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It’s R Time (to have prospects): 2019 Tacoma Rainiers Preview

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The return of prospect hype to the South Sound.

Celebrity Softball Tournament with Nick Lachey
“Yes, this is Nick, you’re breaking up, you said a Shed hit what?”
Photo by Kevin Casey/Getty Images for Tacoma Rainiers

For the first time since at least 2013, the most important developments in the Mariners organization will be in the minor leagues, not in the majors. Today we kick off our season previews for the organization’s minor league affiliates, beginning with the stalwart Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. After several years of serving as a veteran repository, starved of MLB prospects, the R Squad will have several prospects to fawn over.

2018 in Review

66-73 (.475), 3rd of 4 in the PCL Pacific North Division, 12th of 16 in the Pacific Coast League

The Rainiers served admirably as a veteran-shuffle last year; however, that consistent shuttle sapped them of consistency, to say nothing of the dearth of high-ceiling prospects as a result of more than three years of dealing from the bottom of the system to accentuate the MLB roster. That left Tacoma with both the oldest (27.9 years old) average position players and second-oldest (28.0) pitching staff in the PCL. While they’ll have to replace almost their entire starting lineup and rotation, the group should be far more prospect-laden than last year, with several enticing youngsters pushing up from AA-Arkansas as well.

Notable Departures/Returners

It would be easier to list who didn’t depart. Just four (4) of the top 22 players by plate appearance are even still in the Mariners organization, with Zach Vincej, Gordon Beckham, Seth Mejias-Brean, Cameron Perkins, John Andreoli, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Andrew Aplin, Danny Muno, Jayson Werth, Ben Gamel, etc. all off for greener less teal pastures. Both Daniel Vogelbach and David Freitas will open the season with the MLB club, so IF Adam Law and OF Ian Miller are likely the most prominent returners on the offensive side.

The pitching staff will be similarly overhauled. Christian Bergman has finally moved on, as have fellow starters Rob Whalen, Casey Lawrence, Ross Detwiler, Bryan Evans, Ariel Miranda, Williams Perez, and Erasmo Ramirez. Max Povse will likely continue working in Tacoma’s rotation, but the pressure is off on a rapid bullpen conversion as the M’s competitive window has shifted. The bullpen is always a rotating door, but it will be similarly revamped, with Mike Morin, Ashton Goudeau, Ryan Cook, Dario Alvarez, Tucker Healy, and Justin Grimm among those moving on. Advancing to the MLB roster are RHPs Shawn Armstrong and Nick Rumbelow, as well as LHP Roenis Elías. Likely returners include RHPs Darin Gillies, David McKay, and Ryan Garton, and possibly LHP Matt Tenuta.

Finally, the coaching staff is not immune from change. This off-season saw the departure of long-tenured, well-liked manager Pat Listach, in a move that surprised both him and his players. Replacing Listach will be former Double-A Arkansas manager Daren Brown, fresh off managing the AFL-champion Peoria Javelinas and just two seasons removed from overseeing a Jackson Generals team that won the Southern League championship. “Brownie” already holds the record for winningest manager in Rainiers’ history, so he’ll be padding his stats this go-round. Joining him will be returning pitching coach/pitcher whisperer Lance Painter, he of the revamped Paxton arm slot, and joining Brown on the flight out of Little Rock will be hitting coach Roy Howell.

Projected Lineup

The position player group below includes just two players over the age of 30. Save for the aged-out Crawford, the top five in this lineup are all prospects in the Mariners’ Top-30 by MLB, and we ranked them all in our Top-25 as well. That’s where the intrigue will lie early on in particular. Beyond the top of the order, Tim Lopes and Ian Miller are talented players repeating the level. While both lack 40-man spots, they’re interesting players in the early-to-mid-20s that will at minimum make this roster more compelling than in years past.

SS J.P. Crawford
2B Shed Long
DH Eric Filia
1B Joey Curletta
CF Braden Bishop
3B Tim Lopes
LF Ian Miller
RF Kristopher Negrón
C José Lobatón

Bench:

INF Chris Mariscal
UTIL Orlando Calixte
C/1B Austin Nola
C/1B/3B Joe DeCarlo
OF Tito Polo
UTIL Adam Law (?)

