularly playing #4, #12, #16, #18 #20, and #21. It’s also worthy of note that the White Sox, ranked #4 in 2018, have most of their big-name talent at the High-A level and above, although 2018 second-round pick Steele Walker should be back for a second attempt at the Sally League after posting a wRC+ of 56 in 126 plate appearances last year, and he might be joined by 2017 first-rounder Jake Burger mid-season after he heals from a (second) torn Achilles.
Other prospects of note from the teams the Mariners prospects will face most often:
- Orioles: 19-year-old RHP Grayson Rodriguez was Baltimore’s first-round pick in 2018, and showed well in rookie ball for a prep arm. He’ll most likely see time in the Sally League, and might start out the year there. The transition to pro ball wasn’t as smooth for Oregon State product Cadyn Grenier, who scuffled a little after he was assigned straight to A-ball after being drafted 37th overall in 2018. The O’s might send Grenier back to Delmarva to pump up his numbers before promoting him to Advanced-A, but they could decide an 84 wRC+ is fine for a defensively-gifted shortstop and send him up the ladder anyway.
- Pirates: Travis Swaggerty had 71 not-great appearances for Greensboro after tearing up short-season ball, so the 2018 first-rounder (10th overall) will most likely return to the Sally League to continue to work on his swing.
- Nationals: 2018 second-rounder Tim Cate posted a 3.39 FIP in 30 innings of short-season ball, and the Nationals decided that was good enough for a promotion to Hagerstown, where he continued to rack up strikeouts, but also struggled to keep the ball in the yard. He should open the season in the Sally League. Mason Denaburg, Washington’s first-rounder in 2018, hasn’t got a Fangraphs page yet, as the Nationals sent the high schooler to instructional league baseball after drafting him. He’ll probably start out in rookie ball or short-A, but a promotion to Hagerstown sometime in 2019 isn’t out of the question. Arizona State product Gage Canning should also be around for a while, at least until he shows he can get his strikeout rate under control in pro ball.
- Rangers: The Rangers sent top international signee Julio Pablo Martinez to the AFL after a strong start to his pro season, so it’s safe to say they’ll skip him past the Sally League and straight to High-A. The Rangers might have three interesting pitchers in the Sally League at some point this season. The excellently-named Hans Crouse zoomed through two levels of pro ball before his command failed him in 16 innings for the Hickory Crawdads, and will in all likelihood return to the level to open the season; the other two pitchers, both named Cole, have flimsier futures. 2016 first-rounder Cole Ragans might return from TJ later in the season to pick up his journey after throwing almost 60 innings in short-season ball in 2017; 2018 Gatorade High School Baseball Player of the Year and first-round draftee Cole Winn is yet to throw a professional pitch, but might make a late-season appearance.
- Phillies: OF Jhailyn Ortiz may be in the Sally League for a hot minute to prop up some injury-deflated numbers from 2018 and rebuild his power numbers. 2018 first-rounder and third overall pick Alec Bohm should open in the Sally League after scuffling at Short-A last season.
Overall, the move to West Virginia as an affiliate is a bit of a puzzle. There’s no immediate clear advantage in upgrade of facilities, more favorable weather, increased diversity, proximity to other Mariners affiliates, increased attendance, or bump in the level of competition. The only thing that jumps out as a major difference is what might be called a quality of life upgrade: as a capital city and metropolitan area, Charleston offers advantages that Clinton does not. The prospects I’ve spoken to who have spent time in both Jackson, TN and Little Rock are universally positive about the affiliate change, citing the shops and restaurants of Little Rock alongside the increased attendance and stadium upgrade as things which have improved their quality of life.
Many of those same prospects have universally unflattering things to say about Clinton, Iowa, outside of the dedicated fans, who are “fantastic”; Clinton is “boring,” with “nothing to do,” and “can smell bad.” [This last bit is, from what I can ascertain, true; Clinton is home to both a pet food factory and a rendering plant that processes “ruminant animal proteins” (read: roadkill) into animal feed.] Dining options outside of chain restaurants are limited. When Googling “things to do in Clinton,” Ashford University Field comes up as the #4 suggestion, behind the locks but ahead of the sawmill museum.
Charleston, on the other hand, has a vibrant downtown crowded with bistros, bookstores, and an indoor farmer’s market. There are places to get bulgogi tacos and homemade ice cream and a collection of locally-owned shops. There’s a light opera and an orchestra and a museum dedicated to burger chain Big Boy. It’s the kind of place you go on purpose, which Dipoto tacitly acknowledged in his statement on the affiliate change: “The combination of quality, experienced baseball people and a beautiful ballpark in a capital city provide all of us with something to look forward to for 2019 and beyond.” And while it may seem silly to uproot an affiliate of over a decade just so players can drive home with their windows open and get tacos on their off-days (and coaches, and development staff, and family members in town...), it’s of course more than that: it’s about providing the best possible experience for players.
To that end, the quality and vibrancy of the Power fanbase must be discussed. Deputy mayor of Charleston Rod Blackstone loves his city, and he loves his West Virginia Power. Every home game, Blackstone leads the chants behind home plate, waving toast that he makes right there at the game to let opposing batters know they’re “toast” as they strike out. He’s such an important part of the fanbase, the team installed a special electrical outlet just for his toaster. Behind the opposing team’s dugout is “Rowdy Alley,” a group of fans originally helmed by Billy Bob Taylor (Billy Bob!) that heckle visitors throughout the game. The group has an active Facebook page and plans meet-ups in the off-season. They’d fit right in with the Maple Grove. Both Rowdy Alley and “The Toast Man”—who again, is the deputy mayor of the city of Charleston—are featured on the Power’s Wall of Fame at the ballpark, a testament to the pride of place minor-league baseball has in Charleston.
Director of Player Development Andy McKay hinted at a synergy between the Mariners and the Power organization in his statement on the move:
“Our conversations with their leadership team immediately revealed that we have similar values and priorities. As with all of our affiliates, we will work to put the best possible product on the field with the goal of winning baseball games and playing meaningful games late in the season. Off the field, we look forward to our community service responsibilities and the relationships we will build with the fans.”
McKay has emphasized the importance of sending players into the community to serve since his arrival in the Mariners system. We’ve seen that at the lower levels of the organization, in the DSL and around the complex in Peoria; it will be interesting to see if the Mariners are able to cultivate a similar relationship in a much larger city.
Meanwhile, West Virginia Power fans will be treated to one of the more entertaining rosters a Seattle farm system has had in a while, if current trends hold: word is that Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, and Josh Stowers will all be in the Power outfield, where baseballs will be scared to fall; Cal Raleigh, who came close to a .300/.400/.500 slash line in Everett last season, will be behind the dish; Northwest League All-Star Bobby Honeyman will return to the infield; and 2018 first-round draft choice Logan Gilbert should show up at some point to anchor the pitching staff. It seems that the Mariners and their new affiliate might just have...
all the qualities necessary for a successful working relationship.
(You thought I was going to say POWER, didn’t you? I wouldn’t do that to you. Not after you’ve read this far, dear reader.)