Are the Mariners bad at developing hitters?
It's been suggested on social media and over the airwaves the Mariners can't identify and develop MLB-ready hitters. But is this sentiment more perception than reality?
A subscriber recently asked for my thoughts on the Mariners’ ability to identify and develop hitters. From Daniel’s perspective, Seattle has done a superb job of producing major-league pitchers. But he believes the organization has failed to deliver similar results with its position players.
Daniel also expressed frustration with the Braves, Rays, Astros, and Rangers producing more hitters than the Mariners despite drafting behind Seattle in recent years.
Daniel’s sentiment isn’t unique. It’s been shared by others on social media, the blogosphere, and even over the airwaves in recent years. But is this opinion true? Are the Mariners actually bad at identifying and developing hitters?
As I began composing a reply to Daniel, I realized it’d be more fun to research the subject and then share my observations with everyone. So, let’s consider several factors I believe play into the perception that developing major-league hitters isn’t a core competency of the Mariners organization.
A good starting point would be the state of the Mariners when Jerry Dipoto took the helm of baseball operations in September 2015.
A “fallen system”
“New GM Jerry Dipoto has the unenviable task of keeping the big league club competitive while trying to restock the fallen system.” - Keith Law
Essentially, the Mariners had one of the most barren systems in baseball at the start of the Dipoto era. This certainly contributed to the lack of holdovers from previous regimes.
Conversely, the clubs Daniel mentioned were better situated than the Mariners. Each has at least one hitter on its current roster, who was in MLB or in its system before September 2015. Included within this group are a league MVP, multiple All-Stars, and several Silver Sluggers.
To be clear, I’m not presenting this information as an excuse for the Mariners or Dipoto, who was hired to succeed where others had failed. Furthermore, two young homegrown hitters acquired by the previous front office - Ketel Marte and Chris Taylor - were traded during Dipoto’s watch. Both went on to flourish with their new clubs.
Still, understanding where the Mariners stood when Dipoto took over is a factor - not an excuse - worth considering when discussing the organization’s current stable of homegrown hitters.
Draft order history
As for the Mariners draft spot in recent years, I don’t feel as strongly about the situation as Daniel does. It’s true Seattle was near or atop the following list in four years. But four other times, Dipoto’s organization was basically middle-of-the-pack.
Something else to consider, several of the clubs listed above possessed multiple first-round picks between 2016 and 2022 - Seattle did not. This year was the first time Dipoto’s staff had an opportunity to select more than one player in the first round. All were hitters - Colt Emerson, Jonny Farmelo, and Tai Peete.
Value added via the draft
Next, we should contrast the best hitters drafted by the Mariners and the clubs we’ve been discussing. Doing so may open some eyes. The following identifies the five most valuable position players (based on bWAR) selected by each organization.
As you can see, the Mariners’ 8.7 bWAR places them in a lower tier with the Rangers and Braves. Hitters drafted by the Astros and Rays delivered substantially more value.
It’s worth noting two Rookies of the Year made the list - Kyle Lewis and Michael Harris II. Moreover, Josh Jung will undoubtedly receive consideration for this year’s award. Other awardees acquired as amateurs since 2016 include Randy Arozarena (STL), Yordan Alvarez (LAD), Pete Alonso (NYM), and Jonathan India (CIN).
Something else to consider: the most valuable hitter drafted by Tampa Bay since 2016 - Nathaniel Lowe (9.0 bWAR) - was dealt to the Rangers in December 2020. Other recognizable names moved by our clubs included Lewis, Ryan Noda, Josh Rojas, Jake Fraley, and Shea Langeliers.
Talent sent away
With this in mind, we must reflect on the effect of trades on Seattle’s stable of hitting prospects. Shipping out promising talent has undoubtedly affected the organization’s ability to produce big-league hitters.
Prior to the 2021 MLB trade deadline, the Mariners included third baseman Austin Shenton in a deal with the Rays netting Seattle reliever Diego Castillo. MLB Prospect Pipeline pegs Shenton as a top-30 prospect in Tampa Bay’s system. This year, the Bellingham High School product hit 45 doubles and 29 home runs with a .304 AVG/.423 OBP/.584 SLG slash-line at AA and AAA.
A year later, Seattle included Noelvi Marté and Edwin Arroyo in a swap with Cincinnati to acquire pitcher Luis Castillo. It’s a small sample, but the 22-year-old Marté slashed .316/.366/.456 in 35 games as a Red this season. Not only that, the 20-year-old Arroyo is a top-100 prospect.
Last offseason, Seattle dealt Kyle Lewis to Arizona for catcher/left fielder Cooper Hummel. Sadly, injuries have plagued Lewis for most of his professional career. But the eleventh overall pick of 2016 did manage to hit 25 home runs with a .244/.329/.432 slash in 130 games as a Mariner.
If these four players were still Mariners, it’s possible fan perception of the team’s ability to develop hitters might be more positive. Still, it’s important to remember dealing prospect equity is part of the business and comes with risk. Sometimes, it works for the seller. Other times, it doesn’t pan out as hoped.
Seeking help from outside
Over the last five years, the Mariners have attempted to add young position player talent via the trade market. The goal: offset shortages at the higher levels of their minor-league system. To date, the results have been mixed.
Selected 16th overall in the 2013 draft, J.P. Crawford was 23-years-old when the Phillies shipped him to the Mariners. I suspect some Philadelphia fans viewed Crawford as a bust. But in 2021, the Californian began producing at a league-average level. This year, he was arguably Seattle’s MVP posting career bests in home runs, OBP, SLG and OPS+.
Jarred Kelenic was just 19-years-old when Seattle acquired him from the Mets. The Wisconsin native’s initial MLB struggles have been well-chronicled, so we won’t dwell on them. In 2023, Kelenic’s overall season numbers were excellent. Still, the fact his productivity was inconsistent after a torrid April means he remains an enigma heading into the offseason.
In 2021, Abraham Toro was included in a controversial deadline deal sending popular and valuable reliever Kendall Graveman to division-rival Houston. Toro didn’t have the draft pedigree of Kelenic and Crawford - fifth round pick in 2016. But the Mariners appreciated his knack for making contact. Unfortunately, the Canadian never blossomed and was dealt to Milwaukee last offseason.
In July, Mariners management traded another popular and valuable reliever - Paul Sewald. This time, to the Diamondbacks for rookie outfielder Dominic Canzone and infield prospect Ryan Bliss. Veteran infielder and former Astros draft pick Josh Rojas also joined Seattle.
It’s too early to assess what Canzone might develop into with his new club. After all, the 26-year-old had just 15 games of MLB experience before becoming a Mariner. The same applies to Bliss, although he’s an intriguing player. The 23-year-old hit .304/.378/.524 with 55 stolen bases at AA and AAA this season.
Even as we watch two AL West rivals vie for the American League championship, I remain comfortable saying the Mariners aren’t bad at developing hitters.
Granted, Seattle’s roster isn’t teeming with homegrown position players. But the mitigating factors we’ve discussed suggest to me the organization is better at producing offensive contributors than its current inventory signals or what some fans perceive.
Still, we can’t overlook the obvious. Seattle didn’t have enough good hitters to overtake its competition in the AL West and wild card races this year. Moving forward, it’s irrelevant whether help comes from the farm, the trade market, or free agency. All that matters is the lineup being more productive next year.
Otherwise, a year from now, we could be left wondering why the Mariners missed another golden opportunity to shine in October.
That would be unfortunate.
My Oh My…
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