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40 in 40: José Marmolejos

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The lefty swinger could be on the outs despite flashing big power in some key moments last year, but that hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the journey.

MLB: Game Two-Seattle Mariners at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Quad-A label is the glass ceiling of the baseball world. Simultaneously washed and intriguing, most of these guys rarely get an extended look on the game’s biggest stage, even after years of steady production at the highest level of the minors. Whether it’s due to age, defensive inflexibility, inflated stats from playing on the moon in the Pacific Coast League, or simply being too far down the depth chart in their org, once you’re dubbed Quad-A, it’s tough to shake that designation - no matter how well you hit in Triple-A. As they age into their mid-to-late twenties, getting even 100 Major League plate appearances starts to feel like a stretch, and the pressure begins to mount - that “now-or-never” feeling starts to creep in for fans and players alike.

José Marmolejos found himself in this boat after the 2019 season. Having spent 840 games and taken 3440 trips to the plate across the Nationals’ org, he signed with the Mariners just six weeks before his 27th birthday. He had just repeated Triple-A, putting up a decent 117 wRC+ in almost 400 plate appearances, and found his power stroke, putting up an ISO of .230 while also keeping his strikeout rate under 20%. At 26, he was right around the average age of his level, so it wasn’t like he was a grizzled veteran beating up on greenhorns.

It should be noted, though, that the Nats’ Triple-A affiliate that year was the Fresno Grizzlies, - a PCL squad - after a decade of being partnered with the Syracuse Chiefs (now Mets) in the more balanced International League. In addition, in case you had forgotten, the juiced ball used in MLB in 2019 was deployed in both Triple-A leagues. Combine that with the extreme hitters’ parks in Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Reno, El Paso, among others, and we were treated to a PCL season where evaluation became nigh-impossible. The league-average slash line for a PCL player in 2019 includes a .200 ISO. .200! For context, in 2020 that would have been right in between Xander Bogaerts and Vlad Jr. among qualified hitters. It was understandable that despite Marmo’s solid year, the needle on his Quad-A status hadn’t moved a muscle.

Regardless of any caveats you can conjure, he showed some serious pop in the Cactus League, with six of his seven hits going for extra bases, and had played himself into contention for a spot on the Opening Day roster before the COVID shutdown. He returned for July’s summer camp, as well, and proved his power could play in a big league ballpark with a laser of an opposite field home run on the 20th:

I can’t recall the last time I saw a lefty hitter hit one out to that spot in T-Mobile - aside from John Jaso in 2012. Canó, maybe? Nonetheless, his intrigue to me jumped sharply, and less than a week later Marmo found himself both on the Opening Day roster and in the Opening Day starting lineup against Justin Verlander. It didn’t go super well for him, but much more established players have had worse days than 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against one of the better pitchers in the game. And he got his first hit out of the way two days later, though not without some grimaces:

Yikes. It didn’t go much better for him over the next week, either; 2-for-21 with no walks and seven strikeouts is a rough slump for a glove-first shortstop, let alone a bat-first first baseman covering in left field. He was sent back down to the alternate training site on August 6th, having slashed a brutal .103/.103/.207 in 29 plate appearances. At the time, I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d just seen the entirety of José Marmolejos, Major Leaguer, and was happy for him that despite putting up a negative wRC+, he had hit a dinger in a game his team won.

But in a twist of fate, he was called up as the extra man in a double-header with the Padres in late August, and after entering midway in the first game due to an injury to Evan White, he made two big statements:

The grand slam got more attention, both because it’s a grand slam and it came in a game where the Mariners actually won (for your sake please don’t look at the box score of that first game), but the two-run homer blew me away - 98 on the outer half hit out almost 400 feet the other way will get my attention every time. It was the first time a Mariner had hit a home run in both games of a twin billing in twenty years, and it earned Marmo an opportunity to play out the last month of the year as an everyday player, with mixed results.

The good news first: for a couple weeks after his massive performance in the doubleheader, Marmojelos stayed red hot. From August 27th to September 14th, he wreaked havoc on the West, putting up a mind-boggling 202 wRC+ over 57 plate appearances. In that span, he hit five home runs, the strikeout rate fell all the way down to 17.5%, his slugging percentage was north of .700, and he had as many extra base hits as singles. While he was still much more of an “outfielder” as opposed to a real glove in left, the bat was more than enough to justify having Kyle Lewis cover more outfield ground, and he even started a handful of games in his natural position at first in White’s stead while he was on the mend.

Unfortunately, as is the case with so many Quad-A players on a hot streak, pitchers figured him out pretty quickly. From September 15th to the end of the year, Marmolejos was as cold as he had been hot - in eleven games, he notched one single across 29 plate appearances. His strikeouts once again ballooned over 40% in that stretch, and two walks and a hit-by-pitch were the only supplements to a woeful .038 batting average. By wRC+, this stretch was nearly twenty points worse than his initial run in the Majors, and was a pretty sour ending to a year that had some great high points.

The 2020 season’s overall numbers will show José Marmolejos as being the platonic ideal of a flavor of Quad-A player; that high-power, low on-base, lumbering masher type who is only in the outfield to get his pop in the lineup, feasting on fastballs and starving against bendy things. The 83 wRC+, .261 OBP, and -0.3 fWAR aren’t anything special, but his exit velocities on the year stayed strong, with his average mark of 90.5 MPH being fourth-best on the team. He was also one of three Mariners to put up an ISO over .200, and one of nine to notch at least 100 plate appearances with the team. Despite flashing legit power, though, it’s a minor miracle he’s lasted this long on the 40-man roster - I suppose there’s at least one beneficiary of Seattle’s mostly tepid offseason. Being out of options and with the strong likelihood of Seattle rolling with a three-man bench, there’s a decent chance that the 28-year-old won’t even be in the org come April 1st no matter how well he performs in the Cactus League.

That hasn’t stopped him from enjoying his time here, per his Instagram, and he endeared himself even more by dropping into the virtual FanFest in uniform.

Perhaps he has a feeling his time as a Major Leaguer could be coming to an end soon, and is determined to squeeze every bit of joy out of it - and he certainly hasn’t stopped the grind.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Such is the life of a Quad-A’er, and in my view, there are few paths in the baseball world that are more admirable.