Making an Impact: M’s rookie hitters in 2014

 Aside from receiving key contributions from rookie pitchers in 2014, including top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, the Seattle Mariners also saw rookie hitters make serious contributions as well. Last year it was Mike Zunino and Brad Miller who played large roles, especially in the second half, for the team. Nick Franklin also saw the bulk of the middle infield innings as a rookie in 2013, but was finally dealt at the trade deadline after months of speculation. Jesus Sucre and Abraham Almonte would also make their big league debuts and eventually impact the 2014 edition of the Mariners.

Seattle had five different rookie hitters step into the batters box in 2014. Let’s take a look at the impact each of them made during the season.

Chris Taylor, 24, SS | 2013: High-A, 319 PA; Double-A, 300 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 346 PA; Called-up 7/25

Taylor was called up in July when Willie Bloomquist hit the disabled list with a knee injury requiring micro-fracture surgery. At the time of his call up, the 24-year old had a .894 OPS with a 133 wRC+ at Triple-A. The regular shortstop, Brad Miller, had struggled earlier in the season but had begun to show some signs of life in July. Taylor, a right-handed hitter, and Miller, a left-handed hitter, formed a natural platoon for the remainder of the season. Taylor’s high batting average is somewhat inflated due to a .398 BABIP, however he showed some maturity at the plate with a reasonable walk rate and eight of his 31 hits went for extra bases.

Known for his stellar defence and strong throwing arm, Taylor was credited with four defensive runs saved this year although that was in just 365 innings of work. The Mariners fifth-round pick in 2012 accelerated through the minors, hitting well enough to prove that there’s more to him than just a glove-first shortstop.

From Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill’s preseason PI HandbookTaylor has exceeded the expectations of most observers … [with] … above-average instincts in all phases of the game, and provides some leadership-by-example along with the plus defence.

Abraham Almonte, 25, OF | 2013: Double-A, 120 PA; Triple-A, 396 PA; MLB, 82 PA

Almonte broke camp as the club’s starting centerfielder after essentially being handed the job before spring training even started. He also took the role of leadoff hitter to begin the year but struggled mightily in four weeks with the big league club. The 25-year old barely hit his weight at the top of the order and struck out at a rate approximately 15 percent higher than he posted in the minor leagues. The nearly doubled strikeout rate with little power to show for it presented a huge hole in the Seattle lineup. Almonte has been in the minors since 2007 so he isn’t raw, but he was overmatched in his first real taste of major league action.

The outfielder would be traded to the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline with minor league pitcher Steve Kohlscheen in exchange for veteran Chris Denorfia. He would be sent to Triple-A, but was recalled by the Padres and posted a .682 OPS in 107 plate appearances.

From Churchill’s preseason handbook: Almonte brings a much higher probability than … [others] … he is, however, limited in many areas and as a result comes with little upside.

Jesus Sucre, 26, C | 2013: Triple-A, 95 PA; MLB, 29 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 181 PA; Called-up 7/8

Called-up in July after the Mariners cut ties with veteran back-up John Buck and assumed the role of Mike Zunino’s partner in crime. The 26-year old didn’t see much action however, making just 21 appearances in the following 12 weeks. Sucre got the call as Buck wasn’t able to provide enough defence in his back-up role and didn’t disappoint. What he didn’t do though, was hit. He picked up just 13 hits, two doubles, and didn’t walk once this year. Not that he was expected to be an offensive force, but with the team in a playoff race, it was hard to make up for the lack of offensive capabilities Sucre offered in an already susceptible lineup.

Sucre did not crack Churchill’s preseason top-30 prospects list and doesn’t possess the upside of an everyday major league catcher. He does have noted defensive and pitch-framing skills and fits the mould of a major league back-up catcher, but he’ll need to find a way to get on base more often if he hopes to stick around much longer.

James Jones, 26, OF | 2013: Double-A, 405 PA; Triple-A, 17 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 173 PA; Called-up 4/16, Optioned 8/1, Re-called 8/11, Optioned 8/17, Re-called 8/29

Jones relieved Almonte of his center field and leadoff hitter duties and performed well out of the gate. His debut month of May included a 105 wRC+ and a .709 OPS — a breath of fresh air from the production of Almonte. Jones continued to hit well into June and stole 12 bases during that month alone, one more than any other Mariner stole during the entire season. The comparisons to Juan Pierre were mostly deserved as Jones has a similar tall and skinny profile with the ability to steal, bunt, and hit for practically no power. The metrics did not like the 26-year old’s defence in center field however, giving him a -24.7 UZR/150 rating.

After an unproductive July and the Mariners acquisition of Austin Jackson, Jones was sent down to Triple-A and eventually re-called permanently prior to September. He became a key asset for manager Lloyd McLendon as a pinch-runner supreme, and stole five more bases. Jones finished the year with 27 swiped bags, the most by a Mariner since Ichiro Suzuki stole 40 in 2011.

From Churchill’s preseason handbook: Jones has a slightly-long swing, but good bat speed and chance to hit .270 with 20 homers. Defensively the arm is plus and then some, and he’s fringe-average in center while showing well above average in right field.

Stefen Romero, 26, OF | 2013: Triple-A, 411 PA | 2014: Triple-A, 190 PA; Optioned 6/29, Re-called 7/17, Optioned 8/1, Re-called 9/1

Like Almonte, Romero cracked the roster out of spring training and saw regular time in right field in April and May. Even more so when Michael Saunders hit the disabled list the first time on the year. His 69 wRC+ in May was the highest he posted in any single month this year — he was overmatched by big league pitching from beginning to end. Of his 34 hits 11 were for extra bases so he did show some power. Romero posted a 166 wRC+ in 163 plate appearances this year so it’s possible he just wasn’t able to feel comfortable at the big league level.

There was plenty of controversy as to why McLendon continuously sent Romero out in right field when the clearly superior option, Saunders, sat on the bench. Especially when the 26-year old showed nothing at the plate and was average in the field. Romero regularly went on four-to-five game hitless streaks while with the big league club and went 2-for-8 as a pinch-hitter with one of his three home runs on the year..

From Churchill’s preseason handbook: Romero is among the more MLB-ready bat and outfield options on the 40-man roster … [and] … is capable of hitting line drives from line to line and [shows] extra-base power to the right-center field gap.

There wasn’t a Walker-esque position player set to crack the Mariners 2014 lineup as this class offered less upside than in 2013 with Miller and Zunino. Taylor has been a pleasant surprise and replaces the depth at shortstop that was lost when Franklin was dealt. Almonte was used to secure Denorfia, though the veteran failed to add much substance to the big league team in a limited role. Romero and Sucre are likely to be what they are now, a fourth outfielder and a back-up catcher, but Jones is definitely the most interesting player to watch given his speed.

The jury’s still out on what the roles of the four rookies — Almonte is obviously excluded — will be in 2015 as they could be used as pieces in trades or upgraded upon. At the moment it appears likely that Taylor, Sucre, and Jones will have a shot at breaking camp with the Mariners next year.

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Tyler Carmont

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