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Picking our Mariners Spring Training fringe favorites: that’s MY pile guy!

One team’s filler is Jerry Dipoto’s treasure

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, a group of fringe players are given a shot at breaking camp with a team. These players may be on the 40-man roster or they might be non-roster invites; the common link is: they were not with the team the year before, and have not been signed as a premier free agent (over $1M). For many teams, these players are just roster-fillers for the dog days of Spring Training, set to be relegated to minor league duties or released entirely when the regular season begins. For the rebuilding Mariners, however, there’s a chance any of these players could snag a spot on the 25-man with a stellar spring. Here, then, are our picks for the player most likely to break out and earn a place with the 2020 Mariners...or beyond.

Joe: Manny Banuelos

As of 2012, Bañuelos was one of the premier starting pitching prospects in all of Major League Baseball. In fact, there were rumors that New York was interested in acquiring Felix Hernandez in 2012, and Bañuelos, as well as then-starting-pitcher Dellin Betances were going to headline the deal. The stocky 5-foot-10 southpaw has scuffled through the minor leagues, bouncing between starting and bullpen work. He’s endured several injuries over the years, some of which have undoubtedly affected his formerly premier velocity. Bañuelos regained some of his lost velo in 2019, registering a fastball that averaged almost 92 mph.

Bañuelos is no longer a starter, but in a day and age of circumstantial pitching, he could become a stellar opener or long reliever. Nothing is guaranteed with a minor league deal, but Bañuelos will have every opportunity to make the team out of spring training. He’ll likely be competing with the likes of Taylor Guilbeau, Nestor Cortes Jr., and possibly Aaron Fletcher for a roster spot. It should be noted there’s a three-batter minimum this season, so situational pitching won’t have quite the weight it formerly did.

Eric: Wei-Yin Chen

In 2017, Wei-Yin Chen pitched one of the best games of his career in Seattle, tossing 7 no-hit innings before getting pulled at 100 pitches. Now he’ll try to crack the Mariners roster in 2020. Coincidence? Almost certainly!

After posting a career-best 2.8 fWAR season with the Orioles in 2015, Chen signed a 5-year, $80 million deal with the Miami Marlins and his production promptly fell off a cliff, near no-hitter in Seattle aside. He pitched out of the bullpen in 2019 before he was designated for assignment and released. Fun fact: Derek Jeter and the Marlins will pay Chen $22 million in 2020 as he attempts to get his career back on track in the Mariners minor league system. Good for you, Wei-Yin! I, for one, think he’s got a pretty good chance at making 10+ starts for the Mariners in 2020 because I fully expect the rotation to be in constant flux and/or shambles as all the non-Gonzales/Graveman pitchers work their way through various developmental humps throughout the season. Not to mention injuries. Turns out pitchers get hurt a lot (never pitch). So, that said, if Chen is healthy and not a complete tire fire in Tacoma (which, hooo boy, hope they get rid of the rabbit ball for his sake!), then I definitely think we’ll see quite a few Chen starts this season.

Nathaniel: Alen Hanson

I have a real issue with overvaluing speed in baseball players, so naturally my pile guy is Alen Hanson. The 27-year-old has seen time at every defensive position except catcher in the bigs and has 60 grade speed, need I say more? Yes, I am choosing to stay away from his 180 PA’s with the Blue Jays AAA affiliate in 2019 that saw him net an impressively bad 24 wRC+, because frankly that’s besides the point. Yes, I am choosing to not mention the three more than viable utility options the M’s have on their 40 man in Lopes, Moore and Wisdom. Why? Well because frankly, that’s besides the point. Alen Hanson is just one season removed from putting up 2.3 UBR, that’s right, almost twice as good as known speedster former speedster most expensiv-est utility option Dee Gordon’s UBR last year! Don’t look at Hanson’s defensive numbers, because, well, they’re not very good (they’re not that terrible either, just take my word for it, OK?). Alen Hanson is MY pile guy and that’s all that matters, hurry up, after this breathtaking analysis, seats on the Alen Hanson Bandwagon are going quickly and while it will likely be going nowhere, I can assure you that it will be going nowhere.....Fast (60 grade fast, that is).

Tim: Nick Margevicius

Do you know why you don’t rush prospects? Nick Margevicius is why you don’t rush prospects. In two years in San Diego’s organization, Margevicius posted good-to-great strikeout numbers and elite walk numbers in the lower minors, culminating in a 3.37 FIP in A+ ball to end 2018. His star was rising and the San Diego sun shone on Margevicius. Unfortunately, the Padres saw fit to reward him by jumping him straight over the highest two levels of the minors thanks to his 2019 spring training, making him a big-league rotation member at the age of 22 without a pitch thrown in AA or above. Do you remember how terrible it was when the Mariners tried this with Brandon Maurer? This was substantially more so, because Maurer had at least been in the organization since high school (and had thus had much more time to devote to learning to pitch as a professional) and also had pitched very well for the Jackson Generals in 2012. Much as Maurer struggled in the big leagues, leaving Mariners fans to wonder what might have been, so did Margevicius, who continued to struggle in AA after being demoted. One tends to assume his outlook was badly shaken by this treatment, but fortunately he gets a fresh start on a team that has no need whatsoever to rush him back to the majors. Time with the Mariners’ lauded pitching development staff—and maybe a stint at Gas Camp—should turn Margevicius into at least a solid relief option like later-years Brandon Maurer, with the chance at a spot at the back of Seattle’s rotation if he can regain his earlier professional form.

