By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
ARLINGTON, Texas — Eventually, they were going to get to the big leagues. But even Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik couldn’t have imagined that it would happen by June 28 of this season.
But in that Friday game against the Chicago Cubs, the Mariners’ starting lineup featured rookies Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino and Brad Miller.
All three players were expected to put on a Mariners uniform at some point this season. However, for those three to be doing so together this early means a few things have gone right for them and more than a few things have gone very wrong for the Mariners.
“A lot of that depends on how your season goes, when you look at how things unfolded, it certainly created opportunities,” Zduriencik said. “But I think it was earlier than expected.”
What went wrong? Plenty.
Franklin was the first to be summoned from the minors. Then-starting second baseman Dustin Ackley struggled mightily. He lost his confidence and aggressiveness at the plate. The Mariners simply couldn’t go any further with him at the big-league level. When he was sent down to Triple-A Tacoma, Ackley was hitting .205 with a .266 on-base percentage and a .250 slugging percentage.
They called up the switch-hitting Franklin — who was putting up big numbers with the Rainiers — on May 27, and he’s taken control of the second-base job.
In 31 games, Franklin has hit .295 (33-for-112) with nine doubles, four home runs and 15 RBI. He’s posted a .363 on-base percentage and .482 slugging percentage. Defensively, he’s been solid. More importantly, he seems perfectly at home in the big leagues. With a confidence level as high as the Space Needle, Franklin has been totally unafraid and not the least bit intimidated by the big leagues.
“This kid is a player,” Zduriencik said.
The catching situation was the next to devolve. Jesus Montero played himself out of a starting job in the first few weeks of the season and then regressed to the point where he was sent to Triple-A to learn a new position. With Kelly Shoppach putting up backup catching numbers as a starter and Jesus Sucre hurt, the Mariners had little choice but to call up Zunino — their top pick in the 2012 draft — on June 11.
“You know we thought he’d be up by sometime in July,” Zduriencik said. “But that situation made that happen sooner. I think he’s handled himself well.”
Zunino is hitting .244 (10-for-44) with two doubles, a homer and two RBI. He’s struck out 11 times. But defensively, he’s excelled. He brings a level of athleticism and defensive skill behind the plate that the Mariners have not had in years.
“We’re very pleased with how he’s handled himself and worked with the pitchers,” Zduriencik said. “The offense will come. We know he can hit.”
The latest call-up was Miller, who began the season as the starting shortstop with Double-A Jackson.
With Brendan Ryan’s batting average dropping back under .200 and Miller crushing Triple-A pitching after joining Tacoma a month ago, the Mariners couldn’t wait any longer.
Miller’s hitting and Ryan’s lack of hitting forced them to call him up Friday.
“If you look at his numbers in the minor leagues, he’s really on a similar track to the big leagues like (M’s third baseman) Kyle Seager,” Zduriencik said. “He really deserved this opportunity.”
With Seager, the three rookies, and the recent recall of Ackley to play outfield, the Mariners started five position players in that Friday game against the Cubs who were drafted and developed under the Zduriencik regime.
You can also add pitchers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor (currently on the disabled list) to that group. That number could grow by the end of the season if outfielder Stefen Romero and pitchers Danny Hultzen and James Paxton join the club. Top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker seems close to being big-league ready, perhaps as early as the start of next season.
After a few years, it appears the young talent is arriving, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the promotions.
Zduriencik had said from the time he was hired that he planned to build the organization from within through the draft and development, while supplementing it with free-agent talent.
“These guys are an indication of that process,” Zduriencik said. “I do think it says a lot about what we said were going to do. We wanted to find and develop and get guys to the big leagues. You are seeing that.”
Zduriencik has preached patience in the past few seasons as the young talent developed in the minor league.
That minor-league nurturing is longer for some and shorter for others, but it’s never quite as fast as fans hope. There were grumblings among the fan base as the losses piled up and players such as Franklin, Miller, Walker, Hultzen and Zunino seemed more like faraway ideas than contributors.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Zduriencik said. “We’ve certainly had our lumps and bumps.”
Those lumps have put Zduriencik in a tenuous position in terms of his own employment. His contract is up after this season and no mention of an extension has been heard from team president Chuck Armstrong or chief executive officer Howard Lincoln.
They seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to this season and the results. Right now, the team is 34-48.
It’s enough reason for Zduriencik to be concerned.
But at the same time, this core group of players he developed could be the key to an extension. If the three rookies continue to progress and Ackley bounces back to 2011 form, Zduriencik can point to their development and success as a result of his plan working.
“I just want these kids to continue to improve,” he said. “They are going to need to continue and adjust and improve. They will. These are high character kids.”
Zduriencik has never waivered on his belief that this process would find success. It’s just taken longer than fans have wanted.
“I think it’s a very exciting,” he said. “If I am a diehard fan, if I understand this process, I’m very excited. You can envision these guys being here for a number of years and really building something.”