As a nexus between the lost Mariner season of 2019 and the hoped-for breakthrough in 20xx (we’ll get back to you on that one), today looms as a critical day.
It’s the start of MLB draft, which the Mariners hope is an impetus to push forward, and help sustain, their grand rebuild plan.
Now this is where Mariners fans begin to involuntarily twitch, remembering the vast and spectacular drafting failures that short-circuited past attempts to construct a winner.
No need to re-litigate that mess, but just as a refresher, with top-12 picks between 2005-14, the Mariners wound up with — please hold your catcalls until the end — Jeff Clement (No. 3 overall in 2005), Brandon Morrow (5th in 2006), Phillippe Aumont (11th in 2007), Dustin Ackley (2nd in 2009), Danny Hultzen (2nd in 2011), Mike Zunino (3rd in 2012), D.J. Peterson (12th in 2013) and Alex Jackson (6th in 2014).
And thus, via injuries, bad luck, lack of improvement and just plain bad evaluation was an entire generation of Mariners teams compromised.
Every draft, however, is a beacon of hope and promise.
You just pray the next Mike Trout, Carlos Correa or Aaron Nola finds its way to you.
Nothing galvanizes a fan base and electrifies a ballclub quite like a blue-chip prospect rising up the ranks and then exploding into stardom in the big leagues.
Look what Ronald Acuna, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Aaron Judge have done recently for their respective teams.
And for the Mariners, this is a golden opportunity to get it right.
For the first time since 2009, they have four picks in the top 100.
That season, they actually had five, resulting in Ackley, Nick Franklin, Steve Baron, Rich Poythress and Kyle Seager.
Well, they hit on one out of five.
This year’s haul was boosted by the trade with Cleveland in which the Mariners sent Carlos Santana to the Indians for Edwin Encarnacion and Cleveland’s competitive-balance draft pick.
That turned out to be No. 76 overall, sandwiched between the second and third rounds.
The Mariners also have their picks in the first round (No. 20 overall), second (No. 59) and third (No. 97).
While the wreckage at the major-league level continues, the Mariners remain excited and encouraged by what’s going on below.
But it’s crucial to augment the talent in the organization, and there’s no better avenue than the draft.
“It’s exciting for us because it’s an opportunity for our scouts and our organization to make a little bit bigger impact than what we’ve done over the last couple years,” said Scott Hunter, Seattle’s director of amateur scouting.
The Jerry Dipoto regime inherited a farm system that was largely bereft of prospects — and they managed to package most of what was left in a variety of deals.
This past offseason, the Mariners shipped off numerous frontline players in exchange for minor-leaguers who now dominate their prospects rankings.
Organizationally, their minor-league system ranks in teens rather than dead last.
“It’s something that was a mantra of ours the last couple years being 30 out of 30 a couple years ago, and now we’re starting to creep to the middle of the pack,” Hunter said. “It’s not only a good time to be a young player in this organization but a good time to be a scout, and we’ve got some opportunities to make a real impact.”
Prospects are the coin of the realm these days in baseball.
But the Mariners are running dry of the kind of talent they can flip for the likes of Jarred Kelenic, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and Jake Fraley, who are bubbling under in the minor leagues and represent much of the hope for a bright Mariners future.
That includes several first-round picks, such as Kelenic (No. 6 overall by the Mets in 2018), Sheffield (No. 31 overall by the Indians in 2014) and J.P. Crawford (No. 16 overall by the Phillies in 2013).
If the Mariners can’t hit on their own high picks, maybe they can borrow someone else’s.
The next wave of major-league players, the one that insures the Mariners’ would-be revival has staying power and is not just a one-off, will have to come the old-fashioned way, via the draft and international signings.
The latter produced Julio Rodriguez, an 18-year-old outfielder of extremely high potential.
This will be Dipoto’s fourth Seattle draft, and the third under Hunter.
Though only one player has made it to the majors — reliever Matt Festa (7th round in 2016) — others are matriculating rapidly through the system.
Beyond the ones already mentioned that came via trades, there are several who were drafted in Dipoto’s regime.
That listed includes outfielder Kyle Lewis, who is finally healthy and playing at Double-A.
I believe the massive knee injury suffered by Lewis in the midst of his Rookie League season in Everett is the single biggest setback of the past few years for this organization. Lewis, the 11th overall pick in 2016, looked to be a five-tool player on a fast-track to the major leagues, but that route has been greatly delayed.
It wasn’t blocked, however, and Lewis remains a prospect of promise.
So is Evan White, the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2017, who is also in Double-A while being groomed for Seattle’s first-base job perhaps as soon as next season.
Neither Lewis or White have made much of an impact offensively thus far in 2019, however.
Last year’s top pick, right-handed pitcher Logan Gilbert, didn’t play in 2018 after being selected 14th overall because of a bout with mono.
But he’s been dominating at two levels of A ball (1.66 earned-run average and 70 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings) and may fly through the system.
Prospect projections don’t always remain on course, as the Mariners know all too well.
The final step from Baseball America golden boy to real-life MLB star can be elusive.
But if this Mariners rebuild is to work at its maximum, it’s contingent upon a robust accumulation of talent.
And today is a big day for adding to it.