Peoria Phenoms: Fool’s Gold

This week, major leaguers across Florida and in Arizona are flooding batting cages, bullpens, and ball fields as formal preparations for the 2017 season get underway. Although it’s just practice, the sight of players back in action has an energizing effect on baseball-starved fan everywhere.

On the side of the sports spectrum, the casual baseball fan isn’t excited about baseball just yet. Who can blame them? Most are still recovering from their football hangover. Plus, we’re talking about late-February practices with regular season games over five weeks away.

Still, teams begin playing games this weekend meaning interest in baseball will begin to surge among the less avid follower, especially after statistics about players on their favorite club start to roll in.

What?

Yes, that’s right. A cross-section of every fan base will actually be delighted about an unproven player’s Spring Training batting average, home run total, or ERA. So much so that they’ll take to social media to pronounce their enthusiasm for this newly discovered stud.

Unfortunately, this form of temporary insanity will likely lead to long-lasting disappointment when their newest favorite player doesn’t break camp with the team — or worse — doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations falsely set by exhibition game statistics.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to make it my mission to warn casual Seattle Mariners fans of the “Fool’s Gold” that awaits them in Peoria. To help, I’ve compiled a list citing Mariners who previously starred during March only to frustrate later that same year.

For the one-year wonders, I’ve annotated the corresponding season next to their name. A few players excelled over multiple Spring Training seasons — they’ve been deemed Peoria Hall of Famers.

There were so many interesting names. I suspect my list will stir a variety of emotions in readers. In no particular order, here we go.

 

Dustin Ackley (Peoria Hall of Famer)

Along with 23 other players, the former North Carolina Tar Heel has the unwanted distinction of being selected prior to Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout in the 2009 MLB Amateur draft.

For many Seattle fans, it’s irrelevant that A.J. Pollock of the Arizona Diamondbacks is the only position player — other than Trout — with a higher WAR. All that matters is that the Mariners chose Dustin Ackley over Mike Trout.

To make things worse, Ackley struggled to be league-average during the four seasons after he finished sixth in 2011 AL Rookie of the Year voting. Conversely, the left-handed hitter registered a .328 batting average and 33 extra base hits during 98 at bats during six springs in Peoria.

 

Jason Bay (2013)

The Mariners signed the veteran outfielder hoping he would revive his career after four disappointing seasons with the New York Mets.

Based on Bay’s Spring Training success — nine extra base hits and .938 OPS during 53 at bats — it appeared general manager Jack Zduriencik had found a winner on the discount rack. His success did not last.

While the Gonzaga University alum did hit 11 home runs in 68 games, Seattle would designate Bay for assignment by the end of July marking the end of his 11-year career.

 

Munenori Kawasaki (2012)

After 11 seasons in Japan, the left-handed hitting infielder signed with the Mariners and stood out during Peoria action with a 1.012 OPS during 44 at bats.

Kawasaki didn’t flourish in Seattle, but found moderate success with the Toronto Blue Jays for two seasons and the Chicago Cubs last year.

Never a great player, Kawasaki is a fan-favorite, thanks to his genuine enthusiasm for the game and fun-loving demeanor.

 

Chone Figgins (2011)

After stealing 42 bases and earning a league-leading 101 walks during his last year with the Angels, Figgins became Zduriencik’s first big free agent signing in December 2009. Despite having a .340 OBP and swiping 42 bags once again, most fans viewed his first season in Seattle as a disappointment.

During his second spring with the Mariners, Figgins sparkled with a .373/.448/.490 slash line and five stolen bases leaving fans hopeful that he had regained his all-star form. But, his strong Peoria performance didn’t translate into regular season success. The switch-hitter posted an anemic .484 OPS during 313 plate appearances in 2011.

By the 2012, the former fourth round draft pick was moved out of the leadoff spot and lost his starting job. After the season, the Mariners parted way with the switch-hitter despite still owing him $9 million for 2013.

Many fans would agree that the preceding video was emblematic of Figgins’ time in Seattle. Not only did he not deliver on the field, but he was reportedly a bad clubhouse influence who undermined manager Don Wakamatsu.

 

Alex Liddi (2012)

One of only seven major leaguers born in Italy, Liddi debuted with the Mariners and hit 30 homers with Class-AAA Tacoma in 2011. But, his Peoria glory would come a year later.