The bench is a bit of an enigma. Calixte struggled with visa issues but should serve as an INF/OF, as will Negrón. Nola was signed on a minors deal, and after two straight seasons in AAA it’d be shocking to see the 28-year-old wind up any lower. Both veterans create a curious dynamic for the other three likely bench candidates.

Joe DeCarlo was our 22nd-ranked prospect after performing at the plate in AA and the AFL (and every other level he’s experienced). He could be forced to repeat AA if the team determines they want more than 236 PAs from him, but he’s pushing 26 and could use as much work with top pitching as possible. Joey Deeks’ positional versatility might make him a consistently played backup C, but he needs reps regardless. Mariscal is also facing the clock a bit, and while scouts haven’t raved about his defense, he’s capable of playing SS and every other spot in the infield. Contact hasn’t been an issue for him, so if he can generate any extra power he’ll more than handle AAA. He might be subjected to a third round of AA if the M’s choose to keep 29-year-old Adam Law to start the year, but it’s unclear whether that’s likely at this point. Lastly, Polo has had two abbreviated cracks at AA, both shortened by injury. The 24-year-old was once a prospect of some repute, but much like his painting prowess, consistent repetition is needed to improve. That’s not available in AA, where Jake Fraley, Dom Thompson-Williams, and Kyle Lewis figure to start the season.

Names to Watch (Position Players)

2B/3B/OF Shed Long - Prospect Profile & 40 in 40

Long might hit leadoff or second for the Rainiers, but the 23-year-old lightning-bug is a near-lock at the top of the order either way. He’ll get his first crack at AAA while working on his defensive chops at 3B and corner OF on occasion, as well as his semi-natural 2B position. Whatever mishaps occur in the field will be frequently forgiven as Long’s explosive uppercut swing generates power belied by his diminutive stature.

SS J.P. Crawford - 40 in 40

When you open the baseball dictionary to the page that describes ‘prospect fatigue’, J.P. Crawford’s face gazes back at you. Freshly 24, Crawford spent 2013-thru-2017 on Baseball America’s Top-100 prospects, including 2014-2017 in their Top-16. His first 200 PAs were disappointing, and yet his bat was no disaster. A 91 wRC+ for a shortstop with a good defensive rep is no catastrophe, but Crawford will get time in Tacoma to reset all the same. Barring an offensive explosion by Tim Beckham, he should move up to Seattle by May or June, when his service time has been properly exploited, but until then the shortstop of Seattle’s future will call Cheney Stadium home.

1B/OF Eric Filia - Prospect Profile

So long as Eric Filia has been able to avoid marijuana-related suspensions, he’s hit professional pitching. Filia is aware the power has to develop somewhat to garner a continued look, but every higher level he continues to lash hits and walk more than he strikes out is another step closer to the bigs. Filia will split time with Curletta at 1B/DH and work in RF as well. With Ryon Healy taking the full-time 3B role for the first couple months of the year, hopefully the 1B logjam at the MLB level will clear up by the time Kyle Seager returns, leaving consistent PAs for Filia, Curletta, Vogelbach, and Healy.

1B Joey Curletta - Prospect Profile

Speaking of the big fella, J-Curlllll emerged out of near-nothingness and should fill some of the Vogey-shaped hole in Tacoma fans’ hearts this year. His power is commensurate with his 6’4, 245 lbs frame, and he’s got a Mark Trumbo-like profile that’s still athletic enough to moonlight at corner outfield if absolutely necessary. Curletta has been limited this spring with an oblique strain, but will hopefully return in time to start the season in Tacoma. He was spotted on the backfields in minors games and scrimmages, so the injury doesn’t seem to be anything that will derail his start to the season.

