With the demotion of 2Bman Dustin Ackley to AAA Tacoma today, along with the demotion earlier this week of young catcher Jesus Montero, the Mariners appear to be adrift as they try to build a line-up that can get them back into contention.
As you are probably aware, Dustin Ackley was the second player selected in the 2009 draft, behind only Stephen Strasburg, and was generally regarded as the best hitting college prospect in that draft class. However, Dustin Ackley is now 25 years old, and except for a fine 2011 season split between AAA Tacoma and the Mariners, Ackley has done precious little to show that he’s the hitter he appeared to be in college.
At least with Ackley, the Mariners have a ready replacement at hand. They are promoting 22 year old Nick Franklin, the 27th pick of the 2009 Draft, who was hitting .324 with a .912 OPS after 39 games at Tacoma.
With Jesus Montero, there is no immediate replacement. Mike Zunino, the 3rd pick of the 2012 draft out of the University of Florida, may be the Mariners’ catcher of the future, but he needs more time at AAA Tacoma, mainly to improve his plate discipline. Zunino currently has 21 extra base hits in only 138 at-bats for the Rainiers, but he’s also batting .232 with 4.5 strikeouts for each walk in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
I didn’t think the Montero demotion made any sense until I read an article stating that the M’s have basically given up on Montero as a catcher because his defense is so poor. He is apparently very bad at framing pitches, and he’s thrown out only one base runner in 24 attempts this season and has now thrown out less than 14% (13 for 94) in his major league career.
The M’s thinking is reportedly that Montero needs to change positions, most likely to 1B, and that he needs to do so in the minors because he hasn’t played a single game in the field during his professional career at a position other than catcher. This, of course, invites that question that if Montero’s defense at catcher is really so bad, why didn’t the Yankees or the Mariners ever give him at least a little playing time at another position.
In fact, Montero’s true position at the major league level may be as slugging DH, who backs up at catcher when the starter needs a rest. Right now, Montero is a DH who isn’t hitting (.208/.264/.327), so sending him down to the minors to regain his stroke makes sense. Montero is still only 23 this year, so he’s got time to work out the bugs in his swing.
It also looks like just a matter of time before the Mariners give up on 1Bman Justin Smoak, another player who fourteen months ago seemed like a cornerstone of the M’s future. Smoak, now age 26 and the 11th player selected in 2008, a draft loaded with highly regarded slugging college 1Bmen, is currently batting .242/.352/.346. Even his high on-base percentage probably isn’t helping the M’s a whole lot, since Smoak appears to be dead-slow (no triples and only two stolen bases in a 400 game major league career to date).
In his fourth major league season, Smoak has yet to have a season in which he’s hit even remotely like a major league 1Bman. I can’t believe the Mariners have much patience left with him.
A lot of the Mariners’ problems in developing young position players that can hit has to do with their ballpark. Safeco Field entered the 2013 season as the second-worst ballpark in MLB, behind only San Diego’s Petco Park (if you add the Oakland Coliseum, which is now officially known as the “O.co Coliseum” after sponsor overstock.com, it appears that placing “co” at the end of a ballpark’s name automatically curses hitters). Just as the Rockies and Rangers have a hard time developing young pitchers, the Mariners and Padres have a tough time developing young hitters.
Even so, a fair share of the blame has to go to the Mariners’ scouting department. The Padres have had success developing Chase Headley and seem to be succeeding in developing Yonder Alonso. The M’s also appear to be finding success with former 3rd round draft pick Kyle Seager. Meanwhile, the M’s failure to develop any of Ackley, Montero or Smoak suggests that the M’s scouting department needs some fresh blood.