Matthew: Jose Siri

Here’s the thing. I don’t know anything about any of these guys. Neither do you. But I’m the one on this side of the screen, baby. Now listen up as I tell you some things I found by using the same exact Internet that you all have access to.

Jose Sirí is basically the exact same age as me except he has been playing minor league baseball for the Reds since June 2013. That’s a long time. In that same time span I have graduated high school, moved away from home, graduated college, moved back home, lost a staring contest with reality, delivered pizzas for Domino’s, kissed some people, bullshitted my way through my first corporate job, grown a beard, quit that corporate job before my contract ran out, stole a muffin on the way out, thought about those people I had kissed and wondered if they still thought about me, realized nobody has any idea what they’re ever doing, joined Lookout Landing, rented my first apartment, and wasted hours of our collective time.

That’s all any of us are really doing, some of us just get to do it in more interesting ways than others. Jose Sirí probably missed out on a lot of the traditional 18-24 year-old foibles, instead growing up under the watchful eyes of baseball fans in places like Billings, Montana and Pensacola, Florida. I imagine when he finally got out of rookie ball only to hit .145 /.163/.181 in his first partial season at Single-A, he started down the same thought paths that most of us follow as young “adults”:

What am I doing? Who is all of this really for? Sure this is, on the surface, what I want to be doing. But am I happy?

Who knows? All we can do is be happy that we’ve made it this far, and keep a close eye on which pitchers Jose Sirí bat flips against.

John: Eric Filia

First we elevate, then we celebrate. It’s been a few years of mixing that order for Eric Filia, but the polarizing 1B/OF has done nearly everything that could be asked of him every time he’s taken the field. Following return from a suspension for a “drug of abuse” (which likely won’t be an issue moving forward with MLB and MiLB modernizing their rules), Filia hit the ground running in his first full-time AAA reps. He got just 151 plate appearances but even for the offense-happy Pacific Coast League his .331/.450/.488 line was shiny. wRC+ says “solid” with a 137 while DRC+ says “hey now” with a 144, likely owing to Tacoma being a more straight-up park than the crooked confines of Reno, Albuquerque, Salt Lake, or Colorado Springs.

If there’s anything of interest in that small slice of action, it’s that Filia got the ball elevated somewhat more often. Unlike most high-average/high-BABIP hitters, Filia has below-average foot speed, meaning he’s rarely, if ever, beating out infield hits or putting immense pressure on the defense. The way those grounders become outs at higher levels has been a major limitation on Filia’s potential as he’s run a >50% groundball rate at every level of the minors. But with an adjustment to his stance that made it more compact, meeting the ball a bit further in front of the plate, Filia cut his grounders to just 43% in Tacoma, and put most of those gains into line drives. It could all be noise, it could all collapse, but a rare profile is still a nifty one, and with the injury to Mitch Haniger and 26 roster spots, the window is open just a crack for Filia, who is returning a hero from a torrid performance (on and off the field) in the Dominican Republic.

Amanda: Nestor Cortes Jr.

Nestor Cortes Jr’s approach to baseball has felt a bit like the Seattle Mariners’ approach to acquiring players to fill roster spots until the prospects are ready: throw it all at a wall and see what sticks.

Cortes is a pitcher who is probably going to spend most of his time in the bullpen, although he could pop in for a spot start here and there if needed. He currently throws four pitches (fastball, slider, curve, and change), which is a big arsenal for a relief arm. Sitting below 90, his game relies on deception and trickery to get outs. Notably, he breaks out an array of deliveries and arm angles. Taken as a whole, his approach to pitching feels a bit chaotic.

Maybe it’s because it’s early in spring training and something about this time of year inspires glassy-eyes daydreams. I love a soft-tossing deceptive lefty, and I’m rooting for Cortes to sort out the chaos of his pitching approach, and stick to the wall.

Kate: Dariel Gomez

I thought about going with one of the new fireballers like Phillips Valdez or Yohan Ramirez, but it felt a little like cheating the spirit of the exercise to pick someone who seems pretty well-ensconced as part of the club’s plans. Ramirez as a Rule 5 pick automatically gets a spot on the 25-man, and Valdez, claimed off waivers on November 1st, has weathered an off-season of DFA’s; he’s young but MLB-experienced and comes from one of the Mariners’ favorite sources for pitching reclamation projects in the Rangers. So I’m reaching a little deeper in the Rule 5 selections to Dariel Gomez, plucked out of the Cardinals organization in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5. Slowed by an injury after he first signed in December 2013, the 23-year-old hasn’t played above Short A despite posting a wRC+ of over 100 at each of his various rookie ball stops with a double-digit walk rate; as a 6’4” first baseman, perhaps St. Louis was waiting for some more impressive wallop out of Gomez’s bat, a power breakthrough he showed in 2018 when he posted an ISO of .184. The cautious Cardinals kept Gomez in extended spring training in 2019, eventually sending him to the short-season State College Spikes, where he posted an ISO of .154 and was the author of this epic walkoff shot followed by an even more epic batflip:

Gomez, who is bilingual, has an active Twitter account (@darielaneudysgf) where he shows himself to be both a student of the game and a lover of sports in general. He’s even pals with friend of the site Jordan Shusterman:

While Gomez won’t immediately be in competition for a big-league job like some of the other names on this list, he’s one to watch as a potential Rule 5 draft steal. Perhaps a new coaching environment helps to further unlock the power potential in Gomez’s bat, along with a chance to play full-season ball for the first time and test himself among more age-appropriate competition.