OF Braden Bishop - Prospect Profile & 40 in 40

Bishop would’ve debuted in Tacoma last fall had he not been hit in the hand by a pitch that ended his season. He may leapfrog Tacoma entirely if Mallex Smith misses further time with his elbow injury, as Bishop will begin 2019 in Japan on the active 28-man roster, but in all likelihood Bishop will spend at least some of the season roaming Cheney’s center field. Bish is a superlative fielder with a directive from management to run more aggressively on the basepaths and utilize his 70-grade speed. For fans who enjoyed Guillermo Heredia’s work, Bishop will deliver a similarly jaw-dropping defensive repertoire.

Projected Rotation:

It’s been noted how heavily the Mariners have stocked Tacoma in recent years with journeymen to slurp up innings like so much gruel. To say the starting rotations have been prospect-light is still understated. Not since 2013, when both Taijuan Walker and James Paxton took the hill for the Rainiers, has a pitcher ranked in anyone’s Top-100 prospects toed the rubber for Tacoma. That will change this year, with Justus Sheffield leading the charge, and a likely rotation that is 3.5/5ths prospects that may be bolstered mid-season by RHP Justin Dunn if he performs well in Arkansas.

LHP Justus Sheffield - Prospect Profile & 40 in 40
RHP Erik Swanson - Prospect Profile & 40 in 40
RHP Max Povse - Prospect Profile
LHP Tommy Milone
RHP Nabil Crismatt

Projected Bullpen:

RHP Ruben Alaniz
RHP David McKay - Prospect Profile
RHP Tyler Danish
RHP Tayler Scott
RHP Darin Gillies
RHP Art Warren - Prospect Profile
RHP Robinson Leyer
LHP Matt Tenuta
RHP Ryan Garton
RHP Matt Festa/Dan Altavilla/Chasen Bradford (?)

Names to Watch (Pitchers):

Look, there’s really one big name you’re watching, and that’s the major return of the James Paxton trade, our short king Justus Sheffield. More than who to watch, there’s what to watch: namely, for Justus to continue to build on a strong spring where he brought his big fastball but paired it with his slider and a better-than-expected changeup. It’s the changeup that will make the difference between Sheffield eventually transitioning to the bullpen, as some have forecast is in his future, and hitting his potential as a mid- to front-end starter.

Also worth watching is the less-heralded arm that came over in the Paxton trade, Erik Swanson. Catch Swanson on a good day and the righty will look like a Top-100 prospect, overpowering hitters with his nearly-perfectly spin-efficient four-seam. See him when his command is off, however, and Swanson will look destined for a multi-inning bullpen role. Swanson’s offspeed stuff is average, but the fastball is legitimately exceptional, and that could easily be enough. The M’s will be eager to see him work out as a starter if at all possible.

The other intriguing arm the Mariners picked up in trades this off-season, RHP Justin Dunn, will most likely begin the season with Double-A Arkansas, although with 90 Double-A innings already under his belt in the Eastern League, he’s a good candidate to be moved as soon as he’s convinced the club he’s mastered the Texas League.

John wants you to like Nabil Crismatt because of this one funny writeup in Baseball Prospectus, but I’m here to tell you: you do not have to. (But if you liked Sam Gaviglio, how about a softer-tossing version of that with longer hair? ~ John) (Only if he has an equally cherubic face ~Kate) (Depends how you like your cherubs ~John)

MiLB

And then there’s the bullpen pile. You think the MLB club’s bullpen is a weird amalgam? Meet Tacoma’s Island of Misfit Toys, which includes a surfing South African (Tayler Scott), a fireballer with 30 control (Robin Leyer), not one but two dudes purchased from the Royals for the grand total of fifty cents (Tenuta and McKay), the obligatory Rays castoff (Ryan Garton), a former second-rounder with the world’s weirdest delivery (Tyler Danish), and everyone’s favorite, Rotating Bullpen Member, aka whichever big-league guy (Bradford, Festa, Altavilla) has been given more than his fair share of innings to consume over the previous weeks in order to prop up what’s sure to be a faltering Mariners rotation.

Whatever warts are on the big-league club’s pitching staff, consider all of those magnified at Tacoma. But hey, they’ll probably score a lot of runs, tickets are cheap, and Rhubarb is adorable. See you at R House this summer.