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Mariners minors season in review: Tacoma Rainiers (AAA)

We R sorry about the juiced ball.

MiLB: MAY 21 Fresno Grizzlies at Tacoma Rainiers Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Our minor league affiliate round-up comes to a close this week with the Tacoma Rainiers. Seattle’s southern neighbor has long been its most prominent affiliate, yet thanks to mediocre systems it has been left without much shine to work with in recent years. This season seemed promising at the outset, but it quickly became apparent the PCL was inhospitable for many of the club’s top talents.

Catch up on the other clubs here:

Overall record: 61-78, fourth in the Pacific Coast League Pacific Northern

Playoff record: N/A

Season in review:

Things never quite got rolling for the Rainiers, who could have been a thin but intriguing group with some finesse pitchers and a neat middle infield before being shadracked from go by the PCL-new baseball combo. It was not until their 12th game of the season that the Rainiers saw their starting pitcher record a victory courtesy of a Tommy Milone gem. Milone would be the only Rainiers starter to record a victory in the entire first month of the season, notching his second win in late April. The tone was set for the year, and despite some promising bullpen appearances, Tacoma’s offense could not outscore their rotation.

Key promotions:

It seems so long ago that Tim Beckham blew the doors off the ball for a few weeks and gave plausible deniability to holding J.P. Crawford down in Grit City. Crawford reached base safely in each of his games with the Rainiers before being promoted for good. Also making his way up was Shed Long, who has helped form an honest-to-goodness interesting 24 year old middle infield pairing in Seattle after a few injuries. Braden Bishop began the season in Japan due to Mallex Smith’s injury, but did everything you’d expect on offense and defense in 43 games with Tacoma between his gruesome spleen injury. Austin Nola was a nice surprise behind the dish whose offensive improvements have surprisingly sustained in the bigs. Ditto, to a lesser extent as a UTIL, for Tim Lopes.

Even the aforementioned veteran ace Milone got the call and has stuck, along with Erik Swanson, albeit in a bullpen role. Tacoma did not have a powerhouse roster but every bit of talent they did have got sapped to the big leagues as trades and injuries created opportunities en masse. Not every departure was a direct upward one, however. Justus Sheffield was one of a couple starters, including Nabil Crismatt and Andrew Moore who left the Rainiers in the opposite direction, resetting themselves in AA before returning to AAA or shooting all the way to the bigs. Ruben Alaniz, Parker Markel, Tayler Scott, Ian Miller, Kristopher Negrón, and David McKay all had sharp starts to the year with Tacoma, yet will finish the season in other organizations thanks to 40-man roster squeezes.

Key arrivals:

Unfortunately for the R Squad, several of the intriguing youngsters who got bumped up to Tacoma merely stopped by on their way to the bigs. Jake Fraley would have spent less time than the mere 38 games he got had he been fully healthy. LHP Anthony Misiewicz and RHP Darren McCaughan earned promotions with sharp turns in the Texas League, though the PCL was predictably inhospitable for their fly ball styles of play. Reggie McClain and Zac Grotz barely got comfortable before the big league bullpen needed their aid. Then-18 year old Robert Perez had an exciting moonlighting stretch, clubbing a few dingers before returning to the more appropriately challenging Northwest League. The Mariners plan to keep the core wave of youths together in Arkansas meant few reinforcements arrived for the multitude of names you just read as departures, leaving late season Tacoma a veteran-led group with few eye-catching names. Eric Filia made a bit of noise as the season drew to a close, smacking the ball around the R Yard after returning from suspension.

MLB Top-100/Mariners Top-30 prospects at the level:

LHP Anthony Misiewicz (FanGraphs No. 24, Baseball America No. 28), RHP Gerson Bautista (FanGraphs No. 20)

Top position player: C/1B/3B Austin Nola

By the nature of AAA and the players Seattle had here, it’d be difficult to have given this to any of the more heralded prospects. None of Shed Long, J.P. Crawford, or even Jake Fraley spent enough time in Cheney Stadium to make an impact, and even if they had they might not have performed as well as Nola. The surprising UTIL was a minor league free agent signee. Despite being most recognizable as the older brother of his ace younger brother, Nola made adjustments to get the most out of his swing this season, and was rewarded with a call-up after seven years in the minors. Though he’s played more infield in the bigs, Nola caught 233 innings in AAA, offering a wallop in the lineup that neither José Lobatón nor, later, Joe Odom could.

