If there’s one literary trope for which I have an unabashed weakness, it’s the boarding school story. Perhaps it stems from not having a ton of friends as a kid and living on a remote street full of older couples peppered with the occasional young, child-free professional; how beguiling was the idea of built-in friends, of people inclined to be your friend through the power of sheer proximity. But what also tempted was the clear arc of the boarding school story: a character would go away, and return home changed in some ineffable, yet obvious way. It put clear bookends on development, a process that can so often feel chaotic, regressive, or stop-and-start.
When Juan Then departed the organization in November of 2017, he had pitched one season in the DSL after signing for $77K in the J2 period of 2016. The Mariners like to slow-play their younger international prospects, so Then worked out at the facility for the season after he signed before making his professional debut in 2017, pitching 61 innings, all as a starter, striking out 56 batters in that time while walking just 15. These are numbers that theoretically should have endeared Then to the Mariners, who were at the time pushing the philosophy of Control The Zone. Instead, Then found himself shipped off that off-season, along with minor league strikeout king J.P. Sears, in trade for RHP Nick Rumbelow from the Yankees.
Look, the less said about Nick Rumbelow’s career as a Mariner, the better. Suffice it to say, whenever I see the Mariners dealing young international talent to acquire MLB-adjacent pitching, it sends a shiver down my spine [stares in Jose Corniell]. But this isn’t a story about Nick Rumbelow and the damage that trade did to my trust in this FO. This is a story about Juan Then and his time at an east coast boarding school, and his eventual return to the Mariners.
Playing for the first time stateside, Then was basically the same pitcher for the Gulf Coast Yankees (R) as he’d been for the DSL Mariners, with almost identical numbers. That’s exactly what you want to see out of a young international prospect playing his first stateside ball, but the 2018 Yankees system was crowded with arms: Then came in 21st on MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 list, but with 14 pitchers ahead of him, and five more pitchers after (making, for my fellow math whizzes, 20 of the Yankees’ Top 30 players pitchers). After the 2018 collapse, when the Mariners sent rental player/parrot enthusiast Edwin Encarnación to New York, the team was able to finagle Then back from the pitching-rich Yankees.
The Mariners sent a 19-year-old Then to short season ball in 2019, where he responded by striking out more batters than ever before, and had him finish the season at West Virginia. At Spring Training, before the shutdown, I caught up with Mariners prospect, catcher Freuddy Bautista, who responded thusly when I asked him about who to watch in 2020:
Always enjoy catching up with Mariners prospect @FreuddyB who is a great catcher and a total gem of a person. Freuddy’s hot tip: watch out for Juan Then, who now weighs “like 205” (Then is listed at 155 on MiLB) and is throwing “97-98”— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) March 10, 2020
Freuddy is a solid kid and not one given to exaggeration, but I had to check my notes after he said this. Then is a six-footer (6’1”, to be exact) who topped out at 95 max with the Yankees but more often hung out around the low 90s. But what Freuddy was describing sounded like a back-end reliever type. What all had gone on since we last checked in with Juan Then?
Mariners prospect Juan Then announces on Instagram he’ll be part of the 60-man roster. Like many of the other DR prospects Then has spent quarantine getting bigger and stronger and looks to have bulked up considerably. pic.twitter.com/9iHId5oQMU— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) June 28, 2020
Then’s newfound upper body strength translated into him lighting up the radar gun at the alternate site and in the fall development league, where he reportedly touched 99 mph and regularly sat 95+, along with a slider that had previously been so-so but took a leap during instructional league. That performance was sufficient to get Then added to the Mariners’ 40-man roster this off-season to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft despite never pitching above A ball. The team choosing to protect Then shows not only that they value him much more highly than when he was traded away as part of a package for a Quad-A reliever, but also that other teams would have had designs on him too. While he’s still technically a starting pitcher, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Then fast-tracked as a full-time reliever this year, splitting his time between High-A and Double-A and closing in on a big-league call-up close to the end of the year if he continues his quick ascent.
International prospects, signed as teenagers, are a slow burn to follow to the majors, assuming they make it. For Mariners fans, accustomed to seeing those players dealt off to prop up a flailing major-league club, there’s even less investment. And while the upcoming twin superstars of Julio Rodríguez and Noelvi Marte will do a lot to reshape the general fan’s investment in the international market, the first one there will likely be Then, the first international free agent developed through the system from the Dominican since Ketel Marte in 2015—depending, of course, on how one counts his year at “boarding school” Either way, it’s encouraging to have the system on the cusp of graduating its first prospect from the DR in half a decade, and satisfying to look back on where Then was at the time of his trade vs. where he is now, helpfully bookended by his time with the Yankees. Boarding school stories could also be called glow-ups, and Juan Then is one of the glowiest players in Seattle’s revived system, poised to make some real noise in 2021.