Liddi slashed .370/.453/.587, but started the season in Tacoma. Eventually, he’d see playing in time with the Mariners, but he couldn’t stick.

The slugger’s last game as a major leaguer came with Seattle in 2013. Since then, Liddi spent 2016 playing in Mexico after bouncing around the minors.

 

Brandon Maurer (2014)

Named 2013 Southern League Most Outstanding Pitcher while assigned to Class-AA Jackson, Maurer entered Spring Training with an opportunity to earn a spot in the Mariners’ starting rotation.

After allowing just four runs in 24 innings with a team-leading 25 strikeouts, the right-hander leap-frogged Class-AAA ball and earned a spot on the Opening Day roster. Things didn’t go as swimmingly in Seattle though.

In his first 10 big league starts, opponents slashed .332/.391/.573 against Maurer. By June, he was playing for Tacoma. When he returned to Seattle in late-July, the Mariners used him as both a starter and reliever for the remainder of the season.

In 2014, Maurer began the season as a starter, but would eventually move to the bullpen. In the offseason, the Mariners dealt him to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Seth Smith. The 26-year-old is currently the Padres’ closer after finishing last season in that role, although he’ll likely face competition from former Mariner Carter Capps.

 

Jesus Montero (2013)

Acquired from the New York Yankees for pitcher Michael Pineda, Montero was expected to provide the Mariners with a legitimate right-handed power bat.

In his first season with Seattle, the catcher posted a below-average .386 slugging percentage, but did manage to hit 15 home runs.

During his second Spring Training, Montero slashed .400/.438/711, providing hope that he was ready to anchor the heart of their order for years to come.

Despite his Peoria success, Montero would encounter injuries and disciplinary issues in 2013. He’d subsequently change positions to first base and conquer weight problems, but hit just nine more homers and slash .217/.255/.354 during his last three seasons in Seattle.

 

Michael Morse (2013)

The 6-foot-5 slugger started his big league career as a shortstop with the Mariners in 2005, but was traded to the Washington Nationals in 2009. He returned to Seattle in a three-team deal that saw Zduriencik send catcher John Jaso to the Oakland Athletics.

Fans were hopeful Morse could bring added pop the Mariners’ lineup after averaging 24 home runs-per-season during his last two years with the Nats. Expectations were further fueled by his nine Spring Training homers, which led both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues.

Initially, the outlook was good. During his first 45 regular season games, Morse hit 11 home runs. Unfortunately, he injured a quad muscle in late May, which led to lost playing time and ineffectiveness at the plate. He’d hit just two long balls in his next 31 games.

In late August, Morse was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Xavier Avery, who hasn’t played in the majors since the deal.

 

Carlos Peguero (2012)

Known for his towering home runs, crushed five bombs and slashed .294/.345/.588 during 51 at bats during his first full Spring Training with the Mariners.

Unfortunately, Peguero’s monster power never translated in Seattle or with any other big league club. He slugged 13 home runs during 319 plate appearances with the Mariners, Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers, and St. Louis Cardinals.

Perhaps, the slugger has found his niche in Japan. Last season, he hit 10 homers with an .832 OPS in 51 games with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

 

Stephen Pryor (2013)

The hard-throwing reliever made his big league debut in June 2012, but made the 2013 Opening Day roster season thanks in part to a lights out Spring Training. During exhibition play, Pryor held opposing hitters to a .162 batting average and struck out 11 in as many innings.

Less than a month into the season, the bulky hurler suffered a torn right lat muscle and missed the remainder of the year.

Pryor made just one more appearance in a Mariners uniform before being traded to the Minnesota Twins for slugger Kendrys Morales in 2014. After the 2015 season, the Twins released him and he hasn’t played professionally since.

 

Justin Smoak (Peoria Hall of Famer)

Like Ackley, the former South Carolina Gamecock unfairly received notoriety for being involved in Zduriencik move that didn’t pan out. Smoak didn’t suffer the indignity of being selected ahead of Mike Trout, but he was the key component for Seattle in a six-player trade that sent pitcher Cliff Lee to the Rangers.

As you can see by the preceding advertisement, Smoak was highly heralded by the Mariners and a former first round pick of Texas. So much so that the slugger received a standing ovation during his first Safeco Field plate appearance. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything.