Honorable Mentions: John Andreoli, Jaycob Brugman

Top pitcher: LHP Anthony Misiewicz

How does one rank the smallest catastrophe? As has been well-documented, AAA’s adoption of the juiced - intentionally or not - MLB ball led to a dramatic surge in home runs. For the PCL, which already was on the fringes of viability for pitcher survival thanks to its many hitter havens, the level became borderline unusable as an evaluative zone, and what Jerry Dipoto referred to as almost a “punishment”. None of Tacoma’s pitchers look good, but compared to the rest of the PCL they look a bit more understandable. Misiewicz takes the cake here for a few reasons. His 5.36 ERA was easily below the league-wide 5.85, and he did so despite leading the Rainiers in innings pitched with 95.2. Misiewicz took more turns through the rotation than any other Rainiers pitcher and even came out somewhat favorably. Deserved Runs Average from Baseball Prospectus, which values likely outcomes from batted balls as well as adjusting for the league and park being played in, pegged Misiewicz for a more palatable 3.83 DRA (still graded on the ERA scale), and viewed him as at least an above-average pitcher in the league. It’s not the sturdiest stand to hang your hat on, but in this case it’ll have to do.

Honorable Mentions: Tommy Milone

Top bullpen arm: RHP Aaron Northcraft

Do you prefer dominance or presence? I’ve waffled at times between the two, but we’ll give Northcraft the nod here. The funky righty was one of the cooler stories of the Rainiers season, making his way back from a two year hiatus from affiliated ball including time in independent league play to run a 1.87 ERA out of the bullpen. That’s plenty impressive at any level, but unthinkable considering the 2019 AAA landscape. Northcraft made it happen thanks to a low arm slot that led to an extraordinary 64.9% groundball rate. Though he didn’t get the late season call-up he might’ve hoped for, Northcraft should have a shot at a big league debut next year - in Seattle or elsewhere - if he can stay healthy and keep things on the ground.

Honorable Mentions: Ryan Garton, Matt Festa, Reggie McClain

Pop-up performer: RHP Reggie McClain

Gas Camp has gotten a lot of love for the boost it delivered Ljay Newsome and a few other Mariners pitchers. Reggie McClain was one of those players. The former Missouri starter has been working hard to add velocity, with a repertoire that can work in the bigs if only the fastball can give hitters enough pause. With some improved mechanics and detailed workouts, McClain rocketed all the way from Modesto to the bigs, spending the most time in Tacoma. For one of the most diligent workers in the system, it was no doubt a gratifying reward, and like Northcraft he managed to steal success by keeping the ball on the ground and dodging barrels.

Need to see more from: OF Eric Filia

This is an atypical answer for this category, as Filia was exactly what you’d have hoped he’d be in his first taste of AAA ball. The only issue is literally needing to see more of it. Likely due to the multiple suspensions due to recreational drug use, the Mariners have not given Filia a September call-up that his play merits. There’s a good chance the Mariners lose Filia to the Rule-5 Draft this winter as a result, but if they don’t they’ll have a still-perplexing player who started getting the ball off the ground at last this year without a loss in plate discipline.

Dishonorable(?) Mention: Gerson Bautista

Other performances of note:

Poor John Andreoli and Jaycob Brugman were a year or two late. Both outfielders had strong seasons but in the outfielder-rich Mariners system were unable to stand out for a call-up. Still, both were steady fixtures in a lineup upon their arrival on a roster that had just one player appear in 100+ games. That man was OF Ian Miller, who was dealt for cash to the playoff-bound Minnesota Twins, who called him up and will likely lean on him as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner in the playoffs. Both Miller and Tim Lopes were forces on the basepaths, with 29 and 26 steals respectively. One of the more disappointing seasons came from RHP Gerson Bautista, who did not find success in either corralling his triple-digit heat or refining his off-speed, continuing to yield far too many walks to overcome, even with an impressive strikeout pace.