It seems that there is nothing but Ackley-mania in the blogosphere today, so i thought I’d counter with something completely different. Well, sort of. He does play a roll in what I’m about to say, but only a small one.
The Mariners came into this season with very low expectations. 85-90 losses wasn’t out the question. 2011 was supposed to be about getting as many young players broken into the majors as possible, so management could evaluate them and see if those players would be able to help in 2012.
With this idea set in everyone’s mind coming into the season, the opening day roster was a bit frustrating. Only 6 young players had made the team: Justin Smoak at first, Adam Moore as the backup catcher, Michael Saunders in center, Michael Pineda in the roation, and relievers Josh Lueke and Tom Wilhelmsen. Saunders had only made the team because of Franklin Gutierrez started the season on the DL. The same could be said for Wilhelmsen, with Daivid Aardsma on the DL. There was a certain annoyance that Adam Kennedy or Jack Wilson was on the roster instead of Dustin Ackley, and that Chris Ray made the team over Dan Cortez. For a team that wasn’t supposed to be competitive, there was a lot of veterans taking up roster spots.
Making matters worse was that 3 of youngsters absolutely bombed. Saunders looked lost at the plate and hit .168 with an OPS of .471. The two young relievers were arguably worse. Lueke’s ERA was over 17, and Wilhelmsen’s was just under 6. Both averaged almost a walk per inning as well. Add in losing Moore to a season ending knee surgery in mid April, and Seattle’s youth movement appeared to be going nowhere.
Well, not completely nowhere. Smoak emerged as the team’s best hitter and established himself as a solid middle of the order bat. Pineda exploded on the scene, is 6-4 with a 2.72 ERA, and has been a solid rookie of the year candidate. So the youth movement wasn’t a total failure.
After some early struggles, the Mariners found their identity and began playing well, and have been closing in on the division-leading Texas Rangers for a few weeks now. Along the way, the Mariners have undergone a slow youthful transformation.
Milton Bradley is gone, replaced in left field by a trio of youngsters in Mike Carp, Carlos Peguero and Greg Halman. Halman is now the team’s official 4th outfielder and is slowly eating away at Guiterrez’s playing time in center. Juck Cust is finding himself on the bench in favor of Peguero or Carp as well. And starting tonight, Ackley will make his long awaited debut at second. Even Ichiro has spent a night on the bench with a youngster taking his spot in right field.
And the best part has been that the M’s have kept on winning. Carp, Halman, Smoak and Peguero now have 4 of the top 5 wOBA on the team. This isn’t a case where the M’s are calling up their prospects after they’re out of it letting them play in meaningless games in August and September. It’s June, and the Mariners are just a half game out of first. These kids are having to learn on the job on the Mariners try and keep pace in AL West.
While we don’t know how this division race is going to end, we do know that the M’s will, for better or for worse, be running this race on the backs of a lot of very young ballplayers.