Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino have now been in then majors long enough for Seattle fans to have gotten a taste of the hype, and that might be the only reason these two prospects were brought up in the first place: to give disgruntled fans a bone to play with while the rebuilding process lumbers along. But it’s possible that the parade of prospect call ups this season could be more detrimental to the long term success of the M’s than letting attendance and the win column lag —and second baseman Franklin and catcher Zunino are at the center of these diminishing returns.
Let’s start with Franklin, who as of September, is sporting a line of .220/.291/.395 and an .OPS of .686 since being called up. He’s shown some pop, hitting 12 homeruns and knocking in 43 runs, and has been serviceable, but not outstanding, defensively.
Franklin will invariably be compared to another highly touted prospect, Dustin Ackley, whose former position Franklin is now inhabiting and whose struggles were the catalyst for Franklin’s call up. Both were drafted in 2009 with considerable amounts of hype, but Ackley was rushed through the minors, though he didn’t exactly excel there, and made his debut in 2011 and put together a fine rookie season. Ackley’s performance since 2011 has been tumultuous at best, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he needed more time in the minors.
This year Franklin has played in about the same amount of games that Ackley did as a rookie, but his numbers have been overall poorer. But Franklin, unlike Ackley, was allowed to get his hacks in the minors, and also unlike Ackley, Franklin did some significant damage in the minors.
There are still holes in Franklin’s game and he hasn’t fully adjusted to big league pitching yet, but another year of crushing PCL pitching isn’t going to make Franklin into a better offensive player (though defense is a different story). Franklin may struggle again next season, but the fact is that he got the minor league service time that Ackley didn’t, and now Franklin is ready to take his licks in the majors and see if he actually is talented enough to stick around.
Mike Zunino is another story. The M’s have had serious problems with the catcher position for the better part of a decade. The decision to call up Zunino in June, while motivated by the blundering play of Jesus Montero and the ineptness of journeymen like Kelly Shoppach and Jesus Sucre, was and is counter productive to the rebuilding process.
The M’s are arguably a better team with Zunino behind the plate: he seems to work with the pitchers well, and though he hasn’t thrown out an overwhelming number of base stealers, other teams show a reluctance to run against him. But at the plate, while not in the Jeff Clement category yet, Zunino has clearly shown he needs more time in the minors, and this was apparent even before he was called up.
His 2013 Triple-A slash line of .227/. 297/.478 alone should have given the M’s pause, and though his line in the majors of .218/.300/.298 really isn’t that much worse, the M’s are hurting the team’s future by calling up Zunino early. Zunino hasn’t shown that he can hit a Triple-A breaking ball yet let alone a big league one, and he also has shown a propensity to swing at fastballs at around the eye level. Though he tore up the minors in 2012 and has the advantage of having played college ball, Zunino needs another year of mashing minor league pitching. The M’s can’t afford to have another highly touted catching prospect wash out because of mismanagement.
The M’s are close to fielding a winning team, but they seem to consistently think that they don’t need to fully embrace the rebuilding strategy, and this has already set them back. This season they should have left Zunino in the minors and suffered the embarrassment of having a laughable platoon of reject catchers. A few extra wins in a rebuilding season aren’t worth impeding the development and hindering the future production of one their key prospects.
Nick Franklin got his time in the minors, and hey, maybe he won’t pan out in the majors, but he’s reached the level where if he can’t adjust now, he probably never will. Zunino on the other hand, is not ready, and is now at the mercy of big league pitching that he is not, and now may never be, equipped to handle.
If the M’s want to avoid the seemingly eternal purgatory of rebuilding that teams like the Pirates and Royals went through for the better part of the last decade, they need to start consistently developing their prospects the right way, even if it means alienating impatient fans who want immediate gratification.