During five seasons and nearly 2,000 plate appearances, the switch-hitter slashed just .226/.308/.384 with 66 home runs. His regular season performance pales when compared to his Cactus League heroics when he maintained a .328/.409/.565 slash during four springs in Peoria.

 

Stefen Romero (Peoria Hall of Famer)

As a twelfth round selection as a third baseman in 2010, the former Oregon State Beaver didn’t enter the Mariners system with the same fanfare as Ackley. But, he was a Peoria Hall of Famer just like his teammate.

Romero never found his niche with the Mariners, but was an impressive hitter during Cactus League play. In 154 Arizona plate appearances, the right-handed hitter registered 18 extra base hits and a 1.007 OPS.

Released by the Mariners after last season, Romero will play baseball in Japan in 2017 after signing with the Orix Buffaloes.

 

Chris Shelton (2009)

Signed as a minor league free agent during Zduriencik’s first offseason, Shelton slashed .460/.534/.720 with three home runs during 50 Cactus League at bats.

Despite his superb showing in Peoria, the right-handed hitting first baseman didn’t make break camp with the team.

In early July, Shelton would finally get the call. Unfortunately, his stay in the Emerald City was less than a month.

The Mariners designated the veteran of five big league seasons for assignment after just 26 games. He’d finish 2009 with Class-AAA Tacoma, but never played in the majors again.

 

Matt Tuiasosopo (2009)

A local product drafted by the home team and the son of a former Seattle Seahawk, Tuiasosopo was an instant fan-favorite. Thanks to spectacular play in Peoria, the local hero broke camp with the Mariners in 2009.

Disappointingly, the former third round pick didn’t play well in his hometown. He’d play just 71 games with 5 home runs and a .540 OPS during three seasons. His most notable homer was his first, famously “called” by Mariners broadcaster Mike Blowers during a pregame segment with the late, great Dave Niehaus.

The preceding video is a segment from The Rachel Maddow Show that captures the exchange between Blowers and Niehaus, plus Dave’s ensuing home run call.

Fly, Fly, Fly Away.

 

Erasmo Ramirez (2014)

In 2014, Ramirez had an opportunity to win a rotation spot during Spring Training and didn’t squander his chance.

The right-hander had the lowest ERA among Mariner starters in camp, surrendering just three earned runs and striking out 20 during 23.2 innings of Cactus League action.

After tossing seven innings and giving up two earned runs during his first regular season start, Ramirez would average just 4.6 innings-per-start during his next 13 outings.

The following year, Ramirez entered camp with no minor league options remaining and virtually no chance of making the roster. In late March, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for starter Mike Montgomery.

 

Mike Wilson (2009)

A second round pick of the Mariners during the June 2001 amateur draft, Wilson led the Mariners with eight home runs and registered a .988 on-base plus slugging during 30 games.

Like Shelton, the then-25-year-old didn’t make the club out of Spring Training that year. The Tulsa, Oklahoma native would finally get to see big league action when he debuted at age-27 in 2011.

Ironically, after toiling in the minor leagues for a decade, Wilson’s major league career lasted just 27 days. He would play professionally until 2015, but would never reach “The Show” again.

 

Mike Zunino (2015)

When pitchers and catchers reported in 2015, Zunino appeared primed to fulfill the promise associated with being a number-three overall draft pick. He certainly delivered in Peoria, leading the team with 7 homers and a ridiculous 1.287 OPS.

Unfortunately, his success would come to a halt once the games counted.

At the all-star break, the former Florida Gator was slashing an anemic .160/.223/292 with nine home runs. By the end of August, he was demoted to the minor leagues.

The preceding video captures Zunino uncharacteristically losing his cool and being ejected from a game. The real entertainment value comes from watching former manager Lloyd McClendon defending his pitcher and catcher afterwards.

Of all the players I’ve mentioned, Zunino is the only one still with the Mariners. Perhaps, 2017 will be the year he finally puts it all together. Considering his spring success in 2015, fans would be wise to wait until the regular season is well underway before evaluating the 26-year-old catcher.

My parting advice to the casual Mariners fan is to enjoy Spring Training baseball, but give unproven players — such as Dan Vogelbach, Andrew Moore, D.J. Peterson, or Thyago Vieira — time to demonstrate they can perform in real games before casting final judgement on their greatness or buying a jersey with their name on the back of it.

After all, “Peoria Phenoms” could turn out to be true stars or nothing more than Fool’s Gold.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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